Friday, January 28, 2011

The problem with most bad writers is that they write for themselves, not the audience

So says Professor John Trimble, author of the popular text Writing With Style: Conversations on the Art of Writing, just released in its third edition.  Professor Trimble had this to say in an interview with the Chronicle of Higher Ed:

The novice writer, [Trimble] argues, has a 'natural tendency ... to think primarily of himself—hence to write primarily for himself.' His description of how that tendency plays out in the head of the novice writer deserves to be reproduced in full:

'He thinks through an idea only until it is passably clear to him, since, for his purposes, it needn't be any clearer; he dispenses with transitions because it's enough that he knows how his ideas connect; he uses a private system—or no system—of punctuation; he doesn't trouble to define his terms because he understands perfectly well what he means by them; he writes page after page without bothering to vary his sentence structure; he leaves off page numbers and footnotes; he paragraphs only when the mood strikes him; he ends abruptly when he decides he's had enough; he neglects to proofread the final job because the writing is over.'

More advice for keeping good writing on track - write in an authentic voice:

'Each time we write,' he says in the book, 'we're making a choice as to the kind of person we prefer to be. Since it's so important, let's make that choice a conscious one for a change. Here's what it involves: 'Do I want to be authentically me, speaking my own thoughts in my own idiom, or am I content to be a pseudo-self, using borrowed thoughts, borrowed language, and a borrowed personality to gain the approval of a few literary traditionalists?'

In the spirit of arguing for this more authentic prose style, he devotes an entire chapter, 'Superstitions,' to debunking a set of popular dogmas about what we should and should not do in academic writing. One of his seven targets in the chapter is the idea that we should never refer to our readers as 'you' and should instead use the more formal address 'the reader.'

'What reader,' he asks, 'wants to be addressed as 'the reader'? It's akin to saying, in conversation, 'I'm glad to hear the listener has recovered from her cold."

On the 'rule' against contractions, he contrasts two sentences: 'Why should we not have clean air?' and 'Why shouldn't we have clean air?'

'Honestly,' he says, 'which of those two writers would you rather hang out with?'

Professor Trimble - superstar writing teacher.  Icon.  Read more of his interview with the CHE here.


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