Teaching Good and Bad Writing: The Truly Avant-Garde

Most good writing is clear, vigorous, honest, alive, sensuous, appropriate, unsentimental, rhythmic, without pretension, fresh, metaphorical, evocative in sound, economical, authoritative, surprising, memorable, and light.
–Ken Macrorie.

These days it’s not popular to talk about good and bad writing.  In textbooks and “how to” writing manuals we’re plied with rules, advice and suggestions, but aren’t provided with detailed instruction on what makes good writing.  No samples of good or bad writing. Way too controversial and contentious.  Indeed, controversy really boils over with lists of bad writers. Ranker.com has a list of bad writers.  And we shan’t forget (Do people actually say “We shan’t forget…”?) Anis Shivani’s controversial 2010 Huffington Post article “The 15 Most Overrated Contemporary American Writers.”  Why the controversy?

Well, everyone has an opinion.  These days, we believe that truth is relative.  (BTW: truth is NOT relative).  Accordingly, good and bad writing is a matter of personal taste, and since everyone is entitled to his or her opinion, then we cannot truly emerge from the realm of subjectivity.  In this way, our having an opinion and making claims of objective truth is nothing more than personal bias which we tend to immediately discount and dismiss.  However, although a person may be biased, she could be right–morally, legally, or aesthetically.  Nonetheless, these days we rarely come across negative book reviews. This is largely because reviewers often face harsh consequences and charges of elitist bias in the court of public opinion.

Three cases in point.  (1) Helen Vendler and Marjorie Perloff–renowned poetry scholars–accurately and precisely slammed Rita Dove’s 20th Century American poetry anthology.  Accordingly, Dove made bad choices.  In offering their expert opinion, both critics were publicly castigated for their views–too “academic,” too elderly elitist, too white, and too out of touch with literary fashion.  (2) Years ago, Yale scholar Harold Bloom slammed Stephen King for “dumbing down American readers.” But King continued writing novels, the public gulped them down, and thus curmudgeonly elitist Bloom with his high falutin’ Ivory Tower high brow credentials obviously must have been wrong.  (3) Martha Nussbaum slammed Judith Butler for corrupting, obfuscated academic writing in a spirited review.  Two academics swinging at each other, what could be more thrilling?  But battle lines were drawn in the proverbial sand of the culture wars and no one came out a winner.  Hence, Michael Berube’s response.  Back in the day, attacks on bad (academic) writing were fairly common.  But not anymore.  No one wants to stick his or her neck out.  Not really.  The opinion of the many, as Socrates says, prevails.  And just look at what happened to that old has-been geezer.  He swallowed his own poison–nothing more self-righteously opinionated and subjective than that.

Fine.  So how do we teach writing?  How do we encourage good writing in public discourse?  Should we listen to critic Stanley Fish?  I mean, talk about opinionated!  Millenials (OK, anyone born after 1995–those who can’t remember Kurt Cobain on MTV–whatever you want to call them) are confused about writing, and their predicament makes sense because we give them mixed messages and contradict ourselves.  We demand good writing but don’t really define what good writing is.  We expect clarity and precision in our communication but maintain that oversimplified tweets, texts, and emails are quite good enough.  As long as an audience understands a message, then who cares about grammar, mechanics, and punctuation?  Who cares about rhetorical purpose?  Who cares about attending to the needs of an audience?  In other words, we violate the “show, don’t tell” motto all the time.

Like most book reviewers, we shrink at having to broach the subject of good writing–showing, defining, explaining, and analyzing it.  So, then, why are we so surprised when our students cannot perform more complicated analytical tasks beyond summarizing ideas?  Sure, they can summarize and memorize ideas for standardized exams.  But what happens when we’re required to explain and analyze a summary?  Michael Berube again, this time on analyzing texts.  Hmmmm….

But don’t get me wrong. I’m not so naive to think that teaching good writing is somehow easy or can be simplified by user friendly steps.  Any veteran writer will claim over and again that writing and teaching writing is extremely hard stuff.  Even Stephen King says this in his On Writing.  There are no shortcuts and easy methods, no formulas for critico-creative writing. But yet, students want to believe that writing is formulaic.  Perhaps some of it is, such as the rhetorical moves in academic writing.  After all, formulas needn’t be negative.  We follow cooking recipes all the time.  We follow directions to assemble IKEA furniture.  This is why Gerald Graff’s They Say / I Say templates prove to be so popular.  They serve the “connect the dots” and “paint by numbers” impulse.  But Ann E. Berthoff might be right when she says that this formulaic methodology is like pouring batter into muffin tins.  We just get more muffins.

As to teaching writing, I’m constantly trying to figure it out.  I don’t have any specific answers or solutions.  However, I will say this: currently, one of my favorite writing books was hugely popular about 30 years ago.  Not so much now even though it’s still in print.  Ken Macrorie’s Telling Writing.  You can buy it on Amazon for a penny.

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Why do I like it so much?  Brave soul that he was, Macrorie sticks his neck out by discussing good and bad writing.  Along with Peter Elbow, Macrorie popularized old school freewriting.

I examine a lot of writing texbooks and guides.  Very few of them, if any these days, define what good and bad writing is. Macrorie and Elbow were famous writing teachers who were popular in the 1980’s.  Back when Depeche Mode sang about masters and servants.  They focused much of their attention on “being a writer,” emphasizing personal writing. Overall, their approach is expressive, romantic, and “utopian.”  More of a creative writing nonfiction workshop approach. Macrorie focuses on writing personal essays but also covers reading responses and book reviews.  Begin the writing process with freewriting.  So not popular these days in typical college composition classrooms.

Today, invention by means of freewriting seems to be an outmoded aspect of the writing process.  Freewriting–a type of invention, coming up with ideas.  Writing freely–whatever comes to mind–free of self-censorship.  I doubt it’s covered in Common Core.  A lot of students seem to think it’s silly and a waste of time.  Until they try it.

Many of my students want to think creatively and “outside the box” but yet seem to be curiously averse to freewriting.  Of course, freewriting was big with the Beats–Jack Kerouac’s “spontaneous prose.”  First thought = best thought.  Since my students seem equally averse to getting feedback and revision, you’d assume that Kerouac’s idea would appeal to them. Not so much.  Kerouac who?  Writing about road trips?  Why bother?  Take a selfie instead.

Shouldn’t we teach novice writers what good writing is?  And how to produce it?

Macrorie invented the term “Engfish” for boring, lifeless, dull, general, vague, phony academic-sounding prose. Macrorie has a bold chapter entitled “What Is Good Writing?” which gives examples of good and bad writing.  For him, freewriting addresses Engfish–a writer can lay out a lot of ideas, both good and bad.  It makes the writing process more spontaneous and creative, less stifling and rule-driven.  We use our own words, write naturally, and with less textbookish teacher speak. Freewriting encourages lively, memorable prose.  In this way, Macrorie says that we likely wrote better when we were in the third grade, when we wrote with boldness, fewer inhibitions, and with imagination.  He’s likely right.

As the Common Core curriculum is going into effect and we’re starting to witness the results of it, I’m finding that Wayne Booth is still right about what he discovered in the late ’80’s.  Booth has a wonderful essay entitled “Boring from Within: the Art of the Freshman Essay.”  As he remarks, students have difficulty writing good arguments.  They simply don’t have much to say. They may enjoy a few social or moral issues but they tend not to write well about them.

Recently, I taught a unit on obedience to authority. We read Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Plato’s Crito, Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment, and Milgram’s obedience study.  Students loved the topic.  But their papers weren’t so hot. Boring.  Dull. Flat.  Abstractions.  Revisions weren’t much improved.  (Mainly because they still believe that “revision” = correcting and fixing mistakes that teacher points out).

Now, here’s something that’s truly surprising. After the obedience to authority assignment, I asked students to read Atul Gawande’s new nonfiction book Being Mortal.  Over 3,000 Amazon reviewers gave it 5 stars.  It’s about health care, medical treatment for elders, aging, mortality, death, dying, and how we negotiate end-of-life issues. Gawande is a good writer with a warm and caring tone.  As I prepared classroom lessons about the book while listening to Siouxsie and the Banshees, I didn’t think students would like it.  The music or the book.  What typical college-aged students would be interested in mortality, death, and dying?  Millennials aren’t like I was at their age, stressing about nuclear annihilation, listening to Joy Division and The Cure albums in the recesses of my dimly lit bedroom.  Meat is murder.  If it’s not love, then it’s the bomb that will bring us together.  How would today’s students engage with stories about people in senior assisted living centers and nursing homes?  Well, I thought the book would be a disaster.  After assigning it, I couldn’t take it back.

Interestingly, students loved the book.  They overwhelmingly loved it.  I couldn’t be more surprised or shocked.  Morrissey would be proud. D-E-A-T-H.  And being mortal.  Who would have anticipated such a response?

I asked students to write a review of the book. In their reviews they were required to engage with another book reviewer’s opinion.

I’m studying results now.  From what I’ve seen so far, the writing is slightly better than the obedience to authority papers. I get a sense that students have more to think and say on this topic, maybe not about the bomb per se, but about quality of life issues.

Overall, students have a difficult time with reading, responding to, analyzing, and evaluating texts.  They’re accustomed to writing for standardized tests in high school, and merely summarizing information.  They’re really, really good at summarizing information.  But explaining and responding to their own summaries is another matter.  And it doesn’t really matter what you put in front of them–any text–a work of fiction, poem, or a New Yorker magazine article.

An approach that might work is integrating personal writing with academic tasks, such as textual analysis.  How often do we ask students about how texts affect them in personal ways? How does a passage, episode, scene, a few lines of text resonate with them?  Not “How do you relate to the text or identify with a character?” but rather, “How does the text resonate with you?”  The latter question asks readers to give the text meaning rather than find a “hidden meaning” in the text.

On the whole, students have a difficult time with Engfish. A larger problem could be that they don’t know what good writing is and how to produce it.  In response to this predicament, a lot of teachers assign personal narrative writing and journaling with the assumption that more writing practice will have improved qualitative effects, and writers will discover their own voice. But this usually does not happen in a 15-weeks academic term.

There are some mistaken assumptions behind this teaching practice. One assumption is that students produce bad writing because they don’t write much. That is, they don’t practice enough, and because they don’t practice enough, then that’s why they write badly. But is this true? Today’s students are writing more than ever. They write daily. They’re constantly writing. So writing practice may not be the issue.

The Common Core curriculum covers a lot of rhetoric, the rhetorical triangle and appeals.  But with all the rhetoric and argumentation instruction, students still face problems with writing decent full-blown arguments.  In spite of the rhetoric emphasis, students are not trained to explain, analyze, and evaluate texts. They have difficulty negotiating the reader-writer transaction.  They don’t see any connection between reading texts and writing about them.  Reading as a writer. Standard English is foreign.  They are not taught how to appreciate language.  They have no idea what a metaphor is or why ‘stupid’ metaphors matter at all.  Most often, teachers bore students with endless discussion of fictional elements: themes, characterization, plot, setting, symbols, imagery.  How often are they shown good writing?  Students can talk the rhetorical talk–they can discuss topics in Socratic circles, but they’re not really analytically responding to texts.  When they do respond to texts, then we often get stinky Engfish.

Well, we try our best. Last week, I asked students read aloud Brian Doyle’s short essay “Joyas Volardores.”  For the first time in ages, students were became acquainted with good writing.  I asked, “What makes this good writing?”  We have to be willing to stick our necks out.  We need to examine language and at how sentences are constructed.  What’s a prepositional phrase?  What’s a subjunctive clause?  An absolute?  An appositive?  Why this kind of punctuation and not that one?  What about rhetorical tropes, such as chiasmus and synesthesia?

Right now, we’re dealing with Paul Roberts’ “How to Say Nothing in 500 Words,” a rarely anthologized essay these days, maybe because Roberts refers to a typewriter and not to a laptop or iPhone app.  If we can get folks interested in how to avoid “saying nothing,” then perhaps we’ll make some progress.

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