Writing to communicate

Katie of Constrained Vision writes about writing, quoting Joel Achenbach of the Washington Post on how English is taught in high school.

[T]hey don’t appear to spend a lot of time in high school teaching kids how to write. I think it’s great that they’re reading Herman Hesse and Chinua Achebe and the great Garcia Marquez in their “English” class, even if those are works in translation, but what kids really need is a major dose of Strunk & White, and so on. They need to learn how to put one word in front of the next and know when a sentence needs to come to an end. They need to be saturated in the classic American literary voices, from Hawthorne to Fitzgerald to Morrison/Updike/Delillo et al. And why not some non-fiction? McPhee. Tom Wolfe. Dillard. Sedaris.

In response to her earlier post, Dartmouth professor Andrew Samwick of VoxBaby says his very bright students have been encouraged to “express” themselves.

Writing for them is a very self-oriented process, as if it is a reply to the admonition, “Show us how smart you are.”

This is acceptable for a student in grade school, but as a student matures, writing needs to become more about communication and less about expression per se. (This is true even if the purpose of writing is still for students to show us how smart they are.) Communication is oriented toward the needs of the audience, particularly the audience’s need to be persuaded of something in order to change its mind.

Katie is learning in public policy grad school to write concise memos.

I worry that students do too much writing in journals, essentially expressing themselves to themselves, and spend too little time learning to communicate to other people.

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  1. “Katie is learning in public policy grad school to write concise memos.”

    This is exactly what is missing in high school writing instruction: brevity, clarity accomodation to the knowledge and concerns of the reader.

    Writing assignments should be graded on how few words are required to accomplish a clearly defined task. Instead we reward self-expression and verbosity.

  2. The “show us how smart you are” syndrome affects more than writing: people who have spent many years in academia tend to overemphasize the demonstration of their own smartness in many ways. I saw an amusing example of this, which I described here.

  3. Walter E. Wallis says:

    It took me 5 years to write like an engineer and 25 years to stop it.

  4. Yes, kids are doing too much journal writing, and for what purpose? Your audience is yourself and your English teacher, who probably grades on how much you’ve written and how much you’ve prettied up your journal. It’s an artsy fartsy waste of time.

    In my classes I stress awareness of audience and the fact that students must write to persuade that audience by means of logic and examples. Unfortunately, I seem to be the only one taking this approach at my school. Last year my new honors sophomores spent most of their time working on visual projects and “reading” books in literature circles. It shows in their inability to write a cogent paragraph.

    Well, time to start all over again, kiddies. By the way, you can leave your glue and scissors at home.