Why good writing matters

student writingMany people don’t like to write. That especially applies to students and the seemingly unending number of papers they have to churn out. What’s the point? You write something only one person (the teacher) will ever see. And then you get it back with all kinds of markings pointing out spelling errors, grammatical errors, and other mistakes. It’s especially galling when it’s not even a paper for English class!

Why good writing can seem useless

I have certainly written lots of papers. As a sometime instructor at the college and graduate school level, I have assigned and graded lots of them, too. Both as a student and as an instructor, I have heard plenty of complaints about teachers who assign the papers in the first place. And especially about the sticklers for good writing–spelling, grammar, organization of thought, proper citation style, and all the rest.

Here are some of the complaints:

  • Being able to write a good paper doesn’t seem useful once the class is over.
  • The subject matter is hard enough without having to deal with pickiness about how to write.
  • Learning all that English stuff is boring.
  • It takes a long time to do the research and then a long time to write about it. People are busy these days. People have lives.
  • None of my friends care much about proper writing. If they understand me, why can’t that be good enough for everyone else?

Deeper reasons lurk behind the complaints. English spelling is absurdly difficult. Grammar and syntax may be less difficult, but learning language requires careful attention to language itself, quite apart from what any piece of writing is about.

Trying to learn and memorize the spellings and pronunciations of endless lists of vocabulary words is not only difficult. It’s boring. Learning the special vocabulary of grammar (the names of parts of speech; concepts like subject, finite verb, predicate, direct object, indirect object, relative clause, etc.; not to mention concepts like dangling participles, double negatives, split infinitives, and the like; oh, and verb tenses; punctuation; and I can’t bear to go on) presents completely different difficulties from proper spelling. And it’s boring, too.

(By the way, there’s one awfully long sentence in that last paragraph. Aren’t you glad I know how to use semicolons and parentheses so you can locate the verb several lines after the subject?)

Unfortunately, our educational system is failing our students. It has thrown up its hands. Basic language skills (and computational skills in mathematics) are difficult and boring for everyone. Not everyone learns at the same rate, so some students will get left behind. Getting left behind might make students feel like failures. But instead of devising ways to help them succeed, our schools simply leave basic skills out of the curriculum.

The educational establishment–and by that I mean colleges of education, educational theorists, school district administrations, as well as educational departments at other levels of government, but probably not classroom teachers–devalues basic skills.

They claim to be developing “higher level skills” as if higher skills can stand and develop without the lower ones. They not only devalue basic skills, they apparently doubt the ability of teachers to teach them or students to learn them. Perhaps they’re nurturing their own self esteem even more than protecting that of lagging students.
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Why it matters, anyway

The educational establishment claims that all children are potential geniuses. They prattle about excellence, and fool only themselves in the process. Once students get out into the world, they will find that many people do, in fact, expect mastery of basic skills.

  • Job applicants will probably have to send out a resume and cover letter. Job descriptions often require excellent communication skills. A poorly written cover letter guarantees that the resume will wind up in the reject pile without further consideration.
  • Some people, either for business or pleasure, will want to write for publication. The more editing a book proposal or magazine article requires, the less likely a publisher will be to accept it.
  • Of course, nowadays anyone can start a blog. Anyone can write a book and publish it on Kindle. But who will read it if bad spelling and grammar get in the way of understanding? Or get in the way of the author’s credibility?
  • No one, it seems, can escape receiving a lot of sales pitches, either through the mail or online. Who will buy based on a poorly written sales pitch?
  • Even if someone’s job never requires writing for any kind of publication, it’s hard to avoid written communication, such as
    • Memos and other correspondence with co-workers
    • Annual reports to supervisors
    • Correspondence with customers
    • Correspondence with suppliers
    • In short written correspondence with people who might have a high tolerance for poor writing, but then again who might not.

In other words, if any student is wondering when they reach a point when no one cares if they can write well or not, the answer is probably, “Never.” Rightly or wrongly, poor writing will cause people–including people who matter to the writer’s success–to develop a negative attitude towards that writer’s intelligence, work ethic, ambition, and trustworthiness.
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Photo credit: Some rights reserved by Star for Life

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