Monday, October 18, 2004

prompt #5 for eng 328, or final thoughts on two crazy books which hopefully I will be able to make a paper from by thursday

After reading The Elements of Style and Style, Toward Clarity and Grace I think I have to say that the most important thing I learned is that I don’t know crap about writing.
It was a surprising discovery. I mean, I never seem to have too much trouble with writing. Nine times out of ten I get an A on my papers for school, and never less than a B. Although I anticipate the streak might be coming to an end in this class.

The discovery of my ignorance on the subject of writing didn’t really set in while I read Strunk and White. Most of the rules seemed to be things that most of us sort-of inherently know. It’s probably not too presumptuous to say that most people who make it to a 300 level English course have already figured out that they should “write with nouns and verbs” (71) and that “the number of the subject determines the number of the verb” (9), for example. These just aren’t things we have to think about. In other words, at no point during my reading of The Elements of Style did I think to myself that I was in trouble, or that I was somehow lacking in my knowledge of how to go about writing things. In fact, I felt pretty smart. Not that reading the book was completely useless. I did pick up a few habits-like using “a dash to set off an abrupt break or interruption and to announce a long appositive or summary.”(9) I used to use parenthesis, but now I’ve decided I like the dashes better. They look more appropriate to me. Unfortunately, I still haven’t figured out what an “appositive” is. But other than that, I liked that rule.

The panic set in while I was reading the Williams book. I hadn’t gotten very far into it and I was reading about things that I had never heard of- nominalizations, dangling modifiers, hedges and emphatics. I became very worried, but Williams did an excellent job of describing these mysterious concepts. In fact, he did an excellent job of describing every thought and “rule” he shared throughout the book. I could tell that Williams wasn’t interested in creating little rule zombies who would obediently follow any instruction and do things like “form the possessive singular of nouns by adding ‘s”(Strunk and White 1) etc., like some other so-called style experts would have. Williams seems to be genuinely interested in helping us learn enough about writing that we can move above and beyond rules, in opposition to the stylistic paradigm of Strunk and White who seem to not really give a crap about the collective intellect of writing students, caring only that we not annoy them with our writing. Williams gives us tools we can use to become better writers than he is. Strunk and White only give us enough to keep us from failing a class. Of course, only if it’s a class taught by one of them- which we would be unlikely to find since they are dead.

So, recognizing the good that could come from reading and understanding what Williams had to say, I kept on plugging through the book, bravely taking on scary things that I had never heard of- as mentioned above. And I really thought I was making progress until I got to page 153 where Williams says “let’s assume that you can now write clear, coherent, and appropriately emphatic prose.” How about lets not. It’s true, if you would have asked me before I started reading this book; I would have thought it was a fair assumption- that I could, in fact, write clear, coherent, and emphatic prose. But that was a different era. And I realized that I was going to have to read the Williams book again, probably more than once, if I wanted it to change my writing.

Wow, I didn’t realize I was writing so much.
So I guess I’ll wrap it up with just a few of my favorite things from Style, Toward Clarity and Grace.
1. I really like the attention Williams pays to the issues we have with our readers. On page 115 he tells us “Don’t state what your reader can easily infer”, but he also reminds us to not assume the reader will know something just because we know it. I think he articulates the problem well when he talks about the struggle with “what we take for granted as part of a shared but rarely articulated body of knowledge and values.”(121)
2. My favorite line of the whole book is on page 112…
“If you don’t know your point, just start writing and hope.”
Can’t everyone tell that’s what happened in this blog entry?

prompt #4

It was funny to read my classmates blog-thoughts about The Elements of Style and Style, Toward Clarity and Grace. I kept looking for someone to disagree with- thinking it would the assignment a little easier- but, for the most part, we all seem to have similar responses to the readings.

Two of the blogs that stuck out in my mind were the third entries from lara and andy.
Lara wrote that Strunk and White’s “ideas of style could be argued” and said that she “didn’t think style is something that can be so defined.” In saying this I think she touches on the fundamental problem with the Strunk and White book, but one which it could be argued that they were actually aware of. See, when I first started comparing the two books, I was sort-of mad at Strunk and White and the overbearing power/ego trip that is their book. It was clear that some of the rules were merely their own preferences, and even the rules that seemed true lacked the kind of explanation that would help a writer work the rule into their actual writing process. A good example is the Strunk and White rule “omit needless words.”(23) This broad idea is given less than a page of explanation, whereas the Williams book tackles the problem of wordiness from every possible angle. While reading the Williams book might seem tedious at times but he explains his rules in a way that allows actual meaning to seep into our weary brains. If we’re lucky they could even show up in our writing eventually. Strunk and White seem to have made only a half-hearted attempt to tell us why their rules are important and offer little practical advice on how to follow them. Williams seems to understand the seems to understand “Style” as something that cannot be clearly defined, as Lara said, and offers us guidelines and advice on how to be good writers. With every rule he allows for times when the rule should be broken. Andy wrote that he liked how Willimas “tells you why certain rules are preferred.” It’s like Williams read the Strunk and White book, had the same reaction as Lara, and then decided to write a new and better book. Still, I think we have to consider the title of Strunk and Whites book, The Elements of Style. I think the key word here is “elements.” Strunk and Whites rules are like building blocks, and Williams is the castle you can build out of them.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

prompt #3 for ENG 328

To start, let me say that reading Williams’s book did not fill me with nearly the same desire to stab myself in the eye as the Strunk and White book did.

I had a hard time doing the first assignment- about the Strunk and White- because reading the book made my head hurt; there were all these rules which most of us already know and adhere to without even thinking about it. Reading the majority of that book could be likened to reading a long and drawn out description about how a person should breathe. We just do it. We don’t need a lesson.

In the Strunk and White book there were rules I agreed with, rules I didn’t agree with-“form the possessive singular form of nouns by adding ‘s,”(1) and rules that quickly reshaped the way I write-“use a dash to set off an abrupt break or interruption.”(9) Still, the whole thing was pretty lame.

The Williams book was a completely different story. At the risk of sounding like the biggest dork who ever lived-which I am not, I have proof, my boyfriend in infinitely worse- the Williams book sort of rocked my world, or at least my writing world. As I read through it, I became horrified that I have turned in so many papers without EVER thinking about most of the things he discusses: balance and symmetry, thematic strings, and nominalizations?(153,82-3,31-2) How could I have received A’s on papers without thinking about these things? Have my teachers been taking pity on me this whole time; dismissing me as a hopeless case, not capable of writing anything clear, cohesive, emphatic, coherent or concise?

I guess it was this line of thinking that helped me realize the major difference between the Strunk and White, and the Williams book.
The Strunk and White gives us the easily accessible advice of how to make it through college papers-minus, of course, the things that I’m pretty sure are there just because they were what Strunk preferred and not because they were actual “rules”.
The Williams book has in it the building blocks of truly great writing. I was moved-or, as moved as one can be when reading a book like this- when Williams wrote “I can’t tell you how to be graceful and elegant the same way as I can tell you to be clear and direct. What I can do is describe a few of the devices that some graceful writers use.”(153)

I guess what I’m trying to say is that some of us are really super intelligent or creative and have lots of important or interesting things to say, and some of us know what dangling modifiers and nominalizations are. But neither is a great writer without at least some help of the other. To me, the Williams book is a way to help bridge the gap.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Prompt 2

Here is an example of bad writing from the Eastern Michigan University Undergraduate Catalog:
The Biology Department offers a major in biology as well as providing programs in preforestry, premedicine (allopathic and osteopathic), preoptometry and prepodiatry. In addition, there is an adviser for veterinary medicine.
Modern laboratories for course work and research under personal supervision of faculty are located in the Mark Jefferson building and the Terrestrial and Aquatic Research Facility. The adjacent Loesell Field Laboratory, nearby Huron River and Ford Lake are available for field course work and research.
Here is my revised version, based on the ideas in Williams Style book:

The Biology Department offers both a major in biology and programs in preforestry, premedecine (allopathic and osteopathic), preoptometry and
prepodiatry. A veterinary medicine advisor is also available.

Faculty supervised laboratories for course work and research are located in the Mark Jefferson building and the Terrestrial and Aquatic Research Facility. The Loesell Fireld Laboratory is located near by, providing access to Huron River and
Ford Lake.

I spent a lot of time trying to find a good (applicable to Williams) example of bad writing. I finally settled on this one. I thought that the first sentence was really akward, it made my head hurt the way the Williams described. Still, I had a really hard time figuring out why, because it didn’t necessarily break any of Williams’s rules. I think the main problem is the first sentence..”as well as providing programs in”. I don’t think it needed all those words, so I just shortened it. I thought that the first blurb could have been one sentence instead of two, but I thought I would make it worse if I didn’t change it exactly the right way.
The first line of the second blurb was a turgid mess as well. I wasn’t even sure what I was supposed to know at the end of it. Again, my head was hurting. It seems like a simple relocation (re-ordering)of the words fixed the problem. Like, when Williams talks about Cohesion in chapter 3 and how important it is to manage the flow of information. Also, there seems to be too many prepositional phrases in this sentence.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Prompt #1 for ENG 328

I just got done reading The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White and I have to say that the book, which I can only assume was meant to clarify the rules of how to write, has done nothing but turn my mind into a mushy tired place where rules of grammar go to die.
After hearing what the teacher who assigned this reading had to say- in case anyone was wondering, I did not pick out a book about a dead mans preferred way of writing the English language as simply an enjoyable afternoon read- I was able to actually come up with some moderately constructive thoughts about the usefulness of this book. Maybe…
Thought #1:
On page nine, Strunk or White tells us “Use a dash to set off an abrupt break or interruption and to announce a long appositive or summary.” So, I decided to try a little experiment. See, in my writing I like to use a fair amount of “abrupt breaks or interruptions”, which I normally place in parenthesis. In my second paragraph above, I took the books advice and put dashes where I would normally put parenthesis. And strangely enough, I think I like it better this new way.
Thought #2:
While I did decide to heed the books advice about the dashes, in telling that story I was forced to break the very first rule in the book , “Form the possessive singular of nouns by adding ‘s”, meaning that I would have had to tell you that I took the “book’s advice”. To me, “book’s” is just a contraction of the words book and is. So I decided not to follow that rule. Actually, I broke quite a few of Strunk and White’s rules in just the first two paragraphs of this little piece-but my mind still feels a little too mushy to go into much more detail about them.
Thought #3:
I think that we must all realize that there is no sacred book or guide where we can find some kind of universal rights and wrongs of writing the English language. Because language is a fluid thing-constantly changing- and because of the many different and expressive ways that we use it, there can be very few things that are absolutely right or wrong about it. Certainly some things will just sort-of sound wrong to us because there likely is some kind of innate universal grammar that allows us to learn language in the first place. But I really think after that all bets are off.