Thoughts on Writing

Writing conclusions that work

“A rope is made up of a huge number of fibres, but not a single fibre goes through its entire length. It’s the way the fibres overlap that creates the rope’s strength,” the 20th century Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once reflected.

Conclusions are usually so difficult to write that even producing one that’s half-decent can be a challenge, and it amuses me that it would take someone as quirky-minded as Wittgenstein – on another occasion he remarked “A serious and good philosophical work could be written consisting entirely of jokes” – to help me visualize the mechanisms that underlie a strong ending: as long as I can insert in a closing paragraph a strand of thought that has some inner connection with an earlier thread, when my reader comes to the end of my piece I can give her the satisfaction of having arrived at a destination.

This note I recently wrote to a student is a good demonstration of the “rope” approach to writing conclusions. I started by quoting from an ancient Chinese text; throughout my message, I kept referring back to different aspects of this saying, thus giving my composition a sense of unity without being repetitive. I made my final reference to the quote in my last sentence, but still I managed not to come across as long-winded, because in that sentence I planted a revelation that harks back not only to what I said at the beginning but also to the overall theme of my note.

The “rope” approach to crafting that crucial last paragraph is especially handy when we are writing documents that are meant to help us stand out, such as cover letters. End on an elegant note, and we can leave a memorable impression.

(My note to my student)

“He who has travelled 90% of his journey has only completed half of it (行百里者半九十),” says the Annals of the Warring States (戰國策), a 2000 year-old text on the strategies of war.

One way to describe myself – and how I see myself in relation to you – is this: in the arena of English writing, I now have 10% left in my journey to travel before I can arrive at excellence; in your case, however, you are still at the starting point.

My job is to help you get launched in your journey, even as I push myself to finish the most arduous leg of mine.

How will all this work out in reality?

Below is my editing of a letter (badly) written by Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung (張建宗). He is still roughly at the starting point of his journey.

I’ll teach you how to write by

– doing to your copies what I’ve done to his.

– writing in front of you, so that you can have a concrete idea of how to make writing work

So, prepare for your first lesson by

– reading through my edit of Cheung’s copy 

– come up with an essay topic for me to write about. Give me the topic only when we meet on Zoom. I can then “perform” in front of you live.

In our first lesson. I’ll also present to you my edit of some of the writings you’ve done.

By learning from both good and bad examples continuously, you’ll figure out how to write well by osmosis. I know this method works, because that was how I managed to cover the first 90% of my journey’s geographical distance.

(Link to my commentary on Cheung’s English: )

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