Friday, March 28, 2014

Johnny Can't Write, and Employers Ought to be Mad

Back in November, CNBC had a piece discussing the complaints companies had about their employees' lack of writing ability. The easy thing to blame is "technology," but in the rise of technology and the rise of bad writing habits is a mere positive correlation. The real cause of bad writing habits is the lack of real writing education.

More, our technologies are increasingly text-based. We ironically write each other on our phones more than we call each other. We write emails, we write each other on Facebook, we write blogs -- we write all the time. And we read all the time online as well. That would suggest that we should see improved writing skills. If writing well requires more writing, and people are writing more than ever, we should see writing skills improving.

This mystery can be uncovered if we realize that most of the reading done online is skimming rather than close reading. People skim to get the main points, read only a little bit of a piece to get the gist of things, etc. These are not the reading habits that will lead anyone to writing well. To learn to write well, you have to read good writing, and you need to read it carefully. And it needs to be higher than the 5th grade reading level we find in American periodicals (including online periodicals).

More, much of what we read are the posts of friends, who are themselves often bad writers. If you read bad writing, you will turn into a bad writer. A common complaint among university professors is that their own writing gets worse from having to read students' writing. Now imagine what will happen if your writing is already bad. Bad habits get reinforced. This isn't to say that you should defriend all the bad writers you know on Facebook; rather, this means you need to supplement their writing with Herman Melville, Ernest Hemingway, and Shakespeare.

You have to encounter good sentences to learn how to write good sentences. And, if you want to become a truly professional writer, you then have to learn why those good sentences are good sentences -- you have to learn the rules of the game explicitly and not just tacitly. You have to have people explain to you why the good sentences are good sentences. Learning postmodern theory in the university isn't going to do that.

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