One of the most important skills to develop in graduate school is the ability to write clear prose. As teachers and scholars, we are expected to communicate complex ideas in simpler terms. This can be especially difficult when you still are struggling to develop clear thoughts on a topic, let alone cogent writing. I have especially struggled with overuse of the passive voice, poor sentence structure, and a lack of style or flow in my writing. So, when a committee member recommended Patricia O’Conner’s slim volume called Words Fail Me; I immediately identified with the title and ordered it right away.
Words Fail Me is a book about writing that is actually fun to read. O’Conner is a master of weaving wit into wisdom, doling out lessons on active verbs and pronouns with example sentences like “Fred told Barney he’d ask a neighbor to feed his pterodactyls, but he forgot, they died, and now they aren’t speaking.” The book is not just rules and grammar, it is about learning how to embrace writing as a tool to convey ideas clearly. O’Conner does an excellent job of modeling good writing, providing excellent examples, and imparting confidence in the idea that complex ideas can always be explained clearly.
One part of clear writing is explaining relationships, an area in which much academic writing abuses the passive voice. Here, indirect writing and ambiguous relationships between subjects and actions can be used as a crutch for unclear thinking. In her chapter “Wimping Out: The Backward Writer”, O’Conner explains that indirect writing is like a limp handshake; it is evasive, weak, and a “skill that has been elevated to an art.” Be direct. Introduce a subject, then a verb, and then the object. I have returned to this chapter often to help me identify weak arguments and language when I am proofreading my own draft or someone else’
Words Fail Me also helped me think through a few meta-issues in my writing, such as identifying my audience. I study the political history of soccer in Argentina, a topic that I want to share with the largest audience possible. To meet this goal, I am focusing on developing a writing style that exemplifies some of O’Conner’s main points: make the complex simple, engage the reader, and develop a flow with strong sentence structure. The book has helpful advice on how to set your own goals and meet them, such as bringing the reader into your writing by drawing mental images and choosing appropriate vocabulary. Clarifying long-term goals like developing a style or identifying an audience can help motivate and focus your writing too.
For the price and time investment, getting the book is a no-brainer. You can read it in the course of an afternoon or over the weekend and then develop a plan for your writing in the fall. Even if you only take a few things from the book, being more conscious of your writing and its purpose is always an important step towards improvement. I have also enjoyed Chapter 11, “Revising Sentences”, from Turabian’s Manual for Writers and George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language.” Have your own favorite pieces on writing? Please share below!
[Image by Flickr user viteez and used under creative commons license]
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