Student Writing in English Studies:
Honoring Tradition and Making it New
Function and Flair: The nuts and bolts of good writing
- Clarity—don’t make anyone read something twice; or, as Wallace Stegner wisely asserts: “Hard writing makes easy reading.” The papers and blog posts you write do not simply ask you to demonstrate knowledge; they ask you to to communicate knowledge strategically and elegantly.
- Concision—give yourself more space. The strongest essays are written by those who have mastered certain strategies such as the use of active voice, the deployment of vivid verbs, and the reduction of prepositional phrases in their writing. Wait–that took me 33 words. Why not name that tune in 12 words and let others spin their wheels? “Strong writers favor active voice, deploy vivid verbs, and reduce prepositional phrases.” That’s better. Imagine what you can do with all that extra space! As English Majors, it’s tempting to view our jobs as filling up paper–but half of our job should be claiming back space for our ideas.
- Correctness—don’t let minor mistakes or grammatical tics make you appear less intelligent than you are.
- Control—take organizational control of the essay: choose apt words; construct elegant, varied sentences; write unified and cohesive paragraphs; connect your paragraphs with meaningful transitional elements that help your argument unfold: think of your paper as an architectural wonder, not a a stack of pancakes.
- Patterns and Flair–write sentences that are smarter than you are. Your professor won’t know the difference; soon, you won’t either. The Art of Styling Sentences, which I linked above, is a classic, and Stanley Fish’s new book, How To Write a Sentence, is pretty good as well.
Research Fundamentals; or, Telling a Story
I began this discussion by writing a series of words on the right side of the blackboard–words that have to do with research in the classic sense: argument, context, analysis, sources, and so on. I asked the students to tell me what kinds of words came immediately to mind. The results were rather interesting: “disambiguation,” one student said. “Dissection,” another offered. “Close reading”–the most affective of the bunch, for sure! The words tended to have a scientific rigor, an emphasis on exhuming meaning from the text. On the left-hand side or the blackboard, I offered words associated with story and narrative: plot, dialogue motivation, setting/scene, and so on. I asked the students, again, to offer any words that came to mind. “Development,” was one of the first words on the board. “Character” and “conflict” were next, followed by “tension.” After discussing with the class the contrasting qualities and energies the words on the left and right sides of the board suggested, we arrived at the following points:
- Writing a research paper is an act of storytelling. It’s not dissection but invention, not the location of meaning but the making of meaning. Rather than primary and secondary sources, you have major and minor characters and dialog; rather than rather establishing historical context as though such a thing exists as something static, stable and objective, you strategically set the scene and setting and mood; rather than quotations you have dialogue and conversation; rather than argument, you have a plotted story to tell with tension and conflict and movement; rather than evidence, you have motivating details.
- The idea is simply this: you create the world in which your ideas thrive. It’s not pure fantasy, of course. You would never talk, for example, about how the postmodern, media-saturated, magical-realist Tropic of Orange a direct response to Darwinian ideas of evolution. But there is no single historical context for a given text, but rather multiple competing cultural and political and literary forces that you can return to. In other words, you have plenty of room to tell a story.
- Where do these stories come from? How do we begin to tell one? Fortunately, we have some crucial building blocks: We have research skills and the fundamentals of writing above (the nuts and bolts) over here. Over there, we have a toolkit—a world of intersecting ideas that we can use as so many frames through which to view a text. But there’s a third part as well: our values and convictions, our identities and reading histories. This is where the story emerges. And it ends with an audience that you want to move and inspire and educate–and, perhaps, entertain.
- The critic Jane Tompkins has argued that “the true nature of a literary work is a function of the critical perspective that is brought to bear upon it.” It’s a great and true observation, I think. But there’s something clunky about the sentence. The language of function sounds too coldly mathematical to me. And this idea of critical perspectives being “brought to bear” sounds quite labor intensive. Here’s my translation: literature lives in and through the stories we tell about it. And it’s not only a “critical perspective” that we bring to bear—it is ourselves that we bring to bear: our experiences, our cultural ideals, our politics, our identities.
- The best student writing in the traditional sense harnesses the fundamentals of writing and research, adapts a strategic combination of various critical approaches, and then gives them life through a story rooted in–and perhaps challenging as well–who one is and what one believes.
- Some of you are dealing with very recent literature–stuff published after 9/11. But many of you are covering more frequently traveled territory. It can seem difficult to say something new. But don’t worry too much about originality: Tompkins, again, writes that “The Scarlet Letter is a great novel in 1850, in 1876, in 1904, in 1942 and 1966, but each time it is great for different reasons.” That’s how it is with all great literature—and you all, as students, are the ones who will continue to make it great as you think of new stories to tell: stories not latent in the material, but already alive in your minds.
New Forms of Student Writing: Beyond the Research Paper
- There are many ways to approach a text or a topic intelligently, and I think it is important that we exercise as many of those as possible in English courses. Our intelligences are varied and multifaceted and unique—we need to fire on all cylinders as we approach texts that are also varied and multifaceted and unique.
- Examples from “Writing the ‘American Self’: Autobiography from the Founding to Facebook and my Modern Poetry course include: Prezis, Wikipedia pages, blog posts, poems, quilts, autographics, cookbooks, scrapbooks, biography, gastrography, photo essays, collage poems, and interactive Google Earth maps. In my courses, these have all been forms of “student writing.” There are many ways to tell a story!