For as long as I can remember, writing well has always been a roadblock to pursuing advanced degrees—at least the kind of writing required to pass courses. Secondary education and the years in college did not prepare me well for the task of writing. Sure, we had English, Literature, Grammar, but nothing on how to write. I do not remember spending class hours on the mechanics of writing nor any of my teachers spending time helping us write better. What I do remember are the red marks on the margins critiquing style, not adhering to rules, punctuation, etc.
By the time I got to college, a particular kind of writing was assumed. Again, no instructor in any of my classes gave us any clue as to what goals or practical ends our writing ought to be. Our syllabi had writing assignments and the assumption of everyone was that by the due date we would turn in pages with writing in it. Then the red marks and grades came in. I never failed any writing assignments but I never knew in advance if my writing would ever get an “A.” If I ended up with high marks, it was accidental. It all seemed like a mystery to me what criteria was used to evaluate our papers. Especially when one puts in a lot of time and sincere effort into it.
The anxiety over whether or not I could succeed at writing at the doctoral level had for a long time ruled out the idea of pursuing another degree beyond an MA. It still paralyzes me to think that a much longer paper will be due by the end of the Spring (2019) and wondering if I will be up to the task. I know it sounds crazy that I even bring this up since we are not even close to being done this semester and I am already worried about the next one.
I start with this to help me frame and contrast the new things I am learning in the art and science of writing. To say this book by Derek Rowntree Learn How to Study: A Realistic Approach is groundbreaking is an understatement for me. How so? Because it destroys all the rules of writing I grew up learning. This absolutely is for me an aha and a eureka moment. I kid you not, I literally jumped out of my seat when I read the following from Rowntree:
The best one-sentence guide to effective writing I’ve ever heard is: ‘Write like you talk.’ In my own writing (e.g. as in this book), I try to put down on paper what I would say to my reader if he or she were witting there in front of me. In other words, I aim for a style that is informal and fairly conversational — but without being matey or chatty. Whether such an approach would be acceptable to your tutors is something I leave you to decide.1
That was under the subheading “Writing simply and directly.” He continues with a list of tips that was, without exaggeration, the opposite of what I was taught in high school, i.e., it’s okay and even preferred for writers to use personal pronouns such as “I”, use everyday words, use short and simple sentences, etc. I do not know nor can explain why I was taught the complete opposite of what is taught in this book. It’s not like this resource was not available when I was going through high school. This was somewhat perplexing to me that I had to ask my son who is in the 10th grade and was sitting next to me when I had my writing epiphany. I asked him if any of these things in the book was news to him. He basically said that they learned all the rules just like I did but their teachers give them leeway in their writing assignments; more freedom to express themselves.
Listening to my son I was reminded about the proper roles rules bear on writing, and for that matter much of life. Rules are very much like fences or railings. They serve the purpose of preventing things from falling off the edge or other dangers. It does not follow that just because they are there that we should stay close to them. The spaces in the center provide safety and freedom to explore. In this case more freedom to explore and express our ideas on paper. Indeed, this realization that there is far less restrictions in writing than I had been taught is liberating. I just hope and pray our tutors agree with Rowntree on this.
1Derek Rowntree, Learn How to Study: A Realistic Approach (London: TimeWarner, 2002), 196.