Stylistic Imitation

ENGL 117

Dr. George Gopen

Spring 2010

                The purpose of this course was to analyze and imitate the styles of prose authors both past and present.  Analyses focused on three aspects of prose.  First, the technical aspects - the number of syllables per word, words per sentence, words per paragraph, sentences per paragraph, and clauses and phrases per sentence.  Second, the figures of speech: repetitions; omissions; alliteration; rhyme; and rhythmical patterns of speech.  Third in our analyses, and the primary instruction in the course, was reader expectations, the assumptions about prose that fluent readers have as they approach a text.  For example, because readers expect the verb of the sentence to express the main action, the writer should avoid nominalizations that take the action out of the verb position.  Dr. Gopen has developed this idea of reader expectation in order to teach students and his faculty colleagues how to write in a way that will ensure effective communication: the reader will perfectly understand the writer's intentions because the writer has met their expectations.  Having analyzed an author’s prose, students were given the task of imitating the stylistic choices that the author made. 

Authors read during this course include John Lyly, Sir Francis Bacon, Samuel Johnson, John McPhee, Barbara Kingsolver, Joan Didion, George Orwell, and Virginia Woolf. 

Additional assignments include a presentation, in effect instructing the class on the style of a particular 20th century writer, and a final group paper, approximately 45 pages long, comparing the styles of two authors and including extensive imitations of those authors. 

The greatest personal benefit of this class has been the improvement in my own writing.  I have sharpened my use of punctuation based on what is easiest for the reader to process.  For example, I now place my periods before a parenthetical phrase rather than after, as it allows the reader to take note of the new information in the stress position; I use colons and semi-colons more appropriately both to add stress positions to my writing and to better clarify the relationship between two clauses in a sentence; and I am aware of where information falls in a sentence – I only give new information after I have sufficiently prepared the reader to process the information the way that is helpful for them to understand my writing. 

                Academically, this course has benefited me in making me aware of the stylistic choices of authors.  I am now attuned to the poetic elements in an author’s style – the repetition, the parallel structures that create unique rhythms, the omissions of verbs for the sake of rhythmic balance.  Taking this course on writing has made me not only a better writer, but a better reader.  

This course will impact my teaching both explicitly and implicitly.  Explicitly, I will likely use the information I’ve learned about reader expectations to improve clarity in my students’ writing.  As I teach the basics of grammar, nouns and verbs, for the purpose of instructing students in subject/verb agreement, I will be able to speak about the parts of speech not only grammatically, but for the sake of their function in the sentence.  This should give students a broader view of the reason grammatical correctness is important and the way it will improve their academic writing.  Implicitly, this course will be of benefit as I communicate with my students.  In PowerPoint presentations, on assignment sheets, and in my comments to students, the techniques I’ve learned in this class will continue to pervade my writing.  If I write with greater clarity, I will not only communicate more effectively with my students, I will also consistently model effective writing. 

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