What is Good Writing?: A Meditation on Breaking Rules and Grammar Pedagogy

From all the jails the Boys and Girls
Ecstatically leap—
Beloved only Afternoon
That Prison doesn’t keep

They storm the Earth and stun the Air,
A Mob of solid Bliss—
Alas—that Frowns should lie in wait
For such a Foe as this—

~ Emily Dickinson

Discussion forums and other spaces for online commenting should focus on building community, not pedantic concerns like word counts, formal citation, and grammar. Policing grammar and style is a shortcut — a way to avoid actual engagement. When the goal is reflective dialogue, critical thinking, content mastery, or even good writing, grammar is usually a red herring.

In an annotated bibliography on the grammar instruction debate, Chris Friend writes that the current argument is

“in the same state of stalemate that existed in 1904, when debate over the efficacy of grammar instruction began in earnest […] This battle has been long-fought, and it shows no sign of abating. Studies will be done, and they will have their validity questioned. Rallying cries will be raised, and they will fall on irreverent ears.”

And so, my goal in this post is not to police the policing of grammar but to present an argument about grammar pedagogy for teachers outside Composition Studies, for whom this debate is not yet asked and answered.

I frequently ask students deceptively simple questions about “good writing,” what its “rules” are, who determines them, which ones we can break, and how we can break them. Students take to the discussion quickly, throwing out examples of various rules they’ve been taught, while I furiously fill a chalkboard with their comments. We talk about fonts, 12-pt type, theses, paragraphs, concision, the (always mysterious) flow, revision checklists, and grammar. I ask students how the word “grammar” makes them feel, and they say, “terrified,” “nervous,” “bored,” “controlled.” We debate pronoun agreement, comma usage, “its” and “it’s,” and dangling participles.

Ralph Waldo Emerson writes in “The Poet,” “The argument is secondary, the finish of the verses is primary. For it is not metres, but a metre-making argument that makes a poem” (245). On first glance, Emerson seems to suggest two quite different things, a quandary that lines up with the common debate: Does good grammar follow upon good ideas, or is good grammar the foundation upon which good ideas are formed? Do we start with grammar when we teach writing, or is grammar the happy and seemingly accidental product of carefully-considered ideas?

For Emerson, the first task of a writer is to write. If a piece isn’t finished (i.e. done), the argument doesn’t matter, the grammar doesn’t matter, the finish (i.e. surface sheen) doesn’t matter. Later, Emerson continues, “The poet knows that he speaks adequately then only when he speaks somewhat wildly” (255). This line offers another conundrum, suggesting that we break the rules (and “wildly”) — that we deviate from what is expected — but only “somewhat,” only some of the time. It isn’t that our writing should spin listlessly but that it should push very intentionally at the edges of our readers’ expectations. A wildness in kind and not always degree.

In “Rigid Rules, Inflexible Plans, and the Stifling of Language,” Mike Rose writes, “Composing calls for open, even adventurous thinking, not for constrained, no-exit cognition” (399). And Nancy Sommers, in “Responding to Student Writing,” highlights some of the problems that arise when teachers focus too much on grammar and mechanics in their evaluation of student writing:

“Most teachers of writing have been trained to read and interpret literary texts for meaning, but, unfortunately, we have not been trained to act upon the same set of assumptions in reading student texts as we follow in reading literary texts.”

As teachers, there is a loathsome efficiency in reading uncreatively. There is convenience in having students produce writing we can read once and neatly assess. My suspicion is that many teachers demand students adhere to “rules,” because too much flexibility makes grading inconvenient, requiring teachers read for quality, rather than merely look for errors to “fix.” Routine 5-paragraph essays are, frankly, easier to read and evaluate. But writing pedagogy (in any discipline) should be about experimentation, not efficiency — about meditating on and employing forms, not adhering to them.

So, how can we teach grammar conventions, while encouraging students to engage with grammar in a second-order way? Joseph M. Williams, in Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace, argues that “nothing is more important than choice” (9). It is one thing to make a choice to conform to a writing standard, another thing entirely to be obedient to an inflexible and uncompromising rule. The same is equally true of writing pedagogy. As teachers, our approach to the teaching of grammar should be flexible, maybe even disobedient, deviant, compromising, but certainly conscious.

Most grammar rules aren’t as hard and fast as they are made out to be. Williams discusses various kinds of writing rules in his book, two of which I’ll paraphrase here:

Real Rules: The basic structural constraints that form the foundation of standard English, such as articles precede nouns: “the apple,” “the elephant,” “the computer,” rather than “apple the,” “elephant the,” “computer the.” We aren’t conscious of these rules most of the time when we write, and we generally only violate them by pure accident.

Invented Rules: These are the constraints invented by grammarians, the ones we’re told incessantly to follow. The shoulds of writing: a colon should precede a list, don’t split infinitives, an independent clause should be followed by a comma, etc. The word “invented” doesn’t necessarily suggest these rules are “wrong” (although some are), just that they have been normalized by writers and grammarians.

In “The Phenomenology of Error,”Williams writes, “what good is learning a rule if all we can do is obey it?” (165). Skilled writers don’t “obey” rules; they exploit them. They understand rules have both instrumental and intrinsic value, that they’re neither arbitrary nor imperative. They know the rules but also know when to break them in the service of good writing.

Many instructors draw a hard and fast line here, demanding students know the rules before they can break them. As a student myself, though, I’ve discovered that academic writing often becomes a mere exercise in proving a knowledge of the rules and conventions (rather than an opportunity to create intrinsically sound compositions), an exercise that continues through each course, with each instructor, from one academic journal to the next, in each new writing task. The when in which we can begin experimenting with rule-breakage keeps getting put off, again and again, ad infinitum, ad nauseam.

We should, instead, teach the rules and how to break them simultaneously. It seems sensible to keep these two teaching moments as close to one another as possible. We can more consciously break rules when we’re intimately familiar with them, and breaking rules is an excellent way to better understand their purpose and function.

Ultimately, I would argue that the best way to learn grammar is through the practice of writing — through the willful and conscious application of the specific rules that fit the specific situation, what I would call a grammar as toolbox approach. This becomes all the more true as the mediums in which we write continue to proliferate. As I’ve observed previously in “The Twitter Essay,” instructors are terrified by the presumed deterioration of language in e-mail and text-messages, and students are terrified by the preemptive strikes loosed upon them by their terrified instructors. I was, myself, terrified to encounter the statistic that a college student produces an average of 42 pages of academic writing in a semester but over 500 pages of e-mail. What terrifies me is not the sheer enormity of writing being produced, but the fact that too many teachers quibble the details of academic form rather than emphasizing pedagogical approaches that transfer to all the writing students do. As the nature of our work continues to evolve in the digital age, we should embrace the various alternate modes of communication in which students (and we) are proving so prolific.

In my epigraph, Emily Dickinson begins, “From all the jails the Boys and Girls / Ecstatically leap—”. For me, the “Boys and Girls” are Dickinson’s poems. She ends with “such a Foe as this,” referring, reflexively, to the poem itself. For Dickinson, good writing ought to “leap” and “storm” and “stun.” Good writing is a “Mob,” a “Foe,” that “lie[s] in wait” and “doesn’t keep.” The “jail” or “Prison” are the grammar and convention from which Dickinson’s lines emancipate themselves. The poem describes students in school, all the more ecstatic for being also unruly…

[Photo, “IMG_0350“, by illum licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0]