The Four Commandments
by Hugh Jenkins, English Department, Union College
The general commandments laid out here--pay attention, be specific, connect, and take a stand--are, I think, valid in almost any mode of writing. The specific injunctions are more contingent; there will be times when you will want to be more general than not, times when passives and nominalizations are needed (e.g., in that last clause), times when even platitudes will have their place and power. The point is to use these more problematic ways of expression knowingly; a pointed deviation from these norms can have tremendous rhetorical power, but pointed implies conscious direction. Undirected--uncontrolled--accumulations of passives, generalities, redundancies, "adders," and their allies move you into the area of violating the commandments, and that's where real trouble lies.
I. Pay Attention
Paying attention basically implies caring about what you're writing. In that sense, all these "commandments" are just modes of paying attention. Specifically, however, paying attention is a more analytical form of proofreading: as well as making sure your essay's grammar and spelling are correct, you should make sure you've expressed its ideas as clearly and as forcefully as you can. The following are sure signs of not paying attention.
Unnecessary modifiers. - Example: In the novel, Heart of Darkness, by the English writer Joseph Conrad.... [The purpose of a good essay is generally to tell us something we don't know, so why not save space for important information, and just write here "In Heart of Darkness..."?]
Redundancies. - Example: Creon is devious and underhanded....["Devious" and "underhanded" are virtually synonymous. One will do.]
Example: Antigone bulls her way through the play stinging every man she meets. [The verb "bulls" adds both gender and species confusion; according to this sentence, Antigone acts like both a male bovine and an insect.]
II. Be Specific.
Specificity will strengthen your expressions by sharpening them. Clearly defining your subject will make you clearly define what that subject does; on the concrete basis of this "what" you can build your larger argument of "how" and "why." Beware of the following vagaries.
Example: Fate is a dominant aspect in Greek religious thought. [What do you mean by "fate"? Is "Greek religious thought" a monolithic concept? Which aspect of which type of religious thought in which area of Greece in which period? Unless you can answer these kinds of questions about your general assertions, don't make such assertions. Over-generality of this type particularly plagues thesis statements.]
Clichés and platitudes
Example: Oedipus's decision at the end of the play to bear his sorrows patiently is a tribute to the indomitable human spirit. [This sort of expression has all the power (and truth content) of a Hallmark Greeting Card. It's like predigested food, easy to chew but hard to keep down and get any nutrition from. Watch for these coming up in great chunks in conclusions.]
Unnecessary and agentless passives
Example: Kurtz is perceived as a handsome, charming, young man. [Who perceives him this way? The agent--the doer--is crucial here.]
Example: The appreciation of Kurtz's exploits is a threat to the Company's sense of propriety. [The first nominalization again obscures the agent--who appreciates Kurtz's exploits?--while the second is just wordy. A better expression: "When Marlow begins to appreciate [or, better, "understand"] Kurtz's exploits, he threatens the Company agent's sense of propriety."]
To develop your ideas fully, you'll need to connect them. Do not connect them mechanically, with "adder" transitions (see #2, below), but connect them by expressing a clear relationship between them. Only then will you be able to use one idea to work out the implications of another; only then will you be able to use each idea to develop your argument as a whole. Look out for the following.
Example: These parallels are seen in various actions and reactions, situations, scenes, and in the characters themselves. [This thesis sets up an essay that could discuss almost anything in almost any mode. Your thesis, however and wherever you choose to express it, should be as specific as the rest of your writing. Make it clearly lay out what you intend to argue and how you intend to argue it. Then you'll have a basis for connecting the ideas you come up with--and so will your reader.]
Example: Antigone also resents Creon because he is a man. [Whatever the previous idea was, it undoubtedly has a clearer relationship to this one than the "also" implies. If it doesn't, what's it doing in your essay? Some "adder" transitions to beware of include "second," "further," "in addition," "moreover," and "finally."]
IV. Take a stand.
Taking a clear stand has a number of important consequences. It will insure specificity. This specificity will in turn force you to consider what isn't specific to your argument--not just what you can leave out, but also what doesn't fit your thesis. A good argument should foresee counterarguments and dispose of them proleptically--that is, before they become debilitating. Most importantly, though, you will find it hard to take a stand on something you don't believe in. I think you will find that the more you believe in your position, the better your argument will become. This leads to the final grounding peg of these four guidelines: Take pleasure in your writing. It is possible. The more you apply yourself to your prose, the more you'll enjoy it.
Written by Hugh Jenkins, firstname.lastname@example.org, English Department, Union College.