Style isn’t everything

August 13, 2015

Yellowlees Douglas’ plea for a “scientific” approach to teaching writing skills is understandably a plug for her new book, which may be very good (“Unlocking the black box”, Opinion, 6 August). Judging from her article, however, its practical prescriptions are a mixture of common sense and what good writing guides have long advised, given additional authority by the invocation of neuroscience.

Although Douglas talks dismissively about the “watered-down remnants of Aristotelian rhetoric”, what is this if not an example of establishing Aristotelian ethos by association – “conveying your credibility”, as Douglas puts it? Writing clearly and correctly is crucial, but it is only part of what students need to learn: style was only one of the five canons of Roman rhetoric. Among other things, students also need to learn how to construct – and critique – arguments (Aristotle’s logos). Nobody would look to an ancient Greek for practical guidance on writing clearly in English, but clarity of expression is only part of the picture: studying and practising rhetoric gives you the whole.

Neil Foxlee
Lancaster

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