Years ago I was subbing for a third grade class where the teacher left an assignment for students to write what they remembered about a story they had read. And I’ll never forget one boy’s response: “What I remember about the story is that it was boring.” Sharp kid, I thought, and was tempted to accept his “essay” right then. But I instead insisted he write more, suggesting he explain why he found the story to be boring.
No regrets, since I do think it was important for the student to write more in that case. Often, though, teachers stress quantity of writing at the expense of quality—not our intent, of course, but that’s how it plays out with many students. I recall from my own schooling how my peers and I would stretch out our words to meet a minimum length requirement. Literally stretch them out when an assignment called for a minimum number of pages—no computers back then, so we would just write bigger. Unfortunately, some teachers were onto us, and instead required a minimum number of words, leaving us no choice but to write more.
Writing more, however, does not necessarily mean writing better, and often means writing worse. I’m reminded of a quote by Mark Twain: “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” (There’s an earlier version of this attributed to Blaise Pascal: “I have made this letter longer than usual because I lack the time to make it shorter.”) The point being that it’s a lot easier to ramble when you write than to be concise. Yet good writing involves making your point in the fewest words possible—painstaking as it may be, which I know first-hand as a recovering rambler.
And so, as important as it is for kids to write often (see the Carnegie report, Writing to Read, I referred to in my last post, The Reading-Writing Connection), it’s also important for them to write less. As for resources to help students tighten their writing, here are two that have made a huge difference for me on the road to rambling recovery:
- William Zinsser’s On Writing Well
- William Strunk’s and E.B. White’s The Elements of Style, which you can read online for free at Bartleby.com, and can buy for $10 or less from various sources including Amazon