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I believe there is a disconnect between writing as it is taught in secondary education and what happens in the college composition classroom.

I know I am not the only instructor who believes that the early part of the semester (and beyond) involves a kind of “deprogramming” of some beliefs and habits that have been inculcated prior to students arriving in college.

As a rule (to which there are exceptions), many students come armed with a series of writing “rules” that are meant to be followed, or else. Essays are five paragraphs long, and should never contain “I,” “you,” or “we.” Some have been told that each paragraph should be limited to 5 (or 7 or 9) sentences, and that all concluding paragraphs start with “In conclusion.”

These rules are not purposeless. They can help give writing shape, and can guard against some of the worst excesses that writers of any age and experience may indulge in[1].

And when it comes to the kinds of high stakes standardized assessments students are primarily subjected to, writing to these rules is a veritable necessity.

I do not mean my criticisms as an indictment of the necessary, difficult, deeply unappreciated work of primary and secondary educators. To the extent there is a disconnect, I think it is the fault of higher education which has done very little to communicate the purposes and processes of the college writing classroom to the larger world. I don’t think we do it particularly well even inside our own college and university communities.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, James R. Haggerty illustrates an example of the disconnect, highlighting teachers from elementary to high school who declare certain words (like “said”) to be “dead.”

The “said is dead” movement has a champion in middle school teacher Leilen Shelton, the author of Banish Borning Words!: Dozens of Reproducible World Lists for Helping Students Choose Just-Right Words to Strengthen Their Writing.

Hagerty reports that Shelton’s students “know better than to use a boring word like ‘said.'” Shelton says, “Said doesn’t have any emotion. You might use barked. Maybe howled. Demanded. Cackled. I have a list.”

The howling noise you hear is college creative writing professors wailing and barking over the prohibition against “said,” which is actually the strongly preferred dialog tag inside the college writing workshop, as the aesthetic preference is for the tags to be nearly invisible, so as to highlight the dialog itself, rather than its modifier.

To the extent that Leilen Shelton has created a fun way to build middle-school student vocabularies, I have no complaints, but there is a worrying byproduct to having students declare that certain words are “dead.”

As reported by Hagerty, ninth grader, Josh Daugherty “thinks his writing was improved by having dozens of terms ‘drilled into my head that you are 100% not allowed to use.’”

“100% not allowed to use.” Yikes.

I think I understand the motives of these movements. Like any writing instructor, these teachers want students to use language that is vivid and specific, “just-right” in Leilen Shelton’s terms.

As a proponent of the Mark Twain aphorism, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is really a large matter – it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning,” I am sympathetic to these goals.

The problem is that students are being asked to choose which word is “just-right” without considering the key parts of any rhetorical situation: audience and purpose.

I suppose in these cases, the audience is the teacher, who you are trying to impress with your lively vocabulary, but this is a bit of an artificial construct, and one that is actually not made explicit in the assignment itself[2] which is instead built around rules that are followed in order to win teacher approval.

An unfortunate byproduct of laying down these “rules” is that students begin to believe that the “just-right” word is found in the thesaurus, which sends us down the path of “pseudo-academic B.S.” a condition which afflicts a plethora of students in myriad and sundry ways.

To these students, writing well is a kind of con or confidence game, where the goal is to make the audience believe that the writer is “smart,” (via proxies like a large vocabulary), as opposed to clearly communicating an idea that meets the audience’s needs.

Hagerty also features Robert C. March, a high school teacher in Winston-Salem, NC who has a list of “banned” words like “I,” “you,” “we,” “why,” etc… A closer look at the list shows that words on the list are is banned from formal writing, which is perhaps good advice, particularly when we’re talking standardized assessments, but “formal” itself is an abstraction, and in my experience, in student minds, comes to substitute for all writing done in school, or anywhere else vaguely school-like for that matter.

Which is not good[3].

And I am more distressed by Robert C. March’s additional comment to Hagerty when, in Hagerty’s words, “students note that those (banned) words frequently have wormed their way into Great Literature.”

March tells them, “When you get to the level of Charles Dickens, you can do with words whatever you want.”

Zoinks. I believe I understand this dictum as well, that you must know the rules to break them, but why are we declaring there are rules only to say that later, rules don’t apply? The notion that there is a cost of entry for students to become “real” writers does not sit well with me, no-siree-bob.

In my class, every one of us is a writer, subject to all of the writer’s responsibilities.

When I make first contact with my students, I tell them that there are no rules anymore because they never existed in the first place, but there are guidelines and goals, and that the rules are to be rewritten each time they sit down to write in a particular rhetorical situation grounded in audience, genre, and purpose/occasion.

I want my students to understand that writing is complicated, and that different choices must be made depending on different audiences or occasions, that sometimes “I” is a terrible idea, and sometimes it is absolutely necessary.

I want them to be compelled to find Twain’s lightning, not by substituting an “emotional” word for “said,” but by considering the response an audience may have to a particular choice.

I have a passage from David Foster Wallace’s famous cruise ship essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” that I use to illustrate the right and the almost right word. Early in the essay, DFW lists some of his experiences while cruising and includes this: “I have smelled what suntan lotion smells like spread over 21000 pounds of hot skin.”

Actually, no, that’s not right. It reads like this: “I have smelled what suntan lotion smells like spread over 21000 pounds of hot flesh.”

When I read this out loud, the students wince at that last word, “flesh.” Their noses wrinkle; they are exactly as disgusted as Wallace wants them to be. “Skin” does not have the same effect.

We then talk about sense details and metaphor and concrete v. abstract language and I try my best to open them to the world where we are all writers, and that the core of being a writer is to make choices.

Sometimes we make the wrong choices and we have to live with that.

I am distressed that prior to arriving in college we are hobbling students as writers by making them believe they don’t have choices. I think this is symptomatic of many things that are wrong with education today.

Rather than mocking what I think are misguided notions about writing and writing instruction, I think colleges and universities deserve much of the blame. We need to do better at communicating what really happens inside our classes and work with primary and secondary schools to forge a path that prepares students for those challenges.

This I say/declaim/assert.




[1] Preposition at the end of a sentence.

[2] There is a way to achieve the same goal inside a rhetorical situation that includes audience and purpose by telling students they are writing to impress the “smartest person in the world,” who enjoys hearing uncommon vocabulary. This could actually be an interesting exercise to show how different choices impact different audiences.

[3] Fragment