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Stylish Writing

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Those who read these posts know that I’m wont to talk about style and about its crucial importance to writers today. Responding to one of my posts, Tom McGohey wrote:

Took me years, but I eventually discovered that the key to integrating style in a meaningful way was tying it consistently to student writing throughout the semester, in daily informal reading responses and class exercises, and in 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 the 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 a writer and the advantages and drawbacks of a style. When and why did the 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.

Tom reported that such careful integration of style paid off and that “on the whole, students liked doing all the 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 small area like shifting from passive to active voice or punctuating a long sentence perfectly, spurred them to pay more attention to style.”  


I’ve had much the same experience with students over the decades, finding that taking time to get a sentence just right, to use an analogy to striking effect, to attend to the rhythms of prose, eventually got student writers excited: they too can “make sentences sing.”  So I wrote back to Tom thanking him for his comments and in return he generously shared an assignment he gives, called “Stylish Writing.” Here’s Tom’s prompt:

Rhetorical Situation: You’ve been invited to submit an essay to a professional journal titled Stylish Writing explaining your own development as a “stylish writer.” This journal is read by practicing writers who take a great interest in the craft of writing and who like to learn from other writers about the joys and frustrations of struggling to write well-crafted sentences. With your essay, you will be entering a larger conversation about the role and importance of style in writing.

Tom goes on in the assignment to give students a series of questions to help them begin to analyze and describe their own writing styles and to link their stylistic choices to the establishment of ethos and to the rhetorical effects achieved by those choices. Throughout the assignment, he encourages students to experiment, to take risks, and to have FUN.


This is just the kind of playful but serious assignment students can really shine on. Indeed it may be one you might like to try, or modify, in your own classes. Tom has generously allowed me to share it here. If you have an assignment that engages students with style and stylistic choices, please send it along!


Image Credit: Pixabay Image 1209121 by Free-Photos, used under the Pixabay License

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"Each group of selections in this volume begins with brief examples, and proceeds to others longer and more complicated.  All the selections, however, are comparatively simple in diction.  Some are even strikingly informal.  We teachers preach down 'fine' writing, but we often offer our students for imitation mannered writing.  It takes an exceptional freshman to distinguish between that which is strong and that which is only flourishing, that which is delicate and that which is only affected.  And even the exceptional freshman is usually cursed with the desire to be clever; a desire which the present editor believes ought to be discouraged, if necessary almost by violence."

From Introduction, Illustrative Examples of English Composition, 1913, by James Weber Linn, Associate Professor of English, University of Chicago

Ok, I can see what he's getting at, and he does have criteria, if rather vague -- "strong" and "delicate" -- for effective writing, and I give him credit for at least attempting to teach style,  but his nearly violent passion for squashing "clever" writing strikes me as exactly the kind of pompous hectoring and pontificating that produced so much dull prose style in the first place for the past 100 years and more.  I do find it fascinating, though, to read how  Comp Readers from previous generations reflect prevailing attitudes regarding writing style.  Do  you now of any good historical surveys of "style" in Comp programs?

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.