Precision First

In the time of Twitter, concision may be a valid goal in student writing. But clarity and accuracy are often emphasized too little, Kim Epting argues.


August 11, 2011

In a New York Times opinion piece this spring, Andy Selsberg, an English professor, advocated a considered change in college writing curricula to focus on short writing pieces and concision first. He even suggested courses focusing on short pieces should precede courses focusing on the traditional five-paragraph essay and longer research papers.

I do not know whether such a curricular structure would be the best way to go, but I agree concision is a laudable and important goal. However, I do think that in its own concise form, Selsberg’s argument is missing a critical piece. I further assert that it is the piece that is missing most in students’ writing: precision.

Before I go too far, I should probably clarify a few things. First, I am not a writing instructor directly. I am an experimental psychologist who, in addition to the content of my field, also strives to teach my students to be decent science writers.

I also happen to study the conditions of self-editing during composition (i.e., revision), which turns out to be difficult to study in college students because, well, they tend not to do much of it — especially substantive high-level revision.

It probably also is worth noting that a fair amount of my training as a psychologist was in the behavioral tradition (behavior analysis). I appreciate that training for a number of reasons, but perhaps most importantly for its emphasis on precision and for strengthening my attention to the same. Among the challenges faced by a science of human behavior is that the subject matter already has terminology with everyday meaning and connotations. As a result, we must be extra careful to define our terms and use them in the appropriate context. As Philip Hineline puts it, in our science, “our language is also our calculus." This particular training may have done more to develop my critical thinking skills than anything else in my educational history.

In this day and age of information by photo caption and tweet, perhaps pressing students to write concisely is the right thing to do. But concise is not always precise, and without precision, concision is just vague at best, and misleading at worst. Several years ago, a student wanted to contest the scoring of one of his test answers in my introductory psychology course. The test question was something to the effect of “What is the primary advantage of an experimental study over a correlational study?” and an example sufficient answer would have been, “Causal conclusions may be drawn from an experiment, but not from a correlational study.”

The student’s answer was, “In an experiment, you actually test something” (the word ‘test’ was underlined twice). When he questioned why his answer earned no points, I explained that it failed to distinguish the two study types at all, as both correlational and experimental studies “test something” (i.e., in introductory terms, a relationship between variables and cause-and-effect, respectively). He looked at me earnestly and rebutted, “But you said some of the questions could be answered in one sentence, and I underlined ‘test’ twice.”

After a moment of silence (to contain my disbelief at his statement), I asked him what it would have meant if he had only underlined “test” once, or not at all, and how was I to know those distinctions in meaning. He had no answer. After about ten more minutes of discussion, he finally started to understand that being precise was the key, even if he initially needed more words to accomplish that precision.

Truly, being concise should include being precise. I have little doubt Selsberg intended concision to subsume precision -- I suspect most instructors do -- and formal definitions certainly imply precision is included. For example, the quick Dashboard Dictionary on my computer defines “concise” as an adjective meaning “giving a lot of information clearly and in a few words; brief but comprehensive.” Yet my sense is that common usage and immediate interpretation of “concise” increasingly points to brevity first and precision only as an afterthought, if explicitly at all. In a group of 12 students recently, I informally asked what “concise” means. All of their definitions hinged on notions of brevity; only one of the 12 mentioned precision (she used “accurate”), and it was a secondary part of her definition. The relevance of precision seems to be getting lost among bigger concerns to be brief.

I suspect that for most of us -- and especially for students -- the problem of being concise and precise is partially tied to not yet really knowing what we mean to say. That old adage “say what you mean and mean what you say” resides at the top of the instructions for each of my exams, coupled with, “Please answer the question, the whole question, and nothing but the question.” I include the latter because it represents one of the biggest impediments I see to students’ ability to be concise and precise: a lack of close-reading (or listening) ability.

In a recent pre-test study session with a few students in my office, one student asked if any of the other students could give her a definition of a particular concept. Another student eagerly started explaining a particular theory of why the phenomenon in question occurs. I stopped the responding student with a simple, “Wait, you’re not answering the question [she] asked.” So the eager student rushed to start again, this time explaining an experiment that disconfirmed one theory of the phenomenon and supported another.

Again, I stopped her, “Wait -- you’re still not answering her question. What was her question?” The student paused and then admitted she was not sure. The questioning student posed again, “What is [the concept] – like, how do you define it?” After two more false starts, the responding student -- who indeed knew the definition, the theories, and the relevant experiments — finally was able to give a direct and accurate definition, with no extraneous information. Her problem was not about understanding the material; it was about attending to the question and the answer with precision.

It is clear that reading and writing are connected — they involve overlapping skills and can have bidirectional influence. Yet it seems to me the relation between precision in our reading and precision in our writing is not often stressed directly. Students have difficulty focusing on the specific issue in front of them, whether it is identifying exactly what question they are being asked, determining a research question or conclusion, or expressing an idea or question of their own.

Indeed, many of my students have revealed this to me when complaining about points not earned on test questions; they have told me, in no uncertain terms, that they have learned to look at the topic of an essay question and then “just write pretty much everything [they] know about that topic.” This seems reasonable if the test prompt is “tell me everything you know about X,” but I can tell you the exact number of times I have written such an item: zero. Truthfully, I recognize I had a similar history, at least until advanced courses in college -- filling up the space on the page with at least related information generally produced favorable consequences.

Students also often ask if items on my tests are “trick questions.” My standard answer is that I never intend items to be “trick questions”; however, they are intended to be specific, precise questions. It occurs to me this might be an important revelation from them: focusing on specificity in reading and answering a short-answer/essay item is so unfamiliar to them, they find it suspect when required to do so. And they are genuinely confused when they receive no credit for filling up the space on the page with accurate, related information that nonetheless never addresses the actual prompt or question. This alarms me.

All is not lost, though; I do see signs of hope. For example, in my psychology-of-learning course, I give study questions that often ask very broad questions requiring students to develop understanding of whole experiments -- their purposes, procedures, conclusions, and connections to other material -- but then a test question may ask about a specific issue or part of an experiment. And eventually in the term, points may be lost for adding extraneous information. Anecdotally, I note that over the course, they do get better at directly addressing the questions, but they tend to substitute redundancy for a while after that. I view this as a type of response induction on their part (increasing responses that are similar to the target response, though not likely to be directly reinforced), and I suspect that may actually need to happen before they can refine and differentiate which exposition is most direct and precise, which will allow their writing to become truly and appropriately succinct.

One of my rhetoric/composition professor friends contends that part of the problem with students’ ability to write precisely is a lack of understanding and facility with various sentence structures and how to manipulate those structures to affect meaning. She further holds part of that issue is a reluctance to stop and think about what the words mean. She tells stories of their “random guess” approach to trying to correctly identify the proper referent for dangling modifiers, rather than slowing down to read and absorb what the modifier really means, what it is talking about. In short, they do not give themselves the time necessary to see their writing and revision help shape their thought.

Indeed, in our increasingly fast-paced, efficiency-driven (and I use the word “efficiency” loosely here), instant-gratification world, there is no time — or at least no expectation or supported value — for stepping back and thinking for a bit. Of course, good writing and revision requires just that sort of time. But I have come to realize that my students generally think good(-enough) writing needs no revision.

Further, I do not think they realize how much we revise, and I doubt that most of us deliberately talk with them about this. Once in graduate school, in an undergraduate research methods course for which I was the teaching assistant, I read and provided feedback on lab reports (for most, their first attempt at science writing). The students were horrified and angry about the copious amount of corrections and suggestions I gave (mostly formative rather than evaluative). After all, they said, most had received good grades in their English composition classes, so their writing could not possibly need that much revision. In partial response, the professor, who is an excellent writer and a good friend of mine, brought in a short story of his, on which I had also provided feedback. They were shocked to see that there was virtually as much feedback on his story as on their reports and to learn his was even a second draft.

I confess that concerns over misguided weighting of brevity over precision also contribute to my refusal to have word or page limits or requirements for assignments. (Caveat: I do occasionally cave to their relentless questioning and provide a rough range for where “most good papers” will fall.) My experience suggests that whether we give them maximums or minimums, most will write for the parameters first, rather than for the expression of the content first.

Yes, learning to express oneself within space constraints is important, but what can get lost in the sound bite is detail and nuance — in a word, precision. Longer writing pieces serve a great purpose too: length allows for development of ideas and arguments. Yet my students seem to see length as a depository for the “everything I know” strategy or an invitation to redundancy, not development. I would argue precision is the critical element for a piece of writing at any length. Thus, I see including space constraints as part of a larger shaping process that is combined with close reading and focus. Ultimately, then, my primary concern regarding my students’ writing is not an issue of length and brevity so much as one of directness and precision of expression.

The bottom line, in my opinion, is that perhaps before we give more attention to having students write briefly to fit their text-messaging sensibilities and the latest technologies, we should be more forceful about expecting and bringing their attention to accuracy and precision. Strunk and White, in their classic The Elements of Style, caution against predilection for brevity over precision in their 19th style reminder: “Do not take shortcuts at the cost of clarity." I suspect most instructors would agree with this admonition, as I trust precision of thought and expression from our students is paramount for most of us.

But I am surrounded by evidence that, ironically, that importance is not generally being communicated clearly to our students. We are leaving it to implication and assumption, yet their writing behavior suggests they are missing those implications. We assume our students understand the importance of precision, but if we are not saying it explicitly, why would we expect them to keep it at the forefront ahead of — or even near — all the other things to which we are directly telling them to give focus?

This is simply my public confession that I am concerned I have not paid enough explicit attention to explaining for students the importance of precision in any length assignment; not enough attention to drawing connections between being precise to convey intended messages in short spaces and being precise to convey intended development of an argument in longer spaces. I cannot help but think I am not alone in this. Maybe rhetoricians teaching composition courses are doing this all the time, but I have to wonder to what extent it is a transparent lesson in writing across the curriculum.

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L. Kimberly Epting is an assistant professor of psychology at Elon College.



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