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Sunday, November 4, 2012

Writing Sophisticated Essays, Part 2

Copyright 2012 by Gary L. Pullman

According to William Zinsser, author of “The Act of Writing: One Man’s Method,” there are as many ways to write as there are writers. “No two people go about it in exactly the same way,” he says, “and what works for one person many not work for anyone else.”

Zinsser’s statement raises a question: If there is no “right” way to write, how can writing be evaluated? The answer seems to be that writing is based upon principles and traditions that writers--and, indeed, society itself--have come to recognize as sound standards, or criteria, for determining what constitutes qualitative writing. Indeed, the concerns regarding his own writing that Zinsser shares with his readers suggest his own criteria as an author.
  • One of these concerns is that his writing not be “cold and sterile.” he is also concerned that his writing exhibit “a sense of continuity and flow.”
  • He expresses his concern for painstaking revision, confessing that “I have to get every paragraph as nearly right as possible before I go on to the next paragraph.”
  • He says that his writing is based on “design,” has “rhythm,” and exhibits “a pace that will invite the reader to keep reading,” the latter comment indicating his concern for his audience.
  • He says he edits his writing numerous times, “mostly. . . cutting” what he has written; his deletions typically include unnecessary prepositions, adverbs, adjectives, phrases, sentences, and any other “detail that is irrelevant.”
  • He also seeks to achieve “writing” that “is clear,” in which “words . . . convey the exact meaning” he intends them to convey.
  • In addition, he eliminates passive voice, replacing it with active voice, unifies his writing by ensuring that his writing is “consistent” in its use of tone, point of view, pronouns, and tenses, and includes transitions that “pull the reader along.”
  • He ensures “that every sentence is a logical sequel to the one that preceded it,” keeps his “sentences short,” and makes sure “that every sentence contains only one thought.”

For Zinssner, writing is largely a matter of making deliberate choices regarding these matters and concerning “What do I want to say next?” He compares the writing process to bricklaying: “I’m somewhat like a bricklayer: I build very slowly, not adding a new row until I feel that the foundation is solid enough to hold up the house.” His essay shows that he is concerned with the same principles and purposes as other writers: content, organization, clarity, purpose, credibility, persuasion, rhetoric, proofreading, editing, revision. There may be many ways to write, he suggests, but all good writing shares the same goals and is based upon the same principles, many of which he identifies and reflects in his own essay.

According to Northrop Frye, author of “Don’t You Think It’s Time to Start Thinking?,” illiteracy has such negative and unpleasant consequences as allowing or promoting unthinking obedience, social conformity, emotional manipulation, and social subjugation. His essay also contains practical advice for his readers who want to achieve personal literacy as writers: avoid the use of--\
  • Gobbledygook
  • Jargon
  • Cant
  • Clichés
  • Doublespeak
  • Groupthink
  • Weasel words.
He also suggests that illiteracy can apply as much to using not being able to understand or use images, analogies, and figures of speech. Illiteracy, in other words, is not limited only to understanding and using the written word effectively.

In “How to Write with Style,” Kurt Vonnegut shares some tips concerning how to write effectively. He suggests that a writer should:
  • Write about a “subject” that he or she “care[s] about.”
  • Not “ramble”
  • Use simple “language”
  • Eliminate irrelevant words and sentences
  • Ensure that their writing is clear, unambiguous, and intelligible
  • Use proper punctuation, syntax, and grammar.
In “How to Say Nothing in Five Hundred Words,” Paul Roberts also provides tips for effective writing. He suggests that writers
  • Use anecdotes, examples, facts, and figures to support and develop their claims.
  • Ask questions about their topics and their own purposes and then explore the topic’s implications.
  • Avoid or eliminate euphemisms; jargon; pat expressions and clichés; purple prose, or “colorful words”; unintentional connotative language; and “colorless words,” such as slang and “nouns of very general meaning.”
An analysis of the essays in Text Messages indicates that many writers begin their essays with an anecdote. Many of these anecdotes are extended to one or more pages. This technique of introducing one’s topic is exhibited in such essays as Judith Ortiz Cofer’s “The Myth of the Latin Woman,” Brent Staples’ “Black men and Public Space,” Alice Walker’s “Beauty: When the Other Dancer Is the Self,” Nancy Mairs’ “On Being a Cripple,” Sandra Cisneros’ “Only Daughter,” Caroline Hwang’s “The Good Daughter,” Marcus Mabry’s “Living in Two Worlds,” Semeen Issa’s and Laila Al-Marayati’s “An Identity Reduced to a Burka,” Thomas L. Friedman’s “The Whole World Is Watching,” Carol Tavris’ “In Groups We Shrink,” George Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant,” Jeff Z. Klein’s “Watching My Back,” Deborah Tannen’s “Marked Women,” and many others.

However, other authors take other approaches to introducing their essays’ topics. After all, as Zinsser points out, “No two people go about it in exactly the same way,” he says, “and what works for one person many not work for anyone else.”
  • To capture readers’ interest, Tim Townsend begins his essay, “The First Hours,” in media res, or in the middle of the action, without first setting up a context for the horrifying incidents that he, as a first-person narrator, relates.
  • In “Ghosts & Echoes,” Robin Morgan relies upon the use of the oxymoron “abnormal normalcy” to capture readers’ interest and, indeed, to structure much of her essay.
  • Robert Ramirez describes a train’s arrival in a particular community to bring his readers almost literally along with him to his destination, “The Barrio,” describing the community’s physical, emotional, and social structure and significance in the rest of his essay.
  • Writing speeches instead of essays, both Abraham Lincoln and Barack Obama begin their addresses with allusions to another president’s writing: Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, suggesting that more needs to be accomplished in order to make the goal of American democracy, the equality of all, as expressed in Jefferson’s document, a reality rather than merely a political ideal.
  • Another speech, “Three Ways of Meeting Oppression,” by Martin Luther King, Jr., analyzes the “three characteristic ways” that, he says, “oppressed people deal with their oppression,” structuring the rest of his essay according to these ways, so that the first section deals with “acquiescence”; the second, with “physical violence”; and the third, with “nonviolent resistance,” arranging his points climactically so that he writes last about the way of dealing with oppression that he himself recommends.
  • Both Garrison Keillor, author of “How the Crab Apple Grew,” and David Brooks, who wrote “The Outsourced Brain,” use humor to advance their ideas.
  • A few essays begin by outlining the arguments by other writers that they will refute in their own paragraphs. Rahul K. Parikh’s “Is There a Doctor in the Mouse?” takes this approach concerning his colleague Scott Haig’s “When the Patient is a Googler.” Whereas James Poniewozik’s “Why Reality TV Is Good For Us” argues in favor of such fare, Jeremy W. Peters asks what happens “When Reality TV Gets Too Real.” Clifford Stoll suggests, in “Makes Learning Fun,” that the attempt to make instruction entertaining is misguided and may be as inadvisable as it is improbable; Don Tapscott, author of “From Learning as Torture to Learning as Fun,” however, believes that making learning “fun” is both desirable and doable. Roger Ebert’s “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” offers a positive review of the film, contending that it is a movie that is faithful to the novel that it is based upon and does justice to the original story, whereas Elvis Mitchell provides a review that is more mixed, contending merely that the movie is competent, but contrived.

Most professional writers do not include an explicit, specific thesis sentence near the outset of (or, for that matter, anywhere else in) their essays that unifies their topic, indicates a structure for their essays, and previews the points that they will make in their essays. Instead, most professional writers provide implicit theses which are presented--or, more often, merely suggested--at various points throughout the essay, in piecemeal fashion, leaving it to their readers to infer the theses for themselves, assembling it, so to speak, as they discern first one part and then another of the essays’ underlying main ideas. Readers should keep this point in mind as they read, jotting down the writer’s points, point by point, and assembling for themselves explicit theses for such essays. For example, a thesis for “Ghosts & Echoes” might be: “The tragic attack upon the World Trade Center reveals both the diversity of America’s population and the everyday heroism of its people, which is a cause for faith in humanity.”

These essays indicate ways by which students can write more sophisticated essays. By using the same or similar techniques and principles as professional authors, students can develop styles that are less obvious, more indirect, and, perhaps, more persuasive, captivating, and memorable.

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