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May 29, 2003

Writing Everything

Over in the comments thread of the Me Rite Guud! entry, there's been discussion about the various types of writing, and the relative importance of learning some of the formal basics of writing (through, say, having to crank out term papers in high school) for all forms of writing. Since I don't expect y'all to trudge through every single comment thread -- I mean, when I go to other people's sites, I don't -- I thought I'd bring to the surface level some of the thoughts I've had on the matter.

1. Writing term papers is actually important. Joke though I might about today kids' lack of formal writing skills meaning that I will be gainfully employed all my life, the fact is that the exercise of writing term papers, when combined with a teacher who knows what he or she is doing, is very helpful in teaching kids the basics of formal written communication, including structuring an argument, learning how to research, and crafting ideas in efficient and useful ways. Not to mention, of course, basic grammar.

These skills are useful not only to people who want to be writers, or for students who just have to write more term papers, but for everyone who ever needs to communicate with someone else in a formal written way -- people who have to write project plans, or Power Point presentations, letters to employees (or to employers), and so on. Learning these skills in high school is optimal because they're required for college, but also because that provides more time to internalize these writing skills so that you can pull them out whenever necessary. Clearly one can just trot down to the Barnes & Noble and get a book on how to write a business proposal. But my point is that if you've learned the fundamentals, and have incorporated them into your skills through use in high school and college, you won't need the book -- and you'll have an advantage over those who do.

Now, once you get out into the real world, there isn't much need to write term papers anymore, so one could argue that writing the term papers in themselves is not especially critical. But I disagree. Like many things in school (and like school itself) term papers are a construct designed to help students learn: First, to learn more about whatever subject they're writing the paper on, and second to get used to the formal basics and structure of writing clearly and effectively. These are tools that can be used well beyond the realm of writing term papers, just as other aspects of education are used beyond the realm of the classroom.

2. Congruent to this, other types of writing are not useful replacements for writing term papers. Hundreds of thousands of high school kids across the country are writing blogs and journals and millions more are sending IM messages by the truckload, and I think that's grand. You'll never hear me complaining about kids using writing to communicate.

But as I've mentioned before, writing blogs and journals is basically good for one thing: Writing blogs and journals. It lacks any critical feedback (from teachers, editors, or others with a formal interest in writing), and is often freeform and chaotic. Anyone who reads blogs and journals will note that entire strata of the online writing universe are well nigh incomprehensible because the writers, regardless of how much they want to communicate, don't have the organizational skill to get across more than a general idea of how they feel about things. A couple of term papers a month would tone that right up.

People tell me they like reading what I write here (thanks!), and much of the reason they do enjoy it is due to the fact that even when I'm writing about something completely stupid, I can typically write about it in a clear and intelligent manner. That comes from the ability to structure my writing on the fly, and ultimately that comes from gaining structural tools during the course of my education. Take a look at the blogs and journals you like to read for the writing, and I think you'll find that whether these people are "real" writers or not, they have ample experience with the structure of writing -- often through their jobs, which require written communication in some way.

3. Various writing fields are not isolated. And this should be read in two ways. First, the basic tools of writing -- the ones that allow you to structure your writing and communicate clearly -- are universally applicable: They're equally useful in writing a novel, writing instructions to operate a stereo, or writing a brief on why your company should do whatever it is you should choose to propose. And to go back again, a great number of these skills can be learned in the process of cranking out term papers.

Second, skills learned in specific disciplines of writing are of use in other disciplines of writing. One of the correspondents in the earlier comment thread opined (and I'm paraphrasing) that he suspected that the corporate world would have little use for writers with the skill of writing dialogue, which is essential for writing novels. Well, as it happens, I write both corporate brochures and novels, so I can tell you that this suspicion is erroneous. My corporate clients often ask me to write material in a particular tone -- informal, say, or business-like without being too stuffy, or straight-up get-to-the-point declamations -- depending on who they are or the nature of the business. Finding the right tone in corporate writing is very much like creating the right tone for a character's dialogue, and the fact I can do the latter makes doing the former that much easier. Indeed, clients tell me that one of the things they prize about my work (and why I continue to get work) is the fact that what I write often feels like someone is sitting across from the reader, speaking the words to them: Like dialogue.

It works the other way as well. Corporate writing is usually to the point and direct; you can't presume that the reader of a brochure or corporate document is going to follow you down entire paragraphs of prose, no matter how brilliant it is. You economize and get to the point. I find this useful when I'm writing novels; thanks to writing corporatespeak I have an indicator of when I'm drifting from the narrative flow of the story and need to get re-engaged. I think my readers appreciate this; I know my editors do.

The point here: Good writers don't arbitrarily segregate their writing skills -- they're opportunistic and use whatever writing skills they learn in whatever field to make their writing stronger in other fields. And underneath all of that is a grounding in the fundamentals of writing clearly and with structure, fundamentals which are optimally learned in school.

If we're not providing our kids these fundamentals in school, we're failing them. The easy road is to mock the dumbass kids for not being able to write, which I've already done. But if in fact I keep my competitive edge in writing over the next few generations of kids, I'm not really going to blame them. It's not the kids who are designing a pedagogical system that allows them to cruise through high school and not have to write more than a couple of three-page papers.

Posted by john at May 29, 2003 06:51 AM

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_Jon | May 29, 2003 09:25 AM


rick mcginnis | May 29, 2003 10:11 AM

The best prof I ever had was a first-year history teacher who told everyone in the class, on the first day, that regardless of what school they came from, they didn't know squat about writing essays, and that the first month of class would be taken up with remedial essay writing. And that afterwards, he would expect a weekly essay from all of us, and several much larger papers at regular intervals.

He was right, which doesn't say much about the prestigious private boys' school I had just graduated from, though I can say with certainty that his remedial essay-writing month taught me more about writing than anything else I ever learned in college.

MinstrelOfFunk | May 29, 2003 10:18 AM

What you're forgetting is that having to learn to write a long paper or essay could be damaging to a young student's self-esteem. Also, demanding writing skills from students is clearly biased against those who learn English as a second language. In today's environment that's much more important than actually learning anything.

John Scalzi | May 29, 2003 10:26 AM

Minstrel of Funk writes (I'm assuming somewhat sarcastically):

"What you're forgetting is that having to learn to write a long paper or essay could be damaging to a young student's self-esteem. Also, demanding writing skills from students is clearly biased against those who learn English as a second language. In today's environment that's much more important than actually learning anything."

Kids who are not fluent in English should obviously be working in some sort of ESL course which improves their facility in the English language, and that facility should include learning how to write well in the language.

As for damaging kids' self-esteem, I think it will be rather more damaging to their self-esteem if they graduate from high school or college without being able to communicate and watch those who can get the good jobs while they are asking people if they want fries with that for the rest of their working lives.

MinstrelOfFunk | May 29, 2003 11:21 AM

For what it's worth I totally agree with you. My previous post about self-esteem and bias was purely sarcastic.

I started down this path because of an interview I saw recently. The woman being interviewed had written a book about how education in America had been hamstrung by political correctness and special interest lobbies. She gave examples like how textbooks can't use the term "Founding Fathers" because it's sexist, or how a story about a mountain climber caught in an ice storm was struck from a text book because some students live in warm areas and had never heard of an ice storm therefore the book was "regionally biased."

It wouldn't surprise me at all to find that students today are not writing term papers because some group decided it was unfair in some way.

John Scalzi | May 29, 2003 12:21 PM

Minstrel of Funk writes:

"I started down this path because of an interview I saw recently. The woman being interviewed had written a book about how education in America had been hamstrung by political correctness and special interest lobbies. She gave examples like how textbooks can't use the term 'Founding Fathers' because it's sexist, or how a story about a mountain climber caught in an ice storm was struck from a text book because some students live in warm areas and had never heard of an ice storm therefore the book was 'regionally biased.'"

Yeah, I've been reading about that. The main thing I get from all that is how surprisingly stupid textbook companies think today's kids are, and also how the idea of text books should be to expose kids to new ideas rather than make sure they're not confronted by anything alien.

Crystal | May 29, 2003 12:53 PM

I am in complete agreement. I wrote hundreds of term papers and essays throughout my educational career and it has been invaluable to me in my current carrer in "corporate America." I have written business cases and executive presentations, on the fly, and have had them praised by others who have to, as you mentioned, get a book from B&N to figure out how to structure their ideas and make them palatable.

I heard an interview with a person who spent some time on the committee that approves stories and reading material for text books (which are only produced by 2 or 3 companies nationwide) and was horrified to learn about how much is not admitted into text books to keep from "offending" the children reading them (or more accurately, to keep from offending their parents). As a result, women cannot be portrayed as nurses, teachers or mothers in any graphic images (as this would be "stereotpyical") along with a plethora of other ridiculous rules. My opinion is that all this does is ensure that kids have no idea what it's like in the real world. Once they do, they realize that their text books are bland and inane representations of what's really out there. Who can blame them for not wanting to plod through six chapters of said books?

RON | May 29, 2003 07:39 PM

Your thoughts about structure and style, research, dialogue, and especially your advice about not letting--writing a BLOG journal--give you a false sense of security, are worth a billion coffee cups. People, who get to read all this, though, are already graduates, GED's, or have gold library cards, by now. Maybe you and the brotherhood should donate your bodies to the nearest high school creative writing class, where your audience can get the full benefit of your real world writing experiences. Can you imagine how an upstart crow would feel, if you personally read one of his/her research papers. One day they'll come back to thank you, in person, and autograph one of their own paperbacks, and as you had predicted, probably take your job, away.

Sue | May 29, 2003 08:07 PM

"Lies My Teacher Told Me" is a fabulous book full of stuff that textbooks lead kids astray about and a lot of it has to do with publisher politics.

The trouble with teaching kids to write well is that way too many people aren't going to be willing to or able to take the time to read so many papers. And in college, a lot of kids would drop a class if there was another option if the class required a lot of writing.

I've worked for college bookstores for the last several years, so I've followed things more closely than most people would have. It's too easy for me to get off on a rant about it, so I'll just leave it at this: Publishers spend a significant amount of money trying to get professors to adopt their books and professors are way too often guilty of being suckered in by pretty, shiny things that students never use or don't care about, but end up costing them a ton of money most students really can't afford.

RON | May 30, 2003 12:20 AM

Sue, the problem is, that the authors of the texbooks are also professors on other campus', and part of their tenure's contract is to be published here and there, thus, scratching each other's backs is sound etiquette, goodbye and thankyou Mr. Chips.

Sue | May 30, 2003 09:27 AM

Ron, that's not the whole problem, but it is a part of it. "Publish or perish" also helps explain the vast amount of journals that exist and the existence of a lot of university presses (many of whom are annoying to work with as a bookstore, but that's another story). I'm not necessarily sure it's a good idea, but I don't know enough about it to have much of an opinion beyond suspecting that it leads to research on stuff that doesn't really deserve that much effort or tediously dull books that are poorly written, like one I attempted to read while writing my senior honors thesis in college.

The problems, as I see it, are rooted in the publisher's desire to survive. The average shelf life of a textbook these days is somewhere around 3 years. Most textbooks have a new edition put out every three years. That's done to combat the used book market. There's about ten used book wholesale companies across the country that buy books stores don't need and resell them to other stores that do need them. Publishers know that this takes money from their pockets, so they started putting out new editions more often. There's other stuff, but I don't want to get too long-winded here.

I'm not blaming the publishers, mind you. They have to survive somehow. But that's only the money behind the books. The content issue is completely different. That's more related to politcal correctness and state standards. Publishers, understandably, want to have their books adopted by a lot of schools, but every state has different standards. So publishers often have to create textbooks tailored somewhat to particular states, sometimes resulting in several versions of the same book, if they want to have it adopted widely. Some states do statewide adoptions, so getting that from a big state can mean a significant amount of money. Colleges provide adoptions on a smaller scale, but can still be pretty significant.

Political correctness, as Crystal noted, plays a role in the content. I'm sure that history books used in the South view the Civil War/War Between the States/War of Northern Aggression differently because you can get away with making the South look bad in the North, but not in the South. James Lowen has a lot to say about this topic in "Lies My Teacher Told Me."

Of course, there are also flat out errors in textbooks. I saw a story on (IIRC) Dateline once about how some textbooks have a serious number of factual errors. Like one science book stating that the Statue of Liberty was made of something it isn't (bronze, maybe) or science experiments that never work the way the book says they do because it's impossible to happen that way. History books are big culprits, too, but I can't remember any of the examples right now.

Kirsten | May 30, 2003 06:56 PM

Thanks, John, for this essay.

I feel kind of self-conscious. Itís always embarrassing to talk about your own writing style while youíre actually writing. And not only that, but writing to someone whoís actually good at it.

Iím not thrilled with my own writing skills. Who would have ever guessed Iíd need any? In college, I always respected other peopleís talent, but didnít feel this was my particular strength. In fact, I felt pretty outclassed by those future NYT reporters and novelists-to-be.

Now I find Iím in a position where I have to communicate a lot of complicated medical and scientific information, in essay form, to non-medical readers. And itís really hard. I repeat myself. I go on and on. I use bad analogies. I fail to state my main points clearly. I look at the end product, and always feel it says much less than I wanted to get across.

Iím kind of serious about this question: how do you get better at writing once youíre out of school? I donít want to impress anyone or write a memoir. I just want to be able to package vital information for people who need it, in a form they can understand and use.

Jeff Porten | June 2, 2003 02:54 PM

Since John hasn't jumped in, Kirsten....

1) Read. The more you read, the greater the possibility for better writing to osmotically flow into your own.

2) Write. Sounds trite, but you get better by doing. Since your job already has you doing that, then...

3) Edit. You've got a great checklist already: "Hmm, on this last essay, did I go on and on? Use bad analogies? Fail to state my main points clearly?" Once you get into the habit of red-penciling your work, you'll find the red pencil is active while you're doing the writing.

3a) Find an honest friend who can help you, preferably someone in your target audience. Someone who'll say, "Damn, Kirsten, I liked your writing here, but I still have no idea what you're talking about."

If you like, you can augment the above with various "how to write" books, but I see those as secondary to the above. (Alternately, they can also be used for invasive surgery on a particular aspect of your writing you need to change.)

John Scalzi | June 2, 2003 04:33 PM

What he said.

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