The Humanities and Teaching How to Write Well

by Erik Voeten on June 24, 2013 · 16 comments

in Academia,Education

Teaching students how to write well is a task that I am confronted with on a regular basis and for which I am hopelessly ill equipped. I have no training in the subject. I am not a native English speaker. I did not even attend high school or college in an English speaking country (at least not before doing graduate work). So, I want to be sympathetic to Verlyn Klinkenborg’s call in Sunday’s New York Times for a renewed role for the humanities (or really English literature) in teaching students how to write “clearly, simply, with attention and openness to their own thoughts.” The humanities, writes Klinkenborg, can provide students with the gift of “clear thinking, clear writing and a lifelong engagement with literature.” I agree that all of these are good things.

Then he writes this:

Studying the humanities should be like standing among colleagues and students on the open deck of a ship moving along the endless coastline of human experience. Instead, now it feels as though people have retreated to tiny cabins in the bowels of the ship, from which they peep out on a small fragment of what may be a coastline or a fog bank or the back of a spouting whale.

Sentences like this usually lead me to liberally spread red ink. What do you mean? Why should studying be like observing a coastline rather than interacting with human experience? Why the clichés? And what’s that whale all about?  You can sort of figure out what the author means with all the vague metaphors but “sort of being able to figure out” an argument is hardly an advertisement for clear and simple nonfiction writing.

I often see sentences like this in my students’ writing: unnecessary and extensive usages of metaphors that muddle rather than clarify thinking. I guess it raises the question of whether the study of English literature does really give students and teachers a good basis for becoming clear thinkers and writers on nonfiction issues. I am not entirely sure what the alternative is or whether I am being a disciplinary (or Dutch) curmudgeon who unduly favors clear precise statements over flowery language. Thoughts?


Mihai Martoiu Ticu June 24, 2013 at 7:19 am

Advising students some literature might help. For instance:

Guberman, R. (2011). Point made: how to write like the nation’s top advocates. Oxford UP
Volokh, E. (2010). Academic legal writing: law review articles, student notes, seminar papers, and getting on law review. Foundation Press

I had to write a memorial for a moot court together with another student. I have given her those two books in advance. But she thought I was crazy, still wrote legalese, even after I suggested the following improvements to her part:

Original: “Conventions that are applicable to the BIOT are:”
Suggestion “The following conventions apply:”

Original: “provide for the possibility of”
Suggestion “grant the state”, “afford the state”

Original: “is of utmost importance”
Suggestion: “is vital”, “is paramount”, “is cardinal”

Original: “The Chagos has very diverse marine ecosystems, accommodating the healthiest and most resilient coral reefs in the world.”
Suggestion: “The Chagos has very diverse marine ecosystems, sheltering the healthiest and most resilient coral reefs in the world.”

Original: “finds its origin in”
Suggestion: “flows from”, “arises from”, “emanates from”, “commences from”, “originates in”

Original: “The instruments which specifically refer to MPAs include various quasi legal or policy instruments.”
Suggestion: “Various soft law and policy instruments refer specially to MPA’s.”

Original: “While the Stockholm Declaration is not a legally binding document, it has proven to be particularly conducive to the further development of international environmental law.”
Suggestion: “While the Stockholm Declaration is not legally binding, it was particularly fertile to the blossom of international environmental law.”

Original: “Within the jurisprudence of international courts and tribunals, this obligation has been referred to in relation to the customary obligation of States not to cause transboundary environmental harm.”
Suggestion: “The jurisprudence of international courts and tribunals stresses this obligation, in relation to the customary obligation of States to avert transboundary environmental harm.”

She believed that legal literature should be like that. And one of the best books in style is “Edit Yourself” by Bruce Ross-Larson.

David Charlton June 24, 2013 at 7:28 am

From “Slips of Speech:A helpful book for everyone who aspires to correct the everyday errors of speaking and writing.” By JOHN H. BECHTEL. 1895.

“The study of the proper arrangement and the most effective expression of our thoughts prompts us to think more accurately. So close is the connection between the thought and its expression that looseness of style in speaking and writing may nearly always be traced to indistinctness and feebleness in the grasp of the subject. No degree of polish in expression will compensate for inadequacy of knowledge. But with the fullest information upon any subject, there is still room for the highest exercise of judgment and good sense in the proper choice and arrangement of the thoughts, and of the words with which to express them.”

On can’t help but conclude that the problem with writing starts with problems in thinking.


Full book available at Project Gutenberg

Nate K June 24, 2013 at 8:51 am

Study philosophy.

JG June 25, 2013 at 8:36 am

Even philosophy could benefit from more clarity and simplicity.

I expect that more people would study philosophy if it were more approachable, but the past 2500 years of the Western canon reads like one inside joke to the next.

Andrew Gelman June 24, 2013 at 9:22 am

Orwell. And he was a (qualitative) political scientist, too.

Geoff G June 24, 2013 at 9:39 am

Verlyn – not “Vereline” – Klinkenborg is a man. According to Wikipedia anyway.

Erik Voeten June 24, 2013 at 10:20 am


Charles Mathewes June 24, 2013 at 10:25 am

This post — as clearly written as it is — makes Klinkenborg’s point rather well, I think. I appreciate your worries about your students’ excessive poetic leaps in writing–perhaps not a virtue of polisci writing, to say the least (though effective imagery is useful in pretty much all writing–it can really feel like you’re hitting the ball on the sweet spot of the bat, so to speak)–but perhaps of use in other genres, like the op-ed. And in fact VK’s point in the sentences you quote is about the increasing (and increasingly cramped) bureaucratization of knowledge, with each discipline or field (and sometimes sub-fields) caught in the blinders of its own narrow viewpoint and unwilling and sometimes unable to see peripherally. Surely you can agree that that is a worry, and that he puts it quite vividly? Or are you so focused on your discipline that you cannot see his point?

Erik Voeten June 25, 2013 at 3:17 am

Charles: yes I sort of get that message although I would never have used the terms “bureaucratization of knowledge” to describe it. My point was not to argue with the substance of the message but rather that the choice of language leaves a lot to the imagination of the reader. That is a good thing in literature but not necessarily In nonfiction writing. Why is English literature the proper background for teaching nonfiction writing?

PM June 24, 2013 at 11:05 am

@Charles Mathewes: What does the “vivid imagery” add to the post? It’s florid, overwrought, and confusing. The metaphor doesn’t hang well with the argument–why are we looking at a coastline, for instance, instead of boldly going where no one has gone before?–and detracts from a clean, simple, powerful argument.

Paul Constantine June 24, 2013 at 4:20 pm

I took a creative and technical writing class my freshman year (1997) that has stuck with me through my academic career. We used “Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace” by Joseph Williams as the text. I can’t recommend it highly enough. I’m moving to a tenure-track position in August, and I will soon have my own students. I plan to make each of them read this book cover-to-cover. I only wish there was a similar book for public speaking!

Chaz June 24, 2013 at 6:47 pm

I strongly feel that learning how to write should not be equated with analyzing literature. Obviously you need to read some well written stuff to see examples, but that doesn’t mean you have to turn around and write an essay about it. At least in the manner it was taught in every high school and college English/literature/writing class (they treated these three things as equivalent) I ever took, literature classes boil down to writing an essay about how to write an essay. Most students hate that and find it utterly uninteresting. For my part, even though I was way better at reading and writing than most of my classmates, I struggled greatly with my essay assignments because I simply had nothing to say. The Advanced Placement English and American Literature exams are the worst of the worst, followed by SAT essays and English classes everywhere.

You should never write a single word unless you have a message you want to convey. A student reads The Great Gatsby, doesn’t like it, and then what? What message does this student have to convey that he could arrange into the required five paragraph essay? And why? There’s some people who love that stuff and will have lots to say–just because they find it interesting–but for most there’s no reason to write an essay about a book at all.

So I say every essay should have a clear purpose. The teacher’s purpose may be to have the students practice writing, but the student needs a specific purpose for the essay. The easiest way to do that in an English class is to have students write persuasive essays. Good practice for lawyers and op ed columnists. You can also twist that theme into something more neutral like an engineering assessment or a cost benefit analysis. For science the important writing is journal papers; that’s easy enough when you’ve done research and have findings to present. If you’re student with no research findings, that’s not an option. You can do little chemistry experiments and write up your findings, but that’s distorted by prior knowledge of the “correct” result. Therefore the school “research paper” is typically a literature review–a legitimate form of scientific writing, but you run into the problem that everything students want to say is said in their sources, so they’re almost copying. Still better than writing about writing styles in my opinion. If you go into an essay with a clear purpose, then it’s easy to think through what you should say and how, and you can apply your own judgement as to how to get the point across, rather than just babbling aimlessly about whatever the teacher mentioned in class.

Also let me argue that being interested in your topic is not as important as having something to say about your topic! Don’t write unless you have something to say!

Honestly even writing forum comments about how much you hate things is better practice than analyzing books. I rewrote this post four times!

Chaz June 24, 2013 at 7:02 pm

“I plan to make each of them read this book cover-to-cover.”

I had books like that assigned in those high school and college classes I mentioned above; no one read them. Yours might be better, but still, no one will read it. The semester’s short and they’ve got lots to do. In that situation most students won’t read anything they don’t have to.

Of course professors have ways to coerce their students to read. The standard method is by making them write a paper about it*–probably not an option for a style manual. The other conventional option available to you is quizzes.

*To which I have forcefully objected above, but let me note that I consider essays about things like historical primary documents and research findings more worthwhile.

Paul June 24, 2013 at 7:22 pm

For the students I was referring to, I will be funding their graduate work with external research funds. If they don’t read it, I’ll know, since we’ll be coauthoring papers.

Robert J Frey June 24, 2013 at 7:56 pm

Analogy is important, not only for explaining ideas to another, but as a fundemantal tool for understanding, predicting, and controlling reality. As an applied mathematician my job is largely to build models–metaphors of reality using formal symbol manipulation. This process of simplification and abstraction, though fraught with danger, allows us to generalize our experience. It empowers us. All models, be they a set of differential equations or a literary metaphor, are in some sense false. The real question is whether they are useful. Understanding where they break down, as they inevitably do, is critical to using them properly.

Greg June 24, 2013 at 8:09 pm

Another short guide: Economical Writing by Deirdre McCloskey

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