Why Improving Writing Skills Will Improve American Discourse
We see a lack of substance and audience consideration in American discourse every day—whether online, via mainstream media, or in classrooms. People blurt out ideas, but they don't take time to develop their stances, provide reasons, or consider their audience. As a result, discourse suffers and important discussions fall flat or are reduced to unsupported sound bites and blurbs.
Helping students improve their writing skills teaches them to be better writers, sure! It also helps them become better thinkers, thinkers who recognize complexity and depth—something we could all use a little more of lately. Teachers have the ability to influence the future of American discourse through writing instruction that models and encourages effective, compelling writing with substance.
Clarity of Purpose and Consideration of Audience
Clarity of purpose isn't just making one's position clear; it is also recognizing the rhetorical situation of a piece of writing (our purpose, message, and audience). When we teach students to consider rhetorical situation while writing, we teach them how to make themselves heard. We all have ideas in our heads, shaped by our understanding and experience of the world and the texts around us. The problem is that getting those ideas out of our heads and into someone else's is difficult, and that's the first step to creating meaningful discourse.
Teaching students to consider rhetorical situation has a direct effect on the choices they make as writers, and affects the success of the final text. Purpose and message are usually easy for students to understand, but audience is more difficult. Teaching students to consider audience forces them to reflect on other aspects of writing and the choices they have from high order (organization, evidence) to low order (language and grammar) concerns.
What we do in the classroom now helps them later in life by providing them with critical tools to achieve their writing goals, whether that goal be an A on an essay in a college classroom, a successful business presentation, or an important speech to Congress. Effective discourse meets the expectations and needs of the audience allowing writers to clarify goals, tailor choices, and establish themselves as people worth listening to.
Quality of Thought and Use of Evidence
In the age of social and mass media, discourse sometimes takes place in less than 140 characters. That small space leaves us little room to share reasons and evidence for our views, or to establish ourselves as thoughtful, well-informed, complex thinkers worthy of acknowledgment. Teaching students that their first job as writers is to convince an audience that their views are worth considering is effective inspiration for improving their writing skills. We are each but one voice in a multiplicity of voices, so the consequences of failing to provide reason and evidence in our discourse means we are easy to dismiss.
When we teach students to think about their own writing, they are learning to become better readers as well. They start to ask questions of the texts they’re writing and the texts they interact with (looking for moments when evidence is weak or questions are left unanswered). They also begin to notice lapses in reason and logical fallacies in the texts around them, which allows them to question assertions others make. As they learn to synthesize sources into their own writing, they also learn key evaluation, integration, and documentation skills serving them in their daily life and future careers.
Conversations on Facebook might change if every person took time to evaluate the information they were sharing before they shared it. Or if that information were paired with a serious, well-considered post asking. What if that post garnered equally serious, well-considered responses? (Insert fainting emoji here!)
"Likes" and "retweets" don't do much to improve American discourse, but they're much easier than writing something "real." What if we made substantial discourse easy though, by teaching students strategies that might help them compose "real" responses quickly? When we ask students to practice (essay, from the French, "to try") writing we are teaching them to make good writing decisions quickly. Just as with sports or art, practice refines technique, and builds muscle memory...only this time the muscle is our brains. Good writing skills learned in classrooms spill out into students lives, changing how they interact with texts and discussions around them, improving the depth and quality of discourse they are a part of.
Style, Grammar, Usage, & Mechanics
Big ideas are where discourse starts, but the GUMmy (Grammar, Usage, and Mechanics) and stylistic choices writers make can also affect discourse. Make a grammatical error on the internet and someone will latch on to it with a snarky comment intended to strike a blow at one's ethos, and effectively derail the actual topic of whatever one was writing. Helping students understand their stylistic and grammatical choices based on rhetorical situation empowers them to make the right choices for the right text.
In the End…
We know language is power, so let's emphasize that in our teaching whenever possible—even as we traverse the nitty-gritty depths of sentence structure and subject-verb agreement in our classes. As we teach students where that comma goes, we are teaching them to demonstrate respect for their ideas, which earns them respect from their readers. We also teach them when it is appropriate to break "rules" for stylistic effect in order to reach distinct audiences with different needs.
When we help students improve their writing skills we are handing them the tools to participate in meaningful discourse, and to be heard and (better still) understood by their audience.
WriteLab is an online writing platform that offers immediate, actionable responses to students' prose as they draft, revise, and polish their writing.