What Jonathan Larson teaches us about writing

I’ve been haunted by Tick, Tick … Boom, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s movie adaptation of Jonathan Larson’s autobiographical musical, since I saw it (twice) the weekend it was released on Netflix. It helps that my eldest son immediately decided to learn the stunning opening number, 30/90, on the piano. But beyond the background soundtrack to my afternoons, I can’t stop thinking about the lessons the film offers for academic writing. (Err, spoilers follow, but seriously, watch the film!)

Continue reading “What Jonathan Larson teaches us about writing”

Q: Skills for Success Third Edition out now!

Q: Skills for Success, Reading/Writing 5 (3rd edition)The third edition of my co-authored textbook Q:Skills for Success, Reading/Writing 5 has just been published by Oxford University Press. The new edition is a welcome refresh for the series, which I started writing in 2007 (I know exactly how old it is because I was remember working on the first edition at my computer in Michigan with my newborn son napping in my arms!).

The third edition adds several new readings, including a chapter on the value (or not) of learning foreign languages and another on the gig economy. There are also a ton of videos on the companion website — you’ll even hear Scott Douglass and myself narrative the “Critical Thinking Skills” presentations. So as a bonus, you’ll get British, Canadian, and American accents throughout the book. We’ve also updated the vocabulary lists to align with the Oxford 5000 and Oxford Phrasal Academic Lexicon, which was a really interesting process.

You can get exam copies of any level of Q from your friendly OUP sales rep. It will be available for sale from Amazon and other fine retailers — it’s very new, so it’s not yet appearing everywhere. There is also a “split” edition in two halves, A and B.

What do you think of the new edition? Do let us know!

The Five-Paragraph Roadshow (or some kind of show)

Cover

The editors and authors of Changing Practices: Moving Beyond the Five-Paragraph Essay in L2 Writing (Michigan, 2019) are going on the road! You can catch us at these conferences during the academic year:

Continue reading “The Five-Paragraph Roadshow (or some kind of show)”

Sorry, there are no rules for good writing

There’s something about the phrase good writing that bothers me. Don’t get me wrong, I love good writing, I try to produce good writing, and I really want my students to get better at writing.

But when I see generic lists of tips or, worse, rules for good writing, I always want to ask “writing what?” As I said in Changing Practices in the L2 Writing Classroom: Moving Beyond the Five-Paragraph Essay: “We don’t just write. We write something to someone for some purpose.” What makes good writing in one situation would be out of place in another. That’s why a lot of Onion and McSweeney’s parodies work so well (this list of “top millennial injuries reported in urgent-care facilities” detours into a rant against the stereotyping of millennials, while using the word existential correctly, unlike some newspapers of record).

So I was rather concerned by a piece that circulated back in January (2019) with Steven Pinker’s “13 rules for writing better.” Oh good. Only 13. Now, to be clear, I have been at times a fan of Pinker: he signed my copy of The Language Instinct when he came to speak at the Cambridge Union in about 1998. He was also the first person I ever saw using a PowerPoint presentation, which looked pretty funny against the ornate wood paneling. I think he was a great writer when he wrote about linguistics, and judging by the number of books he sells, so do many others.

But what Pinker became famous for writing was a very specific genre: the erudite trade-book, the science-for-the masses (or at least first-year undergraduates) volume, the thinking person’s non-fiction. That’s not the same style he uses in his academic journal articles. Why? Because it’s not good writing in a different context. But he still wrote a book in 2014 criticizing academic writing, essentially trying to turn all journal articles into … well The Language Instinct. Rachel Cayley wrote a brilliant critique on her blog in 2015:

Academic writing isn’t laughably bad—it shouldn’t be the butt of a joke. And it isn’t monolithic. An established Harvard academic writing a book is doing something very different than a new doctoral student attempting their first article. Pinker’s critique often makes it sound as though academic writers simply appear whole cloth without any process of learning the craft.

I agree with Rachel. Writing is never monolithic, and good writing depends on the context, the audience, the purpose, and the genre. That’s what makes it interesting. And hard. Really hard.

But maybe these 13 “simple tips” will dissuade me. Let’s see … here are the tweets with my commentary in italics.

  1. Reverse-engineer what you read. If it feels like good writing, what makes it good? If it’s awful, why? Definitely, but can we be specific here? If you want to know how to write an academic journal article, you should “reverse-engineer” examples of effective journal articles. If you want to write op-ed columns, analyze op-ed columns. Just don’t assume that by studying one genre, you know how to write another.
  2. Prose is a window onto the world. Let your readers see what you are seeing by using visual, concrete language. Err, OK, Hemingway. But sometimes your topic isn’t visual and concrete; it’s abstract and theoretical. There’s still such a thing as good theoretical writing, and it’s not going to be visual and concrete.
  3. Don’t go meta. Minimize concepts about concepts, like “approach, assumption, concept, condition, context, framework, issue, level, model, perspective, process, range, role, strategy, tendency,” and “variable.” No, stop! This is terrible advice for academic writers. Let’s name the beast here: nominalization. Nominalization is good when used correctly. It’s a form of meta-discourse that helps writers guide readers through complex ideas while avoiding lengthy repetition. Do go meta. A lack of meta-discourse results in incoherence in academic genres. (And how do you write up quantitative research without the word “variable”?)
  4. Let verbs be verbs. “Appear,” not “make an appearance.” This has nothing to do with verbs. He’s talking about concision. Use the shortest form possible without compromising meaning (BTW, “appear” and “make an appearance” aren’t exactly the same: apparent synonyms never are).
  5. Beware of the Curse of Knowledge: When you know something, it’s hard to imagine what it’s like not to know it. Minimize acronyms and technical terms. Use “for example” liberally. Show a draft around, and prepare to learn that what’s obvious to you may not be obvious to anyone else. A better way to say this is “know thy audience and write for them.” If you are an expert writing for other experts, then of course you should use shared technical terms. I don’t want a surgeon who asks the operating room nurse for “that long sharp thingy.” There’s nothing wrong with using acronyms and technical terms when they are appropriate for your context and known to your audience (see #6). They save time and allow writers to …
  6. Omit needless words. Ironically, this advice repeats #4 and is therefore, um, “needless.” But of course if you keep giving examples and writing out acronyms even though your audience should know them (#5), you’ll fill the page with needless words.
  7. Avoid clichés like the plague. Sure (h/t George Orwell). But let’s be careful here. The word cliché means a fixed phrase (literally a preset printing plate that would save time for the typesetter), and effective academic writing is full of recurrent phrases that we use to orient the reader and make complex rhetorical moves (e.g., the Manchester Phrase Bank). Don’t throw the baby out with the … you know.
  8. Put old information at the beginning of the sentence, new information at the end. Yes, yes, almost. This is indeed the most common pattern in English prose and is a reliable solution to a perplexing paragraph (see Grammar Choices, unit 8!). However, it’s not a hard-and-fast rule. Sometimes we put new information deliberately at the start of the sentence for emphasis, what linguists call “markedness” (see, a useful technical word).
  9. Save the heaviest for last: A complex phrase should go at the end of the sentence. Or to put it another way, see #8, but yes, English generally likes the weight at the end of the sentence.
  10. Prose must cohere: Readers must know how each sentence is related to the preceding one. If it’s not obvious, use “that is, for example, in general, on the other hand, nevertheless, as a result, because, nonetheless,” or “despite.” Yeah, but don’t overdo it, or you get some pretty odd writing. Incidentally, these transition words are just another type of meta-discourse, which he didn’t like in #3.
  11. Revise several times with the single goal of improving the prose. Good advice. I read and re-read this post obsessively because, frankly, it’s a bit scary to criticize Steven Pinker and I wanted to get it right! (Update: I write about this idea more in another post, with bonus music theater content.)
  12. Read it aloud. Maybe — I talk to myself incessantly, and I do like to hear what my writing sounds like in my head. Not great advice, though, if you’re writing in a second language and your writing is better than your speaking. Most prose isn’t written to be read aloud: maybe we need another 13 rules about good style for speaking?
  13. Find the best word, which is not always the fanciest word. Consult a dictionary with usage notes, and a thesaurus. I’m all in favor of dictionaries, but I’m not sure what he means by “fancy” –the “best” word is the one that most precisely creates the meanings (plural) that the author intends. This doesn’t mean the simplest word is always the best. This also contradicts tip 4 — e.g., “facilitate” is “fancier” than “make something easier,” but it’s also letting the verb do the work and is more concise.

Let’s see how well Pinker follows his own advice in a peer-reviewed journal article — a really interesting one, too, from a major journal, Cognition (Hartshorne, Tenenbaum, & Pinker, 2018).

  • “This fact has influenced many areas of science, including theories about the plasticity of the young brain, the role of neural maturation in learning, and the modularity of linguistic abilities.” Oh boy, we have “meta” words like fact and theories (#3), nominalization instead of verbs (#3, 4), and lots of technical vocabulary (#5). And it’s a good sentence for an academic journal article, with new information and complex phrases at the end (#8, 9).
  • conspicuous grammatical errors” — ooh, fancy (#13). What about “gradually or precipitously“? What’s wrong with “slowly or quickly”? (Answer: they don’t work as well here.)
  • “However, neither the nature nor the causes of this “critical period” for second language acquisition are well understood. ” This sentence is front-loaded (#9), and with good reason: it creates better cohesion and puts marked weight on the authors’ main idea, that these phenomena are not well understood.
  • In the first two paragraphs, there is only one transition word (however): the prose coheres but through more subtle techniques than #10 suggests.
  • Clichés (#7) …. “reaches a floor” (stops falling), “saddled with an accent” (speak with an accent)? The first seems fine, but the second is a clumsy piece of native-speakerism (accents are not burdens).
  • Use visual and concrete language (#2): ” the modularity of linguistic abilities”; ” neural maturation” … these are complex theoretical ideas. Terms like “Type I and Type II errors” are also used without explanation or definition (#5). And rightly so. If you don’t know what they mean, skip ’em or grab a stats textbook. But if you’re reading Cognition, these phrases are very unlikely to cause you difficulties.
  • “Reliability for the critical items was high across the entire dataset (Chronbach’s alpha = 0.86).” –if you read a lot of quantitative research, this might almost sound like a cliché (#7). It’s certainly technical, front-weighted, and abstract. But it’s also a very important sentence for readers who understand and care about reliability statistics. Its omission would certain draw the ire of Reviewer 2.
  • “Use ‘for example’ liberally” (#5) — this paper uses it, er, twice, and for instance (the “fancier”) word another 7 times. The paper is about 11,000 words long, so these two phrases together are used less than once per 1000 words, or 4 pages of typed manuscript. Not very liberal.

I could go on, but you get my point: I don’t think there are any universal rules of good writing. In order to know what makes writing good, you have to know your genre, audience, and purpose; you have to understand the appropriate conventions; and you have to make language choices in the appropriate register. There is definitely terrible academic writing out there, but the Hartshorne et al. paper is well written despite apparently ignoring many of its co-author’s tips and tweets. This is the approach Ann Johns and I take in our forthcoming textbook, Essential Actions for Academic Writing: A Genre-Based Approach (University of Michigan Press, coming Spring 2022).

So, choose your (role) models carefully and do as they do, not as they say they do!

 Update (12/12/21): About once a semester, this post suddenly sees a spike in viewers from the University of Arizona. Hi, Wildcats! I would love a UA student or instructor to comment on my post: tell me why you’re here, and what you think of it.

The anti-5PE Campaign Hits the Big Time!

[Changing Practices for the L2 Writing Classroom: Moving Beyond the Five-Paragraph Essay] is a thorough look at the research and practices surrounding the use of the five-paragraph essay, particularly as it has been employed in second language writing instruction, though I believe it speaks to all writing classrooms.

John Warner, Inside Higher Education, 5/21/19

John Warner (author of Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities) interviewed Ann Johns and me last week about our new co-edited volume Changing Practices for the L2 Classroom: Moving Beyond the Five-Paragraph Essay (available from the University of Michigan Press or as a Kindle e-book). You can read the full interview over on his blog on Inside Higher Education. We had a lot of fun jointly composing our answers to his questions by email (thanks, Google Docs!), and I think we’ve set out many of the arguments we and our contributing authors make throughout the book. Our goal in Changing Practices is:

Available now from the University of Michigan Press or as a Kindle e-book

dispelling the myths of universality (everyone writes five-paragraph essays and has always written them), transfer (the training-wheel syndrome), scaffolding (it will help them later), and generalization (all students write essays in all their classes).

John takes a slightly different approach to the the five-paragraph essay in his book, viewing it as a symptom of many other problems in the US education system. I definitely recommend reading the book: he has an interesting background as a composition teacher, and he makes important points about the larger picture of writing in schools and, particularly, universities. In our volume, we’re not really trying to kill the five-paragraph essay (which I jokingly called graphicide on Twitter recently!) but rather to encourage teachers and curriculum designers to change their practices, even if that means starting by revising just one assignment from an “essay” to a genre.

Take a look at the interview and let me know what you think!

Moving Beyond the Five-Paragraph Essay

It’s here! After two years of hard work, our ultimate collection of arguments against the five-paragraph essay hit the physical and digital shelves this week. Changing Practices for the L2 Writing Classroom: Beyond the Five Paragraph Essay (University of Michigan Press) is an edited volume that makes the case for moving away from the five-paragraph essay by suggesting classroom practices that lead to purposeful, meaningful writing instruction from elementary to graduate school.

The book started out as a popular panel at TESOL 2017, but it was a much more complex process than just writing up the papers we presented. We expanded the scope, both in terms of authors and topics, and really focused on the changes we recommend in practice. We wanted to write this book not only for the anti-5PE choir (in which we all sing loudly) but also for teachers and administrators who are hesitant about or resistant to these practices or who sense that the five-paragraph essay is inadequate but aren’t sure what to do instead.

As Ann Johns and I wrote in the conclusion, we don’t expect this one book to be the death knell of the five-paragraph essay. We need new textbooks and teacher handbooks (we’re working on both – watch this space!). But Changing Practices is an important step forwards, and I’m really proud of the work we’ve done here and thankful for the amazing authors who contributed to the volume.

You can read more about the book, including the table of contents on my website, and purchase the book directly from the publisher or as a Kindle ebook.

What do you think? Write a comment or contact me to follow up!

Genre Makeover: The Compare/Contrast Essay

So, I sat down at my computer just now and thought to myself, “I really should write an essay comparing me and my brother” … no, wait, “comparing watching a DVD with going to the movies”, … or, even better, “comparing large cars to small cars” … said no-one, ever.

Throughout this genre makeover series, I’ve attempted to show how boring and meaningless writing assignments become when rhetorical modes are confused for genres. One way to understand a mode is as a pattern of development. For example, there are writing tasks that call for you to compare stuff, but you rarely do it just for the sake of the comparison: there has to be a purpose to the comparison. That’s where genre comes in. Continue reading “Genre Makeover: The Compare/Contrast Essay”

Genre Makeover: Problems and Solutions

For some reason, in the usual litany of rhetorical modes that are mistaken for genres in writing textbooks, problem/solution is often omitted, which is unfortunate because this one is actually useful. But before you rush to class and assign a “problem/solution essay,” let’s give it the genre makeover treatment and consider why anyone might write about problems and their solutions. Continue reading “Genre Makeover: Problems and Solutions”

Genre Makeover: The Process Essay

One of the strongest arguments against the five-paragraph essay is that the 5PE approach to writing (textbooks) tends to confuse mode with genre. Briefly, rhetorical modes are patterns of development, such as description, comparison, causation, or — the focus of this post — process. Genres are the ways we get things done with language in social contexts. Genres might include pedagogical genres (describing an economic principle on a test; writing a lab report), professional genres (user manuals; methodology sections), or home genres (recipes, Facebook rants). We know we use genres, but for some reason we don’t always teach them. Continue reading “Genre Makeover: The Process Essay”