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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