Tuesday, June 26, 2012

What makes bad writing

Someone recently asked Wall Street Journal columnist Cynthia Crossen to explain what constitutes bad writing. In her June 25 column, she focuses on three key traits: obscurity, wordiness, and overwriting. As an example of obscurity, she quotes this piece of academic prose: “The lure of imaginary totality is momentarily frozen before the dialectic of desire hastens on with symbolic chains.” Wordiness, Crossen believes, is due partly to lax editing of published works; she is “often shocked by how badly some books need to be trimmed.” As for overwriting, Crossen cites Amanda McKittrick Ros (1860-1939), whose books were fodder for contests that C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien held among the literati at Oxford. The prize went to the one who could read Ros’s work the longest without laughing. Crossen provides an example: “Do not sit in silence and allow the blood that now boils in my veins to ooze through cavities of unrestrained passion and trickle down to drench me with its crimson hue.”

While I don’t see much overwriting in my students’ work, I do see obscurity. And we work on problems with wordiness all year. Meanwhile, I regularly have to trim my own writing.



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