Since ancient times, imitation has been the best teacher of quality communication, whether speech-making, preaching, negotiating, or any kind of writing. We read for many reasons; to learn what we do not know, to improve our character, to transcend time and place, even to escape reality. But no nobler purpose exists for reading masterfully written, high quality literature, than as a model for writing.
In a former life, I served as Honors Director for a Christian university. The capstone project and final requirement for graduation was the Honors Thesis. This paper was to be the culmination of a year’s research and writing, overseen by a committee of three faculty, one of whom served as primary advisor. I served as an additional reader for all theses, and I read some very interesting papers on topics outside my own discipline. However, I often found myself wondering if the writing was really honors quality.
On one occasion, I read a thesis that was totally incomprehensible. Upon consulting the faculty advisor, I discovered that he too found the paper unsatisfactory, but because of his junior status he was reticent to challenge the quality of the paper, since this student was well thought of by other members of the department.
When I asked the student to show me some examples of other papers he had written over the years, I found them all to be beautifully “processed” on high quality paper, with attractive fonts and formatting. Each paper bore a single red “A” or “A+” with no other marks or comments. I concluded that over his college career, no one had actually read this student’s writing. Now I had the unenviable responsibility of rejecting his thesis as substandard, denying his graduation from the program—an awful experience for both of us.
Why had this student received so little help with his writing in college, not to mention his previous high school and earlier learning experiences? My conclusion, from 25 years in K-12 and college education is simple and stark: writing is the most difficult thing to teach and, as an educational culture, we have forgotten how to do it.
While visiting my parents’ home last Christmas, I found a little book on composition that belonged to my grandfather, copyright 1907. The book was structured to teach students how to write exposition, biography, criticism, argument, description, and narration, through modeling high quality examples of each of these by authors like Stevenson, Huxley, Eliot, Lamb, Chesterton, Copeland, Hawthorne, Dickens, Conrad, Longfellow, Scott, Irving, Poe, Thoreau, Kipling and Austen.
As teachers, we would do well to take our cue from William Faulkner who wrote: “Read, read, read. Read everything…and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write.”