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branchandroot: apple and tape measure (apple measure)
[personal profile] branchandroot
Short form: It doesn't work.

I run into this when I'm teaching first year writing, too. Students will ask things like "how long should the introduction be", and the answer isn't "one paragraph for a five page paper and two for a ten page paper". No, the answer is "long enough to introduce the topic and give any background information your reader needs, not so long that you start to get into your body arguments before you actually get to the body". They ask "so, is three pages too long" and I can't answer in any meaningful way without actually reading the paper. It might be. It might not. Pages are the wrong yardstick with which to measure, because it's the content that matters.

For similar reasons, the infamous advice to cut adverbs is useless when accepted and deployed uncritically. The more useful rephrasing might be: Persistently using adverbs as a shortcut, in place of giving some meaningful description of the characters' actions or thoughts, will make the story shallower, and adding them where there are already sufficient cues will make the story sloppier. The more useful initial phrasing might have been: Identify the techniques you are prone to overuse and remember to pay attention to those while you're editing.

Of course, that doesn't sound nearly so satisfyingly solid and simple, does it? It's not as catchy as "The road to hell is paved with adverbs". It sounds less like "fewer than three pages" and more like "not so long you start writing body arguments".

Prescriptive advice isn't always wrong, but it isn't going to be right, either--again, those are the wrong yardsticks. It universalizes the particular way of writing that worked for one author/reader or even a group of authors/readers. It borrows the false authority of absolutism instead of putting in the work of self-examination that might yield the far more useful explanation of why, in that particular case, a particular writing approach worked.

So to anyone who is tempted to write a how-to or a this-is-better: try to remember that your view is specific and particular, not universal, and do the 'why' work. It's just as necessary in non-fiction as it is in fiction.

Date: 2009-12-25 06:47 pm (UTC)
sixbeforelunch: a stylized woman's profile with the enterprise and a star field overlaid (sg1 - daniel/sam: explore learn live)
From: [personal profile] sixbeforelunch
(Here via my network page.)

Ooo, writing meta! :) I completely agree with you, and have very little of use to add, but

Identify the techniques you are prone to overuse and remember to pay attention to those while you're editing.

is excellent advice. Writing is unique to the individual and everyone has to find their own strengths and weakness and figure out how to best play up the former and minimize the latter.

Date: 2009-12-25 07:53 pm (UTC)
annotated_em: cross-section of a lemon (Default)
From: [personal profile] annotated_em
My favorite studentism is "If I make these changes, will my paper pass?"

They always look so disappointed when I say, "I don't know, I'll have to read the revised paper and see."

Date: 2009-12-25 09:40 pm (UTC)
jetsam: (Default)
From: [personal profile] jetsam
Most maths students need an approximate word count or we're clueless (we admittedly don't get taught to write essays, we just follow our outline sheet).

It's fascinating to see you and Em talking about this sort of thing simply because it's all new to me - I haven't written a proper essay since school, and even then only little ones.

Date: 2009-12-25 09:56 pm (UTC)
jetsam: (Default)
From: [personal profile] jetsam
Yeah, it's definitely a good idea to prep people, I think. The only way we get away with it is by only having to one wordy paper in the entire three years! The advantage of early specialisation

Date: 2009-12-26 06:11 am (UTC)
mitsuhachi: (Default)
From: [personal profile] mitsuhachi
But even if you're studying math, won't you have to write up whatever you find out at some point anyway? (Asked with the understanding that I have very little idea what math-people do, and therefore the question may be meaningless).

Date: 2009-12-26 10:29 am (UTC)
jetsam: (Default)
From: [personal profile] jetsam
Until you start doing disseration-level stuff, it's too short to need the same sort of abstract-introduction-body-conclusion type structure that most subjects require for coursework - most proofs that we're expected to do aren't much longer than a couple of paragraphs, and we get numbered question sheets just like you might at school (just longer). So we have to learn to write that up, but that's a slightly different skill, and you pick it up more by watching the lecturers prove things than in any specific course.

Date: 2009-12-26 03:41 pm (UTC)
mitsuhachi: (Default)
From: [personal profile] mitsuhachi
Right, but dissertations--not to mention job stuff-- are hard enough for english majors. I think they'd be terrifying if I'd never been taught the basics of academic writing. I think it's quite strange they'd leave that out of your coursework.

Date: 2009-12-26 03:42 pm (UTC)
mitsuhachi: (Default)
From: [personal profile] mitsuhachi
....which, reading it again, is meant to be fascination at a different approach to education, and not quite as judgmental as it ended up sounding. Er.

Date: 2009-12-30 02:58 am (UTC)
From: [personal profile] dragonwolf
I can't speak for all schools, but mine (a tech-based school that specialized in math/science majors) had all of two actual writing courses. Neither of them were much more advanced than high school level English, and both could be completed before the end of your first year. There were a couple other English type courses, but they didn't emphasize writing as much, and the other gen-ed courses weren't nearly as picky about proper writing techniques and whatnot.

Date: 2009-12-26 11:19 am (UTC)
ldybastet: (Default)
From: [personal profile] ldybastet

Date: 2009-12-27 02:45 am (UTC)
From: [personal profile] rubyfruit
This...this so much.

I never got the "Adverbs are wrongity-wrong-wrong all the tune for eternity" thing. I ignore it.

Date: 2009-12-27 02:45 am (UTC)
From: [personal profile] rubyfruit
*tune = "time".

I can type in the dark. By that I mean I can't.

Date: 2009-12-27 03:09 am (UTC)
From: [personal profile] rubyfruit
The whole thing about prescriptions in writing not working was something I had to learn going from high school and into college writing.

It was actually freeing to learn that.

Date: 2010-01-15 08:48 pm (UTC)
From: [personal profile] dee
I get this sort of thing at work, where I'm particularly good at writing risk reports.

When other people get assigned to do the same work, they tend to trip all over themselves looking for some magic formulae that will make the report make some kind of atomic "sense" (these are IT people, mind you). I had one guy come to me with this spreadsheet that was hundreds of lines long trying to get me to tell him what data manipulations he needed to perform in order to properly define his column headings. Or something.

I was all like, "Dude, this isn't computer programming; it's writing. It's not an exact science. You figure out what message you want to convey to the reader, then you make shit up based on that. The process and form of producing the report are significantly less important than the end result."

Needless to say, I don't think he got it. I ended up making an analogy based on the concept of OOP, which of course in the long run is completely rubbish because Writing Does Not Work Like That. Bah.

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