Looking into one of my College’s hallway recycling bins, as one does, I found a fourth edition paperback of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. Arguably, for my generation, as Strunk died the year before I was born, this has been one of the most useful and inspiring books for any young writer or anyone seriously interested in writing.
Far too often, when I am reading an undergraduate student paper, José Neto’s lyrics come to mind: ‘Feelings … nothing more than feelings, …”.
I truly don’t want to hurt a student’s feelings, but I have to tell them time and again that I am not really interested in reading about how they feel. Please show me what you know about the topic and how you view the topic in a structured way and on the basis of your reading of the literature, empirical evidence, logic, ethical principles, or any other approach to analysis.
What is leading so many students to center their essays on how they feel about any given topic? Perhaps it is watching television interviews in which journalists or media personalities often ask people how they feel about a candidate, an issue, or an event. But I also sense that many instructors might be encouraging students to express themselves by asking them to write about their feelings. This is an easy ask: How do you feel about any given topic is something that requires no research, no analytical perspective. But surely this is a mistake to invite students to write in a way that frees them from reasoned analysis or critical thinking.
The ability of a student to critically address a question by drawing from literature, evidence, and a variety of analytical perspectives, is one of the fundamental skills and habits that should be instilled by a college education. It would be tragic if we reinforced a tendency for students to simply express their feelings, primarily because it was an effective means to encourage them to write. It might be that teaching writing skills in general, without writing being taught in the context of a substantive course, makes it difficult for the instructors to lead students to appropriate evidence and perspectives. It is undoubtedly important for instructors in all courses to constantly think of their role in teaching students how to write about the subject matter of their courses.
Nothing more than feelings might work in a song, but not in conveying knowledge, questionning conventional wisdom, or writing a substantive term paper. Therefore, I sometimes shock my students by telling them – gently but clearly − that I am not interested in how they feel about the topic of their papers.
In preparing for and sitting your final exam, keep the following in mind:
Answer the question, and make sure you read the question carefully and not answer the question you thought would be asked;
Show that you were engaged in the course by bringing lectures, discussion and readings into your responses;
Demonstrate an understanding of key concepts, ideas and research by using and explaining them in your answers to questions;
Marshall facts to the degree possible to show that you can provide concrete evidence and illustrations of general statements;
Avoid offering your opinion as an answer to a question since you are not (yet) an expert and even experts need to develop the arguments behind their views and not just state their conclusion;
You might offer your conclusion, such as why you agree with one line of reasoning, rather than another. However, you must then indicate why you reached this conclusion, such as by referring to the data, methods, or theoretical basis for one versus the other line of reasoning.
In completing your term paper, keep the following in mind:
Follow a clear structure. This is not a mystery novel, but an interdisciplinary paper in the social sciences. Follow a structure, such as clarifying the problem you are addressing, the question(s) it raises, different perspectives or theories of relevance to the question, your approach and methods, findings, conclusion and discussion of limitations and further research required. As is often advised: tell the reader what you are going to do. Do it. Then tell the reader what you’ve done;
Avoid anchoring your term paper in your opinion(s), as noted above with respect to exams;
You may quote interviews, authors, other research studies, but always make sure you cite this work precisely and carefully to avoid any question of what are your own words. Putting ideas and research into your own words is valuable – showing the instructor that you are aware of key work and its relevance to your topic – but always be sure to error on the side of referencing the source or inspiration for your points. Remember you get credit for bringing the work of others into your paper as long as they are properly cited and credited;
Use words and sentences, data, relevant documentation, such as a photo or chart, and your text in general to make your case, and in the same spirit, avoid flowery templates, fonts, and binding to impress the reader;
Draft your paper, revise it, and revise it again and again. Spending time in getting the structure, argument, grammar and spelling and clarity of your paper right will take time. There is no shortcut to spending time in crafting your paper; and
Write a paper that you would be proud to use as an illustration of your writing, such as for your application to a graduate program or a job.
That is probably enough to think about, but please let me and your colleagues know whatever I’ve forgotten. Best of luck with doing your best on all of your exams and term papers.
In her new book, The Reader’s Brain, Professor Yellowlees Douglas explains Strunk & White. That is, she explains why some of their guidelines work, and why others might need revision.
I am one of many fans of guides to good writing. Lord knows I need them. And Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style (1918) is one of my favorites. It has become somewhat of the bible of guides to writing in the English language. Professor Douglas’ book is a guide to writing, but one that is so different from any that have come before.
Yellowlees Douglas has been a student and teacher of writing, such as in teaching people how to write anything from technical reports and proposals to novels. But this book is not a simple compilation of her views on best practices. Instead, it is an incredibly valuable distillation of decades of research in the social, psychological and neurosciences about how people read, such as how people process different types of prose. How does a style or approach to writing relate to how hard a reader must work, or how much they will recall?
She then takes these lessons learned from the study of readers to explain why some rules work, and others do not. In addition, Professor Douglas takes what she has learned to offer a number of very useful guides to writers, anchored in what she calls her five C’s: clarity, continuity, coherence, concision, and cadence. If you think these categories are commonsense, you will be pleasantly surprised when you dig into each in more detail, such as her critical perspective on ‘textual analytics’ as useful guides to readability (pages 11-17). And there are some cross-cutting themes, like the importance of prediction – the degree that readers are constantly trying to predict what comes next, and how you can help them.
In such ways, Yellowlees Douglas not only tells writers what they should do, but also explains why, based on studies of the reader or user. As Professor Douglas (2015: 7) notes:
“The connections seem obvious between what neuroscientists and psycholinguists have learned about the reading brain and what writers need to know when they sit down with a blank page. Yet the science of reading and the teaching of writing end up as two conversations conducted in parallel – different audiences, tuned to entirely different channels.”
Professor Douglas does a wonderful job in connecting these two conversations, while also being a gifted writer, who entertains as she teaches us how to write and why.
I crossed paths with the author in 1993, when I was directing the UK’s national Programme on Information and Communication Technologies (PICT) in the UK. I was based office at Brunel University, where Professor Douglas was a Research Fellow at the Centre for Research into Innovation, Culture and Technology (CRICT). At that time, she was looking at how people read hypertext novels. Surprisingly, I thought, she found that readers did not read them as intended by their writers, but in more linear ways. Her work impressed me as an example of how you cannot assume that readers will follow along with the designs of the writer. Overtime, readers might well have become more comfortable with nonlinear hypertext paths through text online, but these are the kinds of issues that scholars like Professor Douglas can help us understand.
Yellowlees Douglas. (2015), The Reader’s Brain: How Neuroscience Can Make You a Better Writer. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
It is depressing to shop in almost any university bookstore for a decent fountain pen or even a nice tablet of paper. The pens are almost entirely the cheapest ballpoints imaginable and the paper is monopolized by cheap spiral notebooks of lined paper that comes close to the quality of toilet paper. Why would students ever enjoying writing, much less want to write, with such terrible tools?
Likewise, if you check out the quality of materials marketed to the parents of school children, the situation is as bad if not worse. Pens, crayons, paper for young children, at such an impressionable age, are absolutely worthless. They would put off any child from wanting to sit down and write or draw or colour. They are just cheap.
Of course, you can find wonderful stationery in a high-end stationary store, or good fountain pens in specialised, boutique pen shops and some department stores, but you have to look. Clearly, the lion’s share of materials marketed to students of all ages is pitiful.
Organizations provide another example of the race for the bottom. Why would any organization think for a moment that giving someone a cheap pen with the organization’s name and logo on it would be a good idea. It just creates an association of the organization with such low quality junk – trinkets. They should have their logo or mascot on a beautifully crafted pen or on stationery that demonstrates that the organization stands for quality. Of course, then they couldn’t afford to give away hundreds of these quality tools. So perhaps it is this pricing issue that often pushes this technology to the bottom. Unthinking and cheap organizations and cheap households who don’t know better, buy cheap writing tools. I’ve been guilty myself of exposing my children to the junk on the list of supplies that parents dutifully purchase for school.
So when parents and educators wring their hands about kids shifting to computers and mobile phone texting and other electronic tools for writing, they should consider the fact that it is not simply the ease and attractions of the electronic, but the difficulty and unattractive options in pen and paper. They bought into this downward spiral of writing.
Any parent should feel guilty if they don’t spend more to get their child excellent pens, beautiful paper, wonderful books. They are expensive, but there is no comparison between writing with a great fountain pen and a cheap or even an expensive ballpoint pen. The ballpoint must have been seen as a technological marvel at its inception, and a means to avoid leaking pens, and ink stained pockets. But it is absolutely inferior as a tool to write with.
Of course, you cannot write with a fountain pen on the cheap paper sold to students – ink will run through several layers of paper given the absorbency of this crap paper the students are sold. So you must also get good paper and good tablets, such as the ‘moleskine’ notebooks, which are excellent.
Well, you might ask, why do parents and students buy poor technologies, when far better pens and paper exist. It can only be cost. Another part of the explanation must reside in the fact that quality pens and paper have disappeared to the extent that many parents and students don’t even think of using them. A fountain pen might as well be a quill pen. It is viewed by many as just as antiquated. Well, a fountain pen is a real advance on the quill pen. But often when someone sees me using my fountain pen, they are likely to ask about it as if I am driving an antique car down the street. Fountain pens continue to improve and there is a diverse array to choose from now, before the technology is completely lost.
So before your children are completely corrupted by being force-sold terrible writing tools, buy them a fountain pen they like – let them try them out – and a variety of good paper. The future is not one medium of communication, but the use of multiple media that will include handwriting. If you or your children lose the art of writing with pen and paper, it is not simply due to the rise of the computer age, but also to the decline of the written word, and the neglect of the tools for proper, civilized writing with a good pen and good paper.
In case you think my rant is unjustified, look for a really nice pen and excellent paper when you next go to a store catering to students. Let me know if I’m wrong. I hope I am, as my impressions do not bode well for the future of writing. I use the Internet and related computer-based tools as much as most people – probably more, but I still find wonder in writing.