How Not to Write

Remember when your junior high or high school teacher assigned an essay? You needed to explain a topic, write a book report, describe a historical event, or whatever, but your first question was probably, “How many words do I need to write?” 300 words, 500 words, a kiloword, or just write until your hand cramped and you ran out of paper. Dedicated teachers tried to use such assignments to teach critical thinking, research skills, powers of observation, and perhaps even writing skills. Sadly, whether because of writer’s block, laziness, or competing priorities, some of us focused on how many words we put on paper to complete the assignment. This, in turn, incentivized poor writing skills. I owe my teachers an apology.

Trying to assemble as many words as possible as quickly as possible, we padded sentences with extra words and paragraphs with extra sentences. We gravitated towards a stilted style. Instead of writing, “I look forward…” we wrote “I will be looking forward…” (Hey, two more words!) And our writing often became worse in college and graduate school as we began to write in a defensive, bureaucratic, academic style. A few of us eventually rebelled: a friend once told me that if he ever started writing that way, I should please just shoot him and put him out of his misery! But more of us followed the path of least resistance.

Two workshops, one hosted by Concordia Publishing House and one by World News Group, helped me grow out of some of these bad habits. I learned to write in active voice and I tried to learn to write in a lean, to-the-point style. However, neither class taught a secret cure for writer’s block, nor did they add extra hours to each day. Time and creativity always challenge me. Dedicated writers try to overcome those obstacles by writing something, even if only a half page, every day. A tall order, but I need to get back into the groove.

3 thoughts on “How Not to Write

  1. My memory of high school writing assignments is that they were aimed mostly at improving grammar and spelling. Grading of anything beyond that seemed largely subjective to the point of seeming random, and there was no real opportunity to get feedback in a form that I could put into practice.

    I am thankful for having one very good writing class in college. It was structured assuming each student would spend about an hour each week meeting with the instructor, discussing how to improve the current assignment. My instructor, Gwen Schwab, was consistently able to make suggestions that I could understand and put into practice, so the class was a great help to me. I can recall one point she made that you touched on; technical writing doesn’t have to be bad writing.

    I’m glad you’re starting up again and will look forward to your posts.


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