The art of English writing

Urgent intervention of teachers, at school and college/university lev-els, is needed to incul-cate good writing skills.

Only a few schools and colleges in the country actually teach their students the art of writing the English language. Yet, these educational institutions expect their students to write ‘good’ descriptive answers, especially in the humanities and social sciences. Today, college and university students suffer from poor writing skills because schools choose to ignore their responsibility to train students in the art of writing.

Writing often becomes a traumatic experience for students due to lack of practice. True, everyone is not a born writer, but this is a skill that can be acquired through writing. Any skill, over time, erodes if not put to use, which applies equally to writing too. Moreover, computers are yet to replace final assessment exams, which are still handwritten. The fact that students are more comfortable with typing into computers, than writing in long hand, makes the three-hour exam an ordeal as they have to over-exert their hand muscles to write.

Unlike in Western countries, where reading and writing go hand in hand and are equally important, our education system tolerates all sorts of ‘violations’ to the written format. With the advent of mobiles, the use of SMS language has prolifically crept into academic writings. Besides inappropriate vocabulary, several students liberally use abbreviations that do not necessarily convey their tho-ughts, adequately or correctly.

In today’s ‘gizmo-obsessed’ age, everything is available in ‘compact’ form which makes our lives easier and simpler. The click of a button provides immense information, makes global transactions possible, helps connect with people from different geographies and what not, all seated inside our home.

Unfortunately, this online information overload also breeds a ‘copy-paste’ generation. In the process, good writing skills get butchered brutally amongst the student community. This makes teaching English language, specifically writing skills, that much more of a challenge. Only a structured and organised piece of writing reflects clarity of thought that the writer has developed, to ensure coherence and logical flow.

The 20th century Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein aptly stated that “the limits of your language are the limits of your world.” Language is a means to express ones’ thoughts and ideas clearly and effectively. The ‘compact generation’ cannot afford to reduce the art of writing to a ‘capsule format’.

The dependence on power point style of presentations lead to its overuse and wean students away from effective note-taking. In fact, writing most often gets reduced to bullet points and all etiquette of writing – to maintain a margin or a proper paragraph format – are blatantly flouted. What is even more appalling is that most often, students are not even conscious about these oversights.

Another shocking fact is that students who are weak in writing skills would have actually scored over 80% in their high school Board exams. The requirement to read, research and expand the horizon of knowledge gets drowned in the whirlpool of ‘instant’ information available. As reading habits deteriorate, it inevitably impacts writing skills too.
Today, English has proved to be a global language and a medium that connects all academic and professional disciplines. It is necessary to inculcate good writing skills in students and it is the responsibility of all subject teachers and not English teachers alone.

Any error in the use of language, even in history, geography, economics or science assignments cannot be ignored by these subject teachers. It has to be a shared responsibility. The need to develop sharp and strong writing skills has to be emphasised and practiced at the school level itself. The habit of ‘generous’ marking for shoddy writing, should cease.

‘Ethical’ writing

Stress has to be laid on the importance of ‘ethical’ writing which is integral to research and independent writing. This implies the need to refrain from mindless acceptance of the printed word and the tendency to articulate it as one’s own thoughts. Good academic writing should be incorporated into the curriculum and be made one of the criteria for students’ evaluation, irrespective of their discipline.

Writing is an art that needs to be nurtured through use, and maintained in all its purity. To mess with this art, amounts to a ‘criminal offence’. According to the renowned 16th century essayist Francis Bacon, “Reading maketh a full man; Conference a ready man; and writing an exact man”. In this technology driven ‘compact’ world, there are no short cuts devised yet, to master the art of writing.

If words have to spontaneously overflow in a lucid and an effective manner, it is necessary to constantly dabble with them. In turn, this makes it imperative, to develop a strong reading habit too. While reading by itself may not make one a good writer, it certainly would be the first step to doing so. 

It is indeed a daunting task to ensure that the English language is free from corruption as we live in an age driven by media and technology. Urgent intervention of teachers, both at the school and college/university levels, is necessary to inculcate good writing skills in the student community. The American writer, Bill Wheeler rightly points out “good writing is clear thinking made visible.”

(The writer is an Associate Professor who teaches English at School of Law, Christ University, Bengaluru)

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