Go Small or Go Home

While working on a recent post on anxiety and audience, I couldn’t shake a feeling of vague dissatisfaction; this dissatisfaction led me to some fairly unproductive tinkering with the post until I realized the source of my discontent. I wasn’t actually unhappy with what I had said; I was just unhappy that I was saying it. That is, I was unhappy to be discussing—yet again—something general rather than something specific. This blog has, of late, seemed to lack a concrete connection to writing. In my mind, the blog needs to balance two elements: broad exhortations about how to manage academic writing in general and concrete approaches to specific writing decisions. The first one is easy–being bossy isn’t much of a stretch for me! The latter, however, takes a different kind of focus. I make the same distinction in the classroom: there is teaching that requires sentences and teaching that can get by on pronouncement alone. There is a place for both, but I know that I am strongest in the classroom when real examples are being deployed; I also know that when I am overwhelmed, underprepared, or uncertain, I tend to go big. And while this tendency may matter less in a blog—since anyone can ignore the content that doesn’t speak to them—I would like to establish a better balance.

So I am going to start with the most concrete thing I can think of: commas. I have said lots about the more glamorous punctuation marks, but I have ignored the punctuation mark that we most need and most misuse. We could technically do without colons, semicolons, dashes, parentheses, but we need commas. We obviously can’t do without periods, but they are difficult to misuse. Commas have the distinction of being essential and yet subject to lots of confusion. There’s so much to say about commas that I’m hoping it’ll last me for the rest of the fall! Now that I’ve put it down in black and white, I have no choice. I almost feel relieved.

2 responses to “Go Small or Go Home

  1. Your blog’s discussions of general and specific issues alike are enjoyable and pedagogically useful. About one specific issue, I’m curious what your opinion might be of the use of the “slash” — as in the “/” — in academic writing. I have a rather definite opinion, myself. Well, more of a rant, I guess, in my post “Trash the slash”: http://wp.me/poR4A-iF

    • Thanks for the link–I very much enjoyed your post. My standard take on the slash usage is that it is one of three things: informality (e.g., and/or), which I recommend academic writers avoid; indecision, which leads to ambiguity and stylistic awkwardness; or affectation (what you call a linguistic intervention). The latter is the most complex for me. Since I work with graduate students, I necessarily emphasize the importance of writing within their own discourse community. My opinion of that discourse community isn’t always relevant! I do think it is within my brief to explain to students that their adoption of the stylistic affectations characteristic of their field is a decision that ought to be made carefully; I urge them to think of these affectations as expressions of deeper theoretical positions rather than as pure convention.
      Thanks again–and I fully expect your ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ line to come up in my future discussions of this topic!

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