Reader Questions—The Problem With Contemporary Writing
Dissents, Opinions, Arguments, Confusions
The first bit of news is that last week’s Desk Notes triggered a flood of messages and comments and also brought along a lot of new readers. The second bit of news is that there are, well, some lingering questions after the last issue, which I will attempt to address today in a slightly contrived format.
My preference—to speak to all the new readers—is to avoid linking issues. I explore one topic every Friday, then dismiss that topic and move on to what strikes me next, a bit like a child tossing away one toy for another. If you are new, consider this a rehearsal before we return to normal next Friday. And, more importantly, welcome to Desk Notes.
The comments about my last issue seemed to fit into four categories: reasonable objections, unreasonable objections, quite interesting points, and the incomprehensible. But that’s not meant to discourage comments—please feel free to always click reply with your thoughts, and I can even state that I appreciate how much the comments help me. In some ways I have a cynical interest in good disagreement, as it sharpens my arguments.
For my responses today, I tried to synthesize all of the messages that I received into a few core questions. If you haven’t looked at the last issue, you might want to read it first.
So how should writing be taught then?
Implicit in almost all discussions about education is a belief that teaching involves opening a student’s skull, grabbing a pitcher filled with knowledge, and then pouring the contents inside. Whether the student is a young child in a primary school or an adult taking a foreign language class before a trip, the picture is of active teaching and passive learning. Of course this dynamic isn’t described explicitly. Nor is it a dynamic that even conforms to most experiences. But it lurks underneath every discussion of teaching methods and classroom materials.
Additionally, in any more specific discussion of writing instruction the blame quickly flows downhill. Businesses complain that new hires can’t write, and they blame universities for failing to teach the basics; universities complain about the quality of student writing, and they blame high schools for failing to teach the basics; and those basics are stressed in most conversations about high school eduction, but many educators complain that kids arrive at school without any grasp of the fundamentals. Wherever you find yourself in this chain, the blame for writing quality is always just a little earlier. Notice, too, that the entire chain has a conspicuous nostalgia for some past decade that’s a bit blurry and not usually mentioned—back when new hires were stout, university students wore ties, and high school kids diagrammed sentences.
What’s frustrating is that this entire chain consists of people who wait—passively, even longingly—for a teacher to pour the knowledge of how to write. Here’s a simple question, which has nothing to do with technique or method, and is sure to be unsatisfying: how many pages are being written? If you struggle to write, and have a difficult time conveying what you feel on a page, how many pages do you write each week?
Although there are certainly exceptions, most universities and high schools require fewer papers and students consequently write fewer pages—and this isn’t a minute change. To be shocked at the lack of writing ability is only peculiar because it should be your expectation. This is the equivalent of trying to learn to swim by talking about swimming, thinking about swimming, reading about swimming techniques, studying the history of swimming, buying the most streamline googles, but never actually getting into a pool, and then wondering why you can’t swim.
There are plenty of useful exercises and techniques to improve writing. But my extremely unsatisfying answer is that for most people and for the culture it is not the defining factor. You don’t learn to write with any special, undiscovered method, and a student isn’t a passive recipient of any grand writing wisdom. The fashion for cutting that I focused on last week partly results from the cultural pressures that I mentioned, but it is also, rather conveniently, so much easier than putting in the labor that’s required to learn any worthwhile skill. To write with passion and verve and to articulate your emotions in a coherent and interesting manner will always be difficult—so we cut most of our words. It’s easier to teach and easier to practice. A swimming coach can give your form a minor adjustment and put you on a better trajectory as long as you keep swimming laps; a good writing instructor can nudge you in the right direction as long as you keep writing pages.
You didn’t mention editing, and you gave the impression that the best writing is free writing. What about editing?
Of course I wouldn’t dismiss the importance of editing, or the importance of cleaning up your prose with the right polish. My purpose last week wasn’t to oppose editing, and, in fact, more writers should study the steps of effective editing—which is much more than mere simplification, or a crude process of reduction. Editing should enhance and challenge and sharpen your sentences. And a good editor is not, as many people assume, inspecting for typos or grammar mistakes. Instead, good editors ask what’s missing from your prose, what’s unexplained, or what’s unnecessary—a good editor pushes at your prose with the best possible arguments and weights what’s on the page. And that’s also the way to edit your own work: how does the reader perceive the trajectory of a sentence? Of the full paragraph? What is missing from that trajectory? Good editing, however, doesn’t take away the propulsion of thought underneath your sentences and leave the reader with static, lifeless words, in a mere response to satisfy the current trend for cutting.
What can you possibly mean? Today’s writing is obtuse, tortuous, and convoluted. What about most academic papers?
There is, without question, whole fields that specialize in sprawling and labyrinthine prose, and this is the best counterpoint to my argument. To look closely is also to see how this convoluted, awkward, and simply bizarre prose style infects a portion of the wider culture. I don’t consider this a sufficient counterpoint, however, as these academic fields are playing a different game, and because they are a small percent of the population, even though they occupy an outsized place in the culture. The obtuse style of many academic disciplines creeps into some public conversations but it is still removed from most lives. When you see this style, you aren’t seeing the flaws of the average writer.
It is worth noting that jargon serves two purposes. The first is a necessary shorthand, as there’s a jargon for every industry and most clubs and even for groups of friends. If you’re talking about the same subject day-after-day, you’ll start using abbreviations, little codes, and soon enough you’ll have created a jargon that’s impenetrable to outsiders. And the second purpose of jargon flows seamlessly from that last point: jargon creates a shibboleth to identify those inside and, most importantly, outside the club. The counterpoint about the amount of convoluted prose in academic disciplines supports my argument, as these disciplines often dissent from the standards of society. Of course they would create shibboleths of language contrary to how most people write.
Did this answer the most pressing questions? Let me know if there’s something vital that I overlooked. And don’t forget that dissent is welcome, too, as I have an affinity for the irreverent, blunt, and disputatious—an active readership just makes Desk Notes and my writing better. So feel free to always click reply with your thoughts, and I’ll be back next Friday with a new issue.