Writing well is hard. Professional writers have said so, and they practice more often than most of us. (I’m using “professional writers” here somewhat loosely, in the common usage of someone who makes their living for their writing itself.) Some I’ve heard say it never gets easier, that it’s always drudgery. Some love writing, despite it’s difficulty; others despise it yet consider it necessary to tell their stories or to make their points.
Writing is such a loaded word for us moderns—or postmoderns or post-postmoderns or neo-moderns or whatever we are. First, writing is something that everyone learns. Writing is something that young schoolchildren do. Writing is something that young adults do. Writing is something that full adults do. Writing is something that your grandma does.
Second, writing is something that everyone wants to be good at. Writing is something that letter writers want to be good at. Writing is something that book writers want to be good at. Writing is something that speech writers want to be good at. Writing is something that high schoolers want to be good at. Writing is something that Hollywood stars want to be good at.
Third, writing is something that everyone struggles to define, even though they feel they recognize it when they see it. Writing is something that many think of as a brilliant collection of ideas or particularly pleasing sounds. Writing is something that others consider a purely mechanical exercise, a means of accomplishing practical purposes, such as what time we’re meeting for supper on Saturday. Writing is something that some consider an artform and others consider a tool.
But writing is something that we are taught that we must do or else. For professors the old adage is publish or perish. For most of us, the prescription is not so severe, yet there is this constant pressure to perform, to produce. “Have you written the email to Jeff yet?” a coworker asks. “Hey! Did you see the memo from old man Halbert? What are you going to write in your evaluation?” another says. “C’mon, Sal, if you don’t finish that copy in ten minutes, Jones is going to blow a stack,” still another might say.
These are caricatures. You can see that. They aren’t meant to be entirely realistic. They are meant to provide a kind of example that says, “See? You know what I mean.” Surely you do see what I mean. We are all taught to write. We all must write. And we all find writing difficult.
One of the reasons we all find writing so difficult is that the concept of writing is so loaded for us. Just because writing is something that everyone learns doesn’t mean that everyone learns it well, and our society attaches such a high value to the skill of writing that the pressure builds to the point of being crippling for some. I have seen this often when working with my students. The pressure seems especially great for high school students, but college students have their fair share of pressure, too. The pressure wouldn’t be so great if more people learned to write more better when they were younger, but some of the pressure during the teen years comes from inside and has only a little to do with outside pressures. Teens are often so self-conscious that they are afraid of getting the smallest thing wrong—and that kind of pressure never produces the best writing.
Some of you might be thinking, My teenager doesn’t seem to worry about making mistakes. Her school papers are always riddled with spelling and punctuation errors. I’ve always found it interesting that the people who make these kinds of comments tend to always mention the little things like spelling and punctuation errors, not the big things like rational ideas and logical constructions. And these people don’t see the connection between (a) their own emphasis on the less important details and (b) their child’s pressure-induced, mistake-riddled writing.
Please understand that I do not mean that the details are unimportant. In my “Introduction to the Craft of Writing,” I drew attention to the importance of relishing les petits détails as part of our effort to learn the art of glorying in the mundane, and in the case of writing, there is nothing more mundane than a comma.
No, the little details do matter; they matter quite a lot. But proper punctuation cannot dress up drivel. Writing must first of all derive from good ideas and good reasoning, or the window-dressing of punctuation and mechanics are nothing better than the proverbial gold ring in a pig’s snout. “Even Solomon,” the saying might have gone, “is better arrayed than one of these.”
Yes, the little details do matter; they really do matter quite a lot. And from a parenting standpoint, the little details that matter include the following rules:
- Avoid unnecessary or ineffective hyperbole
- Don’t overemphasize flaws (especially small ones)
- Love trumps punctuation errors
From the standpoint of a young adult (ages puberty to 18+), if they haven’t already learned to properly punctuate, do you think overemphasizing punctuation is going to help now? Why not release that pressure valve, focus on the big things, and—through the focus on the details of getting the big things right—gradually help them see how important the proper placement of the comma is to the big thing of making their argument clear.
For this series, Everyday Writing, we are partnering with our sister sites WriteGoods.com and RealManners.Work to assemble not just a series of articles to be mentally considered, but also a series of steps to be physically completed, so that, together, we can more fully enjoy the everyday and glory in the mundane.