Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Friday, June 12, 2009

learning writing

Very interesting article by Rachel Toor in the Chronicle of Higher Education on trying to get people to understand the value of writing well. She focuses particularly on friends of hers who are scientists and who, though they have to write a good deal, can't be bothered to learn how to do it skillfully.

There's something crucial here that often gets lost in academic writing (it's worse in fields like literary criticism and history). Because the work is so important to academics, sometimes they don't do a good job of convincing readers that they, too, should find it valuable. In many cases, the writer doesn't do a good enough job of explaining what the idea is, and then making the best argument for it.

When Godfrey [a friend of Toor’s an academic physician] told me that he'd had a manuscript rejected because the reviewers didn't get the importance of his findings, I explained that the failing was most likely his, not theirs. It's the burden of the writer to be clear and to let readers know why they should care. . . .

If you want a journal to accept your paper, or a federal agency to grant you coin, you have to make clear what is at stake and why the reader should care. Then you have to put forward the strongest reasoning based on evidence you provide in the clearest language you are able to rally. And then you need to know when you need help.

Erin O’Connor adds a comment:

A secret I learned during my year teaching high school students at a small Massachusetts boarding school: They like grammar (and vocabulary and syntax and usage) lessons, and want them, and want to write better. A secret I learned when I returned to Penn from that job: Same is true of college students. I had always done massive grammar and syntax commenting on student papers along with more global commenting on structure and framing and even more global commenting on the content of the argument itself, but after that year in high school I started devoting some formal class time to it as part of the writing component of the lit courses I taught. That was an unusual thing to do in a literature course, and I worried at first that the students would find the whole thing beneath them (even though they needed the work). But they didn't. And they improved. And it was good.

Again and again in my career I have seen that people who can write well — in almost any field — give themselves a great advantage over their competition. I have former students in the business world, English majors all, who have kept their jobs or even gotten promotions when people with business and economics degrees were being laid off: their ability to communicate, especially in writing, was always the key. What Toor and O’Connor show is that there are basic writing skills that almost anyone can learn and employ, skills that will save them a lot of time and effort later — if they are willing to take some time and effort now. But of course, it helps if they can find someone to teach them. . . .


  • Michael Straight said...

    My dad was a chemical engineer, with a degree in that field. He was promoted into management, was paid more and had better job security simply because he could write and communicate better than most engineers.

    Data is better than anecdotes, though. I'd love to see a study of various industries that tried to determine in which ones the ability to write well conferred the greatest advantage.

  • Over the past couple years, I've come to see taking the effort to write well as an extension of common courtesy.

  • Veronica Abbass said...

    Thank you for this article and thank you Julana for your comment. Yes, I too view "the effort to write well as an extension of common courtesy."

Post a Comment

[Basic HTML tags can be used in this comment field.]