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).
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:
Some Style Advice
What can students do about problems with style? Here's some advice:
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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Last Update: 04/29/2009