Posted: Friday, May 3rd, 2013
My favorite class in high school was the one where I wrote boring essays to fill arbitrary length requirements. I learned valuable lessons. I learned to use two adjectives that mean the same thing. I learned the art of the go-nowhere tangent. I learned that passive voice created longer sentences than active voice. I learned to say the same thing twice. I learned to repeat myself. Courier New was everyone’s favorite font. It turned one and a half pages and a C+ into two pages and an A.
Those were the days. I was rewarded for bad habits.
These days, I love concise language. Everyone does. Making clear points quickly is a 21st century skill that should be taught early. It’s a career skill, a conversation skill, a life skill. Nobody has time for wordiness, from the kid taking your lunch order to the head honcho at your workplace.
Asking students for a set number of pages is like scoring a basketball game on number of dribbles. Good players need only one dribble to get from the three-point line to the rim, and good writers share information in as little space as possible.
Dearest teachers, I have an assignment for you. Teach your students to write gorgeous sentences with a high information-to-words ratio. Write a long sentence on the board and cut it down to its essentials.
Give them some disorganized facts, and challenge them to write a short paragraph that includes all of them. Whichever paragraph is best, read it out loud to the class.
Assign an essay without a length requirement. Tell them to respond to your prompt with a set level of depth or breadth.
Does this have to be the only way they write? Nope. But they shouldn’t be taught to just write long, rambling, meandering stuff that goes in all kinds of different directions, digressing at every turn, pulling in useless information and extraneous, needlessly big words like extraneous, sort of like this ridiculous sentence I’ve got going on right here.
Oops, old habits die hard.