16.1: Writing Like You Drive
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This and the following chapter discuss sentence-level composition, the kinds of things that many people associate with “writing.” Writing guides, especially those targeted at college students, offer excellent advice on sentence construction and word choice. However, many student writers get hung up on sentence-level expression, thinking that only elegant, erudite sentences will earn top grades. Or worse, some students assume that they’ll never produce strong papers if they do not already have some kind of inborn gift for wordsmithing. While it is true that some people can produce extraordinarily elegant and graceful prose, it is also true that anyone can learn to write effectively in ways that will persuade and satisfy readers. Producing and reading elegant writing is a pleasure, but what really matters in academic writing is precision.
Focusing first or only on sentence-level issues is a troublesome approach. Doing so is like driving while looking only at the few feet of the road right in front of the bumper. Experienced drivers instead take in the larger scene and more effectively identify and avoid potential hazards with ongoing course corrections. Writing well is like that. When you’ve put in the time and effort to take in the bigger picture of your analysis, most of the micro-scale moves happen automatically. That is, if you have a well-developed thesis and a carefully sequenced argument organized into cohesive and coherent paragraphs, many of the sentence-level issues take care of themselves. It’s easier to write effective sentences when their purpose is clear. You’ll still have to edit for clarity, concision, and mechanics, but if the thinking process behind the writing is well developed, editing shouldn’t be a huge chore. It can actually be a satisfying part of the process. One common metaphor notes that a good edit is like the last twist of a camera lens that brings the whole picture into focus.
One approach that often leads to a difficult writing process and a clunky result is the pursuit of “academese”: an effort to write in an ornamented and “scholarly” way. As Michael Harvey explains1, the desire to sound more academic might prompt a student to write “To satisfy her hunger for nutrition, she ate the bread” rather than simply “She was hungry, so she ate the bread.” It is true that a lot of academic writing is laden with unnecessary jargon, but the culture is shifting among scholars to favor plainer language and insist on clarity. Your professors are much more likely to find a self-consciously highbrow writing style tedious than impressive. As the saying goes2, any fool can make simple things complicated; it takes a genius to make complicated things simple.
My hope with this chapter is to help you see those habits for yourself and, most importantly, how your readers experience them. If you’ve fallen prey to habits of academese, I hope this chapter helps you develop a more straightforward writing style, one well-suited to nuanced thinking and effective communication. And while I don’t want you to think of sentence-level wordsmithing as some kind of abstract, enchanted virtue, I do want you to understand that clarity and concision are more than aesthetics. Convoluted or wordy prose may contain some insightful or intriguing ideas, but if you can render those ideas in clear and concise prose, then you will inevitably develop those ideas even further in the course of writing. Unclear and bloated prose isn’t just tedious to your reader; it’s a needless obstacle to your own thinking.
One of our professors’ primary reasons for assigning writing assignments is to evaluate how thoroughly we have digested the assigned reading material and lectures. They are not as interested in our ability to write Shakespearean prose as they are in our ability to absorb information, wrestle with it until we can comprehend it, and then convey that understanding logically in writing. This is why writing assignments often start something like, “Drawing on Locke’s narrative …” or “Given what you’ve read about Darth Vader’s aversion to democratic governance … .”
It is important to note that this process presupposes that we actually read the assigned readings and take notes during class lectures and discussions. Unsurprisingly, the hardest writing assignments I have had in college were the ones for which I was least prepared. I can try my darnedest to write beautifully, but if I have not put in the necessary time to actually read (and reread) the assigned material, I will have nothing meaningful to say and my professors will see straight through my bloviating.
That being said, the writing process is actually a highly effective exercise for digesting material and developing a cohesive argument. Often it is not until I start writing that I realize the holes in my thinking and the areas that I need to go back and study more thoroughly. This chapter provides many great practical pointers for editing our papers in order to produce clear, refined arguments and should be returned to frequently.
The best way to achieve clarity and concision in writing is to separate the drafting process from the revision process. Highly effective writers routinely produce vague, tortuous, and bloated drafts, and are happy to do so. It usually means that they’re onto an interesting idea. Similarly, writers often write the same idea three or four different ways as they’re getting their thoughts down on paper. That’s fine. In fact, that’s better than fine because each repetition helps to develop key ideas and alternative approaches to the argument. A snarly first draft is often a great achievement. One just needs to take the time to develop relevant ideas and make them clear to the reader. For that reason, I write this section of the chapter envisioning someone who has already cranked out a very rough draft and is now in the process of revising for clarity and concision.