Sixty-three Words that Could Change the World:

“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unneccessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”

- William Strunk Jr.

Years ago, I was introduced to The Elements of Style (William Strunk and E.B. White) by my father. I have often referred to it, and always enjoy reading it. It has been an enormous help to me as I’ve developed my writing skills.

Dad enjoyed a long career as a professor of Philosophy, and as an academic and a lover of the English language he urged his students to read “The Strunk.” Recently I stumbled across a style guide written (and re-written!) by my dad. Any writer at any level can benefit from reading it; it is interesting, useful, and funny, and with the promise of raising your grades, increasing your lifetime earnings by tens of thousands of dollars, and finally, making you a nicer person, who could resist?

Herewith, What Does He Want? by Geoffrey Payzant:

 

WHAT DOES HE WANT?

by Geoffrey Payzant


Students, when they are given an assignment in a philosophy course, ask themselves the above question. The following notes are my own answer and are for the guidance of students in my own philosophy courses. You are welcome to show them to other teachers, but be warned that university teachers disagree among themselves about everything except that the Administration is corrupt or stupid or both, and that the students get worse every year.

I am here supposing that you have read the prescribed texts, and that you can write decent English prose. If you are in doubt about either, seek help: come to me or to your teaching assistant; go to the Writing Lab; talk to your friends in class.

I am also supposing that you have read an unpleasant document with the title “Statement on Plagiarism,” and have understood that it is given you for your own protection and to your own advantage. If you have not received a copy, ask me for one.

TO THINK ABOUT BEFORE STARTING WORK

Your essay is intended to reveal your grasp of the particular philosophical ideas alluded to by the topic or title assigned by your teacher. To reveal this you must express those ideas clearly in your own words, point out differences, similarities, and other relations between those ideas, analyse them, and set all this forth in reasoned arguments.

You should show your essay, in draft form, to anyone who is willing to take time to read and criticize it. Too often students clutch their essays to their bosom, with pride of authorship and fierce protectiveness as with a delicate baby. Of course, when you are working on the early drafts of your essay you should be as self-critical as you can, but nobody can ever be self-critical enough.

Perhaps you don’t know what I mean where I say that you must clarify, distinguish, analyse, relate ideas, and argue. What I am talking about here is thinking. If you don’t know how to do it, don’t worry, most people don’t. But you can learn it, and should. Thinking is something without which you will forever be the victim of hucksters and propagandists.

Listen carefully to your teacher and teaching assistant; read carefully the assigned texts of writings by philosophers. The main reason most beginning students find philosophy difficult (apart from the fact that they have been conditioned to expect to find it difficult) is that the texts and the teachers mean precisely what they say. Precisely. Philosophers write and speak with a degree of precision much higher than is needed in ordinary conversation, or desired in peddling soap or hustling votes. It takes getting used to, and it is expected of you in your essay. The best way to be precise is to keep your discourse simple, avoiding jargon and long, clumsy sentences. I regret to say that many teachers and philosophers deserve low marks for this. Do better.

Has it occurred to you that the same kind of thinking goes into both reading and writing, and that each assists the other? This is important. Of course there is no substitute for studying the assigned passages of philosophical text. But the act of writing the essay will reveal things about those texts that would not have been revealed to you if you had not written about them. Your writing keeps you in contact with the author’s effort and intention. He had thinking problems just like yours; knowing this will greatly improve your comprehension of his or her writings.

 

STARTING WORK

If you are given a choice of topic, select one which interests you. If not, whip yourself into a temporary condition of enthusiasm for the topic you are assigned. There is nothing hypocritical about this; we have to do this sort of thing all the time in ordinary life.

If the writing of your essay is not a kind intellectual adventure for you, the reading of it will be a dull chore for me; the essay will be a waste of your time and mine.

When your topic is assigned, start thinking about it. Take an example. You are assigned “Descartes’ Arguments for the Existence of God” as your topic. You will have read a few passages in the Meditations or theDiscourse on Method; you will vaguely remember a few things your teacher said, and you will have scrawled a few notes sleepily in class. What can you do with a topic like this?

Well, you should not start writing such things as “Descartes was a very famous philosopher of the seventeenth century who ….” Essays which begin like this are by people who have not yet become aware that there is a difference between a high school “project” and a university essay in philosophy.

 

MECHANICAL DETAILS

Should you write or type your final version?

So far as I an concerned you may suit yourself. If your essay is handwritten and illegible or sloppy or both, I’ll have to return it to you for typing. A clear, tidy hand is pleasanter to read than typescript, and it often has a persuasiveness of its own.

Writing or typing you must use sturdy paper that will not easily tear at the staple. Write or type on one side only, leaving a generous left-hand margin and space at the top and bottom. Use double-spacing if you type, or leave space between lines if you write; you reader may want to insert comments between lines. Use a dark ribbon.

Paginate. An unpaginated essay will be returned unread.

Do not use binders, covers, plastic spines, and other silly gadgets. Hand in nothing but crisp sheets of high-quality paper stock. If you have a good stapler use it on the upper left-hand corner only; if you have not, use a paper clip and we’ll staple the corner for you at a cost of one paper clip. A bad staple leaves sharp points sticking out. An essay goes through many hands before it comes back to you: it is collected, stacked, sorted, read, listed, restacked and returned. Protruding staples cause wrath and bloodstained pages, and are a needless hazard.

 

HANDING IT IN

Be on time with your essay. I enforce the deadline in order not to penalize the punctual, so if you are late for reasons other than sickness, injury, or domestic affliction, there will be a penalty. So begin work as soon as you receive your essay assignment, and work steadily, a bit each day, until you have the back of it broken and can make a rough estimate of how much more time it will require. This will enable you to organize your work schedule.

There is a custom of “pulling an all-nighter” and staggering in at the deadline, haggard and coffee-stained, having begun serious work on the essay the day before. This is nothing more than an act in most cases, a projected image, and it looks pretty silly to a teacher who has seen one or two decades of it. You might be surprised to learn that it is not the student who has to help run the family business, or who has kids to take care of, who inevitably misses deadlines. “I had too many other essays” is seldom a legitimate excuse for lateness, and it is almost never accepted by me.

 

TOOLS

Writing, at any level, is a craft, and every craft involves the skilled use of tools. A minimum toolkit includes a good dictionary, a good thesaurus, and a Strunk.

Your Writing Laboratory can guide you in your choice of dictionary, thesaurus, and (if you want to be really well equipped) an essay-writing handbook. I don’t much care which dictionary you use, although I use the Oxford English Dictionary. If an American dictionary prevents your learning the difference between “practice” and “practise” I might moan a little but I won’t dock any marks. (I’ll scream, however, if you don’t know the difference between “its” and “it’s,” a difference with which few dictionaries can help you.)

A Strunk is a copy of a little book called The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. (Second Edition). It costs pennies. It will raise your grades in all courses, it will increase your lifetime earnings by tens of thousands of dollars. And it will make you a nicer person.

 

LAST WORD: “DRAFT”

“Writing,” said Jacques Barzun, “is re-writing.” Perhaps a few rare students can write a good essay in a single version. Even they can make an essay better by re-writing it. An essay is worked out, built, by stages. Do it this way.

The document you have in your hand is an example of what I am writing about. I worked up a first draft out of more than thirty pages of rough notes. Then I revised the whole thing twice. I showed copies of the third draft to some colleagues, asking for their advice.

I revised again, taking into account their suggestions and my own afterthoughts. In the Fall Term of 1978 I handed out copies of it in two of my classes, asking for further suggestions or advice. These two classes offered no comments of any kind, but their essays were distinctly better than those of similar classes in previous years. This encouraged me to revise it once more and to hand it out in our Spring Term 1979 class.

Please let me know in what ways you think this document might be improved. I will incorporate your suggestions in a final version for use in the future. Your successors will need all the help they can get, because students get worse every year.


Geoffrey Payzant
Department of Philosophy
University of Toronto
January 9, 1979

© 1979, 1996 Geoffrey Payzant

January 15, 2009

Categories: General.