Forty-five years ago, I married the best editor I have ever known. Most of the reasons I love Linda have nothing to do with writing, but it’s useful to have her around when wrestling with a difficult column.
I’m lucky. Few people are willing to and capable of helping others produce engaging and instructive prose. Many editors of my books were helpful, but I still remember the one who did not change a word, good for my ego but not for the book. Newspaper editors, at The Washington Post and elsewhere, have more stories to deal with than ever before, but no more time to fix them.
This problem is particularly acute in our schools, where almost all of us learn to write. I got little instruction before a required composition class my sophomore year of college. The situation has gotten worse since then. Few teachers have enough experience and training to show students what is good writing and what is not. Those who have that skill lack the time to share it with all their students and still have lives.
In a recent column, Michael Shaughnessy of EducationViews.org discussed this with Will Fitzhugh, whose Concord Review publishes exemplary high school research papers. They agreed that writing instruction is in crisis. The latest solution — letting computers grade papers — is a dead end.
“These programs don’t care if you are writing an ‘Ode to a Grecian Urn’ or an ‘Ode to an iPhone,’ ” Fitzhugh said. “The content is of no interest to the robo-graders. They are programmed only to ‘worry’ about a small circumscribed set of writing skills, and the subject of your composition counts for nothing. You can write a dull composition, which amply displays ignorance, and still get a good score from the computers.”
To be fair to the software that reads essays, and the people who created it, in most cases at least one human being also assesses the writing when the grade means something. Rachel Toor, a former editor who is an associate professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University, acknowledged in a piece she wrote for the Chronicle of Higher Education that a student can be helped by an Apple program that points out clichés, wordy phrases and needlessly complex words, such as “conceptualizing” instead of “thinking.”
But the rest of Toor’s essay was chilling. She cares about improving her students’ writing. She finds that most college professors won’t or can’t do it. At a party, she met a political scientist with an Ivy League education who teaches at a good liberal arts college. He told her he never commented on his students’ writing. “It’s simply not part of his grading process,” she wrote. “He assesses their ideas, he says, not the prose.”
When she asked how he could separate the ideas from their expression, he said “he didn’t feel that he had the expertise to comment on their writing,” she wrote. “He wouldn’t know, he said, what good writing looked like.” She asked whether he thought he was a good writer. “He said yes, because he’s been published,” she wrote.
That suggests that it is better to teach writing in high school. I know several fine, if marginally employed, journalists who could do it. Writing is often mentioned as one of the premier 21st century skills, and it can be taught without exhausting the teachers.
Require students to take at least one semester of reading and writing instead of their regular English class. A paper is due each Monday. In class, students read whatever they like or work on next week’s essay while the teacher calls them up in turn and edits their papers as they watch.
At the end of the day, there are no stacks of student papers to ruin the instructor’s home life. Each student gets personal attention. Even Linda Mathews might be persuaded to teach that class.