Ain’t You Never Gonna Write Good?

grammar pigLet’s imagine that you’ve written a note about needing to take the car in for an oil change. Would it contain language like “yon carriage that doth dance upon globes of tropical nectar”? Would you sound like Shakespeare?

Right, probably not. For a functional note, such imaginative language is not needed, but even if it were, we couldn’t expect everyone to write like that. Maybe instead the note should have more of the feel of a modern, plain-language writer, like Hemingway. “The oil in the car needs changing. I’m the one who has to do those things. What will happen if it isn’t changed? We won’t find out.”

Do you think everyone should aim at writing the way well-known writers do? I think you’re yelling No. Nevertheless, here in the glorious future where we live, we’ve decided that every person on the earth should be able to read and write. It’s not that everyone can, but we think they should. That’s pretty damn radical, don’t you think?

As a person who spent twenty years teaching writing, I’ve thought muchly about how people write, and I’ve talked to people who’ve thought about this. Of course the fact that I spent twenty years teaching people how to write implies that I believe it can be done. Or…or maybe I was just a word whore and it was better than stocking shelves at Walmart, the other job I was qualified for.

Laying facetiousness aside (briefly), I know that the ability to convey your thoughts well in writing is an amazing power. And I truly wish everyone had that power. As long as they don’t get all uppity and start writing novels, because there’s enough competition as it is. But what I meant to say was that when we teach people to write, what do we mean by that? You should be able to write a note that clearly says the car needs to be taken in for an oil change, but we definitely have much more in mind.

How well should people be able to write? Can you work as an educated professional if you don’t write well? In spite of what your college professors tell you, I’ll declare that absolutely yes, you can, though whether you do may be a matter of luck. I’ve often been frustrated by the incoherent drivel that comes from computer programmers. Have you ever had a message come up on your screen that made you think “What the hell does that mean?” The computer didn’t say that. A human being typed those words in. I’ve sometimes considered whether computer programmers should be taught to write better, and I’ve concluded that actually, we should pass a law making it illegal for them to ever write anything.

Or browse through a different example. From my work for a pharmacy journal, I’ve edited articles in their natural state, a condition that the writer considered good enough to send off for professional publication. I’m sometimes reminded (more often than I should be) of the freshman composition students who I taught for twenty years.

Most of those students were eighteen years old, just out of high school, and many of them—to put it gently—wrote in such a way that you would never, ever, ever want to read it. Apparently, students just like those grew up and became pharmacists or pharmacy researchers. Now they write articles, and…how can I say this as softly as it deserves? Some of them are fucking horrible.

So in my experience people actually don’t necessarily need to write well to succeed. At least once in a while you can be pretty close to freshman English ignorant and still get published, and you get all the toys and cookies that come with publication. Or you could write software manuals. Or letters from insurance companies.

But to lay facetiousness aside again, though it doth cling to my fingers, is it reasonable to think that every person can become a truly good writer? Do we expect every person to be good in math? Do we think everyone should be creative and artistic? Should everyone be able to work on a car?

All I can do is write about working on a car, as long as I don’t use any actual details. And math? Jeez, I couldn’t even write about that.

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4 Comments

Filed under How We Create Magic, Language

4 responses to “Ain’t You Never Gonna Write Good?

  1. If I get the stomach for teaching composition again this fall, I will bring this essay along for my colleagues during freshman writing program orientation. 🙂

  2. You are welcome to it, though I’ve found that English professors do not like to hear the truth about teaching writing. They just like to complain about the students (as I was doing there). Maybe yours are different. I be hoping they is.

    • I agree about English professors–even in a recent interview for an adjunct job at a not to be named PA school, the search committee members asked and leaned in for a response to “You’ve taught a lot of places, do you find the students any different? Have you found any place where they don’t struggle to write?” —Me: “Not yet,”

  3. Acer

    I feel like you’ve neglected a significant part of the art of everyday writing. It seems to me that much of the basics of writing are tied to speech. For everyday purposes I write how I speak. It’s only for special purposes that I significantly alter my voice from what I would say out loud.

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