Care and Imagination
Your professors don’t expect you to have the eloquence of William Shakespeare or Virginia Woolf; they do expect to see evidence that you’ve treated writing as a craft rather than a chore. Well crafted prose is not only clearer but also more forceful, more memorable, and more enjoyable than its opposite. Some writers suppose that these qualities matter only in writing for the humanities, as if the scientific ideal of objectivity entailed an obligation to be dull and flat. That attitude would have come as a surprise to Charles Darwin (look at the vivid, if not thoroughly grammatical, final paragraph of On the Origin of Species, It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank…) or to Albert Einstein, who felt no conflict between truth and metaphor when he said, famously, that God does not play dice with the universe. An exhaustive treatment of the writer’s craft is beyond the scope of this guide. The best general advice we can offer is that you read good writers and notice the things they do with words. Nevertheless, here are four observations to help you start thinking about writing as a craft.
The student of physics knows—or had better know—that speed is not velocity and mass differs from weight. The biology student knows that the term cell division could refer just as well to the very different processes of meiosis and mitosis.
The simple instruction tighten nut, in an assembly guide for a mechanical implement, is unhelpful and potentially damaging if the nut in question must be tightened by turning it counter-clockwise. Vague and inaccurate language appears often enough in scientific and technical writing, but it’s hard to get away with. In the fine arts, social sciences, and humanities, it’s easier to get away with but equally useless. Democracy in political science, culture in anthropology, normal in psychology, society in sociology, knowledge in philosophy, structure in literature and the arts are all terms that have little or no meaning unless accompanied by further qualification and explanation. If you use such terms loosely, your professor will not only find your writing inadequate but conclude—correctly—that you have but a shadowy understanding of the discipline.
Detail and exactitude make narrative and descriptive writing more interesting to read:
Perforation! Shout it out! The deliberate punctuated weakening of paper and cardboard so that it will tear along an intended path, leaving a row of fine-haired white pills or tuftlets on each new edge! It is a staggering conception, showing an age-transforming feel for the unique properties of pulped-wood fibre. Yet do we have national holidays to celebrate its development? . . . The lines dividing one year from another in your past are perforated, and the mental sensation of detaching a period of your life for closer scrutiny resembles the reluctant guided tearing of a perforated seam. (Nicholson Baker, The Mezzanine)
The pursuit of the right word should never lead to pretension or hairsplitting: don’t use arcane words merely to flaunt your vocabulary, don’t make distinctions where no difference exists, and above all don’t use any word unless you know its meaning. When in doubt, check the dictionary.
Language has a shelf life
Clichés and other commonly used expressions make writing seem stale, and they convey the impression that you’re incapable of thinking for yourself. Best to follow Orwell’s advice here: “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.”
You’re not a machine, but you’re not David Letterman
The conventions of different disciplines—and, within, disciplines, of different writing tasks—dictate greater or lesser degrees of personal expression. In most situations it’s appropriate and desirable for the writer to project a human presence. To do so, you needn’t wax autobiographical (see Thesis) or even use I and me. By choosing words carefully and using fresh language you will automatically put an individual stamp on your prose. A little levity can also give your writing a human touch. Just go lightly and don’t overrate your wit. Never call attention to your humor with parenthetical asides such as (Get it?), (Ha, ha), or (pun intended). These verbal equivalents of winks and elbow-jabs merely betray your lack of confidence. If the joke won’t stand on its own, cut it.
Good writing has rhythm
To see this point, let’s look first at a familiar piece of good writing, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. (Follow the link to open a new window with the full text of the address.) To be sure, few if any of your professors will ask you to write speeches, and the odds against a funeral oration are even longer. But the rhythms of good speechwriting are those of good writing generally–with a bit of exaggeration, which only makes them easier to see. We’ll follow Lincoln’s example with a humbler piece of writing, a single sentence from The New York Times.
The Gettysburg Address: Words
Lincoln’s sentences vary widely in length, from 10 words to 81 words. When the sentences in a stretch of prose are nearly uniform in length, the resulting rhythm is monotonous.
The second paragraph of Lincoln’s address not only varies sentence length but alternates between short sentences and long ones, with counts of 24, 10, 27, and 11. On top of this alternating rhythm, Lincoln sets up another rhythm based on repetition: he builds all four sentences in the paragraph around a short clause beginning with the pronoun we: we are engaged, We are met, We have come, we should do this. The first and third sentences add modifying elements (testing whether …, as a final resting place …). For variation, Lincoln puts the we clause right at the beginning of the first three sentences, then shifts it to the end in the fourth.
The document as a whole establishes yet another pattern, one of accumulation. The first paragraph contains 30 words, the second 72, the third 169: each paragraph roughly doubles the preceding one. The climactic final sentence is also the longest–at 81 words, nearly four times the average length of the nine preceding sentences (21).
That wind-up sentence has its own internal rhythms, some of which repeat earlier ones. There are four main that clauses (not counting that these dead … ), each of which echoes the we clauses of the second paragraph (also picked up at the beginning of the last paragraph in we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow). The sentence dramatically increases the pace of repetition in the last clause, where the roughly 17-word that cycle gives way to a three-word cycle: of the people, by the people, for the people.
The Gettysburg Address: Ideas
It’s not only phrases, clauses, and sentences that establish interesting and exciting rhythms in the best prose. If you examine the Gettysburg Address closely, you’ll discover a rhythm of ideas. The speech as a whole moves from conception and birth (brought forth, conceived in liberty), to rebirth (a new birth of freedom), to immortality (shall not perish). There are three geographical references: to America (this continent), to the battle site (a great battle-field), and to the planet (the earth). These references not only help give the speech coherence through repetition, they emphasize Lincoln’s message that the Civil War (symbolized by the great battle-field) simultaneously tests America’s self-conception (brought forth on this continent) and the future of democracy as a human ideal (which must not perish from the earth).
Finally, consider all those references to we in the Address. Together with the related pronouns usand our , these stand in repeated contrast to they, their, those, emphasizing the difference between the living participants standing on the ground of the cemetery and the slain soldiers buried beneath it. The difference cuts two ways: what we say is insignificant beside what they did, but since death has left their work unfinished, it is for us the living to complete it. By doing so, we can in fact dissolve the difference between us and them (and between our forefathers, ourselves, and future generations), realizing the goal of a greater we, not Lincoln and his audience but “we the people,” whom government must be of, by, and for.
The New York Times: Problem
An article on the Women’s World Cup soccer tournament of 1999 contained the following sentence:
Aarones has been the most productive of the Norwegians in the tournament with four goals, with only Brazil’s Sissy and China’s Sun Wen ahead of her with seven and five goals, respectively.
Although grammatically unobjectionable, the sentence has all the fleetness and grace of a forward with a torn achilles tendon. Why? The answer lies partly in the prepositions, highlighted in bold type. The sentence lurches from prepositional phrase to prepositional phrase; and because this repetition doesn’t underscore parallel ideas (compare of the people, by the people, for the people), it seems pointless, awkward, and monotonous rather than forceful. Then there’s the lameness of respectively, which sounds as though it belongs in a legal document rather than a sports report. (Notice that Lincoln takes pains to end his sentences with words he wants to emphasize: equal, endure, live, advanced, earth. Sometimes he has to shift around modifiers to do this; e.g., so nobly advanced rather than the more usual advanced so nobly. Try saying the second sentence of the speech out loud, substituting can endure long for can long endure. The emphasis is completely lost. See Strunk for more examples of this principle.)
The New York Times: Solution
At the heart of the Times sentence lies a comparison, or really two: between Aarones and her fellow Norwegians, and among Aarones, Sissy, and Sun Wen. What the sentence needs, then, is a rhythm that calls attention to these comparisons:
Aarones has four goals in the tournament, more than any of her fellow Norwegians and fewer only than Brazil’s Sissy (seven) and China’s Sun Wen (five).
The sentence now begins and ends with players’ names, highlighting the three-player comparison, and it answers an initial more than with the parallel fewer only than, driving home both comparisons simultaneously. In its modest way, the revised sentence employs the same strategy as many of Lincoln’s, that of expressing coordinate ideas in similar grammatical form. (For more on this strategy, including some additional commonplace examples, see Strunk.)
The revision, incidentally, cuts the number of prepositions by two-thirds (from 6 to 2) and the total number of words by almost one-fifth (Lard Factor = 6÷32 or 19%). As is generally the case, the aesthetically superior sentence is also clearer and more economical.