Comments of the semester

This semester’s essays are generally good – sometimes frustratingly “already pretty good, could easily have been better, if only…”

Quite often I find myself writing “if only…” comments like:

“Try to write more concisely; cut some adjectives and save words”
“Do not make grand sweeping statements that you do not intend to discuss or justify”

These ones annoy me more and more, and I start to wonder (especially when I look back at some of my earlier work) whether we as theologians are not guilty of encouraging this tendency. If what you are writing about is Really Important (like, I dunno, God, ethics, freedom, the nature of humanity), there’s perhaps a particular temptation to slip into purple prose – when what is needed, there more than anywhere, is care and restraint. (Nicholas Lash: “a theologian is someone who watches her language in the presence of God”. Before you ask, I can’t remember the exact occasion, but he could well have said “her”).

“Use the first person sparingly. It is not absolutely prohibited – but it is rarely necessary. I assume that everything in the essay is your own unless otherwise stated”.

I really have tried with this one. I know there are different schools of thought; for myself, I would rather allow the occasional “I will argue” or “as I will show in the next section”, or even “I suggest”, than endure circumlocutions in the passive voice. The problems really come back to this issue about opinion and judgment (see previous discussions); the “I” appears in order to prove that this is “really my opinion”.

“Write in shorter sentences – or, at least, avoid joining two or more sentences together with commas”.

The English sentence is, or can be, a beautiful thing, and it makes me sad that I cannot automatically expect my students to be able to craft good English sentences. I am not quite sure how I would teach them, though.

And I am making a point of writing, when I think it:

“I hope you are going to do more theology or philosophy next year”

because somebody said that to me, and it made a big difference.


2 responses to this post.

  1. I do agree in large part with what you’ve said, especially exercising restraint. However, whilst being opaquely florid is never necessary, and there’s something very important about being able to express a complex point simply without over-simplification, sometimes it does feel appropriate to be lyrical. There’s something so *fun* about reading someone like Stephen D. Moore who is immensely joyous and playful in his prose without using its prettiness to paper over a dodgy argument.

    Unrelatedly, on the I-voice versus “circumlocutions in the passive voice”: yes, *but* saying “I” is also more honest and less assimilationist than saying “we” when, actually, one hasn’t declared whom one is purporting to write for or acknowledged the fact that they might not appreciate being assumed by the “we”. I’ve noticed this in essays I’ve marked recently by ordinands (and I wonder whether it stems from the fact that they certainly situate their writing in a confessional context, which I assume most of your students don’t). I remember you pointing this out in something I’d written myself, and it’s always stuck with me. Now, whenever I read “as we all know” (or similar), flashing lights go off and I come over all sceptical of whatever the author is trying to persuade me about. It’s that sinister sense that if one assumes everyone already agrees, one doesn’t need to justify one’s argument, and one can make hideously problematic statements without anyone really saying “Er… hang on a minute”.


    • Absolutely. I don’t like “we” very much (you noticed that 🙂 ) other than when it means “you the reader and I the author” (I do write “as we saw in chapter 2”, but never “as we said in chapter 2”). My students don’t use “we” very often, though.
      And yes, agree re Stephen D. Moore – but I reckon you have to be pretty good, if not necessarily as good as Stephen D. Moore, to get away with it… and there’s a difference between playfulness and purpleness, not to mention pomposity. But the real point with these essays is that the students are writing to (what I think is) a pretty tight word limit, and extra adjectives are the verbal equivalent of empty calories…


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