The Other Epidemic: Bad Writing
Judging from the headlines, we're awfully concerned about a possible epidemic of avian flu these days. We should be concerned about that. But here's another epidemic we should spend a lot of air time and money dealing with: how badly Americans communicate with each other when we write instead of speak.
You know what I'm talking about -- business papers that rattle on in the passive voice about "processes that were implemented by stakeholders" and other such vagueness. College professors lament that only a few students show up -- at top universities -- able to construct papers that are coherent and engaging.
The College Board created the new SAT writing section in part to address this epidemic. The first students who took the new SAT last spring are applying to colleges right now. Several colleges, including Georgetown, have said they won't look too closely at the writing section scores. After all, these colleges already require essays for admission, and these essays test the actual writing process much better than the SAT does.
As a writer myself, I agree -- in part. The SAT writing section consists of a 25 minute essay. The grading scale, available on the College Board website, does not penalize for a few grammatical or spelling errors. One professor studied results and found that there was a bias toward longer essays scoring better. Given the number of needless words bobbing around out there, longer doesn't always mean better. Furthermore, the formulaic essays the SAT requires are infinitely coachable. Test prep companies have actually upped their score guarantees as a result.
But... the SAT does test the ability to crank out a first draft. So what if most first drafts are lousy. That's why the College Board doesn't expect perfection. And second, people ignore the other 35 minutes of the writing section in their critiques. Students spend those 35 minutes answering questions on improving word choice, sentence structure and paragraph structure. That sounds like a test of editing skills to me.
The biggest benefit, in my mind, though, is not what's on the test. It's that the presence of a mandatory writing section on the SAT forces schools that care about student SAT scores to teach writing. This is a big benefit over what's existed many places up until now.
Schools don't teach writing well for two main reasons. The first is that many teachers attended education schools that laud the "processes were implemented by stakeholders" school of writing as much as any corporation.
Second (and this is the biggie), teaching writing takes a lot of time to do right. Teachers must assign multiple papers. They must then grade these long compositions, make comments, return the papers, ask students to rewrite them, grade them again, etc., through three-plus rounds of edits. If a teacher has 100 students (not uncommon at the high school level), spending a measly 10 minutes per paper is 1,000 minutes, or nearly 17 hours. Try fitting that into your weekend.
So, with the SAT writing section giving all this a sense of urgency, here's my 3-part plan for improving student writing. Teachers should:
1. Make all students read Strunk & White's "Elements of Style." There's a new illustrated version coming out next year if people find text tedious. The language of this grammar book, though, is never dull. A high school English teacher of mine once said it was the book most often stolen from the school's store room.
2. Up the volume of writing assigned. Students should be writing something -- be it an essay, a research paper, or a critique -- every week.
3. Outsource the grading. There are armies of under-employed writers and English graduate students in this country who would grade papers for cash if schools put the money there. When I wrote about improving writing in USA Today a year ago, I made a joke about outsourcing grading to India, but the more I think about it, it's possible. Families are already hiring Indian tutors to work with students over web connections. College educated Indian professionals who are fluent in English could certainly grade papers. This would free up English teachers for higher value work, such as explaining to students that papers need a thesis (really. I didn't know this until my sophomore year of college!)