I’d like to start this new year the way I start new classes, by explaining the value of the lessons I try to impart. It’s difficult to learn something if the desire to learn isn’t there, and the desire won’t form until you know why that something is worth knowing. We live in a world full of opportunities, not to mention distractions, all vying for our attention. Since the number of hours in each day are finite, we need to make smart choices as to how we spend our time. If you're not already committed to becoming the best writer you can be, let me try to convince you that improving your writing is a worthwhile endeavor.
Although I find the personal benefits of writing well more rewarding, it's difficult to convince students that there are more important things in life than one's grade in a class. As a current student myself, I completely understand this prioritization. I work myself into emotional knots if I think I'm at risk for making less than an A in a class because so much depends on academic performance. Scholarships, financial aid, and admittance into competitive schools and programs are all jeopardized by subpar grades. Nowadays, keeping grades high necessitates writing well.
Since I'm an English teacher, let's look at those classes first. Every student, regardless of intended major, MUST take English classes through college. Composition I and II are required core classes in every US university, and passing them with a good grade is essential for undergraduates. No problem! Right? Well, not if you have a professor like the one from whom's syllabus the following excerpts come. (There's are two errors in the first paragraph that always amuse me every time I see them. See if you can find them.)
These excerpts from actual syllabi should help you understand why many students barely squeak by composition classes with a passing grade (if they haven't dropped it to duck a failing grade first). To be honest, I'd be pretty frightened myself if I saw the above paragraph on one of my classes' syllabi...and I TEACH writing! It's very easy to accidentally let a typo slip by when proof-reading a paper for the umpteenth time. Tutors at writing centers are trained not to point out every single error for students, making the life of a non-native English-speaking student enrolled in a class like this a nightmare. As bleak as it may appear, students who put forth the effort and time to remediate their writing skills do pass; students who don't have the time or aren't interested in pushing themselves, don't do as well.
Non-English classes require writing components as well now that the entire educational system has shifted towards writing across the curriculum. This shift has spread past high-school into university classes. While math and science classes may not be full of essay assignments, many other core classes are writing intensive (e.g., history, philosophy, anthropology, government, etc.). Going further? Graduate school, regardless of the subject matter, is writing intensive. Every class includes essays and research papers, and the comprehensive exams at the end are in essay format (let's not forget the thesis and/or dissertation). It's preparation for professional writing responsibilities. Writing is a fact of life in school now. Getting good grades means learning to write well.
I want more for my students than struggling to make ends meet with a minimum-wage job. While I accept that not everyone wants to become an author, many people fail to realize just how many other jobs include writing as a job requirement. Engineers, nurses, police officers, teachers...pretty much every occupation we consider a career has some writing component comprising it. While jobs a little lower on the totem pole don't necessitate as many reports, they still have their fair share of writing. When I was a teenager working as a receptionist at veterinarian's office, the vet techs and I wrote the visit details in each animal's file (I still remember having to write “diarrhea” 500 times after misspelling it in one file!). Dental hygienists, administrative assistants, even a/c technicians write!
While your writing ability isn't indicative of how well you can do your job (unless you're a writer, of course), it's often the only aspect of your work that gets seen by those in a position to promote you. Writing may not be your specialty, but since it's aspect of yourself seen first, you need to make it shine to draw attention to you, and subsequently your other talents. It's important to remember that more writing responsibilities usually accompany promotions. Let's not forget how important it is to impress your customers; misspelling something on their receipt isn't the way to garner confidence in your workmanship.
I won't spend too much time on this point because this blog post is long enough as it is without me trying to describe something that's best experienced, not just read about. While I can't effectively convey to you the sense of inner peace sitting down and writing gives me when I'm at school surrounded by bustling, noisy crowds, I can list some ways your life can be improved by working on how well you write.
Writing is an orderly task. There are rules for proper word placement on the sentence level and for proper sentence placement on the paragraph level. Making sense of and organizing a jumble of ideas gets easier with practice, and hopefully this skill will leak into the rest of your life, helping you to be a more objective, rational human being. Formulating coherent, substantiated arguments improves your critical thinking abilities as well as your ability to persuade.
I believe improving your writing ability is an exercise in improving your life.
No One Is Perfect
Notice that nowhere in this post have I said that learning to write well is easy or fast. Some people are better at it than others, of course, but excellent writing takes effort and time, regardless of talent. In order to show you that we all have to start somewhere, I present the grade and feedback I received on one of my undergraduate essay assignments. It is the only one I've managed to save over all these years, so you'll have to take my word that I have received much worse.
I don't care how aloof you are or pretend to be, it hurts when someone criticizes your writing. I still remember when I first read the comments for my paper. I was livid! I recall thinking something along the lines of “Illogical?! I'll show YOU illogical! You're mother's illogical! How about that?!” It makes me laugh looking back on it now, but I remember being really angry.
For all the B's (and even some low C's!) I received on essays in school, I survived the heartache, learned from it, and I think I'm doing pretty well for myself now. Earning a bad grade on a written assignment is not the end of life as you know it, and it most likely will not keep you from pursuing your dream career. Keep your chin up, keep plodding along, and keep learning. It's worth suffering some discomfort now to become a competent (even excellent!) writer.
Photo credit: Kaleb Fulgham