Saturday, September 09, 2006

The fascination with Strunk and White

As I read around the blogosphere, I've noticed a weirdly worshipful fascination with Strunk and White. [My quotations are actually from the original Strunk, 1918, because that's what's available on line via Bartleby; yay for copyright workarounds!] Okay, I'll confess, I vaguely remember using Strunk and White in high school, or something. The fact that I remember anything about high school says something about my nerdliness even then, I suppose.

Lots of non-academic bloggers have links to a web edition of Strunk and White up on their blogs, or talk about Strunk and White in worshipful terms, or fantasize about teaching writing by making people read Strunk and White. (I'm not going to be mean and link these folks, but I'm sure you've seen similar stuff if you've read around in non-academic blogs.)

Being curious, and having only a vague memory from the last time I opened the book, I looked on line, because these are smart people I'm reading, and maybe they're right and I really SHOULD make students read Strunk and White. I'm willing to learn, because I find teaching writing incredibly challenging.

Here's an example of the writing, from the beginning of section 10, on paragraphs (seriously, this was the first section I clicked into because the section on paragraphs seems like a good place to look for really good examples of paragraph writing):
As a rule, begin each paragraph with a topic sentence; end it in conformity with the beginning.

Again, the object is to aid the reader. The practice here recommended enables him to discover the purpose of each paragraph as he begins to read it, and to retain the purpose in mind as he ends it. For this reason, the most generally useful kind of paragraph, particularly in exposition and argument, is that in which

A. the topic sentence comes at or near the beginning;
B. the succeeding sentences explain or establish or develop the statement made in the topic sentence; and
C. the final sentence either emphasizes the thought of the topic sentence or states some important consequence.

Ending with a digression, or with an unimportant detail, is particularly to be

If the paragraph forms part of a larger composition, its relation to what precedes, or its function as a part of the whole, may need to be expressed. This can sometimes be done by a mere word or phrase (again; therefore; for the same reason) in the topic sentence. Sometimes, however, it is expedient to precede the topic sentence by one or more sentences of introduction or transition. If more than one such sentence is required, it is generally better to set apart the transitional sentences as a separate paragraph.

Okay, so, the basic advice sounds good! Let's have a paragraph make a point! Indeed!

But let's look at an actual paragraph in this scintillating prose, shall we? I thought we might. And in order to do so, I'm copying the final paragraph from before, but this time I'll bold all the verbs, and italicize the subjects of those verbs. Here goes:

If the paragraph forms part of a larger composition, its relation to what precedes, or its function as a part of the whole, may need to be expressed. This can sometimes be done by a mere word or phrase (again; therefore; for the same reason) in the topic sentence. Sometimes, however, it is expedient to precede the topic sentence by one or more sentences of introduction or transition. If more than one such sentence is required, it is generally better to set apart the transitional sentences as a separate paragraph.
I thought I was good at writing in all passive voice, but Strunk and White make me look like a rank amateur. Here we have, one active non-copulative verb, "forms." Then we have several complex passives (the passives, not the complexity makes the prose dreadful). And finally, a couple of expletive constructions using the placeholder "it" and the copulative "to be." And what about the pronoun "this"? What noun exactly is it replacing? Gosh, English professors are picky!

(Not to be mean: partly I'm seeing a generational divide; now, most college writing instructors are happy to see students use pronouns such as "I" in their writing. In 1918, using "I" seemed to subvert objectivity. Post Einsteinian relativity, it's harder to make a really good argument that any position is really objective in that sort of way, so maybe we're more open to subverting supposed objectivity?)

Amusingly enough, perhaps, section 11 is, yes, you guessed it, "Use the active voice." I have to wonder if Strunk's editor wasn't grinning a bit at the juxtaposition.

Okay, so my main complaint really isn't with Strunk and White, even though I don't think it's all that great, because I don't think that Strunk and White are wrong about the basic ideas. Yes, having paragraphs that make a point rocks. And using the active voice might bring a smile to your professor's face as s/he grades, a feat much to be admired.

I think what most irritated me about blogs and posts lauding Strunk and White are more complex issues, all tangled up together.

In classes I took to learn to teach composition (and I took a number because I started my graduate studies at what had been a state normal school with a focus on teaching) I learned that learning to write is a complex process, that students move through different stages of experience, that teaching students rules doesn't really help them write well UNLESS they're at a stage where they write pretty darned well and need only more confidence with comma placement or something. These bloggers found Strunk and White helpful because they're already pretty advanced writers, all with at least some graduate school, from the sounds of their blogs. So, yes, tell them a few rules, and voila, you help them avoid passives. But a few rules doesn't help entering college students.

A bit ago, Dean Dad wrote a post about college remediation, and the different expectations high school and college instructors have:
At my current college, we're working with some of the local high schools to combat 'senioritis' (the sloughing off of academics by high school seniors) by enrolling 12th graders in college-level classes. We've hit an unanticipated roadblock with placement tests. Many of the students who have been cruising through high school have placed developmental with us. After a considerable amount of back-and-forth with the department, the high school, and the testing center, I think I've located the gap. We test different skills. The high school defines 'good writing' as error-free prose. The college defines 'good writing' as 'sustaining an argument.' So the high school kids take our essay exam and write “See Spot run,” which got them accolades in high school; they place remedial with us, and get terribly upset.
What Strunk and White can help a student with (if s/he's ready) is "error-free prose," correcting minor punctuation problems or giving a sense of confidence. Most of my students can write sentences with relatively few errors. But what we college folks worry about is sustaining an argument, actually saying something with one's writing. And Strunk and White won't help anyone with that. The bloggers who praise Strunk and White, though, already have something to say, have already been trained to sustain an argument.

My greatest ire, though, attaches to the guy who fantasizes about teaching writing by making students read Strunk and White. It's as if he has no conception that people have actually researched writing practices and composition teaching, and that we actually try to do things research indicates has a chance of being effective. (A chance. No guarantees, alas.) He's looking at a book whose ideas are 50+ years old, without studying the subject matter in any real way, or studying pedagogy period, and he's ready to teach writing.

Seriously, I think he should have a go: Apply to his local community college where, should he be lucky enough to compete successfully for a job (he won't), he'll basically take a pay cut to work harder. Maybe he'd realize that in most writing classes, we don't teach highly motivated graduate students such as himself. Instead, we teach a range of first year students, some of whom have gotten an excellent education in high school and are well prepared for college, and some of whom can barely read. Strunk and White may be a minimally torturous experience for the well-prepared, and may even help them a bit (hey, I could point out how crappy it is to read that over-passive paragraph! A model of what not to do!), but it won't do a single thing to help the less-well-prepared.

So, now I've gotten it off my chest, and I'm prepared for a weekend of reading my first year students' diagnostic essays, trying to get a sense of them as students in writing.


  1. I think that one of the reasons that Strunk & White is recommended so highly by non-academics is that for some it was the first, and maybe only, book they read on how to write that wasn't a grammar exercise book. It was actually readable and encapsulated what had been taught to them already: that good writing is error-free writing. As a non-academic, I haven't a clue what is taught now in either high school or college. In looking back at my undergrad years (about 30 years ago), it seems that error-free was what was stressed, but what was rewarded was that which could sustain an argument. I don't know how I learned to write. Luck, I guess, was on my side that I had the grammar portion under control and so could focus on what I had to say. But, I'm not surprised that weaker writers left advanced comp class more confused than ever.

    I returned to school about 20 years ago for an advanced degree in English Education and for teacher certification. While reading theory was prevalent in my curriculum, writing theory was not. Students were taught to 'teach' writing in the same way their teachers were taught. Yet, the teaching of writing wasn't unknown; my best writing education was in-services for graduate assistants in the university writing program. Such a disconnect between what was being taught to future high school teachers and what was being taught to those teaching Freshman Comp!

    When I consider what the instruction my child (now a sr in h.s.) has received, it still seems to be emphasizing error-free (as Dean Dad suggests is the case in his community). I shook my head at back-to-school night when I looked at the syllubus for his AP English class. Are we still teaching how to write by reading the "classics"? They'll read some interesting texts this year (kudos to his teacher for selecting a diverse selection of text that extends beyond the traditional canon), but writing, apparently, is still taught by reference to a grammar cookbook. Luck, in this case, might be genetic, as he is a gifted writer. Where he learned to be, I'll never know. All he has learned in school is to hate writing, so much in fact, that it is difficult to convince him that his preference to apply only to colleges that do not require an essay is stupid beyond (my) belief. Amazing how many top tier engineering schools do not require a writing sample for the admissions process.

  2. I actually ran a workshop last summer on teaching writing with faculty in the sciences. While there were a couple of people who wanted to focus on specifics such as helping students interpret data better and incorporate graphs and charts in ways that enhanced their argument, a great many wanted quick tricks that would help their students write clean prose. And they didn't want to put any effort into teaching or providing feedback. Ugh.

    At another level, my 11-year-old is being told to write very formulaic prose and above all, it must be neat and without error. My dissertation is actually based on the premise that we are going backwards in writing instruction because of all the testing--even the SAT includes a writing section now and formula and grammar are rewarded.

  3. Wow Bardiac, that was so helpful! Mostly it helped me understand why I had such a horrible transition from high school to college -- I had gotten lots of high marks for error-free prose and had never learned how to make an argument. There were other issues too, like how I never learned to write more than the five paragraph essay, how I hadn't read most of the classics my peers had read when I entered college, which have more to do with my having gone to a poor, urban, massive public high school and then to a fancy college.

    I do find that as a teacher to undergrads, I derive far more pleasure from reading interesting arguments than reading students who know where to put their nouns and verbs.

    Glad you got that off your chest, it was interesting!

  4. I agree with Kate, I feel like I've been to class (but in a good way)...

    Every time I feel I might be getting a handle on this "writing thing" (for some reason, these issues weren't ever brought up by the TA who graded by lab reports for biology or physics), I read something like this and realize how much further I have to go!

    Keep up the great work.
    p.s. I'm playing "catch up" reading today; did you get your glasses off yet? Nail polish remover can dissolve super glue on skin (FYI for future mishaps :) )

  5. er, graded MY lab reports...

  6. Thanks for the responses, all!

    Yes, I got the glasses and my fingers separated without loss of blood or anything! (It was a very little bit of glue, and the whole incident served more to amuse the office staff than to endanger my tender skin. The bumbling thing is all part of my sparkling internet persona! Really! I've never so much as tripped over my shoelaces in real life! /nod)