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What defines good writing?

What distinguishes good writing from bad writing? How can people transform their writing to make it more powerful and more effective? Are universities teaching students how to become better writers? In order to answer these questions and others, we sat down with Geoffrey Huck, an associate professor of the Professional Writing Program at York University.

In your professional opinion as an associate professor of writing, what defines good writing?

I liken good writing to fluent speech, i.e., the kind of ordinary speech that any adult speaker without organic deficits uses naturally on a daily basis. It doesn’t draw attention to itself by being especially lyrical or confounded with solecisms; it’s just routinely effective for the various uses to which it’s put. There are differences between speech and writing, of course, but a good writer is functionally proficient in writing in the same way that an adult native speaker is functionally proficient in speaking. Neuroscience shows us that basically the same brain structures are responsible for fluency in both speaking and writing if you ignore the muscular aspects, so we should expect the two kinds of fluency to be related.

But if that’s so, why aren’t we all good writers?

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“Writing? Yeah.” by Caleb Roenigk. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

We become fluent speakers because as children, we have the opportunity and the motivation: we’re greedy to satisfy our physical, social, and emotional needs through verbal interaction, and in the normal case that requires learning to speak our native language fluently. From birth, we’re exposed to a vast number of utterances and linguistic patterns, which we naturally absorb over time (and with little explicit instruction). But written language is characterized by a much larger vocabulary and more complex linguistic patterns, so additional learning is usually required. If one’s primal communicative needs are satisfied by speech, there may be little motivation to develop writing skills to the same degree. For many of our students, the only reason they feel they should improve their writing is that we teachers tell them they should.

Aren’t you taking a rather elitist position here?

Not at all. On the contrary, I think our students are telling us that good writing isn’t particularly rewarded in our society and that as a result, they aren’t particularly interested in putting time into developing writing skills themselves. What’s elitist would be the idea that you can’t be a member of the elite unless you’re a good writer – or, for that matter, a good violinist, a good baseball player, or a good soldier.

But business leaders say all the time that colleges aren’t graduating people these days with appropriate writing skills.

The employment prospects of literature majors, who generally are good writers, have not improved and still seriously lag those of STEM, business, and health majors. You’d think that if business leaders really were concerned about that, they would start hiring humanities graduates in greater numbers. Instead, they hire the kinds of people they want and then later on discover that their writing skills are deficient.

For those students who want to improve their writing, how can they do so?

By reading. By doing lots and lots of reading. If you don’t read for your own pleasure and aspire to discuss your reading and the ideas developed therefrom with others who are important to you, you will probably never become a good writer. However, it’s not necessary that this reading be the kind assigned in courses. What is important is that you be fully engaged with what you read and that the text be somewhat challenging.

How about romance novels and fashion magazines?

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“Maia” by Earl McGehee. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

Romance novels, sure. But I’m not so sure about fashion magazines, unless you hang on every word and are hoping to be a fashion writer yourself. There is some research that suggests that works of narrative fiction with gripping plots increase cognitive skills, and that may include writing skills. But the point, again, is that you have to be deeply immersed in what you are reading and to want to communicate with others about it.

You mentioned texting and e-mail. What about those?

I know of no research that connects time spent texting or e-mailing with quality of writing at the post-secondary level. All of the research I’m aware of involves the effect on writing of reading books. For all I know, there could be a correlation between texting and writing skill for business and education, but I would be skeptical. Importantly, you need to regularly read the kind of material that you want to read and that you want to be good at writing. That’s how you learn all the myriad complexities of good writing. There’s really no other way.

What about courses in composition and creative writing?

The research that has been done has not convinced me of the usefulness of these courses in improving quality of writing among reluctant readers, although of course many of my colleagues who teach those kinds of classes would strongly disagree. What I would be interested in is solid empirical evidence that they work, but there are serious problems with the methodology in many of the studies, principally because they involve teaching to the test and/or grading to the instruction, which skew the results. I do believe that such courses can help students who are already avid readers. But as a fix for writing deficiencies among post-secondary students in general, I don’t see them helping a great deal. More – and better – research is clearly needed here.

You seem pessimistic about the future of writing in the university.

No, I’m actually quite optimistic. There are probably more good writers today in school than there ever have been in history. Those of us who teach writing tend to focus on the students who are having trouble, which is exactly what we should do. But the reason they are having trouble frequently has little to do with the kinds of composition courses they have or have not taken and a lot to do with the role that reading for pleasure has been playing in their lives since childhood. Can we help a failing student dress up her or his essays in such a way as to get passing marks? Often we can, but that won’t make that student a good writer. We are deceiving ourselves if we think there is a simple pedagogical solution to the problem that doesn’t also involve a major change in interests and lifestyle on the part of that student. What I’d like to see is more cognitive realism about what goes into the making of a good writer, and a little more appreciation for anyone who has become one.

Featured image credit: “A typewriter” by Takashi Hososhima. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

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