To impress upon the students in my homeschooling seminars the importance of writing, I would point out our everyday dependence on the written word, ranging from medical charts and legal briefs to police reports, inventories, and emails to the boss. Billions of dollars, I would tell the class, are lost annually because of poor communications. I would ask them whether the inadvertent use of a word or a badly constructed sentence on social media had ever led to a misunderstanding with a friend.
But the argument that best captured their attention involved a fictitious John and Mary, newly graduated from college, strangers whose eyes lock together while at a party. (At this point, I would torment my students by singing a few bars of “Some Enchanted Evening” from “South Pacific.”) It’s love at first sight, and they spend the rest of the evening entranced with each other, oblivious to those around them.
The glitch? John is an Army lieutenant en route to Afghanistan, and so forced to communicate with Mary chiefly by email.
I then presented the students with two scenarios:
Scenario No. 1: In his badly written emails, John does tell Mary he loves her, but spends most of the time complaining about the bad food, the bugs, the boredom, the heat, sunburn, and dirty socks.
Scenario No. 2: Writing like a poet-warrior, John tells Mary how the stars above the mountains remind him of the night they met and how he looks a dozen times daily at her photograph. He describes the magic he felt the first time she touched his hand, the sound of her laughter, the beauty of her eyes.
Then I would ask the girls in class: Which John is more appealing?
You can guess the results.
Why So Many Write So Poorly
In a 2015 article in The Washington Post, “Why Americans Can’t Write,” Natalie Wexler wrote that in 2011 only 24 percent of students in the 8th and 12th grades were proficient in writing. As a consequence, nearly all colleges now offer students remedial courses in composition. Does this create better writers? Apparently not. In “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses,” authors Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa reveal that during their first two years of college 45 percent of students demonstrated no improvement in a range of skills, including composition.
The reason for this failure is simple: Far too many of our students receive little instruction or practice in composition.
In many schools, grammar is neglected after fifth or sixth grade, and the art of the essay is all too often taught piecemeal or not at all. Part of the reason for this is that grading essays places a burden on teachers, and it’s not enough to write an essay or two a year. No, to help students become competent in composition the teacher must have them write essay after essay.
Practice, Practice, Practice
While teaching, I often graded 50 to 60 essays and journals per week. It was tough, but here was my reward: Many of my students returned from college to tell me of their success as writers. Several found employment at their university’s writing center, where they coached students deficient in the art of composition. A business professor at Appalachian State told one of my former students that his thesis for graduation was the best undergraduate piece of work the professor had ever read.
Another young man, Will, turned his back on college, enlisted in the Marine Corps, and joined Marine Recon. Once his sergeant asked him to write up a report. Will presented the report the following day. After reading what Will had written, the sergeant tossed it aside and said with a smirk, “Your college girlfriend wrote this report, didn’t she?”
“No, Sergeant,” Will replied. “In fact, I help her write her papers.”
Will was no Shakespeare. He was an average student.
But he had learned to write in high school.
Because for four years, he took my classes in history and literature, which meant that he wrote scores of essays.
These students who thanked me for “teaching” them to write always made me smile. I did teach the basics of writing an essay—if you can put together an essay, you can tackle anything from a business report to a love letter—and we studied some grammar, syntax, and vocabulary.
But that’s not how the students learned to write.
They learned to write by writing.
Some Practical Advice
There are numerous vehicles for writing. Here are three that worked for my students.
Journals. Consider having your student keep a journal. My young people wrote three entries a week, each 15 minutes long, with the stipulation that they were not to write anything unless they wanted me to read it. Some wrote funny anecdotes about their day, others described their pain over a grandparent’s death or their failure to make the cut on a sports team. One young man simply described what he ate at each meal. What they wrote mattered less than the fact that they were driving their pens across the paper.
Letters. Asking students to send letters to grandparents, friends, and even celebrities is an excellent way to have them write with a purpose. In the case of celebrities, several of my students were delighted when their letters brought a reply.
Essays. These are the heart of any composition course. Here I suggest a weekly essay for teenagers, running from 400 to 800 words long. Google “writing essays,” and dozens of sites will pop up.
Some Additional Tips
In my personalized manual on writing for students, which may be found at AshevilleLatin.com along with additional resources, I included these suggestions:
Generally avoid the use of “you” in academic essays. Too often “you” sounds as if the writer is commanding the reader, as in “Hawthorne will confuse you in the third paragraph.” Use “you” with discretion in personal essays.
Avoid using “I feel” or “I think.” Your name is on the essay; the reader knows what you feel or think. In addition, these words weaken your arguments. Compare these two statements: “I think Carolina will win the ACC” and “Carolina will win the ACC.”
Avoid repeating the same word too often on a page, unless the word is germane to the topic.
Select the right word. When you edit your essay, choose words with care. To paraphrase Mark Twain, the difference between the right word and the wrong word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug. Consult a thesaurus.
Make the delete key your friend. Isaac Bashevis Singer once wrote, “The wastepaper basket is the writer’s best friend.” Put the trash in the trash.
Use active voice when possible. “Auntie Em wore a black dress” is more direct and powerful than “A black dress was worn by Auntie Em.” (Note: In the passive voice, the subject doesn’t perform the action.)
Become an Editor
Here is where so many students fall down. They complete the first draft of a paper and consider it finished, little realizing how tinkering with their work will vastly improve it. Here are some steps to make editors out of students:
Read your essay. Did you follow the rules of mechanics? Do you have a thesis? Do your paragraphs have topic sentences? Is the paper organized? Are you missing words?
Now read the essay aloud. Reading aloud slows you down, allowing you to pay closer attention to your work. You will also hear when a sentence rings false.
Have someone else read the essay for errors.
Print the essay and read it again.
If necessary, make more corrections and then print the essay a final time.
A Gift for a Lifetime
Nearly everyone can learn to write clear, coherent prose. As should be plain from my above observations, this is less a matter of talent than of hard work and perseverance. There are no shortcuts, there is no magical formula, but the payoff is huge.
Ours is known as the Age of Communication. When we parents and teachers give our young people the ability to communicate through the written word, we are granting them full citizenship in this age.
Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C., Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.