The Study Dude – Academic Writing Stinks, Part II

Study Tips from a Semi-Anonymous Friend

There is nothing more that The Study Dude wants for you than to take twice as long writing your essays so that your essays read ten-times better.

Well, in these articles, as The Study Dude, I’ll try to give you the study tips you need to help make your learning easier. I’ll also give you straight and honest opinions and personal anecdotes?even the embarrassing ones that you wouldn’t ever dare read about from any other study tip guru.

This week’s Study Dude helps you write like the bestseller Steven Pinker. In Pinker’s Sense of Style you learn how to write clearly and coherently. Once you master the tricks of clarity and coherence, your writing will improve as if you’ve written four hours daily for seven years.

What did I just read? Clear Writing
I discovered that clear writing is the recipe for good writing. In other words, I aim to remove ambiguous wording from my essays. Here is an example of an ambiguous sentence: The boy fed his goldfish to his pet cat, who thereafter ran away from home. In this sentence, we don’t know for sure who ran away from home: the boy? the goldfish? the pet cat? Ambiguous!

Yes, clear writing is everything. Now that I know ambiguities muddle my writing, I watch for them?and sure enough, ambiguities appear in nearly everything I write. For instance, I rewrote that last sentence five times?and it’s no Picasso. I rewrote the next sentence (the one prior to this one) three times before deleting most of it. Writing clearly is no easy task.

To help you write clearly, try saying your sentence out loud. Does the sentence flow from your tongue? Or do you have to reread the sentence just to catch the meaning? Regardless, make your sentences read like Edgar Allen Poe wrote them.

Yet, writing clearly isn’t as pretty as writing poetry. Writing with clarity takes painstaking effort. When I first started writing the Study Dude, I could spin off an article in the matter of an hour. Not so these days. Now, one article takes four hours to write, one to edit, fourteen to research?and this is all you get.

Steven Pinker in his book The Sense of Style spells out the rules for writing clearly:
– Stay clear of ambiguities like the goldfish and cat confusion I presented above.
– Read your sentences out loud to see if the rhythm and pauses add to your overall clarity.
– Let your punctuation add clarity to your writing: insert relevant commas, colons, semicolons, dashes, and even italics. Commas shouldn’t come between the subject and predicate. Nor should they come between verbs and verb complements.
– Although words like “that” and “who” muddle sentences, sometimes these words can also add clarity. The sentence “Fat people eat accumulates” can be clarified with the word “that”: “Fat that people eat accumulates” (p. 122).
– Use parallel structure: “I think; therefore, I am.”
– In a series of words separated by commas, put the longest item at the end: “The purpose of life is to smile, to love, and to drink chocolate protein.”
– Start your sentence with previously given information and end with the new information: “Glass is made from molten sand. Molten sand can be made by…”
– Here’s one reason why you should use the passive voice: Use the passive voice when doing so allows you to use “who” instead of “whom.”
– Generally, prefer using “who” over “whom.” The noun phrase “who” substitutes for the subject words, such as “he,” in sentences. The noun phrase “whom” substitutes for the object words, such as “him,” in sentences. By using “who,” you keep your subject at the front. For instance, if you said, “I like the man who lent me a dollar,” you add more clarity than if you said, “I like the man from whom I received a dollar.
– Verb counterparts include “give” and “receive”; “sold” and “bought”; “”taught” and “learned.” Choose the counterpart that allows you to keep your key subject at the beginning. Here is an example: “On Easter, Mrs. Brown brought crackers to class. Feeding crackers to her students while reading Exodus, she taught the biblical meaning of unleavened bread.”

What’s the point? Finding Coherence
A coherent passage reads more easily when the main idea is presented early. Pinker uses an example of a coherent passage written by an owner of a bird watcher’s store. This particular passage follows the general formula of AAABA BBBB AAAA etc where each letter represents a sentence and the A or B represent each a unique subject of that sentence.

To be clear, in Pinker’s example, the A represents a heron bird (or related similes) and the B represents winter (or related similes). So, each sentence in the passage starts with the subject?either a heron related word (the A) or a winter-related word (the B) although some of these sentences have a subordinate clause attached at the beginning, which we will ignore for now.

Whew! I hope my paragraphs on coherence are coherent.

To repeat, Pinker’s particular example has a coherent pattern: AABA BBBB AAAA (representing three paragraphs each with four sentences). Pinker seems to advocate that you use a similar pattern where the main subject is repeated at the beginning of most every sentence of each paragraph. You can even spice things up by having your subordinate clauses entertain a repeated pattern of their own.

But, is that reasoning too simplistic?

Joshua Schimel proposes a different pattern in his book, Writing Science. He advocates for a pattern where the sentence starts with the subject and ends with the object, but advises the next sentence start with the preceding sentence’s object. So, the pattern of sentences for Schimel would look like, as a hypothetical example, ABCA where B and C are not only the subjects of the sentences they represent but also the objects of the sentences that precede them. (Schimel views the pattern of AAAA more like a list than a flowing argument.) Clear?

So, which pattern should you use?

Perhaps we can go willy-nilly , and do what I advocate: assume that poetic rhyme holds a key to coherence. Why not write using the following rhyming schemes for subject placement: AAAA (as suggested by Pinker) or AABB or AXAA or AAXA (where X is any random subject) or ABBA or AXXA? A could represent herons, B could represent winter, and X could represent, say, mating season. Each X subject could also be the object of the preceding sentence. Why not?

Now that I’ve sufficiently confused you on the topic of coherence, let’s hear what Pinker has to say:
– Put your topic at the start of your writing.
– Keep the article’s subject in the subject position of the topic sentence.
– Revise your topic sentence once you finished your first draft. People like to be clear up front on what you discuss.
– Place your context in front of your assertions. People like to know what’s going on before you describe the action. Treat context as if you were writing the introductory scenes of a movie before the hero is plunged into some plight: in other words, in writing, as in films, context comes first.
– Connect ideas in sentences together. In other words, link the idea presented in one sentence to the idea presented in the next.
– Use outlines to cluster together related ideas in your essays. These clusters can help you form paragraphs and sections.
– Break big paragraphs into smaller ones to give the reader’s eyes a rest.
– Also, use paragraph breaks between sentences when one sentence doesn’t follow from the next.
– Don’t repeat a name. Use a pronoun the second time the name appears, unless the name and pronoun sit far apart from one another.
– Don’t wildly vary your words to reference a heron. In other words, to be extreme, don’t call it a “fancy-free winged being” or a “long-necked flying goose.” People might think the varied words mean different things.
– Instead, when you mention a thing a second time, use a more general reference. For instance, you can say “Herons eat small mice. These birds will ravage even kittens.” However, don’t go from a general reference to a specific reference. For instance “The birds eat small mice. Herons will ravage even kittens” makes it unclear whether “birds” and “herons” refer to the same thing.
– Connect sentences with connectives, such as “and” or “nonetheless”, but rely on other tactics, too, like using colons or parallel structure in order to avoid repetition. Don’t use too many or two few connective words.
– Don’t use more than one sentence connector in one sentence. Don’t say “However, he appreciated the gesture, although he couldn’t find the time to say thanks.”
– And lastly, never leave your reader baffled. Explain things clearly. Coherence and clarity make your writing pieces digestible.

So, there’s nothing to fear. The Study Dude is determined to make right for you all the wrongs I made in grad school?one A+ at a time.

Pinker, Steven. The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. New York, NY: Penguin Books.