Thoughts on Writing

The trouble with transitions

“Why do my Hong Kong employees have such a fondness for words like ‘moreover’ and ‘furthermore’?” I once heard a British executive who oversaw one of the largest conglomerates in the city complain.

As a survivor of Hong Kong’s education system, I have a ready answer for him: the overriding preoccupation of Hong Kong teachers is to prepare students for the trauma of test-taking. Teachers do need to teach English Composition, since it’s a fixture at exams. But the general syllabus they have to get through is so vast that practically, the only way they can teach English writing within the timeframe available is by providing students with a set of tried-and-true formulas to stick to – one of which decrees “once you’re done with expressing one thought, insert “furthermore” or “moreover” before moving onto your next point.”

Given the frequent appearance of “furthermore” and “moreover” in the copies of Hong Kong adults, it seems that what was first conceived of as a trick to help students sail through exams has become, for most, their only concept of how to write.

Not that I think I have the right to blame Hong Kong’s harried teachers. Cross the line from exam writing to real writing, listen to professional writers gripe about how time-consuming and nerve-racking writing is, and you’ll understand why Hong Kong teachers would rather teach how to go through the motions of writing than writing itself. This is Gene Fowler’s summing up of the writer’s travails: “writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.” And when the legendary The New Yorker editor Katherine White sat at her desk, this was what her husband saw: “Katherine’s act of composition often achieved the turbulence of a shoot-out. The editor in her fought the writer every inch of the way; the struggle was felt all through the house. She would write eight or ten words, then draw her gun and shoot them down. This made for slow and torturous going.”

Fowler also said “the best way to become a successful writer is to read good writing, remember it, and then forget where you remember it from.” As an English writing coach, I try to cleanse formulaic writing out of a student’s system by (among other things) giving them writing samples to study and developing their eye for quality writing.

Below is an extract from A A Gill’s put down of the songwriter-singer Morrissey’s autobiography. Further below is my rewrite of Gill’s text. Notice how in my version, the “furthermore” I added deprived Gill’s original passage of its flair. Then, read Gill’s copy a second time, and ask yourself, in place of “furthermore,” what did he do to facilitate the transition from his first point to the second one?

A A Gill’s version:

“(Morrissey) tells us he ditched “Steve”, his given name, to be known by his portentous unimoniker because — deep reverential breath here — great classical composers only have one name. Mussorgsky, Mozart, Morrissey.

His most pooterishly embarrassing piece of intellectual social climbing is having this autobiography published by Penguin Classics. Not Modern Classics, you understand, where the authors can still do book signings, but the classic Classics, where they’re dead and some of them only have one name. Molière, Machiavelli, Morrissey.”

My rewrite:

“In his memoirs, Morrissey’s pomposity is everywhere to be seen. Firstly, he sees nothing untoward about confessing he has opted to be known by his last name alone because Mozart and Mussorgsky are known by one name only. Furthermore, his self-regard prompted him to arm-twist his way into getting his book published as a Penguin Classic.”

Can you tell how A A Gill managed to avoid using “furthermore”? He took advantage of the fact that (1) Morrissey has offered to compare himself to Mozart and Mussorgsky and (2) Morrissey published his autobiography under Penguin classics, which also happened to have published two literary figures whose instantly-recognizable surnames start with “M” and whose standing far exceeds that of Morrisey’s. Gill then allocated a paragraph each to (1) and (2), and alluded to their connection with each other (both are indication of Moirrissey’s hubris) by ending each paragraph with three names beginning with “M.”

This instance of Gill bypassing a “furthermore” is enshrined in my book as a stroke of genius. While I can’t hope to write as well as Gill (not even remotely), at least I can console myself that it’s within my ability to do this: in my effort to explain the wonders of Gill and other writers I admire, I can demonstrate to my students and Hong Kong readers that what matters is not so much whether we can write like Gill, as the delight in discovering that beyond the dreariness of classroom instruction, there’s a world where reading clever writing can bring great fun.

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