Few students these days seem capable of crafting an expository essay that takes the reader directly into the heart of the question and deals with it dynamically and coherently. This raises a number of general problems related to how composition is taught in American high schools and colleges, but the more immediate question for the student becomes: How can I improve my writing? The answer has a great deal more to do with thinking than with writing. Professors are not interested in whether or not students can write, except as an indication of how well they can think; what goes on the page reflects what goes on in the mind. The way or manner of thinking (the "how" of thinking), unfortunately, rarely falls explicitly within the purview of any single college course. By adopting an approach to writing that is grounded in scholarly thinking, however, one may begin to appreciate the importance of prose style and its implications for thought.
One traditional academic approach to composing an essay has to do with constricting a thesis statement, several supporting paragraphs (each directly addressing an individual point raised by the thesis), and a concluding paragraph that restates the thesis. This kind of compositional formula does provide a convenient framework within which to operate, but it also imposes a rigid mechanical structure on the essay that can restrict the flow of thought. Rather than relying on formulaic methods, a good writer will pose a question or a problematic which will make it clear to the reader what perspective or point of view he or she has adopted toward material at hand. A question-ing, unlike a thesis, does not simply lay out the issues to be addressed in an essay. Writing is a process of developing ideas, and the questions one begins with may bear little resemblance to what ultimately takes shape. A dynamic writer will look for tensions or oppositions or ambiguities inherent in the initial question-ing, open them up, explore them, and then work toward a resolution appropriate to the chosen perspective. By the time the writer has worked through all the particular aspects of the question, however, the original problematic may reveal itself in an entirely new way that better reflects the newly developed argument. The argument, in turn, may then require even further development to suit the changing question. Writing an essay, in other words, is both a hermeneutical and a dialectical process: it involves both interpretation and reflexive self-criticism. In this way, it becomes a kind of evolving dialogue between the general problematic and the particular problems - a dialogue, in fact, that may never resolve itself into a truly finished form.
Within a dialectical essay, prose style becomes extremely important, particularly with regard to syntax (word choice and word order) and transitions between sentences and paragraphs. Smooth transitions are crucial in that they maintain the flow and coherency of the entire essay. Appropriate syntax sets the character of the essay and reveals the quality of the thought behind the writing. Below, we have listed a number of problems that undergraduates often encounter in their prose, along with some short abbreviations that may be used for critiquing essays:
General comments on syntax: Do not try to sound scholarly just because it sounds good to do so. In other words, avoid terms and phrases that you are not thoroughly familiar with, and do not use unusual word order just because it seems more academic. On the other hand, do not write informally: avoid contractions, colloquialisms and slang. Do not be too conversational either. Avoid autobiographical asides. We are interested in what you have to say about your subject, not your personal opinions or your personal history.
Transitions (TR or Tran) and abrupt shifts (AS): Shifting abruptly between ideas can destroy the continuity of the argument. Hence, each paragraph should contain only coherently connected and appropriately sequential sentences. In other words, each idea should flow logically and easily into the next one (even if it contradicts it), and the first sentence in each paragraph should, in some way, refer to the last sentence of the one before it (or vice versa).
Telegraphic prose (TELF): A good writer will avoid telegraphic prose by varying the length of sentences. When every sentence is the same length, a paper tends to read more like a telegram than an essay.
The verb "to be" (TB): Using transitive verbs whenever possible, thereby avoiding the verb "to be" (is, am, are, were, was), will greatly facilitate the flowing quality of the prose. One cannot write dialectically by stating things categorically.
Passive Voice (PV): passive constructions tend to make your prose sound stilted and awkward. For example, the following sentence:
Aschenbach fell in love with a beautiful but sickly young boy named Tadzio.
is more direct and forceful than
A beautiful but sickly young boy named Tadzio was loved by Aschenbach.
Prepositional overkill (PO): Use prepositions (of, on, in, for, about, to, etc.) judiciously. Overusing prepositional phrases can lead to monotonous run-on sentences.
Denotative facticity (DF): Denoting ideas by the use of"this" or"that" can reduce them to the status of mere facts, thereby robbing them of all vitality.
Ambiguous antecedents: Whenever you use"it," "this" or "that," - particularly at the beginning of a sentence - make sure what you are referring to is readily apparent to the reader.
Introducing and integrating quotations (IQ): A quotation must be well integrated into the new context while remaining faithful to the original. Always introduce each quotation and provide a smooth transition back into the paragraph - do not end paragraphs with quotations. (Please refer to the MLA Handbook and The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, for proper quotation style.)
Purple Prose (PP): Do not get carried away with the sound of your own writing. Your style should flow well enough to keep the reader interested, but too many adjectives in an expository essay can obscure what you are trying to say.
Repetition: Try not to repeat yourself. When you find that you want to use a particular word or phrase more than once, rephrase it or look for a synonym; or, if it is a proper name, use a pronoun.
Comma Splice (CS): Always use a comma before a dependent clause or an independent clause with a conjunction ("and" or "but"), but never use a comma to join two independent clauses without a conjunction. This error is known as a "comma splice"; it calls for more abrupt punctuation, such as a semi-colon, a dash or a period. Please consult an English manual such as the New Century Handbook for more extensive help in this area.
Rhetorical register (RR): Many students write in a single voice failing to distinguish their position from the author’s; from the characters in the story; from the universal truth claims. For example: "Antigone represents the powerful force of descent against the laws of the polis." But is this Sophocles’ position? Yours? Be careful to separate interpretational claims from universal truth claims when writing.
Final caveat: Always proofread your work. Have someone you trust read it out loud, or wait a day or two and read it aloud to yourself.
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