Okay, It’s Written. But Would You Want to Read It?

Every new week seems to bring a new writing assignment for my students. I’m sure they are not thrilled about this, but I think they’d be surprised to learn that more writing for them means additional misery for me. In fact, I’d venture to say that my pain far outweighs theirs. The big thing this week was an in-class progress assessment, meaning that the kids walked into class, spent 50 minutes on their essays, and left wondering what flavor of frozen yogurt would be served in the cafe that day. In other words, their troubles were over–while my grading pain will likely last for two weeks or more.

The writing prompt for this past week was:

Several members of the Board of Education believe that some of the books used in ninth grade English lack relevance and are ineffective in helping students learn to read critically. Choose one book that you have read thus far this year, and argue why this book should be kept or why this book should be eliminated based on readability, relevance, and effectiveness.

Yeah. Would you like to read 100 essays on this topic? Or forty? Or one?

That’s what I thought.

And yet, among a sea of faceless student writing, I came across a few papers that didn’t make me wish that I had chosen a different profession. Take this, from a student who argued that we should keep A Tale of Two Cities in the curriculum:

At this time in many [students’] lives, they [should be] challenged to think harder, longer, and more concisely. This year as a class we also read The House on Mango Street, which was a mere 160 pages with text so big we could read it from an airplane. A Tale of Two Cities, although long and at sometimes hard to understand…challenges students to really analyze characters, locations, plot details, and more.

Or this, from a student making the same argument:

Dickens was a widely known author when he was alive… Most people today have no taste in anything, and this book actually has meaning. The books most of the freshman class reads today are nonsensical, meaningless wastes of paper.

Now, would you not be glad to read either of the above papers? Especially after slogging through page after page of, “We should definitely remove this book from the curriculum because it’s not relevant. It’s not relevant because kids today can’t relate to it. Therefore, this book is not relevant…”

Now, I don’t mean to say that the first two writers created perfect essays. They did, however, manage to create essays that I wanted to read. I even laughed out loud a few times–and that’s not an easy thing to do in a five paragraph essay on school books.

So many of us want to write. But not enough of us think about writing things that other people might want to read. Sure, not everyone’s going to want to read the same thing. (I never have seen eye-to-eye with the obsessed fans of Harry Potter or Twilight.) Still, if given a choice between the first two essays and a more generic, devoid-of-personality third choice, I think most people wouldn’t go with the latter. And if you can win most people over, you’re in pretty good shape, right?

Really, it all comes down to one very simple suggestion: Don’t forget to insert a little personality into whatever you’re writing. “Insert” may not be the most accurate word to use here; let me say instead, don’t forget to allow your personality to seep through. Be your true self. Have some fun. And if I could just convice a few more of a my students to heed this advice, I might actually look forward to marking up that stack of papers that’s been mostly collecting cobwebs on my desk.

On a recent episode of Top Chef, one losing contestant inadvertently summed up this article by jokingly wailing, “I forgot flavor.” It sounds so obvious, but how many of us continually serve up a piece of writing without first adding  salt, pepper, and maybe a little cayenne?

That’s all well and good, you may say. But how can I tell if my writing has personality?

Simple. Taste it.

And if you want to take another bite–or even polish the whole thing off before dinnertime–you must be doing something right.


Writer and educator Sara Goas is a graduate of Lycoming College, and she specializes in creating content for the web. Her site saragoas.com has more examples of her work.

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2 thoughts on “Okay, It’s Written. But Would You Want to Read It?

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  1. Of all the silly things we do in schools, one of the worst is teaching them to write *without* voice. A ninth grader in our very school LOST POINTS on his history paper for having exactly the kind of voice his English teacher had taught him was crucial.

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