Senior Seminar: Writing Workshop 1

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Clarity (I)

Suppose we read two sentences that mean the same thing (see Williams’ many examples in Chapter 2). If one of them makes us work harder than the other, we will feel that one is less clear than the other. Here work refers to our mental effort to understand sentences.

In theory, then, we can make our sentences clearer to the extent we minimize work on the reader’s part. According to Williams, the reader will not work hard to understand a sentence that reveals, in its syntax, a story: who did what to whom. Now, the English syntax demands the subject before the verb. So his first principles of clear writing are to use:

  1. Subjects to name characters and
  2. Verbs to name important actions that involve the characters.

These principles are also motivated by basic observations of the psychology of reading. For example, as Williams notes, we don’t have to work hard to understand stories that describe characters and their actions. It’s remarkable that we can understand and remember long, complex stories like The Lord of the Rings.

A professional piece of writing––an argumentative essay, a research paper, a report, etc––tells stories too. These stories can have a range of characters from authors and critics to abstractions, concepts, and theories. In philosophy, for example, monism, dualism, empiricism, rationalism, idealism, materialism, and other philosophical isms can all be characters. And they can do things: empiricism opposes rationalism. They could receive actions: idealism is undermined by this or that argument.

Homework for Workshop 2

For Williams, a clear and direct prose is a result of the writer’s decisions about writing problems. One problem is how to align a story, which could be told in numerous ways, with the syntactical requirements of English. Some writers solve this problem by making decisions intuitively, but intuition cannot be taught. So Williams’s approach is to identify simple principles that help the writer make decisions. His principles don’t define good or bad writing, but they help the writer make her prose clearer to the reader because the principles are informed of how the reader’s mind works.

The goal of this assignment is to become familiar with the process of principled revision. As with all the assignments in this course, you will learn by revising your prose, regardless of whether you like the resulting prose. So you should just make good faith effort, and don’t worry about the results. In other words, your grade will be based on how much work you put in, and not on how “good”–whatever that means!–your revision is.

1. Find one example of sentences that hide rather than reveal characters and their actions. An example can be a single (probably long) sentence or take up a few sentences. It can come from your old paper or your current writing, such as a paper for another class or annotations you have made for this class. You will get most out of this exercise if your example is amenable to Williams’s principles. Use the quick method on p. 23 and advice below to identify candidate sentences.

2. Revise your example for greater clarity by following Williams’s principles. Since your goal is to practice principled revision, don’t rewrite the sentences completely (see Williams’s footnote on p. 18). In other words, your revised version should retain the meaning of the original as much as possible. Try to produce one to three revised versions of the same original text. For example, different versions might use different characters and actions. Make each version credible: something you would accept as a revision of your original text.

3. This is a bonus step, but I encourage you to try to revise your example for lesser clarity as well. That is, revise your example so that it deviates maximally from Williams’s principles, while retaining the meaning of the original. What this exercise will show you is that you can control clarity independently of the meaning of a sentence.

4. Type your example and your revision in a Word document. Please label your example and revision consistently. For example, if “A” is the original, then “B” is your revision of it. You may give more than one revisions for an example, which can then be labeled “C,” “D,” and so on.

5. Submit your document to a discussion board on Blackboard (see the “Writing Workshop Submissions” tab). Please submit by 1pm of the day of the next workshop so that I’ll have time to look over your revisions beforehand.

6. You can revise more than one examples and submit them. We may not have time to look at all of your revisions in class, but I will look at them and send you comments as necessary. If you do this, please label your example and revisions as an ordered set, like 1A, 1B, 2A, 2B, and so on.

Some advice

Not all sentences in a paper tell a story. Sometimes we do describe static states of affairs: Color is a relational property; Kant has a response. It’s like saying that my house is blue and has a red roof. Sentences like these typically has be or have verbs, and they don’t need to be revised.

But many sentences with be or have verbs hide actions. Here’s an example: The function of belief is to act as the representation of states of affairs in the world. (Try to recast this sentence using Williams’s principles.) And such sentences have not only static verbs but also nominalizations (“function,” “representation”) and prepositional phrases (“the function of belief,” “the representation of states of affairs in the world”).

Once you identify actions, you can think about potential characters who perform those actions. Continuing the above example, you can ask: “Who (or what) does the believing?”, “Who (or what) does the representing?”, and so on.

You can hunt down action-hiding sentences by looking for be, have, and prepositions. You can also find them by looking for characteristic endings of nominalizations: –ance, –ence, –ity, –ness, –ion, –ment, or –ism.

Finally, you might find it amusing and instructive to read Helen Sword’s piece on nominalizations as zombie nouns.