Rethinking College Writing Instruction

Monthly archive for February 2015

Lost in an essay vs. lost in a parking garage.

This winter has been very snowy, which has required me to park my Honda in the garage near by my office. It’s a four story garage—or five if you count the roof. It’s a dull gray cement color, with minimal signage. All the floors look the same, so you know what that means—I often can’t find my car, even though I parked it only four hours earlier. It frosts me that I have to wander up and down the stairs and ramps trying to find my almost invisible dark blue-green sedan.

“This is so stupid,” I have said to myself two dozen times this year.

Then I changed tack. I started to memorize my location by creating verbal tags. Now, as I leave the car, I say aloud, perhaps, “Third floor, rear.” Or “Up on the roof.” If I’ve parked in a zone I hardly ever use, one I have no memory for, sometimes I stop just before leaving the floor. I stand at the stairwell, look back at the car, then look to the right at the sign in the well that says Floor 4. I might say “Fourth floor, lost no more,” and then I descend.

This has worked, as you can see it would.

In other words, when it comes to finding my way back to my car, I consciously construct a strong verbal trace that I can use for orientation.

This is quite like what a writer does when he or she uses tags the right way. (See the CWG, page 23.) If you the writer want the reader to find what you have pointed him toward in the forecast sentence, take the time to make strong and easy-to-remember tags. It’s no more fun being lost in a piece of writing than it is being lost in a parking garage.

Recall active verbs to mind: I

If –ion words are the enemy of clear writing,  then what?

As we understand sentences more, we want to make them active. But just wanting to be more active doesn’t always do the trick, because our sentences often are based on “is” or “are.” [Like this one using are based.]

Faced with a dull sentence, and wanting it to sing, I work hard to recall active verbs to mind. There are several ways to do that and one of the best is the conscious conversion of -ion nouns to active verbs. An –ion noun, of course, is an abstraction that ends in –ion. English has a bazillion of them and they are very useful, but too many of them in a single paragraph will put your reader to sleep.

I should note here that I personally dislike almost all -ion words. To me they are like flies at a picnic—if I can’t kill all of them, I damn well sure want to get rid of most of them.

So I have an editing habit you might call “search and convert.” I look for the abstract nouns in a sentence, cross them out, and convert them to verbs. Almost all abstractions have verbs buried in them. For example, “abstraction” has the verb “abstract” in it. Most abstractions are nouns that have been condensed from or congealed from a root that is a verb.

Here are abstract nouns that have been formed from verbs—you should be able to tell which verb is the root of the word. Fill in the verb mentally.

Application: Apply
Constitution : Constitute

Here’s what professional writers of English never forget: the root verb form is better than the noun form. It’s easier to understand. Apply is easier than application and inhibit is easier than inhibition and cook is easier than cookery. Etc.

My “search and convert” habit goes back 40 years; it’s instinctive for me now. You too can develop this instinct if you practice it and make it a habit. Here’s how. First you notice the -ion word, then you deduce the original word, and finally you recast the sentence using the verb. Examples.

The application is due on Tuesday. Apply. You must apply by Tuesday.
She showed such inhibition, he wondered if she ever would be a ballerina. Inhibit.
She was so inhibited he wondered if she would ever be a ballerina.
She was a master in the art of cookery. Cook. She cooked like a master.
I don’t think you are of the constitution suited for college.
Constitute.You are not well constituted for college.
There are three declarations to be signed before the Customs offices will let you into the country.
Declare. You must declare what you are importing before you can enter the country.

How many –ion words are there? I’d say thousands, and more are invented every day. They are not inherently wrong, but their overuse is a killer. Overused, they infest student papers and damage all kinds of academic writing, including papers and books by professors. It personally astounds me that so many professors ignore the damage done by too many –ion words. It’s so easy to eliminate them! Of course it takes work, and hours of practice, and I guess these profs never spent the time needed.


Want to develop this habit? Try saying the seeing the verb inside the noun. Here’s a list to practice with. It may be easier if you put the verb into the simple past tense and combine it with a subject like this: Sam meditated or Sue recognized.


Please note I am not. repeat not. telling you to get rid of every abstraction. They are useful, as you can see in this essay about abstraction. But you want to use them only when really needed. Use as few as possible. (And throw in words like flies and picnic to help the reader see things.)

Stones, metals, chairs, tables

“An abstract style is always bad. Your sentences should be full of stones, metals, chairs, tables, animals, men, and women.” Alain (Quoted in Rudolf Flesch, The Art of Readable Writing p 83.)


Usually the arrangement of details in writing is considered an afterthought. The average pedantic professor thinks that ideas come first and concrete details are second. Here’s Robert H. Woodward, in a college textbook called The Craft of Prose, talking to the reader about excerpts he is going to quote. Professor Woodward confides that Steinbeck, Thoreau et al. selected the details in order to communicate the opinions. (Woodward 110).

John Steinbeck, in his account of the deserted houses of the dust Bowl, and Henry David Thoreau, in his observations about the Fitchburg Railroad, both employ description as a vehicle of persuasion, carefully selecting details that establish and communicate to the reader the author’s opinions. Frank Norris and Stephen Crane describe human activities as against a natural background; through tone and the selection of details they communicate their private views about the quality of the natural scenery that encompasses the human activities. [Emphasis added.]

That’s a literature professor talking, not a writer. Probably the professor has it backwards. I would bet that Steinbeck and the others wrote “description” first because they wanted to get down what they had seen, because it burdened them, and that they added their opinions and views afterwards. If they needed to see the concrete on the page first—see it well-rendered—before they could communicate their opinions, then they are just normal, like the rest of us.

John G. Maguire
307 Market Street, #306
Lowell MA 01852