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Posted: June 19, 2012 8:50 p.m.

Travis: Good writing doesn’t need flourishes

As I write my columns, I often wonder if any of my students are reading them and making mental corrections. I hope there is nothing that needs correcting, but if there is, I hope they find the problems.

Grading an essay is one of the most labor intensive things, if not the most, in teaching school. To do a really good job, you must first read the paper for content and structure. Does the paper follow the basic pattern of thesis, supporting details and conclusion? Does the paper basically make sense? Does the information flow logically? I always tried to write a comment or two about the content and organization for each student.

Then you must reread the paper for grammar errors and mark as many mistakes as possible. First of all, you get anesthetized to grammar errors when there are many in one sentence. Plus after you have remarked five times about subject/verb agreement, it seems somewhat frivolous to mark it again and again. Then you don't want to discourage your students. I can remember them complaining about their papers bleeding red ink.

You should take 15 to 20 minutes on each paper. But that is just not realistic. Not when you have over 50 essays to grade from two classes and you teach five classes. Teachers really have to plan assignments so that not every class is writing the same week. Otherwise, students would have forgotten the assignment by the time you had them all graded and ready to return to them.

But the hardest thing to get across to students is to state a plain thing plainly.

Freshmen arrive thinking that if they use big words and write in the most roundabout manner possible, they will sound smart. They love passive voice. They invent words, long words.

Take this sentence: The Romantic poets saw the beauty of nature undisturbed by man and the worth of shepherds and farmers who lived in harmony with nature. That sounds pretty complicated all by itself. But watch what can happen to this idea in the mind of a student.
Remember we have to use passive voice and big, big words.

The beautifulness of nature was admired by the poets who wrote poetry that was Romantic, but only if the nature is not spoiled by man, and shepherds and farmers are much admired by the poets because they had to depend on and understand the countryside so that they could grow their crops and raise their animals in the beautifulness of nature.

The first sentence had 24 words. The second sentence had 61. The first sentence says concisely the information needed to understand the rest of the essay. The second sentence contains the same information in two and half times the number of words. And it is pretty much incomprehensible.

The second sentence has three passive voice verbs. The first sentence only uses active voice verbs.

The second sentence has so many rambling clauses that you are not sure if it is the poets or shepherds and farmers who depended on the countryside and raised crops and animals. The writer of the second sentence, because it is so convoluted, moves from past to present tense and back again to past tense.

Also, what happened to the perfectly good word beauty? It's not big enough. I'm not even sure if beautifulness is a real word.
I have had many students tell me that my classes have helped them in college. But one student who went to West Point was honored for his writing as a freshman. He attributed the honor to writing for the school newspaper.

In journalism, you have to write a plain thing plainly.

Maybe all freshmen need to take a journalism class.

And, former students, if you are reading my columns and wondering why my writing is not full of flourishes, good writing doesn't need flourishes.

Paula Travis is a retired teacher from the Newton County School System. She can be reached at ptravis@covnews.com.

 

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