Want to write Better? Read More
Will Fitzhugh, The Concord Review
The extra-large ubiquitous Literacy Community is under siege from universal dissatisfaction with the Writing skills of both students and graduates, and this is a complaint of very long standing.
The Community response is to request more money and time to spend on sentence structure, paragraphing, voice, tone, and other mechanical Writing paraphernalia.
It never seems to occur to them that if students read more, they would know more, and in that way actually have some knowledge they wanted to write about. But reading and knowledge never seem to find their way into discussions of Literacy in Our Schools.
When teaching our students to write, not only are standards set very low in most high schools, limiting students to the five-paragraph essay, responses to a document-based question, or the personal (or college) essay about matters which are often no one else’s business, but we often so load up students with formulae and guidelines that the importance of writing when the author has something to say gets lost in the maze of processes.
On the one hand writing is difficult enough to do, and academic writing is especially difficult if the student hasn’t read anything, and on the other hand teachers feel the need to have students “produce” writing, however short or superficial that writing may be. So writing consultants and writing teachers feel they must come up with guidelines, parameters, checklists, and the like, as props to substitute for students’ absent motivation to describe or express in writing something they have learned.
Samuel Johnson once said, “an author will turn over half a library to produce one book,” the point being, as I understand it, that good writing must be based on extensive reading. But reading is just the step that is left out of the “Writing Process” in too many instances. The result is that students in fact do not have much to say, so of course they don’t have much they want to communicate in writing.
Enter the guidelines. Students are told to write a topic sentence, to express one idea per paragraph, to follow the structure of Introduction, Body, Conclusion, to follow the Twelve Steps to Effective Writing, and the like. This the students can be made to do, but the result is too often empty, formulaic writing which students come to despise, and which does not prepare them for the serious academic papers they may be asked to do in college.
I fear that the history book report, at least at the high school level in too many places, has died in the United States. Perhaps people will contact me with welcome evidence to the contrary, but where it is no longer done, students have not only been discouraged from reading nonfiction, but also have been lead to believe that they can and must write to formula without knowing something—for instance about the contents of a good book—before they write.
A nationally famous teacher of teachers of writing once told me: “I teach writing, I don’t get into content that much…” This is a splendid example of the divorce between content [reading and knowledge] and process [techniques] in common writing instruction.
Reading and writing are inseparable partners, in my view. In letters from authors of essays published in The Concord Review since 1987, they often say that they read so much about something in history that they reached a point where they felt a strong need to tell people what they had found out. The knowledge they had acquired had given them the desire to write well so that others could share and appreciate it as they did.
This is where good academic writing should start. When the motivation is there, born from knowledge gained, then the writing process follows a much more natural and straightforward path. Then the student can write, read what they have written, and see what they have left out, what they need to learn more about, and what they have failed to express as clearly as they wanted to. Then they read more, re-write, and do all the natural things that have always lead to good academic writing, whether in history or in any other subject.
At that point the guidelines are no longer needed, because the student has become immersed in the real work of expressing the meaning and value of something they know is worth writing about. This writing helps them discover the limits of their own understanding of the subject and allows them to see more clearly what they themselves think about the subject. The process of critiquing their own writing becomes natural and automatic. This is not to deny, of course, the value of reading what they have written to a friend or of giving it to a teacher for criticism and advice. But the writing techniques and processes no longer stop up the natural springs for the motivation to write.
As students are encouraged to learn more before they write, their writing will gradually extend past the five-paragraph size so often constraining the craft of writing in our schools. The Page Per Year Plan© suggests that all public high school Seniors could be expected to write a twelve-page history research paper, if they had written an eleven-page paper their Junior year, a ten-page paper their Sophomore year, and a nine-page paper their Freshman year, and so on all the way back through the five-page paper in Fifth Grade and even to a one-page paper on a topic other than themselves their first year in school. With the Page Per Year Plan©, every Senior in high school will have learned, for that twelve-page paper, more about some topic probably than anyone else in their class knows, perhaps even more than any of their teachers knows about that subject. They will have had in the course of writing longer papers each year, that first taste of being a scholar which will serve them so well in higher education and beyond.
Writing is always much harder when the student has nothing to communicate, and the proliferating paraphernalia of structural aids from writing consultants and teachers often simply encumber students and alienate them from the essential benefits of writing. John Adams urged his fellow citizens to “Dare to read, think, speak and write” so that they could contribute to the civilization we have been given to enjoy and preserve. Let us endeavor to allow students to discover, through their own academic reading and writing, both the discipline and the satisfactions of reading and of writing carefully and well.
In 1625, Francis Bacon wrote, “Reading maketh a Full man, Conference a Ready man, and Writing an Exact man.” These benefits are surely among those we should not withhold from our K-12 students.
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