Let’s go back in time for a few minutes, to 1989. I worked that year as a copy editor for hunting and fishing magazines. One of the ones I copy edited was North American Whitetail, so if you see that one, that used to be mine. While I worked there, we had four copy editors, and we would make fun of the writers who submitted articles to us, so that we even collected quotes of what we considered particularly stupid lines. They were things like this: “While sitting in my bass boat early one morning, a huge fish suddenly snagged the line.” (In case you’re a normal person and don’t see the problem, that sentence grammatically says the fish was sitting in the boat.)
My editor at the time would also criticize the writers for things he noticed (my editor was apparently good at spelling), but later I’d go back and remove mistakes the editor had added. The mistakes I made myself just stayed right there where I left them, I guess.
It seems to me that everyone criticizes bad writing, to the extent that they recognize it. No matter how bad someone is, if they see someone else make a mistake, whoa buddy! Did you even go to school, huh?
This topic came to me this week because of a medical article I had edited at work. The article was not well written, even by medical journal standards (not by my medical journal standards anyway), and all the way through the editing I kept cursing the incompetence of the writer. Then later we had an email exchange over some questions, and the writer seemed so pleasant and friendly that I felt like I was a wretched schmuck for my bad attitude.
Regarding the articles I edit, you might think that people who send us articles would be good, professional writers (at least half of them have both a PhD and an MD). And indeed, some are. In addition, they’re working with some very complicated stuff, similar to this: “Catastrophizing is an ongoing negative cognitive style characterized by helplessness, magnification, and obsessive thoughts regarding pain, a strong predictor of negative pain-related outcomes.” And that’s one of the easy sentences.
So why does a surly muttered “dumbass” fall from my lips on a regular basis? Why do I think the writers should be better than they actually are? In fact, why does everyone think other people should write better than they actually do?
The question takes me to the time when I taught college writing, the dreaded freshman class required of every person who came to college. The existence of the class implied that everyone should be a better writer afterward, but I had students who were still trying to find a place to buy a mule to start up that mountain. They weren’t going to be looking back down at the valley any time soon.
With a colleague who also taught the class, I’d discuss questions like these:
- Is it really possible to teach writing? (we pretty much concluded No)
- What is good writing? What does that really mean?
- Is it realistic or even reasonable to expect that every person who goes to college becomes a decent writer?
Honestly, this is way more complicated than most people want to know, getting into things like rhetorical awareness of audience. Even other college professors (who didn’t know shit about teaching writing) would talk about it as if there is such a thing as a universal standard of “good” writing—and there ain’t, not even close.
Someone who can write a beautiful poetic love letter may be a good writer to the person who receives it, but the same writer may not write a decent political editorial. Conversely, the logical sarcastic editorial writer may live a long lonely life if he’s depending on his dumb, dull love letters. Which one is a good writer?
In any case, whatever good writing might be, is it reasonable to think everyone should be able to do it? Do we expect everyone to be a good public speaker? Is everyone supposed to work on their own car? Are we all supposed to sew our own clothes and know how to invest in the stock market?
If you’ll sew buttons on for me and fix my car I’ll give you free editing. And I won’t call you names.