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Hamlet isn’t the only one to dismiss written compositions as simply “Words, words, words,” without any larger significance or meaning. So, too, do too many of my students, who treat writing assignments as a chore and a waste of time.

I want my students to love language, to take joy in crafting a written argument, playing with sentence structure and writing with style, flair, force and impact. I want them to find beauty in a well-crafted sentence and the power of a persuasive and affecting written argument.

We all know why a lot of college students dislike or even hate writing assignments. They may not see writing as relevant to their future career, and, consequently, they dismiss writing assignments as a tedious obligation. Negative past experiences with harsh criticism or public embarrassment may have produced an aversion to academic writing. Perfectionism and pressure to meet high standards can contribute to writing anxiety.

Of course, many students struggle to organize their thoughts, develop a distinctive take on a topic and develop a coherent argument—problems made worse by assignments that aren’t engaging and don’t build on students’ existing knowledge.

Earlier instruction may have failed to teach them how to write an engaging introduction and a succinct yet sophisticated thesis statement, how to engage with prior arguments and counterarguments and integrate evidence or write a kicker or bang-up conclusion—with an unexpected revelation, a memorable phrase, an anecdote or a call to action.

Also, many regard the ability to write well as a natural talent rather than a skill or craft that can be honed with practice.

Making matters worse, very few faculty members have the time or training to help their students write better. They haven’t received any instruction about how to devise meaningful and engaging writing assignments or to offer clear, constructive and actionable feedback.

At the end of this post, I’ll suggest strategies to help students improve their writing skills. But first, I’d like to discuss the special challenge instructors face in an environment in which extended, sustained reading has declined, letter writing has waned and brief, casual texts, tweets, email messages and catchphrases have become the coin of the realm.

In 1970, long before the current language wars, Josef Pieper, a Catholic philosopher, published (in German) Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power, which “reflects on the way language has been abused so that, instead of being a means of communicating the truth and entering more deeply into it and of the acquisition of wisdom, it is being used to control people and manipulate them to achieve practical ends.”

According to Pieper, cynical marketers, the mass media, politicians, bureaucrats and the commentariat have corrupted language, using words to distort, deceive and delude, to mislead, misinform and misrepresent. No longer do people regard language simply as an instrument of communication; it has instead become a weapon and a way to assert power over others. Words have become purely instrumental.

Pieper’s theme is that ultimately, the debasement of language not only leads inexorably to the corruption of thought; it renders serious, meaningful and honest discourse impossible.

As Humpty Dumpty says in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, a word “means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

If Pieper only knew how language would be used in our time. In some instances, language has been weaponized: words and phrases are used to correct, embarrass, humiliate, shame and assert power over others. Think “trigger,” “trauma” and “implicit bias.”

Yet, at the same time, rap and hip-hop use language inventively and dynamically, deploying intricate rhyming schemes, with wordplay and double entendres, puns, metaphors, similes, allusions, repetitions and vivid imagery, as a powerful medium for storytelling, expression and commentary,

George Orwell, in his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language,” made an argument that somewhat resembles Pieper’s:

  • That language can delimit the range of thought.
  • That unclear, imprecise language can contribute to sloppy thinking.
  • That political language consisted of euphemisms, question-begging and vague expressions intended to hide the truth rather than express it.
  • That language is a powerful tool that can be used to convey but also obscure truth.

We live in an odd time: when words are used to hurt, dupe and con, but also as a compelling form of artistic creativity. Our challenge as professors is, first of all, to help our students appreciate language’s power.

Whether or not you favor a strong or weak version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, that the structure of a language affects speakers’ cognition and worldview, there can be little doubt that language does reflect the values and norms of a society and linguistic changes signal broader cultural shifts.

We might ask, what does our everyday language—chock-full of concept creep, empty signifiers, insipid sloganeering, blandness, puffery and hyperbole—say about us? Why is it that the art of public oratory and simple, direct public speaking, let alone eloquence, are in steep decline?

Lest we fall into the nostalgia trap, treating the story of language as a narrative of decline, we also need to remind our students of language’s beauty. To that end, I ask my students to reflect on Abraham Lincoln’s use of language and also introduce them to a number of eloquent and poignant Civil War soldiers’ letters.

Lincoln, as you know, had less than a year of formal schooling and read very few books as he grew up. But he read those works closely, which shaped his use of language. These books included the King James Bible, the complete works of William Shakespeare, Aesop’s Fables, The Pilgrim’s Progress, Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, Parson Weems’s Life of George Washington, William Scott’s Lessons in Elocution, Euclid’s Geometry, the poems of Robert Burns and Lord Byron, and, most likely, The Columbian Orator (which Frederick Douglass also devoured).

Lincoln, like many Civil War soldiers, was a product of rich, oral storytelling culture, a culture in which political oratory, church sermons and tall tales, rich with metaphor and figurative language, made even the poorly educated attentive to the power of language.

David Labaree, the great sociologist and historian of American higher education, has written eloquently about how reading the works of Shakespeare and the King James Bible—which were essential ingredients in mid-19th-century popular culture—“shaped the English language and still teaches us how to write.”

He quotes Adam Nicholson, who described the power of the King James Bible and its intimate yet majestic tone, its rhythmic phraseology and flow of sounds, and its combination of the epigrammatic, the melodious, the dramatic, the incantatory, the numinous and the profound:

“You don’t have to be a Christian to hear the power of those words—simple in vocabulary, cosmic in scale, stately in their rhythms, deeply emotional in their impact. Most of us might think we have forgotten its words, but the King James Bible has sewn itself into the fabric of the language. If a child is ever the apple of her parents’ eye or an idea seems as old as the hills, if we are at death’s door or at our wits’ end, if we have gone through a baptism of fire or are about to bite the dust, if it seems at times that the blind are leading the blind or we are casting pearls before swine, if you are either buttering someone up or casting the first stone, the King James Bible, whether we know it or not, is speaking through us. The haves and have-nots, heads on plates, thieves in the night, scum of the earth, best until last, sackcloth and ashes, streets paved in gold and the skin of one’s teeth: All of them have been transmitted to us by the translators who did their magnificent work 400 years ago.”

This is “language that is both ordinary and heightened, that rings in the ear and lingers in the mind.”

Writing, as I have argued many times, is (or should be) a key part of the thinking process. The very process of writing helps us formulate and develop our ideas and arguments. But writing should also be an act of artistry and creativity. We need to do more to help our students revel in language’s richness, grandeur and musicality and learn how to play with sentences’ phrasing, tone, inflections, rhythm, repetitions, tempo and cadences.

Our students may not be well-versed in Shakespeare or the King James Bible, but as their teachers we have a responsibility to instill a love of and respect for language. Labaree has written at length about how to teach students to write with clarity and grace and how academics can make their own writing less academic, with lucid prose, a lively style and a clear personal voice.

His website includes a host of articles that explain how to frame an argument, cut flab, avoid mangled metaphors and excessive signposting, use dynamic verbs, balance Saxon and Latinate words, and produce writing that is playful, funny, moving and melodious.

Labaree has also explained why many academics write poorly. The explanation lies in certain largely unquestioned assumptions: that the purpose of academic writing isn’t to engage or entertain. It should be dry, dispassionate, authoritative and erudite. Easy accessibility is pandering, at odds with serious scholarship.

What can you and I do as classroom instructors to help our students write not just clearly, cogently, logically and compellingly, but with a bit of elegance and style?

Most of the advice strikes me not as necessarily wrong, but as mush. You know the recommendations:

  • Encourage your students to read widely and critically from classic literature to contemporary essays and journalistic pieces so that they can learn about various rhetorical strategies
  • Teach the elements of style, such as clarity, conciseness, rhythm and tone.
  • Urge your students to write regularly, not just for assignments, but by keeping a journal or a blog.
  • Remind your students: good writing requires revision, editing and fine turning.
  • Teach the art of storytelling, using narrative elements like tension, pacing and character development.

All this is good advice, but it’s not enough. Let me suggest some other strategies.

  1. Bring exemplary (and relevant) pieces of writing into class and discuss the authors’ narrative and stylistic techniques.
  2. Ask breakout groups to revise a brief piece of writing to make it more forceful and compelling.
  3. Provide creative and thought-provoking writing prompts.
  4. Require teams of students to introduce a class session and stress the importance of making that introduction engaging.
  5. Workshop student papers.
  6. Have your students provide peer feedback on classmates’ papers following a rubric that involves style, word choice, sentence structure, clarity and coherence as well as argumentation and use of evidence—and which helps feedback providers develop an ability to critically evaluate writing.
  7. Provide specific, actionable feedback that is positive and constructive and clearly identifies what works, what doesn’t and why.
  8. Treat writing as a process that involves drafting, revising and editing.

Students are much more likely to take style seriously if you make it clear that style matters. To that end, underscore the joy of written expression. Emphasize how writing can be a powerful tool for advocacy, argumentation, persuasion and storytelling—but only if it engages, enthralls and moves readers.

I know of only one scholar who can write polished first drafts. For the rest of us, there is only rewriting. We must polish, refine, revise, rework and sharpen, until, like the sculptor who chisels a block of stone, removing excess and adding detail, focusing on each small element while keeping the overall work in mind, we realize our vision.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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