HOW TO SAY NOTHING IN FIVE HUNDRED WORDS
Paul McHenry Roberts (1917-1967) taught college English for over twenty years, first at San Jose State College and later at Cornell University. He wrote numerous books on linguistics, including Understanding Grammar (1954), Patterns of English (1956), and Understanding English (1958).
Freshman composition, like everything else, has its share of fashions. In the 195Os, when this article was written, the most popular argument raging among student essayists was the proposed abolition of college football. With the greater social consciousness of the early '60s, the topic of the day became the morality of capital punishment. Topics may change, but the core principles of good writing remain constant, and this essay as become something of a minor classic in explaining them. Be concrete, says Roberts; get to the point; express your opinions colorfully. Refreshingly, he even practices what he preaches. His essay is humorous, direct, and almost salty in summarizing the working habits that all good prose writers must cultivate. -- Editors' note from JoRay McCuen & Anthony C. Winkler's Readings for Writers , 3rd ed., Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980
It's Friday afternoon. and you have almost survived another week of classes. You are just looking forward dreamily to the weekend when the English instructor says: "For Monday you will turn in a five hundred-word composition on college football." Well, that puts a good hole in the weekend. You don't have any strong views on college football one way or the other. You get rather excited during the season and go to all the home games and find it rather more fun than not. On the other hand, the class has been reading Robert Hutchins in the anthology and perhaps Shaw's "Eighty-Yard Run," and from the class discussion you have got the idea that the instructor thinks college football is for the birds. You are no fool. You can figure out what side to take. After dinner you get out the portable typewriter that you got for high school graduation. You might as well get it over with and enjoy Saturday and Sunday. Five hundred words is about two double-spaced pages with normal margins. You put in a sheet of paper, think up a title, and you're off:
WHY COLLEGE FOOTBALL SHOULD BE ABOLISHED
College football should be abolished because it's bad for the school and also for the players. The players are so busy practicing that they don't have any time for their studies. This, you feel, is a mighty good start. The only trouble is that it's only thirty-two words. You still have four hundred and sixty-eight to go, and you've pretty well exhausted the subject. It comes to you that you do your best thinking in the morning, so you put away the typewriter and go to the movies. But the next morning you have to do your washing and some math problems, and in the afternoon you go to the game. The English instructor turns up too, and you wonder if you've taken the right side after all. Saturday night you
have a date, and Sunday morning you have to go to church. (You can't let English assignments interfere with your religion.) What with one thing and another, it's ten o'clock Sunday night before you get out the typewriter again. You make a pot of coffee and start to fill out your views on college football. Put a little meat on the bones. WHY COLLEGE FOOTBALL SHOULD BE ABOLISHED
In my opinion, it seems to me that college football should be abolished. The reason why I think this to be true is because I feel that football is bad for the colleges in nearly every respect. As Robert Hutchins says in his article in our anthology in which he discusses college football, it would be better if the colleges had race horses and had races with one another, because then the horses would not have to attend classes. I firmly agree with Mr. Hutchins on this point, and I am sure that many other students would agree too. One reason why it seems to me that college football is bad is that it...
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