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Old Friday, July 08, 2011
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Remember the reader
Never forget that what you are now writing will have to make sense to someone else. If that reader is however indirectly your examiner, you will score points not for what you had in mind but only for what your prose manages to say. Inefficient prose simply fails to communicate. Unless your style speaks clearly, no other virtues or skills which you may possess can be recognized.
Of course all readers need to be motivated. Examiners, too want to be interested. They may even hope to be amused. So try also to inject some vigor into your style. You can raise your reader's hopes with a first sentence which is phrased arrestingly. You can leave behind a good impression with a last sentence which is phrased memorably. The more of the intervening sentences which seem well-written and even witty the better. Alertness to any ambiguities and playfulness which may lurk in the language of your own prose should anyway help you to notice and enjoy more on the verbal games that literary texts are themselves playing.
But an over-ambitiously original style may stumble into pretentiousness or wander away into mere eccentricity. Posturing and whimsicality infuriate some exxaminers, and all resent word-play where it is irrelevant. Ensure that any imaginative expression is indeed designed to express rather than merely impress. If it defines your meaning more precisely or conveys it more economically, use it. If not, settle for a simpler, more direct, phrasing. Some tutors may welcome verbal wit as a bonus. What all insist upon is a style which shows them how much you know and what you think.
Good criticism of literature does not itself strain to sound literary. If you try to use unfamiliar words merely to sound sophisticated, you will just distract yourself from the task of making your meaning clear. Such pretentiousness may even tempt you to use words whose precise meaning you do not know. Then you risk writing gibberish.
Of course, you should aim for a gradually broadening vocabulary: the wider the range of terms from which you can choose, the more likely you are to find those that will define your point with maximal economy, clarity and precision. Moreover, a relatively complex language may be necessary even to think certain ideas. Nevertheless, longer, less familiar words chosen just for their length or obtrusive learnedness will merely slow pace and muffle thought. Compare these alternative versions of the same point:
The play commences by making manifest the ruminations of its hero.
The play starts by telling us what its hero thinks.
The latter is far more likely to help writer and reader into a real curiosity about whether the claim is accurate and relevant. Here are two more examples of pompous circumlocution, each followed by a more direct paraphrase:
Shakespeare desires in the first scene of A Winter's Tale to demonstrate that Leontes is perusing his wife's social gestures towards their guest with close attention and some alarm at the possibility of sexual impropriety.
Shakespeare means in the first scene of A Winter's Tale to show 'that Leontes .is anxiously watching his wife's behavior towards their guest. Already he suspects an affair.
Such a point, however straightforward may still seem Important enough to be included in your essay. However you must eliminate the verbal elaboration before you can decide whether the idea is sensibly unprepretentious or damagingly naïve.
Criticism is addressed to readers now. It is not aimed at the first readers of an eighteenth-century poem or even at the original audience of an Edwardian play. You should use modem English unless quotation marks make clear that you are offering a verbatim extract from some text written at an earlier stage of the language's development.
So good literature should be 'praised' not 'lauded'. Ill tempered characters should be credited with 'anger' not 'ire'. Fast-moving prose may still have 'speed' but no longer 'celerity', and, even at its most efficient, should not now be described as 'efficacious'. Satirists no longer 'mercilessly vilify' those whom they 'abhor' even if they still 'repeatedly attack' those whom they' dislike'.
In your own prose, find modern equivalents for the text’s archaisms and more remotely literary terms. You will then sound properly curious as to what these do in fact mean. You must, however, balance the advantages of a modern style against the need to evoke a text's own, perhaps outmoded, texture. The main mechanism for maintaining this balance is quotation: your own contemporary English introduces the reader to verbatim examples of the text's earlier usages. However, in some cases where it is not appropriate to use quotation marks you may still need to reproduce loyally the text's own archaic terms, It is no use referring to what a Restoration comedy calls a 'serving-woman' as an 'au pair' or a 'daily'. Texts often use a different vocabulary because they reflect a different society.
Write shorter sentences wherever you can. A sentence which you cannot pronounce aloud without pausing for breath is almost certainly too long. Split it in two (or three). Doing so will force you to think more precisely about the various points which your unwieldy construction had tried to combine. Discriminate between these ideas. Work out exactly how they are related. Then express them in a rational sequence of far briefer sentences. Your prose will be at less risk of sounding clumsy or pompous. More importantly, it will make immediate sense.
Sometimes, of course, you may discover that a lung burstingly protracted sentence has not grown as a result of having so many ideas to express. Instead, it is making only one point, but at inordinate length. Then prune accordingly.
Sentences have various purposes. However, each sentence can only be asked to perform one main task if it is to do it well. Ask yourself what each of your sentences means to achieve. If it seems to have more than one function, be suspicious. Consider dividing it into shorter statements.
Here are three of the many tasks that a sentence might be performing. It could be an assertion about how a text (or some part of a text) should be interpreted. It could be a description of what kind of literature or literary device can be recognized in a text. It could be a judgement on how successful a text is. A single sentence can hardly ever contain interpretative, descriptive and evaluative thoughts without muddling them;
Hamlet is essentially about the hero' s struggle for sanity in a world of baffling contradictions but, being a typical tragic drama of its period, it tries to enlist the audience support for an act of revenge and the play is thus often distracted from its subtle characterization of the Prince’s distracted processes by a clumsy pursuit of melodramatic plot.
Clearer though this draft is, it may still ask each sentence to do too much. In the last sentence, for instance, there are two judgments - one positive ('subtle') and one negative ('clumsy'). Perhaps each deserves a sentence to itself.
Moreover, the division into more sentences reveals how many large, ill-defined and unsupported claims are being made here. Perhaps each needs to be followed by extra sentences which offer further definition and supply some specific evidence to show how tenable the idea is. Shorter sentences will not just make your argument clearer to the reader. They may reveal to you in time that the point you were about to make is too bald to be convincing.
You will often have to compose a sentence whose job is to define more precisely the claims made in the previous one. For instance, the suggestion that the play is 'about the hero's struggle for sanity' might be expanded by the following sentences:
Hamlet strives to make sense of contradictions which could drive him mad. There is Claudius, an honored king who has committed a squalid murder. Almost as baffling is Ophelia, a prudish young girl who is willing to prostitute herself as a spy. The hero wrestles with such paradoxes in bewildering isolation, resorting to soliloquy because he is deprived of dialogue. His one surviving parent is in love with his father's murderer and the friends of his student days are now his enemies.
Design a prose-style which pauses frequently to begin a fresh sentence. It will encourage you to move on from a generalized premise and advance to specific points.
Beware of compressing both an idea and the evidence which supports it into a single sentence. The result is usually in elegant and obscure:
It is not so much Hamlet's dark clothing and bitter remarks in the opening scenes as some of his almost reckless behavior in later scenes (his wild gestures towards Ophelia, his rash killing of Polonius) which make us wonder about his sanity (although, of course, it is possible to interpret his apparent madness as feigned for purposes of political prudence until the very end of the play).
The student should have spotted when drafting this sentence that it attempts to use too many different moments in the play. Unless your point is to compare or contrast, a sentence which is about more than one passage is likely to be over-ambitious. Divide it.
Another warning sign in the example above is the use of brackets. Do not interrupt or extend a statement with some parenthetical addition which deserves a sentence in its own right.
The ratio of one sentence to one idea is a guideline not a rule. There are contexts in which each of your sentences may need to encompass a pair of points. Then there may be a risk of monotony and you must consider another guideline: sentences should vary in structure and in length.
In answering 'Compare and contrast' essay titles, your prose may get stuck in a recurring structure. You may repeatedly deploy some formula such as 'On the one hand in X... but, on the other hand in Y', or 'Whereas in X we find A, in Y we find B' . A sequence of sentences where each begins 'Whereas' can be tedious to read. Try to vary your syntax.
The content of the following sentences is meant to offer helpful advice. Their structure, however, should demonstrate the difficulties of reading prose whose grammar is repetitive:
Whereas the dull sentence tends to be long, the interesting sentence is often short. Whereas the dull sentence tends to vagueness and repetitiveness of terminology, the interesting sentence usually deploys precise words each of which is used only once. Whereas the dull sentence tends to offer generalizations which might apply to almost any text, the interesting sentence frequently offers close observation and verbatim quotation. Whereas the dull pattern of unvarying syntax tends to drive one barmy, imaginative variation in the ways that each sentence begins, proceeds and ends may keep a reader awake.
Arousing interest is, however, a secondary consideration. Your first must be the clear and precise communication of your thoughts. If your prose is flexible enough to keep matching its style to its substance, your sentence length and syntax will vary.
The rule requires 'Beowulf achieves [not 'achieved') more than most Anglo-Saxon poems'. 'Romeo loves Juliet' is acceptable; 'Antony loved Cleopatra' is not. You should write 'Jane Austen here means [not 'meant') to be funny'. These are not arbitrary conventions. They are rational practices on which criticism's commitment to precise accuracy depends.
The text which your essay is discussing cannot be recalled as a past event. To do so would imply that it has become a permanently dosed book. In fact, the very existence of your own essay proves that the text can still be constantly reopened, reread and reinterpreted. It is a resource whose present availability is indisputable.
Each reader of a story, even a reader who has read the whole of that story before, begins the first line in imagined doubt as to what the last will reveal. Whenever you are describing some particular episode within a narrative, you should report its events in the present tense. Only this can reflect the tension then present in the mind of the imaginatively curious reader.
There are, of course, remarks about books which do require the past tense: 'I first tried to read Robinson Crusoe when I was still at primary school and did not understand a word of it.' This statement could be a wholly proper one to make in conversation; but you should not write it in your essay. There you must concentrate on what you still understand and value in Robinson Crusoe - however long it may have been since you last read it. The present tense of critical prose helps you to focus on those ways in which a text is still alive, still able to stimulate and modify thought. Such surviving powers - as far as they are discoverable and describable - do belong in your essay. Points where the text is now dead to you should stay buried.
The characters in plays, novels, short stories and narrative poems are similarly only worth discussing because they come to life in minds now. Of course, some of these modem minds may be sufficiently informed and sophisticated to use fictional characters as a means of structuring images of past cultures. Modern readers may use the characters of an Elizabethan play or of a Victorian novel to understand the attitudes of some long-dead generation, and criticism is properly interested in how the first audience of Julius Caesar, or the first readers to buy a copy of Oliver Twist, are likely to have responded. However, your main task in considering characterization is to define the precise way in which a printed text available today still compels its fictive personages to act, and the exact signals by which it still manipulates the reader into a particular view of human nature.
The convention of the present tense discourages sentimental confusion between artificially constructed, literary personages and actual people who once lived as autonomous individuals but are now dead. Fictional characters spring to new life each time a fresh reader opens the text. They are ready to perform the same actions within the same verbal pattern in any passage which a reader may care to find. They are creations, still being produced by the text's choice and arrangement of language. They are thus at once more enduringly dynamic and more repetitively static than human beings. We must eventually die; but until then we can change. They always live to fight another day for some new audience or readership; yet they are confined still within the same lines of recurring signals.
Some modern critical theorists might argue that this exaggerates the difference. Perhaps the supposedly independent and unpredictable lives which we ourselves lead are also preordained by linguistic structures even if these are far more various than those which restrict literary characters. Our vaunted individuality may not be a liberty which we seize but a license which words grant. Perhaps only through words do we become sufficiently discriminating to identify ourselves and sufficiently audible to be recognized by others. Without personal pronouns and personal names, could we tell ourselves apart?
Some critics would now argue that it is the English language that speaks us rather than we who deign to speak it. You may have no individual intellectual existence beyond the innumerable texts which have ordered your thoughts. You will not yourself have directly read most of these texts. Yet their vocabulary and usage may have influenced the phrasing of some speech that you have heard, or contributed to the style of some book that you did once read. They may thus have indirectly determined how you will decode the next of those relatively few works which you will read for yourself.
Perhaps there is a never-ending interdependence through which understanding of one text is programmed by knowledge drawn - however unconsciously - from others. Such interaction may mean that even a work which is now scarcely ever read is still influencing the language in which we shape our ideas. These views - just as much as traditionalist ones - suggest that describing any work in the past tense as if it is a spent force must be misleading.
For not unrelated reasons, authors as interesting, historical personalities who once led idiosyncratic lives seem unimportant to many modem critics. You may still believe that the purpose which a work was designed to serve is discoverable; you may consequently wish to write in terms of its author's apparent intentions. If you do leave the secure grounds of the text to enter the danger zone of literary biography, tread warily. Return as soon as possible to observing only those authorial choices which can still be seen at work in the text. These must be reported in the present tense. Those ideas or actions of an author which are not recorded within the work under discussion may tempt you to use the past tense, but they are likely to be irrelevant. By contrast, where you do instinctively feel that the present tense is appropriate, you are probably responding to what the text's own voice still presents.
Try anyway to reduce the frequency with which you refer to an author and to increase your references to a text: wherever you are about to use a writer's name as the grammatical subject of a sentence, consider substituting the title of a relevant work.
Some tutors specify a minimum number of pages which the essay must reach. Such demands must be met by finding enough to say: not by saying little at excessive length. At every stage use only as many words as are needed to advance your argument, or to make it more comprehensible, or to render it more convincing. Any word which does none of these wastes both your own and your reader's time. It also makes it harder for you both to notice the words that do matter. After composing one verbose paragraph you may be unable to spot, among the mist of superfluous verbiage, the relatively few points which it has made. If so, you will begin the next paragraph with a hazy sense of direction. You may lurch off at a tangent; or repeat a stage of the argument which has already been sufficiently explained.
Your reader, too, wearied by struggling through redundant or repetitive phrases, may be tempted into skip-reading. There is no guarantee that the skipping mind will consistently leap over the meaningless froth, and keep landing on the meaningful stepping-stones. It may do precisely the opposite. Then your essay will not just be criticized for taking too long to say what you think. It will be condemned as failing to demonstrate any thought at all.

Do not begin a sentence with 'I think' or 'I feel' or 'I am not unaware' or 'I hold the view that' or 'It is my own opinion that'. Use your first words for a thought. Do not waste them in announcing that, when you do get around to offering a thought, it will be your own. Your reader is not likely to mistake it for the word of God, or a report by the Arts Council, or some involuntary burp from the collective unconscious.
Similarly, there is no point in writing 'I would argue that' or 'I would maintain that' if you are about to do so. Nor is it helpful to preface your ideas with 'I believe that' or 'I am persuaded that' - unless you have the reputation of a liar. Other wasteful announcements that you are still alive and well and living somewhere in your essay's argument are: 'in my view', 'in my opinion', 'for me', 'as I see it' and 'it occurs to me'. So long as you are arguing and offering evidence - rather than merely making undefended assertions - you will sound sufficiently modest. Labored use of the first-person singular pronoun can in fact make your essay sound self-centered where it should be centering on the text.
Using 'one' or 'we' instead of 'I' might seem less egotistical. Yet these can sound presumptuous in some contexts and evasive in others. They should certainly not be deployed with 'I' to concoct chaos:
One could argue that the individual lyrics of ‘In Memoriam’ are components in a unified artistic whole especially if we, as I do, take Tennyson's overall theme to be, not grief at the loss of a friend, but panic at the loss of religious faith.
There are two escape routes from this dizzying oscillation between self-assertion and passing the buck. The essay could have specified some published critic who advances the view, and then, offering reasons for skepticism, dissociated itself.
Alternatively, the approach should have been phrased as implicitly the student's own:
The individual lyrics of ‘In Memoriam’ are not isolated fragments evoking grief at the loss of a friend. They are components of a unified artistic whole whose theme is panic at the loss of religious faith.
Wherever you feel tempted to use' one', ask whether it represents your own view or that of someone else who deserves specific acknowledgement. When you are about to write 'we', ask who else's agreement you are assuming and how well founded that assumption is. Are you lazily taking your reader's support for granted rather than going to the trouble to argue your case?
At the very least, spare your reader either of these clichés: 'One may therefore conclude that', 'Thus we see that'. Conclusions drawn, and views held, by your essay are known to be your own. If they are feeble, the reader will not be persuaded that the blame lies with some third-party 'one' and will resent being included in a conspiratorial 'we'. If what you 'conclude' or 'see' turns out to be interesting, you should not interpose such empty gestures but allow your reader to reach it immediately.
Perhaps the commonest source of uneconomic writing is a compulsion to say the same thing twice. Repetition rears its ugly heads in such Hydra-like profusion that I can only identify one or two of the most popular formulas below. You must therefore defend yourself by asking, throughout the writing of your essay: have I said this before?
Nervous writers prefer to dress each concept in at least two words as if one on its own might fail to prevent indecent exposure. This belt-and-braces strategy praises the 'emotion and feeling' of some texts while condemning others as 'shocking and horrifying', It describes virginal characters as 'pure and unspotted' or 'blameless and innocent', It describes tougher types as incapable of 'love and affection'. They may even be 'ruthless and unrelenting' in their 'cruelty and viciousness'.
In this idiom, satirists treat unjustifiable 'pride and self-esteem' to 'ridicule and mockery'; or rebuke it, in a 'grave and serious' tone of 'didacticism and moralizing'. They have to protest 'strongly and forcefully' since 'collapsing standards and moral sickness' are 'increasing and expanding'. Indeed the 'adequacy and effectiveness' of 'values and principles' are being 'challenged and questioned'. At the more 'crucial and significant' moments of literary history, saying everything twice may not be enough: after all, 'the Romantics who favored imagination and fantasy' were, according to one student's essay, outgunned by a three-pronged attack from , Augustans who prized knowledge, information and facts'.
The emptiness of such treble-talk, and even of the more common doublings, may look relaxingly obvious when so many examples are removed from their original contexts and juxtaposed. Be warned. Pairs of virtual synonyms can infiltrate even the most vigilant first draft. When revising it, look specifically for every phrase in which 'and' yokes two nouns, adjectives, verbs or adverbs. When you find one, ask yourself: what is the difference between the connotations of these two terms? Has that distinction been explained? Or could both words be suspected of saying the same thing? Of course, if they do turn out to offer almost identical meanings, you must retain the more apt or vigorous term and cut the other.
In trying to eliminate this particular kind of redundancy from your essays, you may have to resist the blandishments of alliteration. Surrender to them will not make you sound 'cunning and calculating', though they too often cause 'fear and foreboding', or even 'torture and torment' in students' essays and tutors' minds. Alliterative redundancies like 'pathos and poignancy' will not meet a 'sensitive and sympathetic' response. Two words which share the same initial letter may sound to you as if they belong together. They do not, if the context allows them to mean much the same.
To avoid another frequent source of repetition, do check your longer sentences to ensure that all are making progress and none is circling back to its starting-point. Beware the kind of sentence which begins 'Hardy is a pessimist' and concludes that 'his novels do not sound hopeful'. Even if intervening clauses between the two halves of such a repetition are full of interesting movement, the surrounding stasis will still bore.
Whatever kind of inattention has led you into a repetition, do at least avoid any labored confession. To tell the reader that your next words will add nothing new is hardly diplomatic and yet versions of the following are frequently sprinkled through students' essays: 'We have already seen that', 'As explained before', 'As I have said earlier', 'It seems worth repeating here that'. To a demanding reader nothing will seem 'worth repeating'. The admission that you know your structure has led you into redundancy but that you cannot be bothered to revise it may seem rudely inconsiderate. Ideally eliminate all repetition. If some does remain, at least be discreet and then, however undeservedly, you may escape censure.
Precision in literary criticism is both a commitment to strict truthfulness and the means by which that is achieved: dose observation. You must, of course, observe precisely what words the text itself chooses and exactly how it deploys them. Only then can you form a sufficiently accurate view of how it works. To express that view dearly and fully, however, you will need to be just as precise in selecting and arranging your own terminology.
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