Desk Notes explores writing, travel, and literature—with a new issue every Friday.
To care about the state and quality of writing today is to scream into a void while knowing that the void does nothing but laugh. Of course gripes about writing standards are a timeless and rather trite pastime: there’s always a market for shouts about how the kids these days are inarticulate. Or about the slipping of standards. Or about how so much contemporary writing is clunky and hackneyed and uninspired. There’s always an old man, always a porch, and always a lawn where the neighborhood kids bark this week’s cliché, speak in punchlines, and repeat metaphors so drained of life that you don’t even recognize them as metaphors.
What’s undeniable, however, is that there’s been a change in writing instruction. This is a change for which the evidence and the results are clear, but any discussion about the subject comes suspiciously close to snipes about language. To talk about writing instruction and its shortcoming is to be, almost certainly, muddled in a debate about style or taste or even authority. But the truth is that hardly anyone who studies how language shifts by swings and whims is troubled by the newest fashions in contemporary use. The frustration isn’t with the kids on the lawn; it is the mentality and standards and methods used to teach those kids that triggers the frustration.
And that’s true even though writing has always been a tricky subject to teach, as even great stylists are unable to explain what we might call the spooky elements that make some sentences soar and others sink. There’s no directory of good writing techniques, or surefire rules to follow, just as nobody can give you the correct order of musical notes to create a melody. Any list of the typical absolutes in contemporary writing instruction—shun adverbs, loathe the passive voice, cut latinate words, use short sentences—has the character of, at best, limiting the threat of mistakes because it removes so many tools. If you’re only permitted one note on the piano, perhaps it’s a little easier to keep it tuned. So the typical writer today ends up with a pen and paper and a very narrow range of expressions: nothing beyond what can be stated with short sentences and short words and short, crisp thoughts. This is the ethos of the contemporary writing seminar, or most communication classes, even though any template that promises to induce good prose will also shove away any potential for expansive or artful prose—it is the realm of instructions, manuals, blueprints, and checklists. Where all sentences are trapped between guardrails. Where the purpose of writing instruction is to prevent errors. Where the writer begins every sentence with nothing more than thoughts of what to avoid.
Instead of the usual and pretty much ageless strictures about grammar and structure and composition, most writing advice found today resembles what you might call editing advice. This is true for elementary writing programs at universities and in the more recent explosion of writing instruction offered online. In most cases the distinction from how writing was once taught is almost imperceptible, but it is still a reorientation in mindset for anybody who spends the day laboring with words. Take a close look at the advice offered by most contemporary style guides and you’ll find the words cut and trim and delete and avoid and skip and remove and shorten. If you can write a sentence in four words, why not three? After you’ve mastered the three-word pithy phrase of eternal wisdom can you spin a bon mot in two words? What about if you suppress all words and lift an eyebrow while grunting—would that be best? The edicts come fast against wordiness, redundancies, and modifiers, because writing instruction has devolved into a list of prohibitions. Is it not a curious sensibility to establish a writing ethos that’s measured by the deletion of words?
Consider the proposition that good writing is akin to thinking on the page. Good writing isn’t static. Nor is it planned with precision. A sentence that vibrates just right is, instead, taking you along for a journey: these are the moments when you have temporary access to a writer’s mind. Good writing reveals all the muck, contradictions, and back-steps of actual thought—regardless of whether you’re reading a lyrical novel or a political essay. When you catch yourself seduced by lines of prose, the writer has succeeded in translating the mess of thoughts and emotions and elusive concepts inside their mind into crisp sentences on the page. The delight of good writing comes from the sudden awareness that you’re sharing a trajectory of thought with the writer, in a manner that, at its best, is remarkably intimate.
And that intimacy is partly why good writing is so difficult. To reveal what’s inside your mind, you must understand, quite obviously, what’s inside your mind. But how many people have a decent command of their emotions? How many people can articulate the nuances of a complex problem? It is difficult to both know what you think and to translate those thoughts into a coherent trajectory with sentences. Doing it again and again requires focus, patience, and an awareness that there’s no relief from the difficulty; scribbling words on a page in a cogent and intriguing way doesn’t suddenly feel easy after some moment of achievement. And trying to slash every sentence down to a nub isn’t a shortcut. To write nothing but laconic phrases is to write with timidity—because you’re withholding most of your thoughts from the page. And that means that any writing style that’s fixated on shortness is certain to hide much from the reader. It also sidesteps another hurdle—the dilemma that good writing makes you vulnerable. To convey the muddle inside your mind is a bit like opening your skull for readers, which leaves you exposed, and without any room for escape.
The intersection of what I claim produces good writing—thinking on the page—and how most writing is taught today—with a hatchet—is the problem. An entire generation of writers has been taught to write with one eye on the delete key. And this is why so many writers spend so much time staring at blank pages. Too many writers have a scary, pulsating list of rules for which no sentence shall touch: it must be a short sentence; it must avoid all adverbs; it must, the horror, banish the passive voice. But a mentality of omission isn’t how a writer creates precise descriptions or lively prose. Perhaps there’s an analogy here to an overly structured childhood, as one common result is numbness, or apathy, once that structure ends. The child who always plays under supervision doesn’t know what to do without supervision; and the writer given a straitjacket of admonitions disguised as a toolbox doesn’t know what to do with a blank page. With an entire generation focused on trimming and cutting their sentences, is it any surprise that thought, too, is cut?
To consider the problem of writing instruction today quickly raises questions about the larger culture: what does it mean to have a generation obsessed with writing pages as short as possible? To shaving the ornamentation and playfulness and elegance from every sentence? If you squint, perhaps you might see a relationship between how people write and how people speak; and this is when you realize that you’re screaming into a void, as the problem of writing instruction and its focus on avoiding errors is downstream from the culture. Thus the principles for contemporary writing are restraint and timidity, and the prose style is above all inoffensive, right at the moment when most public forums have seen a narrowing in what’s considered acceptable speech—with an abundance of evidence that everyone from students to corporate employees are silencing a good portion of their thoughts. Because this is a censorious period, however, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised to have a writing culture defined by deletion.