A good writing book

Somewhat by default, I’ve been assigned to teach our graduate course “Writing for Interactive Media.” A big piece of this is figuring out how the web is different as a genre, and in fact, a lot of this will be writing for different goals (a short presentation, an interview, a video piece, an audio piece, etc.). But the other piece will be trying to improve our students’ writing ability across the board. Those of you who are frequent readers of my blog may find me an odd choice for this task, and I would have to agree. Some of our students have been writing professionally for nearly as long as I have been alive, and while I hope I can improve their writing–particularly in unfamiliar venues–I suspect I’ll be relying on them to help me help other students who are more in need of improvement.

As a result of this process, I’ve been trying to decide what (if any) book to use. My normal assignment in introductory courses is Strunk & White, and it may end up being so again this time. But I’m going to take a closer look at On Writing Well as an alternative.

This is after considering Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace by Joseph Williams. The book is widely acclaimed, and I could see why. Many of the issues addressed (or, rather “he addresses” :) ) would be familiar to those of us who read a lot of student work. But then I started reading his “corrections” of existing academic work, and got a bit worried.

One of his examples draws from Talcott Parsons, a sociologist celebrated as much for his terse and verbose style as for his role in establishing functional structuralism as the dominant paradigm in the middle of the last century. Williams suggests that there is no need for the complexity. He takes this passage from Parsons:

Apart from theoretical conceptualization there would appear to be no method of selecting among the indefinite number of varying kinds of factual observation which can be made about a concrete phenomenon or field so that the various descriptive statements about it articulate into a coherent whole, which constitutes an “adequate,” a “determinate” description. Adequacy in description is secured in so far as determinate and verifiable answers can be given to all the scientifically important questions involved. What questions are important is largely determined by the logical structure of the generalized conceptual scheme which, implicitly or explicitly, is employed.

Mostly in the context of a discussion of subjects and active/passive verbs, he changes this to the much clearer:

If scientists have no theory, they have no way to select from among everything they could say about something only that which would fit into a coherent whole, a whole that would be “adequate” or “determinate.” Scientists describe something “adequately” only when they can verify answers to questions that they think are important. They decide what questions are important on the basis of the theories that they implicitly or explicitly use.

Now, I am far from an expert on Parons’s thought, but this seems to me to be a wholly inaccurate paraphrasing of the original paragraph. Williams has taken “varying kinds of factual observation” and rephrased it as “everything they could say about something.” Less jargon? Of course. But it also means two different things. “Kinds of observation” have little to do with “ways of saying.” Moreover, Williams collapses “theoretical conceptualization” with “theory.” The two, I suspect, were not the same thing for Parsons. Likewise “generalized conceptual scheme” is not the same thing as “theory.” In a work of sociological theory, conflating the two is highly suspect.

While we’re at it “scientifically important” is not the same is “what they [scientists] think are important.” Sure, we could enter into a debate over whether they may be the same (i.e., there is no ideal of “scientific importance” beyond that which is agreed upon by the plurality of scientists), but I doubt this is what Parsons is intending to suggest.

Williams goes on to rephrase it further:

To describe something so that you can fit it into a whole, you need a theory. When you ask a question, you need a theory to verify your answer. Your theory even determines your question.

This is pablum. If a grad, or even an undergrad, wrote the above in a basic theory class, I’d fail them on the spot. I’ll admit, Parsons did not write in a way that was particularly comprehensible. But you don’t “fix” that by tossing out the meaning of whole phrases, and “dumbing down” the material. This is precisely why it’s frustrating when students read Spark Notes. Williams concludes that

The simplest version may omit some of the nuances. But Parson’s excruciating style must numb all but his most masochistically dedicated readers.

He’s right, it does. But at least there is some implication that there is a there there, that Parsons has something to say. No copy editor would keep his job if he suggested changing the first version to the last. This is more than moving away from passive verbs, it’s stripping the paragraph of its meaning.

I continue, hoping that this was merely a brief lapse. But no, in the very next section, Williams suggests that a better version of

Early childhood thought disorder misdiagnosis often occurs as a result of unfamiliarity with recent research literature describing such conditions.

would be

Physicians are misdiagnosing disordered thought in young children because they are not familiar with the literature on recent research.

The idea here is that noun chains should be broken up. Again, if I read this in a paper from a student, I would assume it was written by a non-native speaker. I am not a doctor, but I suspect that “early childhood thought disorder” is a term of art. It doesn’t actually mean “disordered thought,” but rather the alternative meaning of disorder: that is, according to OED “a disruption of normal physical or mental functions.” I am shocked that anyone could confuse the meaning so thoroughly. Sure, pull misdiagnosis out of that long phrase, but don’t make the sentence incomprehensible to its target audience. Likewise “research literature” is fine. If you have to fix it, remove “research” or “literature” rather than changing it to the awkward “literature on recent research.”

So, in case the above does not make this clear, I cannot assign this book to my students. If you have better suggestions, please let me know.

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4 Comments

  1. drumdiva
    Posted 4/6/2009 at 10:59 am | Permalink

    I wish I had waited to take this course – it totally sucked last semester. I don’t think we wrote more than 1000 words the entire semester.

  2. Posted 4/8/2009 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    No writing book is perfect of course, but I have to say I’ve been teaching the Williams book for years now, and it is pretty much the best style book I know of. Mind you, I am using it in a 300-level course, I am asking students to read it critically and interpretively, and taking issue with it the way you have here is, IMO, perfectly acceptable. You’d probably get an A in that assignment. But if you think that either Strunk and White or Zinser would be a better alternative, well, I beg to disagree.

    BTW, if you are curious about the course I am teaching– which does involve some of the kind of “multimedia” sort of stuff that might be part of this class, check out http://engl328.stevendkrause.com. Or drop me an email.

    Since you asked for other suggestions, here are three, two of which are really just guesses based on what very little I know about the books and what I’m merely guessing about this class:

    * Maybe you want something that is more specific to the field as opposed to some sort of general audience style guide. For example, I for some reason have a copy of a book by Anthony Friedmann called Writing for Visual Media. On the one hand, it looks like it has lots of good advice; on the other hand, it also looks like it’s more about writing scripts, PSAs, etc. That’s wild guess #1.

    * You might want to check out Richard Lanham’s Analyzing Prose. This is another “wild guess” simply because I haven’t read this book thoroughly yet, but Lanham is a VERY smart thinker and writer, and if you are looking for something that has graduate-level sophistication, this might be it. Writing this now makes me think in terms of “if I were to revise my course and pick a different style book….”

    * Finally– and this is something I know about– it might be most useful to actually assign a couple of these different books and have students make comparisons. I assign S&W and Williams in this 328 class I teach because I very intently want students to see that what constitutes “good writing” and “good style” is fluid, changing, debatable, culturally-based, purpose-driven, a moving target, and, well, really hard.

  3. alex
    Posted 4/8/2009 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    Steven:

    Thanks so much! This is a great resource, especially for someone who is new to teaching writing. I am especially happy to see the wikied style guide–an approach I was considering–seems to work well.

    – Alex

  4. Posted 4/19/2009 at 7:31 am | Permalink

    I’d also recommend as a secondary book looking into “Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose” by Constance Hale. Less about any specific writing style, she advocates learning the grammatical and style ‘rules’ and then deciding when and how to break them for maximum effect. It’s been a bit since I’ve worked through the book, but I loved it when I did. It was a more playful approach than any of the established ‘style guides’ were.

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