Thursday, August 16, 2007

(Don't) Follow the Yellow Brick Road

In this post, I will discuss: firstly, how terrible this sentence is; secondly, the reasons that it is so terrible; and lastly, various other random matters that come up in the process.

Formulae can be useful. There is a reason that many storytellers begin their tales with "Once upon a time": the phrase is familiar to the listeners, most of whom will immediately identify the story in question as a fairy tale and adjust their expectations accordingly. Formulae allow readers or listeners to figure out exactly what to expect.

Formulae can also be pretty bloody boring.

If I, as a writer, use a particular formula, I may be comforting the reader with its familiarity, but I am more likely going to be sending the reader to sleep with its predictability. I shall also be hemming myself in, limiting the scope of what I can accomplish by letting my writing style slip into a rut. Students who stick slavishly to the sandwich method have succumbed to the lure of formula. They have mastered a particular format from which they will not deviate, and they panic when their teachers suggest they try something different. They are stuck forever on the predictable, safe, tedious Yellow Brick Road.

I have already ranted and raved about the sandwich method. However, I have yet to deal in detail with some of the formulae that accompany it: certain words and phrases that are meant to guide writers (and readers) down a well-worn path but generally end up miring them in the mud. The following formulae tend to hinder less experienced writers, and I am hereby denouncing the damned things:

1) In this essay, I will discuss...: This sort of phrase, sometimes termed a "marker," involves the writer announcing his purpose in so many words. Variants are "This paper will cover" and, in longer documents, "In this chapter/section, I will deal with...." Some teachers and professors advocate markers, claiming that they clarify the writer's intent and give him a clear direction in which to move.

I hate markers. I have used them myself in longer documents*--when you're dealing with a 100,000-word dissertation, you can sometimes find yourself wanting to clarify the topic of an eighty-page chapter--but I feel pretty strongly that in short essays, they are worse than useless. Look: you have maybe a thousand words to convince me that your argument is an intelligent one. Why waste six of those words explaining that you're about to discuss something? Discuss it. Go on. I'm not stopping you. Does Stephen King begin his novels with, "In this story, I will decapitate..."? No, he doesn't; he just gets on with the decapitation.**

One of the major rules of fiction writing is: show, don't tell. If you want your readers to feel sorry for a character, you don't write, "Robert was sad. He was very sad. He was so extremely sad that he didn't think anyone, anywhere, could ever have been so sad as all that." Instead, you demonstrate Robert's sadness. If you are a very good writer, you can convey sadness without ever using the word "sad." Non-fiction is sometimes not all that different. Essays are often about telling your readers things, but--and here's the important bit--you are telling them about your subject, not about how you are telling them about your subject. You don't have to stop in your tracks and announce, "I'm going to talk about this now!" Just bloody do it.

2) Firstly/Secondly/Lastly, [restatement of thesis point 1/2/3].: I've touched on this one before; I'll be hammering on it now.

Though "Firstly" may technically be a word, it is a very, very ugly one. It may even be uglier than "s/he," which is, in fact, not a word at all. Stop using "Firstly." It makes you sound about twelve years old.*** If you must announce that a point happens to be your first one, try "First" or "First of all." Better yet, don't make the announcement.

"Firstly," "Secondly," and "Lastly" are transitions, but they are the worst transitions in the world. A transitional word or phrase is meant to connect a paragraph to the one preceding it. The word "However," for instance, suggests that paragraph 2 is going to present a point that stands in opposition to the final sentence of paragraph 1. "Consequently" suggests that point 2 is a consequence of point 1. "In addition"..."As well"..."Nevertheless"..."Subsequently"..."Yet"..."Also"..."In fact"..."Therefore"..."Thus": they all imply relationships between points. Whole sentences can also act as transitions. An example from my own bloated dissertation is:

What is intriguing about Cassodorien is not that she has a place in the story but that the poet has placed her where he has.****

This sentence uses no transitional words; however, it does refer to the content of the preceding paragraphs (which discuss the role of Cassodorien in the poem Richard Coeur de Lion) while simultaneously highlighting the topic of this new segment of the argument: the character's unusual position in a fairly conventional story. Here I both acknowledge the just-finished discussion of Cassodorien's role and give this discussion a twist by claiming that it is intriguing in one particular aspect. The sentence does not resort to formula, but it does manage to look backward and forward at the same time.

The words "Firstly," "Secondly," and "Lastly" do not allow for such nuances. "Firstly" tells the reader that a point comes first; "Secondly" tells her that it comes second; "Lastly" tells her that it comes last. The writer is appearing to connect the points without actually doing so.

Please don't use these words. Please. I'm begging you here.

3) Besides [restatement of thesis point 1], [restatement of topic] is also affected by [restatement of thesis point 2]., followed in the next paragraph by, Besides [restatement of thesis points 1 and 2], [restatement of topic] is also affected by [restatement of thesis point 3].: Holy repetition, Batman.

Leaving aside the fact that you shouldn't be listing your thesis points in your introduction anyway, what the hell is up with all the unnecessary reiteration? Do you really think my memory is that bad? You just covered point 1; why restate it right after you've finished dealing with it? Do you have any idea how many words you just wasted? Mindless repetition may make you feel better because you're following the Yellow Brick Road, but you don't need to be retracing your steps like this. Every topic sentence should not be almost identical to the last. Play around with structure. Use transitional words. Stop freaking repeating yourself.

4) Clearly, this/these quote(s)/example(s) prove(s) that [restatement of thesis].:

Before we go on, let's get one thing straight:

"Quote" is a verb. "Quotation" is a noun.

Okay, so I'm shaking the Fist of Defiance at the Oxford English Dictionary of Doom again. So what? Informally, "quote" can often equal "quotation," but in formal writing, it can't. Please refer to "quotations," not "quotes." Actually, you shouldn't really be referring to "quotations" at all. In the spirit of research, I just did a search on the word "quotation" in my 115,000-word dissertation.***** It didn't come up once. Call a quotation a "passage," a "section," a "sentence," a "line," or anything but a "quotation." Using the word "quotation" to refer to a quotation is generally considered amateurish, possibly because it falls into the "In this essay, I will discuss" category. The reader can see you're quoting. You don't have to point out that you are.

The even more problematic aspect of Formula #4 is its inclusion of that "Clearly." "Clearly" is one of those idiotic words that creep into a piece of writing whenever the writer doesn't feel like justifying his points. He gives an example, then immediately plunges in with a "Clearly." No analysis connects the example to this "Clearly"; the reader is left to do the work herself.

This lovely little technique is called hasty generalisation or jumping to conclusions. The "Clearly" formula only exacerbates the problem (by giving the writer easier access to it, more's the pity). I'll be discussing analysis in more detail in my next post; for now, I'll just note that an example alone does not prove anything. An example accompanied by analysis can. There is nothing "clear" about an example on its own; you need to explain why it "clearly" proves your point.

Another problem here is that you're restating your damned thesis again. Why? I really do know what it is. I recently had a student whose essays looked, in outline, something like this:

  • statement of topic
  • statement of thesis and thesis points
Body paragraph 1:
  • restatement of thesis and point 1
  • evidence
  • restatement of thesis
Body paragraph 2:
  • restatement of thesis and points 1 and 2
  • evidence
  • restatement of thesis
Body paragraph 3:
  • restatement of thesis and points 1, 2, and 3
  • evidence
  • restatement of thesis
  • restatement of thesis
  • paraphrase of introduction
  • restatement of thesis
Good...freaking...grief...on an ever-loving stick of flaming hell! What in the name of Zarquon is that thing? This student restated her thesis so many times that I memorised it. She did so in both her essays. I have vivid memories of staring in consternation at her conclusion, which began with exactly the same sentence she had used to end body paragraph 3. It was astounding. There was so little actual content in the essay that I honestly didn't know what to do with it.

Do. Not. Restate. Your. Thesis. Fifteen. Million. Times.

5) In conclusion...: "In conclusion" is a tough one. It's a useful little phrase, but it also belongs to the "In this essay, I will discuss" category of telling over showing. You've reached your conclusion. Don't tell me about it; just go ahead and conclude.

Another problem with "In conclusion" is that everybody and his dog has used it. It's boring. Find a more creative way to begin your conclusion. Refer back to an image that has permeated your essay, slip directly from your last point into a gathering-together of all your points, or just write whatever you were going to write after "In conclusion" without the "In conclusion." Try it; it works. Leaving out this formulaic little statement will make your essay seem more streamlined and less conformist. "In conclusion" suggests that you are sticking mindlessly to the Yellow Brick Road.******

It is also quite difficult to integrate seamlessly into a sentence. "In conclusion, x is true" sounds pretty stilted. "In conclusion, I believe y" sounds pretty subjective. Wouldn't your life be easier without the "In conclusion"? Well? Wouldn't it?*******

These Big Five Formulae from Hades have been the downfall of many an undergraduate. Don't feel that you have to use them. In fact, I would suggest that you should fling down your pen in despair and defiance rather than adopt a single one of the foul things ever again. These formulae are crippling you. You are thinking of them as brick walls that limit what you can write and how you can write it, whereas in reality, they are made mostly of air. Get rid of them. You need walls--limits that will keep your writing tight and focussed--but not these ones.

In the next post, I'll start discussing some of these walls. In particular, I'm going to talk about what makes a good body paragraph, as well, of course, as what makes a really, really bad one.

*Because I am a hypocrite.
**Or mangling or pyrokinesis or demonic possession.
***If you are about twelve years old, it makes you sound six.
****For interest's sake: I am discussing the Middle English verse romance Richard Coeur de Lion, which deals with the life of the English king Richard the Lionheart. In the poem, Cassodorien is Richard's demon mother.
*****Technically, it is 100,000 words long, but it also contains a 10,000-word appendix and a 5,000-word bibliography. I do not like talking about the absurd length of my dissertation.
******At this point, I am beginning to notice that I have adopted the image of the Yellow Brick Road as a metaphor for a formula-driven sandwich-type essay. If I were you, I'd try not to think too hard about this image, though I suppose that if you consider that the movie version of Dorothy (the book version has a bit of a different arc) follows the Yellow Brick Road in what turns out to be a life-changing journey back to conformity and domesticity, the metaphor fits fairly well.
*******I am allowed to ask unanswered rhetorical questions because I am 1) writing semi-formally and 2) pretending that I am standing in front of you, screaming madly into your face.


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