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Saturday, May 25. 2013
Can students be taught to write?
I believe that good writing is a talent, like music. You have a feel for it, or you don't. However, adequate, functional, expository writing ought to be within the grasp of most people who know how to talk and who read things. Clear writing requires clear thinking, but I often clarify my thinking by the task of writing.
However, this is High School training, not college.
Posted by The Barrister in Education, Our Essays at 15:32 | Comments (13) | Trackbacks (0)
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I think the ability to be a good writer also involves having done a lot of reading. That is lacking in most young folks these days. Can't remember the last time I saw my younger son looking at a book, although my older one did go through a reading phase in his high school days.
six weeks of Strunk & White, The Element's of Style, will make them competent writers. not good writers, but ahead of 90% of the rest of the public.
"However, this is High School training, not college."
So I presume that you, now an attorney, learned how to write a legal brief in high school? One of the keys to good writing, I believe, is to acquire a broad vocabulary. In my experience, this is a major difference between well educated British university students and well educated American students who are their peers. On average, the Brits have nearly twice as large a vocabulary. This is not a skill one perfects "in high school." It is a continuing education, one that is furthered by extensive, rigorous reading of the classics of English literature. Unfortunately, this is rarely required of the dunces who go to college in the US these days.
Your vocabulary score on the WAIS and other measurements will be the same in your 50's as those of the same IQ, unrelated to your education. There is no measurable superiority to the British system - they are just more likely to restrict college to those who can benefit.
One small correction. For good in 'I believe good writing is a talent...', substitute great. Great writing is a talent that can only be developed, not taught. I'll agree with you that good writing should be within the province of anyone with reasonable education. With one important proviso. If it is not taught early it is not taught at all. As an ex teacher - I got out to deal with adult education - I fear it is not taught at all.
However, this is High School training, not college.
I never got any decent instruction in writing in either high school or college. High school was much more concerned with turning out "junior literary critics" than in teaching students to write good essays. College: literary critics.
From my high school English and History courses, I developed a strong aversion to writing. This was a highly rated school- ten percent went to Ivies or the equivalent-so I cannot blame mediocrity or the like. We read Shakespeare or Scott Fitzgerald, not Fluff Fiction- which was fine by me. The school's junior literary critic approach did not fit me. I wanted to express myself in writing- and did well in the occasional English classes where we were directed to spend the class hour writing on some non-literary topic- but damned if I wanted to become a junior literary critic.
As an adult, my keeping a journal helped overcome my longstanding aversion to writing. Another thing that helped my writing was to join Toastmasters. By osmosis, I learned that the easiest speech to "remember" was one with simple, declarative sentences. Convoluted sentences with flowery phrases are not easy to remember. As a result, I began to write speeches in simple,declarative sentences. [Similarly, I learned that the best way to "remember" a speech was to become familiar with the main points you wanted to make, and simply elucidate the points in simple, direct sentences that you make up on the spot. Not memorized.]
Another helpful guide to writing is Paul Graham's The Age of the Essay. There is much more to his article, but this should suffice to pique your interest.
Remember the essays you had to write in high school? Topic sentence, introductory paragraph, supporting paragraphs, conclusion. The conclusion being, say, that Ahab in Moby Dick was a Christ-like figure.One point that Graham makes is that while in the essay one ostensibly learns to write in high school or college, one takes a position and defends it, an essay can be better seen as sitting down and thinking through to a conclusion- a train of thought.
Oy. So I'm going to try to give the other side of the story: what an essay really is, and how you write one. Or at least, how I write one.
The most obvious difference between real essays and the things one has to write in school is that real essays are not exclusively about English literature. Certainly schools should teach students how to write. But due to a series of historical accidents the teaching of writing has gotten mixed together with the study of literature. And so all over the country students are writing not about how a baseball team with a small budget might compete with the Yankees, or the role of color in fashion, or what constitutes a good dessert, but about symbolism in Dickens.
With the result that writing is made to seem boring and pointless. Who cares about symbolism in Dickens? Dickens himself would be more interested in an essay about color or baseball.
Yes, far better would we be if we burned the English department and drove the literary theorists into the wilderness. Instead, we make the English lit majors into English teachers in high schools were the damage is spread.
One observation Graham made was that being good at literary criticism or theorizing does not imply the individual is a decent teacher of writing and composition, regardless of how many papers they wrote.
Check out 'Freshman Rhetoric', John Rothwell Slater, Ph.D. Professor of Rhetoric and English Literature in the University of Rochester, (1913)
I would have killed to have had a book and course like that when I was in school. It is so simple and so well laid out. Oddly, this true composition instructor did not consider the literary criticism or the argumentative paper as the end all, be all like is done today. The first five chapters are excellent and develop skills critical to school success.
Nothing can be more hypocritical than for young
people who are still in the rudiments of literature to be forced
into pronouncing objective judgments as to the worth of
literature. Students instinctively feel this, and resent all
attempts to get them to pretend a knowledge which they do
I remember this resentment and it is a large part of what turned me off of writing and literature. Nothing leaves such a bad taste than hypocrisy.
Your recommendation of Slater's Freshman Rhetoric is not the first one I have come across. However, your recommendation has spurred me to finally investigate the book.
I found it at the Internet Archive and have tried to get all the students in my family to check it out for the chapter on note taking and textbook study alone.
Those chapter led me to How to Study and Teaching How to Study (1909) by F. M. McMurry, Professor of Elementary Education, Teachers College, Columbia University. Which makes me wonder why education has lost so much of what it knew.
The reason of course is simple, the Ph.D. in education. For a Ph.D., one is suppose to do new work, add to the field. There is no credit for continuing to use a way that works, so we get constant "new ideas", experimentation....on kids while the old ideas that worked are denigrated.
Think of it this way, what would your house look like if carpenters had Ph.Ds. (I mean Ph.Ds in carpentry, not English lit or philosophy)? Each one trying to new ways to build and shape a house so that they can get accolades from other carpenters?
Reading studies writing, and writing studies reading.
An ongoing Q&A across four kiddo upbringings: they ask to know how to study the learning of writing the heming way, i answer, "Just read Hemingway".
--and it's really not a flip notion; your mind stays between your eye and hand when you saw a log, and when you read and write about sawing a log the same sequence lights along a parallel --your brain between your mind and self.
What a great topic for MF to address since we no longer have newspapers worth the newsprint and Common Core curricula diminish writing to test-taking in the check-the-box answers. Does anyone remember Blue Books?
I enjoyed (most of the time) the most marvelous teacher in 7th and 8th grade who taught us diagramming -- every word had a place for a reason. And, we could take that sentence, reconstruct it, make it stronger, make it more specific, make it more colorful by adding or subtracting words, substituting another word, changing the position of the clause or, simply, repeating the same introductory words over and over again until a summary sentence. We could work for several days on the same sentence. Clean it, refine it, make it zing.
He required we invest in two paperbacks: a dictionary and a thesaurus. His own collection included huge tomes written in various centuries that, after his death, found homes in universities dedicated to preserving language.
Later in journalism school I had one professor worth the whole tuition. She red-inked our submissions, never giving a grade. You could always rewrite as many times as you wanted; she always corrected each and every rewrite. The woman never slept. We never knew our grade until the last day of class when they were distributed atop our final paper. God knows, I worked my tail off for that woman. She went on to become a dean at two universities at a time when women seldom held such positions.
Lesson learned from him: rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.
Lesson learned from her: rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.
@ buddy especially. PJ O'Rourke believed he learned to write by parodying great writers for comic effect in National Lampoon. He thought he would try that style of teaching if he ever taught a writing course. It makes a certain sense. By exaggerating, one sees what the writer is doing.
Along the line of parody of famous authors, consider the A Parody Outline of History. Various events in American history are retold in the style of famous authors, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald [The Courtship of Miles Standish], Eugene O'Neill, Edith Wharton[Custer's Last stand], etc.
Then there is the treatment of how famous people would treat the "Why Did the Chicken Cross the Road?" joke. Examples:
Emily Dickinson: Because it could not stop for death.
Thomas de Torquemada: Give me ten minutes with the chicken and I'll find out.
I have also heard Torquemada's response given by a member of the NYPD. Closer to home than the Spanish Inquisition.