"In many disciplines, for the majority of graduates, the Ph.D. indicates the logical conclusion of an academic career." Marc Bousquet

Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Tyranny of Very Good Writing

A Post-Academic in New York City has an interesting post up about thesis statements and how they undermine good writing.

I don't disagree with this, nor with PAINYC's conclusion: "It’s better to teach students – and to remind ourselves – to admire ambivalence and contradiction and to think of writing as a way to cultivate those things, not abolish them. That is what very good writing – a rare and beautiful thing – should be: a reflection of a commitment to knowing nothing at all and to writing forever into that void."

To be clear: I am not currently teaching writing and don't ever expect to be doing so again. However, I did teach it for going on a decade, and one of the things I never really resolved was how to teach students what "very good writing" is at the same time I was teaching them pragmatic ways of tackling the kinds of writing tasks that would most likely be required of them in other college courses and beyond.

Because "very good writing" as PAINYC describes it above -- and I basically agree with this definition -- is not the kind of decent, clear, concise, good-but-not-great writing nonacademic, nonliterary, non-artistic, non-scholarly writers need to practice.

When I was transitioning out of academe, before I started the secretary gig at Think Tank, I had a few interviews for writer/editor jobs. When these would-be employers asked for writing samples, I was somewhat surprised that they didn't want examples of "very good writing." They wanted mundane things. They wanted to see my course policies, assignment sheets, one-pager handouts, not my published academic papers or creative experiments. They didn't want ambivalence and contradiction. They wanted clarity, simplicity, and precision.

When I write today at the Petting Zoo, ambivalence and contradiction are not the goals. While I'm certainly not under the tyranny of a thesis statement or any other such formulaic bullshit, I also do have specific things I need to communicate. Putting together a report starts with a question or set of questions. With collaborators, I collect data with the objective of answering those questions. We analyze the data and draw conclusions. Writing the report requires communicating what we found -- answering the questions. While answering those questions might lead to other questions and other research and other reports, the task of writing itself in any given report is the opposite of generating ambivalence and contradiction, unless the research itself is inconclusive, in which case we still have to communicate that inconclusiveness in clear and understandable language.

So, as someone who appreciates and values and studies "very good writing," I struggled, as a writing teacher, with reconciling how to get students to at least recognize "very good writing," if not practice it, and how at the same time to cultivate the kinds of "decent" writing skills they would most likely have to practice in the rest of their college and professional lives.

Staring into the void of writerly oblivion is a beautiful thing, but it's also dangerous, especially if your goal is to get out of academe. It's a lot like staring at the sun. Before you know it, you won't be able to see anything at all.


  1. Great post. I love this. I get frustrated with the tyranny of the thesis and I abhor the practice of asking students to write a thesis statement first. I want them to use writing to figure stuff out. But really, I want them to master the skills needed to express themselves clearly and concisely in writing because most of them are not going to need anything more than that moving forward. Even those who go on to do something more subtle benefit from those skills. Writing is about communication, after all, and if what you have to communicate is a set of procedures to a general audience, then there's no point embracing contradiction. It doesn't serve your purpose.

  2. The 2 Year Life of the MindSeptember 30, 2012 at 1:58 PM

    I teach technical writing and I get to do exactly what you described. If I were teaching the intro writing classes, I would have to teach the thesis statement and such. But instead, I get to teach my students how to eliminate personal opinion and emotion in order to communicate clearly and concisely in the business world.

    The worst part about this gig is that almost NO ONE at my college can describe the function of my class. I even had one of the science faculty members ask for academic papers my students had written for entry into a contest. "No, no no!" I contested. "Technical writing is NOT ABOUT academic writing". He smiled and said "oh, ok" but I know he didn't really understand what I just said. *SIGH* As Vonnegut wrote, "So it goes".

    One of the biggest issues with most comp classes (imho) is there are tons of literature faculty wannabees who got "stuck" teaching comp but REALLY would rather be teaching literature. So, they study the literature instead of using the readings as a means to an end of having something to write about. I JUST went on the warpath about this the other day to my colleague. She understood but said as program chair, she couldn't do anything about it. *SIGH* So it goes...

  3. As anyone may have noticed from my blog, writing clearly, simply, and precisely are not my strengths. Clearly, writing tyranny was not a prominent feature in my own education...or else it had no effect. However, I came across this article to add to the discussion.

    In The Atlantic there was a recent article about how teaching students to write clearly actually helped them excel at most other subjects. It may explain why so many people lack the skills to express themselves and why those skills are so desperately needed.