Writing Lesson in Washing the Car

Like so many in Southern California, my lifestyle would be impossible without a car. I love my MX5 Miata convertible. It gives me joy at the end of a difficult day as I speed down the road with the top down and music up. I can park easily amongst giant SUVs who think they are compact cars. With a bigger car, I tend to fill up the space but its tiny trunk forces me to clean it out as I am limited to 7 bags of groceries, 4 sweaters, 2 hats, 1 extra pair of shoes, a bag of blankets for Under the Tree, and a small box of extra Editing Academic Texts to sell. Note that the blankets and box don’t fit at the same time as the groceries!  And perhaps most importantly, I can almost always find it in the parking lot without having to take pictures on my phone for a location reminder. What a great car!

As much as I love my car, I don’t love washing it. You wash it, make it shine, and then boom! Bird boop, or rain or road dust or leaves or whatever so what’s the point? Nonetheless, a new semester is starting, and I like everything to be clean and new, so today, with Mr. C’s help, I set out to wash the car. As I spent 1 and 1 ½ hours scrubbing, vacuuming, wiping, and polishing under Mr. C’s guidelines, I was struck by how much washing a car resembles writing well, and so, without further ado, here are 10 writing lessons that can be had from washing one’s car.

 

LESSON #1:  THERE ARE DIFFERENT LEVELS OF WASHING.

Cars can be washed through the gas station drive through or hand detailed down to the paint. Different situations require different levels of washing. There will not always be tons of time to break out the special tire brush for the rims to shine up the wheels for that special date; sometimes you just want to knock the dirt off on a Wednesday afternoon. You have to know the difference between the kind of washes and choose the appropriate one.

Similarly, there are different kinds of Writing Tasks. When shooting a text to a friend, typos and spelling mistakes are expected. When texting a friend last night about his work schedule, I quickly typed “Working tonigjt?”  Now, that is clearly a typo, right? I mean, tonigjt isn’t a word in English or any other language that I’m aware of. Regardless, he could read it and didn’t correct my grammar! Good thing! So informal writing has its own requirements.

In contrast, in a formal essay for my class, that error would be significant as it shows either speed without care or lack of knowledge. Neither one of these are outcomes are good in a graded assignment, right? When you are completing a formal writing assignment over several weeks, you want to take the time needed to produce an awesome essay, much like the car when I drove it over to 7-11 to get gas and a total stranger whistled and said, “Whoa, nice ride!” Yes, it is and so should your essay be as well!

 

LESSON #2: TIMING MATTERS.

Did you know that dirt is not only ugly, it actually harms the paint? Do you know what else is ugly and harmful? Water spots. Yep, washing the car and leaving it spotty is not much better than leaving it dirty in the first place. Thus, when you wash matters as that big ole’ sun will bake the water on before you can get it dry. So, you must plan and time your washing carefully as to not simply be wasting time.

In the same way, timing matters with writing. If you plan out your schedule, give yourself time to think, to write, to edit, and even to take a break before it’s due, then you can have a quality product. But, if you slap something together at the last-minute without care or concern… it might just end up to be a spotty mess!

 

  1. USING THE RIGHT TOOL PRODUCES BETTER RESULTS.

Mr. C is all about the correct tool for the job; as such, there are brushes for tires (3 different kinds!), hand brushes, power washer brushes (yes, we have a power washer), inside towels, outside towels, drying towels, car cleaner, car wax, tire cleaner, tire wax, detailing stuff, window stuff, and that’s just what we used today. Who knows what else lives in his man cave. I only go in when invited.

Though it seems like a ton of tools for one littl’ car, wow, does it make a difference in speed and overall result. A tire brush, for example, has to be rather firm to get all the brake dust off, but if used on the paint, ooooh, that would be really bad as it would take the paint right off. An outside towel has a different composition than an inside glass cleaning towel which leaves no streaks. Who knew?

Likewise, there are so many writing tools that can make one’s job more efficient and quick. A dictionary has different functions than a thesaurus. Editing hard copy can be better than Soft Copy. Spell check and Grammarly can save tons of time. The lesson from this is two-fold.

First, use the best tool for the job. And second, if you don’t know the appropriate tool, then find someone who does and ask. Your instructor, your tutor, blogs online or some other source- all of these people know some good tools, just like Mr. C who truly does know the difference between inside and outside towels that to me look exactly alike (same color, same shape, same feel- but oh sooooooo different!).

 

4. SOME TECHNIQUES ARE MORE EFFECTIVE THAN OTHERS.

Washing a car seems pretty straightforward, right? Wet, soap, rinse, dry off. How tough can that be? Well, apparently, it is so much more than it seems. If you get the whole thing wet and take too long to soap, it dries off. If you soap it carelessly, you can scratch it with your jewelry (a fact I found out the hard way).  If you rinse it the wrong way, then the soap gets the rinsed part soapy again. Apparently, front to back top to bottom is the way to go. If you dry in correctly, you leave spots or worse, make it dirty again! Then you have to wash it all over which is a serious pain in the you- know- where! Whew, washing a car is tough!

Even more difficult than washing a car is writing college level English! However, just like washing a car, some writing techniques may be more productive than others! If you are fortunate to be in a college class, then your Professor will give you some new techniques to try! Don’t be afraid to try them just because they are new or time-consuming. You will find that even though things may take longer in the beginning, by the end, they will save you tons of time.

For example, I have my students brainstorm with a specific technique; they have to create a topic sentence outline for their essay before they begin writing it. Oh, how they resist this technique! Yet, by the end of the essay, or sometimes the semester, they see how much time they saved by starting out organized and finishing well. Not all techniques are the most effective. Find the ones that are!

 

  1. SOMETIMES MORE THAN ONE PASS IS NECESSARY.

When start rinsing off the suds, there’s a lot of water. Remember, you are outracing the sun here (#2)! One effective technique to start drying is to take her for a spin around the block. But maybe you are in a hurry( or completely soaked from poor washing technique like me!). So when you take out the special drying towels with the “wax as you go” stuff (#3) and start drying at the top of the car (#4), you may find that there is too much water to wipe off in one pass (#4 again!). The key though is getting most of it off so that again you have no water spots. Then, after the whole car is mostly water free, then you go back and wipe again. That is when you make sure you got all the wax stuff, it has no streaks, and all the water is gone. You could call that a re-wipe if you like.

Like washing a car, the more passes one gives a paper, the better the final product. Revision is taking a re-wipe or revision to the content and structure of the paper. Are the ideas clear, you may ask. Do my examples really prove my points? Are my core sentences (topic sentences) reflective of the main idea (thesis)? Then with a new towel, you have to go again and look at the grammar, the nitty gritty sentence level, and word level issues. Ask yourself about your verbs, your punctuation, your vocabulary. Now, finally, done, right?

Weeeeellll, no, not if you want a fabulous product. The final pass should be checking the details in your format. Is your MLA header correct? Did you spell the Prof’s name correct? Is your title ok? How about the margins? Did you meet the page length? All these passes will lead to a nicer paper!

 

  1. DETAILING MAKES A BETTER OUTCOME.

Still, you aren’t done with the car if you want a truly spectacular result. Now comes the detailing, the precision work that separates this job from the drive through quickie wash and even the drop of someone else watch. Here is where the magic really happens.

Really good detailing occurs on both the outside and the inside (#1).  Of course, you need new tools (#3), and there are special techniques (#4).  For this example, I’m just focusing on the inside detailing. It is time-consuming. Oh, and order matters. Apparently, you vacuum the car before you wash it. Why? I didn’t ask but left it to the mystery of the process. Sometimes, you gotta go with the flow. So, you need another special towel, inside detailing towel and another special bottle of the misty stuff.  And there is absolutely an order - all the leather, but no shiny stuffy or glass. Those need another special towel and misty stuff. If you are a mess living in your car like me, you need yet another towel and misty stuff for all the sticky coffee tea spills in the cup holders. Wipe, polish, polish wipe. Whew. Pretty!

 

Similar to the process of washing a car, some techniques are better in different aspects of writing.

Focusing and Isolation are particularly good for the detailed look required at sentence level grammar. Reading Aloud is a big gun not used every day, but particularly useful in certain situations. With a quick write or a quick edit, you may have a passing paper, but if you strive for the excellence of an A, then you need to learn all the tricks of polishing your paper to make it shine! More information about the editing strategies and how to employ them are in my book Eating Academic Texts.

 

  1. ROUTINE MAINTENANCE IS IMPORTANT.

Not only does having a clean, shiny polished car, make the owner feel good about life, the car likes it too. If you let dirt and stuff build up on the paint, it does more damage. If you wash it regularly, you can assess the state of the car better. For example, on the driver side door, paint is coming off from the weather stripping, because, uh hmm, maybe I park too close to other cars sometimes and gently, very gently rest my door on their cars when getting out. If we (and by we I mean Mr. C) touch up this paint with again special stuff, we will save money by not having to replace the very expensive entire door seal. Also, I can modify my behavior and try harder to park more carefully. This is just one example of many possible benefits to routine maintenance.

Cars clearly benefit from routine maintenance, but what about one’s own writing skill? How does one have a solid everyday writing skill? By writing of course. By writing on a regular basis, by reading, and by learning vocabulary.

If you do these things, like routine car patience, your basis line writing skill goes up. Just like a car will be less damaged when cleaned more often, your writing will start out at a higher level the more routine practice you give it. If you want to save time and have a better level of writing, practice in small spurts every day rather than marathon sessions when papers are due. Because just like the dirt that continues to build up on the car, you will continue to need to write over and over and over again. Starting from step one will cost you much more time and effort in the long run!

  1. YOU DON’T HAVE TO ALWAYS GO IT ALONE, BUT NO ONE ELSE WILL CARE AS MUCH AS YOU.

Honestly, I don’t usually wash my own car. Almost never. I think the last time I was involved in this was 2015. I drop it off at the wash place or drive through the car wash or grade papers while Mr. C washes it while he washes mine.  The people I pay to wash it do a good job. It is their job after all. Mr. C does a great job. He takes pride in a clean car, and we drive mine on the weekend because who doesn’t love a convertible in Southern California? But I, I love my car. As I lovingly cleaned up that sticky spot that was deep in the cup holder, as I noticed my poor door opening/parking damage to the weather stripping, as I polished the mirror,and as I glanced at my reflection in the super shiny rims, I remembered the pure pleasure I take in having this car, driving this car, loving this car. At the end of the day, it is mine all mine, and I love it!

Just as you can with your car, you can get help with your writing, but you must own your work. We encourage group work in America; we also provide tons of support services in schools like the Language Acquisition Center where I work or the Tutoring Center. You can also hire private tutors too! You can share ideas with classmates and study together. All of these activities help you.

However, at the end of the day, when the rubber hits the road, the work is yours and no one else will ever care about it as much as you. Students come to me in the LAC and expect me to do a line by line edit on their work. Ha! No one will ever do that for you or for me for that matter! Students want me to talk about every single verb. Yeah, never gonna happen folks. You have to be in charge of your work. Getting help is fine, but who is going to cook an entire yummy dinner for you and then watch you eat it without getting any? No one. Own your work. It is a result of your effort. Be proud of it.

 

  1. IT ISN’T ALWAYS FUN, BUT THE RESULT IS WORTH THE EFFORT.

However, I don’t love washing it. I don’t find fun all the rules for good car washing. It’s so complicated. I don’t participate in the process enough to really know the steps. All the towels look alike to me. The brushes are a mystery. And don’t even get me started on the power washer. Seriously, that thing is rather scary. Not. Fun.

But the result, that is fabulous. The car sits in the driveway, happy and clean. I took it to the grocery store (note to self- take out Under the Tree blankets next time- it was a near thing getting the bags in the trunk!), and two different strangers talked to me about the car (going in and going out of the store). The guy picking up the karts in the lot gave me a high-five. Having a clean car gets me a conversation and good feelings. Who wouldn’t want that? Plus, I feel very industrious and responsible for washing my own car. Win-win!

In no area of our lives will fun always be happening 24-7. So many of my students expect writing to be one great party! Entertain us, they exclaim. We don’t like grammar because it’s boring. If you get down to it, so is the mechanics of eating or sleeping or breathing. Every minute of every day or every activity will never be a fun feast unless maybe you are five years old. Adults, however, must slog through the mundane activities to get the results they want.

Is brainstorming and blocking out ideas for writing fun? Sometimes. Was completely restructuring the Editing Academic Texts book 5 times fun? Not so much. Is checking my grammar fun? Sometimes. Is doing a tight edit looking at every single comma in a paper fun? Not so much.

Yet the results of all that effort makes it all worth it! Looking out over a class of students using my new book and learning how to edit better, yes, that is super duper fantastic!

In car washing and writing, fun can happen, but it shouldn’t be the only thing we look for!

 

  1. PROPER CARE WHEN FINISHING MAKES THE NEXT JOB EASIER.

I don’t know when I’ll wash the car again. But when I do, I will still need all that stuff from this time. Luckily, Mr. C believes in “a place for everything and everything in its place,” which is kind of a hassle when I’m tired of the sun and wet and just want to be done with the washing but will be fantastic next time we do it. Because the towels all have their own drawer. Now I know, if I remember, where they live. The inside towels and the outside towels are in different piles. Ahh, that’s how one tells. The brushes and bucket are cleaned and stored neatly. The power washer is wiped down and put away. If for some crazy reason, GASP, I wanted to ever do this on my own in the future, it would be possible.

Writing, like washing a car, is not a one-off activity. In all of our classes and in many areas of life, we have to write again and again. In my own writing classes, as well as most instructors, all the assignments build upon another. If students simply pay attention to the end of the work, the beginning of the next is rather easy since it is some kind of continuation. Yet. It seems that for every single assignment in class, the students are starting over from the very beginning! Why?

I think they are just leaving their writing utensils and tools scattered all over the yard rather than putting them away neatly. Their files are a mess. Their binders are unorganized.  They can’t find previous handouts. But, what if?

What if we took the time to organize the completion of our assignments getting ready for the next time whether it is this class or another? What if we started out with clean towels and the misty stuff was back where it belonged in the garage? What if the computer files were named clearly and the handouts were in order in our binders? Wouldn’t that be soooooo much easier next time? And wouldn’t I then need less help to get started, which would build my confidence and help perform even better in my writing and grammar?  I think so!

Writing is hard.  Few, if anyone, would argue this point. But there is hard, and there is crazy-making hard. With some care, by learning some lessons from the real life activity of washing a car, we can all reduce the stress and anxiety of writing and maybe make it just that much easier. Then, we can become better writers! That is my goal for sure! How about you?