Monday, May 21, 2007

Relentless Revisions

Even the most devoted instructor cannot teach a good style or reduce the elements of style to a set of quickly learned techniques. We learn to write well, if we ever do, by reading good prose, paying close attention to our own words, revising relentlessly, and recalling the connections between written and spoken language.

Christopher Lasch

As a resident writing consultant I often find myself torn between two tasks: editing and teaching. (I wonder if this gives me a basis for empathizing with academics about the tensions between teaching and research.) This seems especially clear in my blogging. I feel a responsibility to periodically summarize the general grammatical principlies behind my specific editorial suggestions. But I often find myself at a loss for words.

This may be partly because I'm not trained as an English teacher but as a philosopher. It may be partly because, like everybody else, I find talking about principles (rather than practices) tedious. But it is also because I agree with Lasch that good writing does not emerge from a mastery of rules and techniques. It comes from continuous exercise. I have the privilege of participating in this process with the researchers at a single department, including its PhD students. I concentrate my efforts on their specific problems, supporting their own efforts to revise their texts relentlessly. I am not saying that rules can't be useful and I still intend to try to identify the rules that seem most relevant. But the important thing is to keep the conversation going. In writing and in English.

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