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The Special Difficulty of Expository Writing
It seems especially rare to find essays and reports that take you past an understanding of the ideas actually to hear the music of those ideas. Teachers can usually get more power out of their students by asking them to write stories and descriptions from personal experience than by asking them to writing from their thinking. Why should this be? It seems especially rare to find essays and reports that take you past an understanding of the ideas actually to hear the music of those ideas. Teachers can usually get more power out of their students by asking them to write stories and descriptions from personal experience than by asking them to writing from their thinking. Why should this be? The answer is that it's not good enough to breathe real, experienced thinking into your expository writing; that thinking must also be disciplined. Thoughts are supposed to be coherent, that is, to begin at the beginning and follow along a single track and end up at the end or conclusion. And there aren't supposed to be any mistakes in logic. But that's not a picture of how the mind usually experiences thoughts. Our habitual thinking is seldom strictly logical but rather associational, analogical, metaphorical. We think and we experience our thoughts, but those thoughts are often rambling or even jumpy -- and mixed up with feelings and stories and descriptions. To think three or eleven thoughts in a row, follow logic, and come out with the right answer at the end is something our minds can be trained to do, but we seldom do it out of school or work. Seeing and hearing we do all the time. No wonder it seems harder to give readers an experience with reports and essays than with creative writing. You must translate more. There is a longer path you must travel from experienced thinking to acceptable expository writing than you need to travel from experienced sensation to acceptable creative writing. To take this longer path, either you must manipulate and censor your thought-experiences more as you try to write down correct thoughts in the right order; or else you must revise more as you transform your raw, uncensored writing into logical coherence. Either way -- whether you practice internal manipulation or external revising -- you are likely to lose more of your experience of thinking during the writing process. Hence the final piece of expository writing is likely to fail to make the reader hear music. Expository writing harder than creative writing? It is usually assumed that anyone can learn to write acceptable expository prose but that only gifted or special people can learn to write creatively. "Oh, I can't write stories, I'm not a creative person, I'm just a normal person" is the assumed logic here. But this common assumption involves a double standard. More is demanded of creative writing than of expository writing. Creative writing must actually make the reader experience the sights and sounds and feelings it is trying to get across, not just communicate them. Otherwise it's felt as not worth reading, not worth writing. Expository writing on the other hand is called acceptable or even good if it does no more than make its ideas clear -- even if the reader doesn't experience or feel those ideas at all. Try saying this sentence to a creative writer after you have read his story or poem: "I understand perfectly just what you were trying to get across." He is liable to be crushed. "Didn't you feel anything? SEE anything?" It's a much worse putdown than if you just said "Huh?" But if you say exactly the same sentence to an expository writer after you read his essay or report, he will take it as praise. For the creative writer to "get something across," he must get the reader to feel it. For the expository writer to "get something across," he need only get the reader to know what it is. This double standard can be defended, I suppose. After all, we only read creative writing for fun. If it doesn't give us an experience we put it down. It is a reader's market. But when it comes to expository writing it is often a writer's market. No matter how badly written that report or article is, often we may not put it down, we must keep on reading it and try to digest its ideas for our jobs or for our own needs. One might also argue that since everyone has to write expository prose for many tasks in life, but not creative writing, it is unfair to insist on talent. Mere adequacy should be called good enough. But I object to this double standard. Speaking as a reader, I call it tyranny. We don't have to accept all this dead expository writing without fighting back. We can demand that it have experience in it. Of course a change in expectations will not automatically improve all expository writing. People write plenty of dead creative writing now even though they understand that it must have life in it or they have failed. But it would make an enormous difference if we could change people's attitudes and convince expository writers that their job is to make readers experience their thinking, not merely understand it. I know it sounds crazy to talk of raising standards for expository writing when it is now so terrible in most realms of public and professional life. But look for a moment at what is terrible about it. Not just that it is unclear or full of jargon and formulas. The real problem is writers' refusal to take full and open responsibility for what they are saying. If a writer is willing to say, in effect, "I'm me, I'm saying this, and I'm saying it to you," his words will not just have more life in them, they will also be clearer and more coherent. The worst and most pervasive form of bad writing is some form of hiding or chickening-out. "The great enemy of clear language is insincerity," writes George Orwell in "Politics and the English Language." Memo and report writers could no longer refuse to take responsibility for their words if they were really trying to get readers to experience what they were saying. Writing in this fashion they would have to invest themselves more in what they write, and as a result they would have more fun and not hate writing so much. Perhaps I exaggerate. There is, it is true, a certain amount of expository writing that does make us hear the music of the ideas when we read it: "The question is very simple. I requested the court to appoint me attorney and the court refused." So Gideon had written to the Supreme Court in support of his claim that the Constitution entitled the poor man charged with crime to have a lawyer at his side. Most Americans would probably have agreed with him. To even the best informed person unfamiliar with the law it seemed inconceivable, in the year 1962, that the Constitution would allow a man to be tried without a lawyer because he could not afford one. But the question was really as far from simple as it could imaginably be. Behind it there was a long history -- a history, that until recently had seemed resolutely opposed to Gideon's claim but now had started to turn and move in his direction. The question that Gideon presented could not be resolved without reference to issues that had been fought over by judges and statesmen and political philosophers-issues going to the nature of our constitutional system and to the role played in it by the Supreme Court. We have come to take it for granted in this country that courts, especially the Supreme Court, have the power to review the actions of governors, legislators, even Presidents, and set them aside as unconstitutional. But this power of judicial review, as it is called, has been given to judges in few other countries -- and nowhere, at any time, to the extent that our history has confided it in the Supreme Court. In the guise of legal questions there come to the Supreme Court many of the most fundamental and divisive issues of every era, issues which judges in other lands would never dream of having to decide. The consequences are great for Court and country. For the justices power means responsibility, a responsibility the more weighty because the Supreme Court so often has the last word. Deciding cases is never easy, but a judge may sleep more soundly after sentencing a man to death -- or invalidating a President's seizure of the nation's steel mills -- if he knows there is an appeal to a higher court. Justices of the Supreme Court do not have that luxury. ANTHONY LEWIS, Gideon's Trumpet, Chapter 6 ( New York, 1964) And our minds are naturally logical too, not just associational. For although Socrates doesn't prove in the Meno that the uneducated slave boy already knows the Pythagorean theorem from a previous existence, he does drive home that brute fact about all human minds: we cannot quarrel with correct logic once we understand it. Logic is built into us. Logic may even give deeper excitement than seeing and hearing. Certainly for many people the most intens music is the music of the spheres -- the perception of builtin coherence in nature -- and that is the music of pure ideas. We all have the capacity to hear it. But the truth is that we don't hear it much these days as we read our allotment of expository writing. We could blame ourselves: if only we listened harder as Plato asked us to listen. But Plato didn't have to read most of the expository writing that comes into our hands either. (Socrates himself didn't believe in writing words down at all. He didn't think juice could be transmitted to paper.) In any event my point still stands about the difficulty of giving readers a powerful experience With expository writing, and this difficulty can be restated in simple commonsense terms: for creative writing to be good, it has only to make the reader hear music; for expository writing to be good, it also has to be correctly reasoned and true. When you are writing about sensations in a story, you get to tell them any way you want, so long as you make readers feel them. You get to decide how you perceived them and what it was like and what order to tell them in. But if you are writing your thinking, everyone seems to have automatic permission to tell you whether it is true and what order it should go in. Since expository prose will probably be judged more for its truth and correctness than for its power, it is virtually impossible to write it without paying great attention to whether it is true and correct. How, then, can you possibly give all your energy and attention to experiencing that thought? So why try? Why take all this energy away from the serious task of making your reasoning true and correct, and squander it on getting your writing to pulse with life, if that only gives readers a more palpable experience of the muddle in your mind? Why not simply accept the fact that of course conceptual writing requires disciplined thinking; that of course discipline means following more rules than you must follow for creative writing. (That's why people who hate rules prefer to write creatively.) And therefore accept the obvious conclusion: to experience disciplined thinking, you have to do more of it. It's not enough just to invest yourself in your own muddled thoughts.But when I look around at people who do a lot of disciplined thinking-people who are especially good at getting correctness and truth into their writing -- I see that they are not necessarily better for that reason at breathing life into their essays or reports. Some are good at it, many are not. Philosophers, logicians, and mathematicians are probably the most disciplined of all thinkers, yet they are not better, as a class, than other writers at getting readers to feel their ideas. When, on the other hand, I look at people who are good at getting readers to feel their ideas, I see that they are not necessarily more disciplined as thinkers.As far as I can see then, the ability to discipline your thinking and the ability to make readers experience your thinking do not necessarily correlate with each other. My conclusion is that learning to discipline your thinking is a good thing: it will improve your life in many ways; it will make your writing truer and more vigorous. Most of the suggestions in this book, especially in the revising section, are designed to help you get more disciplined thinking into your prose and will probably do so more effectively than if you took a course in logic. But learning to discipline your thinking won't, in itself, get you any closer to the goal of this chapter: making readers experience what you tell them.Look at good popular expository prose in magazines and nonfiction books; even at good academic or professional writing (except for what appears in scholarly journals). Such writing often violates the rules for expository writing that are taught in school. It violates those rules so that the writing will resemble more closely the way people experience thinking. If we list some of the striking characteristics of how people experience thinking we will be describing characteristics found in much good published expository writing:
 • We often experience our thinking with lots of "I, I, I" in it. The agent who is having these thoughts is often at the center of awareness. So, too, a good professional writer often explains his
 ideas in terms of how he arrived at them or how he understands them.
 • Trains of thought as we experience them usually do not start at the beginning, logically speaking, but rather at some perplexing dilemma or some striking fact or example that captured our attention and made us start to wonder about this whole issue. From this arresting detail we must often fight a long way backward to the logical beginning of the matter and forward to the concluding "answer." That's just how good writers often structure their essays.
 • The mind often takes three or four different approaches to a problem before coming up with one that succeeds. So, too, will some good writers carry you through a few failed attempts before getting to an approach that succeeds. Theoretically this takes longer but sometimes it is the best way to help the reader really understand the problem.
 • The mind often works by association, analogy, digression: we get lost and sometimes seem to lose or forget the thread of our quest even though, deep down, we are still working on the problem. A good professional writer sometimes permits digressions during which the reader may even forget the main point or question. Indeed, sometimes you can't get readers to reconceptualize something till you get them to forget about it for a little while and come upon it unexpectedly from a new direction.
Natural thinking is often characterized by incoherence and error, too, of course, while good writing embodies disciplined thinking. But disciplined thinking need not be so different -- in style and structure -- from the way the mind operates naturally. That is, the thinking needs to be correct, but the writing can still seem more like someone puzzling something out or talking to you than like logical syllogisms or mathematical equations. I don't: mean to say that it is impossible to breathe experience into the most strict, formal expository prose. But it is harder. The strictest, most formal expository prose I know is in academic journals, and writing there is notable for its deadness. The problem is not that these academics don't understand what they are talking about nor even that they are undisciplined in their thinking. (Plenty are undisciplined, of course, but even the disciplined ones usually fail to get power into their articles.) But as professionals or academics writing in their official journals to their most rigorous colleagues, too often they -- or I should say "we" since I also write these articles -- too often we allow ourselves to be too preoccupied as we write with whether we might be found wrong or with what a published, professional, learned essay ought to look like. When people try to conform to the strictest canons of expository writing, they seldom permit themselves to generate words out of a full and wholehearted experience of their thinking. Sometimes you can compare the same train of thought in a journal article and in a book by the same writer. The book version usually has a bit more life in it (whether it was written before or ' after the article) because the writer felt more as though he was following his own rules in the book.
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