September, 1960. Freshman year. The setting: my room at Appleton Hall. The challenge: Writing a paper about “Lord Jim” by Joseph Conrad. Grade on previous paper: “F” (with nary a comment). The mindset: Frozen by fear. The decision: Write something, anything, just get it done, just end this nightmare.

October 2019. The setting: A seminar room at the top of Coles Tower, overlooking the main quad at Bowdoin. The challenge: Give writing advice to students enrolled in “Women Warriors,” a first-year seminar designed to help students improve their writing skills. The mindset: Confident and ready to roll.

What a difference 59 years make! During my first year at Bowdoin I had had the misfortune of taking a disastrous “English Composition” course, which was “taught” by a Mr. Arp, a snide young horn-rimmed glasses-wearing Harvard graduate who thought that the best way to motivate students was to intimidate them.

Despite Mr. Arp and because of truly fine professors such as Ed Pols and Bill Geohegan, I managed to carve out a good career as a professional writer. So I was delighted to accept the invitation of my friend Chris Pothom to offer a few thoughts to his class. As irony would have it, Chris also had had to endure Mr. Arp’s English class; his views on that experience mirrored mine.

Here, then, is a brief recap of my advice to students about writing.

1. Don’t be boring and don’t be confusing. Readers don’t like to be bored and they don’t like to be confused.

2. Keep it simple and succinct. Use short sentences, when possible, and try to avoid using multi-syllabic words. I told the students about the Gunning Fog Index, which uses a formula to determine the grade level of the readers for which a piece of writing can be easily understood (Google

“Gunning Fog Index” to learn more.) A related tip: Keep it short. I related the old quip: “I didn’t have time to write you a short letter.” And I told them about the days I typed papers for fellow students at Bowdoin (25 cents a page). One student kept using the phrase, “It is interesting to note that….” in an attempt to reach the word quota.

3. Write with your heart as well as your head. Readers, like writers, are human beings, so writers must connect on a human level. I spent much of my working career writing admissions and fund-raising materials for colleges and schools around the country. As preparation, I would interview several students, faculty and administrators. Often someone — usually a professor — would say something like, “I don’t know how you put this in a brochure, but….” And the words following “but” would be just right for conveying the message in a real human authentic way.

4. Don’t wait until the last minute to get the job done. Think about the topic in advance; after all, good writing requires good thinking. Jot down a few thoughts and then move on to something else. Let your ideas marinate for a while before you begin.

5. Edit. And then edit again. And again. Any piece of writing can be made better. Good writers must be brutal self-editors.

6. Use a sounding board. Read what you’ve written out loud to yourself. Then read it to another person. My wife Tina takes her sounding board role seriously. If something isn’t clear, she will let me know, and I revise accordingly. She’s also been known to protest, “That doesn’t belong in a family newspaper!” I’ll then remove the offending word or phrase. (Usually.)

7. Read. And read some more. Good writers must be good readers.

After offering thoughts on writing to students, I noted that it was also important for them to learn to speak well in public. Happily, most Bowdoin professors factor class participation into the grade; moreover, students must often make presentations in class. As with any skill, the more one does something, the better one gets. I also told them to remember that if you’re giving a speech in public, the members of the audience are on your side; they want you to do well.

Okay, I’m done. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll take out a copy of “Lord Jim” from the library. After all, old Joseph Conrad also deserves his shot at redemption.

David Treadwell, a Brunswick writer, welcomes commentary and suggestions for future “Just.a Little Old” columns. [email protected]

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