Dial it Back by Jack Stilwell

posted Dec 1, 2016, 10:56 AM by Writing Center
Regardless of elucidations heretofore indulged unto any number of existing populaces by extraneous factors, the fact remains the intelligentsia of said populaces, while duly juxtaposed by increased certainty and diminished conscientiousness, has floundered in a sort of universally reflected stagnation.

 I actually have to read sentences like this as a freshman level composition instructor; I do not care for these sentences. For one, the sentence I’ve provided, isn’t saying much. It’s basically saying that people are as smart now as they were before, even if certain ideas have been explained to them—all that has changed is people are more confident in their beliefs and less concerned with others. The sentence is also needlessly passive, needlessly long, and needlessly verbose. Which sentence would you rather read? The original? Or the paraphrase? Do either amount to much more than a musing?

 I most often see these sentences at the beginning of essays. I think I understand this. Students are told they need to hook their reader and they need to establish authority right off the bat. What better way to hook your reader than by establishing authority? What better way to establish authority than trying to sound smart as hell?

 But the complex, academic voice that students often try to use isn’t hitting the mark. More often than not, freshman-level students cannot pull off this kind of style. The sentence I provided at the beginning may be confusing, but it is complete, and while it doesn’t mean much, it does mean something. When students try to write this way, more often than not the sentences they write are not complete, and either because of this or regardless of this, they do not mean anything.

 Sometimes a student will make this work. I had a student in my class a year back that could pull off a sentence like this every time he tried and he wrote like this just about exclusively. On one hand, I found it remarkable; I certainly was not writing these long form, compound-complex sentences with elevated language when I took English 101. On the other hand, it took me about three to four times as long to grade any of his essays than any of my other students’ essays.  Reading his writing was an exercise in unpacking clauses, in keeping track of ideas, and, ultimately, in patience. With that said, this student’s essays did not suffer directly from the time it took me to read them. They suffered from his argument, his point, being lost in a word labyrinth.

 My key comment for this student was as follows: strive for clarity of thought over complexity of language. I got this advice from a colleague of mine, though the phrase seems like common enough of an idea that we’ve probably all heard a variation of it. What the advice boils down to is that conveying your ideas is far more important than writing elaborate sentences. As an English 101 and 102 instructor, I’m looking first and foremost to see if my students can effectively construct an argument.

 So, to all those students out there who want to wow their instructors with the intricacies of the sentences they can create, I’m asking you to dial it back. For those of you who devour Victorian Literature and philosophical writing and love attempting to replicate the music and magic of those sentences that make you put the book down in your lap and ask “how did they do that?”; for those of you who then feel a visceral joy in being able to craft those sentences on your own, I say: I’m with you. Writing can feel amazing sometimes. But, there is a time and a place for those sentences, and if you don’t throw those sentences into your ENG 101 and 102 essays, you will not forget how to write them. Find the correct avenue and context for those crazy-long and complex sentences and let them loose there.

 Just remember that there is nothing inferior about a simple sentence. The measure of a writer is not in how many interrelated clauses he or she can string together before a period. If you can write clear and economical sentences, you can write effective sentences. If your ideas are lost in the words meant to convey them, then they will be lost to the reader.

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