Current Work and Writing Traps

Molly Goes to Shanghai

We have a prospective cover for Molly Goes to Shanghai. In the next couple of days I’ll have the first draft of the story.

Possible cover for Molly Goes to Shanghai. It depicts Yuyuan Garden.
Possible cover for Molly Goes to Shanghai. It depicts Yuyuan Garden.

It’s an interesting process. It takes good research to get to this point because we already have the outline for the story. Writing the draft isn’t about structure, but about finding the voice of the characters, particularly the friend Molly and Michael meet in Shanghai. Her name, by the way, will likely be Li, named after one of our contributors.

We compiled a good amount of research, as I said, to get this far. Even with that, I know much more is ahead. It is not enough to know the locations we show in the book. A local makes references to other places, uses local nicknames, and his or her speech is sometimes influenced by a local dialect. In the case of Shanghai, “dialect” doesn’t cover it. Shanghainese, the local language, is unintelligible to speakers of Mandarin Chinese.

This brings up one of the questions we face: do we use Shanghainese in the story or Mandarin when we introduce bits of language? This is where our interviews are important. What we learned is that Shanghainese is mostly used by older residents and used in an exclusive way, meaning it is used to exclude others. Younger people in Shanghai speak some Shanghainese, at least enough to converse with their elders, but mainly use Mandarin in work and school situations.

Our decision was easy. The story will introduce bits of Mandarin Chinese and this is another area where more research is required.

Luckily, I love research.

The Personal in the Formal

A formal essay should contain no personal references to author or the reader. This is mainly for our younger readers, though it’s a tendency some carry for some time. This is the sixth rule in my Five Six Rules of Writing on the About page.

The rules aren’t anything new, but nothing was referenced when the list was created. For serious writers, similar suggestions or warnings are given in The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and (originally) E. B. White. The list also borrows inspiration from George Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language” where he elaborates on the dangerous principles behind Big Brother’s “newspeak” from the book 1984. The essay is more than 60 years old and more important today than ever.

When school writing assignments get longer and longer, five-paragraph essays and more, there still isn’t much distinction between formal and informal writing. That’s absolutely fine. As a teacher, I wanted to see the quality of ideas more than the quality of writing, but I also wanted to see progression on the writing side.

Many English teachers do not approach their craft from the writing perspective. They concern the students more with analytical tools for understanding literature. If one has to judge, I would probably agree that is the more fun side of teaching English. I enjoyed it, but gave my students a heap of writing instruction, including diagramming sentences. I’ll explain the importance of some of these things in later posts, but for now, let’s talk about formal writing.

An essay is an effort to persuade the reader to agree with you. Let’s first understand that. Because you want to be persuasive, it is important to leave yourself out. The main reason for this I mention in an example with the rule:

“I think,” “I believe,” or “in my opinion” diminish your points. I think the Governess was insane (Turn of the Screw reference). Be assertive. The Governess was insane.

Well, the author, Henry James, did not write the story with the belief the Governess was insane, though it really doesn’t matter for this example. Besides, the essay is about your ideas. Even so, unless you’re quoting something, the pronouns “I” and “me” should never appear. Don’t remind the reader (teacher) that this is the work of an 8th or 12th grader, or college sophomore, strengthen your viewpoint by making your voice as formal as you can.

“But,” you say, “you don’t write with formal language here!” Yes, you are right. I want to connect in a different way here, and I don’t want to bore the heck out of you. Here I constantly reach out to “you” and talk about me. If this were formal writing, I would do neither.

That is because the star of the essay must be ideas, not writing. Writing at its best isn’t even noticed. The ideas (or the story) take over the reader’s thoughts. That is when a real connection is made.

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