Why College Graduates Don’t Write Good

Michael Ellsberg argues that "Trying to Learn Clear Writing in College is Like Trying to Learn Sobriety in a Bar."

In the discussion of my post “Why More Americans Don’t Major in the Math and Science,” regular commenter JKB points me to an essay by Michael Ellsberg titled “Why Trying to Learn Clear Writing in College is Like Trying to Learn Sobriety in a Bar.”

Despite the promise of a clever title, the actual premise of the piece–that college teaches dense, formulaic writing–is nonsense. It’s based on an argument made by retired UCLA English professor Richard Lanham:

Much bad writing today comes not from the conventional sources of verbal dereliction—sloth, original sin, or native absence of mind—but from stylistic imitation. It is learned, an act of stylistic piety, which imitates a single style, the bureaucratic style I have called The Official Style. . . .

Since we all live in a bureaucracy these days, it’s not surprising that we end up writing like bureaucrats. Nobody feels comfortable writing simply “Boy meets Girl.” The system requires something like “A romantic relationship is ongoing between Boy and Girl.” Or “Boy and Girl are currently implementing an interactive romantic relationship.”

Now, there’s a lot of this going on. But it’s not being taught to undergraduates. Ellsberg cites Lanham citing Talcott Parsons:

An element of a shared symbolic system which serves as a criterion or standard for selection among the alternatives of orientation which are intrinsically open in a situation may be called a value. . . But from this motivational orientation aspect of the totality of action it is, in view of the role of symbolic systems, necessary to distinguish a ‘value orientation’ aspect. This aspect concerns, not the meaning of the expected state of affairs to the actor in terms of his gratification-deprivation balance but the content of the selective standards themselves. The concept of value-orientations in this sense is thus the logical device for formulating one central aspect of the articulation of cultural traditions in the action system.

It follows from the derivation of normative orientation and the role of values in action as stated above, that all values involve what may be called a social reference. . . It is inherent in an action system that action is, to use one phrase, “normatively oriented.” This follows, as was shown, from the concept of expectations and its place in action theory, especially in the ‘active’ phase in which the actor pursues goals. Expectations then, in combination with the ‘double contingency’ of the process of interaction as it has been called, create a crucially imperative problem of order. Two aspects of this problem of order may in turn be distinguished, order in the symbolic systems which make communication possible, and order in the mutuality of the motivational orientation to the normative aspect of expectations, the ‘Hobbesian’ problem of order.

Ellsberg correctly declares “This is not prose. This is the systematic abuse of prose.” But he then adds, “Anyone hoping to learn writing should stay a thousand miles away from people who write in such a manner. That is, they should stay a thousand miles away from most university professors.”

The problem with this is that this is not how professors teach undergrads to write. Rather, it’s how a particular PhD sociologist wrote in a particular 1951 book aimed at his colleagues.

Complex societies, whether academic specialties or bureaucracies, develop jargon and other meta-languages as a shorthand for expressing complex ideas and signaling shared knowledge. Like any other language, it facilitates communication with those with fluency and serves as a barrier to outsiders.

Despite having a PhD in another social science, I frankly don’t know what the hell Parsons is talking about in those two paragraphs. I know what a lot of the jargon means, at least in a basic sense, but it’s hard to understand a complex essay if you’re constantly translating it into your own language.

But I’m not the target audience.

My guess is that Parsons, a legend in his field, could have written it in a way that I could understand. But, because he’s likely condensing shared knowledge that requires years of study in that passage, it may well have taken dozens of paragraphs to do so. Given that his aim was to advance knowledge in his field rather than introduce existing ideas to novice readers, he instead wrote using terminology his intended audience understood.

If an undergraduate essay contained the sentence, “An element of a shared symbolic system which serves as a criterion or standard for selection among the alternatives of orientation which are intrinsically open in a situation may be called a value,” I’d immediately paste it into Google to see where it was plagiarized from. Because no undergraduate in history, including the young Talcott Parsons, ever wrote a sentence like that.

I’m constantly amazed when writers who have been to college (Ellsberg is a 1999 graduate of Brown) write about it as if it’s some alien experience. There’s just no way in hell Ellsberg’s professors  were teaching him to write dense, jargon-filled prose in the passive voice.

Indeed, if there’s an argument to be made that colleges teach bad writing–and there is!–it’s that professors squeeze the life out of writing in the name of formality. Amusingly, Lanham himself makes this argument in a widely-used book cited in Ellsberg’s essay.

Lanham, an expert on classical rhetoric, has written a witty, counter-intuitive work that argues, plausibly, that English teachers have erred in trying to instill clarity in their students’ writings. What is needed, says Lanham, is to teach, not clarity, but delight–i.e., rhythm, euphony, word play, all the belletristic devices of classical rhetoric–before we can hope to see good writing in student compositions. Once students (and journalists and bureaucrats and everyone else) learn to enjoy writing as an aesthetic game, clarity will follow automatically. Teaching clarity divorced from delight is doomed to failure.

In yet another book, Lanham makes another very important point that refute’s Ellsberg’s thesis:

I argue that there are two ways to look at a text: AT it, that is to say accepting its style, its verbal surface, as its way to make meaning; and THROUGH it, that is to say looking for a “content” beneath the verbal surface and independent of it. We usually think of communication as a THROUGH affair; cut to the chase, get to the substance. But in an attention economy, the substance is the style. That is the whole argument of Chapter 1. In such an economy, AT vision is as important as THROUGH vision. The essential skill, as much for an economist as for a cultural critic, is to know how to toggle from one to the other as circumstances dictate. I argue in the last chapter that this skill in toggling has stood at the center of rhetorical training since the Greeks invented formal rhetoric. So, “what should text be?” It is going to be, as it has always been, a combination of style and substance; the trick in an attention economy is to see that style and substance, and our expectations for them, have changed places.

The ability to “toggle” is crucial for anyone who seeks to communicate in writing. While there’s doubtless some consistency to my style, my writing is different in an academic article versus one for a popular audience (although, I hasten to add, even my dissertation isn’t as impenetrable as the Parsons passage). An email to my wife is different than one to my boss and an email is different than a formal letter.

My strong guess is that the same was true for Talcott Parsons. He’s been dead since 1979, so I doubt he wrote many emails. But, if he wrote newspaper op-eds or letters to his wife, I’m guessing they were in clear, easily understandable prose.

Dan Drezner articulated a hierarchy of words a couple years back with university press books at the top, op-eds  a few rungs down, blog posts lower still, tweets quite low, and various mutterings at the bottom. His rationale:

One of the biggest mistakes traditional academics make is to take all words equally seriously.  That is to say, academics who do not write for a non-scholarly audience tend to assume that it takes an equal length of time and effort to compose a journal article, an op-ed, or even a blog post.  In reality, it’s kind of like circuit training — each activity exercises a different set of writing muscles (that said, journal articles require way more reps than other forms of writing).

As a much more successful scholar than me, Drezner spends more time writing at the top of that hierarchy than I do. But we both vary the tone, complexity, level of detail, amount of jargon, and so forth depending on where in that hierarchy we’re writing.

And we’d both be very overjoyed if undergrads turned in term papers written at the level of one of our half-assed blog posts. Hell, I was happy if they could string together 160 coherent characters.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Education
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor 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. garretc says:

    As a current undergrad myself I very much resent your “160 coherent characters” quip, but I can’t say I disagree with any of your overall points. I’m especially fond of this quoted passage:

    “What is needed, says Lanham, is to teach, not clarity, but delight–i.e., rhythm, euphony, word play, all the belletristic devices of classical rhetoric–before we can hope to see good writing in student compositions. Once students (and journalists and bureaucrats and everyone else) learn to enjoy writing as an aesthetic game, clarity will follow automatically.”

    Mainly because I wish someone had taught me that. I’ve gradually figured it out on my own, that I don’t have to write as dully as my high school teachers tried to make me, and, well, I don’t know if my return to rhetorical playfulness has increased the clarity of my writing at all, but it sure as hell has made writing papers a lot more enjoyable and easy.

  2. michael reynolds says:

    If you can’t write coherently by the time you get to college you’ll probably never learn.

    I do blame various jargon factories for making bad writers even worse. Universities, government, and business. Clarity and bullshit are opposites. Universities, governments and businesses all thrive on bullshit. Good writing is generally (not always) about clarity. There’s a lot more money to be made in bullshit.

  3. michael reynolds says:

    @garretc:

    What is needed, says Lanham, is to teach, not clarity, but delight–i.e., rhythm, euphony, word play, all the belletristic devices of classical rhetoric–before we can hope to see good writing in student compositions.

    That can’t be taught. That’s talent. You can be taught to recognize these features but you can’t be taught to write that way.

  4. And we’d both be very overjoyed if undergrads turned in term papers writing at the level of one of our half-assed blog posts.

    Amen, brother.

  5. @michael reynolds:

    That can’t be taught. That’s talent. You can be taught to recognize these features but you can’t be taught to write that way.

    This strikes me as largely true.

  6. Dave Schuler says:

    Specialized vocabulary doesn’t present a problem. Development of an argot, a distinct language used, in part, to distinguish between insiders (“us”) and outsiders (“them”) is. To be honest I think a lot of scholar-speak derives from some combination of insecurity and ignorance.

    Until the 17th century in the West most higher education was conducted in Latin. I don’t think academics have ever gotten over it.

  7. legion says:

    A significant chunk of this nation (you know who you are) has spent the last several years actively denigrating the value of education, and even insulting the very concept of being smart as something only weak-kneed “others” care about. Simultaneously, these same people have been actively working to slash the pay of already underpaid & overworked teacher, demonizing them as part of the problem, rather than the only solution. And while these people constantly promote the ideal of American Capitalism, they forget one of its most basic tenets: You get what you pay for.

  8. @Dave Schuler:

    To be honest I think a lot of scholar-speak derives from some combination of insecurity and ignorance.

    There is some definite truth to this.

    However, it is also true that any specialized field is going to create an us/them dichotomy as a natural result of the fact that, in reality, there is an “us” and a “not us.” This is true is any field, yes?

  9. matt b says:

    @Steven L. Taylor & James — amen to writing at the half-assed blog level.

    @michael reynolds

    That can’t be taught. That’s talent. You can be taught to recognize these features but you can’t be taught to write that way.

    As I constantly remind students (and am constantly reminded of by my writing tutors), talent only gets you so far. The trick is to write, write, write (always with a good source of feedback — be it another or yourself) and develop what you have. While I have met a student or two who are absolutely terrible writers and made no progress, given time and effort from all parties… just about everyone can improve.

  10. How much of the problem is writing comes from not reading? Or more correctly, from not reading things of much depth and clarity?

    I’m not having to deal with turned in assignments, but I despair at what I do see of what most 20-somethings write.

  11. Drew says:

    “And we’d both be very overjoyed if undergrads turned in term papers writing at the level of one of our half-assed blog posts.”

    I actually find this scary. As a general rule I come flying threw OTB and Dave’s place skimming posts between calls and using this Dragon speechware to make comments. And this passes as better than your undergrads. Sheesh!

    Just tis AM a commenter at GE sort of chastised me for making, shall we say, a boner out of a doner.

    Tis is just cheap sport. But your students can’t do better? Batton down the hatches……

  12. michael reynolds says:

    @matt b:
    It’s absolutely true that talent only gets you so far. It’s the necessary but not sufficient requirement if you’re going to really play with words. Still, necessary.

    Here would be my example. Transplant my brain into the young Michael Jordan. Make my experience identical to his. Give me his same coaches. Odds that I would be even a professional level ballplayer, let alone Jordan? Probably zero. The difference is talent: he has it, me not so much. Switch it and put his brain in me? Odds he could write three books a year? Probably zero.

    Americans (I’m generalizing, not putting this on you) hate the idea of talent because it limits the central mythology of hard work and clean living and equality of opportunity. It’s decidedly undemocratic and unfair. But the truth is that at the pro level in a lot of fields it comes down to a gift a person was given at birth.

  13. Janis Gore says:

    @charles austin: To expand on that, how much of it comes from reading joyless writers? Or listening to joyless lectures?

  14. ponce says:

    In those days, in those far remote days, in those nights, in those faraway nights, in those years, in those far remote years, at that time the wise one who knew how to speak in elaborate words lived in the Land; Curuppag, the wise one, who knew how to speak with elaborate words lived in the Land.

    – THE INSTRUCTIONS OF SHURUPPAK, Humanity’s oldest known text

  15. James Joyner says:

    @michael reynolds: @matt b: @charles austin:

    While I agree that talent is a huge factor and that many people simply don’t have the basic building blocks to write well, Matt and Charles hit on the counterpoints: writing is a craft that requires lots of practice (the “10,000 hours” thing that Gladwell has been talking about) and that there’s likely no substitute for a lot of reading, especially early in life.

    I’m never going to be a P.J. O’Rourke or Christopher Hitchens, but I’m a better short form writer than I was a decade ago. And probably a worse long-form writer, in that I’m getting a lot fewer reps.

  16. michael reynolds says:

    @James Joyner:
    I think practice absolutely helps. I was only referring to the ability to really play with the language. I am aware — sometimes painfully so — of the difference between what I can do with language, and what more talented writers can do.

    Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art
    Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night,
    And watching, with eternal lids apart,
    Like nature’s patient sleepless eremite,
    The moving waters at their priestlike task
    Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,
    Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
    Of snow upon the mountains and the moors;
    No yet still steadfast, still unchangeable,
    Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,
    To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
    Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
    Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
    And so live ever or else swoon to death.

    If I could write like that I would have gotten laid so much more often.

  17. sam says:

    From a master of English prose:

    There are some simple maxims—not perhaps quite so simple as those which my brother-in-law Logan Pearsall Smith offered me—which I think might be commended to writers of expository prose. First: never use a long word if a short word will do. Second: if you want to make a statement with a great many qualifications, put some of the qualifications in separate sentences. Third: do not let the beginning of your sentence lead the reader to an expectation which is contradicted by the end. Take, say, such a sentence as the following, which might occur in a work on sociology: “Human beings are completely exempt from undesirable behavior patterns only when certain prerequisites, not satisfied except in a small percentage of actual cases, have, through some fortuitous concourse of favorable circumstances, whether congenital or environmental, chanced to combine in producing an individual in whom many factors deviate from the norm in a socially advantageous manner.” Let us see if we can translate this sentence into English. I suggest the following: “All men are scoundrels, or at any rate almost all. The men who are not must have had unusual luck, both in their birth and in their upbringing.” This is shorter and more intelligible, and says just the same thing. But I am afraid any professor who used the second sentence instead of the first would get the sack.

    This suggests a word of advice to such of my readers as may happen to be professors. I am allowed to use plain English because everybody knows that I could use mathematical logic if I chose. Take the statement: “Some people marry their deceased wives’ sisters.” I can express this in language which only becomes intelligible after years of study, and this gives me freedom. I suggest to young professors that their first work should be written in a jargon only to be understood by the erudite few. With that behind them, they can ever after say what they have to say in a language “understanded of the people.” In these days, when our very lives are at the mercy of the professors, I cannot but think that they would deserve our gratitude if they adopted my advice.

    Bertrand Russell, How I Write

    Or, as Bishop Berkeley put it, “We ought to think with the learned and speak with vulgar.”

  18. Fiona says:

    @charles austin:

    How much of the problem is writing comes from not reading? Or more correctly, from not reading things of much depth and clarity?

    From my years of reading undergrad history papers, I’d say there’s a definite correlation between reading good prose and being able to write coherently. I also suspect that, as we’ve increasingly become a sound-bite society where a number of mediums compete for our attention, the ability to construct serviceable prose has declined precipitously. The kid who can’t be bothered to write an email because it’s far easier to send a text message written in linguistic shorthand probably won’t be writing brilliant essays.

    Another problem I found with undergrad writing was that the worst papers tended to be written by those students trying to sound far brighter and more well-read than they were by using words and jargon they didn’t understand. A pox on Word’s thesaurus function, which has probably contributed to more pretentious, badly written essays than its creators could possibly have imagined. I’m sure my stepson, who wrote about searching for the “immaculate education” in one of his college entrance essays had no idea about how much he no doubt amused the poor registrar tasked with reading that essay.

  19. Rick Almeida says:

    @charles austin:

    How much of the problem is writing comes from not reading?

    That’s exactly what I wondered when I read Michael’s comment about talent. I have no doubt that innate talent for writing exists, but it seems to me that people who love to read and do it often will write far better than non-readers.

  20. sam says:

    @michael reynolds:

    I do blame various jargon factories for making bad writers even worse. Universities, government, and business.

    In my last job, we all looked forward to missives from the CEO’s office. I don’t who wrote them, but they were an unending source of pleasure to those upon whom they were inflicted. I recall one in particular in which is was announced that so-and-so was promoted and henceforth would be able to sit on CEO Jones’s staff.

    Laughed about that one for weeks.

  21. matt b says:

    @charles austin a very good point! What small talents I have when it comes to writing, I largely credit to a love of reading. And I often find that my writing shifts a bit when I radically change who I’m reading.

    @michael reynolds: I tend to think that Americans (and perhaps most cultures) have a schizophrenic relationship with talent. You are right that we want to believe that with hard work we can do anything, be we also tend to understate the amount of hard work that went into developing “natural” talent — especially in the arts and sports.

    I would imagine that many of your readers would be stunned by the amount of drafting that goes into your work — just as many people cannot really fathom how much work Michael Jordan did to become Michael Jordan. It’s the effortlessness of presentation (mixed with the fact that most people don’t see much if all of the drafting/practice process) that can be really difficult.

    Personally speaking I know it’s long had a negative impact on my own writing. As soon as I shift from blog posting to academic writing, I tend to lock down and if I’m not careful rework a single paragraph for hours, cursing myself that it didn’t come out perfect.

  22. grumpy realist says:

    @Dave Schuler: Academics haven’t. If you want to know why legal jargon is jargon, think of it as a direct translation from Latin into English.

    Legal latin works well and is in fact quite understandable; its direct translation into English is not.

  23. jan says:

    @matt b:

    The trick is to write, write, write (always with a good source of feedback — be it another or yourself) and develop what you have.

    Very good insight…follows the adage of ‘practice makes perfect.’

    In the case of writing, the more you write, the looser you become with phrasing, words, the ability to extend analogies into the creative bizarro without being too self-limiting.

    Also, as writing becomes more enjoyable, it becomes easier to do. In classroom settings it often is introduced as a labor-intensive chore, with so much structure demanded in the lay-out, that creating an expressive context becomes lost in the lesson. I remember professors who were more interested in having the title be spaced such in such a way, with the side margins not exceeding certain specifications. What was produced in the middle of all this seemed secondary.

  24. matt b says:

    @Dave Schuler:

    Until the 17th century in the West most higher education was conducted in Latin. I don’t think academics have ever gotten over it.

    On a parrellel note, I have often wondered how much of today’s tortured academic prose, at least when it comes to the Humantities, is the result of people patterning their writing on tortured English translations of (relatively) straightforward French and German texts.

  25. grumpy realist says:

    In my experience, a lot of bad writing is due to sloppiness and an unwillingness to sufficiently edit.

    Getting one’s hands on good quality exemplars is also crucial. Find several great examples of the type of literature you wish to produce. Find several really bad examples of same literature. Read all of them over and over, analyzing what makes one of them “good” and one of them “bad.” Analyze more. How does the author state facts? How does the author state his thesis? How does he provide logical conclusions? And above all, how does he make it interesting?

    After this, you may have the confidence to edit and revise your own productions, confident in your own ruthlessness. I always remember Mark Twain’s comment: “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between a lightening flash and a lightening bug.”

  26. jan says:

    @Fiona:

    The kid who can’t be bothered to write an email because it’s far easier to send a text message written in linguistic shorthand probably won’t be writing brilliant essays.

    This is very true! So much of today’s written communication by the current millenium generation is via cool jargon or nifty, popularized sound bites. If one keeps doing this day in and day out, with their zillion text messages back and forth to each other, it must be difficult making the transition back to a form of writing that is intelligible and enjoyable to read.

  27. grumpy realist says:

    @matt b: Yeah, but in some cases reading the original just doesn’t help. French post-modernist philosophers remain unreadable in any language. I’d rather wrestle with Rabelais.

  28. I think it was Michael Crichton who said, “Great books are written, they’re rewritten.”

    Which would explain why the quality gets lower and lower as you go down the taxonomy from scholarly work to tweets.

  29. Kit says:

    We read too little of great writing. We find it hard to focus with our habitual multitasking. Lack of formality in day-to-day affairs means we start to lose our ear for different registers. Spoken speech becomes the mark of a good written style. We read too much just to catch up on news and so develop hard-to-shake habits of skimming. The pace of life is quickening and so getting heard early comes to trump all else. We write as we think and rarely let time pass before sending our thoughts out, unedited and uncensored. Technology allows more people to be heard but entails falling standards. And the spirit of the age doubts standards even exist.

  30. steve says:

    Students can be taught to write competently. I think some can be coached to write well. That next level, where the words create new worlds or make things come alive is a natural talent.

    Steve

  31. john personna says:

    I have never written a great work, and often bungle mere comments, but I’m with those who think good writing comes from reading. Read 100 books, and you can put together a paragraph. No question.

    Now, going beyond simple work-a-day writing of emails, memos, reports, etc. and on to actual books? I could see how that needs some meta-knowledge and teaching.

    (I suspect this comment breaks several formal rules, but I think it works well enough for the venue.)

  32. Ben Wolf says:

    @michael reynolds: One of my gold standards for aesthetics in prose is The Silmarillion, which I think was by far Tolkien’s greatest work. He spent sixty years writing and rewriting for both clarity and beauty, and it’s a shame he was never able to finish.

  33. garretc says:

    @michael reynolds:

    I know this is several hours after the fact, but hell, it’s been a busy day.

    I guess I meant not so much that I wish someone had taught me to have fun with my writing in school, just that I wish someone had taught me that I was allowed to, and that I should strive to do so. There’s a stigma in high school English classes, for whatever reason, about letting your personal voice shine through in your writing. And since that’s the only place most people write during their formative years, people don’t have a chance to develop a natural, comfortable writing style on their own; instead they’re left trying to shoe-horn their thoughts into somebody else’s idea of how to communicate them.

  34. michael reynolds says:

    @garretc:
    I could not agree more. I think the way English is taught in many, or even most, middle schools and high schools actively destroys a person’s ability to write well.

    Just like with reading they think there’s some value in misery. As if it’s bitter medicine that simply must be taken. It makes me furious. And you’re right about this idiot notion they seem to have about eradicating the self — it’s philosophically ignorant and utterly destructive to a potential young writer.

    Of course in my job I often find the work tedious, like anyone in any job. But there are many times when my fingers are flying around the keyboard, pounding way too hard, and I’m just laughing to myself for the sheer joy it.

  35. Moderate Mom says:

    I do think that the connection between reading and talented writing is probably pretty much on point. I have two children. The oldest developed a love of reading from a very early age and devoured books as fast as I could buy them. She is a brilliant writer, and could pound out a paper with what seemed like no effort, always getting top grades. She is now writing for a magazine. The younger would read, but never developed the love of books his older sister did. He struggles with writing, and the end results don’t display the flair, wit, organization or ability present in his sister’s writing. He could take classes in creative writing as long as the cows came home and probably never really develop the ability to write particularly well. On the other hand, his short videos are wonderfully creative and show where his true talent lies. Different kids, different talents, different abilities.

  36. @Moderate Mom: Clearly, reading aids in writing. Of course, I also think that there is some co-variance (dreaded social science lingo!) going on here: people who are drawn to reading the written word are likewise likely to have a propensity to have some talent/ability to write it–they are linked skills (and interests), in other words.

    Having said that, I agree as someone for whom writing is part of my professional life in various ways that the following observations from above are all true:

    1) More reading enhances writing ability.
    2) Practice (and the willingness to write rough drafts and revise them) is key.
    3) In high school in particular, writing is often treated as a technical process, which squelches creativity. This is a problem.
    4) Talent/ability matters. I sometimes think that we expect that everyone can write at an advanced high school level, but I wonder if that is a reasonable expectation. We don’t expect everyone to perform mathematics (or any number of other subject areas) at even the most advanced of high school levels, yet we seem to think that they should with writing. Perhaps we shouldn’t. Just a thought.

    Back to #2, though, as I think it is key: most students want to sit down, write one draft of a paper, and be done (this is why so much of the stuff that gets turned in to me and others ends up being sub par). Writing takes work that many people don’t want to put in. This applies to papers for class, memos to employees (as per above) and even e-mails, texts, FB statuses and blog comments. We want to write it once and be done with it. This is certainly something that I am often guilty of doing (as my sometime egregious errors in blog posts attest). Further, we are often our own worst editors, as our brains have a way of making us see what we thought we wrote rather than what we actually wrote).

  37. Wayne says:

    IMO the love of reading and ability to write is overstated. I use to read a great deal but it didn’t help my writing much. Then again I was more content orientated than style. I would skip the “the”, “a” and much more what I considered fillers. Style often varies a good deal depending on profession or genre of writing.

    My two majors in college were more concern with content than style. A misspelled word, run on sentences, etc didn’t matter as much as the content and getting your message across. My majors also contributed to my desired to write out many assumptions and parameters in my writing. That style combined with the desire for concise writing by many, makes my writing less pleasing to many.

    Effective writing IMO is the ability to get your message across. However I have found effective writing in many people’s eyes is writing in a “style” that they are use to. Yes there are definite misspelling and grammar errors. However in College many professors would lump style and content preference with those errors. So a student that didn’t learn the basics prior to College would have a hard time separating them therefore would assume there basic errors was because the professor didn’t like his style or content.

    Yes I know some of you will state that you can have a contrary content to professor’s belief as long as you can back it, style, or personal relationship with the professor shouldn’t affect the grading of a paper. However in my experience and experiments they do.

    Needless to say I’m still working on my writing ability but my message is hard to get across using the same style as many would like.

  38. john personna says:

    Given that I can put down a book, and an hour later find myself writing in the voice of that book, I think this must be much more insidious than simply “writing is good.” Our style and usage must come from the whole body of work we’ve read before. You don’t need to be able to diagram a sentence(*). You’ll just “hear” clunkers when you read your own sentences back again.

    (* – I say that, because I can’t diagram much beyond noun and verb.)