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To be sure, writers can resort to various circumlocutions–“it will be argued,” “the evidence suggests,” “the truth is” — and these may be useful for avoiding a monotonous series of “I believe” sentences. But except for avoiding such monotony, we see no good reason why “I” should be set aside in persuasive writing. Rather than prohibit “I,” then, we think a better tactic is to give students practice at using it well and learning its use, both by supporting their claims with evidence and by attending closely to alternative perspectives–to what “they” are saying.

– Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein in “They Say, I Say” p. xxiv

An Argument for the Use of “I” and “We” in Writing

Schopenhauer on Style

March 24, 2014 — 4 Comments

HD_ArthurSchopenhauerBrain Pickings writes the following:

One of the most timeless meditations on style comes from 19th-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. In “On Style,” found in The Essays of Schopenhauer (free download; public library)

Schopenhauer writes:

Style is the physiognomy of the mind. It is a more reliable key to character than the physiognomy of the body. To imitate another person’s style is like wearing a mask. However fine the mask, it soon becomes insipid and intolerable because it is without life; so that even the ugliest living face is better.

He issues an especially eloquent admonition against intellectual posturing in writing:

There is nothing an author should guard against more than the apparent endeavor to show more intellect than he has; because this rouses the suspicion in the reader that he has very little, since a man always affects something, be its nature what it may, that he does not really possess. And this is why it is praise to an author to call him naïve, for it signifies that he may show himself as he is. In general, naïveté attracts, while anything that is unnatural everywhere repels. We also find that every true thinker endeavors to express his thoughts as purely, clearly, definitely, and concisely as ever possible. This is why simplicity has always been looked upon as a token, not only of truth, but also of genius. Style receives its beauty from the thought expressed, while with those writers who only pretend to think it is their thoughts that are said to be fine because of their style. Style is merely the silhouette of thought; and to write in a vague or bad style means a stupid or confused mind.

He adds:

If a man has something to say that is worth saying, he need not envelop it in affected expressions, involved phrases, and enigmatical innuendoes; but he may rest assured that by expressing himself in a simple, clear, and naïve manner he will not fail to produce the right effect. A man who makes use of such artifices as have been alluded to betrays his poverty of ideas, mind, and knowledge.


Obscurity and vagueness of expression are at all times and everywhere a very bad sign. In ninety-nine cases out of a hundred they arise from vagueness of thought, which, in its turn, is almost always fundamentally discordant, inconsistent, and therefore wrong. When a right thought springs up in the mind it strives after clearness of expression, and it soon attains it, for clear thought easily finds its appropriate expression. A man who is capable of thinking can express himself at all times in clear, comprehensible, and unambiguous words. Those writers who construct difficult, obscure, involved, and ambiguous phrases most certainly do not rightly know what it is they wish to say: they have only a dull consciousness of it, which is still struggling to put itself into thought; they also often wish to conceal from themselves and other people that in reality they have nothing to say.


978-0-674-06448-5-frontcoverOn advice from a friend, I picked up Helen Sword’s “Stylish Academic Writing published by Harvard University Press in 2012.

This is a timely book as academic writing has for too long become stuffy and obscure. She states her argument in the preface:

Elegant ideas deserve elegant expression; intellectual creativity thrives best in an atmosphere of experimentation rather than conformity; and that, even within the constraints of disciplinary norms, most academics enjoy a far wider range of stylistic choices than they realize.

As she says, her agenda is a transformative one.

She works at dispelling the myth that you cannot get published without writing wordy, jargon filled, impersonal prose. In fact journal editors and readers welcome work that avoids excessive jargon and abstraction.

Sword analyzes more than a thousand peer-reviewed articles across a wide range of fields documents a startling gap between how academics typically describe good writing and the turgid prose they regularly produce.

Sword covers issues such as the use of personal anecdotes, putting some passion into the prose, and even different types of titles (paratexts) that draw readers in. She also examines first paragraphs and says

An effective first paragraph need not be flashy, gimmicky, or even provocative. It must, however, make the reader want to keep reading…If you decide to start with an attention-grabbing hook, however, make sure it speaks to the content and purpose of your article or chapter.

Some of the best parts of this book are found in the “Things to Try” at the end of each chapter. Here, academics will find ideas that may spur their writing onto new heights.

  • Make a list of potential characters in your research story, including nonhuman characters such as theories and ideas. For each character jot down a physical description, a personality profile, an obstacle faced by the character, a transformation of the character.
  • Just for fun, choose a favorite book or movie, distill its plot into a single sentence, and imagine what would happen if you plotted your research story along the same lines.
  • If you use colons frequently in titles, try crafting a colon free title.
  • If you seldom use colons in titles, try out the catchy description trick. Have something interesting one side of the colon and then descriptive on the other side.
  • If you suspect you suffer from jargonitis, start by measuring the scope of your addiction. Print out a sample of your academic writing and highlight every word that would not be immediately comprehensible to a reader from outside your own discipline. Do you use jargon more than once per page, per paragraph, per sentence? Retain only those jargon words that clearly serve your priorities and values.
  • “Read like a butterfly, write like a bee.” Novelist Philip Pullman exhorts writers to read widely and voraciously, without necessarily worrying a given book or article will be useful to their current research. Later you can make a conscious effort to integrate ideas drawn from your outside reading into your academic writing.

Some of the information in the book is standard fare for better writing books. Use active voice. Don’t use adjectives too much. Don’t use abstractions. Vary sentence length. The more specific chapters for academics were on jargon, citation styles, and structural designs.

The book is aimed at throwing the door open for academics.

As my supervisor always says, “Woman, thou art loosed.”

The table of contents are below.

Stylish Academic Writing


MarginsDr. Pennington read the excellent poem Marginalia by Billy Collins in class today.

Write on you conquerors of the white perimeter (just not in library books!).

Sometimes the notes are ferocious,
skirmishes against the author
raging along the borders of every page
in tiny black script.
If I could just get my hands on you,
Kierkegaard, or Conor Cruise O’Brien,
they seem to say,
I would bolt the door and beat some logic into your head.

Other comments are more offhand, dismissive –
‘Nonsense.’ ‘Please! ‘ ‘HA! ! ‘ –
that kind of thing.
I remember once looking up from my reading,
my thumb as a bookmark,
trying to imagine what the person must look like
why wrote ‘Don’t be a ninny’
alongside a paragraph in The Life of Emily Dickinson.

Students are more modest
needing to leave only their splayed footprints
along the shore of the page.
One scrawls ‘Metaphor’ next to a stanza of Eliot’s.
Another notes the presence of ‘Irony’
fifty times outside the paragraphs of A Modest Proposal.

Or they are fans who cheer from the empty bleachers,
Hands cupped around their mouths.
‘Absolutely,’ they shout
to Duns Scotus and James Baldwin.
‘Yes.’ ‘Bull’s-eye.’ ‘My man! ‘
Check marks, asterisks, and exclamation points
rain down along the sidelines.

And if you have managed to graduate from college
without ever having written ‘Man vs. Nature’
in a margin, perhaps now
is the time to take one step forward.

We have all seized the white perimeter as our own
and reached for a pen if only to show
we did not just laze in an armchair turning pages;
we pressed a thought into the wayside,
planted an impression along the verge.

Even Irish monks in their cold scriptoria
jotted along the borders of the Gospels
brief asides about the pains of copying,
a bird signing near their window,
or the sunlight that illuminated their page-
anonymous men catching a ride into the future
on a vessel more lasting than themselves.

And you have not read Joshua Reynolds,
they say, until you have read him
enwreathed with Blake’s furious scribbling.

Yet the one I think of most often,
the one that dangles from me like a locket,
was written in the copy of Catcher in the Rye
I borrowed from the local library
one slow, hot summer.
I was just beginning high school then,
reading books on a davenport in my parents’ living room,
and I cannot tell you
how vastly my loneliness was deepened,
how poignant and amplified the world before me seemed,
when I found on one page

A few greasy looking smears
and next to them, written in soft pencil-
by a beautiful girl, I could tell,
whom I would never meet-
‘Pardon the egg salad stains, but I’m in love.’

Good post from the Art of Manliness on building your vocabulary. They say that the benefits of building your vocabulary are:

  • Gives you the ability to say what you mean.
  • Helps you understand other people.
  • Helps you understand what you read.
  • Assists you in becoming a more informed and involved citizen
  • Bolsters your ability to grasp ideas and think more logically and incisively.
  • Allows you to communicate effectively.
  • Boosts your powers of persuasion.
  • Helps you make a good impression on others.

The steps they suggest taking are:

  • Read
  • Listen
  • Write down words you read and hear that you don’t know
  • Look up the word in a dictionary and write down its meaning in a vocabulary notebook
  • Use the new word several times in conversation as soon as you can


First, reading. Reading is the way we learn to inhabit the world. Not the natural world, but the cultural world: the world of meaning. Martha Nussbaum has some wonderful essays in her book Love’s Knowledge on how the novels of Henry James train us to attend to the moral significance of the details of human life.

If we can learn moral sensitivity from Henry James, how much more can Christians learn, say, about speech ethics from the epistle of James, not to mention all the Old Testament narratives, Jesus’ parables, and the Gospels themselves.

My concern is that many Evangelicals are suffering from malnourished imaginations. This impedes their ability to live coherently in the world—that is, according to a meaningful metanarrative. We want to believe the Bible, but we are unable to see our world in biblical terms. . . . That leads to a fatal disconnect between our belief-system and our behavior, our faith and our life. If faith’s influence is waning, as two-thirds of Americans now think, I believe that it is largely because of a failure of the evangelical imagination.

Reading, then, is a kind of strength-training that flexes the muscles of our imagination. Those who read widely are often those who are able to employ metaphors that connect ordinary life to the wonderful real world of the Bible.

Kevin Vanhoozer in an interview with Justin Taylor