Saturday, April 12, 2014

Bad thinking leads to bad writing

In a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article titled "Bad Writing and Bad Thinking," author Rachel Toor argues that some problems with students’ writing arise from their belief that they must write like others in their fields—even when that writing is clumsy. Instead, Toor says, students should follow George Orwell’s and Strunk and White’s advice about thinking and writing clearly. She adds, “Call me simple-minded, call me anti-intellectual, but I believe that most poor scholarly writing is a result of bad habits, of learning tricks of the academic trade as a way to try to fit in. And it's a result of lazy thinking.”  Law students’ exposure turgid judicial opinions may explain some of the problems they face in learning legal writing.

Hat tip: Faisal Kutty


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One of Ms. Toor's pieces of advice in the article is to avoid the passive voice. I have come to cringe when I see that advice. The passive voice is a valuable tool for a writer to have in his or her toolbox, and sometimes it's the best tool for a particular job. Besides, advice about the passive voice is often marred by inaccuracies and misunderstandings. For instance, Ms. Toor wrote, "Sometimes it's more expedient to say that the bomb was dropped, or that the war ended, rather doing the work of assigning blame or awarding credit." But "the war ended" isn't passive - it's active, which shows that it's just as easy to obscure agency in the active voice as it is in the passive. For a good defense of the passive, you should look at George Gopen's article "Why the Passive Voice Should Be Used and Appreciated - Not Avoided" from the Winter 2014 issue of Litigation.

Posted by: Brom | Apr 15, 2014 7:29:56 AM

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