Thursday, March 15, 2012

Sloppy Writing = Sloppy Thinking

Flavia posted some of her experience with and thoughts on poor student writing. She referenced a couple of posts by Dr. Crazy and quoted this passage:
Most of the story is usually that you are expecting them to encounter ideas that they don't know how to handle, ideas that are new and scary and difficult. They might be great writers with things that they are comfortable with, but once you challenge them? The whole thing becomes a hot mess. This doesn't mean that they are bad writers--it means that they are out of their intellectual depth. If you teach them the ideas, then the writing can catch up. But the writing has to catch up to their thinking--the writing isn't a stand-alone thing.

Sure, there are certainly students who lack the technical skills with writing to formulate grammatically correct sentences and coherent paragraphs, but the root cause of most bad writing is either 1) people don't know what to say, which is where FLG guesses most poor student writing falls, or 2) people are trying to obscure their true meaning, as Orwell explained so eloquently.

It took FLG a while, but he has an almost full-proof strategy for dealing with not knowing what the heck to say. He might have mentioned it before.

Plan A, draw a distinction / compare and contrast. Given that FLG benefited from a Jesuit education, no distinction is too small or obscure.

There are lots of options. Some of FLG's favorites include: long-term versus short-term, ancient versus modern, rational versus empirical, utilitarian versus deontological, sacred versus profane, and pirate versus privateer.

Usually, step one suffices to give FLG something to center his argument around. If he is still at a loss, then he proceeds to Plan B.

Plan B, comment on what somebody else said on the topic. FLG's first GoTo on this is Aristotle. Who is going to be against referencing Aristotle? And he talked about so many things -- tragedy, politics, economics, ethics, etc. Tons of material. In b-school, however, his frequent GoTo, for obvious reasons, was Adam Smith.

Plan C, combine Plans A & C. Find two thinkers. Elucidate and expand upon a distinction between them. Plato versus Aristotle happens to be FLG's favorite.

Plan A works about 95% of the time. Plan B or Plan C work the other 5%.


Withywindle said...

Yeah ... Flavia, I'm just not sure what I think of the thesis. You'd have to read an awful lot of students' private correspondence to get a sense of it. I'm not entirely sure how you can learn to be a competent writer and still be so terrified by unfamiliar concepts that you forget all your competence. And Occam's Razor might say this is an unnecessarily complicated hypothesis. So I'm a little skeptical, but largely my reaction is, "Huh. Maybe. Maybe not. Dunno."

Andrew Stevens said...

Ever read George Spencer-Brown's Laws of Form? He argues that it's impossible to indicate anything without first drawing a distinction.

FLG said...


I haven't, but I can certainly see the argument.

Flavia said...

I think FLG's phrasing is probably the more accurate one: bad writing indicates bad, or at any rate incoherent, thinking, but there's no (necessary) reason to assume that this is a permanent state, in part because it's not a one-way street: learning to write better is about learning how to think better, and vice versa.

Personally, I hit a wall my sophomore year in college where my beautiful sentences, elegant transitions, funny turns of phrase, etc., suddenly weren't getting me "A"s in my English classes any longer. In retrospect, I think I was reluctant to push myself harder, intellectually, because once I'd written something pretty, I didn't want to rip the paragraphs up and move them around, lose my awesome introduction, etc.

In my experience, the students (both undergrad and grad) who are excited about their ideas and who have interesting insights can be taught how to write--in part, because they can be made to get invested in trying to communicate those ideas to other people. The English majors who write clear, dutiful essays (grammatical, easy to follow, with each paragraph expressing a separate idea) that just make the same obvious claim, over and over again, I worry about more. They can write, but that doesn't mean they can think.

In either case, though, my job is to kick their asses. No one in my classes gets rewarded just for having good ideas OR for writing clearly (even beautifully). They have to do both.

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