That ubiquitous rhetorical query “know what I’m sayin’”? – which actually shifts the real work of comprehension from the speaker to the listener – has become a motto for too many of the young people whose work I grade. Along with hours devoted to citing comma faults, run-ons and wacky elliptical sentence structures, I spend a great deal of time wandering through the thickets of convolution, imprecision and excess that are growing in my students’ heads. Exchanges with colleagues in communications and other disciplines indicate that, as I suspected, I am not alone. Is it just that K-12 educational priorities don’t appear to be articulating with post-secondary approaches and expectations? Is there also a cultural shift among young people underway? Is intuitionreplacing explication? The writing of my young charges is plagued with wordiness and disorganization.
America’s third president is attached to the quote “The most valuable of talents is never using two words when one will do.” The pithiness of this remark models Jefferson’s stated principle, which might also be rendered, “say what you mean with precision and dispatch.”
My students’ overwrought renderings might point to a lack of proficiency or imprecision in word choices. But I feel it is more complicated than substituting “rapidly” for “very fast” or “because” for the dreaded prolixity of “due to the fact that.” All of these are encoding choices that all writers wrestle with.
I suspect my students’ problems are also rooted in idea formation, the step that precedes encoding in the familiar simple communication model. Students struggle with written expression partly because they are inexperienced wordsmiths but most often because they’re not sure what they want to say.
Sometimes while reading responses to prompts, I feel as though I’d walked in on a student mid-cogitation, before the idea had set and settled.
“What is going on here?”
My markings tend to be less about “correcting” structural faults and more about “coaxing” or “teasing” out the passage’s purpose. Rather than jot “this is what you might say ....” on a section made muddy by verbosity, I highlight or circle the passage (I still prefer pen and paper grading) and insert in the margin, “What is it you’re saying here?” or “Rethink this section. Your point gets lost.” Thus putting the responsibility of comprehension where it belongs -- on the writer.
I often direct students back to their thesis statement – provided one has been crafted – and ask how the highlighted passage relates to what the statement promises. Does it add a dimension, elaborate on an earlier point, support an argument? In conferences student frequently admit they’re unsure.
“So why write so much?”
“I’m trying to meet the assignment word count” was too often the response.
An idea without substance or concreteness is easily lost in the woods, I’ll say. Certainty can hack through acres of wordy brush. “Go back and think some more.”
I frequently find myself following my student’s meandering prose into a thicket so dense I have difficulty determining where I am or how I came to be where I was. Lost.
Occasionally the brush has been made thick by compound, complex and compound-complex sentences that are overly burdened with subpoints, caveats, asides and parentheticals that don’t deepen the argument or expand the point. They simply radiate without clear direction or inclination. They are, as the kids say, “just some random stuff.”
Outlines are not an absolute cure for such disorganization – having an idea with layers that merit exploration is the true cure – but charting a course before pushing off from shore surely can’t be a bad idea if one intends to do more than just paddle around, if one intends to actually go from point A to point D.
Aside from forcing a sequencing onto ideas, outlining, to my mind, helps the writer-thinker determine if the trip is, indeed, worth taking. If, in fact, point A is substantively different from points B, C and D. If there are no identifiable or palpable distinctions between the points then the journey would be “pointless.”
If, on the other hand, these points are related but different, and markedly so, then an outline would be useful in laying out the comparison, the pros and cons, the chronology, the evolution or the flow. That is, an outline would be a useful map from thesis statement to conclusion.
No, you can’t have “good writing” without “good mechanics.” But, more fundamentally, you can’t have “writing” without “thinking,” for as celebrated author David McCollough says, “Writing isthinking. To write well is to think clearly. That's why it's so hard.” (My emphasis.) If our students are reminded of this and are coached through the fog of their hazy thinking they might actually find their writing more productive and enjoyable.
Born in Washington, D.C., and reared mostly in South Carolina, I was a working journalists for 10 years before joining the faculty at the University of South Carolina, my alma mater. I'm a student of media messages, especially advertising and film.