From Round to Square (and back)

For The Emperor's Teacher, scroll down (↓) to "Topics." It's the management book that will rock the world (and break the vase, as you will see). Click or paste the following link for a recent profile of the project:

A new post appears every day at 12:05* (CDT). There's more, though. Take a look at the right-hand side of the page for over four years of material (2,000 posts and growing) from Seinfeld and country music to every single day of the Chinese lunar calendar...translated. Look here ↓ and explore a little. It will take you all the way down the page...from round to square (and back again).
*Occasionally I will leave a long post up for thirty-six hours, and post a shorter entry at noon the next day.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Styling Culture (2)—Write Serious Prose

Click here to read the introduction to the Round and Square series "Styling Culture."

In the next few weeks I will be posting the text for a "volume" that I have been distributing for the last fifteen years. Back in 1997, I handed out a two-page set of instructions that I called "Rob's Style Sheet." I quickly learned that it could be a useful teaching tool, allowing me to describe the practicalities and esoterica surrounding grammar and style in the higher education classroom (and beyond). It also became apparent that it could be a useful tool for writing comments on student papers. Instead of trying to explain in the margins of a paper that s/he was using "number" in problematic ways (we'll get to that), I could write "#19," and have her know exactly what I mean. The most impressive students learned the material very well, and some of them have already gone on to be successful writers—in and beyond academia and the corporate world.
[a] Sirius RF
I will be posting the manuscript that I have provisionally entitled Styling Culture on Round and Square during August and September. As you will quickly see, it is meant to be a grammar book for the anthropologist of American English. It has its prescriptive elements, to be sure (this is all explained in the introduction to the series), but it is meant far more powerfully to be a genuinely useful guide to the culture wars surrounding grammar and usage. In particular, I have great venom for both the annoying critics who always seem to be correcting people and (this is important) for the "good guys" who tell you that it doesn't matter. They're both wrong, and they will hurt you if you listen to them. I'm here to help you, so read on.

2—Write Serious (Formal, Academic) Prose
This style guide emphasizes the serious and formal nature of the writing you will do in academic settings. “Formal” has a bad reputation among people who view the word too narrowly. Precise writing for an audience of skilled readers need not be dry, obtuse, or filled with jargon. It can be lively, wry, and transformative. Pay particular attention to how you write, and strive to avoid the problems of cliché, redundancy, messy phrasing, and generally sloppy prose—including the use of too many contractions.

“Serious” prose does not have to be stuffy, but it always takes the reader seriously as a full partner in the process of engaging a subject. Puns, word play, and general silliness can be effective in class, in very brief “overview” assignments (such as quizzes or abstracts), or in early drafts of an essay writing process that needs to be “kept moving.”  They should almost always be edited in favor of clear, precise, and serious (but not “stuffy”) language.

          a. Playful and Pun-filled 
          Early Draft: He claimed to be the Zhou king, but one must surely have thought that 
          he was joking.
          Final Draft: He served as the king of Zhou, but the glory of earlier Zhou rule had 
          been all but destroyed by the fifth century BCE.

          b. Unfocused Prose     
          Early Draft: Korea was the wimpiest country in East Asia in the late-
          nineteenth century.
          Final Draft: When compared to a revitalized Japan or even a weakened China, 

          Korea lacked both economic and military strength in the late-nineteenth century.

          c. Contractions

          Early Draft: The historians could’ve done more to show that Louis wasn’t all sun
          and no king, and
would’ve concluded otherwise if they’d read the 

          proper documents. 
          Final Draft: The historians could have done more to show that Louis was an able
          ruler; such a conclusion might have been more apparent had they read the proper

***  ***
It would be easy to misinterpret my message here. My annoyance is with sloppy writing of all kinds. The examples (all of which are "real") should show that clear, consistent writing prevails over more loosely slapped-together thoughts. I surely understand that different kinds of writing require slightly different phrasing and "connections" with readers. My "voice" on this blog is somewhat different than that found in the essay that I just sent to a philosophy journal. On Round and Square, I am much more likely to use contractions and short, clipped sentences than I am in writing for more formal audiences.

Here's the key, though. It is not that different, and that is what I ask you to consider. While there is not "one way" to craft sentences and paragraphs—fitting all occasions and audiences equally well—it is possible to say that a paper for a history seminar needs a certain level of controlled style. That is the narrower point of this style guide item. The broader one is to encourage all of us to think deeply about these matters, finally deciding upon a phrase or a word for its rhetorical impact upon the reader. The "early draft" examples above are not going to accomplish much, under any circumstances. The "final draft" examples might meet some quibbles, and could be phrased differently for many reasons. The real key lies in revision and a constant focus on clear and effective prose.

No, it's not what you (probably) think. It will change your life, though.

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