Williams Ch. 5- Cohesion and Coherence

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I'm all for clarity and organization in writing... okay, in theory. I don't always execute these ideal principles because they often don't please my senses. When I write (or mostly type), I read aloud the words that I am typing. If a passage I write flows well, I don't much care if I violate the grand rules of (comlete) parallel structure and honestly, if something sounds better in twenty words than it does in ten, I am going to present it that way. However, I do think that Williams raises some valuable points in Chapter 5 of Style.

In the example on pg. 56-7, Williams tries to demonstrate how to make one's passages flow or read easier and more naturally. He gives two sentences:

"2a. The collapse of a dead star into a point perhaps no larger than a marble createsactive a black hole.

 2b. A black hole is createdpassive by the collapse of a dead star into a point perhaps no larger than a marble (56)."

As writers, we are expected to pick the first sentence as the correct one because it is in the active voice and-- I'll admit it-- that's exactly what I did. Williams is quick to point out though that if it helps the flow of your passage, use of the passive voice is perfectly permissable. Here is the sample passage he provided in which sentenct 2b fits:

"Some astonishing questions about the nature of the universe have been raised by scientists studying black holes in space. A black hole is created by the collapse of a dead star into a point perhaps no larger than a marble. So much matter compressed into so little volume changes the fabric of space around it in puzzling ways (57)."

I'm sorry, but that passage does not flow very well at all for me. I understand the lesson he is giving, but I feel that if that paragraph were ever in something that I wrote, I would not be attending this university. My version would probably go something like this:

Scientists have raised some astonishing questions about the nature of the universe by studying black holes, which are created by the collapse of a dead star into a point perhaps no larger than a marble. Etc. ...

I realizing that I'm being nit-picky, but bear with me because I am a bitter, wordy writer still trying to change. I do not think that ending a sentence with mentioning black holes and then starting the very next sentence with the term "A black hole" (57) [a tip that Williams actually gives in the "Diagnosis and Revision" section on pg. 59] flows very well at all, in fact I don't even think it sounds intelligent.

While I may differ some in opinion on his Cohesion lesson, I think that Williams hits the nail on the head with the lesson in Coherence. I can't count the number of papers that I have failed to see as a big "picture on the [puzzle] box" (60). I think that this tip is truly invaluable. All the parts of an essay or any piece of writing should work together. I know that that is basically the idea of the thesis, but thinking of it that way really helps me... I think.

 But of course, this is just my opinion. If you don't like it, or want to know what others think, check out what they had to say about this chapter.

3 Comments

Williams emphasizes that the passive voice is not bad -- it exists for a reason, to help us shift the emphasis towards something more important. If you want to emphasize the enduring questions, rather than the scientists who raise them, then a passive sentence is helpful.

I agree that "...black holes in space. A black hole..." is a bit awkward, in part because the "in space" only exists as a buffer. (Where else would black holes be?)

Jessie Krehlik said:

I felt pretty frustrated after reading those two sentences too, Cody. I actually blogged about the same thing. I really like that he explains why it's sometimes necessary to use passive voice, even though he just spent more than one previous chapter harping about why active voice is so important. I guess it's kind of a catch-22...seems like that's a recurring theme to me.

Megan Seigh said:

I also talked about the coherence lesson which I also found very "dead-on." When I have written papers that needed to be done immediately or meet a deadline, I tend to just concentrate on my sentences individually to make sure they are structured well and make sense. However, like you, I tend to not notice that big picture so sometimes when I read those papers back, I see the point I was trying to make wasn't clear.

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