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December 16, 2013

"Why Can't They Speak and Write Clearly?"

George Leef:

Many students enter college with amazingly poor writing ability, owing to the fact that no one paid much attention to their writing while they were in their K-12 years. Once I had a student come to my office with her test in hand, a test on which she had scored very poorly on all three of the essay questions. “But I never had to write essay answers before,” she complained. Throughout her previous years of schooling, she had taken almost nothing but true-false and multiple-choice tests.

Sounds familiar. I'd just add one tidbit to George's fine article. I found that most students were extremely sensitive to constructive criticism of their writing. As Deirdre McCloskey pointed out years ago, if an instructor criticizes a student's math or economics they won't like it, but most of them will reluctantly acknowledge that that's why they're in college: to improve their skills. But students react to criticism of their writing, Ms. McCloskey wrote, "the way they react to hostile remarks about their weight." (I think she also claimed they took writing criticism similarly to saying they had bad body odor, but I can't locate that.)

Needless to say, this attitude greatly complicates the instructor's attempts to improve their writing. 


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Yeah, this is why I have a reputation as a tough professor. I have high standards for writing and I use them. On average students hate that. OTOH, I've had many students thank me later, so I keep at it. I have email submission and I insert corrections and editing in the reddest color I can use.

I tell my students they don't get graded down for poor writing skills but they do get graded down for their writing not being easy to understand. I have a list of 'rules' for writing in my class, about 25 of them,and they're all aimed at making the writing more clear.

Students seem to especially hate the ones about short sentences [I don't like more than 15 words] and short paragraphs [3-4 sentences per paragraph], and not using either colons or semi-colons. Tough.


Oh. And I tell them this truth. If you write well, people probably think you're smarter than you are. If you don't write well they probably think you're dumber than you are. Pick one.

Ted Craig

One reason I've found my high school senior can't write well is she doesn't know what she's talking about. It's hard to write an argumentative essay when you have no idea what you are arguing for or against because you didn't bother to do the assigned reading. Writing is merely the transmission of ideas and that's where the trouble truly begins.


@JorgXMckie: You say you have 25 rules, "all aimed at making the writing more clear." Yet the three you mention are arbitrary and have no bearing on clarity. You've got me wondering what your other 22 rules are like.

Ted Craig


Short sentences and paragraphs create clarity. That's why the rule of thumb in journalism is no sentences longer than 25 words and no paragraphs exceeding two sentences.


>Short sentences and paragraphs create clarity.

Not at all. I can easily produce sentences of 10 words that are as clear as Georgia mud, and sentences of 50 words that are models of clarity. I can produce paragraphs of three sentences that are a jumble of nonsense, and paragraphs of 10 sentences that are models of coherence.

Clarity is not determined by length. If you think it is, you don't understand the subject you claim to teach. Clarity is a product, primarily, of structure. To teach students otherwise is to shortchange their education in writing.

Ted Craig


I don't care what you can do. These rules exist as blankets that cover a wide range of writing skills. I also don't care to continue arguing with you, so I leave you with this: do a search for the Flesch-Kincaid and Gunning fog scales.


And you in return do a search for books by Joseph Williams and George Gopen. They will explain to you why those fog scales don't work.


FOOTNOTE, and then I'm done with this topic.

For Jorg the science is obviously settled. For others whose minds are open -- especially if you teach writing -- you might find these useful:

What's Wrong with Readability Formulas?

Why Readability Formulas Fail

The Place of Readability Formulas

Readability Formulas May Be Dangerous to Your Textbooks

Jack PQ

Other things equal, short sentences and short paragraphs improve clarity, but they are neither necessary nor sufficient. You are debating "other things equal." Of course, to simply tell kids to write short sentences and paragraphs and end it at that will not likely lead to success. But it is a good starting point.

We are talking about novice writers. Very good and experienced writers can do as they please.

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