11.0092 bad writing

Humanist Discussion Group (humanist@kcl.ac.uk)
Thu, 12 Jun 1997 12:10:46 +0100 (BST)

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 11, No. 92.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
<http://www.princeton.edu/~mccarty/humanist/>
<http://www.kcl.ac.uk/humanities/cch/humanist/>

[1] From: Jeff Finlay <FINLAYJI@guvax.acc.georgetown.edu> (46)
Subject: bad writing

[2] From: Tzvee Zahavy <zahavy@andromeda.rutgers.edu> (20)
Subject: Re: HUMANIST digest 401

[3] From: "Mark K. Gardner" <contact.the.commander@null.net> (92)
Subject: what is good writing?

--[1]------------------------------------------------------------------
Date: Sun, 08 Jun 1997 13:34:45 -0400 (EDT)
From: Jeff Finlay <FINLAYJI@guvax.acc.georgetown.edu>
Subject: bad writing

> I myself disagree with much of what I've read of Cheney's, with
> rather less with what I've read of Hirsch's, but I've not noticed any
> special problems with either's prose. Quite the contrary, in fact, my
> impression is that Cheney is ususally quite clear, and that Hirsch is
> not only clear but sometimes elegant.

Charles, I think it depends how you assess elegance and clarity; such
words are open to interpretation like anything else these days. The
Wansee document might be regarded as a "clear" piece of writing
insofar as its syntax and grammar and descriptions of procedures to
be followed are correctly expressed. Would we therefore say it's
"good writing"? Would we say Mein Kampf is "bad writing" because
of its incoherent prose whereas the Wansee document is "good
writing" because of its clinically precise prose? Extreme examples
to be sure, but the criteria (such as they are) used by Phil-Lit
would seem to suggest such a statement is possible.

I'll grant you Cheney and Hirsch (to name but two writers) are "clear"
insofar as they don't conceal the iron filings with which their gloves
are filled, but once one gets beyond the diagetic dimension of their
work, one is left asking "towards what end? why the insistence on
negating the gains (and obvious victory) of multiculturalism?" and
their implied answer on these grounds is much less clear.

But, yes, on a transparent basis, both Cheney and Hirsch suck too at
times. YOU might consider the following, from one of Hirsch's Core
Curriculum documents, "elegant prose"; I'd describe it as "rivetingly
awful":

The words that children hear in school are like so many snowflakes
falling on the school ground. (To continue the snowball metaphor,
we would need to picture the children rolling among these flakes
like so many snowballs!) Disadvantaged children may hear the words,
but they do not pick up the meanings, whereas children who have
already accumulated a covering of knowledge and vocabulary will be
picking up knowledge rapidly. As their academic snowball grows, so
does their ability to accumulate still more knowledge - - in strong
contrast to disadvantaged students whose initially meager learning
abilities get smaller and smaller by comparison, humiliating them
still further and destroying their motivation.

In response to the other comments on "bad writing" I'd like to suggest
that the philosophical parameters of "bad" be extended beyond mere
examples of syntax being unable to convey abstruse theoretical
meanings to writing that is based upon a specious premise, writing
that is overtly agenda-driven, or, as in the case of my Nazi analogy
above, so emotive as to stimulate the reader's defenses rather than
sense of reasoning 8-).

Logocentrically yours,

Jeff Finlay

--[2]------------------------------------------------------------------
Date: Mon, 09 Jun 1997 23:35:15 -0400
From: Tzvee Zahavy <zahavy@andromeda.rutgers.edu>
Subject: Re: HUMANIST digest 401

I read with great trepidation, indeed expectation, your latest missive in
re: bad prose within the realm of scholarly discourse. Having been the
victim of such for numerous years through the good graces of the learned
journal and the well-intentioned often too focused monograph, I find myself
lapsing into turgidity on occasion, such as at the present time. Well,
here, here for perpetuating another myth, to wit, that academicians do not
write crisp and clear articles and books. Naturally this reflects not a
whit on their abitilities to reason effectively and draw logical
conclusions, not to mention to act with ethical uprightness and moral
certitude.
Verily yours,
Tzvee Zahavy

Dr. Tzvee Zahavy

Home: zahavy@andromeda.rutgers.edu
http://newark.rutgers.edu/~zahavy/tzvee.html

Office: zahavy@jcn18.com; http://www.jcn18.com/
Editor-in-Chief, The Jewish Communication Network

--[3]------------------------------------------------------------------
Date: Tue, 10 Jun 1997 13:35:47 -0400
From: "Mark K. Gardner" <contact.the.commander@null.net>
Subject: what is good writing?

> Let's look at this issue from the opposite side: what, then, is "good"
> writing?

I was amused by the "bad writing contest," but good writing, like any
form of communication, as an attempt to convey the inner workings of one
human mind to another, must clearly portray the ideas in a manner that
does not rely on 'implied' meanings or assumption of understanding on
behalf of the reader; neither a post-modernist dictionary nor telepathy
should be required to understand an article on any topic! Now, that
very sentence by its sheer length, would probably shoot my computer's
'readability' meter off the scale, yet I think most people with an
eighth grade education could get the gist of it. Even so, it is
conceivable that I could have divided in half, retained its meaning, and
not insulted the intelligence of anyone on this list. I think that on
one hand scholars should not be forced to "dumb down" their work, but on
the other hand _we all_ should take care to express our thoughts in
manner less byzantine.
I write this with some experience in the matter. My own style of
writing was constructively criticized by a graduate professor of mine
whose observations on my first report that semester included: "Your
sentence structure is too complex--you take the meaning of each one
right to the edge!" In other words, he explained to me in his office, we
scholars need to simplify our written ideas so as to be more effective
communicators. Just because our target audience is mostly composed of
M. A's and Ph. D's, and just because they _can_ read at a more complex
level than the average bear, doesn't mean we/they _want_ to be subjected
to it page after page, he explained.
As it turned out that semester, a required book for the Historiography
class I was taking with him happened to be _The End of American History_
by David W. Noble ( 1985 Univ. of Minnesota Press). Anybody else out
there ever _have_ to read this? While it was very informative, Noble's
writing style is so complex that it is an extremely difficult book to
read. Holding this text up as an example, my professor asked me to be
aware of and avoid this tendency in my future writing assignments.
In fact, when I saw the "Bad Writing Contest," I immediately thought of
Noble. For example:

"This attack on the necessity for critical
distance, this declension from the pragmatic
realism of the founding fathers, this repudia-
tion of the need for the reconciliation of
differences and compromise then became institu-
tionalized in the business community as the cult
of the self-made man." (Page 107)

This seems to fit right in with the theme for the contest, in that the
reader of this excerpt would be hard put to assign meaning to much of
it; and there is plenty more where that came from. Taken out of
context, it _is_ mostly meaningless. When read in context, it makes
sense, but one has to attain a level of concentration that is impossible
to sustain for a very long time. Very dense, each sentence so packed
with meaning, one of my classmates described reading a chapter of Noble
to be like "swimming through a pool of wheel-bearing grease." I felt
fairly drained after every three-hour seminar discussion of this
particular book. While communicating complex ideas is often a complex
task, it should not be so couched in jargonese and so dense with meaning
as to fry our minds with each reading. I learned a great deal about
American historians from Noble's book, but I can't say I enjoyed reading
it.
I imagine most of you reading this have a jewel or two like Noble that
came to mind when you read the examples in the "contest."
Anyway, a compromise needed to be reached in my own writing style if I
expected to receive anything higher than a A-/B+ for my work in that
course. After training myself for two decades to pack as much as
possible into as compact and concise a verbal area as possible, I had
found it to be difficult, but not impossible. It was one of those
"intangible" lessons I picked up that had nothing really to do with the
topic of the class yet was one of the most important things I learned
that semester.
To return to the original question, "What is good writing?", I would
propose some suggestions for improvement. One thing that I find helpful
is when an author clearly defines any and all 'jargonese' in the
forward/introduction. Another suggestion is one I am implementing in my
own style. I simplify some of my more complex sentence constructs in the
proofreading process by deconstructing them into smaller segments. I
find I can still communicate complex ideas without straining the
reader's sensibilities or reducing my writing down to a newspaper's
level. I aim for a happy medium now instead of striving for something
that sounds as it belongs in the "Bad Writing Contest." It is truly
amazing what a period instead of another comma can do to create a
clearer and more precise prose!! Finally, when the devoir must embrace
a long composition of mind-numbing compexity, an analogous summary of
the most salient points would be beneficient to facilitate and amend
total gestalt constituent absorbtion... Oh my! What I meant to say was
we should briefly summarize the main ideas in plain English. If we
can't do that, then it is quite possible we don't really know what we
are talking (writing) about.

Regards

Mark Gardner

P.S. Out of curiosity, I ran this letter through the MS Word grammar
program. According to MS Word, the averaged readinglevel/grade index of
the above email is 10.1. Mea culpa--I should have said "anyone with a
_tenth_ grade education should be able to get the gist of this..."