Two Myths–and a Truth–about Writing

1) Myth: “Good writing is clear!”

Who can argue against clear writing? But clarity involves more than an author creating lucid syntactical patterns. Clarity is also a function of the background knowledge and expectations of readers. “Humpty Dumpty was pushed!” shouts the bumper sticker. But if readers haven’t heard that nursery rhyme or know a bit about conspiracy theories, the joke, despite its simple construction, is not clear.

I once made myself a grey corduroy blazer. The instructions were clear to me, but only because my mother had taught me the terms and complicated instructions on the pattern: turning a collar, cutting on the bias, using pellonsetting a sleeve, etc. I cannot follow directions on how to change spark plugs, however, no matter how “clear” the instructions are to mechanics because I don’t have the background knowledge to understand what they’re talking about. What’s a gap gauge or a torque wrench or a locking tab? What on earth does it mean to “pull the boots off the plugs”? The sentence structures in these instructions remain stable.  However, it is the reader’s prior knowledge that varies, making “clarity” also a function of what the targeted audience can understand.

So what should writers learn about “clear” writing? That in addition to whatever lucid sentence structure and careful editing they employ, they also need to consider the background knowledge and beliefs of their readers. What needs to be defined? What would it be insulting to define? What informal speech or slang will be welcomed by some but loathed by others? What sarcastic comment will delight politically like-minded folks but infuriate others, causing them to click over to a more comforting website? Clear writing and effective communication demand a writer’s analysis of each rhetorical situation.

2) Myth: “Good writing is correct!”

No, I won’t argue against “correctness.” But “correctness,” like “clarity,” can be slippery. Writers in the United Kingdom put the comma or period on the outside of quotation marks (which makes more sense actually), and they spell humor, color, and flavor as humour, colour, and flavour, respectively. The British also write paediatric instead of pediatric, and for aluminum they use the hilarious aluminium.

Many instructors in North America (though not all) insist that good academic writing should include obvious transitions such as First, Second, Third, or On the one hand, In Addition, Similarly, In Conclusion, and so on, and they may insist that there should always be an explicit “thesis sentence.” Some cultures across the globe, however, find those on-the-nose signposts insulting to intelligent readers who can be assumed to make those connections themselves and deduce the argument without noisemakers and flashing lights. Some readers love words like problematize, eschew, and myriad, while others are annoyed by them. Some scholarly writing employs qualifiers like some, most, often, seems, may, etc., (like I just did) so the writer doesn’t appear to be making blanket generalizations. Some business and technical writers, however, furiously scratch out (eschew?) such qualifiers so as not to appear to be hedging. Which is correct? Like notions of “good” writing, “correctness” is tied to context, genre, purpose, and audience. (To witness the fiercest battles of the correctness wars, google Oxford comma, singular they, or generic he– each of which is seen by different readers as obvious or outrageous.)

3) Truth: “Everybody loves good writing!”

Well, that’s the truth, but it’s a tricky truth. The problem is, individual readers can have different ideas of what “good writing” entails, depending on their taste or professional situation, as well as what is “clear” or “correct” to different readers, as we have seen.

Obviously, there are some features many of us appreciate: being able to read along without scratching our heads about where a sentence is going, or puzzling over the wrong use of a word, or being annoyed at a departure from conventions. However, we may admire a meandering sentence from William Faulkner, a syntactical romp from e e cummings, or a delightfully odd word use from Emily Dickinson. So the status of the writer also influences, subconsciously perhaps, what readers hate, tolerate, or love. Privileged writers can often stretch or smash conventions with impunity– and be admired for doing so. Other writers, especially student writers, break conventions at their peril.

Some markers of “good writing” held by some disciplines are not welcome in others. English instructors may advise students to use active voice. But chemistry instructors expect a heavy use of passive voice in students’ lab reports. Creative writers might encourage the use of first person in narratives, memoirs, or fiction. But research reports in the social sciences and elsewhere use “I” less frequently and emphasize third person. In MLA citation methods used in English classes, people operate in the present. An author “writes,” “argues” or “defines” something in the here and now, even if he or she died centuries ago. But in the signal phrases required in APA style, an author “wrote,” “argued,” or “defined” something in the past, even if was just last week.

A two-panel, stick people cartoon depicting an English class on the left and a chemistry class on the right. The English teacher is saying, "Avoid Passive Voice!" while most students dutifully take note of this direction. On the right, a chemistry teacher is saying, "Passive voice must be used in lab reports!" Most students write this down. One student in the English class is glancing through the panel to the chemistry class. A question mark appears over her head. One student in the chemistry class looks to the English class, also with a question mark over his head.

Clashing voices.

Some good writing (travel narratives, restaurant reviews, biographies) may be chock full of vivid details, original metaphors, and multisensory imagery. Some good writing (memos, agendas, meeting minutes) may be purposely stark and simple. What defines “good writing” in a given situation is heavily dependent on not only the genre conventions but also on the specific publication. Compare and contrast, for example, the letter-to-the-editor genre as it appears in Newsday, The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Consumer Reports, or Stony Brook’s The Statesman.

So yes, everybody loves good writing. But “good” comes in many (myriad?) flavors.

And in Conclusion. . .    😉

The best way for writers to develop an informed and confident ease of writing in present and future situations is to have them write in many genres that exist in the real world: movie reviews, letters to representatives, blogs, letters of complaints or praise to companies, product reviews, and yes, Twitter posts and texting. (They need not actually send the letters or make reviews public, but they can write as if they are really writing to readers who will not simply tell them what’s wrong and give them a grade. Students can write to have an impact on the world.) These real-world genres all have overlapping yet different “rules” and conventions that must be followed if the letters/reviews/posts are to be successful.

By analyzing what’s considered “clear,” “correct,” or “good” writing in each rhetorical situation, students can develop a sophisticated flexibility they can apply throughout their lives, as they encounter genres not yet invented.

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