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Terms of Confusion

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I have odd relationships to words–to some words–sometimes for reasons I understand, and othertimes for reasons I don’t.

Among the terms that bug me for reasons I understand are “brainstorming” and “joystick.”  I understand those because they’re a function of the fact that I’m old, and while the definitions of those terms have changed, their meanings inside my head have not. 

When I was growing up, a “brainstorm” is what we would now call a psychotic break–a short furious period when somebody’s synapses suddenly all exploded at once, in an “episode,” which required everybody around him to figure out what to do with him next. 

As for joystick–well, let me just point out that there were no video games when I was growing up, so when some guy talked about his “joystick,” he wasn’t referring to a piece of electronic equipment.

It was “brainstorming,” that got me going this morning, though, because it’s a word I now have to encounter on a daily basis.  This is because the response of academia to the fact that so many students can’t correctly spell their own names and write them in crayon has been to try to industrialize the teaching of writing in such a way as to “guarantee results.”

I’ve gone off on this subject on a number of levels, the most important one being my conviction that it isn’t possible to teach somebody to write if that person will not read, or read much.

But today it’s the process itself that’s on my mind.

Let me start by saying that the process isn’t by any means all bad.  If  you have absolutely no ear for prose, if you’re learning to write like a tone deaf person would learn to write music, this is probably about as good as it gets.   You start by “brainstorming”–this means thinking of ideas that might relate more or less to a general topic–and move carefully and methodically through outlining, drafting, revising, rervising, until you’re left with something that looks like coherent English prose.

In a way, it’s a more elaborate version of that old grad school standby, the “railroad paper,” so named because you shot straight through it as if you were on a track.  First you tell them what you’re going to tell them, then you tell it to them, then you tell them what you told them.  It sounds awful, and it was boring as hell, but it had the virtue of putting you in a position of never being technically wrong.

“Writing as a process” is like that–follow the rules, and you can never  be technically wrong.  That means that your papers will not fail, and your communications in business or the professions will not elicit groans and hairpulling from the people you have to deal with.

The problem with writing as a process is that nobody who actually is a writer–who makes money at it, either primarily or secondarily–would ever use it.

It’s not just that the process itself is far too self-conscious–although that’s a big drawback–but that it forces you to make what would actually be bad writing choices when you know better.

Good writing is vivid, direct and clear.  “Writing as a process” will give you direct, and help you towards clear, but it’s the enemy of vivid.  Everything in the process is meant to eliminate the kind of thing–hyperbole, judicious use of slang or bad grammar, sharp particularities of anecdote and expression–that makes writing actually worth reading.

“Writing as a process” is designed to make all students write like those “thoughful essays” that appear in textbooks, those essays where everybody sounds reasonable and calm and contemplates small things as if they were of inestimable importance: the day my mother told me she really liked my hat and I finally realized she loved me; the day I realized my math teacher was a Yankees fan and could therefore be called human…

In other words, essays about the kinds of things nobody in their right minds would either write or read about.

If the only result of this dedication to “the process”  was that people who have no ear for writing were enabled to write well enough to stumble through a life where writing is required for more and more things, then all well and good.

My problem comes with the fact that good writers get killed in classrooms where writing is taught as “a process,” for much the same reason why a friend of mine kept flunking math in junior high school–my friend was unable to ‘show all work” because he wasn’t doing any (at twelve, he could look at an algebraic equation with four variables and go, “oh, the answer to that is 42”), and good writers are unable to practice “writing as a process’ because they can’t make the process make good prose.  Acceptable prose, yes.  Good prose, no.

If all writing teachers were good writers themselves, this wouldn’t matter much–the teachers would be able to tell that the writing produced by these students who were not working within the process was in fact good writing.

Unfortunately, not all writing teachers are good writers.  More and more of them are products of instruction in writing as a process themselves, and know very little else.  They also don’t seem to read much in the way of good writing.

So you put a good writer into a class where writing is taught as a process, and his grades go south really fast.

Or they do in any class with more or less well prepared kids in it.  In a class full of people who should have been doing remedial work, a student who can manage to produce comprehensible prose by any method whatsoever will probably be okay in terms of grades.  She’ll be such a relief, her teacher will love her, process or not.

It still bothers me, however, that so much writing is taught in schools and universities by people who cannot themselves write, and who don’t even know how it is done, never having been acquainted with anything but “the process.”

I’m not talking, now, about fiction–fiction is a special case–but about the kind of ordinary prose that exists in newspaper and magazine articles, in op-eds, even in blogs.

The best of that kind of thing–judged by the sheer technical beauty of the prose, now, and not the particular content–ranges from the erudite and clean (like Theodore Dalrymple) to the sharp and skewering (like, say, P.J. O’Rourke). 

And some kinds of bad writing are actually better than the “good” writing as it is displayed in textbook essays about various people’s childhoods or small moments of epiphany on various kinds of trains.

No, I’m not making that up.

If I was going to teach people how to read and write, for instance, I’d much rather assign classes one book each by Michael Moore and Bill O’Reilly than your ordinary writing class textbook.    Both Moore and O’Reilly are partisan and unfair, but it’s on purpose.  They both, uh, let’s say stretch the facts a bit, but that’s on purpose, too, and they’re committed and passionate and capable of using words to cause sparks.

You’ll note here, though–I’m not talking about the kind of reading most of you have complained about from English class.  In writing classes these days, nobody reads novels or poetry.  The standard writing course has become an exercise in “the short essay,” and the standard textbook has become a collection of such essays from whoever knows where.

That last part was deliberate–I’ve been writing for a living for twenty five  years, and I’ve got no idea where you would place most of these essays.  There aren’t all that many little magazines left, and the larger outlets usually like some connection to the wider world.  Private people have priving little epiphanies about stuff in theirneighborhoods, immigrant grandmothers and people they went to high school with don’t usually find a place on the Op-Ed page of the New York Times.

Of course, maybe I’m making too much of it.  Good writing is something I love, and it’s like music, but a piece can be very good writing indeed and be otherwise worthless.  Consider the case of Stephen Glass, who did absolutely brilliant writing for The New Republic and half a dozen other publications, except that he was supposed to be acting as a reporter, and he was making the stuff up.

That’s a question–why is it that there is so little taste for, or respect for, fiction these days, so much insistence that what we read be “real?”  If Glass had been forn fifty years before he was, he’d have written short stories and been well paid for it, and that would have been that.

Okay, I’ve started wandering around in the wilderness again, and I ought to stop. 

By now, it ought to be obvious that this is one of those days I teach.

Written by janeh

October 6th, 2009 at 10:01 am

Posted in Uncategorized

9 Responses to 'Terms of Confusion'

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  1. It’s a blurring of boundaries – perhaps insisting that our real stuff be real is a reaction against the ‘biographies’ with imaginary conversations and even people and the claims that something doesn’t have to be real to be true – that fiction can be more true than non-fiction.

    I’m just tossing that off the top of my head – I don’t know what’s in the op ed page of the New York Times, but I’ve come across a couple of New Yorkers in the piles of stuff to read and the short stories in them reminded me why I don’t usually read the New Yorker, and also of your comments here about stories (well, essays) about private people’s lives.

    I used to like short pieces a lot – short stories and essays – but it’s been a long time since I read much of them, although I’ve got ‘Cultural Amnesia’ to dig into when I get a chance, thanks to Mique’s recommendation of the author. It’s a bit heavy to lug around on the bus, though.


    6 Oct 09 at 1:17 pm

  2. In Florida, and perhaps in other states as well, high school teaching focuses on the material contained in the graduate exit exams. Here they’re called F-CATS. Secondary schools are so dependent on standardized test results that a lot of necessary information is left out of day to day teaching. Writing as a process seems to resemble this linear approach. Creativity, I expect, would not be a part of it. All syntax, very little diction, and similar to diagramming sentences in ’60s classrooms. I am a librarian, fiction writer and have read 492 books in the past year, according to my library patron record. My daughters, both grown, read a great deal more than most of their contemporaries. I’ve never heard of a great baseball player who never watched the games. Learning to write is no different.


    6 Oct 09 at 1:41 pm

  3. Glass could have written satires had he been so inclined and been good enough. HARPER’S, ATLANTIC and the NEW YORKER all publish such. NATIONAL REVIEW generally has a satiric column or two, and the ECONOMIST has been known to when suitable material is available. Indeed, much of C. Northcote Parkinson’s best material was originally published there. The obvious conclusion was that Glass didn’t want to write (admitted) fiction. He wanted to tell lies and be believed. That limited his career options to con man shading into unscrupulous salesman, politician and reporter. He shose the field in which those who paid him were least inclined to check for truthfulness.

    Words are, of course, slippery. I have a history book of c. 1904 which describes a very brave man as “the impersonation of valor” as we would say “personification.” I also have a Josephine Tey mystery copyright 1929 in which a character has a “televison” not in the sense of a device, but of an experience: when a detective repeats to his superior what he has learned by interviewing an expert in men’s ties, his word choice and mannerisms give Inspector Grant a “television” of the expert. Or some day read Poul Anderson’s “Tragedy of Errors.”

    As for the general point of “writing as process”–well, if you’re writing to give information or orders, dull may be good. Much of Washington’s correspondence is painfully dull, but it’s impossible to misunderstand his orders. But these are a separate skill. They shouldn’t be confused with writing to persuade or entertain. And in that case, yes a person with a good ear for music should certainly avoid tone deaf and stone deaf instructors. The next question would be why one hired deaf music instructors in the first place. It make you wonder who’s running the department.


    6 Oct 09 at 4:09 pm

  4. ” First you tell them what you’re going to tell them, then you tell it to them, then you tell them what you told them. ”

    Interesting. I first encountered that description in an article about about how Army Drill Instructors train recruits!

    It doesn’t work for fiction but I have seen a lot of user manuals that were badly written because they did not follow that method.

    And it also produces good science journal papers.


    6 Oct 09 at 4:33 pm

  5. I spent 16 years teaching the process of writing. It was with great joy that I moved into teaching the humanities – content courses rather than process courses. Now rewrites are optional, and if a student needs help with process, I send him/her to the writing lab. The struggle that remains is the purpose of the essays. Are students showing me that they know the content or that they can write about the content? Another major problem is the shape of the essays. Are students writing as potential academic scholars or learners exploring their understanding of ideas?

    I hope to instill in my students the ability to develop a reflective voice that shows an understanding of the content and, by necessity, the ability to incorporate the ideas of others into an essay to satisfy the academic approach.

    Yes – reading creates writers. I have already eliminated the required text in one class and hope to do so in other classes. Instead of reading about culture, I make my students read things that are a product of culture – right now lots of newspaper articles – some good, some bad.

    I just started Baron’s book, A Better Pencil. I’m not sure what I hope to learn from it – but the idea that the writing instrument as a major influence in writing intrigues me.


    6 Oct 09 at 5:00 pm

  6. The best “process writing” I’ve ever encountered was in the military. Also some of the worst, but that was usually only in first draft. By the time a succession of more senior editors got rid of all the things that Jane says are intrinsic to good writing, even the worst useless nonsense was usually properly purged of emotionalism, hyperbole and other idiosyncratic stylistic nonsense and was fit for prime time. :-)


    6 Oct 09 at 11:46 pm

  7. Phht, Mique. Good writing doesn’t need emotionalism or hyperbole. It does need to avoid stilted construction and passive tense, which is, I’ll admit, what I think of when I think of military papers. Could be wrong, though.

    Around here (where I work, I mean) most people can write the dull utilitarian stuff. I’ve become known for avoiding the dullness of even my most utilitarian reports. On the other hand, I’ve learned recently that I’m also known rather widely as the company grammar and punctuation nerd.

    I’m not sure if this is good or not.


    7 Oct 09 at 9:04 am

  8. Active voice rules in military writing. Passive voice gets you posted if not shot. The trick was to be brief, accurate, logical and persuasive, and boring is none of the above.


    7 Oct 09 at 9:54 am

  9. Passive voice used to reign in the hard sciences. Maybe it still does. Students were absolutely forbidden to write ‘I weighed out 1.2043 g of the unknown’, it had to be ‘A mass of 1.2043 g of the unknown was weighed out’ , or, better yet ‘obtained using the electronic scale’. I was told the style was intended to remove any hint of the personal and leave an impression of cool and unbiased actions and events.

    There’s a lot to be said for a nice clean structured way of writing out instructions or a report. The ability to do so is a valuable skill. It’s not the same skill as those of writing fiction or even (necessarily) journalism or essays, but that doesn’t make it bad. It’s invaluable in its place, and not fully appreciated until you try to figure out something written by someone who hasn’t got the style down at all.


    7 Oct 09 at 12:19 pm

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