Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Starting at the Beginning, or God Bless Joseph Williams

When I was in graduate school, I got a “D” on one of my first papers and my professor told me that I should consider dropping out of the program because my writing was incoherent. I was aghast. I had always gotten As in high school and thought I was a good writer, not great but good.

When I asked the professor for suggestions about how to improve, he must have thought the task hopeless and was less than forthcoming. Since there was no way I was dropping out, I decided to teach myself how to write what I now realize was academic or expository prose. In high school, we had focused mainly on narratives, with the emphasis on telling a good story. But stories weren’t going to get me my degree. That was pretty clear.

Thus began a long struggle to learn how to write by studying what was considered good writing in academia. Along the way, I must have read—and still read—books on how to write. I found a lot of them useless, filled with general advice about the importance of things like clarity and coherence. That was all fine, but my question was this: What was a concrete way to achieve those things?

At some point in my search, I picked up a copy of Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace by Joseph Williams and saw what I had been looking for: step-by-step explanations on how to achieve clarity and coherence. In a marvelously straightforward fashion, Williams explained how to use sentence openings to keep readers following along as they moved from sentence to sentence. That advice can be summed up in a German proverb used in the book: “Beginning and end shake hands with each other. “

One key point Williams makes is the importance of sentence openings as directives, guides or, as he says at one point, “orienters” to what follows. In other words, when writers open a sentence with the word “Allegedly,” or “As numerous studies show,” they already alert readers to how the information about to come up should be viewed, the first one with a bit of suspicion, the second as potentially sound evidence.

Just as important, it’s at the beginning of sentences that the writer tells a reader, here’s how this new information arriving in the sentence you are about to read links up with what you’ve just learned from the previous sentence, in other words, how the new sentence shakes hands with the old.

Here's a perfect example of two sentences shaking hands: “President John F. Kennedy was, as novelist Norman Mailer wrote, ‘our leading man.’ Young, charismatic, and handsome, the new chief executive was the first president born in the 20th century.” Sentence 1 introduces the notion of Kennedy as a glamorous figure. Sentence 2 opens by telling the reader, we’re still talking about Kennedy’s leading man image and readers know that because the writer has used adjectives associated with glamorous leading men: They are likely to be “young, charismatic, and handsome.”

Guided by Williams’s advice, I continue to find new ways to teach reading and writing students about the importance of sentence openings. I have developed a chart identifying the various signals common sentence openers or orienters (the chart goes way beyond the more typical, “for example,” “however”) can supply. Anyone interested in seeing the chart, adding to it, creating their own, or explaining why they do or do not think sentences openings are an important element of teaching reading and writing, please do comment or reply.


Ulrich said...

Best wishes for your new endeavor!

Actually, I wholeheartedly agree with what you say--but then again, what else would I say:-)

JacobA said...

Helping readers follow the argument put forth in a text is, of course, a prime goal authors have to set for themselves. The traditional way of doing this is through the use of transitional words or phrases, and this is what I have been telling the PhD students I advised (many of them foreigners BTW and happy to do some of the exercises on your website, especially the ones dealing with building a more sophisticated vocabulary!). What I find interesting about the J. F. Kennedy example is that it presents two sentences that "shake hands" without relying on explicit transitions--the connection gets established through the adjective appositive (if that is the correct term) at the beginning of the second sentence that picks up on an idea introduced in the first one--a very elegant way of establishing the connection (as opposed to using explicit transitions, which can get clunky at times)

I never thought about "transitions" in this way and am intrigued by the idea--I just wonder how I could explain this to my students--appositives may not be part of their grammatical "tool kit" (and this holds also for the native speakers of English among them).

Laraine Flemming said...

What a thoughtful comment. I need to think about this a bit, in particular I need to look up some of the terminology used for the links I describe. More soon. LMF

Laraine Flemming said...

@JacobA Sorry to take so infernally long to get back to you, but it took me a while to run down the answer to your question. Francis and Bonniejean Christensen, in their book "Notes toward a New Rhetoric," have a detailed section on sentence openers and they specifically mention sentences that open with apositive adjectives or what they also call adjective clusters ("Angry at the long delay, the men....") It seems to me that the sentence I use as an example would qualify as opening with a pair of apositive adjectives.

As for the term appositive not being part of your writers' tool kit--I always use that phrase myself, saying I teach the "tool kit school of writing"--I think you are right. But what's the matter with making it part of their tool kit. Appositive are everywhere in writing, particularly in textbook writing, which students so often struggle with.

The difficulty, it seems to me, would not be with defining the appositive, a word or phrase that restates a noun, but in defining appositive adjectives, which are linked to the noun-subject by association more than restatement. But let me look this up in my seemingly endless supply of books on writing and see if I can come up with a good definition and some equally good examples.

JacobA said...

Thanks for taking the time!

It seems to me that having a term for a grammatical concept is almost a prerequisite for making it part of one's toolkit. Had I known the term "appositive adjectives", I would have mentioned this to my students (neither I nor they are English majors)--I will do this now. In fact, I'll suggest to them to be on the look-out for appositive phrases in general--they are very powerful rhetorical devices and underused in the kind of technical writing my students and I do.

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poetbroker said...

I believe that the tool kit approach to writing has several benefits for the aspiring writer, not the least of which is the formation of learned writing habits leading to the development of clear expository prose.
Tool one must be the use of sentence linkages which not only lead the reader along the path taken by the writer, but also lead the writer himself to make the small steps leading to the larger argument.

Laraine Flemming said...

Hi Poetbroker, I'm sorry to say I never thought of how the writer's use of sentence links work to good effect on the writer as well as the reader, but you are absolutely correct. I know when I write, fishing around for the right opening for the reader often makes me clarify my own thinking about the content of my sentences and what they are supposed to be explaining. Thank you so much for that insight. That is definitely going into my writer's toolkit both for myself and for the people I tutor.

Anonymous said...

I've been enjoying your blog without making any comments or asking any questions, but I've been quietly wondering: what do you think of using the cloze procedure to test for readability?

About this blog: For years now, whenever I wanted to test out a new exercise or figure out how I’d like to address a new topic,I’ve been sending out an SOS to teachers I’ve worked with or met at conferences and online and asking them what they thought of my approach or if they had another way of addressing say improving students ability to stay focused while reading on the Web.

Probably later than it should have, it’s now occurred to me that a blog might be a good way to bring others into these online discussions, which, for me anyway, have been incredibly valuable. So every week or so, I’m going to post my thoughts on a topic that I consider really central to the teaching of reading and writing. In every post, I’ll include practical strategies for addressing the topic discussed.

My hope is that other instructors will respond with their thoughts and, over time, we can come up with a repository of teaching methods geared to specific objectives like teaching coherence in writing or using linguistic cues in reading and a host of others.