The great writing textbooks seldom prompt aspiring writers to be certain. The ancients assumed that they would already be, so there was no need to discuss it. The moderns deride certainty. But how many times have writing teachers had to correct an “I think that the political atmosphere is…” by deleting the “I think”? And put a question mark in the margin next to “People generally believe in my opinion that we are all…” and the like? Fish states that the advice found in books like Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, which he sums up as “write short sentences, be direct, don’t get lost in a maze of piled-up clauses, avoid the passive voice, place yourself in the background, employ figures of speech sparingly” is helpful only as it relates to a purpose (37). So people learning to write need to know what their purpose in writing is, and what their audience is. But it is also true that the problems of long sentences, indirectness, masses of vague clauses, and the like, come from writers who are not certain of what they think, or what they are trying to argue.
Wayne Booth once illustrated the need to address root causes when he wrote of a man he worked with who had taught composition many years and who was “incapable of committing any of the more obvious errors that we think of as characteristic of bad writing” but yet this gentleman “could not write a decent sentence, paragraph, or paper until his rhetorical problem was solved.” In this particular instance, the rhetorical problem was that the gentleman had to find “a definition of his audience, his argument, and his own proper tone of voice” (139). Once he was able to be sure of even a few important things, he wrote wonderfully.
Nowadays, as mentioned above, a rhetorical problem is the lack of certainty. The creeds that laud lack of commitment are found in all intellectuals from French philosophers to Samuel Beckett, and even T. S. Eliot says, “We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time” (510). Thus the emphasis in writing studies in on exploring and being creative, not on understanding and repeating to others that which is true. Susan Sontag, writing about Roland Barthes summarizes his style as confidently asserting yet it “insists that its assertions are no more than provisional” (427). Not many people can be so unsure and still write well.
The problem of lack of sureness also comes at least partly out of the celebrated romantic ideology that “the act of composing is a kind of mysterious growth” that comes from the great well of wonderful things that is in each person (Young 132). Forsyth, in The Elements of Eloquence, notes this truth about the romantics that they celebrate the individual’s creativity above all else. He also says there is a notion out there that if “somebody learns how to phrase things beautifully, they might be able to persuade you of something that isn’t true” (4). So, I might add, the beautiful phrasing is left to the demagogues, hucksters, and charlatans who are unafraid of persuading people of that which is not true. But whether lack of sureness is from an over emphasis on celebrating the creativity that is in each of us, or if it is from a commitment to the truth that there are no truths, it seems to me it is still an issue worth discussing. I think perhaps even a student’s desire to cheat comes from being assigned a certain controversial topic about which one is not at all sure of anything.
In terms of teaching writing, when the dominating ideology is that we are never allowed to settle on an assertions and be sure of them, the teacher is to design “occasions that stimulate the creative process” (Young 133). What results, it is widely thought, is always worthwhile, good, and should be agreed to by all, even if it logically contradicts that which comes out of someone’s own well. Now, this can make for interesting compositions, all this creativity and experience-arguing, but is that the only possible way to teach writing? People are reasonable, or assumed to be, and when presented with two incompatible truths they don’t all automatically weave leis and dance around the oak tree celebrating diversity of thought. Mainly students get confused. And their confusion is reflected in how they communicate. They cannot write a thesis statement because they don’t think anything is true for sure. Alternatively, as writing teachers constantly see, they write four theses statements in one paper.
But some writers are sure, and it shows in their work. Emerson writes: “The world rolls; the circumstances vary every hour. The angels that inhabit this temple of the body appear at the windows, and the gnomes and vices also” (299). Almost every sentence he writes is like this. True, he is learned and well-read, and has practiced his craft a great deal. He knows he has the universal audience as his audience. But also, he is sure.
A writer has to be sure what he thinks. Pinker writes about the writer that “the writer knows the truth before putting it into words; he is not using the occasion of writing to sort out what he thinks” (29). And what about Aristotle? Aristotle writes in his Rhetoric that “in all cases persuasion is the result either of the judges themselves been affected in a certain manner, or because they consider the speakers to be of a certain character, or because something has been demonstrated” (345). Now, leaving aside for a moment the affecting of the feelings of the judges and the character of the speaker or writer, I ask, how can something be recognized as demonstrated to be true by an audience, if the rhetor himself doesn’t even recognize it?
These days students are not very sure what they think, and they are afraid to dogmatically recognize truth. So their writing effectiveness, their ability to persuade their audience, suffers. Audiences, especially modern young audiences, can spot a fake a mile away and will not suffer them.
Why are students not certain? This leads us to questions of morals and good and evil. Quintilian said that a rhetor should be a good man speaking well. And this is the ideal. That is, we hope that the good are sure, and are sure about the good, and can argue the good persuasively. But what do we find? We find that the best lack all conviction and the worst are full of passionate intensity, as the poet says. The passionate intensity reflects in the writing. The worst are not just trying to persuade, they are trying to robotize, to complete a conquering of. The good, on the other hand, are not trying to do this—either because they aren’t quite convinced that the good is the best way to go, or because they are afraid to impose their good view, that is, to replace the evil view with a good view, for some unfathomable reason. They are afraid to achieve total victory, which they should not be. But the worst want fanatically dedicated clones. And what a persuader seeks to achieve in an audience, he will never achieve, unless he seeks it.
The problem, thus, is with the good. They are told not to be dogmatic. So the passionate intensity, and the persuasiveness, is left to the non-good. Now, as we saw above, Quintilian relates goodness to writing, to rhetoric studies. In our day, this is not done; usually those who practice and teach the craft move politely past these arguments about good and evil, to focus on sentences and word choices, and the like. But these mechanics turn out well, or far better than normal, if the one who is writing is certain. Look at the rhetoric of most politicians. It tends to be periphrastic, because the politicians are very sure what they want, which is power, money, prestige, and leverage. But they can’t say this, so they have to choose broad words that mean nothing, words like “hope” and “justice” and “democracy” and the like. And politicians have to use a lot of words, wound around in coiling clauses, but say nothing. Now if they were sure, dogmatic, they would be more effective. Instead, they all sound dishonest, because they generally are. Perhaps they are sure, but they don’t like to say what they are sure about, so they speak and proclaim that which they in heart do not agree to. Unclarity usually results.
So let’s pause for a moment to see how dogmatism and the nature of things shapes how a text or speech is received by an audience. Because I submit to you that we would do well to discuss dogmatism, or fanatical sureness, in writing, since we cannot get away from it. The problem, of course, besides the fact that at times people argue over what is good and what is evil, is what I call the inescapable relationship between dogmatism and the nature of things. For a person seems dogmatic to the multitudes if what the person says tends to agree with the nature of things, and the person does not seem dogmatic to the multitudes if what they say tends not to agree with the nature of things. Thus, if I vehemently deny my fanaticism and dogmatism, I will only be believed insofar as what I am dogmatic about aligns with the nature of things—truth(s), as it were. Take a flea versus God, for example. If I am dogmatic and fanatically dogmatic that a flea is God and should be worshipped as such, the multitudes will never allow it to be true that I get to be called a fanatical dogmatist, no matter how red-faced and strident I am about it. But if I tepidly claim that God is God, then I will be called a dogmatist and a fanatical dogmatist no matter how timidly I claim it. This is because the universal audience, the multitudes, thinks, according to natural law and the nature of things, whether a product of evolution or not, that God is God, and not a flea, or at least that the former is more likely to be true than the latter.
Until we decide questions of right and wrong, we can be certain we will continue to see wandering sentences, vague words, and students who try to mimic the teachers’ ideologies rather than say what they believe. But textbooks of our day strongly admonish teachers to teach both sides are right and there is no way to be sure of truth, or at least, they do not address this issue. The excellent textbook They Say, I Say is a bit of an example. What matters is arguing well, not arguing the truth. Disagreement is assumed and it’s just all an ongoing unsettled argument into which one is to cast one’s writing and see if one can be effective in the sea of arguments pulling every which way anchorless.
A possible alternative approach to teaching writing is to try first telling your students to write a paper arguing that stealing the social security check of the old woman next door is wrong. I submit to you that since we all universally agree on the rightness of this case, we will see clearer writing in such a piece than in one about a topic on which there is widespread disagreement. And let me give another option. In A. C. Grayling’s book, The God Argument, he says that “kindness,” among other things, is one thing we all agree on (8). It is a human value, he claims. Why not have students write about this, since they will naturally be more sure about it to start? In other words, it seems to me there is a space between “how I spent my summer vacation,” which is a clear attempt to avoid all controversy, and “take a side in the abortion debate,” which almost guarantees a horror show. Another thing we can all agree on is that the following are not just bad or inappropriate, they are evil: “torture, slavery, and cruelty to children,” as Christopher Hitchens states in the “Introduction” to The Portable Atheist. A final suggestion I have of how to add to the teaching of writing, is to add lyric writing to the curriculum. Metered poetry is exceedingly dogmatic by nature, and the addition of a melody makes it the most powerful persuasive means known to humans. What is in your core being you don’t just say or write, you sing, and in such a catchy way (as advertisers do), that others are forced, even against their wills, to sing with you. Paul Fussell wrote that even though people disagree about why metered compositions are so popular, they agree that they are; he says that to some theorists, “(mostly romanticists), meter operates by inducing in the reader a state resembling hypnosis” (5). Just imagine if we told students their goal is to argue the reader into a such a complete adherence to our theses.
When we teach people to be effective writers, we might also mention the need to be right and sure, and the perils of being accused of dogmatism, and the relationship between rhetorical effectiveness and natural law.
Aristotle. Rhetoric [4th century BC]. Trans John H Freese . Cambridge: Loeb, 2006. Print.
Booth, Wayne. “The Rhetorical Stance.” College Composition and Communication 14.3 (Oct 1963): 139-145. Print.
Eliot, T. S. “Little Gidding,” in The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry. Second edition. Richard Ellna and Robert O’Clair (eds). New York: Norton, 1988. Print.
Emerson, Ralph W. The Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. New York: The Modern Library, 2000. Print.
Fish, Stanley. How to Write a Sentence. New York: Harper, 2012. Print.
Forsyth, Mark. The Elements of Eloquence. New York: Berkley Books, 2013. Print.
Fussell, Paul. Poetic Meter and Poetic Form. New York: Random House, 1979. Print.
Graff, Gerald, and Cathy Birkenstein. They Say / I Say. New York: Norton, 2014. Print.
Grayling, A. C. The God Argument. New York: Bloomsbury, 2013. Print.
Hitchens, Christopher. “Introduction,” in The Portable Atheist. Philadelphia: Da Capo Press, 2007, pp xii-xxvi. Print.
Pinker, Steven. The Sense of Style. New York: Penguin, 2014. Print.
Sontag, Susan. “Writing Itself: On Roland Barthes,” in A Susan Sontag Reader. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux 2014, pp 425-446. Print.
Strunk, William and E. B White. The Elements of Style. 4th edition. New York: Pearson, 2000. Print.
Young, Richard. “Concepts of art and the teaching of writing,” in The Rhetorical Tradition and Modern Writing. James J Murphy (ed). New York: MLA, 1982, pp 130-142. Print.