Teaching Good Writing

This radio interview with Steven Pinker, author of A Sense of Style, features a neat list of “cardinal rules” for good writing (around the 12:50 mark):

  1. Clear thinking makes clear writing.
  2. Be concrete.
  3. Read as much as you can.
  4. Show your work to somebody else.

The last point has to do with what Pinker calls “the curse of knowledge”: “When you know something, it’s very hard to imagine what it’s like not to know it. … You think what’s obvious to you is obvious to everyone else, but it isn’t.” This is advice that every writer and every teacher should take to heart.

The interview also raises important questions about the teaching of good writing, for example the importance of having students write drafts, give feedback, and make them re-write the draft. This may seem like an obvious strategy to teach writing, but in teaching practice, it is quite difficult to implement because it requires the teacher to spend an awful lot of time correcting texts. Any teacher will think twice about assigning students such a writing task: just imagine a class with 25 students. Make them write a text of decent length to articulate an idea, and you will end up with 25 texts. If you spend 15 minutes on each text, you rack up approximately 400 minutes or 6.5 hours (excluding breaks). Mind you, this is time spent not teaching, not preparing, and not grading.

Teachers can compensate for this by having students write the text in class instead of at home, because then you save preparation time. Say, 2 hours. But I was once told by a headmaster that by having students write in class instead of at home, I am wasting valuable time that could be used for communicative tasks (I teach English as a second language). After all, he argued, the students don’t need their classmates in order to write, but they do need them to talk, so have them do the writing at home and make sure you use your valuable lesson time to get them to do other things than writing.

There are of course other strategies to implement writing in the classroom that are less time-consuming, e.g. instead of reading the texts yourself have other students read the texts and give feedback to each other. But in my experience, this yields very meager results and can even be counter-productive. Other methods are available, but I have yet to come across a decent replacement for teacher feedback.

Another important point they address in the interview is the question, in Pinker’s words, “whether it’s good pedagogy to teach young kids things that are false and then expect them to unlearn it when they get older” (around the 21:50 mark in the interview), for example never write in sentence fragments or don’t begin a sentence with “and”. Such rules introduce more or less useful principles, but it is perfectly legitimate to flout them as long as you know what you are doing. In other words, there are many exceptions to the rules.

However, teaching rules and exceptions can be very tricky. Young students especially want definite answers and have little patience for nuance or exceptions. They want to know right from wrong. And who can blame them? After all, at exams they are punished for not knowing right from wrong; grasping nuances and knowing exceptions has hardly any bearing on exam results.

Pinker says he is sceptical whether it is good pedagogical practice to teach such rules; unfortunately he does not have time to elaborate why. I, for one, believe that as long as your students do not have much of a clue about writing and are prone to commit huge blunders (e.g. write things like “I think this is a great film. And totally worth watching. Cause it’s awesome.”), you are justified to teach them, quite dogmatically, rules you expect them to adhere to. This might come back to bite them at a more advanced level, but once they reach that level they can absorb the new information much more effectively. If a student tells you “But our old teacher told us that we were not supposed to use and at the beginning of a sentence”, you already have something to work with to hone your students’ sense for nuance and exceptions. If they come to you saying “But our old teacher told us it’s perfectly alright to sometimes write and at the beginning of a sentence”, you will have a much harder time explaining to them what their teacher meant.

We can compare this to chess. Chess teachers tell their students not to move the same piece twice in the opening, for example, because you should be using your time instead to bring the other pieces into the game; but already at intermediate level you have to realize that it is perfectly fine to move a piece twice in the opening — if you know what you are doing, that is. But if you try to cover such exceptions right from the start, you are likely asking too much of your students’ ability to absorb information.



Emerson’s Three Practical Book Rules

The three practical rules, then, which I have to offer, are — (1) Never read any book that is not a year old. (2) Never read any but famed books. (3) Never read any but what you like; or, in Shakespeare’s phrase, “No profit goes where is no pleasure ta’en: In brief, sir, study what you most affect.” Montaigne says, “Books are a languid pleasure,” but I find certain books vital and spermatic, not leaving the reader what he was; he shuts the book a richer man. I would never willingly read any other than such. (Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Books”, qtd. in Reading in Bed)

Far be it from me to question the wisdom of the sage of Concord, but this practical rules for reading is 60% nonsense. By all means, do read what you find pleasurable; but dare I suggest — notwithstanding Mr Emerson’s advice — that you do consider reading books younger than a year if they take your fancy, and that you indulge yourself in in authors of lesser fame every now and then? Who knows, perchance they’ll join the pantheon of famed scribblers thanks to your discovery!

I’m being unfair to Ralph Waldo, of course. After all, He was faced with the prospect of having to choose among library books whose number in his day “may easily exceed a million.” A tough call indeed! Wait a minute. 1 million? That’s actually less than a hundreth of the available items at the Library of Congress! So what remains is, once more, Shakespeare: “No profit goes where is no pleasure ta’en: In brief, sir, study what you most affect.”


Elements of Style

I am rather busy as of late, and so blog updates are sparse. Thus I recommend you other reading material, such as this interesting and important article by Geoffrey Pullum on the shortcomings of Strunk & White’s classic prescriptive grammar, The Elements of Style.


Orlando’s Bookshop

Orlando by Virginia Woolf is a fictional biography of a young Elizabethan nobleman who one day wakes up a woman and in that guise lives through another four centuries. At one point, Orlando finds herself in a 20th century bookshop:

And so, leaving the post office, she turned to beguile herself into the next shop, which was a shop so common in our day that it needs no description, yet, to her eyes, strange in the extreme; a shop where they sold books. All her life long Orlando had known manuscripts; she had held in her hands the rough brown sheets on which Spenser had written in his little crabbed hand; she had seen Shakespeare’s script and Milton’s. She owned, indeed, a fair number of quartos and folios, often with a sonnet in her praise in them and sometimes a lock of hair. But these innumerable little volumes, bright, identical, ephemeral, for they seemed bound in cardboard and printed on tissue paper, surprised her infinitely. The whole works of Shakespeare cost half a crown and could be put in your pocket. One could hardly read them, indeed, the print was so small, but it was a marvel, none the less. ‘Works’ — the works of every writer she had known or heard of and many more stretched from end to end of the long shelves. (216)

The passage is set in the year 1927, and I am led to wonder how much research went into it. For starters, I am not convinced that Orlando would have been that astonished by being surrounded by cheap books; after all, published manuscripts had more or less disappeared by the end of the 16th century, and since she experienced the days of Dryden, Pope, Addison and Johnson, she would have witnessed the rise of newspapers, Drury Lane and other cheap book venues.  And rather than complaining about the small unreadable script, she ought to be surprised at the quality of these new shiny cardboard books compared to Elizabethan chapbooks with their small print and messy typefaces. Nevertheless, the scene’s a delightful thought-experiment; throwing a 16th century reader into Barnes & Noble, or even sit the poor chap down in front of a computer screen — how fascinating!


Watcha Readin’ For?

The immortal Bill Hicks on reading (0:40):


Links of the Day

Reading comics: Acephalous discusses Watchmen and Zack Snyder’s film adaptation, part I and part II.

Reading to dogs:  So Many Books tells us about the awesomeness of therapy dogs.

Reading silently: Classical Bookworm explores the origins of silent reading.

Reading experiences: The Reading Experience comments on point of view in Eugenides’ Virgin Suicides.


Delights of Reading

Otto Bettmann’s The Delights of Reading quotes Boswell’s Life of Johnson about the Doctor”s remarkable gift for reading:

He read, as he did most things, violently; he had a peculiar facility for seizing at once what was valuable in any book, without submitting to the labour of perusing it from the beginning to end. He got at the substance of a book directly, tearing out the heart of it. At times he kept a book in readiness for when he should finish the other, resembling a dog who holds a bone in his paws in reserve, while he eats something else which has been thrown to him.

Samuel Johnson

The Life is one of the books on my surprisingly small to-read shelf. In another passage, Boswell tells us about the apparent haste with which Johnson read, saying that “[h]e had, from the irritability of his constitution, at all times, an impatience and hurry when he either read or wrote.” I, too, am an impatient reader — alas, I lack Johnson’s legendary mnemonic prowess!