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Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Why Trying to Learn Clear Writing in College is Like Trying to Learn Sobriety in a Bar | Michael Ellsberg, Forbes

Ellsberg begins his provocative article by noting that writing is "one of the most effective skills you could develop for expanding your leadership and impact on the world—and for fattening your wallet."

But he then writes:
Unfortunately, despite the amount of writing you do in college, you’re about as likely to leave there having learned to write clear, compelling prose as you’re likely to leave a kegger with clear mental faculties.
Ellsberg probes possible causes of that problem and emphasizes this one:
We enter college hoping to learn effective communication skills—the kind of skills the recruiter in the Wall Street Journal article wished we possessed. But the joke is on us: the professors from whom we seek guidance, themselves don’t know good prose from porridge.
When we attend college, we throw our impressionable young minds headlong into this bog of ”scholars” ...; headlong into this asylum in which esteemed academic journals will publish gibberish if one uses the right buzzwords; headlong into this funhouse in which a computer program can generate random meaningless prose that reads passably like the stuff assigned in most graduate and undergraduate humanities classes. And from within this stylistic cesspool, we hope to get an education in how to write good prose.
He notes, however:
[M]ost writing by professors in the hard sciences also employs highly specialized language which is impenetrable to people outside the respective field. The difference is, the jargon they use tends to have precise and widely-agreed-upon meaning; the meaning of a physics or biology paper is almost always crystal-clear to another physicist or biologist.
Instead, professors of the humanities and social sciences are victims of Ellsberg's disdain. Responding to someone who commented on his article by pointing out that composition professors try to help students avoid "swampy prose," Ellsberg writes, "Fair enough."

But he then writes:
Thus, in college students are getting mixed messages about writing: the one or two composition professors they might encounter in four years try to teach them to write crisp, lively prose, and with rare exception all other humanities and social science professors in the rest of their studies--including full professors of literature--encourage them to ape the academic version of the Official Style, which these professors are churning out themselves in their "research."
Fortunately, Ellsberg concludes by noting that many excellent books and courses out there are available for improving writing skills. And he lists several options.
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Ellsberg's article is featured today, Dec. 12, in my daily online paper, Garbl's Plain English Paragraphs--available at the Plain Language tab above and by free email subscription.
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