Rethinking College Writing Instruction

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