Rethinking College Writing Instruction

The grammar of vividness

I don’t have research to prove it, but I’d bet that many English teachers do not understand how vividness of imagery promotes intellectual clarity.

Vivid writing is sensual writing—the kind that gives you an orange on a blue plate in Sunday morning sunshine. I think most teachers believe vivid images belong to poetry. The connection between vivid images and clear exposition escapes them. They think poetry is about emotional expression and prose is about clear explanation.

But clear images matter to the mind for all kinds of cognition. We are visual creatures, according to both common sense and fMRI scanning machines. Roaming through the veldt, our long-ago forbears used their eyes to scan for signs of danger or chances of a good meal.

Writing ought to serve up things to see, just as a matter of biology, even when the topic is an abstract idea. If writing fails to convey the visible, it fails to reach us. And the visible need not be pretty. Here’s the opening sentence from George Orwell’s “Marrakech,” a powerful essay about colonial empires.

 As the corpse went past the flies left the restaurant table
in a cloud and rushed after it, but they came back a few minutes later.

That sentence conquers your mind as you read it. You are in Orwell’s head, and he is in yours. After that first sentence, Orwell starts in on his piece about empires and the cheapness of life in colonies.

How does that first sentence work? Four physical things: corpse, flies, restaurant table and cloud.  Four short active verbs: went, left, rushed, came back.

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