Showing posts with label good writing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label good writing. Show all posts

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Essay-writing support

For those of you who are writing essays for the first time, here are some guidelines.

There are many guides available to help you with essay-writing.  However, I am mainly familiar with those in English.
  • One of my favourites is the long-established students' guide published by the UK's Open University,
    • The Arts Good Study Guide by Chambers and Northledge (2nd ed., 2008).
      It's clearly printed, well-written, and realistic.  I find the book at, and the OU.  It's £15.  There is a preview of about 40 pages available from the publisher.
      The sister volume, The Good Study Guide, is also, er, good.
  • The University of East Anglia has an excellent reputation for teaching how to write well.  They have a free, online guide that you can download.  It is basic, but you may find it useful. Free, online PDF.
  • The University of Southampton has a Study Skills Handbook by Barbara Allan that addresses essay-writing in chapter 7.  Chapter 13 on Reflection is unusual and rather good, I think.   Free online PDF.
  • The Modern Humanities Research Association puts out an excellent booklet on writing: The MHRA Style Guide. You can buy it in print (cheap at $19), or download their free PDF version. Be aware, though, that unlike the other guides above, the MHRA guide is only about the mechanics of writing, spelling, punctuation, footnotes, and bibliographies.  It does not help with how to assemble your ideas, or plan an essay.  But since it's free as a PDF, it's still worth getting, and will help you answer questions about silly details like what English words should have capital letters, or how to put together your bibliography.

Many guides to writing suggest that you should begin by having a question, and then doing some research, organising your notes, and then writing your essay.  Or some variant of this procedure.
I am not sure I agree.  I think it's important to start with a question, yes.  But sometimes the best way to begin can be to actually sit down and start writing or typing.  Write a sentence, or two, or a paragraph, about the question.  Then you will begin to feel how much you know and can say, and how much you need to go and read in order to be able to write the next sentence.
The great cultural historian Peter Burke makes some very interesting remarks about his own process of thinking and writing in this 2004 interview (from 3min 11sec).  He goes to his desk in the morning and writes.  No preliminary reading.  Then, in the afternoon, he goes to the library.  Writing precedes reading.
Two more late additions.  These can be bought second-hand in the UK from Amazon for 0.01p, plus postage!
  • Ashman & Creme, How to Write Essays (1976). PDF
  • Ashman & Creme, Reading for Study (1976). PDF

Saturday, July 05, 2014

Good writing: transparency is the new objectivity

I care deeply about good writing, which I believe to be indistinguishable from good thinking.  As an undergraduate, I was lucky enough to get and read two texts that turned into life-long influences:
  • C. S. Lewis, "At the Fringe of Language", in Studies in Words
  • George Orwell, "Politics and the English Language," in Collected Essays.
As a student, I internalized Orwell's six rules:
  1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do (see Short words).
  3. If it is possible to cut out a word, always cut it out (see Unnecessary words).
  4. Never use the Passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a Jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous (see Iconoclasm).
My professor, Richard Gombrich, also cares about good writing, and impressed that belief upon us students.  Some of his remarks on this topic appear in his lecture "On Being Sanskritic" (p.27).  For example, his ringing indictment,
The so-called `literal translation' -- an intellectual fallacy and an aesthetic monstrosity -- is still widespread;
As a result of my interest in the forms and sins of self-expression, I have developed a kind of radar, pinging for materials that support this interest and take it further.  The Economist Style Guide is one such resource that showed up on the screen long ago.

Today, I was reading the WikiPedia article about Timothy Leary, and I saw that an unsubstantiated claim ("Others have said") was tagged as a "weasel word".  I didn't know this expression.

Weasel words are described under "unsupported attributions" and are amongst several strategies that I see regrettably often in academic prose.  As WikiPedia says:
Weasel words.svg
Weasel words are words and phrases aimed at creating an impression that something specific and meaningful has been said, when in fact only a vague or ambiguous claim has been communicated. A common form of weasel wording is through vague attribution, where a statement is dressed with authority, yet has no substantial basis. Phrases such as those above present the appearance of support for statements but can deny the reader the opportunity to assess the source of the viewpoint.
Another major technique for avoiding attribution is to use the passive grammatical voice.  To the WikiPedia "weasel words" examples, I could add (and probably will) a category of what might be called "cooercives," words and phrases designed to prevent the reader from thinking too much, by suggesting that thinking isn't going to be worthwhile in this particular case.  Thus, "clearly," "of course," "naturally," "it goes without saying." (Several of these are referenced in WikiPedia's "Editorializing" section, see below.) 

Following the WP link, I stumbled into a wonderful collection of notes about how to write better and avoid writing (and thinking) badly.  "Words to Watch" has the following headings (mid-2014):
 WikiPedia's Manual of Style is excellent, as a whole.  But this section "Words to Watch" is a treasure chest.