A Talk with Larry McEnerney

By Vincent Wu 

              What makes a piece of writing great? It is commonly taught in schools that a wonderful essay needs to be concise, address the prompt, and create thorough and well-organized paragraphs and arguments. Whereas these are all important points that must exist in a great paper written by a student, from a professional perspective, it lacks an aspect that is far more crucial than anything mentioned above.  On Wednesday February 27, UCULR invited UChicago’s Writing Program Director Larry McEnerney to sit down with students to address this missing puzzle as well as to discuss how to effectively craft legal writing, or any professional writing for that matter.

            The primary focus of writing is to deliver value; it is to compose a letter, an article, or a memo that accomplishes something that the reader believes is worth accomplishing. Therefore, to accomplish such a task, the writer must be aware of who his/her readers are in order to create that perceived value. Writing is always grounded in a particular community and the key is appealing to that group. An editorial board publishes an article, not because it is beautifully written, but because it serves a purpose and is a contribution to the people in that field. Professor McEnerney clearly identifies that often times, undergraduates and graduates fail to generate such high levels of writing because they are not writing under sentence-by-sentence pressure to produce something of value. The professors are obligated to “read” the by-product of our countless caffeinated nights in front of the computer because they are paid to. They look at our papers, whether absolutely brilliant or downright nonsensical, because of the immense influence of money that is metaphorically attached to each piece of writing.

            The question is: How do writers generate value? What makes writing valuable is if it solves a relevant problem that is directed towards the reader. In the first few sentences of the introduction, the writer is suppose to already have constructed a problem by using language to create an instability. By implementing phrases such as “the accepted model” or “it is widely understood”, the writer is subtly guiding the reader’s thoughts to believe that the problem is something the majority assumes is true; however, what the majority assumes is wrong. And even if the reader knows the problem, the writer may reconstruct the problem to guide the reader along the writer’s own line of thoughts without entirely alienating the reader. Furthermore, objectivity and general background information do nothing to add value to writing. By adding strong rather than neutral words and eliminating anything that may be potentially boring, the writer is covertly influencing the reader to choose a side of the issue.

            The best form of professional writing is to say that you (the reader) have a problem that you do not know you have and this text is the only text that can provide you with a solution. By establishing the problem first, you are eliciting the reader’s curiosity to read further. Coherence, concision, etc. all will follow the problem, but the writing must make sure the reader is reading something of value and can help them. Professor McEnergy’s lecture truly opened the eyes of the students and proved us exactly why he is such a renowned professor on writing. This blog simply cannot do what he said justice and I highly encourage everyone interested to talk with him because I can guarantee that he will expand your horizons on writing as well.

 Vincent Wu is a First Year in the College.