Angell – Writing Clearly

Writing is hard for people who have practice at it, so imagine what it is for people who are not constantly writing?

Roger Angell is the stepson of E.B. White, and he recounts how his stepfather would sit every week for hours in his studio, writing his “Notes and Comment” page for the New Yorker. After a day of typing, deleting, changing, he would rarely seem satisfied by the work — typical of creators. But when the column was published, Angell mentions he would sit back and seem to say to himself that at least he got the elements [of style] right.

A praise to clarity seems to be the main point of this foreword, something that in the arts (not only in writing) is invaluable. The occasional writer doesn’t have the practice to be clear in putting his thoughts down on paper (or on the web), and that is why we struggle. As a praise to clarity, I feel this piece connects with Blog #1 (Reading 1: A step-by-step guide to Getting Started) because in order for us to be clear in writing we have to absolutely know what is it we need to communicate. This is why composers sketch, and search, and search for the right theme or motive (one just need to look at one of Beethoven’s manuscripts).

White – Writing Briefly and Boldly

E.B. White remembers his teacher Will Strunk, Jr. when writing the prologue to The Elements of Style, a small compendium of clear and concise rules for plain English writing. White spent the most of his introduction praising two traits of Will Strunk’s personality that shine very brightly throughout the little book: Brevity and Boldness.

“Omit needless words!” cites White. In connection to Angell’s tribute to Clarity, I would say that needless words obscure meaning, and distract our reader from connecting with us and what we try to say in our prose. Struck, in his wisdom, wrote that no unnecessary words are to be used “for the same reason a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts”. I found this small analogy to be gold on clarity and brevity: could you imagine how the Mona Lisa would look with extra lines?

When discussing Boldness in writing, White goes right away to Rule 11 of the book: “Make definite assertions.” How many times do we fail to communicate because of vague and irresolute statements, clouded by indecisiveness? According to White, Strunk felt that it was worse to be irresolute than to be wrong. I strongly believe that to be assertive in writing means that we stand behind our own ideas and findings and believe in them; it’s a lot easier to move the reader to be behind our ideas if they know we believe in them ourselves.

Provost – Writing Charmingly

Now, even as Will Strunk yells “Omit needless words!”, White also remembers how his professor told him that some of the best writers will also disregard the rules of rhetoric (that he wrote down in his book). I believe this is where Provost’s small text comes in: Yes! Let us be brief, clear, bold… but let us also make music with our writing. Let us not sacrifice beauty for practicality. If we are to write briefly, clearly, boldly, we need to be sure we’re not becoming machines. Please see Provost’s charming text below:


Leyba – Reading Actively

After getting some useful advice on how to maximize our writing – be clear, be brief, be bold – Ashley Leyba gives us a step-by-step on how to effectively maximize our reading for research. Her guide is situated in the context of a History course, but it is fitting for research in other fields as well.

The main advice we should take home is to read actively: How many times are we reading a chapter for class, or a report for work, or just reading an article with a clickbaity title on Facebook, and we find ourselves just consuming and hypnotized by the words on the page or the screen? Leyba then gives a series of practical steps on how to attack the task of reading sources.

Annotating the text is paramount according to Leyba, because it is an active step that requires us to be in the present. A passive reader will not have taken the time to write their own thoughts while reading. Also, it is important to tackle the reading from the outside in – normally the juice of the ideas will have been manifested there and we will have been able to get the meaning of the reading without spending time in the body of the chapter / article / book.

She then proceeds to give us a series of questions we should ask ourselves when evaluating sources. Some of the most important ones:

  • Who wrote this? When? Why? For whom?
  • Is the argument compelling? Why?

By asking questions like these, we will always stay on top of our sources and know clearly how they fit within our research.