“I’m going to drill the five-paragraph structure into you until you can write a 20-minute essay in your sleep. You’ll need it to do well on the SATs, ACTs, and APs so you can get into a good university,” said my high school AP Lit teacher. “Of course, once you get there, all your professors will complain that you don’t know how to write.”
Fast forward to my first day of my first writing course in college, which I took for fun; I did well enough on my SATs, ACTs, and APs to warrant exemption from my university’s English requirements. This course was designed to help us find our voice because when people read our work we want them to hear what we have to say.
(Funny words to use when describing textual communication. There’s no actual sound involved in reading and writing, but everyone seems concerned with finding their voice rather than finding their preferred pattern of structural and lyrical style.)
It was now acceptable to write in the first person, start sentences with ‘and’ or ‘but,’ and use ellipses for dramatic emphasis. I couldn’t understand why this was now the norm…the requirement…when teachers had been leading us down the primrose path of passive voice, approved writing processes, and cookie-cutter essay formats for the last 10 years: By looking at ____ you can see that ____ and this is significant because ____. Boom, thesis statement.
But, I’ve now read the first chapter of Walter J. Ong’s Orality and Literacy and have, in my arsenal of rhetoric, an explanation for why we think of sound when we read text, why studying oral language proves troublesome, and why I’ve never heard of this before in my life.
1. Before writing existed, we communicated in a rainbow of sensory information. We spoke (intonation, inflection, volume) up close and in person (body language, movement, appearance), and our words, once uttered, would never be delivered the same way again (encouraging memorization). Written language allowed for spoken word to materialize in a fixed way that could be studied. Communication transcended the limits of time; language could be altered, added to, preserved, and codified. But writing was, and still is, just a representation of the sounds of oral communication. (Ong, 6-8)
2. Written language is easier to study than orality precisely because it can be fixed and changeless—an American grade-schooler in 2014 can pick up a copy of the Bhagavad Gita and read words written thousands of years ago in India. Furthermore, a literate person can’t study primary orality, those languages that have no writing system (they do exist!) without seeing words in their mind’s eye. Try hearing “Nevertheless” without picturing it in your head. (8-10)
3. Interest in the study of orality is relatively new. Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) first advocated the belief that all communication grows from oral speech, but “the scholarly world” has only recently begun examining the significance of “contrasts between orality and writing” in the past several decades (5).
So I can see why a person’s voice and their writing style are interminably linked and why the teaching of writing as a tool for self-expression and public persuasion has not yet triumphed over the standardized education system. The battle has just begun.
√ “By looking at”
√ “You can see that”
What’s left? Oh yes!
I got to college and all my professors complained that we didn’t know how to write. And, for the most part, they’re right. Anyone who doesn’t love writing will only be concerned with how to get a passing grade; unfortunately, a passing grade for most professors is determined by the standard school checklist:
– Introductory paragraph with a one-sentence thesis statement at the end
– Thesis details several key points to be expounded upon in several body paragraphs
– Each body paragraph houses 1-2 supporting quotes from research material
– Conclusion paragraph restates preceding work for emphasis
Any average college student reading that list will do what I’ve witnessed many of my friends do—assemble the bare skeleton of opinions and facts and pad it with fluff to meet the page length requirements.
It doesn’t matter to them if they join the unending conversation. It doesn’t matter whether or not their work is interesting, if it can hook or convince an audience, if it’s stylistically or structurally impressive—because none of that really matters to the average professor as much as The Rubric does.
So when the essay is handed in to professors or writing tutors or friends who have given up their night to perform charity peer review, it seems so beyond help that the only thing to do (or so we think) is to make superficial grammar, punctuation, and format corrections and send it back thinking, “Well they must just be bad at writing.”
We aren’t just inherently bad writers. We suck at writing because everyone’s in such a hurry to get to the page.
If Ong and other linguistic philosophers are correct about written language’s dependence on speech, then why aren’t we being encouraged to talk about our writing before we even think about assembling data?
English professor and writing tutor, Stephen M. North’s essay, “The Idea of a Writing Center,” deals with the misunderstanding and misuse of writing and tutoring centers on university campuses. Too often used as “the grammar and drill center, the fix-it shop, the first aid station,” writing centers would be better put to use helping students get their ideas to the page without losing the natural cadence and organizational skills we use every day in verbal communication (437).
According to North, writing centers and tutors exist for students to talk to, so they can get started or be re-inspired along their writing journey, because above all, writing is a student-centered process. Writing is not designed to test a student’s ability to remember facts in a timed, class setting.
If professors want better writers, they should revise their Rubrics to emphasize content rather than format. Tell your students you want to hear what they have to say and you’ll get better essays. Impress upon them that length doesn’t matter, academese won’t guarantee a passing grade, and have them try to talk about their thesis before starting to write…and you’ll get better essays.
How do I know? The only reason I have the courage and ability to write with any sort of style today is because I once had a professor who wanted to hear my voice.