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Rasslin’ over writin’ teachin’

In an article entitled, “Our Students Can’t Write. We Have Ourselves to Blame,” college professor Robert Zaretsky writes:

I, for one, spend my semesters picking through the salads tossed and served up as papers by my students. Consider the opening paragraph from a paper I received this semester. The student, who chose to write on Ivan Turgenev’s novel Fathers and Sons, begins: “Bazarov’s story is the tragic existence of a man who could not exist. That statement is not finite. It only applies to Bazarov in the time period he exists and to his maturity because Bazarov’s nihilism is intermingled with passions.”

This particular paper — written by a senior majoring in English and journalism — is a tad less coherent than others. Yet most of the papers are bedeviled by a host of grammatical and analytical problems, as if they were composed from word-salad bars that overflow with diced sentences and sliced syntax, stale phrases and failed analogies, and dressings that cover the full range of opinions (yet not a single serving of textual analysis). As for the staples of paper writing, including the basic punctuation of sentences and the clear organization of ideas, they are almost nowhere to be found.

Of course, this is hardly news. . . .

As Thomas Basbøll reports, some other professors expressed disagreement with the above-linked article. One of these disagreers was Elizabeth Wardle who, in an article entitled “What Critics of Student Writing Get Wrong,” writes:

It’s easy for teachers to take their frustration with a few student writers and extrapolate from it a number of conclusions based solely on their own experiences, histories, and biases. But academics should demand more from such public statements. . . . There is no evidence that student writing over all is any better or worse than it has ever been. What is true is that faculty members have been complaining about student writing for as long as students have been writing. . . .

All of us learn to write well the same way we learn to do anything well: by doing it. Students need to write and revise in as many classes, internships, and extracurricular sites as possible, but they won’t produce expert or error-free writing overnight. . . .

All writers struggle with new genres and conventions; learning to write in new situations always requires instruction and practice because there is no singular “writing in general” and certainly no singular “good” writing in general. . . .

When opinion columnists opine that “our students can’t write,” they mean that students can’t put together a sentence or paragraph that appeals to their sensibilities or adheres to the norms of writing in their disciplines or professions. . . .

Teaching writing is everyone’s responsibility, but it’s not any one person’s responsibility to teach all kinds of writing. We are each responsible for helping students understand the written practices that we use in our fields and professions.

Zaretsky is a professor of culture and literature and Wardle is a professor of written communication, so they are coming from slightly different places professionally, as Basbøll points out. For Zaretsky, writing is a tool that students should be using to express their ideas, and he’s saying that, for better or worse, more effort needs to be taken to teach students how to do this. For Wardle’s students, writing skill is an end in itself.

What struck me, though, was how much agreement there was between Zaretsky and Wardle. Wardle is disagreeing with Zaretsky on a rhetorical level, dismissing his observations of bad student writing as unsystematic and as not being news in any case. But when it comes to the specifics, they both agree on two key points:

1. Writing doesn’t always come naturally. It typically requires lots of practice to learn to write fluidly and well.

2. Writing is context dependent. You don’t just learn to write. You learn to write for specific purposes and specific audiences.

So it bothers me that this seems to be presented as a disagreement, a duel of experts. Why can’t we all just get along?

Just one thing. I do disagree with this statement from Wardle: “When opinion columnists opine that “our students can’t write,” they mean that students can’t put together a sentence or paragraph that appeals to their sensibilities or adheres to the norms of writing in their disciplines or professions.” Go back and look at the student passage from the beginning of Zaretsky’s article. The problem with that passage was not that the student didn’t appeal to Zaretsky’s sensibilities; the problem is that it’s garbled and close to meaningless. It may well be that this garbling is a product of the student attempting to write what he thought was being asked for in the assignment—but, for whatever reason, it’s bad writing. It’s not doing the student any favor to excuse it by saying that it doesn’t “adheres to the norms of writing in their disciplines or professions.” Blame schools if you want for incentivizing students to write this way, or for not giving students enough writing practice, but let’s be open that there’s a problem with this writing.

Anyway, I agree on points 1 and 2 above, and I think these points are not obvious! Indeed, I felt that Steven Pinker, in his writings on writing, did not fully appreciate these points. He seems to think that academics write badly on purpose—he also seems to be amused that academics “drive Priuses” and academics “have a foreign policy,” but that’s another story, also it’s not clear why he thinks it’s funny that other academics “have a foreign policy,” given that he has his own takes on torture—whereas I argued for the simpler (to me) explanation that “most academic writing is bad for the same reason that most writing is bad: because writing is hard. . . . it’s hard to learn and it’s hard to teach, but lots of people use writing to express their ideas. Academics are expected to write well but they’ve never learned how.”


  1. Ben says:

    > You learn to write for specific purposes and specific audiences

    I was having difficulty writing something the other day and got frustrated and just decided to write an e-mail. By the time I finished the e-mail I realized it was clear enough for its original purpose (so just copy-pasted it over).

    What’s the feeling in the room on things like 5-paragraph essays? I use templates of stuff when I program and I do way more of that than writing (and linear regression is the default stats model, dataframes is the default way to think about data, etc.).

    • That’s an interesting question. For some reason, the five-paragraph essay is a hill writing instructors (both for and against) are willing to die (and kill!) on. I use it, and variations on it, regularly in my writing instruction because I think it helps us to focus on the unit of composition (the paragraph). But there’s a great deal of animosity towards it among some writing instructors. I’ve been trying to get to the bottom of it, but still don’t quite understand it.

      • Andrew says:


        I think the fight comes because of a lack of recognition of the difficulty of writing. The 5-paragraph essay sounds like such an easy-to-learn formula . . . so, how come if you teach it to students, they can’t easily do it right away? One way to understand this is through a sports analogy. You could give a kid the 5 steps to throwing a curveball, but it wouldn’t mean that he or she could just step right up and do it. Each of the 5 steps is itself difficult, and it’s difficult to put the steps together. And, to get back to the task of writing, if you focus too much on the mechanics, you can forget the point you were trying to write!

        When I teach communication, I focus on GOALS and AUDIENCE. What is your goal, and who is your audience? I think that’s that’s helpful, but maybe it works more for me than for others. I don’t usually see goals and audience being taught with the 5-paragraph essay. Maybe it would help.

        • Yes, I generally think of the 5-paragraph essay on the model of a 12-bar blues. You definitely still have to have something in your heart to write about. And you have to think of your audience. Just konwing the chords isn’t going to get you very far.

          I completely agree with you that goals and audience should be taught along the with the five-paragraph essay. Students’ assignments shouldn’t bore their teachers.

        • PS. I think many five-paragraph essays (and much school writing in general) is simply written with the wrong audience in mind. Students (and even teachers) think that they are writing for their teachers. We can fix this by reminding them that they are always writing for each other.

          Academic writing is writing for your peers, and students should be told to present their ideas so that classmates can engage with them. To set a reasonably high bar, I tell them to write for the most serious students in their cohort.

          And the goal, of course, is to open your ideas to criticism from those peers, i.e., people who are qualified to tell you that you are wrong. The goal is not to impress (or fool) the teacher.

          • Let’s face it, for far far too many, the real goal is to signal a strong willingness to do whatever bullshit you’re told to do, so you can get a relatively high paying job screwing the public through farcically harmful activities that through the magic of regulatory capture and societal self-delusion can enable you to drive a Porsche and send your kids to private schools that perpetuate it all. Like, say “marketing directory of cancer drugs” for a pharma company, or “mesothelioma lawyer” or “hedge fund manager” or “oncologist”

            • “head of overseas marketing at facebook” or “software developer for Uber” or “YouTube beauty influencer” or “marketing director of flavored vaping products” or “regional marketing manager for Perdue pharmaceuticals Arizona office” or “Head of corporate strategy in new accounts at Wells Fargo” or “mergers and acquisitions manager for Cox cable” or whatever….

  2. Joshua says:

    > > You learn to write for specific purposes and specific audiences

    This reminds me a bit of students I’ve encountered who spend some of their free time reading books they like or writing poetry but who will tell you that they don’t like reading or writing. How does that make sense? Because when they’re talking about not liking reading and writing, they’re talking about those activities when they’re required for their coursework, involving material in which they have no real interest, and their only motivation for the activities is so they can be assessed by someone else for the purpose of giving the a grade.

    My guess is that the student writer of the passage included in this post was writing to complete an assignment, writing on an assigned topic. Students in such a situation frequently just focus their energies on including certain information that they think their teacher was looking to see included. They often have way more writing (and reading) assignments than they can possibly complete with thoroughness. So they write a passage like the one included and never take the time necessary to re-read and revise and to see that what they had written would be indecipherable for others.

    Of course, leaning how to understand when your writing is indecipherable to others is a skill that takes a long time to develop – but it is hard to learn that skill when a student’s priority in writing typically to complete an assignment and show “mastery” of certain material so as to get a grade, more than to actually use writing as a tool to develop better understanding of a topic, and how to communicate that understanding to others clearly.

    Along those lines, part of the problem is that teachers often don’t feel that they’re responsible for helping students to learn how to write, so much as expect students to write as a way to demonstrate subject area mastery. This feeds back into the problem. It’s an shared incentive problem. “Writing across the curriculum” is a solution. Old men (or women) yelling at clouds won’t get the job done.

    • “Students in such a situation frequently just focus their energies on including certain information that they think their teacher was looking to see included.”

      This is definitely often the case. The trick is to get teachers to read the papers on behalf their students’ peers.

      • Joshua says:

        “I love learning but I hate school” captures the problem well.

        To write and revise well, we have to be thinking of some kind of internalized reader. Yes, having a framework where the reader is a knowledgeable peer (rather than an omniscient expert) would likely be an effective structure for improving writing output. But there’s still a problem if the writer’s goal is to demonstrate mastery of a topic (particularly when they don’t really understand the topic well) rather communicate something the writer actually believes or tbinks, and cares about.

        This is the problem when “writing” for a student is confined to, and in reality defined as, an enforced context where the real goal is getting a grade. So many times, working with students on their writing, I’ve discovered that they have no clear idea of what they want to say and no solid understanding of the topic they’re expected to write about. They have no real topic, and no real argument. They’re just know they have to produce a finished product by a certain date. Yhey don’t even think of using the writing process as a vehicle to figure out what they want to say. Hopefully, during the process of discussion and revision they can find a thesis and a supporting argument, but that’s where they really need to get feedback so they can construct the external reader to then internalize in the written piece.

        So often the entire context for the writing task need to be changed, in addition to creating a “real” rather than entirely contrived audience.

  3. Steve says:

    Andrew writes, “So it bothers me that this seems to be presented as a disagreement, a duel of experts. Why can’t we all just get along?”

    But, I think that there is a real disagreement between Zaretsky and Wardle and others over whether writing should be taught by composition instructors or writing should be taught by scholars in their respective fields. To me that is the real debate here. Is “writing” a seperate field of study or part of each field of study. It seems like you agree with the latter and thus with Zaretsky. If writing is being taught apart from a field of study, we should expect poor results. You can only get so far with composition classes. Writing has to be about something, and your writing about that subject matter cannot be clear and lucid unless your knowledge of the subject matter is clear and lucid.

    • jim says:

      I had a composition class that did a great job teaching me how to write. The great thing about composition is that you can write about any topic. The instructor relied heavily on writing “imitations” – the instructor provided a paragraph or several paragraphs of writing that was presumably very good writing. The challenge was to use the exact same sentence structure and syntax but tell a different story – kind of like writing new lyrics for an old tune. The most challenging one we did was from Orwell’s “Down and Out in Paris and London,” the three or four paragraphs starting with:

      “My bad day was when I washed up for the dining-room. I had not to wash the plates, which were done in the kitchen, but only the other crockery, silver, knives and glasses; yet, even so, it meant thirteen hours’ work, and I used between thirty and forty dishcloths during the day. The antiquated methods used in France double the work of washing up.”

      If ppl have some time to kill grab the book and try it. It’s a very challenging project!

  4. jim says:

    “Bazarov’s story is the tragic existence…”

    I agree this is bad writing but the reaction to it is kind of upside down. The student was probably actually trying to express something – something complicated – which is exactly what they’re supposed to be trying to do. It didn’t come out right. Oh well, we’ve all done that. It needs criticism, for sure, but with the idea of actually trying to help the student figure out how to say what they wanted to say.

    Andrew says that “writing” is “hard”. I disagree. *Writing* is *EASY*.

    The difficult thing is expressing complex ideas.

    Maybe that’s the problem with how we teach “writing”. It’s not about just slapping some words together. It’s about expressing complex relationships and ideas. Complex ideas almost never come out right the first time we dump them on the page. We have to sculpt them into the form that others will best understand them. THAT is the hard part.

    • Jeff says:

      +1. My teens have an easier time writing five paragraphs than they do figuring out what the topics of those paragraphs should be.

    • dl says:

      I think one’s reaction to that passage may have something to do with where one teaches and what student writing one reads. For those at elite institutions the reaction is (rightful) horror. For those of us at marginal places, the reaction is more like, “at least s/he tried to relay some kind of an original thought–that’s refreshing.”

      • Maybe but remember this is a senior majoring in english and journalism. It’d be one thing if it’s a first, second, or maybe even first semester third year student. But graduating this person with a degree in english and journalism is probably a crime. I feel like this shows that the university has utterly failed to do its job.

        • Branford Marsalis had some tough love for his students a while back along these lines. Sadly, we don’t just pass these students. We give them Bs and better.

          • My man Branford. I remember first becoming aware of who he was while watching Bring On The Night which is a documentary about Stings first post Police project. Dude can walk the walk. He’s a real motherf****r (you’ll have to watch the documentary to understand why that’s a compliment)

            • Yes, that’s a great doc. (And I remember the scene you’re alluding to.) I was really suprised to hear him talk that way about his students. I would have thought that exactly his students were eager to work and learn. I know I would be all humility and attention before the master.

        • Chris Wilson says:

          All of us who teach at R1’s encounter terrible writing skills routinely these days. Of course, there’s always a distribution, and some students are going to do just fine at writing assignments, but based on my conversations with older faculty there has been a palpable decline in ability over the past 10-15 years.
          Naively, one would think that university’s care about this. But they don’t really. That’s why the problem isn’t getting fixed! Here are two key problems:
          1. At many institutions, student teaching evaluations are the primary metric of success in teaching. This is astonishing and preposterous. It flies in the face of basically all published literature one can find about how to assess demonstrable *efficacy*, but it all makes sense in light of…
          2. Universities are competing with each other to attract and retain students *AND TO MAXIMIZE THEIR 4-YEAR GRADUATION RATE*. Teaching faculty are under pressure to keep students happy and progressing through their degrees in a timely manner. Thus, metrics of teaching success that devolve to ‘customer service satisfaction’ are entirely rational.
          So, lots of teaching faculty just keep passing the buck, because there’s really nothing but a lot more work and potential for headache if you dig in and try to cut against the grain on what would seem like just doing your core function!

          • This was my impression and what made me realize I could never continue in academia. I’m the kind of guy who would tilt at windmills until I was just shoved out unceremoniously by some two bit administrator.

            Branford says as much. The winkers all gang up and beat up those who might expose the farce.

            Sadly it’s not just in academia. Business is also dominated by bullshit. Look at say Tesla, a company that makes 100% of it’s profit from selling government carbon credits and Bitcoin…

            • It’s probably naive, but I sometimes think that all this would change if we just made As and Bs a scarce resource and made students compete for them. Competence is never absolute. It’s always relative to a cohort. If students were told this, they might work harder for their Bs. This is in turn would make them better writers.

              • dl says:

                Indiana University used to but grade distributions for each class/section on students’ transcript. Completely reasonable, but I don’t think the practice is at all widespread.

              • somebody says:

                In my experience, this is fine for lower level, tougher classes with triple digit kid counts and fails with smaller cohorts or lower intrinsic course difficulty. In the latter cases, grade differentiation can become a matter of errors in minutiae or random whims of a grader.

              • Andrew Wilson says:

                I agree with somebody here. Working harder for grades might sound good in theory. In practice, it seems to reward: working the TAs for extra points (confusing questions, misunderstood answers, prof said something else in class, that smudge meant something else, etc.). This can be a big deal when even 1 extra point on say a final exam or paper that is worth 40-50% of final grade might be the difference between a B and an A.

                Also, group work – was it self chosen or random assignment? Some groups click well together, others seems to never quite be on the same page together, and it shows, particularly if there is a final presentation.

                Also previous knowledge. Did you learn about countability four weeks ago for the first time? These days a motivated student might find lots of previously esoteric-ish knowledge online that really wasn’t there just a few years ago. So, maybe less of a big deal today, but at least previously back channel knowledge such as having a professor as a parent, or having an older sibling or close friend take the same class might have been a big advantage in knowing how things work and what to expect and study up for rather than coming into a class “cold”.

          • Joshua says:

            > This is astonishing and preposterous…. are under pressure to keep students happy and progressing through their degrees in a timely manner.


            Sure, if a teacher gets good evaluations merely by making a course easy or telling good jokes then it’s astonishing and preposterous. But my guess is there’s probably a not insignificant correlation between effective teachers (measured by students’ learning outcomes) and evaluation scores.

            Additionally, there’s going to be, in average, an positive association in the other direction between students’ outcomes and their satisfaction with the product. In the whole, happy students (satisfied “customers”) learn better.

            There’s no reason that I can see to assume that students who learn how to write better won’t be happier and more satisfied, so there’s nothing mutually exclusive between the “consumer” model and better learning outcomes.

            I couldn’t weigh in on the level of students’ writing abilities over time, as I think it’s a very complicated assessment and certainly not one that should be measured by teachers’ anecdotes collected from convenience sampling.

            But I’d say that whether or not there’s been a shift towards teachers just passing students along whether they’re poor writers or not, that aspect isn’t likely to explain a theoretical reduction in students’ writing abilities. Sure, it’s possible that there’s been a deterioration because teachers in general feel less responsibility to ensure that students write well. But I doubt that’s happened. What might lead to a change in students’ writing abilities is more likely,imo,

            • Joshua says:


              …more likely, imo, whether or not there’s been an overall improvement or deterioration in teachers’ ability to help students write better. My guess is that if there’s been a change there, it would be for the better.

            • Chris Wilson says:

              Nothing mutually exclusive != the one is a good metric for the other. I’m guessing you’re not teaching faculty :) And responding to both you and Jim, nobody is saying that student self perceptions of courses shouldn’t matter at all. But this has been studied and SETs don’t correlate with efficacy in general, and there are numerous instances where optimizing for one is at odds with optimizing for the other. Everybody in higher education knows this at some level, but the customer service model – borrowed from private sector in parallel with decline in public funding and increased competition for the ‘experiences and amenities of college’ – gets in the way.

              • jim says:

                “nobody is saying that student self perceptions of courses shouldn’t matter at all.”

                Sure. I agree. They should be a component of teaching evals, to the extent they reveal serious problems in instruction.

              • Joshua says:

                Chris –

                So you heoown to have a link regarding the associations between student evaluations and educational outcomes?

                My main problem with student evaluations being used as a way to rate student outcomes is that they’re sometimes used devoid of relevant context e.g., how difficult or popular (/unpopular) is particular course material relative to other courses.

                > but the customer service model – borrowed from private sector in parallel with decline in public funding and increased competition for the ‘experiences and amenities of college’ – gets in the way.

                Top late to close the barn door there. Nothing is going to change the expectation that a student is a customer who is looking for customer satisfaction. I might differ with you as to the relative merits of that evaluative paradigm change over time. Again, I believe there should never be a zero sum relationship between academics’ evaluation the quality of a program and students’ evaluation of the quality. I’d further argue that I’ve many times seen academics utilize evaluative criteria which tilt towards one segment of the spectrum of the students largely to the exclusion of other segments. Such a model is necessarily unsustainable except if the goal is to sort students (in ways that perpetuate existing social/class status). I don’t think there’s any particular reason that optimizing for the one set of metrics NECESSARILY is at odds with optimizing for the other set.

                > , but the customer model…gets in the way.

                That stokes me as a kind of a tautology. I’m not defending the customer service model per se, but “gets in the way” assumes one set of goals over another set of goals. I could argue that an evaluation based on academics’ view – without the input of views of a cross-section students – has in the past often gotten in the way (of serving the needs of the entire student body).

              • Joshua says:

                jim –

                > Sure. I agree. They should be a component of teaching evals, to the extent they reveal serious problems in instruction.

                Personally, I always viewed student evals as useful information, to be placed fully in the context details such as the course material and the specifics of the student who is giving the evaluation – even as I don’t think they should be used as a single source method for evaluating my performance as a teacher.

                I used to hand out my own course evaluations mid-term and at the end of the term, to get feedback from students to help me to evaluate my own instruction. A “low” score across many students in a particular area, for example like “gives encouraging feedback regularly” could be very useful to see. I would offer the students the opportunity to put their name on the evaluations so help me gain context for the feedback and most students would put on their names. I never exactly advertised what I was doing and no one intervened but I doubt that would fly in today’s environment in most educational settings – because of concerns from students that negative feedback would engender “punishment” in the form of poor grades – and I would think most school administrations these days wouldn’t allow that practice.

              • Joshua says:

                Goggling ’round a bit…this article coincides with my view pretty well.


              • jim says:

                Joshua said: “Personally, I always viewed student evals as useful information”

                Sure that’s a legit use – for the prof/instructor to use them directly. I never found them much use in that regard. I always had a pretty good idea of what I didn’t do well. The evals just confirmed that. Personally I liked the percentile rankings to see how I compared to other instructors.

            • My impression is that the research does show a fairly strong correlation… The more a teacher does to prepare the students for future classes so that those students get good grades in later classes, the LOWER the student evals.

              So promotion by high student evals basically rapidly reduces educational capacity of the institution making the institution ever more of a signalling organization and ever less of an educational institution. My impression is the inflection point happened around the early 2000s so that organizations today are in general a joke at undergrad level. It’s certainly true where I did my PhD at USC.

              Of course there’s a distribution, it’s still the case there are a few very good students anywhere, but… Also this


              • jim says:

                “The more a teacher does to prepare the students for future classes so that those students get good grades in later classes, the LOWER the student evals.”

                This might be true in general but IME students do give good evaluations for challenging courses. I’m not sure what the secret formula is for that but I think a lot depends on whether students feel that the instructor helps them to succeed or not.

          • Jim says:

            “…This is astonishing and preposterous.”

            Thank you. Yes, absolutely, soon the children will be directing the parents if things keep going the way they have been.

      • jim says:

        “I think one’s reaction to that passage may have something to do with where one teaches and what student writing one reads. “

        I don’t. It’s a few sentences. Hardly enough to judge a student on, and hardly a reflection of being low-born. Seriously.

    • Dzhaughn says:

      Hold on there. There is no sin in writing badly. But it is a sin to ask someone else to take such writing seriously.

  5. Phil says:

    I have a theory about academic writing, supported by observation and evidence (which is to say, by anecdote) but very far from proven: starting in high school or even earlier, students feel ashamed about writing simple declarative sentences. Perhaps they are even down-graded for writing them. They think they’re supposed to write complicated sentences that connect many ideas together, and to do so in a way that sounds sophisticated. Some of those students go on to take college literature classes or writing classes, where (if they’re lucky) they learn that it’s OK after all to write a sentence like “Mother died today.” But others continue with the belief that they’ll sound dumb if they write simply and clearly.

    Knut Schmidt-Nielsen, a great animal physiologist who was also a great scientific writer, always tried to get his students to write simply. When he edited a journal he didn’t just do the usual journal editing — send a manuscript around to reviewers and send their comments to the authors — he actually blue-pencilled manuscripts himself. And he really, really pushed for clarity and brevity. As he says in his autobiography, he would take a sentence like “Desert-dwelling mammals, though well adapted to life in arid environments, nevertheless show signs of distress when deprived of moisture for long periods” and change it to “Even camels get thirsty.” (I made up that example two decades ago, when I couldn’t remember Knut’s actual example, and I’ve never forgotten it). When Andrew and I used to work on papers together, we would sometimes find ourselves tangled in a skein of verbiage; sometimes one or the other of us would say ‘even camels get thirsty’ to remind us of what we were trying to achieve.

    To summarize: I think one common reason for people to write badly is that they think their ideas are too simple to pass muster with their audience, and that they can, and perhaps must, try to hide this by using hifalutin language.

    • Steve says:

      I liked, “tangled in a skein of verbiage”, but it is in tension with your point about simple sentences, and points to the reason writing is hard. Too many simple sentences and the writing gets boring. A few tangled skeins of verbiage can make a piece of prose pop. There is a trade-off somewhere. A writer must keep the reader’s interest and make the ideas clear.

      • jim says:

        Steve said ‘I liked, “tangled in a skein of verbiage”, ‘

        Ha, yeah, good point, I liked that too. Nice one there, Phil!

        But I don’t think I agree with your point about simple sentences being *only* less interesting to read. IMO they serve an important function in expression. They express complex relationships more clearly and succinctly than an analogous group of simple sentences.

        • Steve says:

          I agree. My point was that variety makes writing interesting. Phil’s turn of phrase was interesting, but he could have said it with simpler language, without the metaphor. So, simple sentences good, but too much of a good thing can be bad.

    • jim says:


      I agree your basic premise – that ppl try to hide simple ideas with complex language – is true, but I think for different but related reason. It’s much easier to use hifalutin language than to produce a important work. It’s not fear of sounding simple; it’s a desire to lord purported expertise over others and thereby gain from it. Overall, the use of hifalutin language is just one part of the Expert Self Promotion package.

      Actually that’s probably part of the problem in the “Bazarov’s story…” sentence.

      My take on “Even Camels get thirsty”: It’s useful as witty illustration of undue complexity. But it’s a poor edit. The proposed sentence should be nixed. Even a child knows that all organisms need water. So now you can take the metaphor a step further :)

    • Jeff says:

      Agree with this. Trying to sound sophisticated (or to hit a word or page target) leads to some bad habits in high school that must be unlearned. And I agree with Steve, too, but there’s a difference between an artful tangle and a Gordian knot.

      • TO says:

        It doesn’t seem like people condemning the opening passage would like Shakespeare’s writing very much. There are rules of writing and there is the art of writing. Although they are not mutually exclusive, the latter requires imagination; the ability to see harmony in a glaring contradiction. I guess that kind of writing is not for everyone’s consumption.

  6. Andrew Wilson says:

    I was introduced to On Writing Well by William Zinsser and The Elements of Style by Strunk and White in college. I don’t specifically remember if these were assigned for a class (they might have been) or if I just bought them while browsing in the bookstore.

    I don’t recall the details of either, but I think the main gist of them was to write simply and clearly.

  7. Jonathan (another one) says:

    I don’t write fiction (not intentionally!) so I have always found it helpful to think of writing just as talking to your audience and telling them what you want to tell them. So my writing sounds like my talking which makes it really easy to write, since I have little trouble talking. I was Bill Zinsser’s friend for 40 years, and Andrew Wilson sums up his theory well: write simply and cleanly. Also, talk simply and cleanly.

    That is just step 1 in writing — it’s followed by revision, but I think of revision in the way I think of things I *should* have said instead of what I *did* say… not some dramatic change of tone or increase in pseudo-profundity. But when the first draft is natural, revision is easier… (It still ain’t easy.)

    If the student above were asked to explain Fathers and Sons, I can’t imagine he’d *say* anything like what he *wrote* to *anyone.*

  8. rm bloom says:

    Writing well comes from *reading*. When they (used to) say “read the classics” — that was the trick. There was no other trick about it. It is no different than playing the damn piano. You’ve got to get the gist of what it’s supposed to sound like and why anyone would bother taking the trouble to do it.

  9. Rahul says:

    My work requires me to read a lot of technical trade journals along with scientific journals. The difference in the quality of writing is huge. Trade journals do exceedingly well at clarity, persuasion and just general quality of prose.

    The difference is striking. Just pick up something like a mon peer reviewed engineering magazine.

    So whether on purpose or not academics do write badly.

  10. Given the topic of students and writing, I can’t resist sharing this sentence from an email sent today by one of my university administrators:

    “How do we incentivize integrating student success definition?”

    The rest of the email isn’t much better.

  11. Jukka says:

    Well, there are students and teachers; some of the latter have won prizes in the Bad Writing Contest arranged by the Philosophy and Literature journal…

  12. jrkrideau says:

    The problem is that we do not teach Latin any more.

    I am being a bit facetious here, and I am not an academic so this just comes from random impressions, but I get the impression that students lack a basic understanding of sentence structure. Without that, it is difficult to build a coherent sentence beyond a simple 10 word declarative sentence. It is difficult to write well when all you can do is write in point form. The last sentence in Zaretsky’s example seems to to a near-perfect example of this.

    If a student does not have a command of the basic building blocks of writing it may be a bit much to expect a coherent paragraph. Well, even a coherent sentence.

    By the way, what is a “5-paragraph essay”? Way back in the Middle Ages, when I was in school, we did not have composition classes though a few engineering friends did get caught in a “writing” course.

    • Ben says:

      I learned about five paragraph essays in grade school. It’s a simplified writing tool that gets used a lot in grade school. The structure is three parts, an introduction which introduces your three main points, a body which expounds on those things, and a conclusion that does another summary.

      The introduction shouldn’t be that long. All it needs to do it outline the point of the essay and call out the three points.

      The body is where you put all the delicious content. I remember that often times we’d have to write 5-paragraph essays and there’d also be sentence requirements so that you didn’t just do one sentence paragraphs (my guess is this is a rule rather than exception in grade school 5-paragraph essays).

      The conclusion ostensibly summarizes everything you’ve said before. I guess the idea is similar to the sandwich talking point thing — like introduce, explain, and then just do another reminder introducing at the end or whatever.

      And that’s the 5-paragraph essay. Defining something like this by my memory of it from grade school is kinda sketchy. Like there’s probably more uses for a 5-paragraph essay than I’m saying here, and there’s probably more variation on the rules than I’m saying as well, but hopefully this gives you an idea.

    • Martha (Smith) says:

      “The problem is that we do not teach Latin any more.”

      When I was a freshman at the University of Michigan several decades ago, students had to take two semesters of Freshman Composition. But if a student got a good enough grade in first semester composition, they didn’t have to take second semester freshman composition. A friend who was a semester ahead of me and also a math major (in the honors math sequence) said that the honors math majors always got excused from second semester Freshman Composition. So

  13. somebody says:

    Having been in grade school not too long ago, I’ll throw in my two cents on why student writing is moving in the wrong direction. They’re being aggressively taught to write poorly. Bad writing is what teachers ask for.

    Good writing starts with what you’re trying to say. If froofy adjectives should be there, it should be to convey a feeling to the reader. If complex syntax should be there, it should be to relate a complex idea by a natural structure. Everything with its purpose. Purpose is also completely absent from standardized grading rubrics.

    Grading rubrics are of the form

    *Introduction starts from a broad statement of cultural significance and funnels down to the thesis
    *Includes at least 2 references to an approved list of literature
    *Body is separated into distinct paragraphs, at least one of which appeals primarily to an argument from pathos and at least one of which appeals primarily to an argument from logos
    *Student demonstrates a grasp of compound sentences
    *Student makes use of parallelism in body paragraph topic or closing sentences

    I’m not generally against standardized tests, but long form writing is the one area where such exams are directly antithetical to real education. A standard rubric cannot foresee the purpose of a student’s essay even with a prompt, and so cannot assess purposefulness. As such, it’s actually impossible to write an essay that reads well, scores well, and is original simultaneously in grade school. Different ideas demands different forms; the two options for getting the form you need are to either avoid original ideas entirely and tenuously retrofit an essay to a prompt, since the subject of the writing is essentially ungraded, or to awkwardly reshape the natural structure of a work into what’s desired.

    The best teacher I had asked point blank that we ignore his SAT writing advice when actually writing anything else. Unfortunately, by the time students reach undergrad, their first year they reflexively reach for introductory sentences like “for all of human history, mankind has grappled with learning to write.” Many in technical majors do little enough writing, or else graders care little enough that they never get comfortable just saying what they want to say.

    • “…it’s actually impossible to write an essay that reads well, scores well, and is original…”

      Originality is probably too much to ask in any case, but I think “reads well” should be part of the rubric. It’s always something that has puzzled me about how the 5-paragraph essay is taught (and denounced, actually). The assumption seems to be that you have a give a student a good grade if they check the boxes, even with a clunky, boring text.

      It’s like a chef’s apprentice getting praise just for putting the right ingredients in the dish. Whatever happened to actually tasting it?

      The reason I suggest (and teach) a five-paragraph essay is that if you tell students to write 500-1000 words about this week’s readings, many of them won’t know what to do. Telling them to write an essay — with a beginning, middle, and end — helps a little. And getting a little more specific about the introduction, body, and conclusion helps a little more. They can now approach the problem as one of the composition and arrangement of their ideas. They can make some decisions.

      But at the end of the day their essay has to work. The grade should reflect whether or not it does. Nabokov talked about “The great fraternity of C-minus, backbone of the nation, scribbling on.” Today, they’re unfortunately probably getting A-s and B+s because we don’t have the heart to tell them that their essays aren’t any good, if they slavishly followed our “instructions”.

      • somebody says:

        I’m certainly not against the five paragraph essay. Learning to work within constraints is crucial and, in fact, a mother of originality. But the fact of the state of affairs is that this

        > The assumption seems to be that you have a give a student a good grade if they check the boxes, even with a clunky, boring text.

        is the simple fact of the matter, at least when it comes to the standardized tests. Worse still, some teachers with less forceful personalities resort to using rubrics in non-standardized assignments just to pre-empt complaints. This way of teaching writing is simply the path of least resistance. So long as your kids meet state or national standards, you get no pressure from administrative politics, and so long as your criteria are well defined, there’s no room for anyone to argue with you. The only teachers I had that did anything different had another job—teaching was a side gig they did for money.

        Ben above wrote a fine five paragraph essay.
        From a grade school perspective, it would be marked down for

        * One sentence paragraph
        * No clear topic statement in body paragraphs
        * conclusion does not begin by summarizing arguments
        * Should not use the words sketchy or whatever under any circumstances

        Again, some of these rules are fine some of the time, but teaching kids nothing but five paragraph essays with nigh-identical rubrics for 12 years is simply asking for bad writers who are incapable of simply saying what they want to say. It felt like all my writing classes were leading up to my SAT essay (which I think they got rid of), the dominant strategy for which turned out to be prewriting an essay and memorizing it or putting it in your graphing calculator. Instead of form following content, it’s all form, ignore content altogether.

        • somebody says:

          side gig they did for money
          side gig they did for passion

        • Ben says:

          > it would be marked down for

          Thank you for taking the time to grade me, I enjoyed the review :D

          > conclusion does not begin by summarizing arguments

          This was the paragraph I had the most trouble with. I ramble a lot, and so I just added a paragraph of rambling at the end.

          But I also wouldn’t mind going to a four paragraph essay. Why summarize the other paragraphs? They’re already there! If there’s any explaining to do, it should go in the body, and if there’s any outlining to do, it should go in the intro.

          The conclusion as a summary seems like it makes the assumption that someone is reading stuff in order and only reading stuff once, which seems like a bad assumption.

      • Ben says:

        > The assumption seems to be that you have a give a student a good grade if they check the boxes

        > if you tell students to write 500-1000 words about this week’s readings, many of them won’t know what to do

        Hmm, well, if communication is the goal, then a checklist is good, and I think it’s more important than readability. Like, if you can tell me that you want to know X, Y, and Z and anything vaguely related to those things, then I can make sure the content is there.

        Readability seems like a second order thing. If the goal is communicating X, Y, and Z, and if there’s someone else on the other end of the line, then they can do a little decoding to get that info out.

        Most things I write down are for a specific set of people though (like maybe 2 or 3?) so getting a specification is easier than in other situations (if you were writing a news article or whatever).

        • “…if communication is the goal…”

          This is the interesting twist in academic writing (the sort of writing students and scholars do). Communication isn’t actually the goal. The goal is to open our ideas to the criticism of people who are qualified to tell us we are wrong. It feels a bit counter-intuitive at first, perhaps, but clearly that’s whole point of the peer-reviewed literature.

          • > The goal is to open our ideas to the criticism of people who are qualified to tell us we are wrong.

            Though qualified may need to be qualified to not be overly restrictive – From my favorite philosopher [“Adult conversations” in science subscribe to] “the idea that science is a communal enterprise, and one that should involve people with different backgrounds, inclinations, and talents, so that the greatest variety of angles is explored. … [CS] Peirce defines the private self not in terms of anything exquisite or divine, but in terms of error and ignorance. What makes our private selves unique is that we differ from others in that we are wrong about different things and that we are ignorant about different things. Hence, for Peirce, scientific inquiry—which seeks to alleviate error and ignorance—is in essence a process of self-effacement.” [Peirce: A Guide for the Perplexed 2013, Bold not in the original].

  14. “The problem with that passage was not that the student didn’t appeal to Zaretsky’s sensibilities; the problem is that it’s garbled and close to meaningless.”

    The problem here is that the student did not know how to read (if they did read it) what they wrote and then edit it. I’ve seen a lot of student writing like that. The student is trying to express something in their head but they don’t yet have the inventory of written constructions or the fluency to deploy it. They are almost literally stuttering through writing. They haven’t read enough of that style of writing to be able to develop a filter. The problem for students like this is that much of the writing instruction they’ve received did not focus on developing the fluency needed to write quickly enough so that they can come back to what they wrote and edit coherence into it on the fly. Writing in an academic way is sort of like trying to write a poem in a foreign language. They don’t have the rhythms let alone the vocabulary and mastery of conventions for something like a rhyme scheme.

    The book that I find expresses is that best is from the often rightfully much-maligned Stanley Fish on “How to write a sentence: And how to read one”. I tried to express some of it in

    But an even bigger problem is that we overestimate the value of writing in the first place. You can have a successful high education system where students don’t write almost at all and still produce prolific writers. All the things people say about the usefulness of writing for helping structure thinking and other benefits are right. But as that paragraph fragment shows, that student had some thoughts but they didn’t transfer to the written form. Some students simply need a lot more help to do this and generic writing programs often don’t help them because they assume a level of underlying skill they don’t have. So for that student writing is like the kind of reading one does when dumbly staring at a page of text. Meaningless. They would have been better off doing something else.

    • And yet, they will graduate with a 3.4 GPA and an ENGLISH major!

      • Dominik Lukes (@techczech) says:

        Well, I’ve worked with many comp sci majors who can’t write useful programs and many an MBA has run a business into a ground. At least, an English major who is bad at writing doesn’t cause that much real harm. Some of them have even written useful software.

        • I mean, there we are…

          “Incompetent English Major with B+ average seeks well paying job, promise I won’t do nearly as much harm to the world or your company as my average classmate from business or CS dept.”

        • Martha (Smith) says:

          My nephew’s wife was (I forget which) either an English major and a computer science minor, or vice versa. As a senior in college, she had an internship with a small publishing company that was getting more into online publishing. She did well, so they offered her a full-time job, and she has been working there for over 15 years now — doing things ranging from editing technical writing to helping the company change from a physical to a virtual workplace.

  15. Min says:

    FWIW, let me add my 2p.

    When I was in the 9th grade, my English teacher criticized my writing as being weak. I asked her why and she really could not explain her feeling. As a result I read everything about writing in the local library. Twain and Flesch strongly influenced me. In college also read Poe and Pound on writing. A few statements stuck with me. Twain said something like, “It is the precise word that you want, not its first cousin.” One of them said, “Not that the reader may understand, but that the reader must understand.”

    Once I was with a group of students who had breakfast with Auden. He told us that the young writer should play with words.

    Tho audience U wrote my papers for in college was the reader who was a grad student up at 2:00 a.m., drinking coffee to stay awake. That served me well. :)

    Later I also read Orwell, who also gives good advice.

  16. Adam says:

    I think there are two main reasons we students write poorly:

    1) Writing IS hard
    2) In many fields, it is hard to distinguish genuine knowledge/craft from flattery

    I don’t think there’s much use in debating the first point. To me, there’s more than enough research showing that we humans don’t think in fully formed ideas and grammatically correct sentences, and so writing isn’t just a simple translation exercise. However, I really don’t care to squabble over this point – if someone wants to argue writing is easy, I’m happy to just agree to disagree.

    The second point is much more important. I borrowed the distinction (“craft” vs “flattery”) from Plato. I’d much rather pick a different source, to not come off as snooty, but I don’t think ideas are communicated as clearly anywhere else. In short, in Gorgias, Socrates argues that the skills people learn can be classified as either “crafts” or “flatteries”. When someone learns a craft, they become able to genuinely help other people and create things that are useful/valuable. On the other hand, when someone learns a flattery, they become skilled only at putting on the appearance of doing something useful/valuable.

    The example Socrates gives is cooking vs. understanding diet and nutrition. If you go to a restaurant with good chef and eat a tasty meal, your body will send reward signals to your brain that will make you feel like you’re doing something good for yourself. However, if you keep going to that restaurant every day, then over the the long run your physical health will deteriorate. On the other hand, if you go to a dietician, he might tell you to eat healthy food & exercise, both of which aren’t necessarily going to feel fun. If you stick to that regime though, you will become healthier, and most likely happier.

    Now, my point is that students in many disciplines learn writing as flattery. If you get assigned a 3,000 word essay, how often are you going to have a novel, nuanced, and well-informed take on the assigned topic? Definitely less than 100% of the time. The writer is lucky if he/she has one or two semi-original ideas that are at least mildly interesting. So what a lot of students choose to do, and what a lot of professors encourage, is to coat the anemic content in flowery and verbose language, to put on the appearance that there’s more than would otherwise seem. It’s my unconfirmed hypothesis that people get so caught up in this that they even struggle to formulate thoughts clearly and concisely in their own head, not just on paper. It has definitely been my experience that learning to write clearer helped me to learn think clearer as well. Either way, I think there’s plenty of evidence of various flatteries all across the board in academia, and poor writing is just one of the most visible ones.

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