Russell's general comments about students' writing, or, Things about which Russell is really fussy when it comes to writing.

(Although I originally wrote this with regard to historical writing of my seminar students, the ideas are more broadly applicable.)

 

Following is a general list of comments that I usually have about student papers. I present them in no particular order:

GRAMMAR CHECKING SOFTWARE:

The grammar checking function that is built into Microsoft Word is really quite good, particularly with regard to some of the technical rules that I present below.  Use it.

SPELL-CHECKING:

One misspelled word in your prose will not necessarily cause you to appear illiterate to your reader.  More than one probably will.  Use your spell-checker.

PARAGRAPHS:

Use paragraphs, each with a topic sentence, to convey the steps of your analysis or argument.  In legal writing, use paragraphs to separate your discussion of the different elements of a legal rule.  For instance, you should always use separate paragraphs to discuss the distinct issues of mutual assent and consideration.  Mingling these distinct issues within a single paragraph suggests to your reader that you cannot distinguish the issues.  Likewise, duty, cause in fact, proximate cause, and damages are all separate issues that require, at a minimum, a separate paragraph for each element.  Err on the side of more paragraphs.

PASSIVE VERBS: 

Almost always, you should avoid passive verbs. Passive verbs usually indicate to me that you do not know who performed a particular action. Passive verbs strip your prose of interesting historical personalities. Here are some examples of passive verbs: 

      The slaves were sold. The laws were enforced. The men were hung. The prose was deadened. The activity of historical figures was obscured. Through the use of passive verbs, ignorance of the identity of the agents responsible for a particular action was displayed. With passive verbs, extra words are included in the text. Passive verbs were eliminated, and suddenly the prose became muscular!
Also, even where you include the subject of the sentence after a passive verb--as in, "the will was challenged by the decedent's family"--you have included unnecessary words in your text. An active construction--"The decedent's family challenged the will"--gets the same result with two fewer words.

Try to eliminate every single passive verb from your text.

THAT/WHICH: 

Nearly everyone jumbles these two. I counsel you to "which hunt" in your prose. Here is one way to describe the rule: "that" introduces a restrictive clause; "which" introduces a nonrestrictive or nondefining clause. However, no one understands what this means. 

Here is an easier rule: when which begins a clause, a comma must always precede it. So, "the dog which bit me was wearing a blue collar" is wrong and should be either: "the dog that bit me was wearing a blue collar" or "the dog, which bit me, was wearing a blue collar."  The meaning of the two phrases is subtly different. The important thing to remember, once again, is that a comma comes before which, but a comma does not come before that. For the most part, this means that you should eliminate the whiches in your text and replace them with thats. If you doubt this rule, see The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language 3d ed. (1992), tit. that, p. 1859.

THAT/WHO-WHOM: 

That is for things. For people, use who or whom. For example, the judge who bit me was wearing a blue collar.  I find the use of that to refer to persons to be subtly offensive:  "The students that were studying in the library" offends me while "The students who were studying the library" does not.

QUOTATIONS: 

Many writers, particularly legal writers, include what I call floating quotations. "Floating quotations are entire sentences that appear within quotations marks, as complete sentences." Such quotations are undesirable because the text should introduce the source of the quotation, whether the source is primary or secondary. The reader should be able to tell from your text, without looking at the notes, whether you are quoting a primary source or the secondary literature. When you use a quotation, you should introduce it with a speaker tag, such as, Russell identifies "floating quotations [as] entire sentences that appear within quotations marks. . . ." Or, you might say that "Floating quotations," according to the extremely pedantic critic Russell, "are undesirable. . . ." Often, I think that the problem of floating quotations arises in the text when you have difficulty switching between primary and secondary sources, a problem that I address below.

You should indicate what you think a quotation means. With even the quotation of, say, half a sentence, the quoter's intention is rarely self-evident. So, deploy a quotation and then say what it means. Or make a point, explain the meaning of your point, and then provide evidence in the form of a quotation. Don't assume that your sources speak for themselves.

BLOCK QUOTATIONS: 

I do not think that block quotations are effective in your prose. I have two reasons to believe this. First, I think that most readers skip blockers when they encounter them in the text. Second, only rarely does the block quotation clearly state the meaning the quoter intends. Anytime that you quote something, you should explain what it means. You simply cannot rely on long quotations to convey your meaning without your intervention. The best way to make your interpretation clear is to break up the quotation into little pieces and explain each piece, tying them all together into one beautiful, interpretive whole.

METONYMY: 

I object to sentences in which non-humans do human things, as in "The court thought. . ." or "The counties reported. . . ." I include in this list sentences in which states, governments, counties, courts, regions, schools, and departments wondrously take human form and start acting, thinking, objecting, and writing. I would like you instead to include the names of the people involved. Use the authors of reports, the names of the judges, and the names of department heads, for example.

IF: 

A particular peeve of mine concerns sentences that begin with if, usually at the beginning of paragraphs that the author uses to make transitions. These sentences are bastardized version of the subjunctive. Here is an example of what I hate: If Russell was a good historian, he was an excellent critic of prose. 

Well, is Russell a good historian or not? The text does not really say that he is, but historians often begin transition sentences in this way. Typically, the implicit idea is that Russell is, indeed, a good historian, but the prose never comes right out and says so. If Russell was not a good historian, then is he also a lousy critic? Who can say? I prefer a sentence that says: Russell was one hell of a historian and also an outstanding critic. I do not understand why historians and other writers introduce their transitions with these inconclusive "if" sentences.

SECONDARY SOURCES: 

Almost every student struggles with the introduction of secondary sources in their  drafts. Switching from primary sources and the characters in them to secondary sources and their authors is often ungainly. The key is to introduce the authors. This is an example of the floating quotation problem. Before you introduce what a historian has written in an article, say, for example: Thomas Russell, a University of Denver legal historian, has argued that "Students should be sure to identify for their readers the authors of quotations that [not which! no comma] they include in their text." Russell, a late twentieth-century legal historian, also suggests that "when writing history, readers may benefit if the writer identifies the year the author wrote or uttered a particular quotation. Doing so," he explains, "will tend to reduce the chance that the reader will confuse authors of secondary works with historical actors from primary sources."

1850's/1850s: 

I prefer 1850s. Who needs the extra apostrophe?

COMMAS: 

Four points: In a series, I use what is called the Oxford comma.  So, I write that books, papers, and newspapers litter the floor of my office. Others write that books, papers and newspapers litter the floor. Whatever. 

Point Two: With longer series, you should substitute semicolons for the commas, particular when the individual elements of the series are long and contain commas themselves. 

Point Three: I always use a comma when I join two independent sentences with a conjunction, and, [point four] when I have a little introductory clause at the beginning of the sentence, I also employ a comma there. In short, I use a good number of commas. I have this idea that especially in 1970s social science writing many commas were omitted and reading was made more difficult. But, in the history writing of the 1990s, I favor the reinsertion of commas, and I believe that this will make our reading more enjoyable. 

ELLIPSES: 

You should use an ellipsis when you cut words out of a quotation. If you cut out words in the middle of a sentence, . . . use three periods. If your cut has overrun the end of a sentence, use four. . . . [Note that the blue book has a different rule regarding ellipses.]

EM-DASHES: 

I don't have a good rule for the use of em-dashes--that is, I am not sure when to use them rather than commas--but when you do use an em-dash, use two hyphens together with no space before or after.

TENSE

The selection of a tense for your historical writing is a difficult issue. Personally, I favor the simple past tense. Many like to describe what a historical figure said using the present tense, as in, "in his diary, Ballinger writes that he disagrees with the fire-eaters, who insist that Texas should secede." I find it awkward to read about dead people doing things in the present tense. For this reason, I favor the simple past, "he wrote, he disagreed, and they insisted." 

STORIES: 

Keep in mind here that you are writing history, and that a large part of writing history is telling a story. Try to convey what you have enjoyed about the research, which is that you have had the opportunity to intrude into a bunch of stories from the last century. So, tell the stories with relish! Give the reader detail, including some extraneous events that inject a bit of color into what might otherwise be rather drab. Don't overdo things and include paragraph after paragraph of pointless detail, but you should be sure to include enough to make things interesting.

If you have any questions about this, please ask.