It can be instructive to remember that the written word follows the spoken word. We speak before we write; we encounter one another, come to know and understand someone else most surely in speech, and that primacy is probably one reason we value so highly a natural and straightforward style in writing: the writer is being real, and feels little need for pretense and self-important distance.
Natural, though, does not necessarily mean casual. Just as there is a scale in dress from jeans to formal wear, so there is a scale from easy to careful in writing style. We can have many styes, but whichever one we put on to fit the occasion, we have to feel right in it to retain who we are, to remain natural. The irony, of course, is that a lot of work has to go in to being natural, for that voice that inevitably comes to us will not be able to say all that we see and feel without some instruction—call it training or learning or study. When all that goes too far, we become self-conscious, and the words we speak and write turn artificial. But before we cross the line, learning the craft of our work is exactly how we become skilled.
I say all this in part because I was inspired by both the meaning and style of a couple of sentences from Neil Postman’s The End of Education (Knopf, 1995), a thoughtful work of a number of years ago now that still has much to say about how we learn and teach. Here are the last two sentences of a paragraph in chapter 1, followed by the first two sentences of the very next paragraph. Read the passage first for its meaning and then again with an eye to its design:
There is no one who can say that this or that is the best way to know things, to feel things, to see things, to remember things, to apply things, to connect things and that no other will do as well. In fact, to make such a claim is to trivialize learning, to reduce it to a mechanical skill.
Of course, there are many learnings that are little else but a mechanical skill, and in such cases, there well may be a best way. But to become a different person because of something you have learned—to appropriate an insight, a concept, a vision, so that your world is altered—that is a different matter.
In these sentences, someone is here before us, a thoughtful and approachable and natural person with something to say. What is the evidence for this? Certain specific technical characteristics mark the composition, stylistic features that represent those qualities. Look, for example, at the disciplined parallelism of the first sentence: six infinitive verbs (to know, to feel, to see, etc.) all with the same object (things), all working to specify the meaning of the prior phrase the best way. Parallelism implies balance, the controlled distribution of conceptual weight, and one can do that when one has thought deeply about something, as the author here has about learning. Each of the infinitives names a different angle from which to consider what’s really involved in real learning, something invitingly complex in contrast to rote, robotic education.
Look, too, at the phrase of course, which opens the second paragraph. Technically we can understand this as a relative adverbial phrase, an adverb in the form of a phrase that connects the second paragraph tightly to the first by suggesting some correction or concession to what the writer has just said. It’s a phrase we use casually in speech all the time; and most importantly, both in speech and writing, we often use it to acknowledge a limit to our own assertion (as when we might say, for example, Of course I’m not saying he should be fired, but someone has to talk to him). Here, with this very natural phrase, the writer is saying, Now I recognize that sometimes things are best learned mechanically. Conceding that, putting a limit to one’s own beliefs, typifies someone we could feel comfortable talking with, someone approachable, not strident; confident, not self-asserting.
And look, finally, at the exact repetition of the phrase mechanical skill in the last sentence of the first paragraph and the first sentence of the following one. This compositional device of repetition ties the knot between the two paragraphs, ensuring that we readers stay closely connected to the topic of learning in a certain way as the writer continues to elaborate what he believes real learning is all about. This cohesion produces unity, and unity—staying on topic, keeping focused, holding to a well-defined direction—is a value that needs no defense, for without unity, we have no form. And without form, we have no meaning for the mind to ascertain.
I do not know any writing teacher who would say it’s just fine to write about ten things at once, that it’s up to the reader to do the work of connecting what we’re saying, that it’s enough to get something down and call it done. The opposites—to treat only one principal idea paragraph by paragraph, to bring together, to revise—these are what constitute skilled work. And if in doing that we can all the while retain our natural voice, we will have really done something.
New Year Course Announcement
This winter and spring, Writing Smartly will be offering three sections of its popular Reading Closely to Write course to get us all, as little or much as you would like, to the summer sunshine of early June.
On Tuesday evening, January 4, we will begin the first of three seven-week sessions, reading one or two short (some very short) stories each week from an anthology of great modern writers, including Katherine Anne Porter, Anton Chekhov, John Steinbeck, Virginia Woolf, and Joseph Conrad. As before, we will read these works not only to appreciate the story each is telling, but also to understand how the writer has composed certain passages and to what literary effect. And although sentence composition and style will be our first concern—the better to learn from the masters, we will also make time to comment on the plot and character those sentences together create.
Tuition for each seven-week term is $350. You may register now through these links for one, two, or all three terms (a 10% tuition discount applies if you register now for all three). Specific dates for each term are below. We will meet from 6:00 to 7:00 p.m. Central Time every Tuesday evening, taking a one-week break between each term. Our text for the entire course will be 50 Great Short Stories, edited by Milton Crane (Bantam Books, 2005), easily available through this link at Amazon, or elsewhere.
You May Register Here Now
Winter Term, January 4 through February 15. Register here for the Winter term.
Early Spring Term, March 1 through April 12. Register here for the Winter and Early Spring term.
Late Spring Term, April 26 through June 7. Register here for all three terms. A 10% discount applies.