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March 16, 2006

Mary on Classic Writing

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Prairie Mary is delighted to discover Francis-Noel Thomas and Mark Turner's wonderful writing guide, "Clear and Simple as the Truth: Writing Classsic Prose." (It's buyable here.) Nice passage:

I have a feeling that Transcendalists and those trying to transcend their circumstances are often writing in order to think things out -- to reduce or expand the inchoate to something intelligible. Thomas and Turner insist that this is NOT classic writing, in which the thinking is done beforehand until it is resolved and exact -- THEN the words and sentences are chosen in response to and as an accurate representation of those facts.

Denis Dutton is just as enthusiastic. I'll add that, while Turner and Thomas' book is certainly one of the best things I've ever read about writing, it concerns a lot more than writing. I'm a big fan of Turner's "The Literary Mind: The Origins of Thought and Language," too. It can be bought here. Here's a webpage that shows off some of Turner and Thomas' thoughts. Fun excerpt:

Those who teach writing today include many who attempt to teach some version of "the rules" and others who want to politicize such instruction because they think that teaching ideology is teaching writing. Neither of these strategies seems to work very well. How can learning to write be so difficult when learning to talk is so easy?

Mary also links to a related website. Here's Mark Turner's website. Here's Francis-Noel Thomas'.



posted by Michael at March 16, 2006


The subject of this essay is why learning to write is difficult. Learning to write can be difficult for the following three reasons.

Teachers deliberately make it obscure.

Long vocabulary words are rewarded at the expense of clarity.

The three point essay structure is an awkward way to write about many things.

In summary, learning to write can be difficult because of teachers, vocabulary words, and the three-point essay structure.

Did I do good? Are you still awake?

Posted by: annette on March 16, 2006 04:19 PM

Thomas and Turner would have none of the above! I'm a little worried about them, too.

God knows that Richard Stern tried so very hard to make things clear to us but we still didn't get it sometimes. He was NEVER deliberately obscure, though I've had teachers in other subjects who were. Peter Matthiessen was not obscure when he taught writing at a workshop I took.

I have NEVER rewarded long obscure words except that in my high school classroom I told the students that they could not speak of bodily functions except in Latinate multisyllables, with the result that the rowdier boys learned more and longer words faster than they ever had before.

I agree that a three-point structure (which is what they teach in the high schools here -- they publish many of them in the local weekly paper), 3 paragraphs, each with 3 sentences, is pretty primitive but it is a struggle for some of these kids. They have to stretch hard. What's wrong with that?

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on March 16, 2006 11:02 PM

Maybe the worst thing you can do to someone starting out to write is to encourage him to be creative: to see where the words take him, to go with the flow.
Far better that he get the sequence and structure of what he wants to say as firmly as possible in his head before he starts writing and then to write with as much fidelity as he can muster to that plan.

Posted by: ricpic on March 17, 2006 11:17 AM

Would anyone be surprised if ricpic's point applies to writing computer programs? I mean in spades!

Programmer Corollary: Far better that he get the sequence and structure of what he wants to achive as firmly as possible in his head before he starts coding...

Could this mean there is a writer in my engineering / programmer brain trying to get out? Outstanding!

Posted by: JG on March 17, 2006 11:32 AM

I always thought that the dumbest thing English/writing teachers do is to require papers of (for example) "at least 1500 words." Good lord, what an effective way to train kids to generate a lot of meaningless, disorganized baloney. They should be insisting that kids not write more than (say) 250 words. Put a limit on it; that might actually force kids to learn how to get to their points and organize their thoughts.

I dunno. I have a theory that everyone should be able to write a clear paragraph or two -- it's a basic life-skill to be able to write clearly. But I also think that few people (who aren't pro writers) really need to be able to do better than that, or to know how to engineer bigger pieces of writing than that. If you want to create something long, hire a professional writer to do it for you, for god's sake.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 17, 2006 11:39 AM

I used to assign my high school kids a paragraph to be EXACTLY 43 words long or 103 words long or some other arbitrary number. Why 250? What publication are we trying to fit into?

The point of giving a number at all was to make them wrestle with editing and adding and compressing a prepositional phrase into an adverb, etc. To be in charge of the words.

But the real breakthrough was when I'd make them NOT write for twenty minutes: do "webbing" or mapping, or lists, or whowhathwhenwherehow or 2 sense memories for each sense -- something to get their thinking in order FIRST.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on March 17, 2006 11:46 AM

When I started college and took mandatory Freshman English (sadly, no longer required at Washington), we tried to show off by using those long, long words.

Fortunately, the young instructor we had (George Bluestone, whose interest was the book-film relationship) slapped us down right promptly.

Verbosity crept back as a Sociology grad student. Later I was guilty of going on bureaucratese autopilot. Luckily, I came to realize what had happened and continually try to avoid the trap (not always successfully).

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on March 17, 2006 12:34 PM

"How can learning to write be so difficult when learning to talk is so easy?"

The former skill utilizes a very small fraction of the power possessed by the human brain, especially when linked into small groups by language. Furthermore, in most of its forms, it requires that at least some pretense be given toward a profoundly incorrect model of the relationship between "thought" and "language". Thirdly, it both more greatly serves purposes of social discrimination, and is less likely to obscure for the professed elites all of the shibboleths that occur in their own spoken discourse; hence, the arbitrarily small hoops that it sets are ones which must actually be jumped through.

How's that for a contribution?

Posted by: J. Goard on March 17, 2006 03:33 PM

Roy Peter Clark has written some writing guidelines which I think are the best things ever written about writing. On the web, for free! Emphasis on journalistic writing, but most of the insights are universally applicable. I used to think that writing guides were bland and useless, until I read this site.

(BTW, if anyone wants to have all the tips in a single text file, contact me).

Posted by: Robert Nagle on March 26, 2006 08:12 AM

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