Jose Carillo's Forum


On this webpage, Jose A. Carillo shares with English users, learners, and teachers a representative selection of his essays on the English language, particularly on its uses and misuses. One essay will be featured every week, and previously featured essays will be archived in the forum.

Is there really an optimal way of writing well for everyone?

In time, each one of us develops a uniquely personal way of putting our thoughts in writing, whether in simple compositions like e-mails, memos, and letters or in creative work like short stories, plays, or  novels. But many of us sometimes can’t help asking ourselves this question: Is the way we write correct and optimal? Or are there better and more efficient ways of getting the writing task done?

Theoretically, there should be an optimal way of writing well, and scores of books have been published over the years making all sorts of prescriptions to achieve this. Knowing how idiosyncratic writers and the writing craft are, however, I really don’t think it’s advisable to prescribe a specific approach to writing for everyone. Obviously, what works best for the writer personally is the best approach for him or her, and I believe that a much better measure of the effectiveness of that approach is the quality of the written output along with how fast it is completed.

In an essay I wrote for my English-usage column in The Manila Times in October last year, “Should writers finish their compositions first before editing?”, I articulated my thoughts about the writing craft along this line. It was in response to an e-mail I received from a Forum member who wondered if she was on the right track with the way she  writes. I am now posting that essay in the Forum as food for thought for everyone who writes, particularly those similarly beset with doubts about how they do it. (February 26, 2011)

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Should writers finish their compositions first before editing?

We write the way we write, of course, and that unique way—for better or for worse—often becomes integral to what we might call our personal writing style. But are certain ways to write better than others?

Forum member Miss Mae was wondering if she was on the right track with the way she writes, so she sent me the following note by e-mail:

“One writing quirk I had was that I cannot write without writing down first. That is, literally penning my thoughts on paper before producing a final copy. It was laborious, all right, but what can I do? It was what worked for me in my high school and college years.

“I have had to adjust, though, when I began working. I was able to, but I developed another problem. Mindful of my grammar incompetence, I can’t help fussing over what I’ve just written. I learned somewhere that that should not be the case. Writers must finish their compositions before editing. Is that always true?”

My answer to Miss Mae probably would also apply to many others in a similar predicament:

Oh, Miss Mae, don’t you fret about your tendency to fuss over what you’ve just written! It’s a perfectly normal thing to fuss over your prose whether you are supremely confident or somewhat doubtful of your grammar competence. So long as you don’t obsessively and perpetually fuss over every little detail to the point of not making any progress at all—like the neurotic Mr. Monk, the hilariously perfectionist private detective in that TV series—you are OK. This is because when we write, we’re actually attempting to capture and share some of our thoughts for an audience, whether for just one reader or—in the case of writing for publication—a few thousands or millions of them. And we obviously want our writing to be not only grammatically and semantically flawless but clear, concise, readable, and convincing as well. Writing for an audience is nothing less than a public performance, so it’s but natural for us to put our best foot forward when doing so.

I must also tell you that except perhaps for short, pro-forma memos, letters, or instructions, it simply isn’t the norm for writers to be able to finish writing a composition first before editing it. From what I’ve seen over the years, in fact, most writers are like you and me—they correct or edit themselves along the way as they write. I don’t know of any writer who can complete a full-fledged essay, feature article, or opinion piece of sizable length in his or her mind before sitting down to write it, much less put it to paper or word processor without letup from beginning to finish. Anybody who tells you that he or she can routinely do this is either not telling the truth or is nothing less than a genius with photographic memory and total recall to boot.

I think it’s the lot of most writers, whether amateur or professional, to write in fits and starts. They first take down notes about their impressions and initial ideas, juggle and juxtapose them into tentative statements in their heads or on paper, then start organizing and logically linking them into sentences, paragraphs, and entire compositions. Experienced writers are able to do this at a faster clip, of course, but they generally do so in the same way that you described your own writing process: literally pen thoughts on paper first and fuss over them before producing a final draft. In short, Miss Mae, your writing process isn’t quirkish at all but is actually the norm for most writers. And with more experience and practice, you’ll find this writing process becoming much easier, simpler, and faster—sometimes even a joy—to execute. (October 9, 2010) 
From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, October 9, 2010 © 2010 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved

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Previously Featured Essay:

The specific timelines for the perfect tenses

Last week, to help dispel a reader’s lingering confusion over their usage, I discussed the role of the auxiliary verbs “has,” “have,” and “had” in forming the present perfect, past perfect, and future perfect tenses. Now I’ll discuss the specific timelines for the perfect tenses to show how these auxiliary verbs actually work to denote them.

The present perfect. This tense, which uses the auxiliary verb “has” (singular) or “have” (plural) with the past participle of the verb, works in at least six ways to define events and occurrences as they unfold in time:

(1) To express a state or condition that began in the past and leads up to the present: “The accomplices have kept their vow of silence for decades.”

(2) To express habitual or continued action: “She has worn anklets since she was ten.”

(3) To indicate events occurring at an indefinite time in the past (used with the adverbs “ever,” “never,” and “before”): “Some people have never gone to college due to poverty.”

(4) To indicate that an action happened only recently (used with the adverb “just”): “My brother has just finished college.”

(5) To indicate that an action happened more than once, but it’s not important or necessary to know exactly when: “She has seen that movie a dozen times.”

(6) To indicate that something that happened in the past continues to influence the present: “The El Niño phenomenon has altered weather patterns very seriously. “

The past perfect. This tense, which uses the auxiliary verb “had” with the past participle, is used to describe (1) an action completed before another past event, and (2) an action that began and ended at some unspecified time in the past.

In case 1, the past perfect component is paired off with at least one other past action in the simple past tense, as in “Rowena had left to work in Dubai when her scholarship was approved.” Note that this past perfect sentence consists of two separate actions, one in the past perfect and the other in the simple past.

In case 2, the present perfect doesn’t require the explicit use of another action completed before another past event, as in “Rowena had left” and “ The heavy rains had lasted a month.” In such past perfect sentences, precisely when the action took place is unspecified or unknown. When it is known, the sentence takes the simple past tense, as in “Rowena left yesterday” and “The heavy rains stopped last night.”

The future perfect. This tense, which pairs off the past participle with the auxiliary verbs “will” and “have,” is used in sentences that consist of an action that continues into the future and another action or point of time—expressed in the simple present tense—in which the action culminates or ends. There are four possible scenarios for this:

(1) A future action that will be completed before another time or event in the future, as in “I will have taken the board examinations by 2012.”

(2) An action or condition that will continue up to a certain point in the future, as in “The nurse will have worked in Bahrain for six years by the time she retires.” Take note that in such sentences, an existing condition remains unchanged until a specific future time.

(3) A future event that will occur before a specific time or action in the future. By the time the irrigation project is completed, its original cost estimate will have ballooned almost five times.”

(4) A future event whose completion is more important than how long it will take to complete it. “By the time she finishes high school, her parents will have spent a little fortune for her tuition fees.”This use of the future perfect dramatizes the importance of the end-point or result of a process rather than the process itself. (February 19, 2011)

From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, February 19, 2011 © 2011 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

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Page last modified: 27 February, 2011, 4:15 p.m.