Editing: The Altering of "Voice"

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 Mary Margaret Peebles

Final Paper

Nonfiction Prose

Professor A. Dalke

17 December 2010    

 

Two sentences!  I post a brilliantly funny and intelligent post, and my viewpoint on an entire work of literature is boiled down to two sentences.  Other people in the class got a paragraph, are their opinions more valid than mine?  I resent being edited, especially to argue someone else's point.  Editing is an unfortunate reality of being a student.  I loath editing, I would rather conjugate verbs in French than edit any paper.  However, as a student who believes in self-improvement I began to search the Internet for aid. My explorations lead me to The Chronicle of Higher Education, a periodical for academics in higher education, a goldmine for advice on academia.  Writing on writing is an interesting genre of nonfiction; there seems to be a mystical quality to good writing that even successful academics cannot describe.  Several of the posts that occurred in The Chronicle of Higher Education, How Do You Learn to Edit Yourself, Style a Pleasure for the Reader, of the Writer?, Why So Many Academics are Lousy Writers, and 50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice, describe the pitfalls of poor editing, and their results.  The underlying theme of all the above articles centers around one specific point; the formative years of one's writing career have a profound impact on the type of writer and editor one becomes.

     The bible of writing instruction for college students in America is The Elements of Style by Strunk and later edited by E.B. White; an essential text for developing one's writing, "As Dorothy Parker said, "If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second-greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first-greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they're happy."1 For research purposes I consulted The Elements of Style hoping that this great lexicon of knowledge could help me in my editing deficiencies. 

     "Write in a way that comes easily and naturally to you, using words and phrases that come readily to hand.  But do not assume that because you have acted naturally your product is without flaws."2  If I thought my writing was without flaws why would I be consulting this book?  The Elements of Style is filled with writing advice that addresses the technicalities of writing, but provides little effective assistance with the actual stylistic nuances of writing: "16-Be Clear"3, "19-Do Not take shortcuts at the cost of clarity"4, "Avoid foreign languages"5. E.B. White wrote in his introduction to a latter edition of The Elements of Style, "At the close of the first World War, when I was a student at Cornell, I took a course called English 8.  My professor was William Strunk Jr.  A textbook required for the course was a slim volume called The Elements of Style, whose author was the professor himself."6 There is a timeless quality to all good writing, but the methods that teach good writing habits, like editing, have to evolve with society.  Imagine if telegrams were still the fastest form of communication, and slide rules were still used to design airplanes, we would only be hindering ourselves by not embracing the full potential of what technology has to offer; academic writing should follow suit.

     I am not alone in my dislike of The Elements of Style, in 50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice Geoffrey Pullum dictates the havoc that The Elements of Style has wrought on academic writing; "The Elements of Style does not deserve the enormous esteem in which it is held by American college graduates.  Its advice ranges from limp platitudes to inconsistent nonsense.  Its enormous influence has not improved American students' grasp of English grammar; it has significantly degraded it."7  Pullum's greatest objection to The Elements of Style is the book's total rejection of the passive voice, "What concerns me is that the bias against the passive is being retailed by a pair of authors so grammatically clueless that they don't know what is a passive construction and what isn't.  Of the four pairs of examples offered to show readers what to avoid and how to correct it, a staggering three out of the four are mistaken diagnoses."8  The fear of passive voice has resulted in students who "think a bus exploded is passive because it doesn't say whether a terrorist did it."9  It is evident that outdated, and apparently inaccurate, texts are being used to teach writing and editing to the educated.

     As a proud member of the millennial generation when I have a question, such as how to become a better editor, I turn to the Internet.  Imputing the phrase "academic editing" in Google garnered 6, 060, 000 results in .18 seconds.  Why walk to the library and consult one source when millions of sources are readily available on my computer?  For my entire writing career the computer has been an integral part of any assignment.  Nonfiction Prose is the first class that has required that I post my papers online.  The fact that our work in this class has impact outside of the physical classroom is the direction that academic writing should be heading.  As our writing moves into the limitless possibilities of the Internet what is the point of editing one's writing?  Raising a more important question: Who benefits from "good" writing, the author or the reader?

     In his intriguing article Style: A Pleasure for the Reader or the Writer?, Ben Yagoda describes the misuse of style, with regards to writing, in instruction on writing.  Yagoda, like our class, consulted the dictionary on words that perplexed how he viewed writing.  "Style" for instance "doesn't exactly correspond with any of the dictionary definitions. The one that comes closest is: "a mode of fashion, as in dress, esp. good or approved fashion; elegance; smartness."10  Yagoda argues that the model of "style" that is used to describe good academic writing is based on the notion of style as defined by Strunk's The Element of Style.  Strunk's concept of style was "a negative normative. That is, they and their followers view style as an absence of faults -- an elimination of all grammatical mistakes and solecisms, of breeziness, opinions, clichés, jargon, mixed metaphors, passive-voice constructions, wordiness, and so on. The implicit and sometimes explicit goal is a transparent prose, in which the writing exists solely to serve the meaning, and no trace of the author -- no mannerisms, no voice, no individual style -- should remain. They think of writers the way baseball's conventional wisdom thinks of umpires: You notice only the bad ones."11Those who believe that writing should incorporate the unique individuality of the author are challenging the stoic and reserved form of academic writing.

     According to Yagoda, to be a memorable writer it is essential to master one's "voice".  "Voice" is a term used with a new camp of writing experts who have reinterpreted "style" as a means of expressing the individual viewpoint of the author: "Natalie Goldberg's Wild Mind: Living the Writer's Life: "Style in writing ... means becoming more and more present, settling deeper inside the layers of ourselves and then speaking, knowing what we write echoes all of us; all of who we are is backing our writing. ... We are each a concert reverberating with our whole lives and reflecting and amplifying the world around us."12  Yagoda, a professor of journalism, notes that an individual style of writing is often chided but "such journalists as Richard Ben Cramer, Russell Baker, and Susan Orlean have outstanding and unmistakable styles."13  An individual's style and voice have been reserved for the great authors, but what about tomorrow's authors, shouldn't they also be encouraged to have a voice?

     One of the goal's of Nonfiction Prose has been to co-construct new ideas about what nonfiction prose is.  This semester the class has had difficulties with terms such as "truth", "fact", "fiction", "nonfiction", and "reality"; however, no one has raised the paradox that Nonfiction prose is narrowly limited to the written word.  As a class we have disregarded the use of the term "nonfiction" but the word prose has escaped unscathed.  The word prose comes from the Latin root word prosa, meaning "straightforward".  Is writing "straightforward", or is prose another example of a misconstrued Latin phrase?  The "straightforwardness" that is the root of prose speaks to the importance of editing in previous times.  When literature was composed by monks and scribes in leather bound books on papyrus, being verbose was not cost efficient.  Perhaps the underlying economic imperative to limit one's writing created the modern standard of editing.  As this essay is not being written on papyrus or worthy of being leather bound, what is the harm of an extra sentence here or there? 

     The goal of editing that many students receive in their formative writing years is taught to provide a template for future writing.  The idea of a standard template that can be embellished with further course work is common in education.  In retrospect, I am learning about the same thing in my Age of Jefferson and Jackson class that I learned in Fifth Grade American History, just in greater detail.  Writing is a template for demonstrating the acquired knowledge over a course or one's education.  In my experience writing academic papers has not been an exploratory exercise; I never discover anything new when I am writing a paper.  If this paper were to map all the new ideas that my sources have prompted my reader would be unable to follow, and I would be labeled a "bad writer".  Reading about writing has reaffirmed my believe that academic writing, in my experience, is for the reader and not the writer.

     To improve the quality of academic writing it is essential to improve the education of writing.  In the preface of her book Education is Translation, Alison Cook-Sather addresses the schism that occurs in education between the student as an individual and the work that they produce: "the personal and academic, the division of which I see as one of the most damaging dichotomies imposed at any level of education."14  Cook-Sather's distinction between the personal and academic is especially true with regards to the education that one receives relating to writing.  My first writing assignments in elementary schools were book reports.  In these book reports I was supposed to summarize "the who, what, where, when, why, and how" while also describing what I liked and disliked about the book.  This seemed like a simple task and as I handed in my first book report, Danny the Champion of the World I felt sure that I had accomplished this goal.  I was quite surprised when my essay was handed back covered with red ink crossing out every "I and you" in the paper.  Apparently I was supposed to write about my personal response to a piece of literature without actually embedding myself in it; a metaphor that extends largely to academic writing as a whole.

     What do we do with writing education if we know that our current system is not producing quality writing?  In his documentary Changing Education Paradigms Sir Ken Robinson spends a great deal of time describing what he calls "divergent thinking" or "the ability to see lots of possible answers."15  In his presentation Robinson cites statistics "A test of divergent thinking among 1500 people, children."16  98 percent of these children scored above 7 (genius level) for divergent thinking in kindergarten; when these same students were tested at a later age, 8-10, and 13-15, "it mostly deteriorates."17  Robinson believes that the reason for this dramatic shift from seeing multiple possibilities, and being a natural divergent thinker, and seeing only one possible solution is the education system.  As students we are indoctrinated with the belief that there is only one way to answer a paper or do a math problem.  It is unnatural to think this way considering our naturally divergent minds, which explains why so many individuals struggle with the writing process.  If I were to reform the writing education that I received as a student I would develop course work that allowed me to develop my "voice" as a writer.  Instead of English Composition in high school why not Story Telling 101?  It seems from the evidence that I have consulted for this paper, the online postings on The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Elements of Style, Education is Translation, and Changing Paradigms of Education, that the strongest writers are those with a distinct voice.

     So what does any of this have to do with editing?  From my research the difficulties that many people have with editing are multifaceted.  Individuals struggle with their editing because they are unaware, or unable, to allow their true "voice" to appear in their work because they have been educated from a young age that there is a distinct barrier between one's personal thoughts and ideas and their academic work.  Looking back on my strong reaction to being edited in the class notes, it was not the concept of editing that troubled me, I have just spent an entire paper editing the work of other individuals, it was the altering of my "voice".

    

 

    

 

 

 

 

 

1 Rachel Toor, How Do You Learn to Edit Yourself?, The Chronicle of Higher Education, September 27, 2010, http://chronicle.com/article/How-Do-You-Learn-to-Edit/124609/.

2 William Strunk Jr., The Elements of Style: With Revisions, an Introduction, and a Chapter on Writing By E.B. White, Fourth Edition, Allyn and Bacon, Boston, 2000, 70.

3 Ibid, 79.

4 Ibid, 80.

5 Ibid, 81.

6 Ibid, xiii.

7 Geoffrey Pullum, 50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice, The Chronicle of Higher Education, April 17, 2009, http://chronicle.com/article/50-Years-of-Stupid-Grammar/25497/?otd=Y2xpY2t0aHJ1Ojo6c293aWRnZXQ6Oj.

8 Ibid.

9 Ibid.

10 Ben Yagoda, Style: A Pleasure for the Reader or the Writer?, The Chronicle of Higher Education, August 13, 2004, http://chronicle.com/article/Style-a-Pleasure-for-the/26607.

11 Ibid.

12 Ibid.

13 Ibid.

14 Alison Cook-Sather, Education is Translation: A Metaphor for Change in Learning and Teaching, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006, ix.

15 Sir Ken Robinson, Changing Education Paradigms, RSA Animate, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDZFcDGpL4U.

16 Ibid.

17 Ibid.

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