What Should Be The Preface To Any Writing Guide

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.

Still, we want to provide some rules to our undergraduates. After all, their writing tends to be terrible. It would profit from following some rules, even if some of them might have a zombie quality to them. At the same time, we want to be intellectually honest about the status of the rules we’re teaching. A satisfying game you can play, for example, with any writing guide is to list the many ways in which it contradicts its own advice. That’s because the best writers know, implicitly, that good writing often ignores any supposed rules of style—even if the very same writers claim that they have identified those very rules in their eternal and unyielding forms.

What, then, can be done? One unsatisfying solution would be to stick to the general, bland advice of “be precise”, “use language clearly”, and so on. Perhaps the best and only way to teach writing consists in one-on-one tutoring, the only forum in which the complex holistics of good writing can be adequately conveyed. Surely, however, written guides can still provide some general rules? But going down the pedant’s, super-prescriptive way is out of the question, too. The solution, I think, is a middle way: to explain the “rules” of writing for what they are: as a toolbox of contextual, normally subjective conventions, but which still provide useful rules of thumb, or at least plausible aesthetic conventions. Any writing guide, then, needs a methodological preface: it should openly tell its reader what I have just told you. It’s a pity that almost none do. Almost all guides presume for themselves the air of absolute and definite authority (even if those guides mark several choices as permissible). This can be helpful for students who, in a panic, want a quick fix and to rest assured that they’ve “followed the recipe”. But in the long run, intellectual honesty seems the better strategy.

The following is the draft of a preface I’m considering to add to my writing guide. (It’s too long. But an appropriately shortened version might do the job.) Currently I think any good, honest writing guide should have a preface like this. I’m curious to know what other writing tutors think.

How To Use This Writing Guide

In academic writing, the substance and quality of your argument matter first and foremost. Most of your time should be concerned with thinking about the underlying issue you write about, not with polishing how you write about it. Put otherwise, good style cannot turn a poor paper into a great one—you can dress up a pig, but it’s still a pig. Style, however, can be the cherry on the cake: it can turn a paper with a good central thought into an amazing one that, in addition to being convincing, is a pleasure to read.

This essay-writing guide is aimed towards advanced undergraduate students and early graduate students who have questions about these finer details of good writing. (This guide is a follow-up to my general guide to essay-writing which you should consult first.) A general and important caveat is required, however. Many issues discussed in this guide are matters of taste and judgment, rather than of hard distinctions between right and wrong usage. You should consult this guide as a critical resource for improving your writing, not as an authority to blindly follow. I will explain why I think you should take this stance in the rest of this section. If you’re uninterested, feel free to skip ahead to the substantive advice offered below.

It is important to reflect on the role of style and stylistic rules in academic writing. What’s the point of an academic essay? Fundamentally, it is to convincingly convey an argument or position to your reader. There are other functions you might want your essay to have—you might wish it to be entertaining, personally resonant, poetically evocative, pleasant to read, rhetorically powerful, and so on. But in academic writing, these are secondary qualities. Given that your primary aim is to convey an idea, there are some standards you must adhere to. Most importantly, you need to communicate in a way that you can expect your reader—a speaker of “standard” English—to understand, and to understand clearly and precisely. From this, we can derive general rules about structuring your essay, writing clearly and unambiguously, being transparent about how you define key terms, being careful in your argumentative steps, paying attention to what your readers know and do not know, and so on.

Note that these are quite abstract, vague rules. That’s because there is not the way to communicate ideas clearly and convincingly. In fact, the more we aim to provide concrete rules for the pursuit of this aim, the more likely it is that these rules turn out to be not necessary for it. For example, below I will give you some advice on how to define philosophical concepts. In many cases, following that advice will serve you well. But in other contexts, some alternative way of introducing a concept is equally good or even preferable. You might introduce the concept of “game”, for example, not through an explicit definition, but rather through giving some paradigm examples of games. Or you might introduce the ideas behind socialism through a brief historical overview of different schools of socialist thinking. In either case, it does not matter whether you follow a fixed rule; it matters whether you manage to efficiently, convincingly, and clearly bring your account of “game” or “socialism” across.

Unfortunately, popular advice on writing tends to conceive of rules as overly rigid. Guides of this kind present rules of style as unyielding, absolute, and invariable across all contexts. There are very few such rules governing good writing, however, beyond the basic rules of grammar. Indeed, some rules that you have encountered are positively harmful: they inhibit natural writing. For example, consider the rule, often taught to high-school students, that one should not end a sentence with a preposition. This rule would forbid a totally normal sentence like “the cat likes being played with”. Remember the primary aim of writing, however. There is nothing in that sentence that an ordinary English speaker fails to understand, or that is unclear or ambiguous. We’ve encountered a zombie rule: a pointless rule which contributes nothing to the purposes of good writing, but which lives on through pedants teaching it to new generations of unsuspecting pupils, raising them to be pedants in turn.

Most rules which focus on purely grammatical advice tend to be zombie rules, like “never use the passive voice”, “don’t use contractions”, “don’t use semicolons”, “prefer verbs and nouns over adjectives and adverbs”, and “never split an infinitive”. You can adopt these rules as a matter of personal preference, but you should not think for one minute that they’re required as a matter of good academic writing. In fact, slavishly following these rules sometimes makes your writing awkward—“to boldly go where no one has gone before” sounds much better than “to go boldly where no one has gone before”.

Is there no space for rules at all, then? There is, but you need to rethink the role they play. You should not understand the rules I provide in this guide—or those provided in any other guide—to state absolute prohibitions or requirements. They are like the “rules” of social etiquette, or the “rules” of cooking: practical guidelines which are based on expectation and experience, and thus often useful, but not always. Indeed, just as you should sometimes ignore social etiquette altogether—e.g., when you should rudely tell someone to shut up if they’re publicly racist—so many of the rules of style should be actively ignored in some contexts. Still, most of the time, good writing follows most of the rules I will give in this guide, just as a polite person follows most of the “rules” of etiquette most of the time. The logical converse of this is that good writing violates at least some of the rules of style some of the time. (Indeed, there is some excellent writing which ignores almost all the rules almost all the time—but that is something you can do after you have finished your graduate studies.)

It is in this spirit that you should consult this guide. You should ask yourself whether adhering to any of the following rules in a given context will improve your chances to clearly, succinctly, efficiently and convincingly convey the points you wish to make. You will find, I think, that they often do; but if not, you should ignore them without hesitation. Early in your writing career, you might be unsure as to when to follow a rule and when to ignore it. In those cases, it might be wise to play it safe, and to treat these rules as more authoritative than they really are. You will gain more confidence to ignore them as you write more.

There are two further reasons to be concerned with the rules of style. First, not everyone has the mind-set I have just described. Many of your teachers will have more narrow-minded expectations about what constitutes acceptable academic writing. For example, using contractions in formal writing is considered a big taboo by many. There is no intrinsic reason why contractions should be avoided—they don’t standardly diminish the quality of your argument in any way. (Were you confused that I wrote “don’t” instead of “do not”? I thought not!) But you’re expected to follow this rule, or otherwise you’ll be perceived as being “too informal”. Alas!—you cannot always choose what expectations people bring to your essay. As an analogy, you might think it silly to wear a suit to a job interview—it doesn’t by itself make you a better or worse candidate—but you would be ill-advised not to wear one, as you’re expected to. In just the same way, you should be aware of the stylistic expectations that people have regarding the proprieties of academic essays. Thus, in many contexts, you are well-advised to not use contractions.

Second, as I’ve hinted above, there are more virtues to an essay than the quality of its argument. One of them is beauty—or perhaps I should more moderately say, style. By this I mean rhetorical flourish, attention to language “flow”, elegant phrasing, (gasp!) decent layout, and so on. Philosophers often underplay these features, perhaps because they fear that emphasising them takes attention away from the core qualities of writing. But that would be a mistake, especially given that not all writing you’ll do (probably not even most!) will be academic. What counts as style is, of course, to some degree subjective; it is ultimately rather pointless to fight heated debates over how often semicolons should be used. Still, I hope, you will find it useful to find one vision of a stylistically pleasant essay expressed—mine, that is. In this respect, reading this guide is like perusing someone else’s fashion advice. You might learn something interesting that tracks your tastes, but ultimately you must decide on your own vision of good writing.

Edit: Changed Title. The piece is not meant to disparage the work of writing tutors, but to attack a certain attitude concerning rules of style.

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