Writing Skills Require Higher Level Learning

Hat tip to Legal Writing Prof Blog for a mention of this article by Mark Richardson over at The Chronicle of Higher Education called “Writing Is Not Just A Basic Skill.” Richardson’s article has great meaning for legal writers, particularly in light of the recent complaints in the press about the poor quality of writing among law students in particular and business writers in general.

Richardson complains that “common sense” notions of writing are impeding proper training in rhetoric and composition in institutions of higher learning. Richardson’s explanation regarding the genesis of these “common sense” ideas lays the groundwork for his theory as to why these ideas do not support to proper writing instruction in specific fields.

Enter the explosion of rhetoric and composition theory and practice in the 1960s. According to Richardson, ideas generated out of this explosion “fly in the face” of the previously accepted “common sense” notions. Richardson’s “truths” that conflict with “common sense” include:

Students who do one kind of writing well will not automatically do other kinds of writing well.

The conventions of thought and expression in disciplines differ, enough so that what one learns in order to write in one discipline might have to be unlearned to write in another.

Writing is not the expression of thought; it is thought itself. Papers are not containers for ideas, containers that need only to be well formed for those ideas to emerge clearly. Papers are the working out of ideas. The thought and the container take shape simultaneously (and develop slowly, with revision).

When students are faced with an unfamiliar writing challenge, their apparent ability to write will falter across a broad range of “skills.” For example, a student who handles grammatical usage, mechanics, organization, and tone competently in an explanation of the effects of global warming on coral reefs might look like a much weaker writer when she tries her hand at a chemistry-lab report for the first time.

Teaching students grammar and mechanics through drills often does not work.

Patterns of language usage, tangled up in complex issues like personal and group identities, are not easy to change.

Rhetorical considerations like ethos, purpose, audience, and occasion are crucial to even such seemingly small considerations as word choice and word order.

Writing involves abilities we develop over our lifetimes. Some students are more advanced in them when they come to college than are others. Those who are less advanced will not develop to a level comparable to the more-prepared students in one year or even in two, although they may reach adequate levels of ability over time.

The conflict is quite apparent at the University level, according to Richardson , when it inhibits proper writing instruction. Richardson relates beliefs held by administrators that composition is a “basic skill” that should be learned no later than the end of the first undergraduate year, that first year composition should be “remedial” and that basic composition is the foundation for all types of writing. “Common sense” beliefs are not bourne out when students then pursue writing in their specialized courses, particularly when higher level texts adhere to writing “rules” that are diametrically opposed.

Richardson concludes that reliance on the first year generic composition course is dangerous to higher level writing. He suggests that the better practice would be to pair rhetoric and composition instructors with professors in the various disciplines tasked with fashioning topic-specific writing courses that are tailored to the particular field of study.

What a great idea! Students interested in pursuing philosophy, logic and pre-law would be better served by instruction in proper methods of composition tailored to legal writing than by general, “remedial” instruction that does little to enhance their skill set. This is particularly true if time constraints make such instruction an “either-or” proposition. Perhaps re-thinking writing instruction at the undergraduate level will stem the flow of complaints about poor writing in the real world. Richardson’s concept certainly makes “common sense” to me.

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