Teaching students how to write good*

Read it sometime -- if you have the patience.

Read it sometime -- if you have the patience, or if you care.

Fixing online communication one post at a time

Someone should step up and rip the blogosphere a new one. Someone should tell the millions of bloggers, plus the tweeters and Facebookers, that good writing still matters. Those who work in communication-related fields should pay special heed.

But I’ll warn you: It won’t change a thing.

I’ve ranted on the bad writing in this space for nearly 3 years, and I’ve done it in classrooms for more than 2 decades. Posts about writing always draw traffic and comments, but with each post I am preaching to the converted.

Bless all of you who still care about good writing. Your numbers are dwindling.

I know. Blogs and tweets are a “conversation,” and conversations don’t operate on perfect grammar and syntax. Some bloggers, including one who inspired me to start this site, insist that typos and grammatical errors lend authenticity to the message. Besides, another blogger told me, if you spend too much time wordsmithing the message, it’s no longer immediate — and sometimes no longer of value.

Both of those bloggers are fine writers. But they view the medium differently than I. They see only the conversation, and they don’t get all anal about polishing the message.

So what’s my problem? I’m an educator who teaches communication strategy and techniques, so I carry the burden of role model. Yeah, you’ll see typos in this blog on occasion — even though I probably read each post 5-6 times before I publish it. Self editing is a bitch. But it’s something my students expect of me, and I of them.

That’s not funny, that’s sic!

Nope. That’s not a typo. The notation “sic” indicates that “a word or phrase in a quoted passage is reproduced as it appeared in the original passage,” and “ to aid readers who might be confused about whether the quoter or the quoted writer is responsible for the spelling or grammatical anomaly.” (AskOxford.com)

While reviewing a student’s paper the other day, I noted some 4-5 quotes from prominent PR/marcom bloggers, each containing errors in grammar, usage and punctuation. Those errors, I told the student, should be noted with “sic.” But if you do that, I said, anyone reading your paper is sure to question the validity of your sources. I mean, what’s wrong with these people?

Don’t these people have editors?

Nope. Nearly every blog is self edited, and most are hastily posted. A polished blog post is rare. Imprecise and incorrect use of language is pretty much the rule.

To be fair, most bloggers don’t spend hours each week evaluating the writing of college students. They haven’t watched, as I have for more than two decades, the decay of writing skills across the board. The shift to abbreviated online communications contributes to this problem, but I saw it coming long before email or text messaging. Television helped dumb down writing (including Big Bird). Ditto for video games and other pastimes that lure our kids away from reading.

Ask most college students what book they’re reading and you’re likely to get a blank stare. Most don’t read books unless required, and even then they don’t read carefully. They seem to lack the discipline. As any writing coach will tell you, you learn to write well by reading.

Call this a rant from an aging Baby Boomer if you must, but there’s nothing positive about bad writing. Nothing. It calls into question the writer’s credibility and his intelligence.

I should probably just let this issue go, crack open a beer and say, “F#%* it.” But I can’t. I just can’t.

* Headline for this post is inspired by Michael O’Donaghue’s classic essay, “How to Write Good.” It appeared in National Lampoon in 1973. The essay seemed funny back then, but we may be hard-pressed to find anyone who’ll read it today. It’s over 4,000 words! Hell, we might as well assign War and Peace.

17 Responses to Teaching students how to write good*

  1. Sometimes it feels like I spend more time on communication skills in my history classes than on history. Some I know don’t bother, preferring instead to spend their time on their own work. (How frustrating it is to see history papers with only a couple words and a grade from the professor!) It’s tempting to go that route, but if we leave it up to the English professors, who usually only get one pass at each student, surely we as a culture are in trouble.

  2. Tom O'Keefe says:

    Great post, Bill.

    I’m seeing very similar things. I’m by no means a perfect writer, but it’s become quite disconcerting to see my peers'(college students and recent graduates) writing habits. And you’re absolutely right regarding students and their reading. Most have lost the desire to read unless it’s assigned. My writing habits didn’t stem from grammar and English classes, but rather came from a love of reading.

    Next year, I’ll be teaching high school writing in a private school in Baltimore and I’m almost afraid of the writing that I’ll see. It should be interesting.


  3. Greg Smith says:

    I readed it, now all I has to do is git my stuudents to red it. Thanks, Bil. Pigs will fly.

  4. Rock on, Bill! I know those of us who value books and the act of reading are fighting a losing battle, but it is worth the fight. What I have also noticed is that students who cannot write also display poor critical thinking skills. The two go hand-in-hand.

    I am constantly surprised that students want to hear about my work experiences, how they can get a job, etc., but whenever I advocate they can get closer to their goals by reading everything they can get their hands on, they immediately tune out.

    The only common denominator I find in the top 1 percent of students I have taught is that they all read — both for their classes and for fun (gasp!).

  5. Bill Sledzik says:

    Every now and then I feel the urge to do a writing rant. There was a time when marketing and PR types nodded in agreement. Not so much anymore. So many folks working the PR and marcom niche these days aren’t communicators and have little appreciation for the craft of writing. Worse yet, they don’t care.

    I worry, too, about the erosion of professionalism in the communication being produced today. Web 2.0 may have empowered us all with communication tools. It did not provide the wisdom and skills to use them well.

  6. Brandi Neloms says:

    “Some bloggers, including one who inspired me to start this site, insist that typos and grammatical errors lend authenticity to the message.”

    I’d like to think that I’m “authentically” a good communicator. There’s a phrase that reads something similar to, “You don’t know how good you are until you’re under pressure.” Even in a quick and instant response I want to follow the rules of GSP. If I can do it in that situation, I prove to those watching that I can do it on the job.

  7. The whole “typos=authenticity” claim is complete BS. The beauty of the edit button is that you CAN go back and fix that grammatical error, hopefully before too many people see your mistake. You think your favourite book/movie didn’t go through an extensive editing process before it hit the shelf?

    The true comm. folks are word geeks, plain and simple. I guess it makes you the grand daddy geek, Bill (at least at Kent State).

  8. […] professor at Kent State, wrote an insightful post on his blog, Tough Sledding, on the importance of “writing good”. As communications technology has advanced, it seems that our collective writing skills have […]

  9. Tim Roberts says:

    Great post, Bill. In these tough econimic times, it should be noted that good writers still are in demand. I’ve talked to PR folks in corporate, agency and non-profit settings, and they all say it is hard to find strong, versatile writers.

    I tell students their portfolios should reflect a broad writing skill set so they stand out from the pack

  10. chuckhemann says:

    Bill –

    I think I disagree with you in one respect and agree on another.

    Where we agree – people that write blogs should have some connection to the English language (though for many it is a VERY loose connection). In some cases, these blogs are an online resume of sorts. In addition to their actual resume, they can provide important insight into critical thinking and writing skills. If I could offer one small caveat though: It’s still far worse to include typos in your resume or cover letter than in your blog. Whether you (or the commenters here) like it or not, perfect grammer in blog posts isn’t necessarily expected. Nor, for that matter, is anybody going to stop reading a blog because of poor grammer. If they say they are, I’m calling bull feathers. Chances are they didn’t like the content and were looking for an excuse to stop reading it anyway.

    Where we disagree – Tweets. Sure, you don’t want your tweets to be totally incoherent that even the established Twitterati don’t know what you are saying. However, to expect perfect grammer in a tweet is asking the impossible. If I’m limited to 140 characters and I need to shave a comma to totally get my point across I am going to do just that.

    Anyway, you always give us something to think about. Sorry for the long comment.

  11. Chuck Hemann says:

    Not to continue piling on here, Bill…For students, and probably for professionals as well, it is far more damaging to not maintain the blog than it is to have a typographical error in a couple of posts.

  12. Bill Sledzik says:

    I thought I’d posted this comment, Chuck, but maybe it was in an email. We agree on this: It’s important for students to play the game, to be part of the conversation. We can’t let some tyrannical emphasis on writing stifle the discussion.

    But students — and I would say other comm professionals as well — must be aware that their blogs, tweets, etc. contribute greatly to reputation. It’s important it be professionally presented.

    Tweets need not be perfect. As you say, that’s tough in 140c and when you’re posting on the fly from a mobile device. I proof my tweets, nonetheless. And yeah, I make typos just the same. Conversational language is, by nature, flawed.

  13. Andrea Bona says:

    Every day I try to learn something new, but today you made me remember something old “sic”. Thank you. Quoting experts can be difficult, because while they may be an authority on something, they don’t necessarily “talk good”.

    The problem with self editing is the brain. If it could only learn to read what is actually on the page, not what it thinks is on the page, we would all be better off.

  14. Breeze says:

    Don’t they people have editors?

    Evidently they don’t.

  15. Bill Sledzik says:

    You know when you point out typos, I always fix them. Then the context disappears. 🙂

  16. Michael Clendenin says:

    Nodding in agreement and sighing. U rock, B! Sp mttrs, even n blog and tweet.

  17. […] we’ve learned. Bill Sledzik, associate professor at Kent State University, has a post called Teaching students how to write good* that provides great insight for why you should edit your work, especially online. Courtesy of […]

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