A. Classics to begin with
The fabric of words may cast its spells on a man. Stupid faith may result, for one thing. Are there other untoward results of reading and hearing than gross lack of realism, being led astray, and wasting one's precious time?
Since there are many sorts of classics around, and classics in many fields. A first definition is here: A classic is a largely enduring work. Also, a classic reflects sides to the history and culture of a civilisation in its way, and helps the study of a civilization. And here is a tendentious way of speaking about classics: "Every man with a bellyful of the classics is an enemy to the human race," said Henry Miller. Such a saying is quite a lemon, and not true to facts as far as I can see. What matters the most is not how many classics we have read and now neatly, but how well we have digested them - and the quality and subjects of classics differ a lot as well.
But to stay with the lemon simile, in case a classic is forced on you on some level in your compulsory education: "When fate hands us a lemon, letís try to make lemonade," said Andrew Carnegie. How to make the lemonade of self-help learning and reading comes next - how to profit from various uses of language.
B. In the main
Good quality may be measured tentatively by a mixture of informal and not so informal yardsticks, and some search engines offer help toward finding works of scholarship too. Also, the structured comments on various books and other items on Amazon.com may give good hints, once you know the many caveats involved.
In a library, works are grouped into such as General Works; Philosophy; History; Geography; Folklore; Social Sciences; Education; Fine Arts; Language and Literature; Science; Medicine; Agriculture; Technology; Bibliography and so on. Another, greatly helpful division is between fiction and non-fiction. If we look for facts to be rooted in or even base our fare on somewhat, non-fiction works are more likely to offer good help.
On our way on and up, solid non-fiction books of many kinds can help to some degree. A book is not to be judged by its cover, says a proverb, and to judge the value of people and their thoughs only by virtue of their rank or status is a fallacy too: Is not the cowl that makes the monk or the pointed beard that makes the sage, says our inherited folk wisdom. To rub it in, take a look at the tale of the abbot who is called to document his knowledge, and who sends his shepherd to answer difficult questions aimed at finding out of the abbot's worth. The abbot or minister in such tales is high-ranking but not wise. The Finnish scholar Walter Anderson collected almost 600 variants of this type of tale [Bø 1982:381].
Outer marks and status may fall short, or they may not. Formal qualifications are had by exams, and real qualificatons show up in the living as true competence. It does not have to be any either-or; however, some who seem competent by virtue of their degrees, may not be fair or markedly bright anyway, and vice versa. There are some skerries under the surface where the tactful learner and reader is sailing. And as a reader or learner you are called to sail between Scylla and Charybdes, somewhat like Odyssey and his crew.
Scylla: It is usually good to know about formal signs of quality and give thought enough to what underlies many sites. For some seek to make you buy something, or seek profit by ensnaring ways and means. So ponder: "f we are to give everything its due, twice two makes five is sometimes a very charming thing too, wrote Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Others may take to indoctrinating means, and not every site is fair and reliable. Some find pretences OK. Now, as with good books to learn from, find out something about the author(s) by their formal grades, titles and reputation. Also have a look at who publishes the works in question - university presses and works of repute or thought well of in journals of esteem seldom go along with authors of ill repute. So check well. It helps to be informed, even though there are limits to it. The Scylla error is to be greatly duped by titles and status marks, and not be able to evaluate the merits of a work yourself. There are very enabling methods to learn here. [Link]
Charybdis: There are also works of outstanding quality without formal marks as those pointed at above - it happens. The error is to pass by such works, not noticing how great and helpful they are.
C. Pertaining to non-fiction works
Impressive language may not be the best language, for the hoof of demagogy is probablyin it. In science and scholarship it is fit to let facts speak for themselves without great-looking words and howls to accompany them.
In cases of uncertainty one is to tell how uncertain things supposedly are, by estimates. Uncertainties can be graded, as in statistics, through such as "most definitely", "most likely", "rather likely", "likely", "probably", "possibly", to "maybe and maybe not". There are shades of uncertainties.
Also, one is to discern between facts and interpretations. Literature analysis hinges on interpretation skills, just as for picture analysis. Many principles for doing it exist, and you have to use your common sense - a common sense that is not too common anyhow.
Further, it is a given to discern between firsthand sources and other sources, between sources of good quality and others, and prefer the best ones at hand.
Academic writers and able scientists learn how to present their ideas neatly, by taking the time to go through various primers in the art of writing reports and dissertations. There are "How to" books for these too.
In scientific writings you are to refrain from undermining your readers by tricks and other means that demagogues resort to. For one thing, you are expected to substantiate your claims by being specific, being to the task, and giving marked examples, and refer in accepted ways to the sources you use. This is to link up to related research, and help the reader to check your sources, even to duplicate your experiements, if you tell of experiements. It all is supposed to work against such as tendentiousness, bias and gullible beliefs.
Another fine side to learning academic ways, is to tell first what is to come, and then fill out. This structuring principle applies both to whole works, chapters and paragraphs. This skill makes it easier for readers to get a grasp, if you write for them. Summaries help too, and being clear, using reasonably understandable language. Plain English guidelines may serve us here along with more concrete guidebooks.
As for polishing one's output, "I was working on a proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back in," by Oscar Wilde. Today there are style guides with a mixture of fixed and suggested rules that may ward off many of these delicate problems.
Just a sample:
A reference work edited by Olav Bø
Bø, Olav, mfl, redr. Norske eventyr. Oslo: Det Norske Samlaget, 1982.
How to write and what not to: Aids to polishing and getting well understood
Collins. Collins Improve Your Punctuation. Glasgow: HarperCollins, 2009.
Collins. Collins Improve Your Writing Skills. Glasgow: HarperCollins, 2009. Recommended
Swan, Michael. Practical English Usage. 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.
Trask, Robert Lawrence. Punctuation. London: Penguin Books 1997.
How to write as academics should
Barrass, Robert. Scientists Must Write: A Guide to Better Writing for Scientists, Engineers and Students. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 2002.
Clark, Irene L. Writing the Successful Thesis and Dissertation: Entering the Conversation Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education / Prentice Hall, 2007.
Cutts, Martin. Oxford Guide to Plain English. 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.
Lunenberg, Fred C, and Beverly J. Irby. Writing a Successful Thesis or Dissertation: Tips and Strategies for Students in the Social and Behavioral Sciences. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, 2008.
Schench, Mary Jane. Read, Write, Revise: A Guide to Academic Writing. New York: St Martin's Press, 1988.
The University of Chicago Press. The Chicago Manual of Style. 16th ed. London: The University of Chicago Press, 2010. Other style guides exist too, and simpler and shorter derivates from this one too, but this one is quite a mother lode.
Get a dictionary that suits your vocabulary so that you can build on it. Main publishers in Great Britain and the United States include Longman, Collins, Oxford, Cambridge and Merriam-Webster. All are online.
In searching for synonyms to enlarge your vocabulary that way, the best I have found is by Collins. Merriam-Webster has a book on synonyms and antonyms too, and offer such a service online also - and both Penguin and Merriam-Webster publish thesauruses.
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