Over in the comments thread of the Me Rite Guud! entry, there’s been discussion about the various types of writing, and the relative importance of learning some of the formal basics of writing (through, say, having to crank out term papers in high school) for all forms of writing. Since I don’t expect y’all to trudge through every single comment thread — I mean, when I go to other people’s sites, I don’t — I thought I’d bring to the surface level some of the thoughts I’ve had on the matter.
1. Writing term papers is actually important. Joke though I might about today kids’ lack of formal writing skills meaning that I will be gainfully employed all my life, the fact is that the exercise of writing term papers, when combined with a teacher who knows what he or she is doing, is very helpful in teaching kids the basics of formal written communication, including structuring an argument, learning how to research, and crafting ideas in efficient and useful ways. Not to mention, of course, basic grammar.
These skills are useful not only to people who want to be writers, or for students who just have to write more term papers, but for everyone who ever needs to communicate with someone else in a formal written way — people who have to write project plans, or Power Point presentations, letters to employees (or to employers), and so on. Learning these skills in high school is optimal because they’re required for college, but also because that provides more time to internalize these writing skills so that you can pull them out whenever necessary. Clearly one can just trot down to the Barnes & Noble and get a book on how to write a business proposal. But my point is that if you’ve learned the fundamentals, and have incorporated them into your skills through use in high school and college, you won’t need the book — and you’ll have an advantage over those who do.
Now, once you get out into the real world, there isn’t much need to write term papers anymore, so one could argue that writing the term papers in themselves is not especially critical. But I disagree. Like many things in school (and like school itself) term papers are a construct designed to help students learn: First, to learn more about whatever subject they’re writing the paper on, and second to get used to the formal basics and structure of writing clearly and effectively. These are tools that can be used well beyond the realm of writing term papers, just as other aspects of education are used beyond the realm of the classroom.
2. Congruent to this, other types of writing are not useful replacements for writing term papers. Hundreds of thousands of high school kids across the country are writing blogs and journals and millions more are sending IM messages by the truckload, and I think that’s grand. You’ll never hear me complaining about kids using writing to communicate.
But as I’ve mentioned before, writing blogs and journals is basically good for one thing: Writing blogs and journals. It lacks any critical feedback (from teachers, editors, or others with a formal interest in writing), and is often freeform and chaotic. Anyone who reads blogs and journals will note that entire strata of the online writing universe are well nigh incomprehensible because the writers, regardless of how much they want to communicate, don’t have the organizational skill to get across more than a general idea of how they feel about things. A couple of term papers a month would tone that right up.
People tell me they like reading what I write here (thanks!), and much of the reason they do enjoy it is due to the fact that even when I’m writing about something completely stupid, I can typically write about it in a clear and intelligent manner. That comes from the ability to structure my writing on the fly, and ultimately that comes from gaining structural tools during the course of my education. Take a look at the blogs and journals you like to read for the writing, and I think you’ll find that whether these people are “real” writers or not, they have ample experience with the structure of writing — often through their jobs, which require written communication in some way.
3. Various writing fields are not isolated. And this should be read in two ways. First, the basic tools of writing — the ones that allow you to structure your writing and communicate clearly — are universally applicable: They’re equally useful in writing a novel, writing instructions to operate a stereo, or writing a brief on why your company should do whatever it is you should choose to propose. And to go back again, a great number of these skills can be learned in the process of cranking out term papers.
Second, skills learned in specific disciplines of writing are of use in other disciplines of writing. One of the correspondents in the earlier comment thread opined (and I’m paraphrasing) that he suspected that the corporate world would have little use for writers with the skill of writing dialogue, which is essential for writing novels. Well, as it happens, I write both corporate brochures and novels, so I can tell you that this suspicion is erroneous. My corporate clients often ask me to write material in a particular tone — informal, say, or business-like without being too stuffy, or straight-up get-to-the-point declamations — depending on who they are or the nature of the business. Finding the right tone in corporate writing is very much like creating the right tone for a character’s dialogue, and the fact I can do the latter makes doing the former that much easier. Indeed, clients tell me that one of the things they prize about my work (and why I continue to get work) is the fact that what I write often feels like someone is sitting across from the reader, speaking the words to them: Like dialogue.
It works the other way as well. Corporate writing is usually to the point and direct; you can’t presume that the reader of a brochure or corporate document is going to follow you down entire paragraphs of prose, no matter how brilliant it is. You economize and get to the point. I find this useful when I’m writing novels; thanks to writing corporatespeak I have an indicator of when I’m drifting from the narrative flow of the story and need to get re-engaged. I think my readers appreciate this; I know my editors do.
The point here: Good writers don’t arbitrarily segregate their writing skills — they’re opportunistic and use whatever writing skills they learn in whatever field to make their writing stronger in other fields. And underneath all of that is a grounding in the fundamentals of writing clearly and with structure, fundamentals which are optimally learned in school.
If we’re not providing our kids these fundamentals in school, we’re failing them. The easy road is to mock the dumbass kids for not being able to write, which I’ve already done. But if in fact I keep my competitive edge in writing over the next few generations of kids, I’m not really going to blame them. It’s not the kids who are designing a pedagogical system that allows them to cruise through high school and not have to write more than a couple of three-page papers.