Thursday, July 19, 2007

Lies Your Writing Teacher Told You

When teaching young children, understandably teachers might well choose to simplify concepts. That’s fine. However, simplifications are also distortions, even to the point of error, and if those children never grow past those temporary, instructionally helpful constructs, what’s left is misinformation. Such is often the case in college students and adult writers, still using techniques that are, well, wrong—in sentences, in paragraphs, and in compositions overall.

The most glaring of these is the universal comma rule: put a comma where you want a pause. Um, no. Commas aren’t moods—they show structure. Moving commas around carelessly changes the sentence structure.

Consider this sentence: Swords flashing, our heroes dashed into action. A tale of epic adventure—very different from: Swords, flashing our heroes, dashed into action—a tale of erotic surrealism.

How about these two: People, who frequently attend these auctions, spend a lot of money, vs. People who frequently attend these auctions spend a lot of money. Both sentences are correct, but their meaning differs significantly, particularly if you’ve an economic interest in those auctions. The first sentence promises that all comers at these well-attended events will be dumping cash, while the second restricts the big spenders to only the few folks who frequent the auction circuit.

Even more astounding is the oft repeated assertion that grammar isn’t important, that students will just learn eventually by doing. This is as ridiculous as “Prof.” Harold Hill in “The Music Man” promoting his “think” system for learning music. Further, what are employers going to do with those cover letters and resumes full of grammatical errors? And bosses? Clients? Fair or not, such grammar-challenged people will be judged as less intelligent and less competent. It IS 7th grade English, after all.

Now to “de-mythify” the paragraph: “a paragraph is a group of 5-8 sentences.” What, like a street gang hangin’ on the corner? Just time for a line break? What happened to a unit of developed thought? How about a topic sentence—and development leading to a meaningful conclusion. You know—content!

But two commonly promoted points completely baffle me. The first purports to connect paragraphs by abruptly changing the subject in the last sentence of a paragraph to the topic of the next paragraph—then reiterating the point in the first sentence of that next paragraph. Good grief. This is duct tape, not coherence, combining rambling off topic with redundancy. What happened to a logical progression of ideas? Yet student after student maintains someone taught this “technique.”

The second is a legitimate technique run amok, the “funnel” technique—start with a general statement, narrow it, narrow it further, and so forth, then lead back to some general observation. Yeah, granted, the specific details should come after the initial claims, but instead, students write almost bizarrely vague sentences, eventually find a hint of a point, then back off into vague obscurity, thus taking a paragraph to make a point that could have been made in one poor sentence:

--There are many great writers, some living, some in history. Many of these writers have come from America. Several of these writers became famous in the twentieth century. While many women were among this group, many men were also recognized as good writers. One of these men was Ernest Hemingway. He wrote a lot. Some of this writing was journalism, others were not. Those that were not including novels and short stories. His short stories are excellent. One of these excellent short stories is “Hills Like White Elephants.” In this short story, Hemingway shows many of the elements that made him a famous writer in America in the twentieth century. Symbolism is one of the elements that he used, and he does an excellent job of using it. Symbolism can be defined as something that represents something else. Hemingway uses a lot of symbols in his short story “Hills Like White Elephants.”

That paragraph may be an exaggeration, but not by much.

Worse, students then apply this technique to the entire essay. Sometimes, even in the middle of page two, I still can’t find a thesis—or even tell what poem or story or play the paper addresses, let alone what points it might make. “But that’s what you’re supposed to do!” students protest, ready to defend such work vigorously. “It draws the reader in!” Draws the reader in? Who would still be reading? Could you imagine, for example, picking up Sports Illustrated and reading:

--There are many sports in the world today. Some of these sports are played individually, while other sports are team sports. Different countries tend to prefer some sports over other sports. Soccer is one sport popular in many countries. Americans like football. Other Americans like baseball, while some like basketball. Many people like more than one sport. Soccer is called football in other countries. Some Americans like soccer, though.

Are you “drawn in?” Would you keep reading in case it gets better?

And the poor readers who struggle through such essays all the way to the conclusion meet yet another silly but commonly practiced point—the “conclusion”:

--In conclusion, here I write a meaningless paragraph that does nothing except repeat the thesis you’ve already read and repeated the vague points I’ve already stated, thus making no final point whatsoever, concluding absolutely nothing, indicating the entire essay has no purpose beyond reaching a word count or minimum number of pages.

And again, students insist they’ve been taught to do this. So much time is spent swimming upstream against all this misinformation from the past, with little time left for emphasis, economy, style, effective argument and much more. After all, why should students bother with all that? They’ve earned top grades for years babbling along as such, believing they are therefore “creative.”

Unfortunately, I have heard a number of teachers maintain that writing is an art, and therefore it can’t really be taught. Some people just have a gift, and some people just aren’t good writers.

Any writing teacher who believes that has no business teaching writing. Let writers do it.

After all, why? If it’s all just a scam, lots of scams pay far better than teaching writing.



Victorya said...

Good post and so true. I'll admit now that my grammar isn't exactly what some would consider perfect. But at least I try :) Actually, it's not half bad when I sit down and edit. But you're right, I trained to teach English and was taught to never focus on grammar as it only discourages the child. Uhm, excuse me? What happened to syntax being the building block of grammar?

Anonymous said...

I have a college education and just finished my last semester where I had over 250+ pages of papers to write.

Each week I write at least 15 blog posts a week between three different sites.

My grammar is still not even remotely close to a level I would take pride in. I can form coherent and well thought out pieces but my grammar, specifically my comma usage needs so much help. I actually took a step forward this week and ordered two grammar books off of amazon. Since I haven't had any grammar since eighth grade I figured this would be a positive step.

RockStories said...

Several excellent points--this could have been three or four separate posts and made an excellent point in each one. I particularly dislike the unnatural attachment to the "introductory paragraph" that is ingrained in children in early life and from which they never recover. In working with adults preparing personal statements for graduate school admission for years, I witnessed a constant almost physical anxiety about letting go of the first 150 words or so that said absolutely nothing--despite the absolute certainty that the vast majority of admissions officers would never read beyond that empty paragraph to get to the hook.

Two Write Hands said...

My particular favorite is the Hemingway sample paragraph. You're right, it's not far off the mark at all.

When Rodger was teaching writing at the community college he would occasionally start muttering obscenities while grading papers at home in the evening. I asked once to see what could possibly be so bad. Sure some don't have a flair for writing I thought, but it can't be that bad.

I was appalled.

I fear what I'll see this fall when I start tutoring at my university's writing center.

Vera Bass said...

Good post, and I have to say mea culpa on a number of points.

I don't, however, plan and edit my personal weblog posts with anything near the attention I'd give to professional or business writing.

A related issue I ponder sometimes...
Blogging, and other publishing platforms aren't just for writers, yet using them makes us all writers. Does the public nature of these platforms then create a societal obligation to improve our writing skills and make the best contribution possible? It doesn't seem so to me. I've read diary style blogs which, perhaps, served a therapeutic purpose for their authors, and felt neither desire to edit nor irritation at clumsy construction. By the same token, I would not correct the grammar of a friend who just needed to speak of feelings and experiences to someone. Some of the old lines are blurred in this new online world, I think.

legbamel said...

Being told to use a comma to indicate a pause is what leads people to hit that key whenever they pause to compose the sentence in their heads. I have worked for years to break that habit and still find myself editing out rogue commas upon revision.

It's a nasty, dangerous thing to teach people. Okay, it's an oversimplification. But your example is dead on the mark. People insert commas at the drop of a keystroke, to coin a phrase, whenever they stop to think of a word or create a prepositional phrase.

web said...

Um, No. The pause is all. Um, its primary purpose is to communicate mood. Swords dashed into action flashing our heroes vs Swords, flashing our heroes, dashed into action. Why would anyone use the convoluted structure of the second example? Perhaps to provide mood.

Snoskred said...

I am a comma offender. :(

I sometimes feel like I write badly and I wish I was better at it. I put in too many words when I could simplify, and look there's another comma! You're right. I put that in because I paused in my head.

That's a good lesson - I will work on this. I am always willing to make positive changes. ;) Feel free to send constructive criticism my way via email if you do choose to read my blog. Only don't hurt me too much all at once! ;)


Writer said...


Although, people you know, do and when they do that things get confusing pretty fast---just as in those inappropriate commas I just used.

Who would? I read LOTS of papers that do exactly those three errors, changing the meaning.

Keep the mood swings of the punctuation.

Lifecode Sotre said...

hahaha.. spot on.. probably that's why i got less marks.. my hand writing is so bad.. coz i write faster.. mayb i did put comma on the right place..

Dani Lonelyhu

Mike French said...

Great to see a post on grammar and structure.

You make loads of great points. Paragraphs set a rhythm. You're right to deride anything that would try to define it as a collection of sentences.
What rubbish!
(There you are 'What rubbish!' forming a paragraph all on its little own.)

Some things you didn't mention that are annoying. The !!!!! mark. Seems people love sprinkling it like some magic dust over their writing. Yuck.

I would say writing is an art form as you have to take the rules and make something sing with them. But you have to learn the rules, hence the value of studying them. It's like learning to play an instrument. It's also knowing when to ignore the rules. Like dropping the 'and' word etc.

I learnt some of my skills from Stephen King's book On Writing. I tell you it was scary. I went back and looked at my work in horror.