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Monday, March 23, 2009

Colbert Update; Thoughts on Writing

Stephen Colbert won the contest to name the room on the Space Station.  His write-in candidacy trumped all of NASA's recommendations--"Serenity" came closest, but Colbert beat it by some 40,000 votes.  It's still up in the air, however, as to whether NASA will accept the public's choice.  Perhaps NASA is hoping for a victory in the electoral college?

You will note that the Solipsist is currently reading The Well-Crafted Sentence: A Writer's Guide to Style.  This is not an attempt at self-improvement (of course, if it happens, it happens).  Rather, it is homework.  YNSHC is looking into replacing the textbook for a writing class.  Currently, he uses Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace by Joseph Williams.  A fine little book, but ridiculously overpriced.  No word yet on the price of the book currently under consideration, but it might be time for a change anyway.

Can style be taught?  OTHER people's style, maybe.  Style can be developed, of course.  And what the Solipsist likes about the above-mentioned books is that they take a somewhat "mechanistic" approach to the development of writing style.  They demystify the process so that people can look at writing in terms of its constituent parts: words, phrases, clauses, sentences.  Style, after all, is choice (as a former writing teacher said).  And in order to speak intelligently about style, one must be able to articulate the choices a writer is making.

For example: The Solipsist likes to begin sentences with coordinating conjunctions  ('and,' 'but,' etc.), even though many writing teachers will tell you (wrongly) that this is not allowed.  Yes, yes, it is a practice best used sparingly and strategically.  But YNSHC likes it nonetheless.  Another stylistic tic of YNSHC is a tendency to lapse into the passive voice.  This is partly due to the affectation of avoiding the first-person singular ('I').  It--the passive voice--does, however,  worm its way into the postings with somewhat disturbing regularity.  Perhaps an unfortunate consequence of the Solipsist's time in academia.

There is nothing inherently wrong with the "passive voice"--or with any other rhetorical construction--as long as one is employing it consciously.  

(Digression: "There is" is a distinctly weak way to begin a sentence.)

(And, to the extent possible, one should avoid the weak-chinned "is" as the main verb in a clause.  End of Digression.)

Again, style is choice.  The point of most writing instruction--at least in the experience of YNSHC--is simply to get students to think carefully about the choices they make.  Far too many students enter writing classes thinking that writing just "happens"--that you're either gifted or not.  They have little idea that they themselves are the sole determiners of whether a piece of writing makes sense or evokes a response, to say nothing of a desired response.  The more a teacher can demystify the process, the better.

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