Monday, March 25, 2013

Transcending Beyond

A paper with wonderful content may actually be a really bad paper.  So many college students are taught to present a well supported argument, and these well supported arguments are considered to be all that matters in an A grade paper. But what happens when a student, a student with profound thoughts and interesting points, has difficulty presenting his or her ideas clearly and concisely?
As a peer writing consultant, I have often encountered students who could be described as deep thinkers who care about their writing, but their sentences are just too confusing to fully understand their argument.  To the writing tutor it seems like a simple argument to solve; simply identify the subject and predicate of each sentence and eliminate all unnecessary words and phrases.  However, is it really just that easy? It is easy to say it should happen that way, but I have found that intelligent students often care a lot about their writing, and therefore spend a lot of time on every sentence before they bring their paper in to the writing lab. Then, when we are working on revisions, it is impossible for the student to change what they have already written because they spent so much time on each individual sentence.  When students are having a hard time revising their own papers what is the tutor to do? One should not be so direct as to rephrase each sentence for the student.
Joseph M Williams, author of Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace, says that to develop clear and concise writing one must move outside of their writing and understand the deeper meaning that isn’t tied down to the exact words on the page (Williams 34). So what is the writing tutor to do to help students transcend out of the words on the page and write clearly, giving their well planned arguments the explanation they deserve.
Resources: Williams, Joseph M., and Gregory G. Colomb. Style Lessons in Clarity and Grace. Boston: Longman, 2010. Print.


  1. In Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace, Williams quotes Charles Darwin, who said, “Looking back, I think it was more difficult to see what the problems were than to solve them” (185). I agree, because half of the battle in helping writing students improve and refine their writing is helping them see why their problems are problems. If the students think that what they have written does not need changing or improving, they will never listen to strategies for how to change it.
    While we as writing consultants should be encouraging and not necessarily push students to change what they have written if they are convinced that they like it, since their opinion is valid and we do not know everything, students must also be brought to understand why a certain phrasing or word choice might inhibit understanding.
    The trick is to communicate the idea that their content does not need to be changed, just the way in which they express and explain that content.
    In The Bedford Guide for Writing Tutors, Ryan and Zimmerelli give suggestions for helping students with sentence level revising. They write, “concentrate on a small section—a paragraph or several sentences. Later, writers can apply what they have learned to the rest of the paper. This approach also reminds writers that they are ultimately responsible for revising their papers” (51). It also empowers them to be able to revise their papers and to see why their content might be perfect but the meaning unclear.

    Ryan, Leigh, and Lisa Zimmerelli. The Bedford Guide for Writing Tutors. 5th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2010. Print.
    Williams, Joseph M. Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace. 9th ed. New York: Pearson, 2007. Print.

  2. Emily, you pose a very interesting question. I think that as writing consultants, we need to be encouraging to our student writers. When we encounter student writers who have trouble being clear and concise, but have excellent arguments, I think that it is important to stress that their content and ideas are great. We also need to explain that though their ideas are good, they would be even better if they learn how to implement strategies that help them to make their writing more clear and concise. I think that this is where writing as communication is an important idea to stress; if they truly care about communicating their arguments to others, they will understand the importance of making their writing as clear as possible. In researching this topic, I came across a great quote, "Attention to matters of writing style enhances clear communication, which must be the prime objective of scientific writing" (Knight 213). I would like to say that it should be an objective of all types of writing to communicate clearly.

    Knight, Kenneth L. "Optimizing Scholarly Communication: 30 Tips for Writing Clearly." Journal of Athletic Training 31.3 (1996): 209-213. Print.

  3. Style is often the hardest part of writing to help writers with in the writing center. I agree that many students have wonderful ideas, but their sentence structure or choice of words causes their writing to be unintelligible and ambiguous. I would absolutely suggest reading the entirety of the article "Sentence Comparison: An Activity for Teaching Style" by Edgar H. Schuster (only 5 pages) because it offers great advice to help students say what they want to say in the best way possible. He advocates "that students can learn to revise for style if they recognize the stylistic choices writers make" (94). He has students compare two sentences such as:
    A: Give me liberty or give me death.
    B: If I cannot have my individual liberty, I would
    rather be put to death.
    and has the students compare the two and discuss them. He ultimately wants students to see that good writing is concise, employs linguistic devices or "tools," and recognizes the freedom to break rules (98). If we, as writing consultants, can show students examples like this and help them to revise sentences using literary devices and succinctness, many student-writers will benefit from this. Without pushing students or writing their paper for them, we can try to help student-writers convey meaning in the best way possible using words that clearly express their ideas.

    Schuster, Edgar H. "Sentence Comparison: An Activity for Teaching Style." The English Journal 95.5 (2005): 94-98. JSTOR. Web. 1 April 2013.

  4. In "The Elements of Style," Strunk and White advise writers to "avoid a succession of loose sentences" (25). Following their advice can help many writers clearly articulate concepts that have become long and muddied; I've often noticed that the clarity of a student's writing suffers because the exact relationships between various ideas and sentences in the paper are not expressed. The result is hard to follow. According to Eliot, the culprits in this situation are often the words "and" and "but," which can connect almost anything but won't necessarily make that connection meaningful. Explaining to writers what in their paper is unclear to you as a reader and showing them both good and bad examples of sentence and paragraph structure can demonstrate the fact that relationships between ideas are nearly as important as the ideas themselves.

    Strunk, William, and E.B. White Jr. The Elements of Style, 4th ed. New York, etc: Longman, 1972. Print.

  5. Emily, I appreciate what you have to say in this post. Clarity can be difficult for writers because what makes sense in one's head does not always make sense when put into written words.
    According to Joe Glaser, voice plays a large role in how understandable our writing is. He devotes the second chapter of his book "Understanding Style" to four types of voices that are turn-offs to readers: the Professional Terror (Glaser, 23), the Creative Genius (29), the Sleepwalker (31) and the Clunker (35). An aspect of each of these voices clouds the meaning and intent of the author. At the end of the chapter, Glaser includes three points a writer can use to avoid some of the problems associated with these problems. First, don't try to sound overly learned or overly creative. Second, avoid monotony and use emphasis effectively. Finally, avoid unintended repetition of words and sounds that are unattractive (38).
    I liked these three points because I believe that they are simple principles that we can introduce to writers in the lab. Interestingly, all three points relate to the idea of being concise: eliminate unnecessary words, avoid monotony, avoid unnecessary repetition. Clarity and conciseness go hand in hand; being clear without being concise is difficult and vice versa. This basic principle is useful to all writers.

    Glaser, Joe. Understanding Style. New York : Oxford University Press, 2010. Print.