How to improve your writing grade with yet another annoying Viewpoint debate
Letter to the Editor | Friday, April 5, 2019
Before you close the Viewpoint section and hit the froyo machine for a third time (Who’s judging? Not me, but probably God) —stop. I can help you improve your writing grade. Just by reading this letter. Sentence fragments aside. Better yet, I can do it by adding to the already-interminable debate over leggings that’s been running since March 25. Read on, and I’ll tell you how the leggings debate illustrates some simple hacks to improve your writing.
If you want to learn some simple ways to write well, read Mrs. White’s letter, the anti-leggings plea that kicked things off. Then read the responses. Take it from this one-time college English teacher: Studying this debate can improve your writing.
First, Mrs. White’s letter. Agree or disagree with her, she writes well. The rhetoric of her first paragraph, for instance, is deft. There’s the repetition of three sentences, all begun with the same phrase (“I’ve thought,” “I waited,” “I’m not trying”). The rhythm of the repeated phrases hooks you, as does the curiosity of just what she’ll object to. Better yet, that thing to which she objects is the last word of the first paragraph. She calls attention to the problem by mentioning it and highlights it by putting it at the end of a sentence.
If you can structure your own writing like this, a lot of your professors — especially the ones grading their sixth paper in a row — will appreciate it.
Mrs. White’s choice of language also rewards close reading. She could have used snarky, Buzzfeed-style language to mock leggings (“5 Reasons You Love Leggings But They Don’t Love You Back”). Or, she could have used a patronizing, maternal tone (“When I was a young lady, I never would have been caught in leggings … ). Instead, she couches her observations in careful language (she’s “baffled” by the emergence of leggings, not “disgusted” or “enraged”). She appeals to the reader’s emotions with an anecdote (teaching her boys about self-respect with Leia’s Return of the Jedi outfit). She goes so far as to openly admit that “leggings are hardly slave girl outfits,” a touch of self-depreciation that creates sympathy. Self-depreciation’s also how she ends the letter (“thanks for listening to the lecture, Catholic moms are good at those!”). This is a personal plea, in straightforward language you’d use when speaking to someone, face to face.
Contrarily, the responses to Mrs. White demonstrate how not to write. First, take one student’s response letterthat ran on March 27. Many student writers have an unfortunate tendency to think stilted language sounds intelligent. Teachers hate this. Here’s an example: “In regard to the so-called legging issue, let me share the male perspective of a student coming from a family with two sisters.” This sounds fancy, until you parse it. “In regard to the so-called legging issue” — is he addressing a jury? I’m at lunch. Or trying to read something until a text interrupts me. Write as if you’re speaking to me, not the judge at your parole hearing. “Let me share the male perspective” — “the” male perspective? “A” male perspective. Unless you’re God. Also, “let me share” — um, OK, what’s stopping you? Share away. Better yet, make your point without describing how you’re going to do so. If you write like this, you’ll lose the reader’s interest and any grade above a C-.
But the language is where this writer really loses me. “It is precisely for this reason that we can’t let something as harmless as leggings be manipulated into a vehicle for the suppression of female expression.” That’s 26 words for what could have been done in 10: “Don’t make clothes an excuse to limit someone’s self-expression.” Worse yet, the unnecessary words make his argument sound pretentious and silly. If you doubt that, try the same language in your daily life: “Hey bruh, I’m totally adorning myself with this splendiferous button-up as a vehicle for the expression of my heteronormative masculinity at the Backer tonight.” Using extra words to pad your argument is tiresome, and you’ll be graded accordingly.
As to the leggings argument itself, well, I don’t have much to say about that. Except, of course, George Orwell’s observation that language “becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”
Class of 2006