Form and Content: a note on writing

“Do I have to write in paragraphs?”

I used to receive variations of this question every semester, and I’m sure that I will hear it again from students, often first years, who are deeply concerned about the expectations of an academic essay.

“Yes,” I answer, not because I’m against creative presentation, but because giving the option of using a bullet-point list undermines the hard work of stitching a series of thoughts into a single argument.

Echoes of this frantic question have come back to me in recent weeks, first while reading John Warner’s Why They Can’t Write, and then again when I saw a lament on Twitter about the encroaching tyranny of the listicle as a medium of discourse.

Every format has strengths and weaknesses.

The essay, a medium for which I have a great deal of affection, lays out an argument or tells a story by leading the reader from one point to the next. In the hands of a master the essay is a lyrical medium, but it is not only hard, but also unsuited to all tasks.

A list, for instance, conveys information simply and concisely in the face of tumult and complexity. There is comfort in lists, but they belie fluidity. An example: I have kept one of my favorite novels for years, but between the fogginess of memory and whims of a given day the novel that belongs in the ninth spot of the list changes.

An outline gives the structure of an argument, even if the actual order, at least in my experience, is liable to change in the execution.

The listicle, by contrast, is a cross between the list and the essay. It takes the argument and points of an essay and meshes it with the order and structure of a list. Meatier than a list and more easily digested than an essay, it is perfect for consumption on a mobile device, matched for a fast-paced world.

Good writing is good writing, and the same holds here, but the very efficiency of the listicle also contributes to its forgettability. Where I can rattle off a dozen or more essays that I recommend to people, there is not a single listicle I can say the same about unless I thought to do so while reading it. But I’m also busy, and therefore generally happy to skim through a listicle on any number of topics where I might decide that reading and processing an essay is too much of a commitment.

In the classroom there are any number of ways to cut corners and grade more quickly, but my objective is not speed. Outlines are a nice tool, whether to help students organize their thoughts, prepare a long written piece, or (my preference) part of the revision process, but it is not the same thing as learning how to pull together a complete piece of writing.

Hewing to John Warner’s mantra that writing is thinking, the ability to lead your reader from one point to another is a learned skill that requires repetition, feedback, and revision. In this sense, the very trepidation that my students exhibit about writing is validation for having them write fully-formed essays.

My 2018 – listicle

Every year around this time I try to make sense of my year that was. On Wednesday I posted the zero post in this series, my Best* posts of 2018 list and yesterday I posted the first entry, my annual By the Numbers. Today’s post is a listicle that serves as a vehicle for thinking about things I liked or did in the past year.

Getting back into the swing of things, here are the past lists: 2015, 2016, and 2017.

Three international news stories I’m following going into 2019

  • The ongoing war in Yemen
  • The changing responses to the refugee crisis in Europe
  • The fallout from US involvement and disengagement with the rest of the world

Seven favorite novels that I read

Five Nonfiction Books I particularly loved

Two Books about Teaching I particularly liked

Five Books I’m Looking Forward to Reading in 2019 [two repeats from 2018]

  • Go, Went, Gone, Jenny Erpenbeck
  • Beware of Pity, Stefan Zweig
  • American Pastoral, Philip Roth
  • Always Coming Home, Ursula K. Le Guin
  • Sugar Street, Naguib Mahfouz

Four movies I saw in theaters that were totally worth the price of admission

  • The Death of Stalin
  • Black Panther
  • Won’t You Be My Neighbor
  • Annihilation

Four TV Shows I have been watching

  • The Good Place
  • The Wire
  • The Great British Baking Show
  • Forged in Fire

Two music groups I listened to for the first time

  • Josh Ritter
  • Mipso

My 2017 – Listicle

In the spirit of routines and trying to buck some of the frustration that comes with this season, I am again putting out a series of reflection and planning posts, including this listicle, a reflective essay, by the numbers, and a best of 2017.

Getting back into the swing of things, 2015 and 2016.

For 2017:

Three international news stories I’m following going into this year

  • Ongoing crises in Turkey, including terrorist attacks, the war in Syria, and centralization of power
  • Refugee crises around the world, particularly the continuing plight of people living in camps on the Greek islands.
  • Really, this list could go on, but almost everything I’m following is too depressing to mention

Six favorite books that I read in 2017

  • Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace
  • The Fifth Season, N.K. Jemisin
  • We, Yevgeni Zamyatin
  • The City and the City, China Mieville
  • The End of Days, Jenny Erpenbeck
  • But What If We’re Wrong, Chuck Klostermann

Five Books I’m Looking Forward to Reading in 2018 [To my shame, there are two repeats from 2016]

  • 1493, Charles A. Mann
  • Beware of Pity, Stefan Zweig
  • Assassin’s Quest, Robin Hobb
  • Always Coming Home, Ursula K. Le Guin
  • Sugar Street, Naguib Mahfouz

Four movies I saw in theaters in 2017 that were totally worth the price of admission

  • Wonder Woman
  • Get Out
  • Kedi
  • Blade Runner 2049

Four TV Shows I have been watching (or watched) in 2017

  • The Good Place
  • Brooklyn 99
  • Shameless
  • The Vietnam War

Three music groups I’ve newly been listening to in 2017

  • Tristan Prettyman
  • The Bangles
  • Lake Street Dive

Two books I once started, but didn’t finish…that I’d like to give another shot in 2017 [No change from 2016]

  • Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
  • Bleak House, Charles Dickens

One achievement unlocked in 2017

  • Doctor of the Philosophy of History

My 2016 – Listicle

My slate of year-end posts has been delayed because of holiday family and travel, but will be rolling out over the next several days. In the spirit of routines and trying to buck some of the frustration that comes with this season, I am again putting out a series of reflection and planning posts, including this listicle, a reflective essay on 2016, by the numbers, best of 2016, and a new one that will be strictly dedicated to writing and academia.

Getting back into the swing of things Last Year’s list.

Lists for 2016/2017:

Three international news stories I’m following going into this year

  • Trump’s impending Presidency and the global ripple effect
  • Ongoing crises in Turkey, including terrorist attacks, the war in Syria, and centralization of power
  • Refugee crisis, particularly with the rest of Europe sending refugees back to Greece.

5 Books I’m Looking Forward to Reading [To my shame, there are three repeats from 2016, as I only managed to hit two of the books last time]

  • Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie
  • Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace
  • 1493, Charles A. Mann
  • Beware of Pity, Stefan Zweig
  • Silent House, Orhan Pamuk

Two books I once started, but didn’t finish…that I’d like to give another shot in 2016 [I knocked two books off this list, plus War and Peace in 2016]

  • Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
  • Bleak House, Charles Dickens

Seven Favorite Books I read in 2016

  • Seven Madmen, Roberto Arlt
  • The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
  • The Samurai’s Garden, Gail Tsukiyama
  • Basti, Intizar Husain
  • The Dispossessed, Ursula K. Le Guin
  • The Post Office Girl, Stefan Zweig
  • The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood
  • Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin

Three new-to-me music groups I found in 2016

  • Dessa
  • The Honeycutters
  • The Dustbowl Revival