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|
2—Write Serious (Formal, Academic) Prose
“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
Final Draft: He served as the king of Zhou, but the glory of earlier Zhou rule had
b. Unfocused Prose
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.
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
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
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.