Be Specific

Posted: Feb 14, 2012 11:06 AM

In February we celebrate Presidents Day, a movement from specific detail (Lincoln's birthday, Washington's birthday) to the generic. Washington, of course, is supposed to have chopped down a cherry tree and then confessed to his dad: "I cannot tell a lie." But Presidents Day itself is lying to children: Some presidents were horrid, and we should not pretend that all are worth celebrating.

Meaningful holidays are specific. Easter is about Christ risen, and those who prattle about Easter symbolizing "the way we can all ascend past our own fears" are stripping the day of its power. My wife's elementary school celebrated Arbor Day by having children plant trees. Now, Earth Day pundits scare children by talking about something abstract and beyond their control: global warming.

Broad worry rather than tangible action is unproductive. For example, "compassion" lost its groove when it became a vague feeling of sympathy instead of hands-on help for those in need. Charles Dickens created a London character, Mrs. Jellyby, who ignored her own family to concentrate on international philanthropic schemes. Dickens memorably depicted Mrs. Jellyby's specific mannerisms so readers could visualize her whirled pleas.

That leads me to writing. We don't see enough good writing partly because children hear bedtime stories less frequently when a household contains one exhausted parent rather than two who share bedtime tasks and pleasures. In school, children are less likely to read good books. Their K-12 curricula often offer formulaic and legalistic writing advice: Produce a five-paragraph essay. Have four supporting points in each paragraph. Use adverbs as "dress-ups."

Students also don't learn that authors whose style seems to flow most naturally almost always achieve such an effect through unnatural exertion. Eighty percent of good writing is rewriting, but rewriting in a middle-school or high-school setting means that a teacher must read a first draft and make comments, then read a second draft and make more comments, and on it goes.

It takes dedicated teachers to work so hard, especially since grading papers is the most miserable part of a teacher's job. Many teachers don't persevere, and if they don't demand rewrites, students won't do them. So, most high-school graduates arrive in college as poor writers. The only way they will improve is to have professors demand frequent writing and rewriting, but profs hinder their career prospects spending their time helping students' writing rather than publishing journal articles (see "College bubble, Jan. 14).

Besides, many fall prey to the Presidents Day trap of abstraction and generalization. This is nothing new: Studies 30 years ago showed that English professors and teachers preferred "student papers written in a turgid, intellectually inflated style over those written simply and lucidly, even when both contained the same ideas." I'm quoting here a thoughtful teacher, James Sloan Allen, who wrote in February, 1982, that professors "routinely take as their models of writing and intellect the publications in their professional journals," which contain articles filled with "ponderous analysis and pretentious jargon."

Allen gave examples—for example, writers produce "performative linguistic acts" for the purpose of achieving "critical enablement"—and rightly asked, "How can students be expected to think and write intelligibly when their teachers, often unsure of themselves and awed by abstract language, lack the ability or will to teach them how?"

I don't have a silver bullet that will transform these interlinked transgressions, but my World News Group colleagues do have one humble starting point. They have produced Write with WORLD, a new writing curriculum for homeschools and schools that requires students "to think and make choices, not just follow a formula. We don't want to tell students always to combine sentences [or] start a new paragraph after five sentences."

The curriculum also pushes for specific detail by having students compare paragraphs of different kinds and see for themselves which work better. (The parent/teacher guide notes that students might make comments like "'the second paragraph is easier to follow.'?... Do not let your student settle for these general answers?...?ask the 'Why' question: 'Why is the second one easier to follow?'")

The underlying message is that writing is hard work but it should also bring pleasure: "Let students compose sentences that are funny." Amen.