I recall last summer going through some old letters that my parents had received from friends back when they were in college. I couldn’t help but notice how consciously the letters were constructed and how naturally they flowed. It was clear from the absence of scribbles and the conversational tones that they were written with ease. I’ve exchanged letters with friends out of love for the medium, but I have not found the same level of mastery in their letters or my own. In truth, the art of letter writing is all but dead for the simple reason that we no longer have a need for it.
How much the average student’s writing capabilities have changed in a few decades is difficult to measure, but it can be said with certainty that the average student at this University and at many universities nationwide is not satisfied with his or her ability to communicate through writing. It is a reasonable hypothesis that the cause is a general decrease in the number of occasions for which we need to write. The keyword here is “need.” What made letters so often high in quality was that they were written when somebody had something they wanted or needed to say, and since it cost time, money and effort to send one, they were sure to put some care into how they wrote it.
I’m not pointing to technology as the culprit for our condition, but I think the change it has provoked in our methods of communication can help us identify the problem and with it, a solution. New channels have allowed us to see that when people don’t need to write well, they don’t. People write because they have something they want or need to communicate to other people. This is the fundamental core of academic writing. Somewhere down the line, however, the order of things got reversed so that the first thing taught in school is the last thing that comes naturally: form. You learned about the five-paragraph essay in elementary school, but purpose is reduced to a P in the SOAPSTone acronym you memorized in high school English and then forgot about.
Imagine a man who knows a language and can write out words but has never written anything in his life. One day, he receives a letter from his bank informing him that because he has failed to pay his mortgage, they must foreclose on his house. Loving his home and not wanting to lose it, he decides he will try to convince the bank to give him another chance and sets out to write to them. The need to communicate his reasoning will prompt him to find how he may do so most effectively. He will have some central idea out of which his argument flows. He will play with different details and wordings, gauging what effects they have. Out of his efforts to organize his argument, a structure will emerge that he can refine to better serve his purpose. Most importantly, he will never lose sight of his purpose. How could he?
The backward way in which we learn form and technique before purpose has left a lasting handicap on our writing abilities. There were once people who had things to say and did not know how best to say them, and it is out of their efforts to communicate well that techniques and structures arose. Writing needs to be taught with more emphasis on purpose. We need to know not only the reason behind our writing, but why certain rules and forms are in place so that we are able to use them effectively and determine when it is in our best interest to break them.