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5.2 Creating an Effective Style

Learning Objectives

  1. Discuss ways to make the style more effective and compelling.
  2. Discuss how to fix common mistakes in editing.
  3. Provide two contrasting example essays for review.

Once you’ve adequately explored your subject and laid out your analysis with an effective structure, you can focus more deliberately on the style. Though content and style are difficult to separate, the focus of our attention tends to shift in later drafts from discovering new ideas to considering more effective ways to convey them. The process, however, is not linear but recursive—because a thorough analysis leads to clarity of expression and clarity of expression will in turn lead to a more thorough analysis. Often when you can find a more precise term, it will give you new insights on the entire section and lead to a more sophisticated approach in general.

Finding the Most Vivid Terms

For this reason, I recommend that after you’ve finished writing a draft of your essay go back and underline all the vague and general terms to see if you can replace them with more precise dictionWords that are not needlessly vague, archaic, or complicated, but accurately convey your perspective., words that are clear and specific. Especially look out for the “s” word, and no, I do not mean the one that comes to almost everyone’s lips when they look in the rear view mirror and see flashing police lights. I mean “society.” By itself it can mean anything—the entire world, the specific part of the country you live in, the people who make the rules, the counter culture that resists the people who make the rules, to name just a few. If you can specify which “society” you are referring to, you will not only clarify your analysis but also discover new insights concerning the significance of your perspective to a specific group. And also try to avoid all the variations of society that do not provide additional clarity, such as: “in today’s society” or “in today’s modern complex industrial society.”

Consider also looking out for these vague terms and phrases: “The Government.” Try to specify if this term refers to state, local, or federal representatives, the people who vote them in, or to those who get paid through tax dollars, such as public school teachers, policeman, and armed service personal. “Since the beginning of time.” Try to specify when something actually begins. Personal computers, for instance, have not been around since the beginning of time, as one of my students wrote, but only since the late 1970s. “All people want to have…” No matter how you finish that sentence, you probably won’t discover something that all people want to have. Again, specify which group of people and why they want to have it. You should also be on the lookout for words like, “stuff,” “things,” or “items,” if you can replace them with more concrete terms like, “scattered papers,” “empty oil cans,” or “half finished plates of food.”

Give the same care and attention to your choice of verbs. You should especially avoid overusing the passive voice, in which the subject of the sentence does not perform the action as in “Tina was asked to go to the prom by Jake.” Usually the active voice sounds more vivid and more compelling, “Jake asked Tina to go to the prom.” And it would be even better if you could replace the verb “asked” with one that gives a more specific account of the action: “Jake begged Tina to go to the Prom.” But don’t feel the need to eliminate the passive voice entirely. Sometimes you may not know who performed the action implied in the sentence, “my car was scraped” or you don’t want to admit responsibility for your own actions, “mistakes were made.” Just make certain that when you use a form of the verb “to be,” you do so for a reason and not in place of a verb that suggests a more vivid account.

Avoiding Wordiness

In advising you to find more precise and compelling words, I do not mean that you should search your thesaurus to find the longest and most complicated terms. Nothing makes students sound like they are trying too hard to impress their teachers than when they use words that appear unnecessarily complicated, dated, or pretentious to make the analysis seem more sophisticated. Though students often think that they impress their teachers by using the most complex term, it usually leaves the opposite impression that you are spending too much time with the thesaurus and not enough with the actual substance of the essay.

Along these lines, avoid the other common trick of adding unnecessary words just to lengthen the essay out to the required number of pages. Instead always look for ways to state your point of view more succinctly. Sometimes you can do this by using a term that implies several others. For instance, you do not need to write, “Sue is like those people who always put off doing what they are supposed to do until much later than they should have done it in the first place,” when you can simply say, “Sue procrastinates.”

Writing Compelling Sentences

Once your essay has a precise, natural diction, you can jazz it up even further by creating sentence varietySyntax of differing lengths and types that helps keep the reader’s attention.. A series of sentences of the same length and type tends to get hypnotic (in fact, hypnotists use rhythmical tones and repetitious phrases to put people into trances). Your essay should “flow” in the sense that the ideas connect to each other, but not in the sense that the style seems like listening to the waves of a lake lapping against the shore at steady intervals. A style that commands attention seems more like a river that changes at every bend. To achieve this effect, try to juxtapose sentences of various lengths and types. If you have a long sentence that is full of subordination and coordination, moving through the complexities of a section of your analysis, then try to follow it up with a short one. Like this.

An excellent way to achieve more variety, provide more coherence, and reduce wordiness is to combine some of the sentences. Take the following series: I wanted some ice cream. There are ice cream shops downtown. I have to drive to get to downtown. I don’t have time to drive downtown. I’ve been putting on weight lately. I decided to eat a carrot. Carrots are healthier than ice cream. Even if these sentences were full of more intriguing observations, we would have to struggle not to fall into a hypnotic trance while reading them. Consider how much more engaging it is to read: I wanted some ice cream. But when I realized I had to drive all the way downtown to get some, I decided to settle for a carrot instead, a much healthier choice for me anyway. I’ve put on weight lately. The combination of short and long sentences keeps our attention by jolting us out of a monotonous flow; the elimination of excess words keeps us from having to sort through the clutter; and the coordination and subordination provides a sense of coherence to the previously scattered thoughts.

Editing

Once you have an effective structure and style, make sure to proofread your essay carefully. Try to imagine going out on a date, in which you took the time to work for the extra money to go to a nice restaurant and spent hours trying on outfits to look your best, but then when the food arrives, you dig into it with your hands, chew with your mouth open, and reach over to eat your partner’s food, too. Sounds ridiculous, right? Then why do I often get papers from students who took the time to write engaging analyses but did not bother to eliminate similar distractions in editing etiquette? No matter how intelligently you express your point of view, no one will take your essay seriously if it is riddled with errors in punctuation, sentence structure, and spelling.

To avoid these problems, I recommend that when you finish your essay try reverse editingA process in which you read your finished essay a sentence at a time backwards to focus more fully on the diction, grammar, and spelling., a method in which you check the essay a sentence at a time backwards. In other words, read the last sentence first and work your way back to the first. This way you will not get so involved in the content that you overlook the problems with grammar, spelling, and punctuation. If you have trouble recognizing these problems, I suggest that you get a hold of a handbook and dictionary instead of relying on your computer to solve all the problems for you. For instance, spell check cannot catch all errors, especially when you use the wrong homonym, or when a typo transforms the word you intend into one that’s different, such as when you forget to type the “t” in “the” and it becomes “he.”

Review

To underscore all the advice I have given throughout this book, consider the ways that you might revise and edit the following piece entitled “Those Misleading Manhattan Friends” that I wrote as a parody of bad essay writing. While producing it, I had the joy of ignoring every piece of advice I’ve given throughout this book. It contains no developed analysis; a five paragraph essay structure; vague, repetitive, archaic, and inappropriate terms; monotonous sentences of the same type and length; errors in punctuation, parallelism, and logic; and oodles of misspellings that spell check will not catch. Before you attempt to revise it, you might want to first review the advice given throughout this chapter about transforming topic sentences into transitions, choosing appropriate diction, combining sentences for variety, and editing the finished draft by reading it a sentence at a time backwards.

Those Misleading Manhattan Friends

Television. According to Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, television is a system for transmitting images and sound into a receiver. Television influences how we think. As part of the media, it shows us ways to consider the ways we see the world. In the show Friends three major contradictions can be found that can be seen by the desecrating viewer. As this paper proceeds each of these contradictions will be made more clearer.

The first of these contradictions has to do with the economics of the major characters within the show Friends. Manhattan is an expensive place too live. It is expensive because the rents are very high their. My friend lives in Manhattan. My friend pays a lot for rent in Manhattan. My friend pays over 2,000 dollars a month for a studio apartment in Manhattan. My friend has a good job in Manhattan and still has difficulty making ends meet in such an expensive city as Manhattan. Ross is a teacher. He teaches at the University. Ross lives in a nice apartment. Teachers make very little money. Even University teachers make very little money. Phoebe is a masseuse. She gets paid per job. She lives in a nice apartment. She makes 50 dollars per job. She is always at the coffee shop with her friends. How many jobs can she do in a week? Rents are just too high overall.

Another contradiction within the show Friends is there relationships. Ross and Rachel date each other. Ross and Rachel indubitably break up. This usually happens at the end of each season. They are still friends. I cannot be friends with anyone I break up with. My feckless girlfriend and I dated for six years. Then she changed 360 degrees into a different person. She brook my heart. I do not wish to talk to he anymore. Rachel and Ross have a kid together. There kid is very cute. They were once married to each other. They still get together and go two movies as if they simply have a causal relationship. This is a contradiction to. I think now Joey and Rachel are dating. I am sure that they will brake up to.

Another contradiction within the show Friends has to do with the modern, complex, ever-changing, technological, fast paced world that we live in today. Few people stay in one place anymore. People move a lot. Only 1 friend from my high school steal lives in the same area. Ross, Rachel, Joey, Chandler, Phoebe, and Monica never move. Except when they move in and out of each others apartments. They also never make gnu friends. Except when they date other people for about half a season and then get board and come back and end up dating each other again.

In conclusion, Friends is full of mini and varied contradictions. It is knot a very realistical show. For one, the characters live in Manhattan and they would not be able to afford to live their especially Ross and Phoebe. For two they date each other and have kids together and the brake up but they still remain friends. And for three and finally they never move or make new friends in eleven years!!! Yet the show is popular. I suppose there are many reasons why it is popular any weigh.

This essay took less than an hour to write. I started with an outline for each of the five paragraphs and followed it precisely and quickly, throwing in the main ideas without further thought, revision, or editing (okay, I did challenge myself to include several common misspellings that spell check would not catch). Even still the piece is not completely hopeless. The notion that a show like Friends can lead audiences to accept false impressions of reality could have proven intriguing to explore, and if this essay were not written by me as a parody but by a student in earnest, I would try to help her to focus the paper around this theme and to further develop her relevant ideas.

When you respond to the writing of your peers, keep in mind that we all have to write drafts and that it is always better to focus on the positive, how the writing could become more effective, rather than the negative, explicating what is wrong with it at the moment. In fact, when running writing workshops, I insist that all the feedback be stated in terms of what we like (so the writer knows what to keep or expand in subsequent drafts) and how it can be improved (so the writer has specific advice as to how to make the essay better). This helps writers to get excited about the potential of their essays rather than depressed about their current shortcomings. Ultimately it’s our attitude about our writing that causes us either to give up on it entirely or to continue to try to improve it.

The difference between the previous essay on Friends and the following one that I wrote on a strange museum in Los Angeles did not emerge from the potential interest of the subject matter but from the time and effort that I put into the writing of each. The piece that follows took several days and many drafts as I integrated experience, research, and critical examination to develop my analysis. When writing it, I used the advice I’ve given you throughout this book, so for the sake of review, I will explain how I created it before providing you with the finished draft.

When I first visited The Museum of Jurassic Technology I was dumbfounded by what awaited me inside the building. Stumbling through the dark building, I discovered a series of dioramas on such odd and diverse subjects as spores that take over the brains of ants, bats whose radars can pierce through lead, artifacts found in American trailer parks, illustrations of archaic beliefs and superstitions, and a convoluted and bizarre theory of how memory functions by a man I’d never heard of named Geoffrey Sonneabend. Later, when I discovered that parts of the collection were made up (including both Sonneabend and his theory of memory) and other parts were simply unremarkable, I felt the need to write about the experience in my journal:

How could I have been so stupid? “Museum of Jurassic Technology?” There was no technology in the Jurassic period, just a bunch of dinosaurs stomping around. I let the word “museum” lead me to think that the rest of the title made sense. And I should have realized when I entered that the items in the collection have nothing in common with each other, have no remarkable characteristics, are scientifically impossible, or just don’t make any sense. I consider myself a critical thinker but maybe I’m just as conditioned as everyone else to accept institutional authority.

As I reflected further on the significance of my visit, I decided that the museum is not the only place where questionable information gets passed off as objective and factual. In school, teachers often ask students to simply repeat information and seldom encourage them to critically examine it, a trend that has become even more common since standardized testing has dominated so much of the current curriculum. This emphasis on memorizing answers does not encourage us to think past the obvious, leading us to accept provisional theories as though they are universal truths. The museum makes us aware of this by using academic sounding phrases to get us to momentarily accept even the most ridiculous claims.

With this working thesis in mind, I set the stage for writing my essay. I researched the museum and related issues, evaluated each aspect of my visit in light of the Pentad, and brainstormed on the museum’s wider significance. I then collated and reviewed all of my observations and notes into a first draft, focusing mostly on developing this thesis. I then wrote a second draft in which I included stronger transitions and more deliberate opening and closing paragraphs. Then I produced a third draft, in which I tried to make the style more accurate and varied. I showed this draft to some of my colleagues who gave me excellent suggestions concerning other sources to consult, which parts I should cut and which I should develop, and how it might be reorganized. After this, I submitted it to the online journal, Americana, where, after completing more revisions suggested by their editors, it was originally published. When reading it, think about the process that went into creating it, how it didn’t spring out of the blue but developed slowly through careful consideration and deliberate revision.

The Museum of Jurassic Technology

From Wonder into Wonder Experience OpensThis article was first published in Americana by Randy Fallows. http://americanpopularculture.com/archive/venues/jurassic_technology.htm

The Museum of Jurassic Technology, located in Los Angeles, is a place that is easier to describe by its effect than by its content. According to Lawrence Weschler, who wrote about the museum in his highly acclaimed book Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder, a visit gives one a feeling of being “a bit out of order, all shards and powder.” This reaction springs from two opposing impulses; the first is to trust that everything in the museum is true (since after all it is a museum) and the other is a gnawing feeling that something doesn’t seem quite right. The best reason for trusting the latter impulse is that most of the collection is, to varying degrees, false. To be specific, the museum consists of dioramas revealing different aspects of “life in the Lower Jurassic,” including some that are completely made up (a series on the life and theories of a fictional psychologist), some that are made up but believed true (a series on common superstitions), some that are true but unremarkable (a series on the European mole and the night flying moth), and a few that are both true and remarkable (a series on tiny carvings that fit into the eye of a needle).

Although there are no direct statements on the museum’s walls which let the visitors in on the secret, the museum does have copies of Weschler’s book available, so the extra confused and curious can discover the attraction’s “true” nature. I was one of those who, after my first visit, purchased the book in the hopes that it would guide me out of my own confusion. It did, but it also left me repeating “of course” just as I do when I discover the solution to a riddle that seems simultaneously complicated and simple.

There is something fishy about a museum with an oxymoron in its title. Yet to be perfectly honest, I never even considered this a problem because in my mind the term “museum” eclipsed any notion to question the words that followed. I assumed that there must be a special use of the term “Jurassic” which was unfamiliar to me, a use that allowed it to be appropriately paired with the term “technology.” This tendency to ignore one’s personal reasoning in favor of a greater authority is only partly a result of the respect we attribute to museums in general; it is even more a result of years of academic conditioning to accept that information offered from an acknowledged authority must be true, significant, reasonable, and, in some way, good for us. Everything in the museum seems designed to make us feel uncomfortable with this trust.

At the entrance, there is a short video that introduces the visitor to the museum’s mission, a mission placed within a historical context. On closer inspection, the video contains oblique expressions and historical inaccuracies; however because its style and narration has a “measured voice of unassailable institutional authority,” as Weschler put it, and because there are truths mixed with the fiction, it seems reasonable enough on first examination:

The Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles, California, is an educational institution dedicated to the advancement of knowledge and the public appreciation of the Lower Jurassic. Like a coat of two colors, the museum serves dual functions. On the one hand, the museum provides the academic community with a specialized repository of relics and artifacts from the Lower Jurassic, with an emphasis on those that demonstrate unusual or curious technological qualities. On the other hand, the museum serves the general public by providing the visitor a hands-on experience of “life in the Jurassic.”

The first thing that struck me was the strange use of the phrase “the Lower Jurassic.” However, the claim that the museum serves the academic community led me to believe that there must be a new use of the phrase with which I was unfamiliar. I figured that if it were simply an error, someone long before would have informed the curator that he was confusing a term that describes an ancient time period for one that depicts a modern area. My inclination to trust was furthered by the second mission, to provide a “hands on experience” for the general public, which assured me that the museum was designed with models of effective learning in mind. The video goes on to describe the museum’s place in the history of other such institutions, including what it claims to be the first natural history museum, Noah’s Ark. This mixture of truth and legend is preparation for what lies in the main collection.

The first exhibits one encounters after leaving the video room are a series of dioramas which focus on the life and theories of Geoffrey Sonnabend. Don’t bother looking him up, or you will end up just as frustrated as Weschler, who, after his first visit, looked for references to Sonnabend in several library databases, publishing houses and historical societies before realizing that he was chasing a phantom. Like Weschler, I too fully believed that Sonnabend was a real person, partly because of the vast amount of details about his life and theories and partly because next to the dioramas of him is one of Marcel Proust tasting the tea soaked madeleine that invokes the memories of his childhood. My fondness for Proust increased my desire to learn about this more obscure theorist who also seemed to be interested in the nature of memory.

After looking through several dioramas that focus on a series of unremarkable events from Sonnabend’s life, I finally got to the one that deals with his theory of memory, the gist of which is:

All living things have a Cone of Obliscence by which the being experiences experience. This cone is sometimes also known as the Cone of True Memory (and occasionally the Characteristic Cone). Sonnabend speaks of this cone as if it were an organ like the pancreas or spleen and like these organs its shape and characteristics are unique to the individual and remain relatively consistent over time. This cone (occasionally referred to as a horn) is composed of two elements—the Atmonic Disc (or base of the cone) which Sonnabend described as “the field of immediate consciousness of an individual” and the hollows (or interior of the cone). A third implied element of the Characteristic Cone is the Spelean Axis, an imaginary line which passes through the cone and the center of the Atmonic Disc.

Neither the explanation nor the equally obscure model that accompany it make any sense; however, both echo the rhetoric of academic discourse so well that I convinced myself that my confusion came from my inability to grasp the theory and not from the theory itself. In giving some of the parts different names, it seemed as if many other theorists had arrived at similar conclusions but quibbled with Sonnabend over terminology, and by using complex sounding terms with both certainty and consistency, I was inspired to trust those who were smart enough to invent and use this jargon. However, despite its impressive look, when summarized and translated into common usage, the whole theory boils down to an obvious point: events that affect us deeply are more likely to be remembered than those that are everyday occurrences.

Perhaps if the theory was written out and I had more time to consider it, I might have arrived at this conclusion. However, the recording speeds past with no accompanying text except for the above model. This results in an effort of silent desperation to make sense of the whole thing, an effort that for me went something like this: Cone of Obliscence? I don’t know this term but it sounds like it’s related to “obsolescence,” so I assume it has to do with memories we no longer need and discard into a what? Spelean Axis! This is completely unfamiliar, but maybe it only intersects the cone at an angle because most experiences are not kept with us as memories; perhaps that is why he calls this part “the Hollows” since these particular experiences do not have a lot of substance.

Though the exhibit did nothing to enlighten my understanding of the nature of memory as a concept, it did inspire a few memories from my early undergraduate days when I would sit in lecture halls and listen to a professor pontificate through jargon, graphs, models and theories which I did not understand but which I assumed made sense to those who were smart enough to use them. That I began to recall these classroom experiences was quite appropriate, for, as I discovered later, the whole Sonnabend spiel began in lecture form prior to the museum’s establishment when its eventual founder and curator, David Wilson, was explaining these “theories” to high school and university students in the Los Angeles area. One of these lectures was attended by art critic, Ralph Rugoff, who describes a classroom scene in which:

Everybody there was taking notes furiously, as if this were all on the level and was likely to be on the test--the Falls, the cones, the planes, the whole thing, It was amazing. And at one point I leaned over to Diana [David Wilson’s wife] and whispered, “This is the most incredible piece of performance art I have ever seen.” And she replied, “What makes you think it’s performance? David believes all this stuff.”Lawrence Weschler, Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder (New York: Vintage, 1995), 41.

Wilson’s belief not withstanding, I know that many would consider it outrageous that he is passing off lies as truth in front of students who don’t know any better. I wonder, however, if the content of most lectures today will seem equally outrageous in a few years to come. Consider that a student in the early 1950s could come out of a day at school believing that a person will never walk on the moon, that Columbus was the first to discover America, and that the meaning of a literary text can be ascertained through codes completely contained within the piece itself. Isn’t it arrogant to believe that much of what currently gets taught won’t seem just as ridiculous in the not too distant future?

Wilson sees his museum as a filter through which layers of explanations become obscured, allowing us to acknowledge the mysterious nature of the subjects they attempt to explain. He states, “Certain aspects of this museum you can peel away very easily, but the reality behind, once you peel away those relatively easy layers, is more amazing still than anything those initial layers purport to be.” In short, a large part of the Museum’s purpose is to inspire the kind of confusion that leads to a healthy skepticism of institutional truths. For it’s only when people question established knowledge that new ways of seeing the world can come into existence, or as Lao Tzu put it in the Tao Te Ching, “from wonder into wonder experience opens.”

Creating an essay like this takes time, but it is time well spent. Even if you never write another analytical essay after you finish school, the resulting mental stimulation will both enable and encourage you to think about your own life more deeply and help you discover ways to make it better. And analysis can also lead us to create a better world in general. Given the problems we face stemming from environmental damage, nuclear proliferation, and economic instability, we will need a massive amount of critical thinking spread throughout the entire world to insure our very survival. Because for many years I have studied just how creative and resourceful people can be, I believe we have the ability to solve these problems and live more fulfilling lives as we do so. This can only happen, however, when more of us take the time to slow down and analyze the world around us, so that we can add our perspectives to the written and spoken conversations that make up our culture, our history, and our lives.

Exercise

Consider the differences between the two essays in this section. List all of the problems with the “Misleading Manhattan Friends” piece and think of why these problems did not manifest in the piece on the “Museum of Jurassic Technology.” Now go back over the piece on Friends and consider how you could revise it. Begin with the content. How could the focus be more precise? What parts should be cut and which expanded? How could each aspect of analysis be further developed? Now think about the structure. How might you revise the opening and closing paragraphs? What transitions could be added? Finally, consider the style and editing. Try combining sentences for variety, finding more accurate terms, and fixing the problems in spelling and grammar.

Key Takeaways

  • An effective style can be achieved through providing sentence variety, precise (but not needlessly complicated) diction, and a personal voice.
  • Careful editing can best be achieved by reading the essay a sentence at a time backwards to see more clearly the errors in grammar and spelling.