Writing instructors: Your pain is felt



Readers of my polemics against incompetent passive-disparagers (for example, this paper, and this Lingua Franca post) often suggest that I would sing a different tune if I had to grade the student papers they see.

Well, don’t be misled: I teach courses, and I grade papers. And I have to admit that when I saw this opening paragraph in a student paper last week, I did get a sense of what the passive-haters are talking about:

Throughout this essay, the various theories of lexical categories through two different grammars will be discussed. [Prescriptive and] descriptive grammars will be compared and contrasted … Not every aspect of a lexical category will be assessed, but smaller problems will be analysed in reference to each category. First, however, there will be a brief introduction …

Five sentences in succession with (underlined) will as the main verb and be following. And the first four of those will-be’s introduce passive past participles, with never a by-phrase in sight. It is as if the writer making all these promises is in hiding, not daring to admit authorship. Later in the same batch I found another student who had packed nine such agentless passive clauses into four sentences.

So, writing tutors: I feel your pain. Yet I retract none of my arguments. Avoidance of passive clauses is neither necessary nor sufficient to ensure well-written prose. Setting that as the goal is a distraction from what’s really wrong.

Certainly, reading an unbroken procession of agentless passives that could have been actives is like being hit on the head over and over again with a mallet labeled “I REFUSE TO TELL YOU WHO THE RESPONSIBLE PARTY IS.” And it’s boring! Theories will be discussed; grammars will be compared; aspects will be assessed; problems will be analysed–beam me up, Scotty! There is only one form of sentence construction down here!

But it’s not the presence of passive constructions that’s the problem; it’s the writer’s tin ear.

Some students, sadly, write terrible prose. And they apparently don’t even skim it before they turn it in, let alone read it aloud to see how it sounds and then work through another two or three drafts, the way almost every serious writer does.

Why the “almost” modifying my “every”? Because there are exceptions. Noam Chomsky is a fluent, persuasive, and prolific writer, but (comparing his much-circulated typescripts with the versions later published) he doesn’t appear to revise much: just a few minor wording changes and an occasional added footnote.

The Stanford computer scientist Jeffrey Ullman has produced a slew of impeccable computer-science textbooks, and a friend who asked about his working methods found out that each morning Ullman types the next section of the current book, just a couple of pages, with great care, and then leaves it alone. No going back to fiddle with it. His method is to get it right the first time and move on.

And you may recall that Ben Yagoda recently mentioned Anthony Trollope, who rose before dawn and wrote from 5:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. at an average rate of three or four seconds per word. If he finished a novel before 8:30 he would immediately start the next. (After 8:30 he went off to do his day job.) I doubt that he wasted any time dickering with already-finished pages.

Our students should not imagine they can adopt the working practices of such brilliant exceptions. They are mostly like you and me: Our first drafts aren’t good enough, and need many restructurings, improvements, and corrections before they are fit for a reader. Yes, a few authors can produce publishable prose without ever looking back, but they are outliers, not role models. Balzac “revised obsessively.” Dickens did likewise.

So, to the typical student working late Thursday night for a Friday paper deadline I say: You are not Chomsky or Ullman or Trollope, and you have left it too late! You cannot write A+ material the first time through. Next time start your paper at least a week ahead. Then rewrite it. Then read it aloud, and go through it again fixing some more of its faults: the echoes and clunkinesses; the slips in verb agreement; that vague bit you thought you might get away with; the sentence where you decided on a structure but changed syntactic horses midstream and ended up with gibberish.

And don’t tell me you don’t have the time! Ordinary working people do 40 hours a week. Typical millionaires work 70 or 80. Admit it, you’re not committing that kind of time to your studies. You can improve that paper, and ensure that reading it isn’t like being repetitively bludgeoned. Please.