What's Better, a Writing Tutor or a Writing Textbook?

Posted by Sam Ashworth on 7/1/13 7:43 AM

Back when I was in high school, I was lucky enough to have an English teacher so dedicated to making sure his students would not go forth into the wild and merciless world without good grammar that, along with a colleague, he wrote an entire textbook and filled it with the most entertaining, memorable sentences he could devise. Why go to all this trouble? Because all of the other textbooks out there were dismal.
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Any writing tutor will tell you that the most effective way to improve your writing is to improve your reading.  This is indisputably true.  But for some people, especially those who were never taught the rules of grammar or composition, reading is not enough, and they crave a simple, clear, instructive textbook.  For most other subjects, the competition among textbooks is ferocious (those things make money); as a result (thanks, capitalism!) there are terrific books for everything from history to animal behavior. Yet while there's a reasonably broad selection of writing guides out there, they tend to range from dull to unbearably dull. As far as I can tell, there are three reasons for this.


2) Grammar is—let's just own up to it—unutterably boring. And the grammarians who write them are the kind of people who eat this stuff up. 

So you can imagine how entertaining their writing must be. My teacher made sure to load his book with such sentences as “One of Susan's great talents ___ her ability to shoot a zombie in the head consistently. 1) was, 2) are, 3) is, 4) were.” (3) Is) This was in order to keep our eyes from glazing over the moment we opened the book—and furthermore, to make sure we remembered the sentences. Surprising or even off-color language is the secret to learning a new language. (Once, when I was learning Chinese, I was struggling with a crucial, but highly complex construction—the construction, if you must know, which you use to describe a direction action taken toward an object, like “I will put these bags over here”—and I simply couldn't get it. And then I heard a friend use it to say, in essence, “Stick it up your butt.” I never got it wrong again.

2) Writing is hard to teach via textbook because it's not something we learn sequentially.

Whereas we can learn history or physics by proceeding steadily forward, learning to write is not just about acquiring more knowledge—it's about fine-tuning a sense. It is also complicated by the way we speak—which we learn to do long before we learn to write. The fact is that writing and speaking are two completely different muscles. We don't speak the way we write, but we all too often write the way we speak, which leads to grammatical trainwrecks such as one regularly sees in internet comments sections (which are the abattoirs of the English language).

3) Because the finest textbook has already been written.

Say hello to The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E.B. White—yes, that E.B. White, who wrote Charlotte's Web.

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This slim volume identifies eight “elementary rules of usage” and ten “elementary principles of composition,” and while it is not infallible, it is indispensable—and highly memorable. It has been used by everyone from high school students to established authors—many of the latter cite it as the best guide to style every composed.

When I teach writing, I require my students to get a copy of Elements, but I also make them read two essays, one by George Orwell, the other by Mark Twain.

The Orwell is a famous essay entitled “Politics and the English Language,” and it is the clearest articulation of the rules of intelligent, honest writing I think I've ever seen. The first five rules are vital; the sixth is what makes it a masterpiece:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

The other essay is, for my money, not just the greatest work of literary criticism in history, but also the funniest—by far. Mark Twain wrote “Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses” in high dudgeon after slogging through the muck of The Deerslayer and The Pathfinder. We often consider these books early American masterpieces; he considered them unreadable dreck.

Twain writes, “There are nineteen rules governing literary art in domain of romantic fiction -- some say twenty-two. In "Deerslayer," Cooper violated eighteen of them. These eighteen require: 1) That a tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere. But the "Deerslayer" tale accomplishes nothing and arrives in air.”

He goes on for 10 more rules, utterly demolishing poor Cooper, and then arrives at what he calls his “little rules.” These require that the author:

  1. Say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it.
  2. Use the right word, not its second cousin.
  3. Eschew surplusage.
  4. Not omit necessary details.
  5. Avoid slovenliness of form.
  6. Use good grammar.
  7. Employ a simple and straightforward style.

Note how similar some of these are (“Eschew surplusage” says in two words what Orwell's 2 and 3 say in far more). That's because these two men were among our language's greatest masters of style. The reason big fat writing textbooks are both dismal and unnecessary is that these rules, Orwell's and Twain's, if practiced well, are enough to form the foundation of good writing.

 Many people say writing can't be taught; we at Cambridge Coaching disagree. If you're struggling, a writing tutor can identify what's holding you back, and help work with you to remove those obstacles. Do verb tenses baffle you? Does syntax make your head spin? 

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Tags: English, expository writing