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Pay Attention!

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It’s no secret that I am a fan of style and of teaching style, the third canon of rhetoric and, by any measure, an extremely important one today. So I’ve focused on style in all my textbooks and done a fair amount of research and reading about the history of style and about the fusion of style and “content.” More recently, I’ve thought long and hard about why style seems so important to me today and so necessary to teach our students to think about and to experiment with.


I’ve been deeply impressed with rhetorician Richard Lanham’s The Economics of Attention, which I’ve read twice and refer to often: in that book, Lanham argues that style is of the utmost importance to writing and speaking today because it is through style that we can get and hold an audience’s attention. Lanham traces the move from a “stuff” economy (think industrial revolution, Fordist principles, and manufacturing) to a “fluff” economy that deals not so much in concrete material objects but in immaterial ideas and information. Add to this shift the enormous changes wrought by technology, changes that make information more available to us than ever before, and the problem Lanham discusses comes into view: the ideas and information that will be effective and successful (often in monetary terms) are those that people attend to. Thus the “economics of attention” Lanham sees at work everywhere today. His analysis is astute and his advice straightforward: if you want to be heard in today’s society, you have to get people’s attention. And the major tool you have to do so is style.


Media consultant Howard Rheingold also writes extensively about the difficulty of getting and holding attention in Net Smart, another book I have learned a great deal from reading and studying. These two books are fairly old now, but they still strike me as prescient and accurate. Now I see “attention” commanding attention everywhere. In a recent issue of Wired, James Vlahos notes that “[In] the economics of the online world, …attention is everything,” and everyone from business CEOs to medical practitioners are talking about the “crisis” of being able to get their messages across and to capture the attention of audiences. Some of these folks are simply interested in building the bottom line or in making more and more money. But not all. Vlahos, for example, worries that the tech world’s search for “the perfect single answer” promised by Alexa and Echo and company (not quite there yet, Vlahos says, but very close) will reduce options and leave us at the mercy of single answers that have been chosen for us—and in that way choosing what we are able to pay attention to. Others like Lanham and Rheingold worry about how the truth (small “t”) can hold its own in getting attention with clickbait and lies.


As teachers of writing, we have a big stake in these debates and discussions, as do our students. In the long run, rhetoricians and compositionists need to be in on this conversation, carrying out research that can contribute to it in important ways. In the shorter run, we need to alert our students to the issues and especially to the need for them to focus on style as a means of getting and holding attention, and thus of having a chance to get their voices out there where they can and will be heard. Luckily, we know a lot about rhetorical strategies that can help command attention: everything from crafting electrifying titles and opening sentences to syntactic structures and word choices that pull readers/listeners along, to the use of visuals and graphics to hold attention, to the power of figurative language, and to the equal power of silence.


Still, I find that many teachers of writing say that there’s just no time to focus on style, that helping students with invention, with critical thinking, with organizational frameworks and drafting—all time-consuming and very important goals—seem more fundamental than style. I think it’s time, though, to question this assumption and to look at style as inseparable from inventing, thinking critically, drafting, and organizing. And then to create curricula that allow for this integration.


I would very much like to hear responses to these ideas and especially to hear of ways in which teachers of writing are already responding to the move I’m calling for. Please leave a comment below or write back to me directly at And thank you!


Image Credit: Pixabay Image 2365812 by rawpixel, used under the Pixabay License

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“No iron spike can pierce a human heart as icily as a period in the right place.”  Isaac Babel, 20th c.Russian writer.  Sadly, he caught the attention of the wrong person, Stalin, who had him executed for his heart-piercing style.  This quote, from his short story, “Guy de Maupassant,” about an impoverished translator, launched my obsession about style, in the classroom and in my own writing. 


Tom, we obviously share a style obsessionthank you! 

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Took me years, but I eventually discovered that the key to integrating style in meaningful way was tying it consistently to their writing throughout the semester, in daily informal reading responses and class exercises, and in their papers.  From day one, we  discussed rhetorical situations and strategies.  In particular, I emphasized ethos, and how style contributed to ethos, and how that in turn contributed to impact of a piece in a particular rhetorical situation.  With every reading assignment, we spent some class time examining how style and ethos affected their response to writer, and the advantages and drawbacks of a style.  When and why did writer employ this style in particular passages?  All along, I encouraged them to consider their own style / ethos on the page, and how they might make more conscious use of it.  I encouraged them to imitate a writer's style they really liked during in-class writing exercises.

To provide a working vocabulary of style, I assigned variety of chapters in Nora Bacon's The Well-Crafted Sentence: A Writer's Guide to Style.  I loved this book!  Lots of great samples and exercises, which can be done quickly in class.  We didn't read the whole book.  Instead, I chose chapters and exercises addressing stylistic quirks or clumsiness that popped up frequently in their papers.  On days that revised papers were due, we'd spend the entire period working on editing for style and proofing for grammatical errors.  I asked them to keep track in their Class Notebook of patterns of style and error they discovered in their writing.  On the whole, students liked doing all this style work.  It gave them a sense of control over their prose, and seeing an immediate payoff in their writing, even if it were just one area, like passive voice or punctuating longer sentences,  spurred them to pay more attention to style.  These were some of our most productive days.

For their final paper, I asked students to analyze their own style.  I hadn't planned on ending with this assignment on the  original syllabus, but the more we worked on style, the more it struck  me that this was perfect way to end the course.  It was inspired by a an exercise in Bacon, which asked students to analyze sentence variety in a sample passage.  I decided to expand the breadth of exercise to a full paper.  It resulted in some of the most interesting writing they did all semester.  I wished I'd discovered it years earlier.  If I were still teaching -- retired now -- I would end every Comp. course with this assignment.  (I don't see an attachment link here for Word docs, so I'll send one to your email.)

About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.