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Entries in Writing (10)


Grammar is not just for nerds

It's always a little disappointing to read a book which has made it through the publication process, but reveals bad editing. Of course, editors are human, but it can be very distracting when one is reading along merrily, and a poorly used comma stops the reading process, causing the reader to go back and untangle the arguments. When reading a blog, although I would expect a responsible blogger would proof read and make an attempt at proper grammar and usage, it's not as much of an issue. When it comes to a book from a reputable publisher, one would expect that not to be the case.

If we are going to write with the expectation of others reading it, we ought to do the absolute best we can. And that may mean considering help with our writing. It isn't fun to think we are writing without clarity, and we may feel disgruntled taking advice from others, but ultimately, it helps. I recently wrote and handed in a fifteen page term paper. A friend asked if I could send him a copy, and as I did, I proof read it again, and realized that yes, I did hand it in with some unclear writing. I'm sure when it's returned to me, my prof will have taken note. 

Is grammar taught in high school these days? Do people learn how to diagram sentences? My children didn't really like diagramming sentences, but I had them do it before they went off to public high school. They are all good, clear writers. The reason people use "lie" and "lay" incorrectly may be due a lack of grammar instruction. I saw a television commercal recently where the advertisement used "less" and "fewer" incorrectly. Some of the worst examples of writing I've seen is perpetuated by journalists.

Reading well-written books helps in gaining an intuitive understanding of how good writing sounds. but learning grammar is valuable, too. And if we're going to write for others, we should not hesitate to learn more. As a former homeschool mom, I myself, a few years ago, re-visited a grammar program just to sharpen my own writing. I used the program I used with my children in 7th and 8th grades, Stewart English

For an adult looking to improve writing clarity, a high school grammar program would be a good investment. There is a review website by Cathy Duffy where various programs are reviewed. Right now, one of the more popular grammar programs is Analytical Grammar. It came into the homeschool community after my children were homeschooled, but if I was homeschooling today, I would probably use it.

I don't always write with clarity, and when I do, it's probably because I've been rushed or careless. It certainly isn't because I don't know the rules. Writing is hard work, and writing with clarity means being willing to follow a few guidelines and rules so that others will not be distracted by poor writing. The best ideas suffer from being poorly expressed.


Women in the news

While I was on vacation, and scanned Twitter briefly at intervals, I did notice an exchange of articles about women and blogging. I am not generally a reader of Christianity Today, but I did see a couple articles from that direction, but I only quickly skimmed them. I'm aware of the conversation going on, but it has not grabbed my attention. However, when I saw the title of one article, something along the lines of who is in charge of Christian blogging, my immediate thought was, "Whoever manages to generate the most attention."

I did read this morning an article that Tim Challies linked, from RNS. There were some interesting observations; interesting enough for me to break my own self-imposed rule that I don't use my blog to critique other blog articles. This isn't a critique, however. It's more an observation which arose from the article.

In the article, Hannah Anderson compares the way women go about leading to the way men go about leading. She concludes:

From moral decision-making to leadership styles, women, in general, work with an eye toward relationships and cooperation while men operate more impersonally and individualistically.

When I read that, I thought, "That is not me."

I am a leader in my local church. I take on responsibility quite naturally, and when I am given it it, I work to give it 100% of my attention. But I don't work with relationships and co-operation in mind. I am not a dictator, but when I go about leading, I am not so much concerned with gathering a group or forming community as I am in simply doing the job given to me and working with integrity. In fact, I tend to avoid groups of women. Maybe it is a hangup from my past, or maybe it is the result of having mostly male friends as a child and being the only girl in the family, but I am more prone to backing up from a group of women than I am in embracing it. Seeing pictures of women at conferences, smiling and happy together makes me feel a little melancholy at times, because that has not been my experience, yet everyone keeps telling me that it is the goal I am supposed to aspire to. 

This often frustrates me. The current "leaders" in the Christian blog world who are debating about who is in charge don't really speak for me. Many are much younger than I am, and have few similar experiences to mine. I am Canadian; most are from the U.S. And yes, that makes a difference. I cannot help but think that there is a particular socio-economic similarity among those leaders, and I wonder how women from other backgrounds react to what is written. This also leaves me wondering a bigger question: should women be seeking to be led by women they will never know? With whom there is no personal accountability? This is a basic question, of course, and one that is always left there in the background while at the same time, we actually do allow ourselves to be led. This has troubled me lately, as I am seeing more and more the potential downside of putting too much emotional energy into online relationships.

Questions are good. I've never been one to avoid asking questions. My questions don't revolve so much around who is in charge of the blog world, or which women are the leaders. Rather it is how much does my interest in such leadership influence my relationship to Christ? Is it more distracting than helpful? 


What is the purpose of a book review?

I've been working on a critical review of the book St. Augustine: A Life. When I first saw the assignment, and saw the adjective "critical," I knew Dr. Haykin was not looking for something I might put on my blog. The fact that it has to be 2,500 words was a sure indication of that.

Part of the assignment involves interacting with other critical reviews. Yesterday, I spent some time reading some. The reviews came from Christianity Today, The Calvin Theological Journal, Christian Century, and one in First Things, so there is a measure of comfort that responsible people were reviewing this book. 

What I noticed in all of these reviews was the lack of a concluding phrase that said the reviewer either recommended or did not recommend the book. Certainly, someone can read between the lines and discern if the reviewer likes the book. However, in the review from First Things, the author actually has a few indictments for Gary Wills. These criticisms are written alongside him calling the book "delightful." Yet, he did not conclude the review with a recommendation.

I was left wondering how much the presence of Amazon book reviews has affected what I perceive to be the components of a book review. I don't always look at the reviews on Amazon, but when I do I notice that the majority are not very long, and are usually five star ratings combined with some one or two star ratings. It's hard to get a feel for the book when the reviews fall into such poles.

We want recommendations so that we know we're making a good purchase. But I wonder if the prevalence of Amazon as a marketing engine has changed our expectations of what a book review ought to contain. Of the reviews I read, the one from First Things was the best because the reviewer interacted not only with what he liked, but what he disliked, and that was helpful. I've read (and written) some reviews where the glowing endorsement is far too good to be true. I would rather have more information about what the book actually contains. I was once given a book to review and was very honest about what I saw as problematic content. I have never been asked to review anything by this publisher again.

In future, when I read book reviews, I think I'll be less concerned about a recommendation and more about whether the reviewer gives me enough information to make my own decision one way or another. And if I end up hating the book, that's not a big deal. No one ever died from reading a bad book.


The mechanics of writing matters

Every student who has ever written something for someone has been evaluated on structure, spelling, grammar, and usage. Well, one hopes this is true, anyway. I have not had children in public school for a while. When I homeschooled, those things mattered. How can we communicate good answers unless we structure them properly?

Every rubric for a writing assignment includes a small amount for structure; usually 10% or so, depending on the teacher. When I was in university, and taking an introduction to academic writing, the prof exhorted us regularly with this reminder: don't blow off those ten little marks. They're an easy ten marks. As long as one has a manual of some kind to provide guidance, those ten marks can be earned. Many of us think instead, "It's only ten marks, who cares?" Ten marks is ten marks, and they could make a big difference.

What if my arguments are weak? What if my arguments are poorly supported? I'm going to lose marks. Wouldn't those ten marks provide a nice cushion if I just can't wrap my mind around what I want to say? Those ten marks can really help.

I've never really had a lot of trouble with the mechanics of writing. In all of my hermeneneutics papers, I got the full marks for structure, grammar, and usage. It was good that I did, because on one paper, I struggled with a particular point, and I saw that I lost marks because of it. Similarly, this past spring, on one of my papers for my Old Testament in the New Testament class, I got careless and made a few mechanical errors (I was lazy, and didn't proof read enough), and it pulled my mark down. I was mad at myself, because a little extra attention could have saved me a few marks.

Well-structured writing is a joy to read. It makes it easier for the one marking the paper as well, which means you may get it back from the teacher sooner rather than later. As someone who used to help students edit their papers, I can tell you that it is very hard to evaluate someone's writing if you can't make heads or tails of it. It takes very little effort to check things out. And that goes for blog posts, too. I've read some blog posts that could use some editing, and I've written some that needed editing. It really isn't hard work to learn proper sentence structure, grammar and usage. With manuals like The Chicago Manual of Style and A Manual for Writers, there is help. And barring that, do a little self-teaching with a high school grammar program, easily obtainable at any homeschool book seller.

School is back in session. If you have a child who balks at checking for grammar, spelling, structure, and usage, just tell him or her that a little cushion didn't hurt anyone.


The death of the paragraph

The best class I ever took in university was English 109, with Dr. North. My daughter, who is a PhD student at my alma mater, told me that it has changed a lot since I took it. That's a shame, because it was a great course.

Each week, we met for a forty minute lecture to discuss the material upon which we'd be writing. A couple of days later, we had a three hour writing lab, where we would have to submit our essays at the end of the class, complete with an outline. If we didn't hand the essay in at the end of the class, it was an automatic failure of the course; there was no taking the essay home and handing it in later. It was a good discipline. This process forced us to think of essays in proper terms: an argument that is supported by evidence, which is expanded up on paragraphs which contain the supporting statements. It was a course good not only for writing essays, but for understanding that all writing generally puts forth an assertion of some kind. 

There are many ways in which the internet has changed the way we communicate. As we become a more image saturated society, and our attention spans become shorter, writers are encouraged to write short paragraphs. I think that's a good idea, but more and more what I see is writing where every sentence is its own paragraph.

After a longer pargarph, it can give dramatic effect.

Especially if someone is being transparent.

I think it's supposed to make us stop and think, "wow."

Now, not every article or post has to be written in a formal academic style, but there is something to be said for constructing an argument, however brief it may be. In some of the articles where I have seen this device (over) used, it's almost as if the writer has been unable to decide if he/she wants to write poety or prose. Is this the new stream-of-consciousness?

When I sit down to read something, I want to see something unfolded, whether it's fiction or non-fiction. Just imagine A Tale of Two Cities being written in the short paragraph format:

It was the best of times.

It was the worst of times.

It was the age of foolishness.

It was the epoch of belief.

It was the epoc of incredulity.

It was the season of Light.

It was the the season of Darkness...

It kind of reminds me of this:

See Jane run.

See Dick run.

See Spot run.

Recently, I was reading John Stott's book The Cross of Christ. There was a paragraph that was quite a bit longer than others, and I did find myself wondering when he would wrap things up. But there are many other times when I'm simply caught up in the point Stott is making. When I read writers trying to make a point with sixteen one-liners instead of an entire paragraph, my visual mind can't follow along. I end up not reading. And that's too bad, because there may be something worthwhile in the article. Writing is a presentation of an idea, and sometimes, if the presentation isn't great, the idea gets lost. I am showing my age, and there are many who would disagree with me.

That's fine with me.

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