Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Thinking Stylistically

When it comes to writing, this is my mantra: eloquence is clarity; clarity is eoloquence. This is, in part, my own personal bias, but it also reflects a long tradition in English writing epitomized in two classic texts that we'll discuss on Monday --
1) Strunk and White, The Elements of Style
2) George Orwell, "Politics and the English Language."

Orwell overstates his case, and I think he's too fussy when it comes to neologisms, metaphors, or the use of foreign words. But that's Orwell. If you're interested in learning more about Eric Blair, this recent piece in the NYRB is worth reading.

When I first started teaching (actually, when I first worked as a TA, way back in 1993), I quickly realized that one of the principal reasons why students had writing problems is that instructors rarely bothered to discuss writing. I've always found this reluctance to talk about writing puzzling, but it is, I think, rooted in two popular misconceptions. The first is the fallacy that rhetoric and style are somehow separate from substance and content. The second is the conceit that writing somehow comes naturally and, as such, cannot be taught. Writing tends to get treated like driving: everyone likes to think that they are a good driver, and hardly anyone likes to take advice on how to improve.

But writing is hard. It is a craft that requires constant attention. And it's something that you should never take for granted. Good writers work tirelessly to improve their style, and their writing evolves as their intellect develops. Good writers recognize that style can never be separated from content. They know that thinking, talking, and writing are so enmeshed that we cannot treat style as a discrete problem. As Steven Pinker argues in The Stuff of Thought, "There is nothing mere about semantics!"

Writing is also deeply personal. Being criticized for poor writing can be harder to deal with than any other type of assessment. We would like to believe that writing should be treated like an extension of our personality and that we should be allowed to express ourselves however we please. But this belief is a delusion. Just as there are rules governing how we can behave in public, there are rules governing writing. Of course, you are free to ignore the rules, just as you're free to jaywalk, speed, or forget to put money in the parking meter.

But this should be an informed choice. Like many (perhaps most) undergraduates, I cruised through my first couple of years largely unaware of the tenets of good writing. I thought I was a good writer, so when a professor wrote "awkward" or "poor sentence" on one of my papers, I assumed that it had something to do with the professor's personal preferences, i.e., I had not written the sentence in the style that the professor preferred. It was not until my third year that a professor -- Danny Vickers, who is now Chair at UBC -- finally took the time to explain to me the difference between the active and the passive voice. Until then, I had assumed that awkwardness was somehow an innate quality, not the result of a specific stylistic problem. Danny was the most rigorous professor I had encountered (in part because he took the time to explain a writing problem, rather than just scribble "awkward" in the margin of a paper), and, while I was initially upset at seeing so much red ink on my paper, I soon realized that he had done me a great favour.

Which brings me back to 1993. In my first year as a TA, I wrote a short hand-out on writing. I've revised it over the years, but it's largely the same as the first version I used at the University of Toronto. And, for what it's worth, here is an excerpt:

Suggestions for Writing Effective Essays (I think the first version was called "Do's and Don'ts")


A. Take the time to write a full-length outline in which you clearly establish the structure of your essay. Do not begin writing without an idea of the points which you plan to discuss. Try to organize your notes and page references before you plunge into writing.

B. Although you need not write your first draft strictly from beginning to end, you must compose an introduction, which states your thesis and outlines the essay's structure, for the final version of the essay. Similarly, you should tie your points together in a conclusion which reflects the entire paper, not simply the last couple of pages.

C. Organize your topics into paragraph units. Paragraphs form the building blocks of writing. You should always remain conscious of how your themes fit together and consider a paragraph's relation to the broader discussion. Paragraphs are usually between 4-6 and 9-11 sentences long, depending on sentence length.

D. Write in full sentences. Sentences must have a subject and predicate. Keep related ideas together, use proper punctuation, and vary sentence length and structure: you have a reader to consider.

E. Use the proper format for academic writing. If you are unsure about a specific issue, e.g. when/how to use references, then consult a guidebook. Be consistent in your choice of citation style, spelling, and capitalization. And remember that there are strict penalties for plagiarism.

F. Read and reread; write and rewrite. Writing is a craft which rarely comes “naturally.” Always proofread your essay before you hand it in. Good writers budget time to ensure that the final product is clearly organized and soundly written.

G. Remember the importance of clarity. The most profound ideas and painstaking work are wasted if you do not communicate your points clearly in writing. Avoid cumbersome or long-winded phrases; use orthodox spelling and punctuation; and be careful in your word choice.

H. Use writing guides. My personal favourite is William Strunk and E.B. White, The Elements of Style. Eschew a computer style program or a thesaurus in favour of a good dictionary. Never use a word unless you are certain of its exact meaning.


1. Overly personalized language.
"I feel that Keylor’s discussion of the First World War seemed very well done and appeared to be effective."
Change to:
"Keylor’s discussion of the First World War was effective."

2. Wordiness. Avoid redundant words and phrases: try to write as directly as possible.
"The rise and establishment of Fascism in Italy was caused by a combination and interaction of two very important dual factors which were operating at that time."
Change to:
"The rise of Fascism in Italy was caused by two important factors."

3. Reliance on the passive voice.
"The rise of Fascism in Italy was caused by two important factors."
Change to:
"Two important factors caused the rise of Fascism in Italy."

4. Sentence fragments or awkward structure. All sentences must have a subject and verb. Try to place the dependent clause at the beginning of a sentence and the emphasis at the end.
"The European security system collapsed. During the late 1930s this happened."
Change to:
"In the late 1930s the European security system collapsed."

5. Improper punctuation, often called a comma splice. Independent clauses cannot be separated only by a comma.
"Keylor’s analysis of the twentieth century was effective, he covered a wide range of historical events."
Change to:
"Keylor’s analysis of the twentieth century was effective; he covered a wide range of historical events."
Note: you can also place a conjunction, e.g. “and,” after the comma.

6. Improper verb tense. Avoid alternating verb tenses. Maintain subject-verb agreement. Avoid splitting the infinitive form, e.g. "to clearly assess"; change to "to assess clearly."

7. Colloquial language. Try not to write exactly the same way you speak. Avoid contractions, slang, and merged words, e.g. "can’t" or "allot"; change to "cannot" and "a lot."

8. Improper use of the possessive form. For example, "it’s" is often used incorrectly: "it's" means "it is"; "its" is the possessive form.

9. Inappropriate word choice. Avoid cumbersome words such as "put forth" or "validated."
"Smith feels that his view put forth that economic factors were important is validated by his work."
Change to:
"Smith stresses economic factors."

10. Dangling modifier. Make sure that the dependent clause relates directly to the subject of the independent clause.
"Having arrived late for practice, a written excuse was needed."
Change to:
"Having arrived late for practice, the player needed an excuse."

Unlike 1993, however, today there are literally hundreds of helpful (and free) writing resources available online. The ten different links provided above are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Closer to home, I urge you to consult the Department of History's style guide, and the Writing Centre.

Finally, a word of caution. While rules and conventions are important, they are not all-important. While I encourage you to read style guides, please do not make a fetish out of the arcane laws of grammar. And while you may have been told never to begin a sentence with "and," sometimes it's acceptable to flout convention in the name of style, though I still have a hard time ending a sentence with a preposition. Though writing should conform to common standards, it is, like all human activity, organic. Rules can sometimes be broken (I opened this paragraph with a sentence fragment), or they are, like split infinitives, sharply contested.

Good writing is not only clear but also engaging and creative. It has a voice, a rhythm, a tone. One of the best ways to improve your writing is to read good writers. My favourite academic writer is Louis Menand, whom we read at the beginning of the seminar. He writes with such a seemingly light touch that the reader hardly realizes that they are reading. Such effortless moments are, alas, as hard to write as they are easy to read.

Links Update:
Here is the web site that Shirley mentioned.

Speaking of Menand, his skewering of Lynne Truss is well worth reading.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

SSHRC Workshop

On Monday we will have our SSHRC workshop. Please take time before the seminar to review the material on the SSHRC web site. The first step to writing a successful application is following the guidelines properly, and we will spend the first hour of our workshop discussing SSHRC's application process.

The second step is writing an effective proposal. Successful SSHRC proposals are similar to successful MA thesis proposals, because both require that you adhere to what I would call the Three C's:
1) Clear. More than anything else, your proposal must be clear. You need to write in a direct, jargon-free style that engages the reader from the beginning and does not waste words. You will not get any credit for pretentiousness or purple prose.
2) Concise. Not only do you need to be as clear as possible, but you have only limited space to make your case. From the beginning of your preparations, try to work within the word limit imposed by the SSHRC forms.
3) Coherent. Your proposal must hang together as a single document that makes a unified argument. Just as you need to eschew wordiness, you need to avoid getting side-tracked with extraneous issues or tangents.

In addition to the Three C's, SSHRC notes that successful applications need to be complete and error-free, but this should be self-evident. In such a highly competitive process, even minor errors can make a difference. It goes without saying that you need to budget sufficient time for proof-reading and double-checking to ensure that there are no loose ends. Please remember to give your references sufficient time to prepare their assessments.

In terms of the content of your proposal, successful applications tend to follow what I would call the Three P's:
1) Problem-focused. Your proposal should be focused on a specific problem, which needs to be identified explicitly at beginning of your application. You then need to demonstrate how your research will address this specific problem.
2) Promise. Not only do you need to focus on a problem, but you must show that this is an interesting problem that merits funding. You need to demonstrate that your research proposal has considerable promise: it will engage with the extant literature and make a contribution to a field of study.
3) Practical. And while you're busy showing how much promise your project has, you also need to be careful to demonstrate that it's practical as well. You need to show that it's a doable project, rooted in a strong evidentiary basis and linked to accessible sources.

Links to additional online sources:
FGS web site on eligibility.
FGS information site on 2010 competition.
Information and advice from the Dean's Blog.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

7 Habits of Highly Effective Historians

Developing an effective research project requires a balance of flexibility and structure. You need to maintain a cohesive organization while remaining open to how new evidence (either from primary or secondary research) may force you to alter your hypothesis and your research plan. This can entail a delicate balance of trial-and-error and cost-benefits-analysis.

As you sift through evidence, develop questions, and tackle problems, you will be forced to make decisions at every stage of your research and writing. Some of these decisions will be so minor that you'll hardly be aware that you're making them, while others may produce gut-wrenching moments as you face a contradiction between your evidence and your theory. The unpredictability invariably produces stress and anxiety, particularly during the early and late stages of a project; but it can also produce wonderful moments of exhilaration. Making surprising discoveries may force you to dump your initial plan, but these moments can be the most enjoyable (and the most important) part of a historian's work.

The importance of keeping an open mind doesn't end there, however. Keeping an open mind is important also because you need to be keenly aware of the role of chance, contingency, and accident in history. At the heart of many historians' fallacies is the problem of determinism. Whether it's technological determinism, as Jill Lepore discussed in one of our earlier readings, or some other type of reductionism, the core error remains basically the same: the fallacy of imposing an inappropriate explanatory model that oversimplifies a historical phenomenon. But keep in mind that this error involves oversimplification, not simplification per se.

While historians have shied away from the problem of randomness, it has become a hot topic for social scientists and popular economists. In one way or another, the popular studies by Malcolm Gladwell, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, as well as Leonard Mlodinow all probe the question of chance. Is it more dangerous to have a backyard pool or a gun in your house? Can we assume that most behaviour is rational? Why does choice present so many problems for people?

Popular commentators often search for mono-causal explanations. Thus the global financial meltdown has been variously blamed on capitalist greed, hyper-optimism, overregulation, underregulation, Alan Greenspan, or simply inevitability. We know arguably more about the economic crisis than any other event in recent history: it has been thoroughly documented, hotly debated, theoretically dissected by hundreds of very smart people. Yet as John Cassidy shows in his incisive analysis, human folly may be incredibly complex, but it's still explainable. One could argue that his theory of "rational irrationality" is itself too reductionist, but it does offer a fresh way to understand the past.

And as we discussed on Monday, as much as it's important to be right, it's also important to be interesting. Making a contribution to scholarship demands risk. The hard part, of course, is deciding how much risk to take and how far you should push your ideas. At the core of any useful thesis is a degree of simplification. An argument that explains everything explains nothing. The challenge is to balance simplification with complexity, synthesis with detail, and evidence with theory.

While such challenges are daunting, David Hackett Fischer offers 7 rules of thumb for historians that might help you as you develop your research project. Here is a precis (they appear on pp. 62-63 of Historians' Fallacies):
1) Sound evidence consists in the establishment of a satisfactory relationship between the factum probandum, i.e., the proposition to the proved, and the factum probans, i.e., the material which is offered as proof. "A historian must not merely get the facts right. He [sic] must get the right facts right. From this simple rule of relevance may be deduced: historical evidence must be a direct answer to the question asked and not to some other question."
2) An historian must provide the best relevant evidence. "And the best relevant evidence, all things being equal, is the evidence which is most nearly immediate to the event itself....We shall call this the rule of immediacy."
3) Evidence must always be affirmative. "Negative evidence is a contradiction in terms -- it is no evidence at all."
4) The burden of positive proof always rests upon the historian. Not critics, readers, or anyone else. "Let us call this the rule of responsibility."
5) All inferences from empirical evidence are probabilistic. It is not enough to demonstrate that A was possible. A historian must determine the probability of A in relation to the probability of alternatives. "This is the rule of probability."
6) The meaning of any empirical statement depends on the context from which it is taken. "No historical statement-in-evidence floats freely outside time and space. None applies abstractly and universally." I would call this the rule of context.
7) An empirical statement must be no more precise than its evidence warrants. "We shall call this the rule of precision."

If the law of selection is the first law of history, then the burden of interpreting that law -- the task of deciding what to select -- is entirely yours. How well you make those decisions will shape how well you write your thesis. Those decisions should be made as part of a dialogue between yourself, your evidence, and the historiography -- or, put another way, between you, what your research turns up about a topic, and what other historians have said about that topic.

As Fischer points out, the real danger that you face is not that you'll delude your readers but that you will delude yourself.