The dying art of good writing

April 7, 2008 at 4:39 pm 2 comments

Sally Saville Hodge

Just when I’m ready to sound the death knell for the craft of good writing, out comes a New York Times article saying “not so fast.”

The piece outlines results of a nationwide test that suggests one-third of U.S. eighth graders and a quarter of its high schoolers are “proficient” writers. Now, that doesn’t sound so hot to me, but the folks with the federal government’s school testing program said the overall results were heartening and counter other studies citing a decline in our society’s ability to write.

Maybe I’m just harder to please than your average bureaucrat.

Frankly, I’m with the National Commission on Writing, which back in 2003 issued a call to put “the neglected ‘R’” back as an emphasis into the school curriculum at all grade levels. Other studies have found that a large proportion of college professors believe high schoolers advance to college with limited writing skills. And businesses are concerned as well: Another survey suggested blue chip companies are spending billions in remedial writing training.

But to my way of thinking, writing “training” only goes so far. It does impart the rules, for example. You know. The “never start a sentence with an ‘and’” and “every sentence must have subject and verb” kinds of things. (Rules that really great writers break with panache.) It may help with ways to plot your outline as a means of organizing the chaos of your thinking. And it may provide those who really want to do better with good resources to guide them on their journey. (One that I recommend to all my staff as a must-read is a terrific blog called Word Wise.)

But you can’t train people to love good writing and how it comes about. You can’t train them to understand the nuances that differentiate an okay word from the right word for the context. Or to understand why “it was a dark and stormy night” is cliché, while “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times” is classic. Or why a spare writing style is fine, but sometimes you need to add meat to those potatoes to make your copy sing.

We need to find ways to instill that love in our young people from a very early age. I wish I had a sure-fire way to do so. I hate to contemplate a world where communication is dominated by staccato blasts of texted acronyms and video sound bites. But that does seem to be where we’re heading.


Entry filed under: Agency Management, Writing/Editing.

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Michael Wagner  |  April 8, 2008 at 12:07 am

    “I hate to contemplate a world where communication is dominated by staccato blasts of texted acronyms and video sound bites.”

    Like you, I wish I knew how to instill “that love” in others.

    I can say that for me the love began to blossom when I took a class in classical Greek.

    I learned to love by learning to how to translate from the source language of the ancients to the target language of my contemporary world.

    Thanks for stirring the pot!

    Keep creating….a story worth reading…and repeating,

  • 2. Sally Hodge  |  April 8, 2008 at 2:44 pm

    Thanks, Mike.

    I never took classical Greek, but consider some of my love of words and writing genetic (if that can be!). My grandfather wrote pulp fiction back in the day and my father trained as a journalist but went into PR. For those who don’t have a genetic predisposition, I say read, read, read, and study many styles, whether newspapers, magazines or, of course, books.



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