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The Obstacle to Better Writing

Jaylen Moulton, Editor-in-Chief

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“The way you were taught to write is wrong,” he said to the auditorium. For 50 minutes, I was blown away by what I was hearing. I had gained a new insight–a redesigned vision of what writing in the school system did to people. A lot of students go through the school system thinking their writing is good, but there is just one problem with that sentiment, it’s not nearly as good as it could be.

I had the pleasure during the spring break to attend a model class at the University of Chicago, hosted by Professor Lawrence McEnerney. As someone who enjoys writing (clearly, I wouldn’t participate in this club if I hated writing), I was excited to hear what he had to say. I wasn’t expecting him to make me view school differently, but by the end of the presentation I couldn’t view it the same again. I also realized that I’m not a good writer, I’m a subpar writer at best; unfortunately, most of us are.

We’re taught throughout school, especially those of us in AP classes, that there is a structure to our writing. What was the first thing we learned our freshmen year? JSP’s. Personally, I never liked this type of writing, and as soon as I was able to escape the JSP format, there was a major relief. Prof. McEnerney essentially said in the model class that we are taught how to write with a structure that is not valuable. One quote I pulled out and wrote down for myself as soon as I heard it supported the previous idea: “School is perverse. People are paid to care about you.” Teachers don’t and shouldn’t have to care about you at all, but the monetary incentive sure helps. Teachers are paid to educate you, but that doesn’t always mean they will educate you in a way that adds substance to your experience.

Thesis in our introduction, three body paragraphs each with one example that backs our thesis and a piece of supporting evidence, and a conclusion that restates our thesis. We are trained to know this structure, when sometimes it leaves our writing lacking or difficult for us to do. With a structure like this, however, the teacher knows exactly what to look for. You can’t blame a teacher for wanting to make it easier on themselves to read the hundreds of essays they get. With five class periods and the typical class of 30 students, that’s about 150 essays. Grades have to be given out. While it would be lovely for a teacher to give each and every one of our essays the utmost attention, that’s not realistic, and students shouldn’t expect it.

The downfall of this simplification of our writing into a structure is that, as students, we don’t actually know how to write once we reach college. We just know a trained structure; it’s mechanic. Considering each year in school is supposed to eventually lead us to a higher level in our skills, the fact that we’ve basically been taught to write this way since middle school, and even earlier sometimes, shows our writing hasn’t improved, we’ve just gained better language and been given more difficult prompts.

I remember Prof. McEnerney saying that many journalists have a good control over writing and while I would consider myself a quasi-journalist considering the fact I am in this club, it reminded me of my different writing styles. The way I write in newspaper and the way I write for class are distinct. One follows a structure that was taught, while the other can follow a structure, but only if I force myself to follow a structure. There is much more leeway when it comes to writing in newspaper. I only structure myself if I need to, and this is usually for a review where I tell myself I need to hit certain marks (i.e. give basic details like band name, album release date, etc.). Other than that, I write. I don’t think about putting a thesis or giving supporting evidence unless I need to or if it flows naturally. Journalists have hooks and questions they tend to ask, but that’s not necessarily part of a structure, that’s part of being a good writer and knowing what readers you are trying to attract and what those readers want.

That grasp on understanding the audience is essential to good writing. Professor McEnerney says people don’t ask themselves this question nearly as much as they ought to when they’re writing: “Who are the readers and what do they need?” People have little control over that type of writing because it’s not something we’re really taught. We’re not taught how to write to different audiences as often as we should. For the most part, I can only distinctly remember teachers ever telling me to write as if I was writing to a student who didn’t know the material or, rather and more so, to a teacher that wanted to know that you knew and understood the material. I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone give an example outside of those parameters for who the audience should be. Now in school, while this is a great way for teachers to see that their students know the subject matter, it’s not great for refining our writing skills. We can’t constantly write in a way that shows our understanding of a subject that is structural just so the grader can have an easy path to finding points. We have to learn how to write to different audiences and to know what they need. Surely, we wouldn’t write the same type of English or history essay to a group of experts. It would be written differently and we would hit different points because we are aware that the audience already has in-depth knowledge on the subject.

We don’t do that, though. While it’s understandable in terms of practicality, it’s also incredibly bizarre in terms of actual improvement over time in the school system and preparedness for college. I guess that’s just the perversity of school: An accepted hindrance on our writing potential.

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Jaylen Moulton, Editor-in-Chief

Photo by Pedro Adame.

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The Obstacle to Better Writing