Our Modern Plague: The Destruction of the Writing Process

“For the disease, which took first the head, began above and came down and passed through the whole body; and he that overcame the worst of it was yet marked with the loss of his extreme parts; for breaking out both at their privy members and at their fingers and toes, many with the loss of these escaped; there were also some that lost their eyes” –Thucydides describing the ancient Athenian plague

The modern mind is a withered object akin to a body devastated by plague. Though the victims have the appearance of health, and the appearance of speech, what has been affected by this plague is an inability to think. The mind’s capacity to think is a skill that must be acquired through rigorous effort; it does not come as automatically as vision. The true tragedy is that the Athenians described above enjoyed time as a healthy human, whereas victims of our modern plague live a lifetime without a healthy mind. It is not merely a peculiar trend that so many people are preoccupied only with Facebook and cellphones, but a necessary condition of a mind incapable of higher thoughts. This is no denigration to technology, for the grand minds who create great products do not take into consideration the likelihood that some consumers will beat their phones together and expect the result to be fire.

It is no coincidence that a vast majority of college students are not only incompetent to work at any job besides fast food, but also unable to think long enough to imagine a life-long career. This is due to the fact that college students are famous for an inability to write. There was a time not long ago when writing well was an unshakable standard even to attend college, let alone to graduate with honors. Today, college graduates are no better, and usually worse, having attained acute anxieties about writing, than a high school dropout 100 years ago.

The words of thinkers like Thucydides are quoted for millennia, because their ideas are clear and their words imaginative. We tend to believe that professional writers have a special innate ability gained by some mysterious connection to an unknowable power. But we also often quote another class of individual, too. Famous playwrights like Henrik Ibsen, immortal industrialists like John Rockefeller and Steve Jobs, great coaches like Vince Lombardi and John Wooden, movie producers like David O. Selznick, or conquerors like Julius Caesar are noted for their resonating deeds and lasting words. What makes men like these unique is that they are not merely men of action, but deep thinkers, who knew how to formulate their ideas in writing. Within the craniums of these men was not rot but healthy, functioning minds. Writing is not only for writers, but also for doers. To write is to think clearly, enabling one to act purposefully.

“Today, college graduates are no better, and usually worse, having attained acute anxieties about writing, than a high school dropout 100 years ago”

Whence came the plague that withered the minds of many? The fundamental causes are deep, cultural and widespread. Withered like a tree rotted from the inside is the knowledge that writing is a process. Though we stare at a screen and expect to be struck by magic, it does not happen; though we know some proposal needs improvement, we cannot do it; though we feel that the endless stream of emails we send is writing, working on anything longer than a few paragraphs freezes our minds and causes nervousness. All this engenders the view that writing is not a skill to be acquired, but an innate magic for the lucky few. One carrier and symptom of this disease can be seen on almost every college campus in the form of “Writing Centers.” Professors, who may or may not know the principles of proper writing, send their students to these centers, which consist of student mentors who certainly do not know the principles of proper writing. Their expertise is not in guiding a young mind through the phases of writing, but in knowing the proper margins and fonts for a cover letter.

Since writing is a process of formulating, reformulating, and then submitting a writer’s thoughts to questions of logic, a set of principles or guides to this process is necessary. It is no different than needing a set of guidelines to build an aircraft carrier. If anyone attempted to build such a behemoth without the guidelines that have been developed step-by-step through the millennia, undoubtedly death would follow. Yet, students with genuine needs of completing a writing assignment are directed toward these centers, where a mass of random information is thrown at them and little or no proper technique can stick to the doe-eyed college freshman with a paper to write. These innocents make the assumption that these writing centers must be filled with knowledgeable experts who can explain in simple terms what is wrong with a given essay. Instead, students are shown long lists with “advice” that is likely to overload a young writer’s circuits; it should be no wonder that their minds distort and collapse as a body would after becoming infested with infinitesimal bacteria carried by rats.

Here a University of North Carolina Writing Center attempts to give advice to plague-ridden students in desperate straits:

“Have you used an appropriate tone (informal, formal, persuasive, etc?) Is your use of gendered language, (masculine, and feminine pronouns like ‘he’ or ‘she’ words like ‘firemen’ that contain ‘man,’ and words that some people incorrectly assume apply to one gender — for example some people assume ‘nurse’ must refer to woman) appropriate?”

A student who is preoccupied with issues of gendered language must lose sight of the thought they are attempting to elucidate, as would a doctor preoccupied with the color of a bandage must lose his patient to the shotgun blast. Writing, like any other activity, must be done in accordance with steps each of which helps to build the next. If a writer, or an architect, is not given these steps they may be concentrating on window treatments before they have laid a solid foundation. Any student attempting to write and edit a paper with this kind of advice would get frustrated and the result would be the first whispers of that mean little voice in their head saying, “This writing business just isn’t for me. I’ll stick to something practical like accounting.” Thus after college most Americans never write more than the equivalent of a grocery list. Nor do they think on a level higher than their local political pundits or TV Talk Show host.

“A student who is preoccupied with issues of gendered language must lose sight of the thought they are attempting to elucidate, as would a doctor preoccupied with the color of a bandage must lose his patient to the shotgun blast”

If such advice were not bad enough, as early as possible a looming dread is planted and carefully cultivated in students’ minds by those with a vested interest in the work of the mind: Teachers.

It begins with an uneasy feeling when we see that our teacher seems to have cut their own veins and bled all over our paper. Writing and editing become equated with those nasty red marks, marks that are neither explained nor understood. It feels like something someone does to your paper. Some fastidious student who desires to be rid of his horrid disease might search for answers and find the following advice from a writer: “editing is the act of reviewing your content while ignoring punctuation and spelling issues.” There is no explanation as to what it means to “review your content.” Another gem of advice: “Does your paper flow?” What is meant by flow? How do you know if it flows in the mind of a reader? Certainly, a piece of writing almost always feels as though it is flowing in our own minds.

These “cures” reveal a fundamental misunderstanding regarding language. Talking and writing are different uses of language. Under speech there are many uses: poetry, propaganda, folk music, love-making. One can use language to give a rousing political speech causing a whole nation to go to war, or convince one’s boss for a raise. Speech is primarily social. Writing comes after speech both historically and logically. When you write it’s just you and the paper. It is a completely private act. The principles of writing help fill in gaps that occur when not speaking; when speaking aloud, for instance, “get out,” your meaning is clear by your body posture, tone of voice, and gestures — you want someone to leave. In writing, this same phrase could be interpreted differently: “Oh! John! Get out! How you do make me laugh.” More importantly to good writing is that there are rules and techniques that send your thoughts down a funnel of logical precision. This is where, if you understand the techniques, the process of writing occurs. For instance, asking the following questions at the correct moment in the process is more important than the actual asking of these questions: Did I establish the context? Do I understand the meaning of this word? Does this statement follow logically from the previous? Does each sentence add up to a broader point (paragraph) and each paragraph to a theme? These are not questions you ask while having a beer with friends; they are the questions you must answer if you desire a cogent written document.

Speech is primarily social

Three thousand years ago the Ancient Greeks created the last and most important use of language: discursive prose — a logically structured sequence of sentences adding up to a broader idea. (Not coincidentally, the Greeks also invented the art of formal logic.) Discursive prose is the process of breaking a broad theme — such as the cause of the Civil War, the role of religion in politics, or the character motivations of Iago in Othello — into smaller parts so that a reader may examine the ideas. They then can build on or attack particular arguments, premises or the entire thesis. More importantly, the rules of discursive prose is critical in examining one’s own thoughts. Writing techniques are imposed upon the rambling nonsense that occurs in our heads for the purpose of bringing order to the chaos.

While we cannot exist as Man without speaking, and speaking necessarily precedes writing, man cannot progress without a visible written record of his thoughts. The more abstract the subject, the more necessary it becomes to take notes and then evaluate. There is a constant stream of random slogans and undigested thoughts from our past whirling around our minds from the moment we wake up to the moment we put out the lights. This current does not cease once we are given an assignment such as a college psych paper on the role of laughter in convalescing, or a business proposal about why a company should develop a different communication strategy. By putting our thoughts down in some form, we thus leave a trail of thoughts with which we can move through the writing stages step-by-step and hone the essay into a cogent piece.

Writing techniques are imposed upon the rambling nonsense that occurs in our heads for the purpose of bringing order to the chaos.

Within the writing process is a vastly inferior yet still necessary component: Proofreading. Proofreading is a rather simple skill, which is now being taken over by computer programs such as www.grammerly.com. These programs, which are improving every year, can show when there is a misspelling or even when a subject and verb do not agree. But grammerly.com cannot submit your thoughts to a process of logic. It cannot explain why one analogy works to prove your point, but another does not; it cannot show why one sentence must precede another or why one paragraph must proceed another; or whether you have established the context for your theme, motivated your audience, or crafted a piece of thematic writing where every point adds to a broader abstraction. Nonetheless, these software programs should be a boon to human progress as much as the mechanization of the assembly line, because they allow the human mind to focus exclusively on what only a human mind is capable: Thinking.

Thinking arises only from editing. Editing is as tied to writing as wind is to sailing. A sailboat will not move far without wind; an essay will not achieve its purpose without editing. Ideally, a writer will prefer to maintain complete control over the expression of their ideas. Thus, a writer who does not know the techniques of writing leaves open the direction of her piece to the intelligence of another person. Worse, is the writer who is given the torrents of advice found in writing centers. No person can learn to sail or to write if what they are given is a barrage of things to do without the understanding as to what order and why they must be done. At best one could point their ship in a general direction and pray.

Editing is as tied to writing as wind is to sailing

Learning the editing process allows you to check your formulations and discover where you have been stupid. Further, editing provides a writer with tips on how to reformulate stupid statements and make them intelligent ones. Editing helps improve analogies; it helps in gaining clarity about the use of a word in a sentence and about the ideas in your mind. As the linguist Richard Mitchell said, “Intelligence is in fact not an innate propensity but a human invention. It can be understood as a learned system for distinguishing between things that seem similar and discovering similarities in things that seem different. Stupidity is the lack of such a system.” Writing is a system by which to rise from stupidity to intelligence.

This modern plague is not one solved by simple assignments, but consistent practice. If you believe you have been infected, the first step is rigorous reading, for reading is the precursor of thought. My suggestion, for what it is worth, avoid reading anything written in the past fifty years. Their words may too be infected. And, like a diseased dog, their form will not appear to you to be altered until it is too late. I will help you start by stating a contradiction. For often, we can learn much from contradictions. I will recommend a book a mere 35 years old: Less Than Words Can Say by Richard Mitchell. It is in this contemporary book that you will begin to identify the source of your disease.


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