Literary composition

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Writing Center

Introduction[edit]

Although quite dated, this essay from Alfred M. Hitchcock's 1923 book, High School English Book provides a purposeful, real-world definition of composition:

What does the word composition mean to you? What does it immediately suggest? No doubt it is a word closely associated in your mind with algebra, history, report card, graduation, and other schoolroom terms. It suggests at once a task set by a teacher, usually a written exercise to be done more promptly than is convenient and “handed in” for critical inspection. But the word has a much wider range of meaning than that. The sentence “I think so” is a composition. All the thousands of sentences which live but for an instant on the lips in daily conversation are compositions. A school corridor at recess time hums with them. Songs are compositions, and sermons, lectures, the pleas of lawyers, the weighty speeches of senators. Letters are compositions. What a grist of them goes into the mailpouches daily! All circulars, pamphlets, newspapers, magazines, all books, lie within the field bounded by the word composition. Because it embraces so much, it is one of the most important words in the English language.

Dismiss at once, therefore, the narrow, school exercise idea and try to realize that the subject you are to study includes the entire business of conveying thought from mind to mind through the aid of language. It is a vast business, old as human life, wide as the world itself, a necessary ally to every possible line of human endeavor. We all share in it.

In every business there are failures, partial or complete. Failures occur in the business of thought transference. Back of every composition lies a desire to accomplish something. Sentences which fall carelessly from the lips, no less than the sharp commands of officers leading their men against the enemy’s guns, are uttered purposefully; and this is true of all words spoken or penned or typed or printed. But the purpose is not always realized. Could we follow the compositions sent forth the world over in a single day and measure what they actually accomplish in the light of what they were intended to accomplish, we should find a pathetic proportion of partial or complete failures, not a few of them unsuspected by those who sent the compositions forth. Brilliant successes we should find too; for what wonderful results are sometimes attained. An entire nation may be swayed by a single brief composition – plunged into war, for example, or adroitly turned to thoughts of peace.

Why are so many compositions weak, ineffectual things? Why are we deeply moved by one speaker and bored by another? Why do we read some letters, some magazine articles, some books, eagerly, and others with little interest? Why do we ourselves so often fail to accomplish fully our purpose when we talk or write, while others succeed admirably and without apparent effort? Why are we so often outdistanced in competition where words play an important part? Such questions rise in the mind of every young person to whom there has come even a faint vision of all that the word composition embraces and the power granted to those who are composition masters. The purpose of this textbook is to help all who are earnestly trying to find true answers.

What is writing?[edit]

Take a few minutes to think about what writing means to you. If you close your eyes, lean back, and think about writing, what comes to your mind? Do you imagine a journalist sitting behind a cluttered oak desk pounding away on an old Underwood typewriter? Do you imagine a young woman curled up in the corner of a trendy coffeeshop scribbling angrily in a tattered journal? Do you imagine a middle-aged man jotting a grocery list on a small, flip-top notepad? Do you imagine a small child scrawling page after page of jagged, swirling crayon monsters? Or a teenager flipping madly through an encyclopedia the night before a paper is due, desperate to come up with a decent 3 to 5 page paper?

In truth, writing is all of these things, but it is also much more. Writing is more than just a part of school that you dread. It's more than 5 page essays or 1 page reading responses or even 400 page bestselling novels. One thing to keep in mind is this: writing is NOT a product. Some traditional models for teaching writing have treated writing as a product that is created. An end to a means.

We, here at the Writing Center, take the alternate, more progressive view. The view that writing is a means to an end. Writing is a process, a method, a means of discovery that leads the writer to new ideas and new discoveries. Writing is thinking. Through writing you make connections between previous experiences and ideas and new areas of thought that you are experiencing. Writing should be, and can be, a transcendent experience, in which the writer leaves his/her normal mode of thinking and transcends to a new mode of thinking. It is through writing that we can achieve not only new ideas, but new ways to develop new ideas.

That's not to say that all writing is transcendental. Some writing is just writing. At its most basic, writing is communicating.

How about this. You write your composition so well that you don't need any editing!

The Writing Process[edit]

The writing process is just that: the process one goes through while writing. There are variations on the details of the cycle, but the core components never change: Prewriting, drafting, editing, proofreading, and publishing.

  • Prewriting - Prewriting is exactly what the word indicates: what you do before you write. Gathering your ideas together, organizing them into coherent notes, and figuring out what you need to know. You need to know your purpose in writing as well as your audience. Knowing all of this ahead of time makes writing your first draft much easier.
  • Drafting - This is the process of getting all those ideas in your head down on paper. It is not important that the spelling, mechanics, or grammar make sense. It is more than likely that many of your ideas will be incomplete, and will need severe reworking. No writer ever considered the first version of anything to be finished. However, no writer ever finished anything without a rough draft!
  • Editing - Now that the ideas are all on paper, you have to see if those thoughts are anything like what you really wanted to say. A suggestion is to put your writing away for awhile and return to it with fresh eyes. This way, you will not be tempted to change things on the spur of the moment. As you edit, make whatever corrections you feel are necessary. At first, the corrections will probably be global revisions where you will move, remove, or rewrite entire sections of your draft. After corrections are made, make another draft. All good writers repeat the drafting ->editing cycle more than once. What may seem like a good idea at the time may seem completely unnecessary a few days later. Eventually, however, this repetition will result in something that you would like to consider a final draft.
  • Proofreading - Now that you have your final draft, it's time to proofread. This is where you make sure that all the i's are dotted, and the t's are crossed. Each sentence must have its subject and predicate, paragraphs indented, and spelling corrections made. Any changes that must be made are made, and the piece is finally ready for the final step in the writing process.
  • Publishing - The end result of your labors, publishing is the goal that you have been pushing for. Publishing does not necessarily mean "printed in a magazine." In order for a work to be published, it must simply be considered complete by the author and read by others. Handing an essay in for a grade is publishing, as is submitting a novel to your editor.

This process naturally exists for all serious writers, however, many aspiring writers may want to skip the editing and proofreading stages. This is a major mistake! While you can pay people to revise and proofread for you, there is no guarantee that these mercenaries will accurately reflect your thoughts, feelings, and ideas. Every responsible writer follows these steps, and even after publication will revisit their works again and again.

Modes of Writing[edit]

Following the traditional schools of thought, there are different types of writing called modes. Each mode of writing has an individual purpose and there are several conventions for each mode.

* Exposition - Expository writing is used to explain an idea or position. Exposition usually involves a well-thought out thesis statement. Examples include literature analysis, definition of terms, or explanation of a new theory.

* Persuasion - Persuasive writing is where a writer attempts to convince the reader to take their view about a particular subject or concept. Examples include political speeches or advertising.

* Narration - Narrative writing tells a story. It uses a sequence of events with a common theme to convey or evoke emotions in the reader. Examples include autobiographies, anecdotes, or travel journals.

* Description - Descriptive writing is used primarily to recreate a particular time, place, or event for the reader. Often, descriptive writing will appeal to all five senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. Examples include travel literature, food reviews, or sales brochures.

* Creative Expression - Creative expression can use all of the other four modes of writing. However, instead of using the modes for the benefit of the reader, creative expression uses them to show the feelings and emotions of the author. Examples include poetry, short stories, or plays.

Modes of writing are not mutually exclusive. Each can be combined with any of the other modes, depending on the purpose of the work desired by the author. For instance, Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, while primarily a method of creative expression uses narration and detailed description to frame the problems with the meat industry over the course of the novel. Travel companies frequently will use a particularly adept description of a beautiful location in an attempt to persuade you to pay them money to visit that particular spot. Many a college student use a combination of exposition and persuasion for their professors while trying to get a good grade.

The particular combination of writing modes will change based upon your writing needs. However, if you are having trouble writing, a good starting point would be to ask yourself What is my purpose in writing? Which writing mode does my purpose seem to be for? Using this as a basis for beginning, you can incorporate the different modes as circumstances require.


Real World Writing vs. Classroom Writing[edit]

There is a gigantic difference between the writing that is done in the real world and the formal writing required for the classroom. The difference lies in the purpose of your writing. Often times, real world writing is informal. We want to write a letter to a friend, keep some thoughts in a journal, or write a memo to your boss. Each of these has a purpose that will change with the situation. The letter is an informal communication. Your journal is personal. The memo to your boss is informational. However, the formality of classroom writing has only one purpose: to communicate your thought processes to the instructor. As a result of this change in purpose, there are several norms that must be adhered to.

First, your professor is looking for something specific. Whether it is an understanding of a particular theme in a novel, the philosophical treatises of John Locke, or the results of your chemistry experiment gone wrong, there is certain information that the instructor of a class wants. This information drives all classroom writing. You, as the writer, tailor your writing to the needs of the audience. Since you want to appear to be an educated person who has navigated the ways of the educational community, your writing must have spotless grammar and mechanics, as well as a dutifully constructed thesis with the appropriate support. At the end of this process, often times you have produced a work that is satisfactory for your professor and other academics, but often mundane and boring for anyone not interested in the fundamental philosophical concepts that link the theories of Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates. Enter the real world.

Real world writing must engage the reader at its most basic level. If, at any point the author loses the interest of the reader, then the point of the work is lost. Should that memo to your boss digress toward the theme of how you digested your lunch, he will probably just throw it away and completely disregard the fact that your mistake cost the business $500,000. Oops. When he ends up reading the financial reports at the end of the quarter, your job is going to be a lot harder to justify than why you mentioned that sandwich two months ago. The letter to a friend is to tell about the misery that you are experiencing since you lost your job. She's probably not interested in the details of the meeting with your boss, but wants to see how you are feeling now that you are unemployed.

Purpose dictates everything in the world of writing. It is important to consider not only your audience, but why you are writing in the first place. In the classroom, your purpose is clear, while in the real world, it can be a little tricky to keep your audience under your thumb.

The Pen is Mightier Than the Keyboard: What Works Best for You?[edit]

As technology has changed over the years, so have writing methods. Centuries ago, clay tablets with scribes gave way to quill and inkwell, which in turn matured into the ballpoint pen. In the 20th century alone, pen gave way to the typewriter, which shifted to the word processor and the computer. Even though the nature of writing itself has not changed, the process of that writing has. What has technology brought writers in the 21st century that they did not have in the 1st?

Go Speed, Go![edit]

The trouble with writing has always been getting the ideas from the brain to the paper. In ancient times, one sentence might take quite some time to write down (due to the physics of clay and stone). As a result, people thought about what they wanted to say more, then wrote it down. Today, many people can type close to (and faster than) 150 words per minute. That's a lot of writing to be pushing through into the world. However, does that necessarily make it better writing? No.

Just because we can write faster, does not mean that we write better. However, now it's easier to see what you're writing before you publish it. Drafts can be written and rewritten much faster than before. Many writers find it easier to punch out a quick draft now, then put it away and polish it later. The time saved by using a word processor in drafting alone makes it a much more productive tool than was ever in use before. However, many people still use the time-tested pen and paper for their drafting. What gives? Isn't it time they moved into the technological age and gave up such archaic methods?

Slow Down, Pardner![edit]

While writing faster may be useful for some people, the blank screen can be just as intimidating as the blank piece of paper. In order to overcome this writer's block, many writers feel comfortable with their pen in hand, and pad on the table. The feeling of writing becomes solid to them, as if they are sculpting words instead of just pushing them out of their heads. The time it takes for them to write becomes a comfortable pause as they take time to massage each word with the gentle push of their fingertips instead of the harsh push of a button on a keyboard.

In addition to the comfort factor, there are many times where writing with laptops, Palm Pilots, or other technological gadgets is simply too cumbersome. Having to type with thumbs on a crowded train may not be as easy as scribbling down a few lines of prose on the back of a newspaper or coffee napkin. Sometimes the need to write strikes when the only thing handy is a chewed down pencil and the envelope from last month's rent receipt. When writers want to write, they must write!

You Have Chosen Wisely[edit]

Whatever method you choose for writing, it must be comfortable for you and your writing style. If you are the type that thinks fast and types faster, then a laptop might be the perfect writing tool for you. If you like to ponder your words before writing, then give pen and paper a try. More likely than not, you'll use a combination of the two. You'll type when you like it, and you'll write when you want to. Even though it seems like an extra step, transferring handwritten lines to a computer may be that drafting step that moves your rough stony work along the path towards that literary diamond that you've been polishing in your head for ages.

Don't be afraid to try your hand at any method that comes your way. One day, something will come along to replace the word processor, and writers will yet again have to adjust to another method of writing. However, until that day comes, many of us feel comfortable with pen in hand and paper on the table, waiting for inspiration to strike. At least we won't have to go back to those absurdly tedious stone tablets.

See also[edit]