I used to teach college English and a common complaint was that students can’t write. It’s easy to blame texting or emails or watching too much TV, but that’s really not it. The fact is, this has been an issue for as long as anyone has been keeping track.
When I was in graduate school I wrote a paper about writing at a college level. The one consistent factor – whether it was 1880 or 1980 or today – is that college professors complain that students don’t know how to write.
I think the problem doesn’t lie with students but the way we teach writing, or don’t teach it. In secondary school, we focus a lot on grammar. Granted grammar is important, but grammar alone doesn’t teach you to write. It’s like teaching someone to run a table saw and then expecting them to be able to build a house. You need more than grammar to write well. In fact, there is some literature that suggests writers who stop and start their writing to pick at grammar tend to be poor writers.
Grammar is a lot easier to grade than writing. It’s easy to grade someone on whether or not they can identify a noun, but it’s a bit more complicated to grade on things like style and tone and proper use of transitions. While I was teaching college, we had a meeting with instructors from across several disciplines. One exercise we did was to have everyone grade the same student paper. The grades for that same paper ranged from an A to a D.
Not only is grading papers harder, but it takes a LOT of time if the instructor gives meaningful comments. I also found that many students view comments and critiques of their writing as an attack on their person, in ways that marking a problem as incorrect on an algebra test isn’t.
So how do we teach people to write? Back in the 1800s, it was believed that all you had to do to learn to write was to Latin. The only problem is Latin isn’t English. Today’s methodology doesn’t seem to be working that much better gauging from some of the business emails I’ve read lately. Most colleges require woefully few papers, so students aren’t getting the practice and instruction they need to get better at crafting clear writing.
Here’s how you learn to write. You write. And then you rewrite. Granted you may not learn to write like Shakespeare or Jane Austin or Hemingway or (fill in the name of your favorite author), but you can learn to construct clear and understandable communications.