Tag Archives: professional writing

What is Expository Writing?

I’m not sure I know, and I don’t think you do either.

Let’s look at some definitions of expository writing, all from .edu sites. First, a site that is, oddly enough, hosted at Stanford’s website but updated by people with umich.edu emails, “Information about Expository Writing“:

Exposition is a type of oral or written discourse that is used to explain, describe, give information or inform. The creator of an expository text can not assume that the reader or listener has prior knowledge or prior understanding of the topic that is being discussed. One important point to keep in mind for the author is to try to use words that clearly show what they are talking about rather then blatantly telling the reader what is being discussed. Since clarity requires strong organization, one of the most important mechanisms that can be used to improve our skills in exposition is to provide directions to improve the organization of the text.

The first sentence stops me with a bit of a “Huh?” (This will be a continuing pattern.) I suppose this definition is trying to carve out a space for exposition that is different than persuasion, but the more I think about, the less I buy it. When are we not explaining/informing? There’s lots of explaining in persuasive discourse. We could even make a case that there is a sort of “explaining” that happens in nondiscursive forms, like music and visual art.

But what makes this definition stand out is its focus on what all this explaining means for a writer: that you focus really, really hard on having clear organization. So exposition is all about clarity, which seems to say, “Do you want to make turns toward the creative, toward the beautiful, toward the purposefully roundabout, toward the non-Western? Well, this isn’t the place, buster!” (Am I being too harsh?)

Here’s how expository writing is defined at WikiEd, a College of Education endeavor at the U of Illinois Urbana-Champaign:

Expository writing is the process of writing to communicate information to an audience. It is often an explanation or a process, and tends to emphasize well-organized and concise information.

Again, my first reaction is kind of a dumbfounded silence. “Okay,” I should ask myself when writing, “am I communicating information? Is it for an audience? I guess it’s expository writing, and I ought to be well-organized and concise!”

Professor Marilyn Ivanovici posts a pdf handout on “The Elements of Effective Expository Writing,” listing 12 of them. Here we learn that

The purpose of expository writing is to explain something, that is, to provide readers with information worth knowing and thinking about.

And by implication, other forms of writing/communication are of the kind that aren’t necessarily worth thinking about….? (I’m being harsh, I’ve decided.)

Finally, there’s a chart of possible organizational structures you can use in your expository writing over at Marla DeSoto’s page at Glendale Community College. I find I like this better, if only because of the way the page design emphasizes that there isn’t a single, rigid, 5-paragraph essay design that will give you the best expository writing. We’re told that organization matters because “one of the most important mechanisms to improve skills in exposition is to improve the organization of the text.”

That leads me to Big Question #1: In what ways, exactly, is this emphasis on clarity and organizational perfection different from professional writing? The answer: expository writing instruction seems to focus on making students better at the imaginary academic essay genre, while professional writing seems to focus on making students better at real professional writing genres that they’ll encounter in “the workplace” (whatever that is). I didn’t see any emphasis on these pages on using bullets, headings, extraordinarily clear first sentences. So why are we so dedicated to keeping up this front of artful, essayistic indirection when we tell students over and over to be clear?

Which leads to Big Question #2: If we want our students to use artful, essayistic indirection, to be perfect little Montaignes, why not use examples and techniques from creative writing? There’s plenty of amazing work going on in the creative nonfiction and memoir world right now, and there’s a lot that can be learned from the creative writing workshop model that would help our students find a more engaging style, more natural and beautiful forms of organization, and so on.

But here’s the thing: let’s not present students with the claim that they have to somehow find a middle ground between these professional and creative writing poles, that they must write ┬ástunningly, beautifully, and still with absolute clarity. Right? Wouldn’t some genres/situations demand more or less of this, not both at the same time?

So in the end, I’m not saying I know what expository writing is. I think I’d rather say that nonfiction writers choose from a variety of techniques, depending on the particular rhetorical situation they’re in, and that those situations may demand more or less clarity, more or less pizazz.

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Writing Habits

Many, many times, I’ve heard people (especially students, oddly) say some variant on the following: “If we write in text-speak all the time, we won’t be able to turn it off when we need to write for some kind of professional audience.”

My response, usually: bah. With practice, we can turn our writing habits on and off for different communities, genres, audiences, settings, and so on.

But: lately, as I’ve been drafting like mad my article on remix literacies, I find two habits keep sneaking into my academic writing unexpectedly:

  1. Professional writing habits: I write so many emails with lots of headings, short paragraphs, and bulleted lists that it’s hard to put those aside occasionally in favor of more fully developed paragraphs.
  2. Creative nonfiction writing habits: I’m having trouble gauging how much my target journal (shooting for the top: Computers and Composition) wants artful analogies, prodigious first person, narrative asides, and so on.

Now, both of these things, contrary as they may seem, are things I’d like to see more of in published scholarship, and I have no problem being a voice in favor of their slow leakage into academic journals. But it’s interesting to see how much these feel like habits that are hard to break, that I’m sort of defaulting into, and which in heavy-revision mode I’ll have to decide which to keep. Perhaps this is what it feels like 2 writers who R used 2 abbrvtd stylz. (Or not?)

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Some Plain English and Clotted Cream, Please

There’s a great article in yesterday morning’s Wall Street Journal about Chrissie Maher, founder of the Plain English Campaign.

She sees incomprehensible legalese mumbo-jumbo from what we might call a social justice perspective:

“Families are losing their homes because of jargon-filled credit agreements,” says Ms. Maher, an energetic presence in a crocheted sweater and eyeglasses. “Language has been misused and has contributed to the economic disaster.”

It’s a good point. It reminds me of the time a few months ago when my wife visited a neighbor in the hospital. The neighbor couldn’t read, and while the nurses had read various brochures to her, my wife discovered that she didn’t really understand them at all; it turns out (surprise!) that simply reading a complex collection of sentences at someone’s face doesn’t mean that you’ve taught them that information.

It also makes me think of our experience buying our first house, a bit more than a year ago. I was regularly e-mailing and calling our mortgage and realty people, saying things like, “I know that you’ve explained this before, but I really need to make sure I understand it perfectly. What exactly do you mean by [fill in the blank with any of the 37 terms I could never quite get my head around]?” And let’s remember: my wife and I both have masters degrees from prestigious universities, and I’m working on a PhD in a distinctly language-oriented field. It’s not incorrect to say that my job is deciphering meanings in texts.

Add to that the layers of power that are at work here. A poor, black, uneducated woman is made aware of these identities every time she wades through worlds where rich, white, educated men predominate (like hospitals). That would be enough to keep anyone from wanting to ask for clarification after clarification in the way that I had the societal power to do when I bought my house, as a comparatively rich, white, educated man. This helps me understand, too, the reason why so many of my mostly poor, mostly minority neighbors don’t use banks. The answer I’ve always gotten was, “I just don’t trust them.” Well, why would you trust an organization with such an ability to do incomprehensible things and then “explain” them with incomprehensible language?

Two parting thoughts:

  1. I notice that a lot of the writing genres described in the WSJ article are the kind that don’t have an author’s name tagged on to them–things like policy explanations, bank websites, etc. (Foucault–and I hate to go here–would say that these kinds of text aren’t awarded the “author function” by society.) I half wonder if the collaborative writing process mixed with company power relations lead to unclear language; I can imagine a lower-down, newer employee being told to revise an older draft of a statement in legalese, and him thinking, “Well, I ought to try to imitate this ultra-formal, high-vocab type of language.” And then the next person who gets it thinks the same thing, and so on. But I’m hesitant to say that, because there’s so much I like about collaborative writing.
  2. I think there are some implications here for how we teach professional and technical writing. Like, in the past I would say, “It’s important to write in a clear, direct style so that your readers can skim your text and understand it easily; this keeps them in your good graces.” But this article reminds me that I can also say, “It’s important to write in a clear, direct style because this is a way to include the marginalized; this empowers them to enter places they’ve historically been kept away from.” Interesting stuff.

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