I have recently finished another iteration of my undergraduate writing guide. It started as a two-page document born out of rage and disappointment with recurring essay failures. It has now ballooned into a nine-page document written in a slightly more relaxed tone. Still, the guide doesn’t even come close to saying everything I have to say! (I could include pages of ranting about layout alone…) So I have found myself working on a follow-up guide, cautiously titled “Details of Good Writing”. The rough idea was to provide a more hands-on, detailed guide to writing—one that looked at details such as how to use the words “subjective” and “objective” in philosophical writing, or the proper use of the semicolon. Such a guide would accompany the general advice of the first guide which often seemed to me too generic (“be precise!”, “structure your essay well!”, etc.).
I quickly encountered a problem though: that second guide started to look incredibly pedantic. Now I am a pedant, and being overly pedantic with undergraduates can be a plausible pedagogical strategy. Still, the authoritative know-it-all tone of the guide made me feel uncomfortable. After all, the one piece that has influenced my writing the most is actually a piece of anti-advice: Geoffrey Pullum’s withering critique of Strunk and White’s famous The Elements of Style, aptly titled “50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice”. Pullum has consistently attacked “zombie rules” in his and his co-authors’ excellent blog, Language Log. It is hard to read Pullum’s contributions without coming to think that almost all advice on writing is too dogmatically prescriptive. It insists on highly specific rules which are pointless at best, contradict the usage of even highly respect writers, are almost always simply made up, and sometimes even harmful to good writing.