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TORONTO, Ont. /Troy Media/ – The best thing I did for myself was to learn how to write.
It took a long time and I still have much to discover, but learning how to organize my words taught me how to organize my thoughts and, by extension, how to organize my understanding of the world around me.
I studied writing and so, naturally, I learned how to write. Thank god I did.
So many other disciplines treat writing like dinner rolls at a restaurant – something to nibble on before the real food arrives or else to ignore altogether.
The worst kept secret in schooling is how poorly so many students write. Students can, with a little effort, design a course of study that will earn them a degree without having to write lengthy, detailed papers. Universities and colleges endorse a writing-free education. They let it happen.
This aversion to writing – an allergic reaction in its mild form, illiteracy in its major form – is one of the greatest failures of our schooling system, at every level.
Without clear writing, there is no clear thinking. If you can’t order your words, you can’t order your mind. If you can’t express your thoughts on a topic, you don’t know your thoughts. And if we can’t speak about what we know, then we have nothing to speak about – and you will be a stranger to me.
Why writing has been relegated to a side plate of instruction rather than treated for what it is – an end in itself, the sustenance of every meal – is a long, drawn-out comic-tragedy.
The comic part of the story tells of the original sinners, those English teachers who refuse to teach writing. Composition is beneath them; they want to teach literature. To defend this abdication of responsibility, these teachers move students along, reasoning that as long as the idea is there, the students understand the concept well enough to pass. As if writing – the articulation of a concept – existed separate from the concept.
The tragic part of the story tells of students who advance in their studies without knowing how to organize their thoughts on a page. Embarrassed by this obvious, hideous shortcoming, students do all they can to avoid having to write more than a few pages. Schools oblige and reduce writing requirements. Teachers console students by saying, As long as the idea is there, you’ll get the grade.
Many students advance without skill or confidence in their writing. In a moment of divine justice, a flood of poorly written term papers drowns the teachers.
Every so often, a technology company offers new software they claim will help students write better. Recently, students have taken to using tools that read a text and output a paraphrased version. And more than one company is designing software to read student papers so teachers don’t have to. (Note the perversion: technology to write for students; technology to read for teachers.)
Those of us in the trenches know that no technology can teach students how to write or how to think. A rational mind is not born through technology and the skills of a writer can’t be learned in any way except through effort: time measured in litres of sweat.
Deep, sustained learning comes through writing. Teachers must ask their students to write at every opportunity. Ideally, every day.
Regular practice and feedback, along with instructions on style, can turn students from amateurs lost in the chaos of their thoughts into writers who can impose order on their words.
Troy Media columnist Robert Price is a communications and professional writing instructor at the University of Toronto. Robert is included in Troy Media’s Unlimited Access subscription plan.
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