For the last few years before retirement, I taught a class at Stanford for graduate students who wanted to work on their writing. Now I am putting that class online for anyone who is interested in trying it out. The class is called “Academic Writing for Clarity and Grace.”
I know, the title sounds like a joke, since academics (especially in the social sciences) do not have a reputation for writing with either clarity or grace much less both. But I hope in this class to draw students into my own and every other academic’s lifelong quest to become a better writer. The course will bring in a wide range of reference works that I have found useful over the years in working on my own writing and in helping students with theirs. The idea is not that a 10-week class will make students good writers; many of us have been working at this for 40 years or more and we’re just getting started. Instead, the plan is to provide students with some helpful strategies, habits, and critical faculties; increase their sense of writing as an extended process of revision; and leave them with a set of books that will support them in their own lifelong pursuit of good writing.
The original class was offered in the ten-week format of the university’s quarter system, and I’m keeping that format. But you can use it in any way that works for you.
Some may want to treat it as a weekly class, doing the readings for each week, reviewing the PowerPoint slides for that week, and working through some of the exercises. If you’re treating it this way, it would work best if you can do it with a writing group made up of other students with similar interests. That way you can take advantage of the workshop component of the class, in which members of the group exchange sections of a paper they working on, giving and receiving feedback.
Others may use it as a general source of information about writing, diving into particular readings or slide decks as needed.
Classes include some instruction on particular skills and particular aspects of the writing process: developing an analytical angle on a subject; writing a good sentence; getting started in the writing process; working out the logic of the argument; developing the forms of validation for the argument; learning what your point is from the process of writing rather than as a precursor to writing; and revising, revising, revising. We spend another part of the class working as a group doing exercises in spotting and fixing problems. For these purposes we will use some helpful examples from the Williams book and elsewhere that focus on particular skills, but you can use the work produced within your own writing group.
Work in a writing group: Everyone needs to develop a recognition of the value of getting critical feedback from others on their work in progress, so you should be exchanging papers and work at editing each other’s work. Student work outside of class will include reading required texts, editing other student’s work around particular areas of concern, and working on revising your own paper or papers. Every week you will be submitting a piece of written work to your writing group, which will involve repeated efforts to edit a particular text of your own; and every week you will provide feedback to others in your group about their own texts.
Much of class time will focus on working on particular texts around a key issue of the day – like framing, wordiness, clarity, sentence rhythm. These texts will be examples from the readings and also papers by students, on which they would like to get feedback from the class as a whole. Topics will include things like:
- Framing an argument, writing the introduction to a paper
- Elements of rhetoric
- Sentence rhythm and music
- Emphasis – putting the key element at the end of sentence and paragraph; delivering the punch line
- Concision – eliminating wordiness
- Clarity – avoiding nominalizations; opting for Anglo-Saxon words; clearing up murky syntax
- Focusing on action and actors
- Metaphor and imagery
- Correct usage: punctuation, common grammatical errors, word use
- Avoiding the most common academic tics: jargon, isms, Latinate constructions, nominalizations, abstraction, hiding from view behind passive voice and third person
- The basics of making an argument
- Using quotes – integrating them into your argument, and commenting on them instead of assuming they make the point on their own.
- Using data – how to integrate data into a text and explain its meaning and significance
- The relation of writing and thought
- Revision – of writing and thinking
- The relation of grammar and mechanics to rhetorical effect
- Sentence style
- The relation of style to audience
- Disciplinary conventions for style, organization, modes of argument, evidence
- Authority and voice
Writing is a very personal process and the things we write are expressions of who we are, so it is important for everyone in the class to keep focused on being constructive in their comments and being tolerant of criticism from others. Criticism from others is very important for writers, but no one likes it. I have a ritual every time I get feedback on a paper or manuscript – whether blind reviews from journals or publishers or personal comments from colleagues. I let the review sit for a while until I’m in the right mood. Then I open it and skim it quickly to get the overall impression of how positive or negative it is. At that point I set it aside, cursing the editors for sending the paper to such an incompetent reviewer or reconsidering my formerly high opinion of the particular colleague-critic, then finally coming back a few days later (after a vodka or two) to read the thing carefully and assess the damage. Neurotic I know, but most writers are neurotic about their craft. It’s hard not to take criticism personally. Beyond all reason, I always expect the reviewers to say, “Don’t change a word; publish it immediately!” But somehow they never do. So I’m asking all members of the class both to recognize the vulnerability of their fellow writers and to open themselves up to the criticism of these colleagues in the craft.
Here is the course syllabus. The readings include five books and a number of articles; the latter are available on a Google drive.