Paul Roberts’ essay, How to Say Nothing in 500 Words, analyzes inexperienced writers’ common mistakes in academic writing and offers recommendations. The author initially presents a case example whereby many writers produce low-quality work in the pursuit of merely fulfilling the word count requirements. Specifically, he argues that most essays contain repetitive and poorly explained content and commit stylistic mistakes such as excessive pat expressions, hedgings, and abstractions (Roberts 3, 5, 7-8). Although the work could emphasize the difference between some aspects, Paul Roberts’ essay is an effectively written guide that provides valuable information on improving the stylistic writing and the quality of the content.
One of my reactions to the essay was the author’s ability to accentuate the fallacies and provide valuable insight regarding stylistic writing and the ways to produce quality content. The author does this in the first two sections of the essay, namely, the ‘Avoid the Obvious Content’ and ‘Take the Less Usual Side’ parts. By suggesting writers eliminate the immediate and apparent arguments and argue for the less popular side, Roberts stipulates that writers will intellectually compel themselves and produce nuanced, interesting content (3).
I was particularly impressed by this piece of advice since most academic writing consultants neglect this part of writing and overly emphasize the grammar and stylistic checks. Hence, the author pays attention to the underemphasized area of academic writing and provides valuable recommendations on content generation.
Nevertheless, these two strategies should not be presumed to be the best and only way to develop unique and interesting content. Although the surface idea or argument might be prevalent, new ways of explaining an opinion or new pieces of evidence can capture readers’ attention. Hence, it does not mean that the writer should immediately eliminate apparent arguments and look for others. A writer can emphasize that the same evidence for proving a particular argument has been provided for years and then offer a new one to support the same statement. Thus, although I find the author’s recommendations regarding content generation particularly useful, writers should not be limited to only those suggestions and should pay attention to other effective strategies to generate engaging content.
I have also found Robert’s recommendations on pat expressions, abstraction, and colorless words hard to differentiate. On the one hand, the author argues that pat phrases such as “in the twinkling of an eye” should be avoided since they do not add any value to the writing (Roberts 8). On the other hand, he claims that abstract descriptions and colorless words such as “nice” do not convince the reader and, instead, more specific and detailed characterization should be provided (Roberts 4, 10). Although I can understand the difference between these ideas, it is subtle, and less experienced writers would find it difficult to detect the difference. Thus, the author could have emphasized the line between the proper layers of descriptive words and patting expressions.
Despite some suggestions being potentially confusing, Paul Robert’s How to Say Nothing in 500 Words contains critical information on the basics of successful academic writing, including stylistic writing and quality content generation. The author’s recommendations on producing capturing content can be particularly valuable for writers since many educational writing consultants underemphasize the content generation aspect of writing. Nevertheless, his recommendations on content generation should be carefully considered as they risk eliminating potentially strong arguments without proper analysis. The essay could also benefit from additional clarity on the differences between the pat expressions, abstractions, and colorless words. In conclusion, I strongly recommend Robert’s essay to writers who significantly aspire to improve their writing skills.
Roberts, Paul. Understanding English. Harper, 1958.