Americans are writing and publishing more than ever; meanwhile, arguments rage about the inability of Americans to write and what educators should do to address this perceived inability.
In a recent interview with Salon, author Ursula Le Guin bemoans the lack of skill she sees in aspiring writers. Le Guin blames the problems she sees in writers – serious, well educated people – on a lack of two sets of skills. First, she notes that she sees many people trying to write who don’t have solid language management skills: they lack solid backgrounds in syntax (sentence structure) knowledge and they have weak vocabularies so that they do not easily see possibilities in sentence construction or word choice that would give their writing imagination and vigor. The other problem Le Guin observes is that the way in which many people attempt to become writers – through creative writing programs – does many nascent writers harm by forcing them to submit to a form of group think.
In a recent Washington Post op-ed, writer Natalie Wexler attempts to explain “Why Americans can’t write.” Wexler’s thesis, that Americans do not get adequate writing instruction, meshes nicely with Le Guin’s observation. One can easily conclude that, if Wexler is correct in her claim that Americans get too little writing instruction, it is only natural that their creative writing efforts would suffer from the sort of grammar and syntax deficiencies that Le Guin mentions.
As with most easy explanations, this one leaves some questions unanswered.
There are huge pressures on educators ranging from elementary schools to colleges and universities these days, as anyone who pays attention to such matters knows. Budget cuts reduce the number of faculty available to teach students, and this in turn raises class sizes to unwieldy, actually unmanageable levels, making writing instruction which relies on a recursive scheme of student writing/teacher reading and responding/student revising/teacher rereading (and assessing or asking for further revisions) for each student not achievable. The incessant drive for testing to “validate” learning reduces the amount of time teachers have for time and labor intensive skills such as writing because under the Draconian penalties of programs like NCLB, faculty are pushed by administrators from principals to superintendents to conduct as much test prep as possible so that students can perform at expected levels in the high stakes testing that now dominates public education. There is simply not enough time under the present system for adequate writing instruction in many schools. So writing instruction is a hit or miss proposition for many students until they enter college.
Writing instruction in most colleges makes the sincere attempt to prepare students for either academic writing tasks in their major fields or for writing tasks in their careers in business or professional situations. The truth is, however, that most students leave undergraduate school with about a year of writing instruction. An old truism of foreign language instruction is that a year of foreign language study is equal to about two weeks of living in the country where the language is spoken. This truism about language study might make an apt analogy for the study of writing (studying writing is sometimes compared to studying foreign language). A year of writing study (for many students a 1st year composition course and an advanced course in academic or professional writing) might be thought of as roughly the equivalent of a couple of weeks of business or professional (including scholarly) writing.
Not much prep to be sure.
Let’s add another wrinkle to this writing instruction dilemma. Some colleges have allowed students to use courses such as journalism or creative writing to meet their writing instruction requirements. This freedom of choice has had a number of likely effects. Having these options gives more students than ever the chance to sample creative writing or journalism instruction, and many find that they like the main focus of such writing instruction, focused as it is on genre and style matters, better than on the research/analysis/persuasion focus of academic scholarly writing instruction or the efficiency/audience consideration/format focus of technical/professional writing instruction. There is, too, an interest in writing to tell stories sparked in many who take creative writing or journalism courses that may explain as clearly as Amazon’s triumph of promoting self publishing the explosive growth in the number of published authors we have seen since the turn of the millennium.
This may be being brought to an end, however, by forces currently at work on higher education curricula.
In our current educational climate, where “streamlining” degree attainment is the primary mantra of higher education administrators (usually at the behest of boards of visitors or trustees composed of corporate executives pushing higher ed to become job prep), writing instruction has felt the impacts other departments in colleges have felt: a reduction in options for courses. As a result, writing programs in many colleges are trying to find ways to, for instance, combine the instructional foci of writing courses. This will result in courses where elements of technical/professional writing are merged, with as yet unclear results, with academic/scholarly writing instruction. In the interests of “efficiency, calculability, predictability, control,” options for students such as taking creative writing or journalism courses to meet writing instruction requirements are likely to disappear.
This may be both a blessing and a curse.
Students who are being trained to believe that their best interest is to complete college at the fastest rate and with complete focus on job skill preparation will likely not become people interested in writing and publishing work that is not related to their careers. This kind of academic training is bound to have an impact on the amount and type of writing that people show interest in doing in coming decades.
Let us be honest about this, too; there is a great deal of published bad writing out there these days. That bad writing can usually be traced back to two sources, both mentioned above: people are not taught how to understand and manage the written language and this leads them to write and publish work that suffers from a lack of revision and bad copy editing, and little originality. They also need guidance in how to be original (find one’s own voice might be a term you’ve heard), something that good creative writing instruction does (admittedly, this is rarer than it ought to be).
But how to conquer that greater problem? Anyone who reads much information in print or online knows that the numbers of syntax, grammar, and usage errors in the copy of even our most prestigious publications such as The New York Times have proliferated. There is clearly a literacy problem. Many times the errors are not mere typos; they are egregious incorrect choices of words (their/there, affect/effect) agreement errors, and errors in verb tense. These are just the grammar issues; misunderstanding of syntax is a common though much more complex problem to address and emend.
Wexler’s proposals for improving writing instruction point at the use of adaptive software that forces students to master basic skills before they are allowed to attempt more complex ones. This sounds good in principle, but the issues here are thorny. There is no data (at least none not provided by the makers of adaptive software) that conclusively proves that forcing students to do sentence level exercises to learn to write is “best practice.” Teaching people to write is a labor intensive, interactive task that involves acceptance of the ideas of both Piaget and Vygotsky. (Piaget: People will develop the skill when they reach a point where they can achieve the skill; Vygotsky: interaction with others (tutors/teachers/peers) can help them reach achievement levels more quickly). Wexler seems to have fallen prey to the tech industry’s wild (and unsubstantiated) claims that if we just submit our (in this case educational) problems to our robot masters all shall be well and all will be well.
There’s that other thing to consider. Le Guin expresses skepticism about creative writing programs and their effects on writing as I mentioned above. Besides the problem of group think that pervades programs, there’s something else to consider. A quick check shows that in 2009 there were 832 creative writing programs in the US. The number is higher now. We are turning out thousands of “trained” writers each year. This offers further explanation for the proliferation of published books – all these writers need to achieve their publishing goals to justify their investment in gaining their MFA degrees.
Besides this, as Le Guin notes, there are innumerable writers’ groups filled with writers offering each other – something. Given what we have been discussing , one should not be sanguine that these earnest and well intentioned writers are offering the sort of language management advice that would help their colleagues improve their writing. So while such groups allow these aspiring writers to offer each other encouragement and support, it is quite likely that they’re not always helping each other improve as writers.
What is one to conclude?
We have, it seems, two issues confronting us. Marie Wexler argues that we are a nation full of poor writers who cannot meet the basic communication needs of employers. She proposes a solution, but it’s a solution that is unproven. Ursula Le Guin expresses concern that MFA programs negatively affect writers – but the opposite seems true, if publishing numbers are any indication. And local writers’ groups are more about support and commiseration than about helping writers solve the problems of poor writing.
America is, as the novelist Tom Englehardt suggests, a nation of scribblers. We are compelled to tell our stories. That itself is an admirable thing.
Whether we can figure out how to make those stories worth reading is another, more perplexing matter.