Some Writing Instruction Re-considered | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, January 30, 2021 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:58 AM, January 30, 2021

Some Writing Instruction Re-considered

Writing is not an art suddenly discovered. It's a craft gradually developed. Writing–both creative and critical– is formulaic, the way math is. If this sounds like an awkward analogy, remember that such writers as Lewis Carroll, Thomas Pynchon, and David Foster Wallace had strong backgrounds in mathematics. The sentences they constructed and the stories they created stand the test of time. Mathematics is essentially a learned skill, though there are self-learned math mavens. Likewise, writing is a learned skill despite the fact that self-learned writers abound. These days, a self-learned writer is becoming a rarity. Almost all the influential writers–both creative (J. M. Coetzee, for example) and critical (Steven Pinker, for example)  –are the beneficiaries of sustained academic training and mentoring. Under such a circumstance, the acquisition of writing skill presupposes instruction and education. Unfortunately, however, the history of writing education is porous and spotty across contexts, and because writing instruction is mired in myths and misunderstanding, teaching writing often resembles preaching. Writing instruction sounds like commandment and violation risks eternal damnation. For example—

Never opt for a long sentence if a short one is possible: This suggestion assumes that a long sentence is a complex one. The complexity of sentence, however, doesn't depend on the length of sentence; it, instead, depends on the craft of a sentence. A carelessly crafted short sentence might be confusing. On the other hand, a carefully crafted long sentence can be lucid and compelling. This suggestion also reduces writing to an exercise of excision. It persuades writers to cut off words. But words are there to be spent. Joe Moran in First You Write a Sentence claims that in the seventeenth century, the average length of a sentence was forty-five words. The length held steady in the 18th century. In the 19th century, the average was in the 30s, and now it's in the 20s. We're losing about 10 words each century. If sentences continue to shrink this way, it's likely that a good sentence will not be a sentence after two centuries, because there will be no words there. This apprehension merits consideration. These days, words are consistently competing with emojis, icons, and contractions for space in written communication. This portends a disaster for all alphabetic languages. Under such a circumstance, words need champions and advocates. The ideal instruction is, " Construct well-crated sentences, long or short."

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Never use a passive voice sentence if an active voice is possible: This is on its surface a good suggestion, for a passive voice often makes a sentence complex and cumbersome. It also flips the structure of a sentence to re-orient readers for meaning and memory. Consequently, a passive voice sentence is usually a bit turgid and opaque. Avoiding a passive voice sentence, however, should not be a tick. It, instead, should be an informed decision. Passive voice shifts the focus of a sentence from the agent to the action. For example, "The fire is contained." Readers don't need to know how many firefighters, civilians, animals, and contraptions were involved in containing the fire. All they need to know whether the fire still rages or not. In a situation such as this, an active voice sentence is unwieldy and inept. Research in writing studies reveal that novice writers rarely opt for passive voice sentences. Advanced writers do. When they do, they consider aesthetics, ethics, and economy in writing. Steven Pinker in The Sense of Style claims that this rule has been invoked for 1500 years, so suggesting that writers avoid passive voice is a bad suggestion. Think also of the irony of a suggestion in William Strunk's and E.B. White's The Elements of Style: "A lot of tame sentences can be made--." They were advising against passive voice with a passive voice sentence. Proscribing passive voice sentences deprives a writer of her freedom and limits her options of communication.

Never use a long word when a short word is possible: The length of a word doesn't determine its suitability in a sentence. Its meaning does. Words are either right or wrong, or suitable or unsuitable. If a right or a suitable word is a long one, it's still the right word and it has to be used. Substituting a long suitable word for an unsuitable or nearly-suitable short word perhaps eases communication but can compromise on the purpose and objective of writing. As writers, our purpose is presentation and our objective is disinterested truth. Using a short or avoiding a long word is neither the purpose, nor the objective of writing. And where are all these short words coming from in the English language? John McWhorter claims in Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue that "the pathway from Old English to Modern English has been a matter of taking on a great big bunch of words" from Danish and Norwegian, French, and Latin. Words emerging out of these foreign languages– about 80 percent of the entries in any English dictionary– are long and complex. Suggesting writers to search for short words denies them access to approximately 80 percent of the lexical resources. That's crippling! The best suggestion is " Use the right word, short or long."

Never use jargon when an easy equivalent is available: Jargon is technical terms coined by and for professionals in any particular field. Anyone who values transparent and accessible writing–and speaking– will find jargon incomprehensible and exclusive, unable to communicate with people who are linguistically otherwise competent. Jargon essentially splits a language community into various discourses and disciplines to create and reinforce linguistic barriers among them. Some writing scholars caution against using any jargon in writing. Jargon, however, is deeply meaningful to people who use it. Jargon is precious nuggets of information for people who relish concision in language. Jargon add to our intellectual depth and diversity. Colleen Glenney Boggs, for example, in her article " In Defense of Jargon" claims, "Jargon can force us to pause, to ponder, to question." It does! Jargon is also transitory, for there's no such thing as permanent jargon. Today's jargon becomes tomorrow's vernacular. Such words as gene, clone, and DNA were jargon a decade back, but these are now part of our everyday lexicon. Jargon is not inherently bad; overusing or misusing it is. Telling writers to avoid jargon altogether, therefore, is misleading. 

Never use figurative language, when plain language is possible: While figurative language such as metaphor, simile, and synecdoche breaks into our speech and writing often unconsciously, they can potentially make language elusive and indirect—even incomprehensible. Metaphor, for example, makes language ornate and inflated if a writer is not skilled enough to use it aptly. Also, stale metaphors frequently found in print are too stilted to be recycled, as George Orwell cautions in his essay " Politics and the English Language." Despite all these objections against figurative language, though, abandoning it altogether diminishes a writer's freedom of expression. Metaphor is a literary technique that adds to the tone, tenor, and texture of a piece of writing to affect the comprehension and psychology of readers the way a writer wants to affect them. A metaphor makes an otherwise a dry text lively by converting something abstract into something concrete. In On Writing, Stephen King notes that metaphors enable people to "see an old thing in a new and vivid way." He maintains as well that metaphors are a kind of miracle that occurs between writer and reader that allows them to live in and expand each other's world. Metaphor – and any figurative language, for that matter – is deeply implicated in human cognition, psychology, and speech, as breath is to our body. Plain language is never an excuse to abandoning figurative language.

Ideally, no one can tell or teach anyone how to write. Every authentic writer is unique who writes out of her own intuition, experience, and observation. When writers make their subjective ideas and habits of writing public, others idealize and generalize them. This is how the commandments about writing proliferate. I just mentioned a few of these commandments out of an infinite number of them. Learn all of these commandments, but remember that these commandments reduce the complexities of writing to a dichotomy of NEVER or ALWAYS. In writing, there are no abiding restrictions or ready-made options. As a writer gets down to writing, she discovers her restrictions and options. Composition scholar Sondra Pearl claims in her essay " Understanding Composing" that in writing, content and meaning can't be discovered the way we discover an object on an archeological dig. In writing, meaning is crafted and constructed.  When writing is the outcome of preconceived options and restrictions, it misses out on discovery.  It's not writing. It's just typing. Don't type. Write!


Mohammad Shamsuzzaman is an Assistant Professor, Department of English and Modern Languages, North South University, Bangladesh.

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