Writing Well, by Donald Hall, is an amazingly interesting textbook. I cannot remember reading an instructional manual with such brilliant imagery, flowing style, and amazing concepts. This is what education should be – interesting, provocative, and natural. However, in the first eleven pages of the text, I do not agree with two of the three analyses of Hall’s examples.
In the comparison of the college student’s two expressions of his first impression of his dorm, Hall disregards the first passage as “sloppy – slangy and fragmentary.” He praises the second passage as suspenseful and detailed and suggests that the author has “made great strides” and has “put some thought into creating a scene.” I, however, find the second passage to be dull and watered-down, over-edited, and false sounding. Although the first passage could be improved by explaining where he was, what the disaster entailed, and who the funny-looking guy was, its honesty far outweighs the literary correctness of the second passage.
Once again, in Hall’s analysis of the narratives of Nina Chan, he seems to be putting too much focus on what is correct, and not enough on what makes an interesting work of literature. The impromptu theme does rely heavily on clichs in the first few sentences; however, the narrative uses so much language in avoiding the clichs that the first six paragraphs in the 13-paragraph essay – close to half of the narrative – are utterly boring and colorless. Furthermore, the “What did I see?” arrangement in paragraphs 4-6 attempts to elicit some kind of emotion and utterly fails. Assuming that these three paragraphs could be considered a short story (although it is not fictional), the story then does not meet Edgar Allen Poe’s definition of the purpose of a short story: to elicit a single emotional response. Then again, it may elicit a single emotional response: boredom. Fortunately, Chan manages to turn her story around by writing a stellar climax and falling action in paragraphs 7-13. The imagery and raw emotion show the reader the nature of the situation in a way that is unfortunately not demonstrated in the first half of the narrative.
It is shocking to me that Hall analyzes his examples this way because his writing is the antithesis of every example that he praises. His writing does contain all of the properties that he praises the two examples for having, but it includes another element – a fire, an enthusiasm – that makes his writing interesting. It is very strange that I feel that I can learn a lot from this author even though I disagree so strongly with some of his work.
In the section “Honest and Dishonest Expression,” Hall discusses the overuse of clichs and the opinion that writers need to write honestly and sincerely, without clichs and in a natural voice. To find that natural voice will be one of my major goals this semester. I am very good at getting my ideas on paper in an impromptu writing assignment, but I have trouble maintaining the correct tone through many revisions.
A second idea of Hall’s that I believe will help me is to write on a daily basis. I have started this to some extent already, by recording thoughts, observations, and musings in a file on my computer. This is not exactly a journal, as it has no purpose or direction and does not describe my life, but it is a way to strengthen my writing skills.
Finally, I believe that I need to simply learn to write well. Over the past decade, I have acquired the skills to write. I can spell well, I have a large vocabulary, I have a strong understanding of the grammatical structure of the English language, and I can pick out errors and solecisms in a paper with ease. Despite these skills, something in my writing is lacking. Every time I look at one of the papers that I have written, I see a boring piece of writing that I could have pulled off impromptu in little more than a 45-minute class period. I hope that by studying Donald Hall’s teachings, I will learn to make my writing more interesting and useful.