Duncan Koerber, a professor in the Professonal Writing program at York University, has time and time again effectively taught the core principles for successful writing. Koerber is a professor in the program for many of the primary courses that have significantly helped us improve our writing skills, including Introduction to Institutional Writing, The Ethics of Publicity, Practical Studies in Damage Control, and in second year, Prose, Style and Argument. While our first year courses were focused greatly on writing theory and studying writing as an element of society, I feel that Prose, Style and Argument was our first real experience writing at a University level. The course introduced many different themes and topics, such as
- Media and Journalism
- Scholarly Writing
- Artistic Expression and Cultural Observations
- Writer as an Activist
- Writer as an Historian
While these themes discussed and analyzed through reading and writing exercises were helpful in understanding our own writing in different ways, there were many significant rules that in general improved our writing in all fields.
1. Make Assumptions: We often engage in debates, and do not have the time or ability to verify statements made by others, so we accept their boundaries of the argument. Arguments are not just about accuracy or correctness. They are about ensuring our credibility and learning new things by advancing dialogue, which in turn makes us seem fair and reasonable. By making assumptions about the validity of an argument being made, we are able to get passed the fallacies in someones argument and expose the cold hard facts. “It is often preferable to presuppose certain parts of an argument in order to impose their acceptance as a condition for the pursuit of the exchange.” – Marie Christine Leps
2. Utilize Parallelism: Parallelism is a writing tool. Creating parallel series can help an audience better understand and remember what is being said, and in fact is grammatically correct. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous speech does not repeat “I have a dream” because he really wants the audience to know that he had a dream. It is because the parallel structure of his speech subtly and subliminally plants that phrase in the minds of the audience, and reinforces what comes after it. As for grammatical structure, the first of the following lists of “Things to Do” employs parallelism, and the second does not:
Things to Do (parallel):
- Wake Up
- Work Out
- Make Breakfast
- Wash the dishes
Things to Do (non-parallel):
- Wake Up
- Bicep and Back Workout
- Make Breakfast
- Dishes need to be washed
The former uses a verb based parallelism for each point on the list. The latter uses a random assortment of Verb, Singular Noun, Verb, Plural Noun, and is thus grammatically incorrect (and annoying to read).
3. Eliminate Dead Verbs: Before this course, I’d never heard the term “dead verb.” A dead verb is a verb that essentially does nothing for the context of the sentence or paragraph, and produces no visual imagery for the reader. For example, To Be is a dead verb, and is ultimately the hardest verb to remove from your writing. In the sentence “my father is making us dinner”, we see that “is” and “making” are dead verbs, and the sentence must be restructured to eliminate it, as in, “my father cooked dinner for us.” The verb “cooked” provides the reader with a visual interpretation of who is performing the verb, and that they are cooking. At this point we can replace “dinner” with “pasta” or “beans” or whatever provides a better image for the reader. Another advantage to removing these dead verbs is reducing the amount of words we use. When we have a word count limit, every word counts, and changing “is making” to “cooked” has now effectively livened up our writing and still eliminated one word.
4. Draft and Revise Your Work: Writing a piece of poetry is never as simple as writing words on a piece of paper and sending it to a publisher. A single piece of poetry is never perfect; it goes through days, weeks, months, and years of revision and editing, and sometimes is all together thrown away after so much work is put into it. A novel is usually difficult to write with no planning as to characters or plot, just by spontaneously writing what comes to mind. So, who is to say that prose, or essays, or any piece of writing is perfect on the first try? Obviously, we all know that there are deadlines that have us sweating to finish and submit something on time, but that just mean extra preparation should be (or should have been) taken to ensure that there is time for editing and revision. Creating a draft copy of a piece of writing is one of the most important steps in completing it. First drafts should be spontaneous pieces of writing that have only glimpses of what will appear in the final text. This often means that a first draft will be very short, and riddled with spelling and grammatical errors, but it is an important step in first communicating your thoughts on a topic before consulting facts or external sources of information. This also means creating or planning a pre-writing outline, plotting your introduction and paragraphs and points of discussion or argument.
These rules will help any writer to form strong, coherent sentences and valid arguments, and not only improve their general writing skills but (dare I say) increase their chances at better grades in academic writing exercises, as they have for myself and many of my peers. Prose, Style and Argument was more than just a mandatory required course in the Professional Writing program. It was a valuable learning experience that has supplied me with writing skills I still consciously think about when writing today.