What Sarah Palin Can Teach Us About Writing

A distinguished linguist is quite impressed with Sarah Palin's facility with the written word.

John McWhorter, a “cranky liberal Democrat” who holds a PhD in linguistics from Stanford, has been poring through Sarah Palin’s emails. His shocking finding: “Palin, in contrast to her meandering, involuted speaking style, is a thoroughly competent writer—more so than a great many people most of us likely know, including college graduates.”

It should be noted that Palin herself is a college graduate. Still, having looked at a few randomly selected emails and concluded that “her composition style is that of a teenager” owing to rapid fire style and cutesy abbreviations and therefore “comes across as unprofessional and insipid,” I was surprised at his glowing appraisal.

Because email is written speech, it’s easy to miss artfulness in them. Yet, take this Palin passage: “Even CP has admitted locking up tax rates as Glenn suggests is unacceptable to the legislature, the Alaskan public, this administration, and the Constitution.”

The spelling is flawless—and unlikely to be completely a product of spell-check, which misses errors and often creates others. More to the point, she has an embedded clause (“locking up tax rates”) nested into a main one, with another clause “as Glenn suggests” nested within the embedded one. That’s good old-fashioned grammar school “syntax.” I have known plenty of people with B.A.s who could barely pull it off properly at gunpoint, and several others who would only bother to at gunpoint.

Equally graceful despite its mundane content: “Cowdery telling a kid what’s acceptable and what isn’t inside these four walls??? Puleeeze. A three-pound puppy vs. all the CBC crap that he helped dump around here?” You hear an actual human voice here. We tell some people “I can hear your voice in the way you write”—because it’s unusual for people to be able to “write” themselves. Palin is one of the people who can.

McWhorter is, of course, right. Neither of his examples would have jumped out at me as anything remarkable. But that’s because I read for content and analytical value rather than for style. And while I read the “Puleeze” and “CBC crap” and roll my eyes at the non-standard and juvenile qualities, McWhorter is a student of the rhythms of speech who studies creoles and is non-judgmental about variations on standard English. Where I see mundane blather, he sees crisply formed sentences true to the author’s personal voice.

The point of his essay, though, isn’t to rebut the notion that Palin isn’t particularly bright or to argue she would make an effective president. Indeed, McWorter supported Obama last go-round and one suspects he’ll do so again. Rather, the emails are a hook to discuss how people learn to write and the merits of various approaches to remediation. He cites this passage from Palin’s autobiography, Going Rogue:

Reading was a special bond between my mother and me. Mom read aloud to me – poetry by Ogden Nash and the Alaska poet Robert Service, along with snippets of prose …. My siblings were better athletes, cuter and more sociable than I, and the only thing they had to envy about me was the special passion for reading that I shared with our mother.

Knowing that Palin was “a bookworm” as a kid, “it is predictable that her emails would evidence such casually solid command of the language—even if her oral rendition of it is a different matter entirely.”

And yet, the oratorical Palin is the swivel-tongue we all know—which means that Palin demonstrates with almost scientific precision that writing well stems not from general linguistic ability, but the specific activity of reading early. Thus, if our ideal is that all American adults write with ease, grace, and natural expression, then Palin is a handy demonstration that it would be more effective to make all tots avid readers than for legions of teenagers to sit in remedial writing classes long after their brain wiring and avocational predilections have jelled.

The anonymous “Professor X” [author of In the Basement of the Ivory Tower] certainly thinks so: “The two most crucial ingredients in the mysterious mix that makes a good writer may be (1) having read enough throughout a lifetime to have internalized the rhythms of the written word, and (2) refining the ability to mimic those rhythms.”

This comports with my own experience. I read a lot growing up and developed a natural affinity for the written word. I was never one who could cite the rules of grammar and syntax–and didn’t spend a lot of time memorizing vocabulary words–but absorbed a good eye for what “sounded right”  by osmosis.

The problem, of course, is that human variation in makeup and experience is too heterogenous for all children to ever be readers. Yet the view from remedial writing classes is not sunny. Professor X, for example, has taken flak for statements like the aforementioned, but how many of us can recount one 18-year-old whose writing was shot through with run-ons, fragments, off spellings, and no sense of what a paragraph is, who, after a nice remedial writing class, came out writing even as well as Sarah Palin!

Is writing like golf, in that the best advice is “take it up ten years earlier”? If so, that’s not very encouraging. McWhorter ultimately doesn’t offer any concrete solution to the problem of remediation. He seems to imply that drilling in vocabulary lists and analogies will be helpful, if not immediate. But, oddly, he comes down saying that it might not matter all that much:

In the grand scheme of things, those tacitly uninterested in whether all students can compose articulate text and more interested in students being able to “think” are on to something they don’t realize. Namely, while functional writing should be instilled in all, writing of a grace and deftness beyond that level is but one of a great many ways one can be of value to society. If we want more graceful writers, let’s encourage more avid and precocious reading where we can, but, please, less of the painful remedial writing courses foisted upon those for whom it appears to do little good.

These are the kinds of things that Sarah Palin’s emails might make us think about. Verdicts will differ, but nota bene: We must be wary of resorting to the objection that critical thought is impossible without avid, effortless fluency with the written word. That claim has no empirical justification—and, moreover, subjects most human beings on earth, including many we know, to grievous insult and underestimation.

On that much we agree. Indeed, it’s absurd that there’s debate over this. I’ve read innumerable papers by brilliant scholars with prestige graduate degrees who are awful writers, having failed to master decent syntax, much less argumentative flow. And mathematicians and scientists who can write truly well are a rarity, indeed.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Education, Sarah Palin, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Pete says:

    Can’t wait to read what Reynolds has to say about this.

  2. Ben Wolf says:

    @James

    I thought I was the only person who thought that way about how thet learned to write. My mother made sure I read voraciously as a child, but in school my grammar and english scores were mediocre at best, rules I never really absorbed. To this day I can’t identify a predicate or a participle; I’ve just always written what sounded right.

    I used to think my poor “formal” grammar skills were the result of some form of writing disability.

    I’m curious as to Michael Reynolds experience, as he’s a talented fiction writer.

  3. john personna says:

    I never heard “write your voice” until a college communication course. It was liberating, but I’m not sure it should be the pinnacle though. I mean the best things I read (Financial Times columns?) don’t come across that way.

    (I still read a lot of books. The funniest thing is how 4 hours in a historic novel (or whatever) can change your voice – for a little while.)

  4. Boyd says:

    It seems to me that the beneficial effect of reading on writing is indeed of the “ten years earlier” category. If a child doesn’t read voraciously when he’s very young, that’s time spent reading that he’ll never regain.

    Reading as a child is not the sole path to good writing skills, nor is it a guarantee of good writing skills. But it’s a benefit, and one that can’t be recreated later in life.

    Once again, life shows us that there are some things that you’re just too old to do if you didn’t do them when you were younger. We tend to think of these things as being physical in nature, but they can be mental, too.

  5. steve says:

    I mostly agree, but I think that math and science kids are a bit different. They can be exposed to lots of great literature early, but have little interest in writing. Lots of great writers have no mathematical or science ability. I think these are two separate cognitive areas, with some overlap. You can function quite well in specialty areas of science, or medicine, without good writing skills. Indeed, I have also seen writing skills atrophy if they are not used much.

    Steve

  6. michael reynolds says:

    I agree Palin is much better on paper than live. It would be interesting to know how quickly she writes. Her biggest problem with speech is that she’s slow, and makes things slower by larding her speech up with the probably deliberate idiot-speak her fans adore. By the time she’s done concealing her ignorance and interjecting folksy ‘ya knows” every two seconds she’s lost her train of thought.

    On writing more generally, I despise the way primary schools teach writing. Everything about it is wrong: the notion of blocks of text, of formula, of rigid processes, of imposed minimum lengths. Make it at least 5 pages? Why? If you can express the same thoughts in one page, why would you drag it out? And if you can do it in a paragraph then you may well be a writer.

    It’s like trying to train a Picasso by starting him out on paint-by-numbers. Of course young kids don’t really have a voice because they haven’t had a life, so they mimic, which is great if you mimic someone who can actually write as opposed to absorbing the brain-killing lessons in fifth period English.

    My fan mail is usually about 20% requests for advice from young writers. I always tell them to do what they have to do to make the grade and keep their parents happy, but otherwise ignore most of creative writing. I also tell them to read a lot, and to write a lot, then “hear” what’s wrong and try to fix it. Most importantly, I tell them, have an interesting life.

  7. michael reynolds says:

    One last point: if you are unable to “hear” what’s wrong with your own writing, you won’t be a writer, period, ever. I think that comes from reading, but I also suspect it’s largely innate, some combination of DNA and environment.

  8. Bart Gibb says:

    I rolled my eyes when I read: “And while I read the “Puleeze” and “CBC crap” and roll my eyes at the non-standard and juvenile qualities”. . .

  9. And while I read the “Puleeze” and “CBC crap” and roll my eyes at the non-standard and juvenile qualities

    If she was writing that way in formal documents, then yes it would be eye roll worthy, but in quick e-mail notes, I don’t see that as particularly unusual.

  10. If she waswere writing that way in formal documents, then yes it would be eye roll worthy. However, but in quick e-mail notes, I don’t see that as particularly unusual.

  11. Moderate Mom says:

    Two things I agree with are that children that read early and often are better writers and that Michael’s advice to “hear” what you’ve written hits the nail on the head.

    My constant refrain to both of my children is to read aloud what they have written. It is the easiest way to pick up on and correct a clumsily constructed sentence.

  12. john personna says:

    There is a good related article at Psy-Fi blog today, Fooled by Fluency.

    Cannot link easily from the phone.

    Related bit: readers rate easily understood text as from more intelligent authors.

  13. john personna says:

    Fooled By Fluency

    Other examples are that more easily imagined travel destinations are preferred to harder to imagine ones, that statements written in an easier to read font engender confidence and text that’s easier to process is believed to written by a more intelligent author.

    (There was also an earlier, related, study which showed that on-line vendors who cleaned up spelling in customer reviews had more sales.)

  14. george says:

    Related bit: readers rate easily understood text as from more intelligent authors.

    “If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.” – Albert Einstein

  15. Ben Wolf says:

    I despise the way primary schools teach writing. Everything about it is wrong: the notion of blocks of text, of formula, of rigid processes, of imposed minimum lengths.

    Dead on. I try not to think about how often I was told I was being lazy, stubborn or just not very bright by my teachers for failure to learn how to diagram a sentence.

  16. Eric Florack says:

    I agree Palin is much better on paper than live. It would be interesting to know how quickly she writes. Her biggest problem with speech is that she’s slow, and makes things slower by larding her speech up with the probably deliberate idiot-speak her fans adore.

    (Snort.)

    Can’t resist, can you, Reynolds?

  17. Eric Florack says:

    I spent a number of years in hte radio business, and I find that most people in that business… the ones who have any smarts anyway, can write better than they speak, since in writing, one has the ability to re-write and tweak.

    Personally, I find… well, let me simply repeat what I said at my own place some years ago:

    I never really do have a firm grip on why I want to attack a subject in these spaces. In fact, the writing of a column for me has becomes more an effort of exploring a subject; the codification of random thoughts. The act of putting those thoughts into words on a screen allows me to think about, and RE-think about the subject at hand. My thoughts on a given subject often do not fully take shape until such time as I’ve re-written them twice. Often, indeed… usually, the ideas are already there, waiting to be cast into words, but not fully defined until the act of sitting down and typing them out. .

    I imagine the experience is similar for other writers.

  18. michael reynolds says:

    Ben:

    I’ve written 150 books, and I couldn’t diagram a sentence if you paid me.

  19. Trumwill says:

    [I]f you are unable to “hear” what’s wrong with your own writing, you won’t be a writer, period, ever. I think that comes from reading, but I also suspect it’s largely innate, some combination of DNA and environment.

    I was a terrible, horrible, no-good reader when I was younger. Really all the way through college. I avoided reading like the plague and learned, rather successfully, to get by academically without reading the source material through.

    But I’ve always been a rather skilled writer. Through high school and college I got A’s on papers on books I hadn’t read. I even had one turn up in a subsequent textbook (and not as a “how not to write…”).

    The lack of reading experience plagues me at times when I will use a word entirely incorrectly, and my writing tick of periodically swapping phonetically similar words (writing face when I mean phone) is probably not unrelated to the fact that I write from a verbal context. But my mother is also a very good writer. Her grandfather was published in the New York Tribune. I think there’s a lot of innateness when it comes to the ability to communicate ideas and stories.

    Where I would bet reading is most important is for people that lack natural talent. Sort of like how I had to work from how-to’s when it came to art just to be able to draw passably, while others just have a knack for translating from what they see or imagine onto paper.

  20. anjin-san says:

    Parents do their children a vast service by instilling a love of reading in them. Some of my first memories are of going to the library with my mother. (A long time ago, there was a library within walking distance of our house in East Oakland). On the second day of first grade, they they saw I could already read at a fairly advanced level. Subsequently I had to stay after school and do extra work. I suggested that I be allowed to leave early while the other kids stayed on to try to catch up – got nowhere with that. My disenchantment with our educational system started early.

    In 4th grade I had college level reading scores, but to this day, I can’t spell or comprehend basic grammar. On the other had, I get paid to write on a fairly regular basis.

    My mother is coming over today, will have to remember to thank her for the reading lessons. Books have been good friends my entire life. Currently into some Sandor Mara, which I recommend highly.

  21. if you are unable to “hear” what’s wrong with your own writing, you won’t be a writer, period, ever. I think that comes from reading, but I also suspect it’s largely innate, some combination of DNA and environment.

    There was an interesting article I read a while ago that was discussing studies into how the brain processes swearing differently than normal speech. It mentioned as an aside that one of their findings was that for highly educated people, bad grammar also triggers the parts of the brain that are used to process swear words.

  22. John Burgess says:

    I was a voracious reader since I learned to read. Anything and anything that had print on it was attractive, from cereal boxes to the encyclopedia. I certainly did learn grammar–even diagramming!–at the ruler-clad hands of the Sisters of St. Joseph, though my reading materials sometimes got me in trouble with them. For some reason, they didn’t think H.G. Wells’ Science of Life was appropriate in 3rd grade, at least not to bring in and read at recess.

    I didn’t really learn grammar until I started teaching English as a Foreign Language, when I was 18. It stuck and my writing grades, when I went on to college, were always excellent. My writing now is perfectly fine, but could always use improvement. I definitely compose at the keyboard and then revise before I hit ‘Publish’ or ‘Print’. Not so much, though, when it’s a matter of ‘Send’.

    @Michael Reynolds: Picasso did not train by learning to Paint By The Numbers, but he is widely acknowledged as one of the last painters to train by learning first to draw. The current equivalent of ‘Write Your Voice’ is art students being told to ‘Paint Expressively’. I’d suggest that first learning to use your tools and media are more important letting loose the Creature from the Id.

  23. michael reynolds says:

    John:

    If we’re talking fiction then the primary tool is imagination, not words or grammar. It starts with imagination and a desire to tell a story. Unfortunately that’s the very thing schools too often labor to kill. A kid can learn to write a coherent sentence, paragraph, etc… by reading. But once their imagination is turned off, they’re done for as a creative.

    Most little kids have imagination. Most older kids don’t. Something happens between point A and point B, and I think the something is school and the rest of the socialization process. A 16 year-old with a wild, original imagination and a little talent can be a writer. A kid without imagination can have all the talent and all the skills in the world, and he’s still done for.

    Any teacher that told you not to read a book because it was inappropriate should have been smacked with her own ruler. I have a simple rule: unless it’s hardcore porn or Nazi propaganda the words “Don’t read that,” should never be spoken to a child.

  24. John Burgess says:

    I take your point on the role of imagination. I still read too many books that clearly never came any closer to an editor than whatever was built into the word processor, though. Misspellings, fraked grammar, incomplete sentences, wrong words, redundundundancies galore.

    For the nuns at that place and time, The Science of Life was rather porn-ish. Pictures of embryos were one of the things that notably set them off. Pope Pius XII’s Humani Generis was just a few years old at the time and its message hadn’t quite sunk in. Ignorance is forgivable.

  25. michael reynolds says:

    John:

    All of that is fine — if it’s deliberate, as a stylistic choice. If it’s ignorance, then not so much.

  26. mattb says:

    Eric Florack wrote:

    I never really do have a firm grip on why I want to attack a subject in these spaces. In fact, the writing of a column for me has becomes more an effort of exploring a subject; the codification of random thoughts. The act of putting those thoughts into words on a screen allows me to think about, and RE-think about the subject at hand. My thoughts on a given subject often do not fully take shape until such time as I’ve re-written them twice. Often, indeed… usually, the ideas are already there, waiting to be cast into words, but not fully defined until the act of sitting down and typing them out.

    Eric, this is spot on and probably one of the very few things we can agree on. Nicely put.

  27. mattb says:

    MR:

    Parrellel question to learning to hear your own writting, do you have any suggestions about how to cornrrol that selfcensor? When I start to write something that is heading towards professional review and publication I tend to then overmonitor my writing.

    Any tips to control/modifying hearing?

  28. michael reynolds says:

    mattb:

    I still have a hard time turning off outside voices — editors, reviewers, some kid on Twitter. I don’t want to sound delicate or whiny, but it’s a hard thing to make stuff up. There’s a long period of time on any book where I keep thinking, “Nobody is going to believe this bullsh!t.” It takes a while before I sort of buy in and in that early period you hear every criticism playing in your head.

    Then again, that’s the difference between a professional and an amateur in lots of fields. I’m sure it’s a lot more fun playing baseball in the vacant lot than it is to be at a packed stadium with a thousand guys yelling at you because you missed a pitch. So, if you’re a pro you power on through. And you make little mental lists of the people you will some day kill when you are finally given the God-like powers you deserve.

    I think in terms of hearing what you write, with me there’s a voice in the back of my head that just winces when I write a lousy sentence, or nags me when I go off the rails on a plot. “Mmmm, not so sure about that, MIchael. I kind of think that may have sucked.” And of course this is why I drink.

    Try reading things aloud as someone above suggested. Problems leap out at you when you hear them.

    The voice in your head isn’t always right, that’s the problem. Sometimes it’s just being dense. So you power through until you’re convinced the voice is right. Then when some kind of critical mass has been reached you go back and fix it. Which sometimes means throwing out a lot of pages. I guarantee you I’ve thrown out 2000 pages in my career. Just, poof!

    So, job #1 is always: write your pages. Just tell the story, power on through, and to hell with everyone. Fix it later, or when you can’t stand it anymore. And remember: caffeine and alcohol.

  29. mattb says:

    Thanks for the sage advice Michael, I appreciate it…

  30. James Joyner says:

    @michael reynolds: I’ve been adding the occasional sports drink to my regimen but pretty much everything else I drink has either caffeine or alcohol–and sometimes both–in it. Coffee from morning until I can’t stand working anymore and then right to alcohol. Sometimes, a rum and Coke or three to ease the transition. Also: lime wedges are an excellent source of citrus.

  31. mattb says:

    @MR & @James —

    It’s hitting that sweet spot of good “inspiration and confidence” (not to mention staying conscious) when imbibing. I’ve made the mistakes of pushing the limits and ended up with stuff that wasn’t quite as “brilliant” (or coherent) in the harsh light of day then it seemed the night before.

    Plus droll tends to be hell on keyboards.

  32. Interesting. I was a very early reader. By the time I reached Kindergarten, I could read the TV Guide. Throughout elementary school, I read the newspaper every day; we always had several in the house. In the 8th grade, my reading comprehension tested on the level of a college freshman. I always scored well on spelling tests, essays and other writing assignments.

    But my verbal skills were, and still are, godawful. I hate telephones, and I’m glad I live in an age where email is surpassing phone calls as a means of communication.

    Another oddity: I just received my bachelor’s in Math & Computer Science (I attended college later in life). I did find, throughout my time in college, that my classmates struggled mightily with writing assignments that I found fairly easy.