Learning To Write Is A Process That Involves Reading And Talking About What You Read, Recognizing Good Writing And Imitating It.
By Thomas J. Roach
A freshman English student once told one of my colleagues that he didn’t need to learn to write well. He was going to be a lawyer and he would hire someone to do that for him. Wouldn’t it be nice, but there is more to it than that.
Mitt Romney and Donald Trump both know how to make money, and both can afford to hire the best speech writers, but one of them articulated sophisticated arguments about managing the economy and won the Republican nomination to run for president, and the other one is called the Donald and has developed a second career on television as an obnoxious buffoon. What was Mitt’s first college degree? English.
Surprisingly, as we become more dependent on digital communication, writing skills become increasingly important. In the mid-20th century, we envisioned a future where we would communicate electronically by talking to one another through Dick Tracy two-way-wrist radios, but now that we have the capability to manufacture them, there is no demand. Instead we are using a more sophisticated technology, the cell phone, to exchange text messages.
Learning to Write
Learning to write is a complex, time-consuming process that involves reading and talking about what you read, recognizing good writing and imitating it.
We develop writing skills at an immeasurably slow pace. This is because writing skills are mostly thinking skills. Ancient teachers of rhetoric said that when they trained people to speak they were training them to be citizens. The skills we use to organize our thoughts, weigh options, and articulate our beliefs are the same skills we use when we explain our thoughts and make arguments.
Everyone needs to be articulate: engineers, managers, CEOs, CFOs, secretaries, laborers, drivers and, of course, candidates for public office. The more service oriented and technologically dependent the workforce becomes, the greater the emphasis on composing messages.
Developing writing skills is a life-long journey. In school we mostly learn grammar. As adults we develop the ability to find and articulate the stasis point in an argument, to make a strong statement without alienating our audience, and to know when to shut up. These things aren’t rules printed on a crib sheet; they are taught by experience and repetition.
One of the best ways to develop writing skills is through reading. If you want to invest in your future and enjoy yourself at the same time, buy a few books this summer and find a pleasant place to sit and read. The New York Times Best Seller list includes several non-fiction books available in print or as e-books: The Dog Lived (And So Will I) by Teresa J. Rhyne is about how a dog’s life-threatening illness prepared the author to face her own life-threatening illness. In Lean In, by Sheryl Sandberg with Nell Scovell, the CEO of Facebook encourages women to pursue their careers more aggressively. Eleven Rings by Phil Jackson and Hugh Delehanty is an autobiography of the coach who won 11 NBA championships.
Fiction available in print or digitally includes And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini, a family saga about a brother and sister born in Afghanistan. Silken Prey by John Sandford is about a political scandal in Minnesota. Ladies’ Night by Mary Kay Andrews is about a lifestyle blogger who moves in with her mother and attends divorce-counseling sessions.
All of these books will take you places you have never been, will reveal how other people see and react to the world, and will put you in touch with new feelings and teach you to articulate them. Try telling friends and coworkers about what you read, maybe even find others who read the same book and find out what they thought about it.
There isn’t anything about blasting or limestone or MSHA in any of these books, but the insights into other people’s views of the world may make a difference down the road when making a sales call, hiring a new employee, or asking for a raise.
Thomas J. Roach, Ph.D., has 30 years experience in communication as a journalist, media coordinator, communication director and consultant. He has taught at Purdue University Calumet since 1987, and is the author of “An Interviewing Rhetoric.” He can be reached at [email protected].