The rules of writing: making sure that tail does not wag the dog.

I had been curious after the email outcry of a UK universities learning enhancement and support manager, and wanted to track down the original article. Here is what began as a short comment on it (full article here) but turned into a bit of a reflection on my attitude towards the rules of writing.

The article hinges on an idea rules of writing can often be viewed as descriptive, rather than prescriptive rules. That is, they exist to describe the conventions that govern our use of written language, not to dictate them. It is a view that I happen to agree with, and one that always seems particularly applicable to our work with student writers. Our clients, by and large, consist not of people who wish to master the art of writing, but who wish to use writing as a tool to master some other discipline. Effective use of language to communicate clearly and eloquently no more requires mastery of written English than effective self defense requires mastery of Tai Chi. It simply requires an awareness of the principles and, most importantly, and ability to understand them in relation to the desired goal.

It the goal that is most often the missing component in students who come to me with so called grammar problems. They will ask me “is it correct to put a comma there?”, where what they should be asking is “what is the effect of putting a comma there?”. It is with this second question that I most often respond. Rather than get bogged down in correct usage, I always find it far more productive to keep sight of what my client is trying to achieve in their sentence, paragraph or essay. If a rule is entirely novel, we may begin by consulting a concise grammar book. But after that, my sessions on correct grammar become more of an experiment than a lecture. I will ask a client to read their sentence aloud with varying usages of the comma or arrangements of word.

“What if you split that into two sentences? How does that sound?”.

Sometimes I do it the other way around.

“Say it to me as you would like it to sound. Ok, now lets write it that way.”

Sometimes I will simply tell them my understanding of a sentence. If I have understood correctly and clearly, then most of the time the writing has done its job. The key is that I remain focused on the goal of the writing, namely, to communicate ideas clearly, concisely and eloquaintly, in that order. I encourage clients to experiment with different ways of writing a clause, to read it back regularly, and consider the most effective way to communicate clearly with the audience.

Pinker’s point throughout his article is not to throw away the rulebook, but rather to use the rules as tools to achieve these goals. Perhaps his description of some rules of writing as “superstitions” is taking this idea a little to far. Paying them as little heed as we do ghosts in old houses would most likely affect the clarity of our writing, as readers are also aware of conventions and use them as a map and compass to navigate our prose.

However, it is worth treating the rules of writing are tools to improve our clarity and maintain consistency so as to appeal to the widest audience. Regarding them as some bloodthirsty deity that must be appeased, as seems to be the approach of Pinker’s critic, is neither productive nor empowering for student writers. It is alienating and elitist, and how one with such an attitude can be entrusted to manage support and enhance learning for student writers is beyond me. In his slander of Michael Rosen, Pinker’s critic certainly has no right to speak about “damage that could be done”.

At the heart of Pinker’s article is the desire to breakdown barriers to writing and to make it widely accessible, the same goal as should be shared by university study skills centers. In our writing center we have this attitude, and I hope this description of my approach helps others to do that. Read the full article by Pinker if you can, I would be interested to know peoples views on it. Perhaps his book is one worth investing in. Perhaps we already have it. I am not in the mentors room right now but I will check next time I am there.

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The issue of grammar

John Bean’s “Dealing with Issues of Grammar and Correctness” (2001) is essential reading for anyone who is going to be working with writers.

It is incredibly easy when looking over someone else’s work top focus only on the surface problems that you can see in the text such as “bad grammar”, which as Bean notes is often the non-standard way of saying something. When we focus solely on the grammar of a piece though we lose sight of the bigger picture. Helping someone correct their grammar in a piece will give them a grammatically correct essay but it will not improve their skill as a “good” writer.

A piece of writing which is well-written will have strong ideas which are developed and explained in detail. It will also have a clear and organised structure to it. These aspects of writing however, cannot hope to be improved through the improvement of grammar but as Bean highlights in his piece grammar is often improved through the improvement of idea development and structure of an essay. As mentors then we should try to focus much more on what is actually written rather than how it is written.

It may also be counter-productive to constantly be drawing the writer’s attention to their grammatical mistakes because it may make them lazy or encourage them that these are the only problems in the piece. The writer who is told how many mistakes he has made and where they are in his paper will no doubt correct these when he comes to revise his work. He will probably not look at the rest of the writing as a whole though because his attention has been drawn to other areas. Mentors and advisors to writers are well placed to help the writer in the improvement of their work through our discussion about the work in front of us which prompts the writer to reconsider how something is structured or whether their argument is clear.

In short then it is important to remember, when doing our own writing or helping someone else with theirs, that although grammar does play a role in “good” writing it is not the biggest factor. If we focus too much time and energy on “fixing” work then we may fail to notice the bigger problems that are present in a piece of work.

Reference: Bean, J.C. (2001) Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s guide to integrating writing, critical thinking, and active learning into the classroom. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass