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Discussion Post | On Practice

It’s a familiar drumbeat in the field: teaching grammar does more harm than good; don’t subject students to exercises that amount to stylistic drills; focus on the higher-order business. As Tom Pace notes in the introduction to Refiguring Prose Style, the charge of focusing too much on style has been the basis for dismissing whole pedagogical movements from current-traditional rhetoric to expressivism. Stray too far into the realm of style, and, it seems, your students are going to suffer. And, of course, Nora Bacon makes a fair point: “gaining metalinguistic knowledge is one thing; learning to write well is another” (301). But I’m not so convinced that metalinguistic knowledge can’t serve better writing. True, understanding language is not the same as understanding writing—but writing is language when all is said and done. So it doesn’t seem so strange to think that a better understanding of language would serve better writing, not, anyway, if we can accept that a better understanding of bows and strings can serve better violin sonatas or that a better understanding of yeast and gluten can serve better loaves of bread. As the poet Ted Kooser asserts, “[T]he craft of careful writing and meticulous revision can be taught" (xi), and a meta understanding of language must be part of that teaching.


In Naming What We Know, Kathleen Blake Yancey writes, “Through practice, we become familiar with writing; it becomes part of us,” going on to identify two kinds of practice: that which provides fluidity and that which refines technique (64). I would argue that reservations about teaching style coincide with concern for the first type of practice. As Alton Becker explains: “As a teacher of Southeast Asian language, I came to see that mastering a grammar and working lexicon of, say, Burmese is of minimal use in learning Burmese—and is even harmful (in that it encourages a learner to translate from an English memory and also asks a learner to be mindful of structure while speaking, something no one I know can do)” (34 – 35). That is, metalinguistic knowledge is possibility at odds with fluidity practice. There isn’t much fluidity in stopping to make sure subjects agree with verbs or that commas are in the right place. Where fluidity is at stake, too much knowledge can get in the way. But, when it comes to refining technique, how are we to do that without the vocabulary of parallel structure, free modifiers, and metaphor?


It may just be the case that many in the field of rhetoric and composition are primarily interested in the development of inexperienced writers (of course, first-year college students have at least a decade of writing experience by the time they come to our classrooms). Therefore, the preoccupation in the composition classroom requires a more fluidity-focused approach. The goal is functional competence, not virtuosity. I’m not particularly interested in functional writing, though—at least, not writing that is only functional. My interest in style is an interest in artfulness, craftedness.


“‘Crafting fiction,’” Allison Alsup writes in her contribution to Refiguring Prose Style, “is an expression constantly uttered in creative writing workshops, a phrase that calls to mind a fine cabinetmaker whose work is distinguished by precision: measuring, trimming, planing, sanding, polishing. So, too, are we writers to approach our fiction, to smooth the rough edges of our work through meticulous editing” (94). The cabinetmaker does not just have fluidity at their disposal—they have refined technique. I have limited experience in the field, but I can imagine that expert cabinetmakers do not just have an understanding of basic cabinet design and shelf arrangement. They must also have a deep knowledge of woods and stains, a well-worn familiarity with saws and planes, and enough of a streak of artistry to make their cabinets not just functional but desirable. A machine can build cabinets—but a master cabinetmaker would probably not be satisfied making cabinets as the machine does.


Alsup continues: “Writing is art, and art without style is simply not art” (94). When it comes to talking about student work, “words we would hope to see applied to our work—lyrical, dramatic, suspenseful—disappear from our vocabulary. It’s as if style has become an extra feature like power windows rather than part of the basic model” (96). If fluidity is our aim—easy production of functional prose—then, of course, metalinguistic knowledge will get in the way. But if we’re going to help our students produce texts that are not just functional but moving—the kinds of texts we aspire to write—we’re going to need to take seriously the kind of practice that refines technique and the metalinguistic knowledge of style that such entails.


I should be clear, I speak at this point more from personal experience than from replicable data: metalinguistic knowledge has helped me to understand and refine writing techniques. Much-maligned grammar drills were the basis for my headlong plunge into writing and writing scholarship. But it’s not just my experience with writing—it’s my experience with learning to play music, learning a language, learning how to cook. It’s true, as Bacon points out, that “there is no reason to think that knowing about chemistry has much relationship to knowing how to cook” (299), but the industry of cooking science and test kitchens suggests that there’s some value in adding knowledge about to a basic know-how. One need not understand the maillard reaction to cook dinner—but how might someone cook differently once they understand the thermal and chemical processes involved in flavor development? Nobody needs anaphora to write an email—but what can a writer who understands anaphora do that other writers can’t—were the ancients wasting everybody’s time? (If I say nothing here, I worry the prevailing answer would be Yes, we know better now. I’m not so sure.)


So, to conclude, it may be that our disaffection for technique practice comes from a misunderstanding of what’s being practiced. Becker draws a distinction between language, essentially, a grammar and a dictionary, and languaging, a process of remembering and recontextualizing bits of text within a person’s repertoire. That is, he writes, “The key to language learning is memory” (35)—memory of how others have used language in the past, not memorization of conjugation tables. Where Becker sees the reality of languaging in developing and employing “strategies for reshaping particular remembered texts into new contexts” (35), how might our approach to teaching writing technique change? At this point, I can only wonder aloud, but I think it would be something more people could get behind (when compared to spot-the-error exercises). Understanding style as a matter of languaging—requiring, then, a turn to developing a specific understanding of text-reshaping strategies—might spare us the dreariness of drilling and killing, replacing it with the vibrancy of examining texts and reshaping their language for use in new contexts.


I’ve written plenty enough for today, even with all the loose strands that I’ve left unfinished. But I never promised to deliver finished thoughts here. I suppose I’ll just conclude with T. R. Johnson’s words from Refiguring Prose Style, words which capture the sense of the return to style I envision:

Learning to play music is an apt metaphor for learning to write with style. The only purpose in learning to play music, says Khan, is to become, essentially, musical in one's thoughts and actions, ultimately to the degree that one perceives all being as musical--that is, as endlessly harmonized and rhythmically balanced processes of action and result. Playing music and writing with style, in this sense, are forms of healing and prayer: they seek to open the ear to release the soul so that it may express itself freely, know itself fully, and do its work in the world. (284)

Adler-Kassner, Linda, and Elizabeth Wardle. Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies. Utah State University Press, 2007.

Bacon, Nora. “Review: Cross-Disciplinary Approaches to Style.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 67, no. 2, 2015, pp. 290–303.

Becker, A. L. “Language and Languaging.” Language & Communication, vol. 11, no. 1–2, Jan. 1991, pp. 33–35. DOI.org (Crossref), doi:10.1016/0271-5309(91)90013-L.

Johnson, T. R., and Tom Pace, editors. Refiguring Prose Style: Possibilities for Writing Pedagogy. Utah State University Press, 2005.

Kooser, Ted. The Poetry Home Repair Manual: Practical Advice for Beginning Poets. Bison Books, 2007.

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