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.


Shirley Tillotson said...

Most (perhaps all) of you are better than average, even very good writers already. You're probably able to avoid mistakes such as the it's/its confusion. If not, then your supervisor will be grateful if you get to work on polishing up those technical basics!!! Very grateful!!!

Probably all of you are now at the stage when you can start to think about using the nuances of sentence order to achieve subtle but powerful effects. If you want Churchillian (or Menandian) power (and lucidity and even charm) for your prose, you'll get it through attention to prose rhythm.

To master the sorts of effects that sentence order can produce, you need to be alert to the workings of sentence logic. And that, my friends, involves (to begin) knowing your modifiers from your conjunctions)! The grammar quizzes at the following site (esp. the cgi ones with the green bullets) are a pleasant way to test your sentence parsing skills.

If your parsing skills are strong, not only will you avoid grammar errors such as the dangling (or the misplaced) modifer, but you'll also have a richer repertoire of sentence ordering chops to choose among as you edit your first (and second and third) drafts.

Best wishes,


Ruth Bleasdale said...

I have been blackmailed into posting a Blog, but I do so cheerfully because I have a question. Do all theoretical approaches lend themselves equally to good writing? Can postmodernists, for example, write with clarity when their work, as described by Linda Hutcheon, "takes the form of self-conscious, self-contradictory, self-undermining statement"? I use postmodernism only because it is the theoretical approach for which a good quote comes readily to mind.

Anonymous said...

Another great writing resource is a book called 'A Passion for Narrative' by Jack Hodgins. It focuses on creative writing, but it challenges and develops writing skills beautifully in the process. - Angela-

Elspeth said...

I'm not sure if others will find this helpful, but Common Errors in English Usage by Paul Brians is a pretty good read. Also, it's free online:

James said...

I can't resist posting a link to my favourite essay about Strunk & White: "50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice"