Williams, Joseph M. Style: Toward Clarity and Grace

Style: Toward Clarity and Grace excites the grammar nerd in me – the little girl who would diagram sentences for fun.

I was strangely comforted to read the bit about the ridiculousness of early academic writing attempts, even though I readily admit that my cheeks turned seven shades of pink as specific examples of my own earliest (and cringe-worthy) academic work came to mind:

“Some of us write badly not because we intend to or because we never learned how, but because occasionally we seem to experience transient episodes of stylistic aphasia … This kind of dismaying regression occurs when we are writing about matters that we do not entirely understand, for readers who do … typically students who are learning how to think or write in some academic area or profession new to them in some well-defined ‘community of discourse’ to which they do not yet belong” (11).

How true! (Though I much prefer dubbing this affliction as something like rhetorical growing pains, rather than accepting that transient episodic stylistic aphasia diagnosis.)

I noticed this strained discomfort in my students’ last batch of writing. There were marked differences between the ease of personal narrative and the awkward attempts to inject literacy theory into the piece. A few of them managed to seamlessly weave concepts throughout their story, but most elected to set up a definition paragraph separate from their narrative. The story sections consistently supported the corresponding theory/definition sections, but fairly consistently, the language shifted from simple and confident clarity to overreaching obscurity. The students had connected ideas, but seemed uncomfortable talking about them.

My initial reaction was excitement at their big attempts, but I noted this language shift as a patterned issue to address at a later date. The passage above illuminates the greater issue, and I am excited to discuss this pattern with my class within this framework. The selections that follow offer wonderful and specific style advice. I intend to keep this reading on hand as I rifle through the next round of drafts this coming weekend, because I think that it will help to abbreviate my commentary a bit.

This reading leaves me with practical questions to ponder. Are there strategies for teaching students to smooth out these shifts without getting into the high-level grammatical conversations? In a first year writing class, is it enough to simply battle these growing pains by addressing consistency in tone/voice/tense? Or is it appropriate to dig into things like nominalizations and institutional passives?

Finally, and slightly off-topic, if reading is cast as supportive of good writing, is it good practice to toss in a disclaimer when turgid texts are assigned? Should we caution our students to not necessarily imitate what they are reading? Or do we accept that these growing pains will pass with time and encourage a bit of overreaching?

Reminder to spend more time with this!!


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