What is good writing?
What is good writing?

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What is good writing?

2.5.5 Writing style

As we have seen, Hansa tends to use whole clusters of words and constructions that are a bit over-formal rather than wrong. She seems to be trying to impress her reader. For example:

They therefore fled from the country in order to escape the restrictions and consequent boredom placed upon them by the very limited pastimes that a high ranking women in the eighteenth century was permitted to indulge.

Normally, we would use a word such as ‘allowed’ rather than ‘permitted to indulge’, which sounds rather pompous. And, strictly speaking, we ‘indulge in’ pastimes. Also, ‘restrictions’ may be ‘placed upon’ people, but we don't usually say that about ‘boredom’. Boredom is something we experience or suffer. It would be altogether simpler and more straightforward to say:

So they fled from the countryside to escape these restrictions, and the boredom that resulted from having so few pastimes.

Sometimes Philip, too, seems to be striving to impress by using formal language instead of simple, direct terms. For instance, in paragraph 3 he talks about women being able to meet‘… many more of the female sex’ when he just means ‘other women’. And at the end of paragraph 2 he says, ‘…so that they could deploy the art of socializing and mingling with a greater amount of society’, when it would be more direct to say ‘…so that they could put their social skills to use, and mingle with a wider society’. Similarly, ‘This transition was not without a certain amount of jibes from the male population against the women of that time…’ could simply be put as ’Some men mocked these women for making the transition…’. Perhaps Hansa and Philip are assuming that they have to sound ‘academic’ for their tutors.

On the other hand, Philip uses a phrase from popular speech when he says that these women have ‘gone down in history’ as experts at organizing social events. This is definitely not an academic turn of phrase since it implies that there is one history we all agree about – a kind of ‘hall of fame’ for society's all-time ‘stars’. (Note that Ellis herself does not say this; she is very precise. What she says is that women ‘sometimes took a leading role’ in planning certain social events such as race meetings, balls, theatre performances and concerts.) Phrases like Philip's may seem to give a flourish to your writing, but they are not appropriate in an academic essay. They are not precise enough, and they tend to raise more problems than they are worth. In any case, a flourish is not quite what you are after. What you need is a lively and compelling style that is at the same time simple and direct.

But who exactly are you writing for? How can you develop an appropriate style and tone of voice unless you can ‘picture’ your reader?

'Speaking’ to your reader

Writing is a very special form of ‘conversation’. As you write, you are talking to someone you cannot see and who does not reply. But you know he or she is ‘listening’ and reacting mentally to what you say. You have to take all the responsibility for deciding what is to be said and how, and for sustaining the other person's interest. You are also responsible for establishing a relationship between you and the ‘listener’.

This is one of the trickiest things about writing. You have to convey a sense of who you are assuming your reader is and how you expect he or she to approach your words. You also have to convey a sense of who you are claiming to be – from what position you are ‘speaking’. Are you speaking as an expert on the subject of discussion, as a witty entertainer, as a patient explainer, or what?

There are two issues here. You have to develop a sense of your ‘audience’ and of the right ‘tone of voice’ in which to write.

1 A sense of audience

Who should you assume your audience is when you write an essay? Is it someone who is very learned and critical, or someone who knows nothing and couldn't care less about the subject? Although your tutor is the person who actually reads your essay, he or she is not your ‘audience’. The standard advice is, ‘Write for the intelligent person in the street’. In other words, assume that your reader has not read the books you have been studying, but that she or he is interested in the question posed by the title of the essay and is capable of picking up your arguments quickly, provided you spell them out clearly.

2 Your writing ‘voice’

Who are you to present yourself as? Basically you are expected to be a calm detached observer, pointing out to an equal (who happens not to be informed on this subject) some arguments that are relevant to a question you are both interested in (that is the question in the essay title). It is not easy to find a comfortable writing ‘voice’. It may take several essays before you can settle on a satisfactory one. One of the main reasons for getting stuck at the start of an essay is trying to work out where you are ‘coming from’. Sometimes you have to make several shots at your opening before you can find a voice with which you can proceed.


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