Writing well requires knowledge. What a luxury never to be asked to write about anything except your first-hand, personal experiences. How delightful if one could simply reply, as Bartleby did, “I prefer not to,” when the boss says, “Give me two pages on the best telephones available” or if one could ignore his teacher when she says, “Complete a cost-benefit analysis of the space program in ten pages.” In real workplaces and classrooms, “I prefer not to” will result in pink slips, final notices, and grade point averages that lead to doors marked “Do Not Enter.”
You must become knowledgeable to write well about subjects that your boss and teacher assign. This stage of the writing process, the pre-writing stage, can be frustrating so be patient and persevere.
Step 1: A Subject and Illustration.
I need a new car. My old one is unreliable and unsafe because it may break down, leaving me stranded. I must begin the research for a new car, but I do not mind at all. After all, the research is all about me, and who among us is not interested in ourselves?
I start with a lender. I need to know what I can afford to buy, and I need to be able to seize a good deal when I find it.
Next, aware of my budgetary constraints, I make a list of my needs, taking into consideration the body type and maintenance costs. For this list, I will conduct even more research and select the body type, make, model, and style. I will search online, read magazines such as Car and Driver or Consumer Reports, and collect brochures from car companies.
Now, I will refine my list, focusing upon the similarities and differences between the cars that meet my needs. Then, armed and ready to meet salesmen, I set out to negotiate the best deal and drive home in a new car.
An Assigned Subject.
What if the subject you must research is not your own new car? What if the teacher requires you to recommend changes in entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare so that the U. S. budget deficit shrinks to zero in twenty years? You know little about the deficit—except that it’s huge; you care even less about it. How can you write well under such circumstances?
Step 2: Attitude.
Accept the basic fact of school and work: we are often called upon to complete tasks that do not immediately delight us. The business of living, learning, and laboring frequently involves mundane tasks. For example, I do not enjoy dusting, but I love the results. I hate ironing, but I like to look clean and crisp.
Like dusting or ironing, some paper work is absolute drudgery, but I like the rewards that come from meeting deadlines and fulfilling responsibilities. In other words, I have learned I do not have to be entertained or even interested to experience satisfaction from having done well a job, especially an onerous or burdensome one.
Step 3. Research.
With this in mind, whether the task is one you know little, nothing, or everything about, begin in earnest. Research, research, research.
Reading Challenge, the First.
Read “Bartleby, the Scrivener” by Herman Melville. Bartleby is the paradigm for “I prefer not to” workers. Take time to enjoy Melville’s gift for specific, concrete detail.
Reading Challenge, the Second.
Read at least five sources on a subject. For example, if you research the U. S. economy, rent, watch and take notes about I.O.U.S.A., a documentary about our deficit. In addition, search online for an overview of the budget, trying to determine how much of each tax dollar goes to Social Security, national defense, and the deficit. Finally, read three articles about the U. S. and world economies from The Economist, selecting from the years 2008-2010.
Take effective notes as you complete research. Make sure you know where the information came from by author, the title of the film or article, the publication date, and page number. Be sure to use quotation marks around words, phrases, sentences, and whole passages that you copy exactly from the original.
Be thorough and persevere through your frustration. If you know little about the subject, you will not know what is important enough to write down. You will feel as if you need everything. That impulse is normal.
As you become more and more knowledgeable, you will become more discerning. You will be able to separate important from unimportant so push on, write everything, and grow in your knowledge.