Newsflash! When people talk about how a liberal arts education encourages the development of skills that will be essential to success in the workforce? They’re talking about writing. (Amongst other things. But we’re a writing blog, so excuse us for honing in.)
We’ve harped on this before and will surely continue to do so in the future, but it bears repeating: the ability to write is an extraordinarily valuable skill that, if mastered, will reward you long after you graduate from college. Renowned businessman David Ogilvy certainly thought so; check out this spectacular memo entitled “How to Write” that forwarded to his employees in 1982 (Brain Pickings).
His succinct list of writing advice includes such gems as “People who think well, write well” and “Good writing is not a natural gift. You have to learn to write well.” Hear, hear! For some reason, it’s understood but rarely stated that writing is an invaluable component of the business world!
Yet as I continued to peruse his other points, my initial enthusiasm faded. For some of the rules Ogilvy mandates, while logical, seem to fly in the face of the type of writing we typically see here at Wesleyan. For instance:
4. Never use jargon words like reconceptualize, demassification, attitudinally, judgementally. They are hallmarks of a pretentious ass.
Ouch. Ogilvy would probably claw his eyes out simply scanning the titles of papers written for a typical COL course; all the “engendering”s and “stigmatization”s would likely be too much for him to bear.
Now, I’m a staunch proponent of writing at your own vocabulary level. Too often students fall into the trap of thinking they can disguise weak arguments with fluffy language, awkwardly jamming complex and irrelevant words into their sentences. I see where Ogilvy is coming from: a simple “WORD” is almost always more effective than “WORD.” Yet I can’t even count the number of times I’ve written that a certain author encourages the reconceptulaization of a certain topic. I don’t choose to use it because it’s 19 letters long, but because the scholars I am quoting frequently employ it themselves. To successfully enter into academic discourse, we must engage with both the content and language of the discipline we are writing in. We mimic the syntax, structure, and vocabulary of the authors we read as a way of legitimating our own prose. Scholars tend to favor writing that aligns with the conventions of their disciplines.
Ogilvy’s second point raises a similar issue:
2. Write the way you talk. Naturally.
Again, this might not be a rule we can follow from our ivory tower. Colloquial speech, no matter how eloquent, typically is not well received in academic discourse. Get a group of college writers together and ask them whether it’s appropriate to use “I” in an academic paper; chaos ensues.
We must adapt our writing to fit specific contexts. In our case, as students, we must write according to the rules of academic discourse. Nevertheless, Ogilvy’s points are worth keeping in mind. Sure, you shouldn’t begin an essay with “I totally loved Romeo and Juliet“…but neither should you begin it with “In penning Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare rescripts classical gendered pedagogies through his tacit circumnavigation of conventional paradigms.” You should avoid sentences like this not only because more often than not they wind up being completely gibberish (like this one), but also because they simply don’t read well. They don’t read well because nobody talks like this. It’s not natural.
Ever attended a lecture from a truly astounding speaker? (If not, it’s time to get out of the dorm more often.) Great lecturers speak with advanced vocabulary and complex syntax, but they make it sound effortless. Natural, yet sophisticated. That’s what you’re aiming for.