“You Can’t Write Writing”

We hear instructors across the curriculum bemoaning sloppy grammar. This apparent neglect of grammar is like the outbreak of some sort of flu, symptoms of the contagion appearing in papers everywhere. But our friends across the curriculum have the correct antidote: everyone should correct grammar when reading papers. But any diagnosis of unclear writing should consider more than grammar.  

Wendell Johnson, in “You Can’t Write Writing,” argued that English teachers had not been effective teachers of writing because they had emphasized grammar over purposeful writing. He opened with a quote from the famous lawyer Clarence Darrow: “The late Clarence Darrow, while speaking one day to a group of professors of English and others of kindred inclination, either raised or dismissed the basic problem with which his listeners were concerned by asking, “Even if you do learn to speak correct English, who are you going to talk it to? …What Mr. Darrow was contending can be summarized in the statement that the effective use of the English language is more important than the ‘correct’ use of it, and that if you can speak English ‘correctly,’ but not effectively, it does not matter very much ‘who you talk it to.’ ” 

Johnson, president of the International Society for General Semantics in the mid 1940’s, argued that English teachers had done a poor job of teaching writing skills, evidenced by the fact that he was forced in his job to teach students with sixteen years of grammar experience (i.e. graduate students) “how to write clear and meaningful and adequately organized English.” Johnson did not believe teaching grammar produced good writers: “In fact, it appears that the teachers of English teach English so poorly largely because they teach grammar so well. They seem to confuse or identify the teaching of grammar with the teaching of writing.” This in an era when students presumably read more, yet: “These students exemplify the simple fact that although one may have learned how to write with mechanical correctness, one may still have to learn how to write with significance and validity.” 

Johnson cited three reasons why English teachers failed to teach effective writing: they did not teach by example; they did not teach “writing-about-something-for-someone”; and they considered that writing, an art, could not be taught. But Johnson’s students committed few grammatical errors. “First of all, it is to be made clear that grammatical errors are not particularly serious.” The English teachers had done a good job teaching grammar; nevertheless, Johnson’s graduate students were unable to write clearly. In our time, we must contend with bad grammar, unclear writing, and a public that undervalues reading. 

We have argued that a good writer is first a good reader, and that a good reader is a good proofreader, constantly editing for clarity, conciseness, and purpose. All writing should be purposeful and aimed at a target audience. One learns writing while writing, and probably in no other way. What kind of paper can we expect from a student who neither reads nor writes? We have seen that bad writing is often the evidence of bad thinking, and that bad thinking is often a consequence of a lack of reading experience. 

Perhaps you’ve had the experience of standing in a small group and being asked by some lost motorist for directions. Someone in the group probably stepped up enthusiastically to offer simple if confused directions. Another may have interrupted with a reasoned opinion of the best route. Someone else may have entered with a third opposing viewpoint, suggesting yet a better route. What was the problem: the map, the roads, the destination, personal driving experience, the blank response from the increasingly frustrated driver? And of course, at the bottom of the hill, the car turned left when everyone had at least agreed on the need to turn right. It may sometimes feel to students that they are like lost travelers, making wrong turns at every corner, misunderstanding seemingly contradictory directions, uncertain which way to turn next. 

“You Can’t Write Writing” was anthologized in “The Use and Misuse of Language”: Selected Essays from ETC: A Review of General Semantics, edited by S. I. Hayakawa. Harper and Brothers, 1962.


Sister Maryquill’s Style Guide: An APA/MLA etc. Primer

When McCluhan wrote, in “The Gutenberg Galaxy,” “…the scholar in print culture can have acceptance for his accuracy even though he has nothing to say,” he may have been thinking of Sister Maryquill’s class, in Los Angeles, circa 1957.  

Sister Maryquill’s requirements led the young scholar down a straight path toward accuracy, clarity, and conciseness before he even contemplated the writing of words or numbers. These requirements included clean, white, three hole punched, wide margin, ruled folder paper. For a page ripped from a spiral notebook, one subtracted points, minus 10%. If from the ripped page dangled hanging chads, or if chad confetti littered the floor around one’s desk, one subtracted more points, minus an additional 10%. One used red and black pencils, #2, both, for Arithmetic, blue ink pen for English. There were no other subjects. A single, 12 inch ruler, 3 hole punched, completed every student’s toolbox – no borrowing allowed.

Samples from Sister’s Guide: “In Arithmetic, divide the width of the paper from the left margin line to the right edge in half, measuring 3 inches from the top of the paper and 3 inches from the bottom, making a tiny dot with red pencil to mark your measurements. Hold your ruler vertically aligned against the dots to get plumb. Using your red pencil, draw a straight line from the top ruled line to the bottom of the page. Hold your ruler horizontally across the first ruled line. Draw over the line with your red pencil.” 

“At the top of every page write in capital letters without punctuation JMJ. On the first page, in the top, right hand corner, write your name. Under your name, write the date. Under the date, write the subject. Under the subject, write the assignment. On subsequent pages, in the same top right hand corner space, write only your name, but under your name, write the page number, only the number.”

The classroom stapler was reserved for special occasions. For regular, daily work: “When submitting work of multiple pages, fold the top left hand corner down, creating an equilateral triangle, rip the paper inward from the center of the outside edge, and double back the top side.”  

In Sister Maryquill’s English class, thesis stated, theme explored, but within the confines described above: blue ink on proper, white folder paper; writing aligned neatly against the left, red margin; double-spaced, cursive – all under the watchful eyes of JMJ. But there was more preparation required of the English paper, for every sentence required diagramming, properly, to avoid its being stricken. One used red pencil and ruler for the lines of the diagram, and blue ink pen for the words. Of course, there were many violations other than improper diagrams that warranted striking sentences, and many paragraphs starting with a dozen sentences or more ended with none.

Time for recess.

Live Reading, Patricia Marx

At Powell’s on Hawthorne last night, Patricia Marx read from her national bestseller, newly released in paperback, “Him Her Him Again the End of Him.” In addition to reading from and talking about the book, Patricia talked about her experiences writing for Saturday Night Live, Rugrats, and the New Yorker. The small audience of about twenty readers, warmly bundled for the freezing windchill outside, enjoyed the reading, sitting on folding chairs, in the small open space between the music and crime sections. 

Patricia did not read from notes, speaking discursively, in a style suggesting someone thinking aloud. She lacked confidence in her reading – or feigned this – at one point trying to play a recording of the book, but unfamiliarity with a new stereo dashed the plan, and she returned to reading with her own voice. But the audience preferred the author’s own even if perhaps poor voice to a recording; that’s why the readers came. 

In part from audience prompts, she mentioned advice she found useful for her writing. Paraphrased in the bullets below, the advice seems to inform her approach to writing: 

1.      Write a book only you can write;

2.      Surprise your reader;

3.      Don’t waste words;

4.      Write and go (she doesn’t work from an outline). 

Against this reasonable, practical advice, she said she wrote the book nights, over a period of approximately a year and a half. She came across as a working writer, a non-academic – though she was one of the first women on the staff of the Harvard Lampoon. Awakening to the opportunity to attend a live reading by a working writer in a small group setting is really the reason for this post.

Here’s the link to the Powell’s calendar. http://www.powells.com/calendar.html


On Reading Well

In discussion last night we asked what makes for a good writer, what characterizes good writing, how do we recognize good writing. And so we talked about what makes good writing good. The discussion was lively, full of ideas, suggestions, and opinions. We stacked boxes of clarity in the back corner. Someone brought in bowls of mixed claims to snack on, and we helped ourselves to a refreshing punch from a glass bowl filled with assumptions.  

Then we asked what makes for a good reader, what characterizes good reading, how do we recognize good reading. And so we talked about what makes good reading good. But the discussion was chilly, quiet – only one light box of definitions, few suggestions, and thinly scattered opinions. The snacks ran out and the party seemed over. 

Writing is learned while writing, and probably in no other way. Memorization of all the many rules will not guarantee good writing. But we are not born pen in hand, fingers on a keyboard, or standing in front of an audience, our argument committed to memory and practiced. If bad writing is often the evidence of bad thinking, does bad reading result in bad writing? A good writer is a good reader. A good reader is a good proofreader. But what do we proofread for – for our own comprehension and understanding of what’s going on? But even if we can read something good with success, does it follow we can write something good with equal success? It’s possible that a good reader is, first, an imaginative reader, one who reads with imagination; but what do we mean by imagination, childhood wonder, or Wallace Stevens’s reading lamp (orange sun in his clear blue sky), the one unconcerned that we might not get it, for we may not even stop to think there’s something to get, that that’s what it’s all about, the other concerned with reality. Many of us fear writing – just as we might fear speaking before groups; do we fear reading in similar ways? How do we get over these fears?

In “On Writing Well,” William Zinsser says “Clear thinking becomes clear writing; one can’t exist without the other. It’s impossible for a muddy thinker to write good English” (p. 9). Then, without warning, he accuses the reader of being “someone with an attention span of about 30 seconds…” (p. 9). We suppose Steven Toulmin meant something similar when he said, “The effort the writer does not put into writing, the reader has to put into reading.” Nevertheless, much reading does require effort, supreme effort to read Stevens, to use one of his words, though of course Toulmin was probably not speaking of poetry, but even so, Stevens’s essays are just as difficult as his poetry; anyway, Toulmin also makes it plain he doesn’t want people using his ideas dogmatically, and another of what he calls his “mottoes” is “no theory is self-validating.”

We are working on keeping our posts short, around 500 words seems right for our purpose, but if we don’t get the right 500 words in the right order we find that what we’ve written often sounds too cryptic; nevertheless, we end now with the following, from A. W. Ward’s “Dickens”:        

“Dickens…perceived that in order to succeed as a reporter of the highest class he needed something besides the knowledge of shorthand. In a word, he lacked reading; and this deficiency he set himself to supply as best he could by a constant attendance at the British Museum. Those critics who have dwelt on the fact that the reading of Dickens was neither very great nor very extensive, have insisted on what is not less true than obvious; but he had this one quality of the true lover of reading, that he never professed a familiarity with that which he knew little or nothing” (p. 10).  

“Inasmuch as he was no great reader in the days of his authorship, and had to go through hard times of his own before, it was well that the literature of his childhood was good of its kind, and that where it was not good it was at least gay. Dickens afterwards made it an article of his social creed, that the imagination of the young needs nourishment as much as their bodies require food and clothing; and he had reason for gratefully remembering that at all events the imaginative part of his education had escaped neglect” (p. 4). 

Ward, A. W. (1882). Dickens. London: Macmillan and Co. p. 10. Digitalized by Google:

Olson, Gary A. “Literary theory, philosophy of science, and persuasive discourse: Thoughts from a neo-premodernist.” [interview with Stephen Toulmin] JAC: Journal of Advanced Composition 13.2 (1993): 283-310.

Vocabulary Building

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”

Our reading vocabulary is probably larger than our speaking vocabulary. Our writing vocabulary might be larger than our speaking one, but probably is not as large as our reading one. The best way to improve our vocabulary is by reading. But what do we mean by improve vocabulary? More words? Better words? Big words? But what do we mean by better words? If two different words mean the same thing, what difference would it make which we use? Do we mean better words for certain situations – for we sometimes find ourselves at the proverbial loss for words, depending on who’s in on the conversation or the nature of the discussion? Maybe by improving our vocabulary we simply mean increasing the frequency of when we seem to be in possession of the right word at the right time. If that’s what we mean, we might need more words, not necessarily big words – but right words; where and how do we find and master more words that are useful, not too big, but just right?

The best way to build vocabulary is by reading with a dictionary close by (reading what we’ll save for a later post). However, building vocabulary by reading can be a slow process, and so we offer, not, hopefully, in the spirit of the age of instant gratification, but in the spirit of efficiency, and utility, the Funk and Lewis, “30 Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary.” We know – sounds like Charles Atlas or Jack LaLanne for the tongue. But this is an effective book, and offers the same formula Atlas and LaLanne offered: focus on exercise and diet. Numerous editions, with exercises, so you need a fresh copy.

Opening dialog above is from Lewis Carroll’s ”Through the Looking Glass” (originally published in 1871), Chapter VI, Humpty Dumpty.

The Idea of Self-Portrait Writing, or A Portrait of the Writer as Reader

In Montaigne’s autobiography, we find an essay titled “Why I Paint My Own Portrait”: 

“One day I was at Bar-le-Duc when King Francis II was presented a portrait that King Rene of Sicily had made of himself. Why, in a like manner, isn’t it lawful for every one of us to paint himself with his pen, as Rene drew himself with a crayon?” 

We all have a particular picture of ourselves – seldom, perhaps, the same picture that others have of us. And this is true of people we know and see and talk to face-to-face. Though we see eye-to-eye, we nevertheless find ourselves mired in misunderstanding. Unstated assumptions carpet beneath our oratorical feet like banana peels. Our rhetorical situations may be hopelessly complicated when our tools for communicating with one another are limited to reading and writing.  

Montaigne again; this reader advisory from “What I Find In My Essays”:

“The titles of my essays do not always embrace their content. Often they denote it merely by a sign. It is the careless reader who loses track of the subject, not I. There will be always hid in a corner some word which, however hard to find, will not fail to bring him back.”

Montaigne tells us why and how he writes, and why and how he reads. This from “The Days When I Read”:

“For my part, I like only easy and amusing books which tickle my fancy, or such as give me counsel and comfort. If I use them for study, it is to learn how to know myself, and to teach myself the proper way to live and die.”

Montaigne found reading useful, and his reading fueled his writing. If bad writing is usually the evidence of bad thinking, we find little to no bad thinking in Montaigne. He appears to have learned writing from writing, however, not from reading. And he would argue that one learns writing from the regular practice of it, and in no other way. His writing is not simply his thinking put to paper:

“Drawing this portrait after my own model, I have often been forced to drape and rearrange myself in order that the pose may offer a truer likeness, with the result that I have created for myself a fresher and brighter complexion than I began with. My book has made me as much as I have made my book. It is of the same stuff as the author, a limb of my body, devoted to its own being and not to the concerns of its reader, as are other books.”

Montaigne is constantly making claims and questioning them, evaluating evidence, his own or that of others, looking for what has been left out, and why, verifying the presence of an opposing view and analyzing it for its strengths and weaknesses, weighing the possibilities of suggested solutions. If thesis states, theme explores; Montaigne explores themes, but his great theme is himself:

“Meditation is ample exercise for the man who knows how to explore and use himself. No occupation is at once idler and more fruitful – according to the character of our mind – than entertaining one’s own thoughts. Great men make it their life work. Moreover, Nature has favored us in it: for there is nothing we can keep at so long and easily. It is the business of the gods, says Aristotle; and it creates both their happiness and ours.”

If a good writer is a good reader, if good reading precedes good writing, just as existence might precede essence, Montaigne explains why: “With its variety of matter, reading above all awakens my reasoning power. It puts my judgment to work, not my memory. And I would rather forge my mind than furnish it.”

Lowenthal, Marvin. Autobiography of Michel de Montaigne. Vintage Book, V34.  First published in 1935 by Houghton Mifflin Company.

n+1 clips The Believer’s sneakers

n+1‘s review of The Believer accuses McSweeney’s founder Dave Eggers of failing to transcend childhood (i.e. go beyond his roots) – but entanglement in one’s own roots is an honest place to start writing (note the unstated assumptions throughout the n+1review, including one should transcend childhood, childhood being peopled by children – apparently not a good place to be).

Eggers, in the San Francisco tradition of Jack London (and, n+1 gives us, Eric Hoffer), lives and writes in the real world. n+1 compares The Believer to Mad Magazine, casting Eggers in the role of adult child. n+1‘s evidence?: A writing tutor program for children called 826 Valencia founded and worked by Eggers and other volunteers – to teach writing to children. Apparently, things don’t get more childish than that in n+1‘s world.

We have subscribed to and have been reading The Believer since its inception, and look forward to each issue, but we have now added n+1 to our reading stack. And while we’ve not quite reached the point where we might want to renew our Mad subscription, our recent review of its web site, suggested by n+1, found no shortage of adult content.

For a complete review comparing n+1 to The Believer see A. O. Scott in the New York Times.

Correcting, Grading, and Commenting: Right, Wrong, and Indifferent

Louis Menand, in his review of Lynne Truss’s “Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation,” suspects “the whole thing might be a hoax.” (New Yorker, June 28, 2004.) Menand corrects with comments Truss’s misuse of commas: “Doubtful, distracting, and unwarranted commas turn up in front of restrictive phrases,” and elsewhere, while he also finds nonrestrictive clauses missing commas. That’s not all he finds wrong (the controlling error in Truss’s book, in Menand’s view, is that she repeatedly violates the very rules she claims hold value), and so he asks, reasonably, “Why would a person who is not just vague about the rules but disinclined to follow them bother to produce a guide to punctuation?” Menand’s answer is that Truss’s true topic is not punctuation but declining literacy skills and values. Menand’s true topic is that mastery of punctuation and grammar rules doesn’t necessarily produce style, what he calls “voice”: “There are probably all kinds of literary sins that prevent a piece of writing from having a voice, but there seems to be no guaranteed technique for creating one. Grammatical correctness doesn’t insure it. Calculated incorrectness doesn’t, either. Ingenuity, wit, sarcasm, euphony, frequent outbreaks of the first-person singular-any of these can enliven prose without giving it a voice. You can set the stage as elaborately as you like, but either the phantom appears or it doesn’t.”

The problem is that most readers either don’t recognize errors or ignore them if they do recognize them, or they recognize errors and do respond to them but their response is rendered useless by the fact that the general reader can’t discern a difference between the passage with the error and the same passage with the error corrected – so no one seems to be the wiser or not for the error recognized and its correction inserted. We either get the joke or we don’t, and if we don’t, it’s not the same experience having it explained to us. For a discussion of reader response to rules violated we should read Joseph M. Williams’s article “The Phenomenology of Error.” Williams, like Menand, also makes use of writers violating their own rules, and not just writers like Truss, but the venerable E. B. White, whose “Elements of Style” is a classic now in its fourth edition, and the practical George Orwell: “…I am bemused by the apparent fact that three generations of teachers have used this essay (“Politics and the English Language”) without there arising among us a general wry amusement that Orwell violated his own rules in the act of stating them.”

“It don’t matter,” you  might be saying, “I amn’t one of those. Just give me a few rules I can understand and apply to get me through the long night of this paper” (if you happen to be writing one) or “these papers” (if you happen to be correcting a stack).

Williams did not argue for a rejection of rules. At the same time, he did not think the presence of a rule in a handbook requires us to honor it. Perhaps we should spend more time not correcting errors but commenting on what’s right in a paper (a student’s paper or students peer reviewing). But we might still have the same problem – Williams deliberately inserted about 100 errors into his original paper, so that he could ask his readers if they on a first reading noticed any of them. If a majority of readers, he reasoned, recognized the same errors on a first “non-reflexive” reading, those errors would be the ones we should all read for first: “In short, if we read any text the way we read freshman essays, we will find many of the same kind of errors we routinely expect to find and therefore do find. But if we could read those student essays unreflexively, if we could make the ordinary kind of contract with those texts that we make with other kinds of texts, then we could find many fewer errors.”

If we expect to learn to write by learning the rules… – but if we don’t know the rules, and we still managed to write something effective or even with Menand’s “voice,” how did we do it?

For more of Williams’s ideas see his “Clarity and Grace or Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace,” and the U Chicago writing site. There is a useful list of “articles on error analysis” at the IUB campus writing program site.

Menand, Louis. (2004, June 28). Bad comma. New Yorker.

Williams, Joseph. (1981). The phenomenology of error. College Composition and Communication, 32.

Reading declines, unobtrusively

Caleb Crain’s article in the December 24 issue of the New Yorker reports on a decline in reading, discusses the causes and effects of declining reading skills, and speculates on what a future readerless society might be like. Titled “Twilight of the Books,” the article asks, “What will life be like if people stop reading?”  

When asked in a Paris Review interview, in 1972, about the future of the written word, Jerzy Kosinski described reading novels as an unusual, masochistic act. Literature, in Kosinski’s view, lacked television’s ability to soothe. He believed television was the enemy of books. But then the lovely E. L. Mayo poem, “The Coming of the Toads,” also about TV, suggests a political outcome, a Marxist marvel:

“The very rich are not like you and me,”
Sad Fitzgerald said, who could not guess
The coming of the vast and gleaming toads
With precious heads which, at a button’s press,
The flick of a switch, hop only to convey
To you and me and even the very rich
The perfect jewel of equality.  

Mayo, E. L. (1981). Collected Poems. Kansas City: University of Missouri.

Kosinski’s code name for his short novel “Being There,” he tells us in the interview, was “Blank Page.” With the internet, Mayo’s equality includes read/write capabilities and potentials. Kosinski describes his own prose as unobtrusive. Today’s younger students are busily texting one another on their cell phones in a sub-text that is certainly unobtrusive.  

An Unlikely Place to Find an Argument

Aristotle discusses the parts and arrangement of an argument: “The only necessary parts of a speech are the Statement and the Argument. These are the essential features of a speech; and it cannot in any case have more than Introduction, Statement, Argument, and Epilogue. ‘Refutation of the Opponent’ is part of the arguments: so is ‘Comparison’ of the opponent’s case with your own, for that process is a magnifying of your own case and therefore a part of the arguments, since one who does this proves something. The Introduction does nothing like this; nor does the Epilogue-it merely reminds us of what has been said already.” Aristotle. Rhetoric. (1954). Ryhs Roberts, Trans. New York: Modern Library.

When reading arguments we don’t necessarily want to join the argument; we want to read the argument effectively, which means, primarily, identifying and thinking about the writer’s assumptions, particularly assumptions unstated, but also identifying and understanding the writer’s audience and the rhetorical situation that prompted the argument. Reading arguments effectively also requires that we identify and analyze the writer’s claims, the thesis, causes and effects described, organization of these parts within the argument, the support given for the claims, the efficacy of the solution if a problem has been described and a solution offered – in short, what has been said, and what has been left out; why and how said, and why left out. We ask questions.

Arguments surround us. Let’s go somewhere we might not expect to encounter one. Even if we live alone, even if extremely recluse, we still probably argue – with ourselves if no one else is around. Consider Han-shan, a recluse from the Period of Division (220-589), who wrote his poems on rocks near trails in the mountains: “He misses the point entirely, / Men like that / Ought to stick to making money” (Hahn-shan, Cold Mountain Poems, Nov. 1982 Printing, Gary Snyder, Trans. Riprap & Cold Mountain Poems, San Francisco: Grey Fox Press). But why did Han-shan bother writing his poems at all, let alone on rocks where travelers might or might not have found them, randomly? Perhaps Han-shan was one of the world’s first bloggers: “I idly scribble poems on the rock cliff.”

Aristotle thought everyone argued, and he thought argument useful. His Rhetoric shows us how to read arguments. “Rhetoric the counterpart of Dialectic. Both alike are concerned with such things as come, more or less, within the general ken of all men and belong to no definite science. Accordingly all men make use, more or less, of both; for to a certain extent all men attempt to discuss statements and to maintain them, to defend themselves and to attack others. Ordinary people do this either at random or through practice and from acquired habit. Both ways being possible, the subject can plainly be handled systematically, for it is possible to inquire the reason why some speakers succeed through practice and others spontaneously; and every one will at once agree that such an inquiry is the function of an art.”

When we read and write, we argue.

When we read and write, we argue. We all argue from time to time, and we generally apply, from an opponent’s prompt or from our own desire to make ourselves clear, examples and proofs, persuasive tools, but as we ramble on, as is often our wont, making claim after claim, supporting or not, making assumptions left and right, some stated, others not, we shortly may find ourselves caught in a riptide of our own words.

As Samuel Beckett said, “You can’t listen to a conversation for five minutes without noting inherent chaos.” But we swim on, using what persuasive tools we find handy – tools described and explained nicely for us in Aristotle’s Rhetoric. It’s not only OK to argue; arguing is our responsibility.

In Aristotle’s view, argument is what makes us human; we engage in argument as a consequence of our living together, working together, playing together – reading and writing together. It follows, though it may sound paradoxical, that when we learn to read and write arguments effectively, we more effectively cooperate with one another, and we learn to live together in greater harmony. But not all arguments are equal. Some are specious, others obfuscated, sometimes deliberately so. Some, contrary to Aristotelian principle, persuade to do wrong. As Woody Guthrie said, “Some men will rob you with a six gun, others with a fountain pen.” 

If arguing is good (and necessary), not all arguments are good (or necessary). But what’s necessary? And what’s good? The answers to those questions are what we work toward when we work on learning to read and to write arguments.