Wayne C. Schiess recently commented on my Interview of Dr. George D. Gopen: WRITING FROM A LEGAL PERSPECTIVE (linked to from the (new) legal writer and Building Rapport). Dr. Gopen was kind enough to respond to these comments. (I have placed Schiess's comments in bold italics before Gopen's responses.)
Gopen writes . . .
Mr. Schiess –
I admire everyone who is passionate about the teaching of writing. Let me respond to your response.
Schiess: So does Dr. Gopen recommend the passive voice? The dry, deadening, lifeless passive voice that pervades legal writing?
This issue with the passive is, I think, of great importance to legal writing and any other kind of high-level professional writing. We seem to have bought into the judgment that the passive is, as you put it, “dry, deadening, and lifeless,” without considering carefully enough what happens when the passive is used. I’ve recently published a very short article on this in the trade journal called Law Practice. ("When to Use the Passive.” Law Practice, Vol. 32 #6, September, 2006, 50-2.)
When we use the passive, it results in our moving around the furniture of a sentence into different spots. My rather unusual approach to handling sentences advises that we regularly should place certain kinds of information in certain specific structural locations. This is based on the assumption (discovery? belief?) that most of the clues for the reader in the interpretive process come not from word choice but from structural location. In other words, as readers, we know where to look for what.
For example, we tend to read a sentence as being the story of whoever or whatever shows up as its grammatical subject. So “Smith battered Jones” is the story of Smith, and “Jones was battered by Smith” is the story of Jones. If you need to be telling the story of Jones, the passive is the easiest, sometimes best, sometimes only was to get Jones up front into the “whose story” position. That structural location is crucial to your readers seeing the sentence as you want them to see it. In comparison with the importance of that concern, worrying about “active vs. passive” seems almost frivolous. There are a number of similarly crucial problems in communication that can be solved best by the passive, several of which are covered in that short article I mentioned above.
Readers of an English sentence tend to give significantly greater emphasis to the material located at the sentence’s moment of full syntactic closure. Such closure is produced by a period, or by a properly used colon or semi-colon, but never by a comma. Sometimes the only way to achieve this structural placement is by using the passive. When that is the case, thank goodness we have the passive. I don’t think it is possible to write sophisticated, high-level intellectual; English without a skillful control of the passive. I’ve also recently published a short article on the “Stress position” – my name for that moment of full syntactic closure. (“Stress This : How to Indicate to Your Reader the Most Important Words in a Sentence.” Law Practice, Vol, 32 #4, June, 2006, 50-2.)
There is no question in my mind, based on decades of consulting experience, that poor use of the Stress position is the single most pervasive and single most serious problem in legal writing today. ( I refer here only to English. Other languages have different reader expectations and therefore different problems.)
Schiess: I disagree. Shorter is almost always better.
“Shorter is always better.” I would agree that quite often when a sentence has been improved, it has also been shortened; but mere length means nothing by itself. I often used to shorten sentences for my clients or students, only to discover that I had seriously misunderstood their intentions. My revision was shorter and tighter -- and wrong.
I will go so far as to say that no sentence is good or bad by itself, but only in context. If you were to give me the best sentence you’ve ever encountered, I could make it a disaster by slipping it into a paragraph in which it does not belong. If you were to create for me a monster of a sentence, I could, given enough time and motivation, create a few pages to precede it that would make your sentence the highpoint of my essay. Sometimes a clause gains weight and respectability by being longer or heavier than the clause with which it is competing. In such a case, to shorten the longer clause might destroy the intended balance. And sometimes a four-word phrase can be more precise at conveying a particular meaning than any one-word or two-word replacement could manage. “Better” is sometimes “shorter.” “Better” is sometimes “longer.” Neither “longer” nor “shorter” is always “better.”
But these kinds of energetic claims, on your part and now on mine, begin to sound suspiciously like a shouting match, with the louder opinion expecting to “win.” I’ve been at some pains to demonstrate how revision should be based not on length nor cosmetics nor the prejudice of modes, but rather on structural location. In taking maximum advantage of structural location, sometimes the length of a sentence decreases, but sometimes it increases. I haven’t got a three-page article on this, but it is a recurrent current in my book about how to teach the language from the reader’s perspective. (Expectations: Teaching Writing from the Reader’s Perspective. Pearson Longman 2004.)
Schiess [responding to Gopen saying the advice to write the way you speak is wrong]: I never got this advice, I've never heard this advice, and I never give this advice. Seems like a straw argument.
Schiess [responding to Gopen's calling wrong the advice to vary the way you begin your sentences to keep your reader interested]: I've never heard this either. Do writing teachers really give this advice? Or is this a straw argument?
"Write the way you speak,"and “vary the way you begin your sentences to keep your reader interested." When I ask my audiences – which often number over 200 professionals – whether they’ve ever heard these pieces of advice, about 50% recognize the first one and about 70% recognize the second. The second one is so formulaic that my saying it brings reflective smiles to the face of many, as they can hear a word-for-word echo of their high school teacher’s voice in mine. But that also means that 50% haven’t heard the former and 30% haven’t heard the latter. So it doesn’t surprise me that you might not have come across either one; but my long teaching experience make it clear to me that these two old saws have been sawing away for many, many people, for a long, long time. I assure you I have not used them to create straw man arguments.
Schiess [responding to Gopen's calling wrong the advice to always begin your paragraph with a topic sentence that states the issue and point of the paragraph]: Dr. Gopen inserted the word "always" to make this one easy to knock down. Take the word "always" out and put in "generally."
"Always begin your paragraph with a topic sentence that states the issue and point of the paragraph”: You suggest that this statement could be improved (saved?) by replacing the “always” with “generally.” Once again, I’m not trying to be underhanded or a builder of straw in the way I’ve worded the sentence. I try to argue honestly and straightforwardly. I am not trying to “trick” my readers into seeing it my way: I’m a teacher, not a profiteer. I agree that “generally” makes the statement sound less objectionable; but the statement would still be wrong.
Most of us (not all) were taught to articulate in the first sentence of the paragraph the issue and the point of the paragraph as a whole. In the sixth grade, since our issue was always our point, the articulation of both never took more than a single sentence. But when we become professionals, our life becomes more complicated. Our writing abilities must therefore increase to keep pace with the greater complexity of our intellectual tasks. The one-sentence, first-sentence, topic sentence will no longer service us “always” or even “generally.”
Often it will take two sentences – and sometimes as many as three – to state the issue of a paragraph. Here are some generic examples of two-sentence issues: (1) “You see where we’ve come from. Now here’s where we’re going.” (2) “You may have thought X. Actually, it’s Y.” (3) Here’s a general thought. Here’s something more specific within that for our discussion.”
Here are some generic examples of three-sentence issues: (1) “You see where we’ve come from. It wasn’t very helpful, was it? Now here’s where we’re going.” (2) “You may have thought X. You may have thought Y. Actually, it’s Z.” (3) “Here’s a general thought. Here’s something more specific within that. From that more specific thought, I’d like to focus on detail X.”
In addition, it is often the case in sophisticated prose that the issue and the point are not one and the same. The “issue” defines the mental-geographic area of thought in which we will wander for the duration of this paragraph. The “point” is the take-home message. For example, in a paragraph in which the issue is the definition of a particular kind of negligence, the “point” might be the specific detail within that definition that is the key to our winning the case.
Readers of English, it appears to me, expect to find the point of a paragraph stated explicitly either in the last sentence of the issue or in the last sentence of the discussion that follows that issue. Therefore, depending ion the length of the issue, the point sentence could be the first, second, third sentence of the paragraph; it could also be the last, coming at the end of the discussion. (It also could be the next-to-last – but it would take too long here to explain how that can happen.)
If you take down from the shelf any non-fiction book, open it at random, and examine the structure of 100 consecutive paragraphs, how many of them will demonstrate the only paragraph structure most of our high school teachers ever taught us – five sentences, in which the first was the topic sentence, the last the conclusion, and the middle three “support” for that topic statement? You might find that none of the 100 take that form. I would be surprised if you found more than five. I expect you would find one or two – just by the sheer chance of random composition.
How many of those 100 paragraphs would state the issue and the point in the first “topic sentence” and then let the rest of the paragraph go to work on that? I would predict between 15 and 22. That might vary significantly, depending on the author; but I think whatever the number, it is not likely to support the label “generally.” Note please that I am talking now about published authors, not about lawyers who write because they must.
If we teach our students to make every paragraph’s opening sentence a topic sentence, we are retarding their progress as sophisticated writers. We almost ensure their continuing mediocrity. Thought is too complex to be bound in a single sentence, paragraph after paragraph.
Schiess [responding to Gopen saying, "Even the advice in that delightful classic, Strunk & White's Elements of Style, cannot help you write better. 'Avoid needless words'? How do you know which are 'needless'?"]: The assertion that The Elements of Style cannot help you write better is demonstrably false because it has already helped many people write better. And as for "omit needless words," how should I react to this sentence I recently received from one of my students? "The witness acted as if he were not all completely there." The advice to omit needless words seems to apply, no?
“The assertion that The Elements of Style cannot help you write better is demonstrably false because it has already helped many people write better.” Here I would agree with you; but I think we might well disagree on why the book has been of help. My brief comments on this during the interview did not expand far enough to indicate my reasoning. I will expand them here.
Strunk and White certainly have helped many people clear up many pervasive mysteries of language usage. They help us with the rules of grammar, matters of form, and, especially, with commonly misused words and expressions. Most of all, their own spirited, engaged, and brisk style acts as a model of one particular way of communicating well. (I don’t think, however, that their style, so effective in a slim, hi-there-reader, how-to book, would be of good service in writing a brief for the Supreme Court.) But far more problematic, their more generalized “Principles of Composition” and their “List of Reminders” they call “An Approach to Style” do not, I believe, offer us effective ways of controlling the English language at a high level. They can talk about what good writing might look or sound like, but they fail to teach us how to go about producing those good effects.
Some of that advice is no more helpful than a member of the clergy telling us to “Be virtuous.” When S & W tell us, “Be Clear,” do we chastise ourselves for not having thought of that before? So very often a sentence is perfectly “clear” to us as writers but inadequate at communicating that supposed clarity to most readers.
When they tell us to “Omit needless words,” we must ask, in trying to accomplish that noble goal, to whom the words are purportedly “needless.” I could even try to make a case for the student in your example, who wrote, "The witness acted as if he were not all completely there." It might well be the case that “all” and “completely” do exactly the same work here. If so, it seems that one might well be removed. But when I go to do that, I find myself hesitating: Which one do I remove? "The witness acted as if he were not all there,” versus "The witness acted as if he were not completely there." The first, because of the idiomatic force of “not all there” suggests the witness is suffering from some sort of mental illness; the latter, because of the more clinical force of “completely,” suggests the witness is simply not paying full attention.
It’s true, if I put the two versions back together again, I am more confused than I would be with either revision; but I am not at all convinced that either of my revisions more accurately conveys what this student was trying to say. The supposed greater “clarity” may simply lead me into a complacent incorrect interpretation. The student’s sentence, therefore, cannot be “solved” by the omission of its needless words, but rather by the clarification of what those troubled, struggling words were trying to say in the first place. Perhaps there was something of urgent importance in this concept of “completeness” that made him double up on its articulation. We would have to redescend into his thinking process to figure this out – not merely chop off something we (and not he) consider “needless.” This kind of problem arises with most or all of S & W’s generic pieces of advice.
Even when S & W are more specific, there are problems. How about this one, from Chapter V, #4: “Write with nouns and verb, not with adjectives and adverbs. The adjective hasn’t been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place.” Sounds great – until you realize that in their second sentence, S & W have themselves used three (and, I might note, three very well chosen) adjectives. There sparkle “weak” and “inaccurate” and “tight,” without which – well, what would happen to the sentence? If we omit those presumably “needless” words (needless in this case because they are adjectives), we are left with “The adjective hasn’t been built that can pull a noun out of a place.” I guess the adjectives weren’t so needless after all.
For another example, try the first paragraph from #18 of the same chapter, with its rubric “Use figures of speech sparingly.” It reads, “The simile is a common device and a useful one, but similes coming in rapid fire, one right on top of another, are more distracting than illuminating. The reader needs time to catch his breath; he can’t be expected to compare everything with something else, and no relief in sight.” Under their own rubric that orders us to use figures of speech sparingly, note how many figures of speech they themselves have used: (1) “rapid fire”; (2) “right on top of another”; (3) the comparison of “distracting” and “illuminating”; (4) “time to catch his breath”; and (5) “no relief in sight.” All of these are figurative in their use and effect. 5 figurative uses of language in 51 words is a notable frequency under any circumstances, but absolutely stunning at the moment we are being enjoined by them to use these figures sparingly.
It is not that they are careless or hypocritical: These breakdowns are simply a result of their not-quite-post-Victorian compulsion to reduce complicated concepts and complexes to simple rules. It is from just this kind of rulishness that we have been suffering in our English educations ever since the School of Common Sense philosophers in 18th century Scotland led us down this path. “Do not take shortcuts at the cost of clarity,” S & W tell us; but we remember them telling us earlier, “Omit needless words.” And, of course, other teachers have taught us that “shorter is always better.”
Let’s try to put those together: “Always make sentences shorter by omitting needless words, unless by doing so you reduce clarity.” Now THAT I like! That retains the complexity of the real world of thought and language and communication. What you gain with one effort so often produces a concomitant problem you might well have not foreseen. But although I like this composite revision of mine much better than its component parts, I don’t think that it – just like all of S & W’s similarly religious-sounding advice – could ever truly “help” someone write better. How would anyone actually know how to put my lovely sentence to use? How would they judge whether the important person – their reader – would consider something “clear”?
No: My revision may be more responsibly realistic, more appropriately complex; but it is still a pedagogical failure. The Victorians have taught us the rules of grammar and the precise definition of words and phrases; but they never succeeded in teaching us how to think -- nor how to express that thinking so that another human being might partake of it.
In sum, it is not simply the case that you and I disagree on how the language functions. It is more serious than that. As I see it, you are overly concerned with certain aspects of the surface appearance of prose. You are against lengthiness and passivity for their own sake. They seem to offend you. You almost warn that if a sentence is written in the passive voice, you will be so annoyed that you might not be bothered to consider what it might be trying to say. What you are after seems to me a misguided sense of cosmetic purity.
The important thing, I would counter-argue, is not how the prose looks, but rather how it functions – what sense it makes to most readers. Where the quality of writing is concerned, the bottom line question, I think, is simply this: Did the reader get delivery of what the writer was trying to send? If the answer to that question is "yes," then the writing was good enough; if the answer is "no," the writing was not good enough. And it makes little difference along the way how strong or dazzling or sexy or "pure" the writing seems or seems not to be, judging from its cosmetic appearance alone.
I’ll go one step further. I think if we teach our students the kinds of limitations you suggest, we are handicapping them as professionals. If we disallow them the use of the passive, they will not be able to accomplish the crucial tasks that only the passive can accomplish. If we limit the number of words they can use in a sentence, they will never be able to articulate the complexity of a thought that requires a complex structure for its articulation. We must not simply tell them to "Be clear"; we must instruct them in the methods that will help them achieve that clarity. Your old-fashioned, mannerly, and authoritarian restrictions will not free your students to explore their own thoughts and will not aid them in expressing those thoughts to others. The language and the process of communication are complex things. They cannot be simplified to the level of rules that tell you not to walk on the grass.
We can be of much greater help to our students if we teach them how readers go about the process of reading. We already know all of this intuitively as readers; we must come to know it consciously as writers. Then we can structure our prose so to induce readers to agree on what its substance is intended to be. That is what my work is trying to do.
So thank you for being interested enough to read and respond to my interview comments, and for caring enough about the language to speak up in the defense of its protectors. But I’m not trying to pull a fast one on you by constructing straw man arguments; nor am I speaking off the top of my head, but rather from 37 years of experience as a teacher and 29 years experience as a professional writing consultant. If you would like to see a briefer exposition of my approach to teaching the language than the 400 pages of my book Expectations, try my article, “The Science of Scientific Writing,” available on the net at www.americanscientist.org. (Search there under my name.) Thanks again for the comment.
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