Writing 2

I heard,” observed Thackeray to Douglas Jerrold, “that you said The Virginians is the worst novel I ever wrote.” “No,” replied Jerrold; “I said, ‘It’s the worst novel anybody ever wrote.'” Jerrold obviously hadn’t read The Da Vinci Code, which, with 40 million copies sold, was the fastest selling adult novel of all time, and also my choice for worst novel ever written.

The story starts with “renowned curator” Jacques Saunière staggering around the Louvre.

 He lunged for the nearest painting he could see, a Caravaggio. Grabbing the gilded frame, the seventy-six-year-old man heaved the masterpiece toward himself until it tore from the wall and Saunière collapsed backward in a heap beneath the canvas.

As narrative, this is appalling. We get superfluous detail (Jacques is a man, he collapsed backward from a wall) but no explanation (it turns out that Jacques was trying to set off the alarm). As for style, look at the mess in the second sentence: the confusion of pronouns, the clumsy reflexive, the profusion of verbs.

Then, a “thundering iron gate” falls. As the curator tries to get up

A voice spoke, chillingly close. “Do not move.”

On his hands and knees, the curator froze, turning his head slowly.

Only fifteen feet away, outside the sealed gate, the mountainous silhouette of his attacker stared through the iron bars. He was broad and tall, with ghost-pale skin and thinning white hair. His irises were pink with dark red pupils.

In my world, a gate can’t thunder (it can make a noise when it falls), a voice can’t speak (a person can speak in a chilling voice), a silhouette can’t stare (it’s inanimate), an attacker can’t be “chillingly close” if he’s 15 feet away behind a shut gate, and a person can’t turn his head if he’s frozen. And people I know say “Don’t move!”, not “Do not move”, but admittedly I don’t know any French psychopaths with dark red pupils.

On page 6 Professor Langdon, the hero, is giving a lecture. According to the woman who introduces him,

he might not be considered hunk-handsome like some of our younger awardees, but this forty-something academic has more than his share of scholarly allure. His captivating presence is punctuated by an unusually low, baritone speaking voice, which his female students describe as ‘chocolate for the ears.’

Four awkward phrases in the first sentence (younger awardees is a real gem) lead to complete gibberish in the second. How can you have your presence punctuated by your speaking voice, and why would you want chocolate for your ears?

Dan Brown offends just about every rule of “good writing” one can find in the thousands of texts and courses devoted to the subject. Apart from the terrible writing, the characterization is one-dimensional, the plot is incoherent, silly anagrams and kids’ puzzles serve as clues, and the pseudo-scholarly “thesis” (Jesus Christ had a son whose heirs are hunted by the Vatican) is both plagiarized and preposterous. So why has the book done so well? Perhaps the guy with the pink irises has the answer: “Pain is good, monsieur” he tells Jacques.
The second example I have chosen is a paper by Willett, which I comment on in my book (Jordan, 2004). I chose it because it was not only given pride of place in a special issue of TESOL Quarterly (Vol. 29, 3, 1995) dedicated to qualitative research in ESOL, but also given extensive treatment in Mitchell and Myles’ general review of SLA theories, where the paper is described as “one of the clearest attempts to apply a socialization perspective to L2 learning” (Mitchell and Myles,1998: 185). I should add, in fairness, that the Willett paper does not feature in the second edition of the Mitchell and Myles book.

So here we go with Willett. Her paper is, of course a “narrative”, as is just about everything these days in any genre: very depressing don’t you think? Interest rates on loans are a narrative; politicians’ broken promises are a narrative; and academic articles are narratives. Anyway, Willett (1995), in an ethnographic report on L2 socialisation, “thickly describes” the “participation of ESL children in the daily classroom events of a first-grade classroom. The theoretical orientation framing this study is language socialisation: language learning is the process of becoming a member of a sociocultural group” (Willett, 1995: 475).

Language socialisation “occurs through the micropolitics of social interaction”, which Willett summarises as follows: “People not only construct shared understandings in the process of interaction, they also evaluate and contest those understandings as they struggle to further their individual agendas. As people act and react to one another, they also construct social relations (e.g., hierarchical relationships), ideologies (e.g., inalienable rights of the individual), and identities (e.g., good student). These constructions both constrain subsequent negotiations and sustain extant relationships of power, solidarity and social order. … In the process of constructing shared understandings through negotiation, the social practices in which the interaction is embedded are altered and the relations, ideologies and identities are reshaped” (Willett, 1995: 475).

Willett’s report “focused on the ways that three ESL girls worked together to make sense of the classroom in which they were placed, and used that social environment to participate in phonics seatwork” (Willett, 1995: 499).

Willett participated as a teacher’s aide while she systematically audiotaped the three girls. It is important to note here that there were four limited English proficient children in the Room 17 classroom. Apart from the three girls, a Maldivian, an Israeli and a Palestinian, there was a Mexican-American boy who, unlike the girls, refused to wear the harness needed to hold the tape recorder Willett used to audiotape them, and who thus did not form part of the experiment. Willett also took field notes in class, collected artefacts from the classroom, had access to school records, and conducted extensive interviews with the teacher and parents.

Another research tool Willett employed was “a sociometric test”, which she used “to corroborate my ethnographic analyses of the social structure in the class.” (Willett, 1995: 479) She “used generic theorising processes and general analytic procedures (Goetz and LeCompte, 1984) to construct an interpretative description of the processes and outcomes of L2 socialisation in the classroom. These processes and procedures involved scanning the data, noting patterns, looking for counter-evidence and selecting important domains for further analysis.

Willett also conducted “microanalyses” of selected tapescripts and of workbooks and other written texts. The broad questions guiding the microanalyses were:

1. What participant roles do these children play (Erickson, 1982)?
2. How is the event structured (Hymes, 1974)?
3. How are the conversation and written texts structured (Coulthard, 1992; Moerman, 1988)?
4. What are the contextual cues that children use to communicate (Gumperz, 1982)?
5. What identities, social relations, and ideologies are indexed by the intertextualities that the children constructed (Bloome, 1992)?

These microanalyses enabled Willett “to construct a detailed description of the processes and outcomes of language socialisation across the year” (Willett, 1995: 479). All this work is “interwoven” into the main part of Willett’s report which consists of a narrative. The narrative begins with a description of the school and the community, continues with a description of “the social and academic world of Room 17”, and goes on to look at the ESL children’s participation in phonic seatwork, first focusing on their interaction with adults and then on their interactions with each other. The final section examines the micropolitics of gender relations, identities and ideologies and shows how the politics of Room 17 shaped the children’s access to the languculture of the classroom. (Willett 1995: 474)

The main conclusion Willett draws from the year-long study is that the three ESL girls found little difficulty in participating in the phonics seatwork, and in addition were successful academically and socially, while the only ESL boy in the class was, despite achieving as good a score on a Bilingual Syntax measure as the girls, not considered successful, either academically or socially. This, says Willett “shows how the micropolitics of gender and class worked to position the boy as a problematic learner and the girls as successful learners in this particular sociocultural setting” (Willett 1995: 475).

Discussion

Willett’s “rich descriptions” of events is not in the service of any explanatory theory. There is no attempt to explain well-defined phenomena, no attempt to go beyond description to some testable hypothesis, there is no causal theory in sight, no wider more general theory that might take the Willett study beyond the realms of anecdote. And this, I suggest, is no accident. It is not, I think, that Willett has not yet got around to articulating her theory, it is that such a demand would be seen by Willett as unreasonable, “positivist”, outmoded. Willett’s study is a model, it is evidence of a radically different epistemological point of view, a point of view that I profoundly disagree with. Willett’s study offers no explanation of anything.

In Willett’s study, the girls were seated together because they were all taking part in her research project, and the boy, excluded from the project because he was unwilling to wear the harness the girls agreed to wear, was seated between two girls – both native English speakers. Could not the facts that the three girls rapidly made friends with each other, became popular with the rest of the class, and became successful learners, while the boy felt insecure, became isolated, and was increasingly regarded as a problematic learner, be at least partly explained by the influence of Willett and her research design? Indeed it could: “The seating arrangements, the result of ideologies about gender and academics (not to mention research) had serious consequences” (Willett 1995: 496).

It seems that this is all part of the rich texture of language socialisation, and the possibility that Willett’s methodology might have played a part in such an unfortunate outcome for the boy goes unremarked.

As to the results of the study, that “as people act and react to one another, they also construct social relations, ideologies, and identities”, that these constructions “both constrain subsequent negotiations and sustain extant relationships of power, solidarity and social order”, and that “in the process of constructing shared understandings through negotiation, the social practices in which the interaction is embedded are altered and the relations, ideologies and identities are reshaped”, will surely come as a surprise to nobody. The question is how and why they do so. Likewise, it is not surprising to hear that the social situation in which the three ESL girls found themselves affected their learning, that the relationship between the teacher and the students was affected by the teacher’s position, age and character, that boys and girls tended to group themselves by gender, that the boys were rowdier than the girls, that everybody concerned was trying to “work out their own agenda”, and so on. What we need to know, I suggest, is how the girls were affected by various factors, to what extent seating arrangements affect how students learn in classrooms, etc. But no such questions are addressed.

There is then the question of Willett’s style. Willett’s paper uses an enormous array of pseudo-technical terms, which is, I suggest, a characteristic of this type of paper. The “sociometric test” Willett administered “to corroborate my ethnographic analyses of the social structure in the class”, amounted to asking each child in a glass-enclosed room, from which the child could observe the class, “Who do you hope will be in your second-grade classroom next year?” Willet explains that “Their choices were rank ordered so that a nonparametric multidimensional scaling analysis could be used to create a visual representation of the social structure of the class” (Willett, 1995: 489). What the visual representation looks like and whether, or to what extent, it corroborated her ethnographic analyses (whatever they were) Willett does not tell us.

Willett’s prose style seems intended more to impress than to clarify. When Willett tells us that she “used generic theorising processes and general analytic procedures (Goetz and LeCompte, 1984) to construct an interpretative description of the processes and outcomes of L2 socialisation in the classroom”, and that “these processes and procedures involved scanning the data, noting patterns, looking for counter-evidence and selecting important domains for further analysis”, I presume she means that she participated in and observed classroom activities, making recordings and taking notes which she later examined.

The fifth of the “broad questions” guiding Willett’s research (which was supposed to be answered by the subsequent “microanalyses” she performed) deserves quoting again: “What identities, social relations, and ideologies are indexed by the intertextualities that the children constructed (Bloome, 1992)?” (Willett, 1995: 479) Is this not a case of using terminology in an attempt to gain authority, without paying much heed to what the words actually mean?
One of my favorite bits of advice to students is that given by Charlie Parker (the jazz genius): “When in doubt, leave it out”. But Dan Brown has made millions and Ms. Willett pursues a successful academic career, so “Go figure”, as they say.

There’s a page on this website – “Doing an MA” – which includes this advice:

Writing a paper at Masters level demands a good understanding of all the various elements of academic writing. First, there’s the question of genre. In academic writing, you must express yourself as clearly and succinctly as possible: in academic writing “Less is more”! Examiners mark down “waffle”, “padding”, and generally loose expression of ideas. I can’t remember who, but somebody famous once said at the end of a letter: “I’m sorry this letter is so long, but I didn’t have time to make it shorter”. There is, of course, scope for you to express yourself in your own way (indeed, examiners look for signs of enthusiasm and real engagement with the topic under discussion) and one of the things you have to do, like any writer, is to find your own, distinctive voice. But you have to stay faithful to the academic style.

While the content of your paper is, of course, the most important thing, the way you write, and the way you present the paper have a big impact on your final grade. Just for example, many examiners, when marking an MA paper, go straight to the Reference section and check if it’s properly formatted and contains all and only the references mentioned in the text. The way you present your paper (double-spaced, proper indentations, and all that stuff); the way you write it (so as to make it coherent); the way you organise it (so as to make it cohesive); the way you give in-text citations; the way you give references; the way you organise appendices; are all crucial.

Good writing is essentially true to its purpose. Agatha Christie is a very bad writer from any angle you care to look at the texts from: the dead prose, the undrawn characters, and the absurd (and “unfair” if we’re talking about the whodunit genre) resolution of the plot. James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake is unreadable wankery; Henry James is ponderously boring. Thomas Pynchon’s “V” and Don DeLillo’s “White Noise” are the best novels written in the last 50 years. Martin Amis’ “The War Against Cliché” is the best modern book on how to write; George Orwell’s Critical Essays are even better.

But I drift! If you want to write a good academic paper

1. Find your voice. Write the way you’d speak to your best friend.
2. Obey the rules of academic discourse.
3. Remember that coherence and cohesion are the keys. To be coherent you must express yourself clearly with the minimum of fuss – less is more. To be cohesive, you have to develop your argument step by step, tell the reader where you’ve been and where you’re going. Chapters, sections and sub-sections are vital, as are the concluding and introductory sentences of each one.
4. Only talk about things you’re interested in.
5. Be critical.

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