A side. On Writing

25 Mar


For reasons about which I am still not entirely clear, I have signed on to a British group called Postgraduate Support, which ostensibly pays old profs and frustrated PhDs to help struggling PhD candidates write their papers. I think I’ve been feeling guilty about making no headway in finding research jobs to bring in a bit of money, and I was curious to see if these programs really generate business. I’ll let you know how it goes! Part of the application process required that I write a small blog about my experiences in academe, so I reworked the information I used to give my Australian students on how to write academic papers well. The company will probably reject this as stealing their thunder, but it made me remember how hard I tried to help students learn to write, and how often they despised me for it. So many of them resented the idea that they needed to LEARN how to write, that it wasn’t just a matter of putting down their feelings and whatever came out of their heads. And to suggest that they read Strunk and White’s Elements of Style just baffled some of them. I do know, however, that the better ones took this advice to heart, and I hope learned to be better writers because of it. (I am STILL convinced that if you follow Strunk and White, you cannot fail to write well….)

The photo above is me signing books at one of my lectures, I think at the California State Library.  It was one of the only photos I could find of me in action as an academic!

So here’s what I wrote:


When I was in high school in suburban California so many years ago, the public educational system in the state was still one of the best in the country. Instructional emphasis was on learning to think, to read critically and, most importantly, to write clearly and coherently. My 11th-grade English teacher had us write an essay every week; he marked up every one, pointing out grammatical errors and compositional problems (he once wrote “TRITE!” across my entire paper), but he also praised our ideas when they were well articulated. He even read the best ones on a local radio program, and explained why they were well-written essays.

This early training in how to express ideas in clear sentences and with fluid transitions has served me better than anything else I have learned in all the succeeding years of college and post-graduate experience. In my many years of teaching–on whatever subject, at whatever level, and in whatever country–I adhered to the principle that my job as the instructor was to help students learn to write well. I took this task very seriously. Many students were impatient about all those red marks on their papers–“This is a class in art history, why do I need to worry about commas and declarative sentences?” they would say–but I hope that some of them took these comments and this guidance to heart and applied it to all their subsequent efforts to write. These methods are appropriate to ALL writing, not just topics in the humanities: I have helped scientists write their papers, applying these principles to topics about which I understood not a word.

So I present here some simple steps that, if followed, will lead to clear, concise writing. Some would consider this guidance as old-fashioned, but these suggestions will not fail in producing better prose.

  1. Whenever possible, write simple, declarative sentences. More complicated sentence structure can intermingle nicely with these short ones.
  2. Avoid the passive voice. ‘There are’ and ‘it is’ are not strong ways to start sentences.
  3. Avoid contractions, e.g., ‘isn’t,’ ‘can’t’, in formal essays. Contractions can work well in journalistic or personal writing, but not in academic papers.
  4. Tell me what you’re going to tell me, tell me, then tell me what you told me. The grand man of my graduate department, a famous British scholar, used this very phrase to explain how one organizes ideas in a paper: have an introduction, main body of the text, and a conclusion.. This advice is as applicable to a short essay as it is to a thesis.
  5. Avoid using ‘it seems’, ‘perhaps’, and especially ‘I think.’ Just state the argument! This is your writing and the reader knows what you are writing is what you think. State your arguments as confidently as possible. ‘It seems’ , etc., is just a waste of words.
  6.  Work on smooth transitions between your ideas when you write: how does the last sentence you wrote relate to the next one? How does the last sentence of the paragraph relate to the first sentence of the next paragraph? I call this process ‘transitional substantiation.’

Simple, no? It sometimes takes years to perfect the application of these “rules”, but the results are worth it, to you and to the reader of your work.

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