Monday, August 17, 2009

Writing Style

Much of this is up to you. Finding your "own voice" is very important. It doesn't happen overnight. It takes a lot of attempts at trying different approaches and doing that fairly regularly so you can see what feels right. Many of you haven't done much if any reflective writing before this course, so you won't be a pro at it right form the start. That's ok. After all, we do learn; that's an important point.

When you're not so proficient at something and you are aware of your shortcomings, there is a tendency to try to cover up. With writing, if you believe your ideas are wishy washy the cover up can come in the form of using fancy language to deflect attention from the ideas. (If you're so smart to use those words coherently in a sentence, then the ideas have to be good, don't they?) You should combat this tendency. Think of your audience as intelligent non-specialists. Jargon when used excessively confounds rather than illuminates. Please use it sparingly and then make sure to define terms in plain language ahead of time.

Here is one other piece of wisdom on writing from my prior experience teaching Econ 101 to CHP students. Their writing frequently created the impression they were making a list rather than weaving thoughts into a coherent narrative. Some of that is a consequence when students do group projects. There is a tendency to divide up the work with nobody responsible for the whole. Another part is that some of the ideas they were writing about were pretty sophisticated and they may have not yet mastered them, so producing a coherent narrative was a tough thing to do. And then there is a third part about their immaturity as writers. A writer's job is to make things as easy as possible for the reader. If the reader has to work too hard, the meaning will almost surely get distorted and the reader might give up before reaching the conclusion. Immature writers think that having produced a first draft they are done.

So after you've written something let it simmer for a bit and go back to it. Of course do a spell check, but beyond that ask how it sounds to you and whether you can say things better. I have a tendency to use passive voice in my own writing so really have to fight that. You likely have your own peccadillos. If you are aware of them, you can take appropriate counter measures. Also, providing attribution for ideas is a good and ethical thing to do. Online, you can do that via hyperlinking. There is a fascinating piece by Jonathem Lethem in Harper's from a couple of years ago talking about how we are interconnected in our ideas and most of ours are stolen (in a good sense) from our ancestors. We won't talk about that piece in the course, but it is well worth the read.

I hope you have fun with the writing. There is learning in the doing. So enjoy.

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