Very Good and Write

And our bounden duty.

A couple of months ago, Micah emailed me the link to this page, which I promptly forgot about until a recent spasm of emailbox-cleaning. From my exalted position as Writing Director at Seabury (“no benefits, just more responsibilities”), I have several reactions to the article and its attendant comments. First, I approve — generally — of the list of desiderata for students assignments. I don’t want to think of them as “rights”; that terminology engenders too much murky thinking. They do, however, comprise a very good list of desirable features for writing assignments, and I try to observe many of them.

The comments note that teachers vary in the ways they apply their standards; one awkward element in the frustrating knot involves teachers who lack all but the basic (and in some cases, “even the basic”) skills for assessing written expression. I’ve encountered their writing in my role as editor; I can’t begin to imagine how these impaired writers evaluate students’ papers. When a student encounters varying evaluations from teachers with varying capacities, what sense can the student make of the divergent sets of comments? Why should the student not trust the more favorable, more charitable grades and comments?

And while I’m at it: Stephen Downes linked to a post on Creating Passionate Users, which argues that more sources should use more graphics to communicate more effectively. Amen, and Amen. But as with ill-composed writing, so with ill-composed graphical communication: just putting something out there doesn’t imply that it will contribute to getting a message across. Too often, people feel obligated to throw kitchen-sink graphic communication into presentations with no regard whatever to whether the images contribute to clear communication of particular ideas. Imagine if one did that with words! (Sadly, too many of us need not “imagine” such a circumstance, since we’ve seen and heard arguments that seem to have been composed with random words thrown in for seasoning.)

If what you write, or if the images you use for graphical communication, do not contribute to expressing clearly and precisely the message you’re hoping to convey — then don’t confuse and distract your readers with pointless, vague, superfluities.* Communicating is a difficult enough task without further complicating it with noise.

* I don’t mean you should never allow your reader to relax a bit, or never digress, or never entertain. We should, however, assess such indulgences with a pretty rigorous criterion of whether they contribute to communicating the greater message. (I’m looking at you, preachers who include irrelevant shaggy dog stories in your sermons.) Sometimes readers benefit from a light distraction, an opportunity to relax their concentrated attention. More often, distractions attenuate the focus of one’s rhetoric and diminish the effectiveness of the entire presentation — especially when the presenter hasn’t maintained a taut focus to begin with.

Big Shoulders comments:


I started to write a lengthy thought-piece on this entry but stopped when I realized that this would mess up some morning appointments I have to prepare for. <-- NB, I have never been comfortable with the elaborate and awkward-sounding construction required to avoid ending a sentence with a preposition. Suffice it to say that I found your entry -- and its link to Inside Higher Education -- most useful to work I am doing right now. I assign writing to colleagues, freelancers and board members, and I do a fair amount of it myself. The finished products come back to me and I must then "edit" them, which in most cases means that I must rewrite them. Punctuation and grammar, while problematic, are standard fixes for any editor, but the level of rewrite required is astounding. The only assignments that roll in (a) on time, (b) written to specified length, and (c) highly readable are those that come from university professors and prep school graduates. It pains me to say this, but it's true. Our print newsletter and annual report get the most attention because people keep them around. These require perfection, though it is seldom achieved. Website materials will also be around forever, but they are less findable than the newsletter sitting on top of the "to be read" pile. Nonetheless I try to make online writing, at a minimum, good enough. E-mails have their own weird space, and after years of being harshly judgmental of other people's bad spelling in e-mails, I gave up, particularly when I realized that my own messages had their share of boo-boos. It's a time thing. IMs and SMS: fugeddaboutit, as they are all about bare essentials and avoiding arthritis of the thumbs. Luckily I love my job and I love doing the variety of things I do (which involve equal amounts of photography, design and editing/writing). But I do appreciate any and all efforts to boost the writing skills of people going out into the world. In reading your piece I realized how much of situation is under my control (as the "professor" of my workplace) and how much more I can do to shape the writers whose work will hopefully improve over time. This is disjointed and not rewritten at all, and it's turned out to take up that extra time after all. But I did want to let you know how much I enjoyed your piece as well as the article to which it linked. <-- Just doesn't feel right, y'know? Anyway ... thanks! Oh, and I do miss the old language of The Book of Common Prayer, even though I am a flaming radical. "It is meet and right so to do. It is very meet, right, and our bounden duty to ..."

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