Writers Talk About Writing
"The Craft So Long to Lerne"
Our old friend John E. McIntyre, longtime copy editor for the Baltimore Sun, has some pointed words on the craft of writing.
If you rummage around the Internet with a search along the lines of "college students can't write," you'll find that the "why Johnny can't write" jeremiad has a long history.
The University Writing Center at Texas A&M quotes Adams Sherman Hill from 1879: "Those of us who have been doomed to read manuscripts written in an examination room — whether at a grammar school, high school, or a college — have found the work of even good scholars disfigured by bad spelling, confusing punctuation, ungrammatical, obscure, ambiguous, or inelegant expressions. Everyone who has had much to do with the graduating classes of our best colleges has known men who could not write a letter describing their own Commencement without making blunders which would disgrace a boy twelve years old."
So with writing, as with just about any other subject covered in the op-ed pages, it's clear that everything has been going straight to hell for a long time.
Still, an article at Salon.com by Kim Brooks, "Death to high school English," is instructive about the particulars of our current descent into hell.
Ms. Brooks starts with a sentiment that virtually any college instructor could make:
For years now, teaching composition at state universities and liberal arts colleges and community colleges as well, I've puzzled over these high-school graduates and their shocking deficits. I've sat at my desk, a stack of their two-to-three-page papers before me, and felt overwhelmed to the point of physical paralysis by all the things they don't know how to do when it comes to written communication in the English language, all the basic skills that surely they will need to master if they are to have a chance at succeeding in any post-secondary course of study.
But, the moaning over, she goes on to inquire of students, and high school English teachers, what goes on in classes. The non-AP/honors track kids do journaling and skits. The honors kids read a few classic books, discuss them in small groups, and write some kind of essay on them. They work together, do peer review of writing, maintain folders, do informal stuff. They are not studying grammar and usage, or rhetoric or argument, or much in the way of formal writing at all.
Ms. Brooks talks to Mark Onuscheck, the chairman of the English department at Evanston Township High School, who says, "It's very hard to get a lot of teachers to teach those things, especially grammar. We have such a need to engage students. There's such an emphasis on keeping student enthusiasm going and getting them to want to actively participate. When you start talking about grammar, it's like asking them to eat their vegetables, and no one wants to ask them to do that. They prefer class discussion, which is great but to a certain degree, goes off into the wind."
Then, in sympathy, she observes:
And of course, there's also the logistical issue, the almost insurmountable challenge of teacher-to-student ratios, miserable ratios that are only going to get more miserable in light of the devastating teacher layoffs taking place around the country. At this particular school, every English teacher teaches five sections of English, and each section has approximately 25 students — a dream load compared to what teachers at, say, a Chicago public face. But that still means a three-page formal essay assignment would translate into 375 pages of student prose to be read, critiqued and evaluated. The very thought makes a cold, dark dread creep across my soul.
It used to be, when I was a boy, that English class drilled the (supposed) rules of formal grammar into you from at least the fourth grade on, and you were required in high school to write essays in a stilted, artificial, formal pattern according to similar supposed rules. Plainly, the schools no longer do that. But — and this is important, remember Adams Sherman Hill? — most people didn't write very well under the old system either.
Most people probably never will write all that well. I use as examples in my editing class real-world texts written by professional, paid journalists, some of which are so appalling as to make even an undergraduate gape. As I quoted Robert Lane Greene recently, "Writing is an artificial modern skill that must be taught for years when children are older, and (as the stickler knows) the results often fail to impress."
I have no particular advice to give to high school English teachers, who are trapped. Save this. If you do give advice on grammar and usage, stop giving bad advice and promulgating zombie rules. If you have a student who shows promise, don't steer her toward Strunk and White; recommend Joseph Williams's Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace.
If you are a student, ill-served by a defective education and ambitious to become an accomplished writer, I do have some advice.
Item: You are going to have to do this on your own. Even if you were lucky enough to have a few good teachers, you must make yourself a writer.
Item: Start reading, and stop reading crap. Identify prose stylists whose clarity and effectiveness you admire. Examine them closely. Try to imitate their diction, their syntax, their cadences, their metaphors. John McPhee's books may impress, and the other New Yorker writers are worth attention. But find the writers who speak to you, in newspapers, magazine, books, and online.
Item: Get yourself informed about language. You need to understand the tools in your toolbox. Garner's Modern American Usage, Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, and other manuals will help you to achieve greater precision.
Item: Write, and revise. Writing is a craft you learn by doing the work. When you have a first draft, put it aside. Come back to it a few hours later, or better, the next day. Manage your embarrassment at how shoddy it is and get to work at tightening it, sharpening the focus, selecting more effective words.
Item: Get advice. Find an outlet other than your private journal. Blog if you have to. Better still, get paid for it. Seek responses from your readers. Find someone whose taste and judgment you trust, and ask him or her to be frank about your work. Your mother may want to frame your every scribble, but you need someone who will tell you what you need to hear to keep you from making an ass of yourself in public.
Item: Settle in for the long term. The headline on this post is one of my favorite lines from Chaucer, "The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne." The life so short, the craft so long to learn. So get at it.
John E. McIntyre is a veteran editor and teacher. He worked for nearly 23 years at The Baltimore Sun, for 14 of those years as head of its copy desk. He has taught copy editing at Loyola of Maryland since 1995. He was the second president of the American Copy Editors Society and has been a consultant on writing and editing at publications in the United States and Canada. You can read more from McIntyre at his blog, You Don't Say.