There was an easy answer as far as the student was concerned. "I just can't write." The implication is that writing is something a person can either do or not do. It has either been learned or not learned. There is no middle ground. This idea denies the fact that writing is a skill and that people get better at it as they practice. The idea that writing is something that a person either knows how to do or does not know how to do is one of the superstitions about writing that students carry with them through school.
This superstition is sometimes rejected by students whose writing takes the opposite approach: "I already know how to write." This also denies that writing is a skill learned by practice.Writing tends to attract superstitions because it is romanticized. It is a bit mysterious how the arabesques of the human imagination become symbols on a page that can teach and inspire and entertain. English teachers often add to the mystery with a teaching vocabulary that seems to speak only to other English teachers. There are dangling participles, intransitive verbs, and gerunds that might as well be Greek to most, including many good writers.
Despite the mystery, the student who carries the superstition "I just can't write" really doesn't understand that real writing requires the knowledge of only one rule: A sentence expresses one complete thought. Implied in this rule is that to write a complete sentence, one must first think a complete thought.
Although the fundamentals are taught in the English class, writing requires thinking that is taught in other classes besides English. People seem to write well when they have something to say. This something to say may not have been learned in any class. I have read wonderful essays from students who never really learned to identify dangling participles in an English class, but they have something to say and think complete thoughts.
Another superstition is that "my only writing problem is grammar." This is reinforced by leaders in business who notice poor writing skills in recent graduates and ask the schools to teach more grammar. What these people are really asking is that students learn composition skills. It is not that unusual to meet students who can name the parts of speech and conjugate verbs but can't write well-organized and persuasive prose. The point is that learning the rules of good grammar by completing reams of purple work sheets only means that a student has one of the tools that make for good writing. Other tools are also needed, like the ability to organize ideas, the ability to use effective arguments, and the ability to think complete thoughts. These are learned by practice.
The superstitious student who says to the English teacher, "I get good grades in my other classes," is the most difficult to answer. This student is saying that since good grades are earned in classes other than English, writing must not be that important. This student has heard writing teachers say that good writing will help across the curriculum but doesn't believe it. It is this student who may cause a future employer to complain about writing skills.
The answer to give the "I get good grades in other classes" student is that maybe those other classes are not directly addressing the important writing skill that future employers are asking for. The student should also know, however, that the knowledge that is taught in these other classes is required to think complete thoughts and that complete thoughts are requisite to writing complete sentences. It would be better if students wrote in all classes, but at the least writing teachers can draw important ideas from the other disciplines for writing assignments.
The superstition that "there is a right and a wrong way to write" can only be eliminated with practice. Lessons and lectures don't seem to teach writing. Students learn ways to express themselves while practicing. Perhaps it would help them to know that professionals still practice. Professional writers and musicians practice their craft; it is never completely learned. Medical doctors and attorneys are still practicing, along with teachers who teach writing and know that writing skills are improved with practice. The teacher would be the last to subscribe to the superstition, "I know how to teach," and the last to let go unchallenged the student who says "I know how to write."
- Roger Baker is associate professor of English/education at Snow College. Comments or questions may be addressed to him at: English Department, Snow College, Ephraim, UT 84627