12 thoughts on “Rethinking some received wisdom about writing”

  1. I am so grateful that I have received some guidelines and learned some rules about writing in the first person. I’ve always been told that using “I” in essays is a taboo of sorts, and I will be honest, when I was student teaching, I nearly screamed when I saw most students using “I” in their essays. After said screaming, I had them immediately fix what they wrote.

    I’ve thought back to the context of those perpetrators’ writing, and I am pretty confident that although I did not have this knowledge at the time, I was correct in making some of them eliminate the first person. From what I remember, the students were using first person statements as evidence to back up a claim in an essay rather than using evidence from the novel (one student even used his faith in God as evidence). This does not fall into what is acceptable based on what Williams writes. Although I may have been correct in this case, I may have unfairly asked students (and I asked them rather emphatically) to not let me see the first person in their papers at all. That being said… I could be that teacher who passed on poor writing wisdom!

    I am so glad that I am now aware of this, and I think this is something that students should be aware of so they do not feel as handcuffed while writing. Although it will take me a little bit of time, and I may have to glance back at the Williams chapter for reference, I think that I, too, will feel less handcuffed in my writing.

  2. I think what you said, Michael, about how showing students these rules will help them feel less “handcuffed” in their writing, makes a lot of sense. I think that by learning from Williams and the other texts, we are getting a much better understanding of why we write the way we do, which can only help our future students.

    I know I definitely had a hard time at the start of our class understanding the rules behind actions and how to explain them. When we first started working on the examples, a lot of what we did just seemed obvious to me, and I couldn’t figure out how to explain it. I got confused a lot about which terms meant what (I always struggled with finding the subject of a sentence) and I’m sure that most students learning these rules the first time share that struggle. However, after all of our extensive practice, I feel much more confident in finding these things in writing, and explaining why we write the way we do.

    I think that the understanding I have now about things like actions and nominalizations is only going to help my future students. Knowing how difficult I found some of these exercises at first, I can understand why students can work themselves into a rut, where they know what they write might not make sense, but they do it anyway because they don’t understand how to fix it. Now that I can explain why these things might not make sense, it will be so much easier for them to improve and fix what they struggle with, instead of repeating the same mistake.

  3. Just a note to please focus your comments now on rethinking received wisdom like “don’t write in the first person,” “don’t repeat things,” “don’t write in the passive,” “all hail the inverted pyramid…”

  4. Throughout history, During our last few classes I’ve come to realize that many of a writer’s decisions need to be considered on a case-by-case basis. Although it might be simpler to have rules like “never use the first person” or “never write in passive voice,” at times, these are the best options for achieving one’s goal. To elaborate, Williams suggests leaving sentences in first person when the writer is using metadiscourse, such as in an introduction that explains what a researcher studied; Williams’ advice about passive voice is to use it when it makes logical sense, such as when the writer doesn’t know who performed an action, the readers wouldn’t care, or the writer does not want readers to know. Along the same lines, though it makes sense to break apart most (namely excessive) noun clusters, I’ve learned that sometimes it’s better to leave them. For example, you likely read “noun clusters” in the previous sentence without any difficulty, so instead of writing “clusters of nouns,” which might only serve to make things wordier than necessary, I left it this way consciously.

    Personally, I found the topics of writing in the first person, passives, and repetition to be much easier than the work we accomplished with identifying parts of speech. Throughout my years of schooling I would usually let out a sigh of relief when a particularly difficult unit was over with, and would do my best to never run into those types of problems again, crossing my fingers that the next unit wouldn’t build on information I still couldn’t understand; this course is thankfully much different. Instead, I’m finding that exploring new but related topics of language is helping to further clarify my understanding of our previous work, and I’m even purposely remembering and using the former skills. For instance, in class Dr. Paku asked us to go through a few examples of sentences with unsightly noun clusters and simply break them apart. However, I had a hard time not reconstructing the entire phrase to put the agent in the subject position, to change the nominalizations into verbs, and to put the sentence into active voice. I’m realizing that rewriting prose clearly using all of the tools in my toolbox has become an itch I really want to scratch, and I think that’s the whole point. I have been applying old knowledge to new topics, making for even clearer sentences that I’m actually really proud of. <-- Who knows? Maybe soon we will learn how to write without ending sentences in prepositions (I'm horribly and constantly guilty of this, and I've been taught forever that it's incorrect, yet I still can't fix it). At any rate, until last class I didn't even realize how deeply I've been internalizing our lessons, and I'm really looking forward to what comes next.

  5. Ive always been one of those writers who would look up synonyms on a word document, thinking it would spice up the writing. After learning that repetition in moderation is acceptable, it becomes less demanding to come up with new and interesting words. Not only is it less demanding, but it keeps the core of your material in range for the reader. In other words, if we are focused on clear writing, it is necessary to repeat words in order to keep the reader on the right direction. I do appreciate an array of words in a piece of literature, but as these words become more detailed, their connotations may not line up with the actual point of the piece. As seen in the MLK example in TS/IS, the repetitive words hold the focus of his letter, as it connects our understanding of the writing with his intention. I think this is useful information for a highschool student, especially one who wants to sound intelligent, as their ‘big’ words may have no value with the point they are trying to make. Keeping things less complex with a few key repetitive words will make their writing accessible.

  6. Just like Michael said above, I had always thought that writing using the first person was the wrong move. However, after reading what Williams wrote about it, I believe that it can actually be a good tool for students to use. The sophisticated third person “one” can seem daunting to students and perhaps a tad ostentatious. Saying “I”, could help the writer to relate more to the topic, allowing the writer to open up about the topic. Perhaps it would be a good technique to allow students to sketch out their feelings using the first person. However, they would need to be able to support their beliefs.
    In terms of writing in passives, I think that it is wonderful that I now know the rules and so can choose when to break them (it makes me feel so wild inside!) In high school, I had never been taught what passive or active voice even was. Accordingly, I had always wondered why my friend’s science reports had to be written in the passive instead of the active voice (What was this passive voice thing anyway?). When I first started learning active voice, I erringly believed that the passive voice was always wrong. I actually re-wrote my friends science report and showed her how much better it was in the active voice. My friend simply told me that it was “unscientific”. With the new knowledge that I have, I understand why the passive is used. I have since explained to my friend why it’s okay to use the passive in her science report.
    On a side note, it is hard for me to believe that the concept of passive and active voice was never taught to me at any point of my secondary education (in reality, grammar as a whole was not concentrated on). Passive voice can be used to deceive people and to hide certain pieces of evidence. Because of this, students should not be ignorant on this topic. Learning what the passive and active voice is will help them to critically think about what they are reading—WHO is doing WHAT?

  7. I’ve been very satisfied with my growth as a writer over these past few weeks. I’ve learned how to consciously write using a lot of the skills we’ve discussed in class, such as using conjunctions correctly, breaking up unnecessary noun clusters, and using repetition constructively, rather than relying on unconscious habit. This has been very invigorating for me because, while I was always confident in my writing ability, at times I would worry that at some point the wellspring from which I drew these phrases and wordplay from would dry up. Knowing not just how I was writing well but why what I was writing was good is very reassuring and empowering. I am very excited to pass on these sort of skills to my future students; after all, sharing this feeling with others is one of the main reasons I wanted to become a teacher in the first place.

    One skill that I am particularly proud of is identifying and correcting passive language where necessary. The only knowledge I had on the subject prior to this class was that passive language was bad and that it consisted of saying “X was done” instead of “I did X”. Not knowing the actual rules regarding passives could lead to a lot of false identifications; the phobia regarding passives led to avoiding them even when a passive was appropriate. I would restructure entire paragraphs to avoid a sentence where not using a passive meant making up information. To be able to use a passive where it is appropriate is such a liberating feeling. As with the other skills, I really hope I can pass on this knowledge to my future students to have as positive an effect on their writing as I can.

  8. As well as everyone else, I am grateful we received some useful wisdom about writing. I remember being a student in high school and taking everything the english teacher said as accurate and truthful; i’m aware, those teachers believed what they were preaching was correct, but it definitely put us behind as writers. After completing a few years of college, with the help of intelligent professors, I have made a full recovery (ha!), or so I hope.

    When student teaching, I was a fresh persepective for not only my students, but for my cooperating teacher. I learned before this class the idea that the introverted pyramid was not helpful and that writing in first person is completely acceptable when appropriate; our lessons in this class only verified my knowledge on the topics. I do think it is scary that many certified H.S. teachers have limited knowledge about the practice of writing. Going into my classroom and introducing my new ways of thinking about writing helped my students, but it also helped my cooperating teacher think differently about how she taught certain aspects of her class. Hopefully, the more we share our knowledge, the more high school english classes will be more helpful!

    I was not aware that repeition was acceptable, or rather I was taught the opposite and then never gave it anymore thought. Throughout high school and college, I was taught that it was not acceptable and I am happy this class has allowed me to open my eyes to this tactic. For example, if you, as a writer, find that one word suits your description perfectly, why search for a close synonym when you already have the best option. I like the idea of choosing your words carefully, and once you find it, use it – your argument will be stronger the more confident you are in what you are saying.

  9. I took a class with Dr. Paku last Spring, and I was introduced to many of the techniques we’ve learned in this class…although this class has examined these techniques with much greater depth. Personally, I found repetition to be the most useful tool I’ve gained from this class and Dr. Paku’s writing instruction in general. Repetition, along with the emphasized clarity of sentence structure, not only allows the reader to better comprehend my writing, but also assists myself in understanding my progression of thought. By linking sentences together coherently, I am able to develop my argument as I write, as opposed to dumping all of my ideas into my body paragraphs and hoping they fit. Also, I agree with many of your posts in regard to the fact that you’ve discovered writing is not as difficult as you assumed. By exercising the techniques learned in this class, I’ve personally found writing papers to be much easier, and I’ve also found the results to be better when exercising these techniques effectively. Therefore, I feel that when imparted to students…even students at the high school level…these skills will allow students to be more comfortable with their writing.
    I noticed that many of you, such as Michael and Michelle, have addressed issues with “rules” stemming from high school instruction…rules such as “don’t write in the first person” or “don’t use repetition”. In the case of these absolutes, I draw a parallel to moral values. For example, if a child steals a toy from another child on the playground, a parent will tell the child not to steal, because stealing is bad and someone should never steal. Obviously, situations exist where stealing something may be the morally right choice, but to avoid the complicated discussion of morality with a six-year-old child, the parent opts to present a moral absolute to the child. I feel that in many cases, there are false absolutes of writing that were presented to us when we were younger and never corrected. As Mike mentioned, in his case, his students’ use of the first person was incorrect in the context of their assignment. In many cases, use of the first person is incorrect, and therefore to avoid future complications, some teachers present writing in the first person as incorrect in all writing. Obviously this rule falters when students’ writing becomes more advanced, and therefore as educators I believe we are responsible to dispel these rumors and teach students how to effectively identify the voice they need for a certain piece and work from there.

  10. I will always refer back to the “advice” that was consistently taught regarding writing with a voice. While it may not have been the intention of the teachers I encountered, it always appeared that they were expecting a particular voice, tone, and stance from their student writers, and a uniform one at that. Even in a creative writing class there was more of an illusion of promoting individuality than an actual attempt to help shape our unique writing styles. It may be difficult to teach and explain, but students should know that even an academic paper requires a strong voice, in addition to clarity.

    Also, the expected “five paragraph” essay structure is obviously obsolete at the collegiate level, but even in high schools it should not always be used. Attempting to limit ideas for three body paragraphs can lead to run-on sentences and too many thoughts being placed together. Clarity is critical for successful writing , and a structure that limits clarity should be overlooked.

    1. Perhaps just as vague as the word “clear”, the word “voice” is hard for me to understand. As Caroline said, teachers promote writing with a “voice”, but what does this mean? It was taught to me that one should write with one’s own individual voice, idiosyncrasies and all. However, when I look back on my writing, I see a softer, politically correct (almost phony!) version of myself. All idiosyncrasies are gone in favor of a more “normalized” version of myself. I admire Mark Twain’s ability to have his own spunky voice. He says, “ I often want to criticize Jane Austen, but her books madden me so that I can’t conceal my frenzy from the reader; and therefore I have to stop every time I begin. Every time I read Pride and Prejudice I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.” If this just doesn’t underscore Mark Twain’s plucky voice I don’t know what would. The thing is, if I were to write something like this, people in a hurt, offended voice would retaliate with a, “Who cares what you think?” Because of this, I never venture to take the road less taken (the road not taken is not taken for a reason). I stay on the safe side of the sidewalk and while I may venture out an opinion here and there, my arguments are often watered down with buckets of politeness; my opinion is no longer the Herculean conclusion that it once was. It resembles a small, gray piece of paper that matches everyone else’s safe side opinion.

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