Books editor’s blog: it’s your work – find the words that make it sing

Matthew Reisz finds much valuable and practical writing advice in Joe Moran’s book, a ‘style guide by stealth’ and ‘a love letter to the sentence’

October 25, 2018
finger-weights
Source: Alamy

It is safe to say that Joe Moran, professor of English and cultural history at Liverpool John Moores University, is a writer born and true.

Although he doesn’t take much care of the rest of his body, he tells us in his new book, First You Write a Sentence: The Elements of Reading, Writing…and Life (Viking), he does “look after the parts of it I need to write. I stretch and squeeze my fingers, giving them miniature gym workouts, so I don’t injure them from repetitive strain. My right shoulder and arm get stiff – an industrial injury I have heard called ‘mouse arm’ – and so I knead them with a knobbly self-massage stick…If I ever trip over a loose paving stone, I must remember (being left-handed) to break my fall with my right arm…writing sentences is how I live, not merely exist.”

While reluctant to be too prescriptive, Moran has set out to produce what he calls a “style guide by stealth” and “a love letter to the sentence”, based on the premise that “the whole point of a sentence is that it gives us a voice – one as unique and inimitable, we hope, as our actual voices”. Very little academic writing, of course, is so lovingly crafted or aspires to such high ideals.

Moran has already distilled some key points into an earlier feature article in Times Higher Education (“Limber up your write brain”, 4 October), yet it seemed worthwhile to flag up a few more.

One kind of dull academic prose, in Moran’s view, is full of phrases such as “of course” and “to be sure” – in order to “inoculate the writer against the shameful disease of naivety”. Yet this style ends up feeling “just too watertight, too neurotic about purging itself of inconsistencies. Rather like sealing a boat’s hull with black tar, making prose unsinkable makes it ugly. It has sold its life and voice in return for that dubious virtue, invulnerability.”

More generally, Moran points to a “flawed premise of the academic essay, which is that the writer must pretend to care”. So we learn that something is “deeply problematic” or “more crucial than ever before” or that “a debate is long overdue”. In their famous 1953 paper in Nature, James Watson and Francis Crick announced their discovery of the double helix form of DNA with the phrase: “This structure has novel features which are of considerable biological interest.” In this particular case, argues Moran, the closing phrase is “so coy, so inadequate to the article’s momentous findings, that it almost swaggers”. Generally, such dying falls amount to “adding words to make the sentence longer, bulking it out with platitude, playing the game – the one that tells you to pretend to care about the answer to someone else’s question, and to come up with a fixed number of words in response to this set task”. If much academic writing is unnecessarily dull, and it surely is, there is much to be learned from this highly entertaining book.

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