5365: Messy Bits of A Paper


As the title says, some messy bits of the paper I’m working on.  It’s coming together out of my boredom-induced notes of this weekend and blog blatherings of the past weeks, slowly emerging and taking shape from the void.  Or something.  Here, read a messy bit:

The Importance of Teaching Style:
Or, Why Teaching Style is Important

Why should we teach style? Or to rephrase: why is style worth teaching? Like a water monster, style surfaces in writing classrooms from time to time; some teachers and writers rave about their experience with the monster, about flow or voice; others are brave enough to wave around an empirical observation for this and or a descriptive principle for that; however, most just shy safely away, either pooh-poohing style as something only those people fool around with, or avoiding the perennially sticky question altogether. (Who are those people anyway? Poets? English majors? Metrosexuals?)  Aesthetes fuss over distinctions between formal, indexical, symptomatic, or crafted styles.  Rhetoricians pit Sophistic flourish against Ramistic mundanity.  MLA-wielding literature & composition teachers rant and rave over failures to use present tense in signal phrases while their history colleagues on the next floor hold high the past tense aegis.  Art teachers tell students to “embrace the I” while chemistry profs gag at the very prospect.  Even without straying from this set of anecdotal observations, it’s clear that we must teach style to students simply because there are so many notions of style at desperate, vitriolic, and ultimately confusing war with one another.

Style is the set of choices writers make in word choice and sentence structure.  This choice is purposive; in Burkean terms, style is an action, a rhetorical choice with an array of motives underlying it.  Augustine of Hippo’s definition of eloquence is helpful here:

He, therefore, who strives in speaking, to convince of what is good, since he is concerned with the threefold aim, viz., instructing, pleasing, and persuading, should pray and labor, as we have said above, to make himself understood, enjoyed, and persuasive.  And when he accomplishes this rightly and fitly, he is not unworthily called eloquent, even though the agreement of his hearer does not follow him […] striving for this, to help them even thereby to the good toward which our persuasion aims. (Bizzell & Herzberg p. XX)

Coming out of a Ciceronian tradition, Augustine speaks of style in terms of aims.  A stylistic choice is made to impel an audience to some sort of understanding, belief, pleasure, or action.  An informal overview of the rhetorical tradition might offer the following basic motives for style: to express (tied to meaning), to impress (tied to memory), and to clarify (tied to understanding)—all of these have the tacit intent of affecting, of doing something to someone.  (A longer review of literature might more carefully explicate that point.)

This is not to relegate style to mere relevance and simple utilitarianism—as Lanham notes, a full range of motives includes the ludic and aesthetic as well as ethic (2003, p 210).  Rather than simply existing as ornate luxury or transparent dress of thought, style—that which helps actors compel audiences toward the aims of their persuasion—is an action.  Francis Bacon pointed (perhaps inadvertently) to the generative nature of style: “Men believe that their reason governs words; but it is also true that words react on the understanding” (Novum Organum, pXXX).  That is, stylistic choice goes beyond dress for thought, even beyond motive, and seems to impact humans’ interpretive and conceptual faculties themselves.

Writing instructors often explicitly claim that the basic purpose of writing instruction is to teach students to do through writing.  In his rationale for “making style significant” to students, Weathers (1970) argues we must confirm the following to students: “style has something to do with better communication” (p. 368), style is “proof of a human being’s individuality” (p. 369), style “is a gesture of personal freedom against inflexible states of mind” (p. 369), and most importantly, that in acquiring a sense of many styles, students are “equipping [themselves] for a more adaptive way of life within a society increasingly complex and multifaceted.

In its complex pluralism, style is also active.  It is always changing, always contextual.  For language learners, that’s perhaps part of the problem.  Language is managed kairotically by humans, with a sense of what is needed in a particular situation.  What our style “ought to be” in any given situation is tricky: as Lanham points out in his criticism of Clarity-Brevity-Sincerity models for prose, “There are times in life when one must be absolutely clear, brief, and sincere, but not many; the whole of civility lies in learning how few they be” (p. 2).  Despite our modern desire for rules, despite the fossilizing influence of the printing press, written style evolves and resists prescription.

This resistance often comes from prescriptive sources themselves; variant advice from our dispensers of stylistic dicta only serves to confuse the issue (not to mention students).  The Purdue OWL, for example, is a common one-stop reference for writing teachers and students on the Web.  Their page on the basics of APA stylistics advises writers that “it is a common misconception that foregrounding the research requires using the passive voice (‘Experiments have been conducted …’) (Purdue OWL, 2010).  However, see how the first sentence of OWL’s sample APA-style paper begins in Figure 1:

Sample APA paper, Purdue OWL

Figure 1. Sample APA paper, Purdue OWL.

It’s no wonder that our students don’t know what to do—the first sentence of their sample employs almost the exact same passive language that their advice has warned students against.

Pair this highly passive set of constructions with the sample found in Bedford’s popular college handbook, A Writer’s Reference, in Figure 2:

Sample APA paper, A Writer's Reference

Figure 2. Sample APA paper, A Writer’s Reference.

This sample is incredibly active for the most part; the first sentence includes the active “Carmona called attention to,” a pattern that holds without too much confusion for the rest of the paragraph (despite a lengthy subject here and there: “the lack of success of recent initiatives” is particularly messy).  The handbook example stands in stark contrast to Figure 1.  What is the science or engineering student supposed to make of this, when they have had drilled into them that passive voice should be prominent in their academic and trade writing?

Both of these examples point toward the deeply contextual nature of stylistic choices, a nature that rhetoricians often take as givens in our conversations.  A nature that mostly frustrates writing students.  Teaching students to understand and master the active nature of style ends up being among the most downright useful things writing teachers can do.

So: Style is action. Style is active. This duplex and contextual nature enhances our need to teach it. It also makes doing so difficult.  And maybe that difficulty is itself a clue toward its importance.  Unfold the complicated set of choices that envelop something as seemingly simple as a choice between active voice and passive and we reveal that which so terrified John Locke in 1690: “the very nature of words makes it almost unavoidable for many of them to be doubtful and uncertain in their significations” (Biz & Herz, p. xxx).  Language is messy, filled with rules and exceptions, motives and subtexts, points and counterpoints—style exemplifies and forces us to embrace this fact.

As the world changes, as contexts and purposes and subjects and locations and technologies for writing change, style will change along with them.  What’s permanent about any text, after all?  From the perspective of technological determinism the causal relationship is obvious—as technology changes, so changes writing.  So changes style.  To ignore how language changes, whether from one context to another or from one decade to another, would be to fossilize ourselves as language users.  To ignore the active nature of style, and to ignore teaching it as such would be to fossilize ourselves as teachers of language users.  If we choose such a course, soon enough we’re not teaching writing anymore; instead, we’re curating textual exhibits in a museum to English.  That’s not inherently a bad thing to be, but it’s not being a writing teacher.


Did I mention that it’s messy?


4 thoughts on “5365: Messy Bits of A Paper

  1. Interesting thoughts… I’m not sure I have anything meaningful to add except that I love your analysis of the handbooks. We talked a lot about the “rules” today in my comp class–“you can’t use ‘I’ in a paper,” “you can’t use ‘you'”… I heard a new one today: “you can’t have ‘therefore’ in the middle of a paragraph.” I don’t know where that one came from…

    I’ve found that students respond favorably to explanations of rules. “Yes, there is a time that ‘you’ is not appropriate. There are certain times when it is. You have to decide as the writer…” They seem to like having the control, again.

    I don’t know where I’m going to with this except to say that I like the idea of giving the power over style back to students…

  2. Excellent post, as usual, Chris. I’d like to tackle offering feedback to your paper in Word. Please email me your paper in Word. Thanks.

  3. Loved your analysis. Style is active. Action. Contextual. Learn the rules and then take control. What a refreshing point of view!

  4. Thanks, Gina. I’m a big, hairy, rhetorical bottle of Sprite! 🙂

    It’s that whole “take control” step that I haven’t figured out how to teach quite to my liking…

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