Faculty in Focus: The Power of Paragraphs

Michael Harvey
, Associate Professor, Department of Business Management.

Dr. Harvey is editor-in-chief of the interdisciplinary journal Leadership and the Humanities and the co-editor of the book Leadership Studies: the Dialogue of Disciplines. He is the author of The Nuts and Bolts of College Writing, a college writing guide now in its second edition, and put to good use by many Washington College students through the years. In Fall 2017, Dr. Harvey is teaching a First Year Seminar titled “The Business of Organized Crime.”

We have asked Dr. Harvey to lead us into a new feature of the Washington College Review, lessons that shape the writing that Washington College faculty do and teach.

In order to write well, what do students need to do? What are some principles or characteristics of effective writing that you emphasize in your courses?

The first thing you need to do to write well is to be brave. Clarity takes courage. The main reason students aren’t clear isn’t lack of intelligence or craft or sophistication. Quite the opposite: to write unclearly takes a surprising amount of skill.

‘Unclarity,’ if you want to dignify it with a name, is a calculated risk avoidance strategy, partly instinctive and partly conscious, based on hard experience. Growing up, every student has had to deal with a different writing teacher each year, each of us with our own quirks, diktats, and opinions. Students learn that when you don’t know your enemy, ahem, your teacher, it pays to obfuscate. So a pretty good generic strategy is to dazzle or at least smother teachers with words. Why say what you mean if it’s going to get swatted? Instead, say what you might mean, or what it could be plausibly inferred you might mean, or arrange a pile of words in a simulacrum of meaning. It’s more prudent, students learn, to be unclear than to say what you mean. This is what George Orwell says in his great essay “Politics and the English Language”: “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity.”

And you can’t blame students. Most of their celebrated role models, with the rare exception of a few heroic figures like Abraham Lincoln or Sojourner Truth or Warren Buffett (his annual letters to shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway can serve as a master class in clear, vigorous, and courageous writing), write like hacks or bureaucrats because they’re afraid of being honest. Instead of saying, ‘We’ll do our best to educate students as well as possible,” they declare with grand unclarity, “No child left behind.” Instead of saying, “Yeah, well, we think we have to torture suspects to prevent the next 9/11,” they construct grand justifications of why “enhanced interrogation techniques” aren’t torture. And instead of saying “I blew it,” they say, again and again and again, “Mistakes were made,’ as if the passive voice absolves them of responsibility—which, come to think of it, rhetorically and grammatically, it does. (But nota bene: it only works if we, the readers, let them off the hook.)

What is something you learned about writing as a student that guides you now as a writer and teacher?

Verbs are the key. In particular, active verbs. A student can make me happy with a succession of short, sharp gutpunch verbs. String them together and you can’t help but lay out a series of actions—you can’t help, just about, but tell a story, explain an incident, describe an event, propose a plan. Strong verbs are the key.

Now, I like a layering of polysyllabic verbiage as well as the next academic; and, to be sure, some expertise-laden situations demand specialized diction—try writing a police report or a personnel evaluation with monosyllables—but for undergraduates it’s important to learn how to write with strong short words, as they expose the grammar and make one think about effective sentence design. Long words let one get tangled in phrases and ‘verbals,’ shadow verbs that are a pale imitation of the real thing, and not everybody emerges from that in good shape.

What is something that you learned about writing later in your career and wish that you had been taught earlier as a student?

The power of paragraphs. The quickest way to strengthen a piece of writing is to make sure that each of your paragraphs is doing one thing, and doing it well. I was helping a student this weekend write a good cover letter for a summer internship. She had one long paragraph about her service and volunteer activities. A good idea. But there was too much in it, so she felt she had to rush through it. We broke it up—one paragraph about her past, what she did in Morocco, and the next paragraph about the present, what she does here at Washington College. That one simple structural change gave each paragraph enough room to tell a great story. The most exciting part of it was that she recognized the change—how giving space to the two parts of her story made each one stronger, but made them even stronger together. And the separation into two paragraphs made it easier to pick up themes, resonances, and figure out what she wanted to emphasize with repetition.

What writer or scholar (any genre or field) would you recommend as a model of a good writer, and why?

Oh, so many. Adam Goodheart is a brilliant writer. So is Christine Wade. So is James Hall—he writes with an incredible combination of empathy and precision. That’s a pretty good start, right here at Washington College. I like Charles Krauthammer and Maureen Dowd and the remarkably thought-provoking blog Wait But Why. And of course the incredible observational, thinking, and writing talents of Andrew Sullivan and Ta-Nehisi Coates. But I read all kinds of stuff. People love to criticize Internet comments, for instance, but there are nuggets of brilliant writing in the comments section of just about any article or blog. Just read a lot.

What are you currently working on in your own writing and scholarship?

My big project is a book on leadership, tentatively titled ‘Leaders Ask: Questions and the Nature of Leadership.’ I’m interested in what else—words—and in particular how asking questions is the true spark of leadership. We all think leaders know stuff—and they do. But I’m interested in how leaders find things out, and it turns out there’s no mysterious answer—leaders are good at asking questions. If you ask the right questions, and ask them persistently enough, and listen carefully to the answers, and are able to turn the answers into action, it turns out you might make a pretty good leader. That’s my big project right now. It’s all done but the words.

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