What’s wrong with school writing?


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If you were to ask what I’ve accomplished over the break, I would probably say “write.” (after sleeping, eating, and keeping myself alive) Whether it’s posting on this blog, revising essays that I’ve written over the summer, writing new ones, writing posts for Student Congress, Facebook messaging people, and putting random outbursts on Google Keep, I have been putting pen to paper hands to keyboard quite a bit this week.

And yet all this writing was unrelated to school. What’s the difference?

There are deadlines. This is actually a good thing. If no one forcing you to write a post, why even write? And even if you do write, when are you finished? When do you hit “publish”? Better to have a due date backed with a grade.

People don’t have to want to read what you write. You have an underpaid teacher taking his or her own time to read what you wrote. It doesn’t matter if it’s boring or badly written. At worst, your grade will suffer.

You’re judged by your first draft, not your last. I haven’t written an out of class essay since freshman year, a move by the teachers to prevent plagiarism.1 And whenever I write something in class, I essentially brain dump for an hour. Good ideas and bad ideas alike get meshed together. And if I get an epiphany in the middle of a paragraph? Write it down, pretend like it fit alongside what I was writing, and move on.

Rewriting is irrelevant. Related to the last point. Multiple choice SAT writing questions are about as far as we get with revising and editing, even thought editing is a vital part of writing

It’s not about what you say, but how you say it. Using long words is good, and including a lot of detail is always a good thing. Your ideas don’t necessarily have to be correct, as long as they’re complicated enough so that someone giving them a brief glance can’t see the fallacy.

What caused school writing to be like this?

Standardized tests. Take the English AP tests and SAT essay. The tests need to be quickly administered and graded, so only the first draft is considered. It has to be objective, so no argument can necessarily be “better” than others. Making up facts is completely fine, as long as you can “construct an argument” effectively. 2 Even for non-English AP tests, the free response portion has no regard for writing style. This makes sense (who wants to be punished on a science AP if the facts are correct?), but there’s nothing that counteracts this.

How do we fix this?

Have students create blogs. (I am saying this from as objective of a perspective as possible.) At their heart, blogs are an informal and public platform to share your ideas.  Wouldn’t you treat your English essays differently if they were published on the internet for your friends to read? And wouldn’t you want to have something interesting to say? Exactly.  3

Sites like EduBlogs are already attempting to make blogs for education a widespread thing. And with so much technology being introduced in classrooms, we should take advantage of this opportunity to publicly share your work.

It used to be that only a tiny number of officially approved writers were allowed to write essays. Magazines published few of them, and judged them less by what they said than who wrote them; a magazine might publish a story by an unknown writer if it was good enough, but if they published an essay on x it had to be by someone who was at least forty and whose job title had x in it. Which is a problem, because there are a lot of things insiders can’t say precisely because they’re insiders.

The Internet is changing that. Anyone can publish an essay on the Web, and it gets judged, as any writing should, by what it says, not who wrote it. Who are you to write about x? You are whatever you wrote.

The Age of the Essay, Paul Graham.

Once again, to anyone debating over whether to start a blog or not, DO IT. Yes, it’s time consuming. Yes, it’s hard. Yes, it’s scary, especially when people you know start reading. Why should that stop you? Do you want to write better? Then write more first. And write publicly. (Also I’m selfish and want to see what you write. Sorry bout that.)

Here’s the first step.

  1. Actually, even for in-class essays freshman year, we had one class period to write a draft and another to make a final copy. And then, I thought it a waste of time. Oh freshman year. 
  2. I would love it if my essays were subjectively graded (within the realm of reasonability). At least I’d be trying to convince a person, not just meet a standard. 
  3. In my middle school French class, we would always “turn in” our out of class projects by making a post on an online bulletin board, where they were public. This allowed me to see my friends’ “cooking” videos, storybook tales, family trees, and various other projects we did throughout the year. I always spent a good amount of time browsing through everyone else’s projects after I turned my own in. 

4 thoughts on “What’s wrong with school writing?

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