The skillful writer
Novice writers tend to write things down as they pop into their minds, following associations from moment to moment. This impressionistic style often leads to fragmented writing that is childish, disorganized, and inaccurate. Reading such writing is like listening to a child try to explain something complicated–the writing jumps around, leaves thoughts unclear and undeveloped, wanders into contradictions, mingles information with myths and biases, issues judgments without evidence, and makes assertions without justifications.
Skillful writers have disciplined themselves to get past childish and impressionistic writing. They carry on a dialogue with themselves as they write, working hard to practice the discipline of clear, accurate, and organized writing. They have learned from thoughtful reading and careful writing how minds create understanding–how they monitor and evaluate as they read. To satisfy thoughtful readers, a careful writer must constantly monitor and evaluate what he or she is saying.
The skillful writer holds a distinction between his or her thinking and the thinking of his or her audience, asking always: Does the audience have enough information or background to understand this sentence? The skillful writer is purposive, keeping in mind the communication goal of the writing and adjusting to accomplish that goal. The skillful writer is coherent, asking how what is being written fits with other ideas in the text. The skillful writer is critical, asking whether what is being written is accurate, precise, clear, relevant to the current purpose, logical, and fair.
The skillful writer revises, constantly improving his or her writing by thinking about it. He or she writes a little more then goes back and re-reads, monitoring and evaluating what is being said.
Trivial vs Substantive Writing
For teachers who intend the teaching of writing to further their students’ critical thinking abilities, not just any writing will do. These observations from the Foundation for Critical Thinking:
It is possible to write with an emphasis on style, variety of sentence structure, and rhetorical principles without learnign to write in a substantive manner. Rhetorically powerful writing may be, and in our culture often is, intellectually bankrupt. Many intellectually imporverished thinkers write well in the purely rhetorical sense. Propaganda. . .is often expressed in a rhetorically effective way. Political speeches empty of significant content are often rhetorically well-designed. Sophistry and self-delusion often thrive in rhetorically proficient prose.
A New York Times special supplement on education (Aug. 4, 2002) included a description of a new section in the SAT focused on a “20-minute writing exercise.” The prompt those taking the test were asked to write on was as follows: “There is always a however.” One might as justifiably ask a person to write on the theme, “There is always an always!” Or “There is never a never!” Such writing prompts are the equivalent of an intellectual Rorschach inkblot. They do not define a clear intellectual task. There is no issue to be reasoned through. Thus, the writer is encouraged to pontificate using rhetorical and stylistic devices rather than reason using intellectual good sense, to talk about nothing as if it is something.
Substantive writing requires that the writer begin with a significant, intellectually well-defined task. This writing can be assessed for clarity, accuracy, relevance, depth, breadth, logic, significance, and fairness (rather than rhetorical style and flourish). Substantive writing enables the author to take ownership of ideas worth understanding ♦ Richard Paul and Dr. Linda Elder (How to Write a Paragraph)
The talk about “substantive writing” shouldn’t lead to the conclusion that high school students need to be writing like Kant or Hume. When Chennell Brewer tries to unravel the mystery of a 1918 crime in her hometown of White Sulphur Springs, she’s involved in a substantive quest. So is Ronan High School student Britney Maddox, when she tells the story of her grandmother’s experiences under Hitler, or Rachel Reckin, when she gathers evidence of the role music played in helping people in Libby flourish during the Great Depression.
Questions for Close Reading
Practice at close reading is essential to learning to write well. Close reading is a fundamental strategy of critical thinking.
Here’s a worksheet that may be useful for applying these questions to specific texts.
Adapted from The Art of Close Reading by Dr. Richard Paul and Dr. Linda Elder (The Foundation for Critical Thinking).