– Reciprocity

Sometimes a student enters the Writing Center in distress, having been told by a professor that his writing is so “unreadable” that the professor has not attempted, beyond the first paragraph, to read it.

These instances make me think again about the writer’s job, yet even more so about the reader’s. They each must try hard to reach the other. Writer, write hard. Reader, listen hard. Communication is a meeting in a middle place. Not a compromise, though. A meeting.

I like how Joseph M. Williams, the author of perhaps my favorite handbook on style, Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace 6e (Longman 2000), reflects on a writer’s role in this relationship:

We write and revise our earliest drafts to discover and express what we mean, but in the drafts thereafter, we write and revise to make it clear to our readers. At the heart of that process is a principle whose model you probably recall: Write for others as you would have others write for you. (220)

He says much more about the golden rule and a writer’s obligation, and I wholeheartedly recommend the chapter “Ethics of Prose.” In it, Williams also says this, about the golden rule and readers:

Some readers read less well than others, and some expect more from a writer than their meager investment of time and effort earns them. In fact, just as writers have an obligation to readers, so do we as readers have an obligation to writers: If we assume that writers work hard to say something important to us, we should read thoughtfully and generously, at least until we decide they have given us good reason to stop. (221-222)

Reading and listening — paying attention — to the words of another require generosity: a gift, a gesture. It takes effort to look beyond the lack of clarity in a student’s writing, but if we believe that they are making an attempt to say something important to us (it’s our assignment, after all!), then we should reciprocate. Williams calls such an exchange “fair” (222).

A penciled notation on the inside page reminds me that I paid $6.50 at Brookline Booksmith Annex for a used copy of Style. The latest edition, the 9th, is much more. Still, it’s worth it.

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