[Terri] LeClercq offers a very helpful technique to check for coherence in a multi-paragraph text: As you edit your rough draft, separate each topic sentence from your text and examine each one to make sure it is a strong introduction to the main idea of that paragraph. Then examine the coherence of the topic sentences as they relate to the overall thesis set-up by seeing whether the topic sentences form a coherent paragraph.My students had trouble with this passage today. They understood the first and second sentences (the 2 independent clauses linked by the colon), but they stumbled over the last one.
“Writing Good Paragraphs with Topic Sentences.” Legal Writing Tips 1.8 (2005). Print. Web. 14 March 2012.
I'm not crazy about the last sentence myself: reading it, you have to keep too much information lit up in working memory until you finally get to the most important bit, which is at the very end. The end is where the most important bit usually should be, but still. There's an awful lot to hang on to until you get there.
I don't mean to sound harsh. That last sentence is perfectly serviceable, and impressive in its way. It's nicely linked to its partner sentence, the one that comes just before it, and it manages to pack a great deal of information into a small space, which is not easy. You'd have to be an experienced writer to write it.
Nevertheless, if it were my sentence, I would keep on writing it before I stopped. I would revise.
Teaching basic composition, I've come to realize how important it is for college students to be able to read prose I wouldn't advise any of them actually to write. A fair portion of academic and professional prose is not very good, and some of it is god-awful. But students have to read it.
Of course everyone knows this, but I hadn't thought about the implications until now. College students have to be able to read bad writing. Not just difficult writing, not just sophisticated writing, not just writing with a lot of big words. College students have to be able to read all those things, but they also have to be able to read difficult, sophisticated writing with a lot of big words that is bad.
So how do they acquire this skill?
Composition textbooks come stocked with dozens of heavily copy-edited essays written by journalists and originally published in popular books and magazines: these are works that have been professionally engineered to be maximally swift, cohesive, and clear. They make sense as models for writing, but they're useless for reading. They're so well written they practically read themselves.*
Where are the composition texts featuring 100s of pages of dense and mystifying academic prose, I ask?
And how does one teach students to read badly-written prose?
Is it different from teaching students to read well-written prose?
I'm thinking it might be.
Last but not least, speaking of bad and good prose, I think LeClercq's advice is brilliant. It's an amazing fit for William Kerrigan's X-1-2-3s.
* I don't remotely believe that well-written prose practically reads itself. Certain genres, however, are written to be effortlessly readable, and that's the writing that appears in college composition texts.