The best advice I’ve ever given my students

betty ming liu Inspiration, Writing how-to's 17 Comments

the scream thumbnailI’m about to share with you my secret for teaching students how to write. Once they get this lesson into their heads, tangled sentences straighten out. Wordiness disappears. Blathering becomes conversational writing.

But first, a warning. This secret involves profanity because shock value is also a powerful tool. Ready? Okay, then. Let us proceed.

I usually unleash this tool on the first day of classes, when my new recruits are still in the mood to take notes.

“Write this down,” I tell them as I turn to the whiteboard with a big black marker. “This is why you’re paying a ton of money to sit here with me.”

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


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


That’s the whole lesson, right there!

To write curse words into their notebooks becomes a memorable experience. They get the message: Strip away the nice-y nice behavior. Be honest with yourself. Write like you talk. Write from an emotional place where you really live. Make your sentences that plain, that simple, that clear. 

So whatever you’re working on, step back and ask yourself: Have I cut through the b.s.? What is my f-ing point?

This down-to-earth approach makes it much easier to create content. From here, it’s possible to outline a story, a memo, a chapter, an email, a report.

And once the work is done, we can follow the example of my cat Minty. Stretch a little.


Comments 17

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

  2. 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. Post

    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!

  4. “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!

  5. Post

    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!

  6. 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.

  7. Post

    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!

  8. 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!

  9. Post

    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!

  10. 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.

  11. Post

    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!

  12. 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!

    1. Post

      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.

  13. Betty,
    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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *