Writing as Civility? Who’d Believe It?
As students wrestle with the
sweaty, two-ton mystery of putting words together, shouts for
cogency and critical thinking are sure to drop them to their knees.
Pile on the notion of writing-as-citizenship, and down goes a
shoulder. Now holler for civility, and wham—flat on the
Yet, when it comes to writing, civility is the move that gets
the crowd into the game. Writing is, after all, the effort to
share one’s observations, anxieties, and imaginings with
an audience, a community, a society. It’s a way to channel
self-absorption into social interaction. “I write because
I want to end my loneliness,” says novelist Jonathan Safran
Foer. Without communication, however, nothing is shared or ended;
and when writing flouts certain conventions of language, form,
and integrity—conventions a society has worked out for its
benefit—communication goes splat against the wall.
Think of today’s marketplace of expression: papered to the
rafters; blog-jammed, MySpaced, and YouTubed; mobbed by a pandemonium
of pundits and pontificators elbowing in from every print and
digital corner of the world. Here is democracy’s cacophony,
and those preparing to rise above its rant, hype, propaganda,
and demagoguery—to be heard, understood, and valued—need
a civil way with sentences as well as the facility of presenting
ideas that hold up to scrutiny. Enter critical thinking.
is one of those terms that draw a few students to debate club
and send the rest running for a sugar hit. It’s a hard sell
unless young writers can view it as a perk of freedom, as the
clear-headedness that allows for self-determination and a share
of clout in the crowd—even if its demands are so daunting
one feels woozy just listing a few: premises laid out neatly;
arguments clear, rational, and pointed; biases purged or bared;
discourse relating to the audience without pandering to it.
In writing, critical thinking is a form of civility. It honors
the reader’s investment; it enriches the corpus of expression;
and it sounds as if it’s about as much fun as a hair shirt
under a hoodie.
Never mind that the product can be stimulating and enlightening.
Critical thinking goes against conversational patterns, the daily
drool of catch phrases and clichés. Instead, applied to
public expression in a free society, critical thinking bids one
to say clearly and precisely what one means, arbitrating between
feelings, beliefs, facts, and judgments—because no dictator
is providing the service.
Not all student essays will
call for gear-grinding critical thought. (Heaven help us!) Nor,
as educators well know, must assignments in critical writing be
joylessly spartan. Every teacher these days can target themes
that excite young ganglia. Even the most inane areas of pop culture
invite thoughtful critical approaches. At this writing, and on
the basis of my own lame understanding of teen passions, I am
thinking of something like the following:
Theme: Honesty on the show American Idol
Premise: Honesty rewards true merit.
Argument: The show is dishonest. So-and-so deserved to win because
. . . .
Suddenly the abstractions that define critical thinking grow faces:
maybe the iconic mugs of Simon, Paula, and Randy, but faces now
seen in a fresh, analytic light. (Ideally, such analyses will
be informed by research into the show’s origins, personalities,
mandates, methods, critical reception, and the like.)
O.K.—the student has applied
critical thinking to the theme paper, has worked up a sober draft
with the t crossed in every thus and therefore. Now comes an opportunity
to imbue argument with personality—to experience, stumblingly,
the fun of styling prose.
One path to style bears an unlikely sign: rhetoric. Writing guides
tend to duck this term, owing to its association with political
claptrap or with your grandfather’s fire-breathing English
instructors. Some educators may feel that the emotional nuances
of “style” compromise critical thinking. In its best
contemporary sense, however, rhetorical style is the art of persuasive
language (apart from argument), of tellin’ it real, with
felicitous words and style and grace. Its highest purpose? To
lend appeal to argument, exposition, or story by delighting the
aesthetic sense. Its value to society (including teachers)? Communication
that not only is less painful than gallstones but that also sometimes
I hear Aristotle’s teeth gnashing, but as I see it, he might
have titled his Rhetoric something a little more fun, something
like, oh, Spunk & Bite (spunk for integrity of argument, bite
for power of language). Where’s the fun for students in
all this? It’s in discovering how time-honored rhetorical
methods and devices—especially figures of speech, or tropes—are
up-to-date friends from everyday expression, and how they give
bite to critical writing.
The point is not to pummel students with rhetorical terms, which
few writers have at hand, but to let them know that argument can
be enlivened by this cool thing called rhetoric, by an established
set of devices available for emphasis as needed.
The punchy presence of such devices can be revealed using almost
any patch of schoolyard gab:
“Omigod [invocation], that big mouth [synecdoche] be goin’
for class president like Spidey chasin’ Sandman [allusion,
simile, hyperbole]. Me vote for him? Yeah, right [antiphrasis].
Like I’m totally [intensifier] charmed [sarcasm] because
he rocks [anthimeria] that hoodie and got bling [neologism] in
his grill [metaphor]. Student body gonna jump out its skin [personification]
before he gets elected.”
Critical writing also draws power from the figurative:
The time for setting the nation’s voting age at 16 has
landed like intelligent life from the stars [simile, hyperbole].
Can we blindly ignore it [epiplexis]? At the heart [personification]
of Generation Y are roughly 10 million American citizens who are
16- to 17-years old, their very number a silent cry [oxymoron]
for representation. While most nations have been less than progressive
[litotes] in fostering this suffrage, perceptive legislators [comprobatio]
see the idea taking root [metaphor]: The 16-and-overs have the
vote in Nicaragua; they have the vote in Cuba; they have the vote
in Brazil [gradatio]; and they will have it [asphalia] in Austria,
where studies show [apomnemonysis] 16- and 17-year-olds to be
as interested in politics as other age groups and to possess “an
open and critical attitude.”
Everyone roots for clarity in
writing: clarity as a gift to the reader, as good manners, as
a lever to advance one’s meanings. But somehow, possibly
from misuse of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style,
clarity has acquireda doctrine of dry-mouthed austerity. “Use
figures of speech sparingly,” warned E. B. White, who never
met a figure of speech he didn’t use robustly. The message
some students get is, avoid devices like metaphor, hyperbole,
and personification in prose—as if they taint clarity by
departing from the literal.
Certainly, figurative language can serve to deceive (think of
war euphemisms like "collateral damage"). When students
use figurative language uncritically, voilà: a teaching
opportunity. When honestly employed, however, figures of speech
intensify both clarity and truth. How? By sparking those non-literal
areas of the brain that help interpret the universe. Poetry relies
on such ignition. Prose, too, can be illuminated by figurative
language. Lively, risk-taking prose, ablaze with attitude, signals
an enthusiasm for one’s assertions that can be contagious
to the modern reader and (if truth-driven) healthy as well.
The idea of teaching citizenship
through critical writing may recall the old notion of “deportment,”
that report-card code for classroom conformity. Critical writing
is not about sitting still in received knowledge; it is more the
honing of nonconforming ideas into convincing, if sometimes annoying,
assertions. When students learn to present even the most rebellious,
antagonistic messages with solid argument and stylistic force,
are they pains in society’s rear. . . or incipient Paines
(as in Thomas), rearing up in all the fury of conviction?
Young writers must have the right to express, without fear of
being branded, a society’s ugliest behavior and to shape
any imaginings into art. “If they start censoring themselves,
then the muse just shuts up,” says Amherst College’s
playwright in residence. To paraphrase a San Diego writing teacher,
students need to vent the dark, embarrassing, disturbing places
in their heads, because that’s where powerful writing lives.
ARTHUR PLOTNICK's acclaimed
Spunk & Bite: A Writer’s Guide to Bold, Contemporary
Style (Random House Reference) hit the shelves this May in
a paperback edition that includes a teacher’s guide containing
thirty prose-enlivening exercises for students. The Elements
of Editing, one of his seven books and a Book-of-the-Month
Club featured selection, presented an editor’s guide to
critical analysis of manuscripts and has been widely adopted.
A graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop, he edited the American
Libraries magazine of the American Library Association and is
a contributing editor to The Writer magazine.