Oh yes, learn to write

Walter Russell Meade on advice for new college students and their parents—if you are on of those, raise your hand.

Good stuff, such as “The real world does not work like school” and “Choosing the right courses is more important than choosing the right school.”

It’s actually a classic defense of liberal-arts education, including science, politics, economics, history, geography.

And this, of course:

Fifth, learn to write well.  This paradoxically is going to be more important than ever for the next generation.  I can’t tell you how many editors at how many famous magazines have told me over the years that most professors and academics simply cannot write, and bemoan the immense amount of time they must devote to impose some kind of intellectual structure and comprehensible prose on the crabbed drafts they get from, often, fairly well known people.

This will not last.  Publications are not going to be able to continue paying editors to spin straw into gold; if you want to have a public voice in the next generation you are going to have to learn to write well.  This is a hard skill to acquire, but it can be taught.  Most schools don’t do this well; it is expensive and academics generally don’t value clear and attractive prose writing as much as they should.  This is important enough that I would recommend you use it as a factor in choosing a college, but for those of you already enrolled, make a point of seeing what your school offers in this area.

A lot of what I do these days is helping people unlearn the bad, formulaic  writing that they picked up in graduate school.

5 thoughts on “Oh yes, learn to write

  1. That is partly how/why I started blogging. For decades (undergrad and graduate school and years of a successful career as a scientist) I was forced to write the kind of excruciatingly dry, passive things that put regulators to sleep.

    I’m still unlearning the things that made me successful in that life. And not sure I’ll ever be able to shed them completely…

  2. I think this is excellent advice and I wish someone had told it to me when I started college in the 80’s. I now intend to drum this into my 15 year old niece’s head. However, the problem with that is that I need to re-learn writing too. Would you give me a hint on how to do that? A website? A book? Any ideas would be most welcome!

  3. Ronda: First thing, read good writing so that you have models in your mind. Writing “in the style of” is good practice. Creativity for its own sake is over-valued–if you write enough, your voice will emerge. “The first million words are just for practice,” someone once told me.

    When I was teaching, I tried various approaches and ended up back with classical rhetoric, which is excellent for academic writing. The textbook I used was Ancient Rhetorics for Contemporary Students by Crowley and Hawhee.

  4. I would add to that list to keeping up with technology and social media. These are not going away; they are not a fad. Marketers are increasing their social media budgets by 47% in the next year. Meanwhile, I still have friends that type with two fingers and think that Twitter is about telling the world you’re going to walk the dog.

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