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May 27, 2003

Me Rite Guud!

"Junior Dominique Houston is a straight-A student enrolled in honors and advanced placement classes at Northview High School in Covina, Calif. She is a candidate for class valedictorian and hopes to double-major in marine biology and political science in college, preferably the University of California at Los Angeles or the University of San Diego.

But the 17-year-old said she has written only one research paper during her high school career. It was three pages long, examining the habits of beluga whales.

'Bibliographies? We don't really even know how to do those. I don't even know how I would write a 15-page paper. I don't even know how I would begin,' she said." -- "Writing term papers has become a lost art," The Los Angeles Times (via the Boston Globe), 5/27/03

Two things here:

1. When I was in elementary school, I used to live six houses down from Northview High School. It had this huge pile of dirt near the football field that I would haul my Huffy up and then do little bmx-like stunts until the pain brought on by repeatedly slamming my tender young reproductive organs into a banana seat as I landed forced me to stop. Go Northview Vikings!

2. When I was in high school (harumph, harumph), I took a class called Individual Humanities, which, in addition to regularly (i.e., once a month) requiring ten-page papers, had as its final paper a 50-page biographical study of a single person (I chose HL Mencken) plus a ten-page bibliographical essay (in which you talked about the several books you used to research your subject) plus another 10-page essay in which you discussed why you chose the subject you chose and how researching and writing the biographical essay affected you.

And when I was in high school, I had no idea of the concept of "double spacing."

You may think this is one of those "life was so much better when I was a kid" sort of thing people do as they get older, but it's not. It's a "I'm pleased we're raising a nation of people unable to write because that means I'll never be out of work" sort of thing. So go on, kids! Keep on not writing those term papers! Every one you don't write means less competition for me. I thank you. My mortgage thanks you.

Posted by john at May 27, 2003 01:08 PM

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Laural | May 27, 2003 01:21 PM

Well, I'm neither a young'un nor an old'un (26), but I certainly never wrote any more than a ten-page paper in my high school, either. But I did write about six of them or so.

Sue | May 27, 2003 01:52 PM

I wrote exactly one research paper in high school. It probably sucked. I'm sure I'd be embarrassed by it if I saw it today. But then, much of high school was that way.

I've thought about becoming a teacher. I still might. They'd all hate me, though. I'd be the mean history teacher who makes them read those boring primary sources. I'd be the wicked witch because I'd insist they learn to present evidence and draw a conclusion from it. Heaven forbid kids learn to think for themselves. And there'd be all sorts of complaints about having to write papers. "It's history! Not English! Why do I have to write a paper for you?"

What these kids don't see is that they're being shortchanged. Not learning how to effectively communicate thoughts in high school sets them back in college (maybe not much, though, considering some of the people I went to college with) and sets them back in the working world. My husband has told me about co-workers frequently sending him e-mails with spelling errors, despite the software having a spell-check option. He's told me about people he's worked with who can't put together a paragraph without grammatical errors. And he's told me about how this has slowed the advancement of some of these people, who are otherwise competent, intelligent human beings.

Jim | May 27, 2003 02:18 PM

In my high school every senior had to write a research paper. This "senior theme" (as it was called) was not part of any particular class (although it was submitted to the English faculty); it was a graduation requirement for all seniors, even those not expecting to go on to college.

You had to get approval of your topic in advance. I knew a kid who was all excited when his topic of "corvettes" was approved. His joy was crushed when he found out (after the last date to change topics) that meant he was to write a paper about a class of warship rather than about "Corvettes" -- which was what he had intended. (It just goes to show you, capitalization does count.)

We were the class of '61 -- somehow I have the feeling that the Senior Theme requirement has faded into history.

Tripp | May 27, 2003 02:21 PM

For the moment, at least, MN high schools seem to require an awful lot of papers, and the citations and bibiographies are checked.

I say 'for the moment' because the new Republican gov is honoring his 'no new taxes' pledge, and he has already repealed existing education standards, to replace them with a 'back to basics' (aka 'cheaper') approach.

Firebyrd | May 27, 2003 02:34 PM

I don't recall having to write any extensive papers in high school. For that matter, the longest paper I've had to write in college after three years of attending had a minimum requirement of ten pages.

Of course, I can't say I feel like I've personally been cheated this part of my education because I know how to write, though I sure wish everyone else knew how to as well.

Jim | May 27, 2003 02:58 PM

Of course back in those days we used manual typewriters -- and WhiteOut hadn't even been invented yet. And we had to walk to school twelve miles barefoot in the snow -- uphill both ways!

Jim Valvis | May 27, 2003 03:06 PM

Um, a point of order here. Unless you're writing term papers for a living, John, I don't see how you can claim you won't be challenged by the upcoming generation. There's more to good writing than throwing together a bibliography, as you should know, and probably do.

On the whole, I find the younger generation (about ten years our junior) both better read and more literate than our generation was at that same age. You-- and the Boston Globe-- underestimate them at your peril. Certainly there are some who cannot read Dick & Jane, but there are many who can, and will, write circles around us both.

It is a curse of every older generation that one gets comfortable and full of oneself until along comes a hungrier generation to push them into oblivion.

In time, only the constantly-improving succeed, and the rest merely survive, if they're lucky. And it's the young-- not us-- who are the greater reading demographic and therefore, in a few years, will decide who will continue in this craft and who will not. In that case, you better hope they appreciate you more than you appreciate them. Otherwise, yes, you will find yourself out of work. Or writing term papers for the mortgage. Whichever they decide.

Alex Elliott | May 27, 2003 03:10 PM

I graduated high school in 1987 (the same year as our gracious host, I believe), and I got an amazing amount of writing experience in school.

I actually wrote my first research paper in the eighth grade (that would be 1983). It had to be on some scientific topic and be about eight handwritten pages long, with a list of sources, but no footnotes or anything like that. It was submitted to both our science teacher and our English teacher, each of whom issued a grade for their respective classes (on content from the science teacher and on grammar/style from the English teacher). My paper was on stellar fusion processes and was almost certainly the first thing to point me towards eventually majoring in physics in college.

In high school, we had to write a major research paper in junior year (mine was on the comet-impact-killing-all-the-dinosaurs theory) with footnotes and a full bibliography, along with lots o' intermediate submissions (thesis proposals, early drafts, etc.). Senior year AP English had weekly essays (some done on the spot in class in half an hour) and two major papers - one analyzing a novelist (I chose Robert Heinlein) and the other analyzing a poet (e.e. cummings).

My senior year Spanish course even required a ten-page (double-spaced, thank God!) research paper written in Spanish using only Spanish research sources (mine was on the history of classical music in Spain). This was before computers did much more than basic ASCII, so I had to go through it at the end with a black pen putting all the accents and tildes in by hand.

When I took my required technical writing course in college I remember being shocked at the unbelievably poor writing ability of many of the other people in my class (mostly engineers). When we did peer-evaluations of each other's first drafts, I often wanted to just write, "Burn this and start over," instead of trying to identify areas for improvement.

Nowadays, my only professional writing is comments buried inside computer code somewhere - but at least I take solace in knowing that my comments are well-written.

Jennifer | May 27, 2003 03:12 PM

I find it funny that I also found this article today, stating essentially the opposite.

Jennifer | May 27, 2003 03:13 PM

Okay, apparently links don't work here. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A12718-2003May19.html

John Scalzi | May 27, 2003 03:42 PM

Jennifer: If you tried to embed a URL in there, it didn't work.

Jim Valvis wrote:

"On the whole, I find the younger generation (about ten years our junior) both better read and more literate than our generation was at that same age. You-- and the Boston Globe-- underestimate them at your peril. Certainly there are some who cannot read Dick & Jane, but there are many who can, and will, write circles around us both."

Well, speak for yourself, there, Jim.

I don't find the current generation any more or less literate in a general sense, but I do find the lack of emphasis on written communication in schools extremely troubling. Writing is many things, but one of those things is a formal skill, and writing a three page paper once in one's entire career isn't going to cut it. When one does not write, other ancilliary skills suffer as well. one of the reasons that I *do* make a good living as a writer is because I know how to research, and that's a skill the comes directly from having to write formal papers.

I agree there's more to writing than putting together a bibliography. However, if you *can't* put together a bibliography, you're at a distinct disadvantage to those who can, and there are also other formal aspects to writing you to which you are also at a disadvantage. This isn't mere speculation on my part, since quite a bit of the corporate work I do (i.e., the work that is not glamorous but pays stupid well) is handed to me by people who are younger than I am but don't know how to organize their thoughts and ideas in a coherent written manner.

There are undoubtedly compensations for the decreasing amounts of formal training people seem to be getting -- the fact that blogs are a rising form of communication, for example, is a heartening sign; most people who write blogs (and online journals) tend to the youngish side, and you'll find me hard-pressed to say anything bad about the idea of hundreds of thousands of young people writing to express themselves. On the other hand, as I've said many, many times before, writing on your blog trains you to do exactly one thing: Write on your blog. For most people, that may be enough, but if you want to write, you need to know a lot more.

Aside from the people who want to write for a living, knowing how to write formally has other compensations as well: The ability to formalize arguments, organize thoughts, and to express one's self in written form without looking like a total dumbass.

There's also the more subtle and troubling fact that people who can not intelligently organize their own thought are less able to pull apart other people's arguments -- one popular blog activity is called "fisking," which is to go through someone's written comments and argue with it line by line. But that's the idiot cousin version of being able to demolish an entire argument by looking at the structure of the argument and pulling out its supporting strut with a single line. More in these cases is not better, it's simply inefficient.

Ultimately, the advantage I have over people who are not provided formal writing experience in their education is that I have a skill set they don't -- a skill set that extends beyond writing and is useful now and will continue to be useful in the future. I worry about a lot of things in my future, as does everyone, but being able to use my skill set in any number of occupations is not one of them.

I don't underestimate today's kids -- they're smart, and I know so because I have one of my own -- but I'm not certainly afraid that they're going to run me out of my work. When a valedictorian candidate has written only one term paper in her entire high school career, that tells me she's lacking a whole raft of organizational skills.

Of course, you can't blame the kids for that; they're not the one's who set up the system the kids are navigating through.

Joseph M. | May 27, 2003 04:29 PM

In regardst to what Tripp said: I went to high school in Minnesota--I was in the last class to graduate before the institution of grad standards (Go '01)--and have now, through talks with several of my former teachers and by examining my brother's assignments, had some experience with the grad standard papers (I also, now that I think about it, had to do several as a test subject for the teachers). In my experience, while you are required to produce sources, bibliographies, etc. for these papers, the topics are bad, and they still don't really require much in the way of thesis developement; personally, I think the ability to support an arguemnt with information is important.

Although I was before the time of teh grad standards that Gov. Pawlenty is removing, I wrote a couple of longer papers (with bibliography, etc.), mostly in English classes, and many, many three-page essays in my AP history classes. In college, I have found the AP essays more useful and better preparation. Why? Because they taught me how to argue. The English ones taught me how to assemble a bibliography, sure, but I can pull out my English Assistant book by Ms. Hacker and find [almost] everything I need to know about those beasts right in there. It's a lot harder for me to find instructions on how to phrase an argument.

Personally, I don't like the old grad standards, and am happy (yes, happy) to see them gone: I don't think they actually improved the learning that students did. Now, I also don't like what the governor is doing to school funding, but that has nothing to do with my opinion on the grad standards.

_Jon | May 27, 2003 04:49 PM

I had a college prof who I thought was excellent. "Old School" teacher. He required that you know the requirements for the class - and if you didnt, you were gonna fail. He told us that he would assign six projects for the semester, and 4 were due in the second half. I thought they were fair - I reviewed what they needed, and - while being a lot of work - were certainly attainable. So many people in that class thought that it was "too much work" that they complained to the Board of Regents, who forced him to reduce the requirements. I felt (and still do) cheated. After that semester, he left the school and went to teach at another university - and he taught the way he wanted to (we met over a year later at a conference).

These *babies* whined until they got what they wanted. And the baby-sitters watching them caved in and gave them the easier course they wanted. When something like that happens, we all lose.

Instead of my work having a large collection of bright people who can come up with ways to solve problems and implement changes, we have a relative few who are always tasked with the "dirty work". Which isn't so bad. And I'll go off on a bit of a rant here, but what *really* gets me is that the uneducated ones don't know how to follow an idea. Nor do they understand "long term implications". So solving a project "the right way" - (e.g. so no one has to re-do it in 1 year) - is a *fight*. I don't sit in meetings and argue over the *best* way or a *better* way - I have to provide engineering and political _proof_ about just the *right* way to do something. /rant

/me: Need alchohol....

These kids need a strong education so that they can contribute to society and contine to create. If they do not have extended skills of thought and reasoning, then they will be someone's servant, rather than someone's provider. This example is only a small pinhead in a sea of under-educated people. The smart ones will 'figure out' how to write well, and create, and invent. But they will do it later in life because they have to learn those things on their own - through the school of hard knocks. Take for example the man who created the Wendy's Hamburger Chain - Dave. He was often quoted as saying he made many mistakes and cost people a lot of time and money because he didn't have a proper education. He still created a great business - but he *knew* he could have created a better one - easier - if he had learned in school.

*THAT'S* the difference at hand here.


Amanda | May 27, 2003 05:49 PM

I graduated high school in 1997, so I'm pretty much a young 'un. I remember having to write a couple 10-pagers and at least one 20-pager (which went with a 45-minute presentation about an author that we researched for the whole year... I did Oscar Wilde). We did bibliographies and all that wonderful stuff. But honestly, I thought the best thing about our English program was that no one was trying to teach you how to write a 10-page paper. Rather than give us minimum lengths, we were often given maximum lengths for our papers. (I don't think this was to save teacher effort either, since I probably wrote on average about two papers a week. I know my teachers weren't sparing themselves on number of papers to grade.) The whole point was to teach us how to write clearly and minimalistically. I think in one class you were rewarded if you could prove a non-trivial thesis in one page double spaced. Maybe it sounds like we got off easy, writing short papers, but this is actually more difficult that writing long papers.

Every writing-intensive course I took in college threatened to be difficult and time consuming, and I ALWAYS found them far easier than advertised thanks to my HS English teachers.

Now I'm working at a computer research place. I read a lot of conference and journal papers. People tend to think that if you go into computer science, you don't need to take a lot of rigorous writing classes, and I think that is terribly terribly wrong. Rarely do I read a paper that I consider clearly written, and when so many of these papers are presenting complex and difficult ideas, the added confusion of poor writing can make an otherwise intelligent paper almost impossible to understand. Unfortunately, studies show that the more opaque and confusing your paper is, the more likely it is to get accepted to a conference or journal.

The thing is John, most high school kids that learn how to write well aren't actually going to compete with you. Some of them will end up being my colleagues. And on the whole I really wish that my colleagues wrote better.

Jim Valvis | May 27, 2003 06:08 PM

John, are you claiming that the advantage you have over hoardes of advancing youth is that you can write a bibliography? That you can research? Is that the best you got? Oh, boy.

Surely research is important, but it's hardly a skill that requires more than a bit of common sense and maybe a reference book. Remember. Nobody taught us how to write a query letter in high school, either, John, but we've managed to figure it out. Along with the novel synopsis, and the cover letter, and etc.

The abilities to "formalize arguments" and "organize thoughts" are valuable, no doubt, but I'm not so sure the term paper promotes this in more than a superficial way. It asks you to prove the point by using other sources to prove the point for you, which is not the same thing as formalizing an independent argument, regardless of sources. Both are valuable skills, but one trains one to make "stupid money" and the other trains a person to be a better, more complete person. And, in my eyes, a better, more complete person makes a better writer every time, especially in my fields of expertise, which are poetry and fiction. I admit I'm a little backwater on the corporate writing scene. It has never interested me; I've left it for those who want it.

And since we're on the topic of sources, how about telling folks that while you told people "many many times" that writing a journal trains you only to write in your journal, that I said it first, if not so many times, and only later did you come forward and agree. At the very least, don't throw my own words back at me as though they were yours all along.

I agree with you about the fisking, though I've sometimes used it myself. I especially dislike it in email. I figure a person ought to learn how to write a decent letter, by gosh, without ripping apart my words. But I see no greater tendency for this among the young than I do in people our age and older. It's a problem, that's all, but not one associated with an age bracket. It seems, if anything, particular to the internet.

Anyway, I think you're wrong. I think the term paper thing is no big deal. Your success, what you've had of it, proves nothing to me in this regard. You have other skills, most notably a keen business eye, that add to your success and have nothing to do with whether or not you can quote (or even steal from) sources. And thank goodness. Because if all you had going for you were the ability to use footnotes, you'd be in a world of literary, not to mention financial, hurt.

Shamhat | May 27, 2003 06:37 PM

My oldest daughter is a sixth grader in New York City, and her bibliographies are strictly graded on format as well as number and variety. When I was a kid, all we had were underlining and quotation marks. What's with all this newfangled "boldfacing" and "italics?"

John Scalzi | May 27, 2003 06:47 PM

Jim Valvis asks:

"John, are you claiming that the advantage you have over hoardes of advancing youth is that you can write a bibliography? That you can research? Is that the best you got?"

Nope. Just merely two basics that they don't.

You seem to be wanting to discount fundamentals, Jim, but I don't see much value in that. I do believe that well-written term paper, in conjunction with a teacher who is useful in his or her field and knows how to help the kids, is exceptionally useful in learning things like organization and structuring thought. I'd be happy to grant that often term papers don't accomplish these tasks, but that's typically a failure of pedogogy.

I also think you're promoting a false dichotomy between writing corporate speak and writing fiction or other, more creative forms of writing. As I write both professionally, I can speak to this: The fundamentals of writing are the same regardless of format. The same basic tools that help me communicate an idea in a financial brochure are the same basic tools that allow me to communicate an idea as a plot point in a novel. How the tools are used is a bit different. But the tools of language are the same.

Neither corporate writing or novel writing is at all like writing a term paper, of course. But school isn't like real life, either. Both are constructs that allow for learning. And both are useful in a larger sense.

Jim Valvis also writes:

"And since we're on the topic of sources, how about telling folks that while you told people 'many many times' that writing a journal trains you only to write in your journal, that I said it first, if not so many times, and only later did you come forward and agree. At the very least, don't throw my own words back at me as though they were yours all along."

Well, Jim, this assumes both that your thoughts on the matter are so singular that others (including myself) could not reach the same conclusion independently, or, lacking that, that I *my* conclusions are directly based on whatever comments you might have had on the subject. However, neither is the case. I am of course aware of your thoughts on the matter (they were part of the debate I reference here: http://www.scalzi.com/w000204.htm), but they were not formulative in my own thoughts on the matter, which had been brewing before that particular Whatever entry. You are of course free to believe what you will, but allow me to suggest you presume more than is factual.

That being the case, I will continue to note this particular observation without great concern for its provenance, content that, in the Scalzi iteration at the very least, it is my own.

Sue | May 27, 2003 09:43 PM

I think what research papers ought to be teaching is how to gather information and then decide what bits of that information are most important, putting those bits of information into a clear, concise, coherent form, and then proving that you can draw a conclusion that logically follows the evidence presented. That's the value of research papers, assuming kids are being taught how to produce them properly. If all that's done is gathering information and rehashing it, they're pointless.

The research paper format itself isn't going to be terribly useful to many of us throughout our lives. However, when done properly and enough times to really learn the methodology, they teach us how to better formulate our arguments or positions regarding just about anything in life. Want a raise? Collect a list of things you've done that make you worthy of a raise and present them in a clear, concise, coherent manner to your boss and prove why you should get a raise.

The format changes, the information changes, but the essence remains. It's like anything else you have to practice at -- the more you do it, the better you're taught it, the better you do.

Lisa | May 28, 2003 12:13 AM

It seems like I remember writing numerous research papers in school, over ten pages and with references. but I also remember going to college and teaching my roommate to write a simple five paragraph essay--she had never written a paper before.

Now I work as a researcher and write lit reviews for grants and journal articles quite often. Although I do believe anyone can learn how to do a bibliography with a simple style book, I do think it takes some skill and practice to pull out information from its source and to keep its context while coming to your own logical conclusion in your writing. It also takes practice to do this with speed, which is required in the work force. When I did work study as a research assistant in college, I would have lost my job if I had to learn these things from scratch (or with little practice) because I didn't learn in highschool.

Also, I think that being required to write for others (outside of any personal writing one might do) gives a better command of the language that simple reading and speaking just don't accommplish. I don't know if this applies equally to others, but as someone who is deafblind, I would be speaking to you in nonsensical vowel sounds if I weren't brought up for years being forced to type out letter by letter, phoneme by phoneme, pieces of the English language that were not already floating in my brain. I always thought that Dubya must have never learned to write well, and that is a factor in his Dubya speak (i.e. "strategery" or "nukyalur.") Students need to write and write extensively at all levels of their education, in my opinion.

Karen | May 28, 2003 01:04 AM

There's also the issue of what classes she elected to take to avoid writing a paper; in my HS (which I left a mere 5 years ago) several of the valedictorians intentionally took the easy classes (3 years of pottery, for one) to secure a perfect GPA. Although our school did require you to write a few big research papers, it would be easy enough in a school that didn't to avoid a term paper all together.

RON | May 28, 2003 03:18 AM

I agree with the first Jim (Jimsjournal.write), that skipping boot camp, created people like Jason Blair. I'm speaking specifically of a relic called an "Underwriter." That's an avatar for a typewriter, children. What's a typewriter but not a word processor? A typewriter is a mechanical device that is equipped with its ink ribbon wound on tread spools, with no erase or insert or highlight or spell check features. So, if you dared to make two consecutive lines of miscues, you had to throw the entire page away into a 3-D rubbish can, which held more expletives than the graphical icon on Windows and unreplete of sentimental value. Of major importance, the musical group, "The Monkeys," still had some hair sprouting on their skulls, so, "Write Out (TM)," the mother of all "Liquid Papers," was not, yet, invented. If you are, somewhat, puzzled by this tea in China, follow this up with proper research. The way you erase mistakes was to swab your typos with Goodyear rubber crimped onto the tail end of a Condor's feather. Now, to transpose whole paragraphs...well, that was so frustrating that daylight, soon, arrived and smeared your illuminations.

Bill | May 28, 2003 08:48 AM

But, Ron, such frustrations had their benefits. I, too, learned typing (and writing) skills on an Underwood typewriter. Now, with far less effort on my part, I am capable of blinding speed on the computer keyboard! I can spew forth great gobs of prose far faster than today's (marginally) educated writer.

Sue | May 28, 2003 09:23 AM

Shamhat says: When I was a kid, all we had were underlining and quotation marks. What's with all this newfangled "boldfacing" and "italics?"

It's all because of computers. I've never had to do anything with boldface in a bibliography, but italics are expected. I've used three different styles -- APA, MLA, and Turabian -- in my writing and I think all of them expect you to italicize the titles of books and maybe journals.

My sweetie once had 10 points docked from a paper for a grad CS class because he didn't put his bibliography in alphabetical order. He was pretty shocked and a little embarrassed by forgetting to do it.

Tripp | May 28, 2003 09:26 AM

Speaking as a computer professional with 25 years in the biz, I agree with Amanda that writing skills are important in the computer science field. When I started, we had secretaries and a typing pool that essentially did our writing for us.

Now we must write our own correspondence, and with the globalization of business computer organizations are scattered around the world. This means the written message is used much more than it used to be.

When the only impression someone gets of you is from your writing, you want it to be good.

Emily | May 28, 2003 10:07 AM

What John talks about writing for his IH class is far more intensive than anything I did in high school. At the same time, Dominique's total lack of paper-writing is also foreign to me. (I graduated high school in 1997, for any keeping an elderly vs. kids tally) My academic experience most resembles Amanda's--I did research papers, often linked to oral reports, but mostly wrote analytical papers.

As far as I could tell, my English and history teachers in high school were teaching us basic research skills, but they weren't trying to make us brilliant researchers--we didn't have the library to support it, for one thing. Rather, they were trying to teach us to analyze the material they placed in front of us, to write well, so that when we got to college, we'd have to learn the library, but not how to construct a thesis statement. In college, I learned how to research, but if I hadn't learned to analyze a limited number of sources effectively in high school, finding all the right books and writing a stellar bibliography would've been of no use to me.

Also, I think it's a tricky thing to say that "the kids" either can or can't write based on this one valedictorian. My baby sister is in high school now, having a similar academic experience to the one I had. She and her classmates have no problem writing papers on command. Academic standards across the country are so varied, there's no way of knowing what the average writing level of newly graduated high school seniors is, and there never has been. Some kids will always be writing the 50-page papers and some kids will graduate while functionally illiterate. That, however, is an entirely different problem.

Dane | May 28, 2003 11:05 AM

I shudder to think that in this great democracy we might one day VERY SOON have an educated elite of the priviledged upper class and an uneducated lower class. It boggles the mind to think such a reality could ever take place.
This is of course written as a sarcastic jab at the sudden shock and recoil at what has been the standard practice of social structuring since the dawn of man. Rich people educate their children so they might acheive more in their lifetimes- poor people teach theirs to be just like themselves. We may have had a slight blip on the radar screen of the status quo during the era when the middle class in the USA was the ruling party- but guess what, those days are over.

I am opposed to the wrongness inherent in this sort of classist thinking and willmake it my goal to personally change the course of the lives of the children of the financially challenged I touch while I am teaching. I am not surprised though at the poor quality of the education available to people who can't afford to send their child to a functionally progressive school.

Jim Valvis | May 28, 2003 03:57 PM

John, of course once an idea is put into the public arena, regardless of how revolutionary it may be at the time, it is always deemed "common sense" later by people who want to use that idea for their own purposes. Here's what I know. I wrote an esssay and a month later you wrote one agreeing with me. I'm not expecting props from you, surely, since for one reason I don't know how you'd fit it in between all the props you give yourself, and I understand that no one can copyright an idea, just the expression of that idea, but you could at least pay me the courtesy of not preaching to me my own doctrine.

More salient to the point at hand, I am far from "promoting a false dichotomy between writing corporate speak and writing fiction or other, more creative forms of writing." In fact, your argument makes no sense, given your (really, my)other argument. One the one hand, you claim, as I do, that writing a journal will not help a person write other things. On the other hand, you think writing "corporate speak" and novels are the same thing. Well, it's either one or the other, and it is most certainly the first. Otherwise, why do we have separate reference books and seperate college courses and seperate publishing houses and editors and agents for nonfiction and fiction.

Yes, there are some overlap between genres, but there is also some overlap in bicycling and woodworking, or could be if you looked hard enough. And the differences define the genres, not the similarities. For instance, though I grant I have never worked in the corporate world, I would guess they care very little if you have a well-tuned ear for dialogue, yet such a skill is necessary for most fiction.

You telling me that I'm "discount[ing] the fundamentals" is something like a joke, and you know it. Nobody has preached the fundamentals more than I have. The difference here is that I see certain "fundamentals" as vital and others as not so necessary. Annotation of sources is a lesser fundamental, if it's one at all, and only necessary in certain kinds of paid writing. Use of style, of the kind taught in Strunk & White, is far more vital, in all kinds of writing. And it is this that I preach and this is the knowledge that is more imperitive to writing success. The craft, not some arcane rule about scholia.

All right. Enough of this. I made my point and now it's time (for me at least) to move on to something else. It's your house, and you can have the last word.

John Scalzi | May 28, 2003 05:17 PM

Jim Valvis writes:

"John, of course once an idea is put into the public arena, regardless of how revolutionary it may be at the time, it is always deemed "common sense" later by people who want to use that idea for their own purposes. Here's what I know. I wrote an esssay and a month later you wrote one agreeing with me. I'm not expecting props from you, surely, since for one reason I don't know how you'd fit it in between all the props you give yourself, and I understand that no one can copyright an idea, just the expression of that idea, but you could at least pay me the courtesy of not preaching to me my own doctrine."

Jim, I'm afraid I'm not responsible for the impluse of your ego that assumes that this particular idea flowed directly and singly from your mind alone, while the rest of us merely lapped up the received wisdom. If you wish to claim to have written up your comments before I did, by all means, go right ahead; you say you did and I believe you. But as I've mentioned before, you are not the progenitor of my thoughts on the matter, and no matter how much or often you proclaim otherwise, it still doesn't change that particular fact.

Likewise, in my space, I'll say whatever I wish, however I wish, to whomever I wish. If you don't like it, or if you feel like you're being preached to with your very own personally handcrafted doctrine which no one else could think up ever, by all means please leave. Or at the very least refer to the Disclaimer (http://www.scalzi.com/whatever/archives/000025.html) which spells out fairly clearly that I don't feel the slightest bit of obligation to outside determinations of what is courteous and nice. It should clear up any lingering confusion you may have on this score.

But in case this is not clear enough: Don't tell me how to act on my own domain. It's not your place to do so.

Jim Valvis also writes:

"One the one hand, you claim, as I do, that writing a journal will not help a person write other things. On the other hand, you think writing 'corporate speak' and novels are the same thing."

I said no such thing. I said that corporate speak and novel use the same writing tools, although in different ways. Writing a journal is not particularly helpful in writing other things primarily because there is usually an absence of criticism (in the form of a teacher, editor or client), and its generally informal nature doesn't provide much in the way of formal structure. Now, I *do* think writing a journal is useful to the extent that it helps people feel comfortable with the *idea* of writing. But writing informally is like doing a somersault in your front yard, and writing formally is like competing in a gymnastics event. One needs training and the other does not.

Your analogy regarding bicycling and woodworking is a poor one, I think. A better analogy might be the difference between different types of medical training: Say, between oncology and podiatry. In both cases there is indeed specialized training, however both medical doctors have the same fundamental grounding in general medicine. Likewise, both someone who writes novels and someone who writes stereo manuals will benefit from the skill of organizing their work and a familiarity with the processes of language.

You are also incorrect in the assumption that corporate writing has no interest in the specialties of fiction. A well-tuned ear for dialogue, for example, comes in very handy when clients tell me they want a casual or informal tone to the work, or (alternately) something that is businesslike... but still accessible. Knowing how people speak and understanding the different varieties of tone that are possible is essential to providing the client what he or she is looking more. Indeed, one of the reasons I am as financially successful as I am in the corporate sphere (or so I've been told by clients) is that my writing sounds like someone could actually speak it -- in other words, like dialogue.

On the flip side, I've personally found the training I have in corporate writing useful when I'm writing novels, because in corporate writing, one has to get to the point quickly. In my novel writing, this training is worthwhile because it helps me gauge when I'm meandering with my prose and need to get back into the narrative thrust of things.

As I've said before, I think pulling out the various fields of writing isn't particularly useful -- each can inform the other. In ALL cases, however, it's useful to have experience tinking with the formal rules and structures one can learn, for example, in term papers (and not, as another example, in blogs or journals).

Jim Valvis also writes:

"You telling me that I'm 'discount[ing] the fundamentals' is something like a joke, and you know it."

Actually, no, Jim, I don't know it, which is why I said it. If you want to say that one type of fundamental is more important than the other, that's fine with me, although I'd disagree with you on which is more important. I'm a terribly big believer in style, but style is something you drape on a skeleton of structure; if you don't have that underlying structure, all your style is going to do is lie there in a pile. Ideally, kids who are learning writing would be provided with both, which is how I learned it.

In my case, style came ease and structure came hard, which may be one reason why I think it's important. Dismissing structure as mere annotation of sources is missing the point by a wide margin. What kids are missing are skills that are applicable in every sort of writing, in all fields professional and otherwise, and whether they intend to be writers or not. It's important stuff.