Thursday, October 9, 2003

The Nuts & Bolts : WC Prof's New College Writing Guide Emphasizes Clarity Over Clutter

Chestertown, MD, October 9, 2003 — Michael Harvey, a professor at Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland, has released a new book that just might replace Strunk & White's Elements of Style as the perennial writing tool for college students. At $4.95, The Nuts & Bolts of College Writing (Hackett, 2003) presents in 100 pages a how-to approach for college writers, identifying the qualities that distinguish good writing from bad and providing practical measures for avoiding the potholes on the road to effective expression.
Harvey has taught writing to college students for more than 20 years, first as a peer tutor at the University of Maryland, then as a graduate student at Cornell University, and then as a professor. “I've taught a lot of writing-intensive courses over the years, and for a long time I've wondered how best to help students become better readers, better writers—better thinkers,” he said. “That is the origin of this book.”
The most common mistakes in students' writing, he said, center on what he calls the “pompous” style: weak verbs, nominalizations, passive voice, and long, shapeless sentences. His Nuts and Bolts Guide is an attempt to try to get students to write plain sentences with strong verbs, rhythm, and emphasis-—in other words, to write in a more natural, plain-spoken voice. All this in a slim volume priced under $5, so as to be nonintimidating and accessible to all.
“When you grade a lot of student essays, you tend to see the same mistakes over and over again—fear of active verbs; fear of expressing bold opinions; a tendency to say in 30 words what could have been said in a dozen; preference for big, college-sounding words,” Harvey said. “You also see other problems—things like poorly organized paragraphs, weak transitions, overly broad or overly timid claims, and clunky use of quotations. I came to realize that students write in what they think is an adult or collegiate voice—big words, weak verbs, and the passive voice. In a sense, they are imitating the models they had been given, in textbooks, in official documents, in how too many leaders and bureaucrats tend to communicate.
Unfortunately, we are betraying the need for clarity in expression and giving our students unhelpful models of communication.”
For Harvey, students' mastery of clear expression is not merely a technical skill, but a moral act. “When we write unclearly, we are very often trying to hide something. That's a moral choice and a bad social convention of our time,” he said. “Students learn to camouflage their writing from an early age, but I think we need to train young people to have the courage of their convictions, to express their views or observations without fear, and to do so clearly.”
A book on college writing might not seem to be an inspired work, but for Harvey, The Nuts and Bolts Guide most certainly is.
“I've been inspired to do this by my students, my teachers, and the many writers I've read. But one modern writer stands out—George Orwell. I read 1984 when I was quite young and it made a big impression on me. For Orwell, clear language, decency, and honest politics all went together, and tyranny began with the corruption of language. That remains a powerful lesson in our world.”
So who should have this book, and why?
“I think every undergraduate should have this book, or one like it. Society is held together by words. Paraphrasing Disraeli, we govern ourselves with words, so it is our responsibility to know how to use them well.”
The Nuts & Bolts Guide to College Writing is available online from and A companion website can be found at Signed copies of The Nuts & Bolts Guide to College Writing are also available in the Washington College Bookstore. To order a copy, contact the Bookstore at (410)778-7749.

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