Writing With Substance: You Can Haz it! SRSLY!

What's with the Cats, anyway?

Why all the cats? Well, the internet allowed for the creation of this book, and cats kittehs created the teh internets and now rule over them, so it just seemed right to me. I think the moment for cats online may have peaked in 2008, and so you may not be old enough to fully appreciate the cultural phenomenon this book invokes repeatedly in its images and examples without consulting this explanation, this one, or this one. If you aren't ready to dive into that litter box of knowledge about the fact that the internet is made of cats, however, you may simply read the idiosyncratic version below. 
One of the primary reasons this book features so many cats is the fact that the various macros (and now memes) associated with cats are also memes about language and the manipulation of language. I am a fan of all of these. Another reason I am using cat images here (beyond the more trivial fact that I really do like to look at images of cats quite a bit) is the fact that they are part of our campus now--I hope you've been able to see some of the feral cats that live by our classrooms--and they are also part of its history. Our Special Collections librarians can tell you more about Mrs. Hofstra's cats if you'd like to see these images (or any of the other cool things the university owns) in person.
Finally, I will somewhat reluctantly mention a pertinent saying that relies on what I hope is a now a dead metaphor: "there's more than one way to skin a cat." Although I can not bear to imagine this sort of harm done to an animal, the basic idea conveyed by that phrase is useful in its implication that you may use multiple approaches to achieve a desired outcome. Writing works like this metaphor in the sense that there are few "universal" rules for what constitutes strong or compelling prose––even as there are "preferred" approaches in every academic discipline that may constrain some (or all) aspects of your written work. 
Throughout this semester, you'll hear me make statements along these lines:
  • "Context and audience will play key roles in determining whether your choices are effective or not."
  • "There's no such thing as a good source or a bad source in the abstract. What matters is how you intend to use it, whether it genuinely and solely supports what you intend for it to support, and the degree to which a source and your use of it meet specified standards of intellectual integrity."
  • "Well, maybe. But try it anyway and see how it goes. Ask others to read it and provide feedback."
  • "Hmm. I don't know if that will work. But I can't know for sure until I see it in motion. Put it in motion."
  • "Either way will be fine probably. The real question is this: what will be the way that inspires you to keep moving ahead with this subject matter?"
I want to be clear here in noting that I would never do anything to harm a cat and you shouldn't either, and not just because it's against the law. But you should be open to trying different structures, diction, and approaches (and be willing to explore what seem like shallow subjects and personal proclivities in depth) as we all work on our prose this semester––and we must be mindful of the implications and consequences of our choices in each case. 
To stretch the skinning metaphor just a bit further, let us remember for a second that the act of removing the outer layers of a creature is a first step in scientific and humanistic inquiry, making it an apt (if also queasy-making) analogy for writing and any other mode of learning. Good writers will move their readers beyond a surface-level, fuzzy understanding of their subject, peeling back the layers of fur and fat in order to expose the hard stuff, the bone, muscle, and matter inside. As a student of writing, your job is not only to learn about the complexity of that matter by reading assigned texts actively, but also to pay attention to the skeletal system and vital organs that enliven anything you read. Note, for instance, the various elements that writers use to structure writing, from the grammar and diction that construct readable and meaningful sentences to the order of paragraphs and framing devices that set up claims and support for them.  
Finally, I will add that sometimes I find writing every bit as awful as I find the mental image of cat-harming. Writing for me isn't always (or ever) pleasurable because it is difficult, and the gains we make as writers are not always easy for others to detect. They aren't even visible to ourselves sometimes. Perhaps this fact alone more than justifies the inclusion of some pictures of cats.  
(By the way: I'm compiling good cat links here.)

You may return to the Table of Contents or Learn more about the nutty cat nut who wrote this book.

This page references: