The best advice I’ve ever given my students

March 25, 2013 · 17 comments

in Inspiration, Journalism how-to's

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If it’s spring, then it must be time for fresh ideas. In my case, this means digging into my personal bag of tricks and finding new ways to practice what I preach to students. But first I need to set the scene for you….

Let me begin by saying that there is nothing scarier than standing in front of a class room. The first 10 minutes of the very first day of a new semester is always a potential deal breaker. Imagine those cynical eyeballs watching your every move, evaluating your clothes, looking for signs that you are yet another idiot who is going to waste their time and money.

So over the years, I have come up with some foolproof, attention-grabbing ways to  keep them interested. What follows is my two-prong advice for writing clearly which is also a good life lesson that I need to practice myself now in setting priorities for the new season.

Okay, the scene: A room of impressionable young souls in the classroom. Me at the front, blathering about good writing skills. I tell them that I have tips that former students used  to become professional  journalists who are now working at major news organizations all over the world — which is totally true. I was also accurate in informing them that former students who went on to non-journalism careers value the tips too.

“Be sure to write this down,” I bark. “This is why you’re paying a ton of money to be here with me.”

As they wait with either pens poised over paper or fingers hovering over laptop keyboards, I hit the whiteboard.

Fond memories of this moment recently surfaced on Twitter when a dear former student called me out. Here’s what he tweeted:


It includes a link to a photo of a page from his class notes that day:


Haha! Chris is a future lawyer. He always took great, accurate notes. Which means that I am guilty as charged. When you’re dealing with me, this is what passes for, um, pedagogy.  :)

But the moment works. I’ve challenged their assumptions about learning. To write curse words into their notes instantly jolts them into experiencing a memorable message: You can’t truly express yourself and be yourself unless you’re honest with yourself. They get it.

Whether I am figuring out how to write and structure a story, composing a drawing or painting, or reorganizing my desk, it’s critical to cut through the bullshit and get to the f$%&#ng point! Why am I doing this? What do I hope to accomplish? Talking myself through these questions in raw, uncensored language allows me to laser in on the heart of things.

This is also true of my life right now in non-writing priorities. My head is full of plans and dreams for the year ahead. More on that later. But to make any of them reality, it would help if I got real with myself. What do I really want and why do I want it?

Down the road, the ability to honestly answer that questions will save me a lot of time, energy, money and heartache.

The best part of getting real is that if I have clarity about the tasks ahead, I will spend less time spinning my wheels. That, in turn, might inspire me to be like our cat Minty, who is an expert at vegging in a celebration of life. This is how he kept me company the other night at my desk, while I was busy paying some bills:

So here’s to my hope that we spend the upcoming week honoring our true feelings. If you have thoughts on that mission, please do share!


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{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Skye March 25, 2013 at 8:15 am

When planning and dreaming, it’s great to be honest with yourself about yourself and other things. Side effect: it hurts sometimes.

2 Brandice March 25, 2013 at 8:37 am

It truly is advice I have applied to ALL writing! A few academics were disappointed when I missed the word count, but they always appreciated the lack of fluff.

3 Jenna Dailey March 25, 2013 at 9:23 am

I wish I would have had you in my classes back when!

4 betty ming liu March 25, 2013 at 9:33 am

Skye, the whole process of being honest is so, so raw. But it’s not a bad thing, right? As you say, it can indeed be painful. And yet, working through it can lead to better moments. As always, thank you for your insightful honesty.

Aha, Brandice! You remember this from your classes with me too. Thanks for dropping by. Always a pleasure to hear from former students and to know that you’re doing well. :)

Jenna, I have taught all kinds of students beyond the college crowd — from high school kids to adults that could be their parents — and these tips work for everyone. Although I have to admit, some of the middle-aged folks really go into shock when they write the tips down. This is not how college classes went when they were young!

5 Laura Madden March 25, 2013 at 1:09 pm

“Get to the f@#$ing point” from your class still echoes in my head today. It’s up there with “Why do I care/ Why am I doing this?” and definitely applies across the board, not just in writing. For example, why am I living in a big but lousy apartment in a lousy neighborhood? To save money? Okay, fine, but what price am I paying in frustration? Time to move!

6 betty ming liu March 25, 2013 at 2:37 pm

Wow, Laura, that’s a major decision. But you have certainly made your point! Since I live in a house that I really love, I have to say that being in a cozy home is really worth it. And decorating becomes yet another exercise in figuring out the point….eg, why have a formal dining room if you’re not going to use it? Good luck with finding a new home!

7 Adriana March 25, 2013 at 6:51 pm

The message from that first class has stuck with me. I have spent the last month overseas in Ecuador for a bit of a writer’s adventure and the notebook I grabbed to take along with me on the journey happened to be the one from the personal essay class you taught at Sarah Lawrence. It was a nice surprise to rediscover the lessons.

8 betty ming liu March 25, 2013 at 7:53 pm

Oh my goodness, Adriana. You are giving me chills. What a coincidence that you would be taking that one particular notebook. Safe travels and big hug to you during your Ecuadorean adventure!

9 Toby March 25, 2013 at 8:11 pm

Betty: Excellent advice as always. I’m afraid I can’t entirely follow it though! I am simply consitutionally unable to use curse words in class! My old WASP training kicks in and my throat closes up if I try. It would be such a conflict with my tweed suit & pocket watch professor image! BTW, I was recently asked by a student if I could text on my pocket watch. Now there’s a generation gap for you!

10 betty ming liu March 25, 2013 at 8:24 pm

Toby, you’re so cute. I totally understand. Because of the four-letter words, I actually hesitated to write this post for a very long time. In fact, someone I don’t know unsubscribed from my blog this morning.

But I decided to share because the exercise really works with students in a way that nice blah blah doesn’t. Who knows — maybe someone like you will think of a clean alternative for making the same case. If you come up with something, I want to be the first to hear about it!

11 Flora March 30, 2013 at 10:43 am

I LOVE IT!!!! It makes sense in lots of ways and for lots of scenarios.

The shock treatment is so memorable too and for that alone is a great technique. It alters the recipients’ universe slightly and gives a new perspective. I had a sociology prof who was a feminist. On our first class with her she touched on the long history of patriarchy and the idea of women being an afterthought in history. She said: “We could go right back to the sparerib theory…..the one about Adam” (and Eve). I loved how she pointed out to me the symbolism of that story.
Her other great quote was being asked if the exam was open book. “No it isn’’s just open mind.”
If you weren’t so far away, I’d love to take your class Betty.

12 betty ming liu March 30, 2013 at 5:56 pm

Flora, thanks for dropping by with thoughts from your prof. What intrigues me is that you like my shock techniques but your prof was able to make memorable points to you without swearing. I wish I could make my bleeping point without using profanity!

And who knows, maybe you will be able to take one of my classes in the future! There’s all kinds of teaching going on online. Most of it is bone-wearying, according to people I know who have taught these courses. But who knows, new technology and formats are developing all the time so we might meet someday in the future!

13 Andrea April 1, 2013 at 5:41 pm

Best advice ever! And you scared the s… out of me at the first class! I wanted to leave, but I am grateful I didn’t… because you made me the writer and the professional that I have grown into. It’s all about clarity and getting to the point – that’s what I tell my interns now too when I edit their writing. I am currently developing my own portfolio and blog where I have a section called “Communications Advice.” Do you mind if I link to your blog posts? Oh! Here’s another great piece of advice I’ll never forget: Write coversationally. Hugs!

14 betty ming liu April 1, 2013 at 6:32 pm

Andrea, I WOULD BE HONORED. Please link away. I’m glad you stayed in the class too. In fact, didn’t you take a total of three different electives with me??? Now you know all my tricks. Definitely must come up with some fresh ones. xo.

15 Skye April 1, 2013 at 7:40 pm

Well said, Andrea. Ditto:)

16 Kristine April 7, 2013 at 1:43 pm

Love your post! Getting to the point. Clarity.
And, “uncensored language allows me to laser in on the heart of things.” Best advice for writing I’ve read in a long, long time.

17 betty ming liu April 7, 2013 at 2:51 pm

Thank you, Skye, as always. :)

And Kristine, thanks to you too. Getting to the point helps me to cut through the chatter in my head, haha!

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