The Critical 'I'

Read. React. Repeat.

Saturday, April 26, 2003

(with apologies to David Sedaris) There's a dearth of coherent writing skills among the American masses. If you don't encounter that in your worklife, you surely do if you surf the web to any significant degree (especially message forums and blogs). The lack of competent writing skills starts early in life and is exacerbated by neglect in schools, according to the findings of the National Commission on Writing in America's Schools and Colleges.

This is not really a surprise. We've known for years that students are allowed to coast in terms of their presentation, and writing is a key area where subjectivism sabotages efforts at improvement. The example put forth, about the majority of high school juniors not being able to craft an understandable paragraph, does effectively drive the point home.

As someone who works with words, this topic holds great interest for me. I hope I don't sound too snobbish when I say that writing does involve some talent. Some people simply have a better knack for writing, and for different types of writing (fiction vs. reporting vs. copywriting vs. journaling), than other people do. I don't think the objective is to have everyone become a master wordsmith. The aim should be to instill skills that will enable everyone to write well enough to be able to communicate effectively--i.e., eliminate the excuse of "you know what I meant" when encountering sloppy, barely-decipherable writing.

This absolutely blew my mind:

In high schools, seniors are rarely assigned to write extended research papers anymore because teachers don't have the time, the report says.

Are you kidding me?? Writing research papers was all I remember doing in high school. Now they aren't required? Just what are these students supposed to do when they get to college? No, wait, don't tell me: They'll spend the better part of their college freshman year in remedial writing courses. This represents a lowering of standards, and it has a trickle-down effect. Kids don't learn fundamentals in high school; they try to play catch-up in college, but because so many of them are lacking, colleges tend to let a lot of this slide; and then these same people join the workforce, where they stop trying altogether and drag everyone else down.

And what's with teachers not having the time? What the hell else are they doing? I know they're typically overloaded with big classes, but come on. If they think they should be able to do nothing but assign multiple-choice tests, then they need to get their own asses in gear.

As for the suggestions to bolster writing education, I agree with at least giving all of them a shot. I'd add this: Make sure high-level reading courses accompany these efforts. Nothing helps develop superb writing than being exposed to a wide range of authors. The usual great literature is a no-brainer; the curriculum should be expanded to include ample writing from the last couple of decades, as well.