CSULA Department of English | Dealing with Grammar and Style

In our collective anxiety about being overwhelmed by
error-ridden sentences, many of us have neglected a crucial
aspect of writing: style. For literature-types (hey fella,
that's me you're talking about!), a writer's style can be as
distinctive as a fingerprint and might be the main attraction.
When we talk about style in student writing we are usually
talking about something different, something more like clarity
and a certain amount of grace.

Writing teachers will recognize those two terms as the
subtitle of one of the best books on teaching style, Joseph
Williams' Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace.
Williams and others have redefined the discussion of style,
moving it away from what we might call the "writerly"
style of literary texts and towards what we might call the
"readerly" style of primarily communicative texts
(with due apologies to Barthes).
 

 

Introduction

Focusing
on Audience, Purpose and Genre

Balancing
Low Stakes and High Stakes Assignments

Designing
Effective Assignments

Responding
to Student Writing

Dealing
with Grammar

Emphasizing Style

Using
Grading Rubrics

As the name implies, a readerly text is one that is more
attuned to the needs of the reader. If the writer's primary
purpose is communication, then the primary requirement of
the expression is that it be clear. The role of the teacher
is to expect clarity. If a writer is not clear, the reader
(or an instructor acting like a reader) should notify.

Some Sources of Unclear Writing

Besides asking for clarity, expecting clarity, and
signaling our disapproval when we don't get it, we can help
students identify the sources of unclear writing. Here's a
short list:

  • Writing that tries to impress or intimidate us rather
    than communicate with us
  • Writing that has been padded (the three page paper
    turned into the four-and-a-half page paper simply
    through the addition of words not ideas)
  • Writing that is tentative and has nothing to say,
    usually because the writer cannot locate his or her
    authority to speak (this is really an audience problem)
  • Writing full of long abstract nouns and no active
    verbs--"who is doing what to whom?" we might
    ask of sentences and not be able to figure out the
    answer

Some Style Advice

What can students do about problems with style? Here's
some advice:

  • Write with the needs of readers in mind
  • Make your nouns concrete and precise
  • Make your verbs active
  • Be able to look at your sentences and say "I know
    who is doing what to whom"
  • Be concise

Our instructional materials page (click
here
) includes handouts on Williams' Style.
Except in composition classes, most instructors do not have
time to teach style (nor should they). They can, however,
insist on clear writing, and identify places in the
student's writing that are unclear. Help is available in
fine style guides such as Williams' and from places like the
University Writing Center.  

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Dealing with Grammar
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Using Grading Rubrics

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