Teaching writing to college students

January 4, 2023 • 10:15 am

The essay below in The Chronicle of Higher Education (click screenshot below to read) is a beef about the poor quality of writing turned out by University of Chicago students, and about the futile efforts of the university’s Writing Program to improve student prose. It’s written by Blake Smith, identified as “a Fulbright Scholar in North Macedonia,” and someone who found, in teaching a “core” class for undergraduates, found that his students didn’t write at all well. I too experienced a lot of bad writing teaching undergraduates, as most of my exam questions were thought questions, short essays, and stuff that required writing. On the other hand, a science teacher isn’t looking for scintillating prose in such answers, so I never bothered to correct the English. But it was just as bad on the lab reports, and it was up to the teaching assistants (t.a.s) to correct writing if they wished.

Blake discovered his own problem quickly:

I think this is true in general, though I have no idea whether the ability of college students to write has decreased over the years.

If you’re a science major, you’re almost never given the chance to have your writing vetted, and it’s even worse of you get a science degree from a foreign university that requires almost no non-science courses your degree.

The result was that some of our grad students, though smart as whips, couldn’t turn out readable prose, which is definitely a skill you need as an academic, especially for writing grant proposals. Scientific papers are expected to be turgid, though I’ve always tried to emphasize that they don’t have to be, and if you want someone to read your papers you should write them in an engaging manner. Doug Futuyma and David Sloan Wilson are my exemplars of people who know how to write a science paper.

Decent writing, though not stylish prose, is also required when writing grant proposals, for if you don’t describe clearly what you’re going to do and why, but muddy up the whole thing with jargon, you reduce your chances of being funded. I therefore decided to teach a one-quarter class to the ecology and evolution students about how to write well and clearly.

It was a miserable failure, mainly because I didn’t know how to teach writing! I learned to write tolerably well not by taking formal courses, but by reading, and figuring out why I liked something.  There are sources of advice for good writing (I recommend Orwell’s Essay “Politics and the English Language” (free online) and especially Steve Pinker’s recent book A Sense of Style, which didn’t get much publicity), but if you teach yourself, as I did, then you don’t really know learn to teach others. I imagine it would be very hard to teach good writing unless you’re starting with people who’s pretty good at the outset. By the time you get to college, you’ve already developed the ability to write decently or poorly.

Anyway, below Smith’s beef. I’ll give a few quotes, but the thing that surprised me was that how poorly written his own essay was, especially for one who assesses writing.

Now a lot of the essay is just a critique of the U of C’s writing program, and I know little about it. I’ll just give his words, whose are grouped into paragraphs that I see as rather clumsy:

To find out why the lauded writing and core programs were failing students, I acquired the course materials for HUMA 5000, “Pedagogies of Writing,” the course in which graduate students learn to become tutors for the writing-intensive core class for freshmen. I was appalled at what I read. The course was organized around graduate students’ acquisition of a bespoke jargon for analyzing undergraduates’ writing. Would-be writing instructors learned that a paper is a means of expressing a “point” through stages of argumentation — “stasis,” “destabilization,” “grounds,” “reasoning,” “warrant,” etc. They were trained to read introductions (called “indexes” in the course material) for keywords (“themes”) that could then be tracked throughout the rest of the paper (following “lexical strings”). A good paper, they were told, has strong themes presented upfront to prepare readers for the trajectory of its argument — or, as the writing center gracefully put it, “In our sessions, we have diagnosed coherence based upon the presence or absence of strings of repeated themes.” Undergraduate writers might, if they dared, choose not to front-end their themes, but one should warn them that “deconstructing the logos — opening space for the play of the signifier — is likely to make prose harder to read.”

Although its longtime head eschews “rules,” Chicago’s writing center puts between writers and writing an opaque mesh of neologisms, injunctions, and its own shoddy prose. It is as if the sort of advice that could be usefully given by writing tutors were embarrassingly simple and unintellectual, and needed, for the sake of the self-esteem of those running the center, to be converted into a proprietary brand of pseudo-learned nonsense. The most helpful comments I received on my writing over the course of my education were the apparently simple, even crude, comments of my graduate adviser, who punctuated my cumbersome drafts with remarks like “huh?” and “be clearer!” These do not “sound smart” or appeal to any loftier principle than a common understanding of ordinary English; their authority rests not on a set of concepts about the function of “lexical strings” or “warrant” but on the recipient’s belief that the person who says them is, in her own right, a writer.

Many of the instructors working at or trained by the writing center are not writers in this sense. They have never, perhaps, written anything that anyone has ever read for pleasure. Even if they have, their authority in the classroom does not rest on this work, which they do not show students.

. . . Much of what passes for scholarship in venues like The Writing Center Journal in recent years consists of appeals to transform the supposedly oppressive writing center into a site of radical contestation, either conceived in racialized or anti-capitalist terms. It is as though instructors at writing centers, chafing at their low status within their institutions and fields, and resenting that they are often called upon to bring students up to speed rather than to do what is perceived as more serious intellectual work, try to give some gravitas to their positions by charging the simple but difficult work of writing with a complicated new conceptual vocabulary or pompous assertions of their own social importance. As Anne Ellen Geller and Harry Denny explain, writing-center administrators find themselves “on the outside of academic culture looking in, yearning to contribute and complicate conversations.” At the University of Chicago, certainly, they have managed to complicate.

Again, I can’t say whether what Smith says is true. But did you notice that his own essay isn’t exactly a model of clarity and engaging prose?

Anyway, Smith found that the best thing he did was pass around one of his own essays to students and ask them to identify the good bits and the bad ones. And, I suppose, that’s the way one should teach writing: by giving students examples of good and bad prose and let them figure out, with guidance, how to separate the wheat from the chaff.

I’ll close by saying that students these days do need to be taught how to write, as it’s a skill you can use throughout your life, but they don’t seem to be getting that expertise. Here’s Smith’s last sentence, which I present not because it says something profound, but because it is not good writing:

Nor does it matter whether an instructor is himself a good writer, or how he understands the relationship between writing and thinking in his own work. The individuality of style, as a pursuit of the beautiful at once personal and public, and the individuality of the instructor as writer, with his own fraught, anxious, and only ever occasionally easy or triumphant relationship to writing, are effaced. To teach and to learn how to write, instead of being an intense relationship of imitation, critique, and emulation directed toward admired writers and texts, becomes instead a technical process of “diagnosing coherence based upon the presence or absence of strings of repeated themes.” From the simple truth that to teach writing one must be oneself a writer — one with the time and institutional incentives to care about students’ writing — thickening networks of pseudo-experts try to avert our collective attention.

There are too many long sentences and big words, as well as jumbled phrases (what is a “thickening network”?). As Orwell said in the essay cited above:

Bad writers, and especially scientific, political and sociological writers, are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones, and unnecessary words like expediteamelioratepredictextraneousderacinatedclandestinesub-aqueous and hundreds of others constantly gain ground from their Anglo-Saxon opposite numbers.

On beyond zebra!

h/t: Anna

59 thoughts on “Teaching writing to college students

  1. Reading one’s writing aloud – and to someone – is one way (dare I say fast or enlightening) to help – as of the “proof-reading” process to “proof-read-out-loud” – which of course doesn’t go down well in the library, or other gardens for concentration.

    Example : I was stuck and lost on some writing once, I talked to someone, and they said “well why don’t you just write exactly what you just told me?”

    It worked, IMHO.

    ‘Course math exists for a reason – concise precision when writing it all out would take up so many pages.

  2. Try convincing students they can’t write decent English prose. Try giving same a ‘C’ or a ‘D’ because they can’t. The parents will helicopter down to campus, the dean or provost will call you in. And the students themselves will point to the ‘A’ they got in creative writing and the poems published in the college literary magazine. Verdict: it’s your fault, prof.

    1. And the students themselves will point to the ‘A’ they got in creative writing and the poems published in the college literary magazine.

      Surely the (most) valid test of the effectiveness of one’s writing would be the words “Second Edition” on the cover of at least one of your books.
      “The market is always right!” – no?
      Everyone else … your writing quality is untested.
      Would getting your poetry republished (an anthology, perhaps?) from the school’s paper redistribution device into a commercial publication count as validation? Debatable – they can have a lot of column-inch filler too.

    2. Universities do not put the appropriate amount of $$$ into their English Departments to offer students the classes they need to get to a college-level of penmanship. There have been major sacrifices made in the IU system. When I started as an Undergrad in 2016, you either came into college with your writing and inquiry requirement fulfilled through dual-credits, or got placed in W131 (College-Level Writing) or W130 (Remedial). In the last few years at my campus in particular, a lot of the incoming freshmen came to campus after spending two years of being forced into dual-credit classes during the pandemic because those were the only classes our local schools had designed to be hybrid. I am sure profs and writing center consultants dealt with the consequences of those decisions during the last few years.

      If you didn’t already have your dual-credit, then your lumped into a class (W131, which the student is not ready for) of 40-50 students with a professor who barely had the ambition to help build better writers when they only had class sizes of 15-20. W131 is one of the first core requirements you must fill in any degree you obtain from the university, yet according to faculty more than 50% of students either dropped the course or quit attending entirely.

  3. Years ago, I met a writer who taught a class at Portland State University called English for Engineers. Basically, it was to teach engineering students how to write in understandable English. Having spent most of my working life in a company engineer-heavy, I can attest her class was necessary.

    1. As an engineer, I can vouch for this. My colleagues are very smart, but most of them struggle to write coherent, grammatically correct (or even approximately correct) English. They are probably better engineers than me, though, because while I spent my youth doing a lot of reading for enjoyment (which is why I can string a sentence together) they were tinkering with things.

      1. If you really want to distinguish yourself from your engineering colleagues, Dean, you may want to change the opening clause of your last sentence to “They are probably better engineers than I …” The nominative case pronoun is appropriate since it serves as the subject of the implied verb “am.” 🙂

  4. By coincidence, last night I started reading Benjamin Dreyer’s book Dreyer’s English (a self-proclaimed “Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style”). Dreyer has spent decades as a copy editor for Random House and writes in a witty and humorous way (his footnotes are very amusing).

    It’s a bit too early to judge the book yet, but so far it seems to be an interesting take on how to write better prose. (For what it’s worth, I’m reading the British English “translation”; it was first published in an edition aimed at American English readers.)

  5. Well, of course, you need to be able to read in order to write, and you need to read good writing in order to write well, and all of this should happen before you get to college–ideally before you get to high-school. It doesn’t seem like reading and writing are key focuses of grade-school (or high-school) anymore. When schools are passing people who read at the 17% percentile, we should hardly be surprised. If I wind up looking for a job again, I will least my major skills as reading and writing. In the land of the blind man. . . .

  6. I could write volumes on the subject, having been involved intensively with student writing at two different institutions (Univ of South Florida and Miami Ohio), but I will limit my comments to two. First, one of the great experiences for me was working with two folks from the English Department at USF – one faculty member and one grad student – to design and provide constructive feedback on student science writing. Second, at Miami we have a well endowed writing center and a liberal studies core that has writing at its core. I saw results in my Genetics and Evolution classes – most writing was at least readable and often outstanding. But the key is, I think, “process writing” – in human terms, writing with revision.

  7. When I corrected my Math students’ writing, they often complained “This isn’t English class!” When I told them they could rewrite it in French, they usually shut up. I’m worried that it is a lost cause. There is very little correcting of even spelling and grammar allowed in high schools, let alone diction.

  8. The internet is full of people that believe that their opinion –in the form of a punctuation-free word salad– is just as valid as anyone else’s, and that only pedants or grammar nazis care about punctuation, sentence structure, or coherence. This is the environment today’s college students grew up in. Is it any wonder that their writing is atrocious?

  9. This problem is widespread and closely connected to poor reading skills, which have dropped significantly in recent decades. I’ve come to believe that poor performance on exams (written response and/or multiple choice) is due low reading comprehension. Students can’t form good answers because they do not understand the question.

  10. I agree reading good papers/books is a good guide. I can’t imagine attending a course on writing. Instead get someone to scribble all over your draft.

    I tell my physics students a few things.

    – You don’t get marks for elegance, you get marks for clarity.

    – Fiercely analyse each sentence. Is it 100% unambiguous and does it say everything you want it to say and nothing else.

    – Avoid the temptation to try and sound clever. Instead help the reader. Don’t make the reader do mental gymnastics. You don’t get bonus points for aphorisms.

    – Don’t be scared to write sentences that sound simple, if they help make things clear. Simple does not equal dumb. Short sentences are usually better than long ones.

    – Above all try to put yourself in the position of the reader, who wants to learn. Don’t overestimate their knowledge – you probably know your topic better than they do.

    – Good structure for a paper is crucial. Theory belongs only in the theory section, results only in the results section etc.

    – The whole document should preferably have a logical flow, one thing leading to another.

    I used to dip into some Jane Austen before starting to write a paper to get me into the right frame of mind! I haven’t analysed her style and it certainly wouldn’t follow the above rules, but it is clear.

    Strangely I don’t find Pinker’s writing all that clear. Many of his sentences are unnecessarily difficult.

  11. This youtube video from UChicago helped me write my graduate thesis. It is a class for faculty taught by Larry McEnerney, the Director of the university’s writing program.


    I’m very interested to hear if others think this could be helpful. The class is long but there are timestamps and here are a few to get started:

    3:30 Class for faculty
    3:55 The problem that experts have
    6:50 The challenge
    10:35 How writing your journal article, grant request is different

  12. There is an artificial intelligence ‘bot’ which will generate remarkable writing in response to a request. It is called ChatGPT.
    you can sign up to use it here https://openai.com/blog/chatgpt/
    Here is an article describing what it is
    In addition to caveats, the article gives some hilarious examples, including this – where the bot is asked to write a biblical verse in the style of the king james bible explaining how to remove a peanut butter sandwich from a VCR
    here is the response:

    And it came to pass that a man was troubled by a peanut butter sandwich, for it had been placed within his VCR, and he knew not how to remove it.

    And he cried out to the Lord, saying, “Oh, Lord, how can | remove this sandwich from my VCR, for it is stuck fast and will not budge?”

    And the Lord spoke unto him, saying, “Fear not, my child, for | shall guide thy hand and show thee the way. Take thy butter knife, and carefully insert it between the sandwich and the VCR, and gently pry them apart. And with patience and perseverance, the sandwich shall be removed, and thy VCR shall be saved.”

    And the man did as the Lord commanded, and lo and behold, the sandwich was removed from the VCR, and the man was saved.

    And the Lord said, “Verily | say unto thee, seek not to put thy peanut butter sandwiches in thy VCR, for it is not a suitable place for such things. Rather, keep thy sandwiches in thy refrigerator or on thy plate, where they belong.”

    And the man heeded the Lord’s words, and from that day forth, he kept his sandwiches in their proper place, and was saved from trouble and woe. Amen.

    1. Yes that!

      I read a sample once, it is remarkable!

      I think it is an Elon Musk company.

      I wonder sometimes if some comments here were calculated with artificial intelligence, or machine learning.

      1. Interesting, but does it do more than someone who knows nothing about the subject but is experienced with Google could do?

        Reminds me of the “tell me about the Egyptians” scene in The Catcher in the Rye.

        1. Yes, apparently it does surpass simple googling, in that it composes the gathered information in complete essays, with prose that can be quite appealing

          1. OK. However, there have been “paper generators” around for a long time: give it a title, and it will compose a spoof scientific paper, complete with references and so on, which superficially looks OK but actually has no non-trivial meaningful content.

          2. There have long been companies that have ghost writers do will write for students, and they are apparently quite adequate and not that expensive.

    2. It is called ChatGPT.

      I’ve heard a lot about that recently.

      ThyroidPlanet :I think it is an Elon Musk company.

      .. and that would explain why I’m hearing a lot about it. Desperate self-publicist with a $44*10^9 hangover.
      I’ve also, recently, heard references to a ChatGPT-detection tool with a high success rate. But I heard of that on a Musk-owned platform, so I would expect it to become a banned term pretty quickly. Robust asbestos snowflake that he is known to be, without any large financial hangover.
      Sorry, I didn’t notice the ChatGPT detection tool’s name. The topic seemed important to the “SF author” part of my feed, less so to the “geologist, mineralogist and mountaineer” part.

      1. Elon Musk’s only involvement in OpenAI (the platform that ChatGPT is designed on and offered through) is financial backing with other investors Peter Thiel and Reid Hoffman (Co-founder of LinkedIn). If he knows what ChatGPT is, he likely has very little-to-no involvement.

  13. Far beyond the limited subject of writing instruction, Smith perfectly captures the verbiage of grievance studies programs in noting that they “try to give some gravitas to their positions by charging the simple but difficult work of writing with a complicated new conceptual vocabulary or pompous assertions of their own social importance.” In fact, I suggest that the grievance studies industry takes bad scientific writing (e.g.,
    complicated vocabularies, arcane words, and clumsy use of the passive voice) as its
    chosen model of academic writing. Talk about Physics envy!

  14. When I was a child (mid 90s-early 2000s) the state writing exam was equally as important as the reading and math exams, at least in terms of how much time we spent practicing. The writing exam was done away with by high school. Now I teach. We are judged on how well our students can respond to multiple choice questions based on short passages. Guess the consequences.

  15. Your friendly neighborhood cybrarian wishes to recommend the following:
    Strunk & White, The Elements of Style
    Jacques Barzun, Simple & Direct
    Stephen King, On Writing

  16. Years ago there was a NY Daily News headline on an article that read: “Homelessness, literarcy (sic) targeted”. There are many reasons for the abominable English today and they are cumulative, not recent: 1)reduced reading; 2) refusal of readers, the public, commenters , etc. to correct mistakes; 3)abominable habit of texters to abbreviate words and also to leave words out (especially pronouns); 4)
    lack of high school reading and writing standards; 5)high schools not failing poor students; 6)high schools granting diplomas to students who can’t write properly and colleges accepting illiterate students and bad writers;
    7) acceptance by businesses and professions of poor grammar when not directly related to their work; 8)apathy of public to bad writing, spelling and grammar; 9:good writing not considered important; 9)the internet, which gives access and prominence to morons; 10) criteria for individual excellence narrowly limited to superficial accomplishments such as fashion,, sports, business deals, appearance, etc. (general anti-intellectualism across almost all levels of society, including journalism).11)texting and email replacing written correspondence.

    1. Lorna, you have two 9s in your list, which I underscore in its entirety. I would double underscore your second 9.

  17. When I was a postdoc, I received an email with the heading “Winter postdoc science writing course”. According to the email, we would learn constructions to avoid, such as noun stacks. I had never heard of a noun stack so I looked it up: it turns out that a good example is “winter postdoc science writing course”!

    1. That may have been a tongue-in-cheek joke.

      Like when teachers mispell words to see see if anyone is paying attention.

  18. I just finished teaching a writing course to ecology and evolution graduate students here at the University of Minnesota. I wholeheartedly recommend the text we used, Stephen Heard’s The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, now in its 2nd edition. It has sections on writing behavior (how do you discipline yourself to write?), style, the parts of a scientific paper — it was really helpful and accessible. Steve’s blog, Scientist Sees Squirrel, often has interesting entries about writing, too.

  19. “If you’re a science major, you’re almost never given the chance to have your writing vetted, and it’s even worse of you get a science degree from a foreign university that requires almost no non-science courses your degree.”

    Do you have any evidence to support your assertion that science/maths/engineering students at non-American universities are less literate in their own native languages because they aren’t required to take non-science courses?

    1. I second that.
      Re-reading the quoted sentence though, I would say that it is true of french geology degrees (and by extension most of the scientific degrees), but only in the sense that our curriculae only contained science related topics, from statistics, to chemistry to biology and of course the specifics of geology. So covering a wide variety of science topics. It would be entirely free of poetry, history etc. Some philosophy of science was present, but not much.
      However, as far as I recall, our writing was also judged on the quality and clarity of these essays. Considering the general fondness of french schools for essays, we wrote an awful lot. It had to make sense, in french at least.
      In the UK, it seems that the curriculae focused more on the topic studied, so you would only have a passing glance at statistics for instance and an emphasis on a tickbox exercise… At least the master students that we interview, consistently fail to write properly. I find that it goes hand in hand with a failure to think and conceptualise.

      I am not sure that “foreign schools” do worse than american ones, but I’d wager a chocolate bar that the litteracy of their student is at least on par, or better, in both their respective language and english.

      This is from personal experience, so the usual caveats apply (and university was 15 years ago too)…

      1. french geology degrees

        [SELF : wakes up.]

        our curriculae only contained science related topics, from statistics, to chemistry to biology and of course the specifics of geology.

        What – you mean that beyond the requirements of the Faculty (which normally you’d satisfy in first year, if not pre-university), department (Geology, for me) and course (Geology and Mineralogy), the curriculum is set? By someone other than the student (in consultation with their extra-departmental Advisor of Studies)

        It would be entirely free of poetry, history etc.

        Well, yes, but I’d been ignoring them for 3 years before filling out my university application form – and ignored them for another year between doing the form and getting my exam results and choosing my university. I was thoroughly experienced in ignoring subjects like that before going to university.

        Some philosophy of science was present,

        Yes, I considered that, but neither course (the Science Faculty one nor the Humanities one) was possible because both clashed with Soil Science. Oh well, big loss.

        In the UK, it seems that the curriculae focused more on the topic studied

        That may be true for the English system – I chose to not enter it – but it’s definitely not true for the Scottish system. I can’t comment on the Welsh or Northern Irish systems.
        “United” Kingdom? Do you, by any chance, believe the claims in advertising billboards too?

    2. and it’s even worse of you get a science degree from a foreign university that requires almost no non-science courses your degree.”

      What about foreign universities that require science graduates to have impeccable written Urdu, Pashtun, Russian or Navajo, but for other foreign languages (Suomi through English) they accept normal levels of competence.

  20. Many years ago, one reviewer of a manuscript I submitted to a journal wrote: “This paper is very well and vividly written, and not appropriate for the Journal of [X]”. Despite that review, I was able to get the manuscript accepted. It dealt with the adaptation of bacteria to a poorer growth medium, familiarly termed “downshift”, and I slipped through a reference to the old blues lyric “down so long, looks like up to me”.

  21. Since I first came across Jerry’s writing, the book WEIT, I thought that the clarity of his writing, how easy it is to read, was at least as important in making it appealing as the knowledge he was conveying with it. My own writing tends to be too wordy with too many complicated constructions. Reading Jerry’s writing inspired me to try and be more mindful about editing and simplifying (dekludging?) my own writing.

    The most effective tool I’m aware of to improve one’s writing is to reread what you’ve written. Better yet, leave it sit for a day and then carefully reread it. At least, that seems to work very well for me. At least, whenever I actually take the time to do it.

  22. As our host is aware, I spent some 18 years teaching writing to research scientists in the health care field and, with the aid of a grant from the National Library of Medicine, wrote a book called “Vital Signs: the Prose of Science and the Practice of Medicine.” (I use quotes rather than italics because the book was never published.)

    The research scientists I taught used to complain that they were never taught how to write, to which my reply was always “Of course you were taught how to write; no one writes that way naturally.” The overall point of the book was that scientific writing, which claims to eschew rhetoric, is, in fact, rhetorically designed to create the impression of objectivity through the use of nouns over verbs and passive verbs over active ones, to the point of trying to eliminate any sense of agency—i.e., of live, fallible persons doing the research or the writing.

    I may be wrong, but my sense is that medical schools have since made an effort to improve this situation.

  23. I am a professional science writer (at least I was until I went into management). I freely admit I’m not an ELA major for a reason and I have a team of editors to prevent me from looking like an idiot. But I review thousands of pieces of writing a year.

    There is nothing like instant feedback to help learn how to write. Even writing a paper and getting it back a few weeks later covered in red ink doesn’t really work. If it’s already graded, then no one is going to look at notes, just the grade. But having to stand there while someone takes a red pen to your writing is very effective, especially when obvious common patterns emerge (like my tendency to put asides in parentheses).

    Specific feedback is very important. “Stop capitalizing every single noun.” “Every sentence needs a verb.” Questions like “What are you trying to say?” are useful too.

  24. Years ago, a colleague in my department won a pretty big award for teaching at our university. This was announced in the campus newspaper, and each awardee was recognized by a note written by one of their students. Next to her entry was an awardee who taught a creative writing class, and what was really funny was that the student note for her could have been a contender for a bad writing contest!

  25. I’m sure this post will get lots of commentary, as everyone here is an expert on writing. 🙂

    My undergraduate students (in the 1980’s and 1990’s) were pretty bad writers. Graduate students were generally much better. In the first undergraduate classes I taught, I naively included essay questions on exams—along with multiple choice. But I gave that up quickly in frustration, moving entirely to multiple choice and doing nothing to solve the problem.

    In my experience, students behave as if writing is supposed to be different from speaking. Too many of them try to write florid prose, like the prose they’ve read in English classes. They’re not good at it. The best were those who wrote simple declarative sentences, much the same as when they spoke. In my view, good writing is a bit different than good speaking, but not that much different. I wonder if writing teachers teach a style that is too much like great literature, leaving poor writers in their wakes.

  26. This thread is mostly about science writing, and no surprise. But clarity in writing is essential whatever your discipline.

    Our host quotes George Orwell, and references Pinker’s ‘Sense of Style’. Another recent book is Oliver Kamm’s ‘Accidence Will Happen’, which covers much the same ground as (and largely agrees with) Pinker.

    When I first joined the UK Civil Service, it was suggested that I might look at ‘Plain Words’, by the distinguished former Civil Servant Sir Ernest Gowers, first written in 1948 as a guide to official writing. It has been revised several times since, most recently (AFAIK) in 2014. It is erudite, accessible, down-to-earth and, importantly, very funny.

    If anyone really cares about writing clear prose that can be understood by their readers, be they scientists, officials, or even humanities graduates, I recommend they read Gowers, Pinker or Kamm.

  27. Thanks for the compliment, Jerry. Here’s my advice: read and then reread (as often as needed) Strunk and White, The Elements of Style. Still good after all these decades.

  28. ‘The most helpful comments I received on my writing over the course of my education were the apparently simple, even crude, comments of my graduate adviser, who punctuated my cumbersome drafts with remarks like “huh?” and “be clearer!”’

    I don’t see anything clarifying and helpful about “huh?” (re: “Whut?”) and “Be clearer!” Why didn’t the graduate adviser write in the margin a specific sample alternative locution? Perhaps it was too inconvenient. It is a lot of trouble, eh? Perhaps he thought he did not owe that consideration.

    In the late 70’s I took two quarters of a Renaissance and Reformation class from a noted scholar of Luther, whom the professor covered as well as Erasmus, Machiavelli and other luminaries of that period.

    A couple of Mondays he reflected to the class on having a beer and grading our papers over the previous weekend. While a few of my paragraphs survived his scrutiny, I distinctly remember the occasional “ugh” written in the margins. Of course, “ugh” is most enlightening and edifying and helpful. How is that supposed to positively motivate a student?

    Had I to do it over, I would have audited the class, so as not to have (to try) to write something scintillating and possibly entertaining about a subject about which my knowledge was rudimentary. I didn’t feel I had anything to add. But I wanted to hear what the professor had to say about his subject. Perhaps I would have been as well served, and saved money, by simply reading his books.

    It is challenging to write about some topic imposed by some compositional tyrant, about which one has no interest. To quote an Appalachian “old-timer,” there were times in college English Composition when I would rather have “taken a whuppin'” than to have to write on command. Fifty or so years ago, I distinctly remember an interview in U.S. News & World Report where Robert Penn Warren opined to-the-effect that, to write well, a writer should write about subjects about which the writer had a passion.

    Finally, the mechanics of generating a paper in The Ancient Days, prior to the advent of word processing “cut-and-paste,” were comparatively onerous. I rewrote by hand at least a few papers because upom further reflected I determined that I needed to change the order of paragraphs. The current crop of college students don’t have that as an excuse for shabby writing, grammar, spelling etc.

    (In high school, my biology teacher, the occasional tyrant, was a stickler for spelling. If I did not correctly spell “Platyhelminthes,” “Euglena,” “Hymenoptera,”and other names of Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus and Species, then I got zero credit for my answer. No student complained. Let some teacher try to impose correct spelling on students nowadays.)

    1. “To quote an Appalachian “old-timer,” there were times in college English Composition when I would rather have “taken a whuppin’” than to have to write on command.”

      In one of my composition courses in college I was required to write a paper on The Postman Always Rings Twice. A classic, but I found it rather horrible. Insipid, both the prose and the story. The professor didn’t agree with me.

  29. It has come to the notice of this establishment that certain unsolicitated onterators are tramming on the permis of the delireator. Further emications will result in the immediate contoritory and derunderment of every sarmesant involved.
    Alfred E. Neumann

  30. I get my college students to identify sentence parts by colouring them. Sounds strange, but it works like a charm to fix grammar errors and reduce run-ons. Basically, they write in colour. If they can’t colour their own writing, it is probably wrong or confusing.

  31. A half serious, bad-writing contest awarded a prize to professor Butler for this sentence:

    The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.

    Judith Pamela Butler began teaching at the University of California, Berkeley, where they[a] have served, beginning in 1998, as the Maxine Elliot Professor in the Department of Comparative Literature and the Program of Critical Theory. They are also the Hannah Arendt Chair at the European Graduate School.

    Sad, although I suspect Butler writes this way on purpose and for nefarious reasons.

    1. I made a joke about Ctrl-Meta-Super-Emacs versus the in.VI.dious infidels up-thread, but because I’ve forgotten how to post images I deleted it.
      But I see someone else is tilting at that windmill. Saddle up Sancho Panza, tuck Rosinante under your arm, and have at ’em!

  32. I was taught grammar by diagramming sentences. I thought it was fun, like a game; but I was probably the only kid in the class who thought like that. That was back in the early 70s.

    I learned to write by reading all the time. We had a house full of books & we went to the library at least once a week; I often rode my bike to the library during the week, especially in the summer when I was bored. We lived in the country & summers were boring. I read everything, but I really liked history, biographies & historical novels. I still do. But I read a variety of subjects.

    I also learned to write by writing. I was keeping a daily diary from the age of ten & writing stories & poems even earlier than that. Yeah, of course all that childhood writing sucked but that’s not the point. Very few people start out great at anything; you have to work at it. I was thirty-two before I realized that my writing was beginning to get good; it was another twenty years before I fell into a real groove with it. Now it’s just enjoyable, like driving a fine car. But it’s like anything else; you have to work everyday or you’re going to lose your edge. & I just like it.

    Kids aren’t taught to write; they aren’t taught anything anymore except to take tests. It’s a sad thing but I suppose AI will be writing everything for people in a few years; just talk to the computer. No keyboarding at all. Cursive is a memory for us elders, soon to be forgotten.

  33. A number of people have said they learned to write by reading all the time. I agree this helps, but are there any studies that show this to be the case? Why does reading teach a person to write? Does the simple fact of reading help or must a person augment their reading with something else like attention to sentence structure?

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