Being Critical

Let’s imagine that someone has asked you for a paragraph about yourself. Perhaps you’re applying to a program of some sort, and the application requires you to introduce yourself in a few sentences before you list your schooling or employment or accomplishments. This self-description is a notoriously difficult project, and a first attempt can often appear quite formless. So how do we move from generalities to specifics without beginning over and over again? It’s an exercise in revision worth trying.

I’ll start. Here’s my unhandsome first sentence of an application, let’s say, for an advisory committee of a school board: I am a teacher of English and I think grammar should be taught more in learning English. I’ve written a few paragraphs, I’ve set it aside for a time, and now I’m returning to what I’ve written to begin my revision. To revise something means, literally, to look again at it; we take up what we’ve written and regard it under a different light, so to speak; not with the sweeping mental searchlight we used in first finding some ideas, but now with the focused, surgical light that sees into the very details of the structure of our draft. Something is hidden in what we’ve first written, and revising begins on the assumption that there’s more there than what we’ve managed to bring just into view. We start with what we have and build up or tear down from there.

So, I am a teacher of English and I think grammar should be taught more in learning English. What strikes me first in rereading that sentence? The pronoun I appears twice, as does the noun English and some form of the verb to be (am and be). Next, I see three clauses (I am, I think, and grammar should be taught), the last of which is a subordinate clause (the conjunction that has been omitted), and so I know I’ve written a complex sentence. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, but knowing that I’m revising a complex sentence keeps me focused: a complex structure can mean a complex of ideas, for better or worse. Finally, I notice the passive voice in that same final, subordinate clause (be taught), as well as a somewhat clumsy prepositional phrase (in learning English).

One helpful principle to remember is that the subject of a main clause is the main idea of the statement: what you choose to write as the subject of a main clause is what you really want to say something about, whether you realize it or not. That means that the first draft of this first sentence of my application is clearly about me: I is the subject of the first main clause (I am a teacher), and I is the subject of the second main clause (I think). Now I might defend all that self-reference by saying that the purpose of the piece is, after all, to describe myself to the committee. But the committee is interested not only in me, but also (and arguably more so) in my ideas. It’s fine to refer to myself in the opening clause (I am), but again so quickly in the second clause (I think)? Who exactly would be thinking that grammar should be taught more than I, the writer? So why say I think then? Spending the subject position of the second clause on yet another reference to myself is wasting an opportunity to bring the discussion to a higher, more interesting level, the level of ideas about teaching and learning.

Being aware of the subjects of our main clauses can work magic: I have taught grammar for many years, and the neglect of that subject widely in our schools has not served our students well. In this revision, the original complex sentence has been reduced to a compound one (I have taught and neglect has not served), and the verb to be of the original opening clause, which there only expressed identity, has been converted to a transitive verb (have taught), which now shows a real action. That action, this new sentence structure suggests, has produced a certain conviction, and so this revised compound sentence has a discernible design: cause followed by result. That design raises the discourse higher than merely self-description, and meets the intended audience where they are as educators, persons concerned first about education and then about me.

Being critical like this with our drafts does not mean being captious; finding fault for the sake of finding something wrong does no one any good, and eats away at one’s confidence as well. But looking critically at our work under the assumption that things are hidden there, that good thoughts are shy, will help us approach our writing more energetically, taking advantage of the techniques that a little knowledge of grammar and structure can supply. No one works at that level without revising their work many times, and the sooner we realize that, the sooner we can look critically to better, not weaken, our words.


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