Don't Overwrite, Part II

This is the story of my public humiliation for overly grandiose writing. If you haven't already, read the intro to this story.

It was my first English class at UBC. I was 18, in my first year of Arts studies, and I had just walked into a section group of 30. The lecture size for this class was 300 students, so it was in these smaller classroom settings where the deeper discussions happened—and, more importantly, where you found that one person you clicked with, sat with, and poached notes from if you happened to ever skip or get sick. Good judgment in these pickings is essential.

(Note the overt foreshadowing in that last line above)

I did what any other 18-year old young woman would have done: I sat down next to the good-looking Persian guy whose smile was a happy medium between friendly and over-confident. Let's call him Cyrus.

We had fun, at first. Good discussions, amusing commentary notes slipped back and forth when the TA (teacher's assistant) wasn't looking. All that changed when Cyrus started playing online poker in class.

I don't remember exactly what I said to him, but I remember the moment I asked my [now paraphrased] question, "Should you really be doing that in class?" I remember the look he gave me. I've always found dark eyes to be more expressive than light ones, haven't you? These coal-dark eyes somehow managed to convey disappointment, arrogance and disdain with one glance .

"I'll have you know," he said coolly, "That I have official ranking in the national poker stats. I've won thousands of dollars playing. I'm good at it, and it's my time, so I can do it if I want. C'mon. I thought you were cool. Are you gonna tell on me or something stupid like that?" 

Despite sensing that the Cliff of Unfriendship was near, I still said (like an honest idiot), "No...I just don't think it's very respectful, of your teacher or your classmates, to be playing on your computer during class."

Friendship over.

A few weeks later, we were instructed to peer-review the book discussion papers we had brought in that day. Neither Cyrus nor I had relocated after our friendship had ended, so our habit of sitting in the front left corner of the classroom (though not side-by-side) meant that the TA put us together when she paired off the room.


We hadn't talked in weeks, but silently we grimaced at each other and exchanged papers. His was succinct, well argued, and insightful. I had a few points of critique, but not many. After we had edited and graded each other's papers on our own, we were supposed to discuss our conclusions about the other's paper.

I gave Cyrus my feedback: A-. I don't remember what I said, or what his response was. But I remember, very clearly, what he thought of my paper.

He thought my paper sucked. And he told me, in very clear terms. "You use way too many's bordering on ridiculous. You're trying way too hard. Like this part, for example."

He read one particularly descriptive sentence aloud.

"Have you ever read "Politics and the English Language", George Orwell's paper?"

I shook my head, suddenly despising George Orwell for having an opinion on the matter.

"I'll email it to you. Everything you're doing wrong, he talks about. You really need to read it." 

Embarrassed, I silently resolved simultaneously to never follow Cyrus' recommendation and also to somehow absorb the wisdom from that aforementioned paper without having to read it.

I prepared myself to ride out the rest of the class in fuming silence. But the TA wanted to open up class discussion again. "Let's hear from one of the pairs, to get a perspective on how we critique another's work. Any volunteers?"

Really? Who would volunteer to critique a fellow classmate's work, in front of the whole class? You guess right, if you predict that no one volunteered.

"Alright, if no one will volunteer...Cyrus? Why don't you share with the class?"

My heart stopped. 

"I'd really rather not," Cyrus said firmly. 

"I insist," the TA encouraged, thinking Cyrus had suddenly come down with a case of Shy First-Year Syndrome. She wasn't very observant. "What did you think of Ashley's paper?"

(By the way, I'm not embellishing one iota. This really, really happened.)

"Well..." Cyrus blew out a breath. "I actually thought it was a very poorly written paper."

The TA thought he was joking. "Seriously though, what grade did you suggest for it?"

"C minus," said Cyrus. You could hear the dust motes turning in the air, the class was so quiet. The TA, trying to overcome her shock and bring in a positive note, said:

"But surely there were some good points that Ashley made in her paper? What were some of those?"

"There weren't really any," was Cyrus' blunt response.  

At this moment, I would have liked to have been able to credit the TA for quick thinking, but she wasn't particularly quick, and she wasn't thinking. She kept trying to salvage his blistering criticisms, probing 2 or 3 more times in hopes of teasing out some kind of silver lining. It wasn't working. I sat there, in shocked and humiliated disbelief, listening along with my other 28 classmates at this trainwreck-of-a-discussion. Some small part of me registered with amusement that this level of candour was a new experience.

I think Cyrus was starting to feel self-defensive, or maybe a little buzzed from the adrenaline rush that comes from the heights of a ruthlessly frank soapbox. I knew him well enough to know that he considered his opinions highly enough that he wasn't about to be persuaded out of or apologize for them. "I told Ashley she needs to look up some pointers on how to write clearly and effectively," he said impatiently. "So, that's that."

Few TAs can redeem that sentiment. She gave me an I-am-SO-sorry-I-put-you-through-this look to me, and then abruptly turned her attention elsewhere in the class. Cyrus turned to me and gave me a she-asked-me-for-the-truth-and-so-I-told-her-what-I-really-thought look. 

"You're no gentleman," was what my glare back said. 

Dear reader, I'm sure you're thinking, How awful! Yeah, that class sucked. And the days following stung a little . That kind of criticism echoes inside you. But don't feel sorry for me. Cyrus was, most unfortunately, right. I knew that, from the moment he opened his mouth. Today, I looked through all my old binders to see if I could scrounge up the original hard copy of his review, but I probably shredded it long ago in sour catharsis. I did find my computer file, and I freely admit that my writing in that paper was replete with ruffles (if you're drawing a blank on this ruffles reference, you need to read the intro to this story.)

I was over-writing. It was flowery; grandiose; turgid; magniloquent; orotund. (Was that description baroque enough for you?) 

Since then, I've slowly tamed my verbose tongue. It's been a gradual, 10-year process. My writing has become purer, clearer, sharper. I suppose I have to thank Cyrus for that, classless cad though he was.

Moral of the story? If you're going to write, write well. Don't write because you like the sound of your own voice, because you like using a thesaurus to find the longest applicable words, or because sentence complexities are irresistible to you. If you don't write well, your worst fears might come true. Someone might tell you that you suck.