Writing is Hard

*Note. I write this today in what could be described as a “crotchety old man” mood. I keep thinking things like “in my day we…” and “get off my lawn.”  So, you know, that’s something you should know. Not that I think this post would change dramatically!

I read a blog post in the Washington Post today regarding writing remediation for students going into college. The post was written by William G. Tierney, a professor of higher education and director of the Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis at the University of Southern California and Stefani R. Relles, a former community college instructor and doctoral candidate at USC.

A few key points from their post:

  • Remedial courses are a bottleneck in higher education (and according to another article I read recently, a significant cost for many students)
  • Writing skills, especially, are lacking with many students never having written a formal paper longer than 2 or 3 pages.
  • More and more standardized testing is being done, with more and more classroom time devoted to prep. Yet research shows that timed essays on tests are “unreliable indicators of writing strength.”

I’m not that surprised. I’m a marketer. I’ve read lots of “content” from blog posts to emails to newsletters at places I’ve worked. And boy, the quality is often astoundingly poor. I don’t mean boring or with grammar issues – I mean unclear or confusing writing with little structure, muddled narrative. Not always. Not everyone. But often enough.

Of course, my perspective was shaped before I entered college in 1991. First, I hand-wrote most of my papers until my sophomore year in college (personal computers not being very prevalent at all).  Even when I typed papers, it was based on a hand-written copy.

Handwriting papers necessitated multiple writings of a paper – not only to correct spelling errors and grammatical issues but to incorporate revisions and corrections. My papers were littered with cross-outs and writing in the margins. My drafts became, quite literally, pictures of my writing process.

In both high school and college, I had multiple writing projects that took several revisions and weeks to complete. I had to write different kinds of projects – from creative pieces to speeches to research papers to summaries. It was a huge part of my learning experience and, for me anyway, more difficult and time-intensive than most tests.

Of course I had my challenges. When I am summarizing, I often write important text verbatim from the source without realizing it. So I had to be careful of unintended plagiarism. I also tend to write too much. Over the years strike-outs turned into regular use of the highlight/delete function.

I believe that this kind of writing not only developed my writing skills but also my ability to condense and analyze information, to think critically about what I was reading, and more. It also helped me develop a “voice” of my own* and learn how to write in different voices and styles depending on the situation.

The writing processes I learned are similar to what Tierney and Relles propose to reduce the need for writing remediation:  “Set specific and understandable goals. Teach students how to revise. Teach summarizing, not analyzing.** Require more and longer writing.”

But even these solutions are “controversial” in the words of the authors.

“Adopting [these kinds of solutions] would mean focusing on writing as process rather than as product, an unsettling break for those accustomed to exams and assignments without revision opportunities.”

In the authors’ Los Angeles high schools students take up to six state and district tests yearly — on top of midterms and finals. 94% pass the state exit exam. And yet 42% need remedial English. Should the test be harder? Test different things?

I’m not sure. I don’t think writing can always be tested in a few hours. My best writing is often done over days or weeks. And some teachers liked my writing better than others! There is an element of “art” to writing that I believe requires students to be exposed to a variety of resources and teachers over time. Can we standardize that? Do we want to?

Maybe all of this is much ado about nothing – maybe things haven’t changed that dramatically. Perhaps there are always going to be some folks who are more comfortable writing than others. And it’s not only people younger than me who struggle with writing (though my – admittedly anecdotal – experience is that folks older than me know their writing isn’t great, whereas younger folks tend to think theirs is just fine, even when it’s not).

What do you think? How do your kids’ classes manage it? Teachers, are you able to assign long writing projects and research papers? What is your experience?


*If you are reading this, you hopefully like my “talky, kinda casual, pretty human” voice of choice. And while I have issues with some of the poor writing examples I see (and the systematic neglect of writing skills implied by the discussed blog post), I don’t claim to be a grammarian! I don’t care if you put one or two spaces after your period. I don’t get up in arms if you use “it’s and its” incorrectly once in a while. I don’t believe perfect grammar is perfect writing. There’s more to it than that, if you ask me. And maybe you’re thinking “this Kerry Jo girl’s not even that good of a writer!” Maybe not! There’s the art sneaking in again.

**I bulked a little at the “not analyzing” bit. But I love their explanation:

“Critical thinking in and of itself is not a precursor of good writing. Putting thinking into words, sentences and paragraphs is the endgame, and that crucially involves the ability to summarize material, a more concrete and therefore teachable skill. If students are able to summarize what they have read, they can better grasp how to put together their own arguments.”


2 responses to “Writing is Hard

  1. Agreed (re: perfect grammar vs perfect writing). Rarely the ‘twain shall meet. Unless you’re writing about invading aliens who only have Strunk & White to guide them in communication with Americans. Seems unlikely.

    • And the mark of a true writer…knowing what Strunk & White is without Googling 😉 (which I did). I have much to learn from you, sensai 😉 Thanks Cy!

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