Writing and Writing Instruction: It “Ain’t” What It Used To Be

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Remember a time when “ain’t” wasn’t a word? Well, “ain’t” now has its own written definition in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. The written word is what separates us from our tree-swinging cousins. But what passes for writing and the written word are as changing and fluid as acceptance of the word “ain’t” in recognized and respected authorites.

Writing, particularly the persuasive variety, is a uniquely vital tool for lawyers and the legal profession. This blog has addressed legal writing instruction on more than one occasion. Another common thread has been how to approach writing instruction in the age of e-mail, text messages and social networking sites that limit the paragraph to 140 characters or less.

The National Council of Teachers of English is now weighing in on this weighty topic. Following a tip from Legal Writing Prof Blog, I read a report prepared by the NCTE entitled A Call To Support 21st Century Writing. The linked report is drafted by a past NCTE president, Kathleen Blake Yancy at Florida State University in Tallahassee. The report attempts to tackle three key subjects from a teaching perspective. One is of particular interest to me: “developing new models of writing;…” The educators behind the report are seeking to help students “compose often, compose well, and through these composings, become the citizen writers of our country, the citizens writers of our world, and the writers of our future.” Lofty goals, indeed.

There are so many interesting and valuable points in the article that stress the general importance of writing but also speak to me as to why effective legal writing is crucial to our society. Most notably, the report points out that writing historically has taken a “back seat” to reading, because society could control its citizens through reading, but through writing, citizens could exercise their own control. Implicit in this aspect of the report is the idea that reading emphasizes obedience to the rule of law, while writing offers the means to challenge this rule. There can be no better context for illustrating this point than the oral and written advocacy required before the courts and between adversaries.

The report also acknowledges that writing historically has been considered a laborious process and frequently linked to testing, inviting people to shirk its burden. Remember the good old days when writing even a short essay required that you physically place pen or pencil to paper and write an outline, then a draft, then edit the draft literally by cutting and pasting sections with tape or glue and ultimately laboriously penning your final copy to be placed lovingly between manilla card stock covers? I know you are out there!

Then came a new wave of writing and written instruction, referred to as “process writing” or “composing.” Hot on the heels of this development was the advent of digital technology. The report’s acceptance of digital media as a positive catalyst for writing is refreshing. I remember making the switch from pen, paper and note-card to computer-based composition during my first year of law school and recall the dramatic effect upon my writing process. The report quotes sources that praise the desktop computer’s ability to inspire creativity through a visual writing mechanism that was unprecedented at the time. My own experience mirrors this sentiment. 

Fast forward twenty years. We find ourselves surrounded by writers, who perform the task not just for penmanship, test-taking or grammar-skill building, but for imparting information, connecting with other people, conveying a need or merely passing the time on-line. Writing is gaining in importance as a medium for communication, on bulletin boards, in chat rooms, emails, listservs and social media sites. Writing is now employed as a direct conduit to another person, in much the same way as verbal communication in person or via telephone, had been used in our pre-digital and early digital phase. Writing is now a means for participating in dialogue with people across town, across the country and across the globe, for all sorts of purposes.

And writers are now gaining their writing experience outside of the classroom, in what the report calls “extra-curricular social co-apprenticeship.” The tutelage is not doled out by an expert, but is subject to peer review across electronic outposts, with the opportunity for the writer to observe immediate results and receive instantaneous feedback. In such a fast-paced, high-heat incubator, grammar and spelling necessarily take a second seat.

I recommend reading the report for its examples of how modern communication is employed and how it can effect real change right here and right now. The report commends the participants in the examples – one of a girl saving her neighbors from flooding with a timely email and pictures and one of group of students formed on Facebook for the sole purpose of confounding AP test examiners – of accurately reading their audiences and understanding the vast power of networking.

Conclusions? The antiquated process of formal writing instruction, formal writing practice and ultimately for a lucky few, public exposure of the written product is crumbling. Complex thinking should be allowed to develop along with beginning skills such as sentence structure, spelling and punctuation. Educators must recognize that students will already be familiar with the process of writing for a public audience. The report also suggests that writing should be elevated to the status of its own subject of study. Writing in groups and for groups should not be discouraged and texting, when appropriately controlled, has its place in encouraging outside discourse on classroom topics.

How does this fit into the law school curriculum and legal writing instruction? I am not certain of the nuts-and-bolts answer to that question, but I do believe the report highlights that instruction at all levels should embrace rather than eschew the modern modes of communication. Never before has the written word enjoyed such prominence as a casual communication tool. The social writing experience will impact upon the formal writing experience in the educational setting and beyond. Teachers at all levels will do well to embrace this “process writing” and the compositional experience students will bring to the classroom when they frame the importance of effective professional writing in school and ultimately on the job.

I love the final words of the report and will close with them:

Historically, like today, we compose on all the available
materials. Whether those materials are rocks or computer
screens, composing is a material as well as social practice;
composing is situated within and informed by specific kinds
of materials as well as by its location in community.
We have simply never seen it quite so clearly as we do

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