Apr 3

Text Title: Writing Prose

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Edited: Apr 9

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General Considerations

 

A Why We Write

We write primarily to communicate—what we question, what we believe, what

we know. We also write to discover what we think. Just as expression without

thought is empty, so thought is incomplete without expression. But commu-

nication is not the only end we try to realize when we write. We write to gain

power by defining reality as we see it; we write to signal our membership in a

community, to embrace some people and exclude others; we may sometimes

even write to obscure. We write to conform to verbal etiquette; we write to

define our identities by assuming a particular voice. At times we write to

amuse, to enjoy the play of language, and to share our delight in language with

others.

 

This booklet focuses on the primary goal of writing prose: clear communication. But at times it touches on these less overt social, political, even moral

purposes in writing. If you wish to become a good writer, you must be self-

conscious about these purposes as well.

 

B Audience

A basic consideration is audience—for whom are you writing? Readers of a

national magazine may need to be reminded that Freud was the founder of

psychoanalysis, but your teacher and fellow students in a course on Freud will

not. Usually it is best to write as if you were speaking to your classmates and

to omit background material that the class already knows. Assume that your

readers are intelligent enough to understand any argument you put before

them, but assume too that the audience must be given the essential evidence

for that argument.

 

Technical material raises particularly acute questions of audience. A discourse

on Talmudic law, a description of enzyme activity in the nerve cell, a proof of

convergence of a robot navigation algorithm—all refer to complex formal systems of thought. The same passage that appears opaque to one reader may

well strike another more versed in the system as obvious. A conscious choice is

unavoidable: you may be forced to exclude or irritate one group of readers in

your effort to inform your proper audience.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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