Writing: “thinking as hard as you’ll ever think”

Writing is the most exact (and exacting) form of thinking…Good writing is the best kind of conversation you never heard. It’s talking tidied up. It’s speaking compressed, clarified, enriched and heightened by thought and art, and set down on paper. MARK TREDINNICK

I found myself doing a lot of underlining, flagging, and commenting while reading Mark Tredinnick’s Writing Well: The Essential Guide. Tredinnick, an award-winning poet, essayist, and teacher, makes some compelling arguments not only about how to write well, but also about why we must strive to write well. His core directive is nearly identical to that of Strunk and White (whose The Elements of Style I blogged about previously): write clearly and as simply as possible. Tredinnick’s repetition of this directive throughout the book makes Writing Well a bit circular in organization, but Tredinnick nonetheless delivers a guide that offers both practical advice and an explanation of how writing is a thoroughly social act.

Tredinnick’s practical advice on writing is very accessible. Writers of both fiction and non-fiction will discover useful tips, and Tredinnick’s many “Try this” sections could easily be broken down for strategic use in the classroom. He doesn’t offer much on grammar that I didn’t already know (or hadn’t recently encountered in my examination of Strunk and White), but Tredinnick’s insights into the experience and the meaning of writing often struck me as remarkably lucid.

Tredinnick is very sensitive to the many factors that can motivate and distract writers. He is more forthright than most in acknowledging the prevalence and the impact of anxiety and personal constraints among writers. (See his “Try this” tips on pages 26 and 30 for some useful exercises to cope with your own writing anxieties and constraints.) Aside from his core directive to write clearly and simply, which he ties closely to the rejection of opaque, “pompous” language, Tredinnick’s six central writing tips can be summarized as follows:

  • Favor a rough writing plan over a thorough and exact one.
  • Develop your thesis and know what you are going to argue before you begin writing.
  • State your main point upfront; don’t hold it back from your readers.
  • Focusing on the hard work of writing each sentence well will improve your coherence throughout your writing.
  • Perfecting your paragraphs is the next level in improving your overall coherence.
  • All parts of your writing should be linked together–don’t leave your readers with any confusion as to where you are taking them.

Tredinnick also pushes writers to consider the larger significance of the act of writing and connects all his writing tips to the concept of writing as a social act. Writing, Tredinnick asserts, is a deliberate undertaking and a powerful action. It’s a way of sharing ideas, of participating in and shaping democracy and civilization. Too often, he argues, “imperious language [is used] to hold onto knowledge and power” (Tredinnick, Writing Well, 41). Abstract, overly complex language runs counter to the very purpose of writing: the communication of ideas. Consider Tredinnick’s apt spoof of an academic attempt to encourage clear writing:

The fundamental principle for the efficacious elucidation of meaning in documentation is the minimization of abstraction of expression and the abandonment of convolution of construction and, instead, the utilization of quotidian diction and the employment of syntactical simplification (Tredinnick, 61).

Know anyone who writes like that? I do, and I appreciate Tredinnick’s careful efforts to link good writing to clear writing. While he vigorously discourages writers from falling into the habit of writing with detached, “unfamiliar and polysyllabic diction” (which he believes too many writers mistake for “a mark of rank or intelligence or expertise”), he doesn’t advocate the total abandonment of abstraction–merely its rationing (Tredinnick, 70). He recognizes that certain topics lend themselves to a degree of theoretical writing, and he encourages writers to constantly expand their vocabulary so that they may improve their ability to write with precision and dexterity. It’s just that, on the whole, he believes writers need to strive for greater fidelity to clarity and simplicity. “Make the abstract concrete. Make the general particular” (Tredinnick, 110). Write, in other words, the way you’d like to see society run. Aim to write in a way that will get your point across to the broadest spectrum of society possible. Write inclusively, with good manners, respect, and egalitarianism. Write clearly.

Grammar makes me cranky

I know I’m not the only writer who lets loose an instant mental groan at the mere sight of grammatical phrases such as “nonrestrictive relative clause,” “pronomial possessive,” and “modal auxiliary.” Grammatical phrases and terms seem to be almost completely rejected by my brain. At their best they convey some convention or concept of usage that is pretty common sense and can therefore be easily grasped in spite of the blurring caused by the rather alien, mind-numbing terminology. At their worst they elicit internal eye rolls at humanity’s uncanny ability to embed so many layers of esotericism in our attempts to communicate with one another. Although my brain prefers practical examples of proper grammar over the rote memorization of grammatical terms and structures, a vocabulary of grammar is, to some extent, necessary for any good writer. This thought, along with some strategic skimming, helped me wade through William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White’s The Elements of Style.

In the foreword to the fiftieth anniversary edition of The Elements of Style Roger Angell wrote, “we are all writers and readers as well as communicators, with the need at times to please and satisfy ourselves…with the clear and almost perfect thought” (Strunk and White, The Elements of Style, xi). Strunk and White offer a good bit to help writers of many sorts enhance the clarity of their writing, yet much of what they offer must be taken with a grain of salt. The line between individual preference and concrete rules is finer than many grammar-lovers are willing to admit. For example, getting professors to agree about the proper use a semicolon is about as easy as getting Republicans and Democrats to agree about healthcare. Some professors will tell you never to use a semicolon. Some have chided me for not using a semicolon instead of an em dash or separating two sentences. Kurt Vonnegut declared: “Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college” (Vonnegut, A Man Without a Country, 23). Strunk and White, on the other hand, encourage the use of semicolons in certain situations (Strunk and White, 6-8). They admit, “the shape of our language is not rigid; in questions of usage we have no lawgiver whose word is final” (Strunk and White, 39). (Note the use of the semicolon.) The larger point I take away from all of this is that writers must learn to distinguish for themselves between rules and conventions and, perhaps most importantly, endeavor to be consistent.

The most useful sections of The Elements of Style are those that contain direct and clear advice for writers. Below are some of my favorite excerpts from Chapter II’s “Elementary Principles of Composition” and Chapter V’s “An Approach to Style.”

  • “Writing, to be effective, must follow closely the thoughts of the writer, but not necessarily in the order in which those thoughts occur…in most cases, planning must be a deliberate prelude to writing.” (15)
  • “[W]hen a sentence is made stronger, it usually becomes shorter. Thus, brevity is a by-product of vigor.” (19)
  • “As the active voice is more concise than the passive, and a positive statement more concise than a negative one.” (24)
  • “Express coordinate ideas in similar form…The likeness of form enables the reader to recognize more readily the likeness of content and function.” (26)
  • “Confusion and ambiguity result when words are badly placed.” (28)
  • “All writers, by the way they use the language, reveal something of their spirits, their habits, their capacities, and their biases.” (67)
  • “The approach to style is by way of plainness, simplicity, orderliness, sincerity.” (69)
  • “Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs.” (71)
  • “Revising is part of writing.” (72)
  • “Do not overwrite. Rich, ornate prose is hard to digest, generally unwholesome, and sometimes nauseating.” (72)
  • “[S]ince writing is communication, clarity can only be a virtue.” (79)
  • “[T]he one truly reliable shortcut in writing is to choose words that are strong and surefooted to carry readers on their way.” (81)
  • “Style takes it final shape more from attitudes of mind than from principles of grammar.” (84)

And for that reason, I’ll try to be a bit less cranky about grammar.