Good writing is hard to find Editor finds writing skills of average F&M student sorely lacking

By Alanna Koehler

 I am not, nor will I ever be, an English major. I never got a kick out of reading the classics — Dostoevsky and I have a complicated history — and the thought of writing poetry on demand makes me blanch. Instead, I am a science major and consider myself more at home amidst a stack of scholarly journals than wading through Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter.

That being said, a demonstrated grasp of grammatical concepts is an alluring trait; I cannot help but to find something irresistible in the correct use of a comma. And, while I find little joy in analyzing an epic poem, I do enjoy writing. I write articles and research papers and even the occasional poem — on my own terms, of course.

I attribute my writing skills to my sophomore-level English teacher in high school. Though I always thought I wrote well, she tore my essays apart, pushing me to write better. She gave her students daily grammar worksheets, and, when she identified a struggle common to many students, she forced the class to complete pages and pages of drills and practice.

Given I transferred from a Catholic to public institution after my sophomore year, my tale of two high schools plays directly into the long-held cliché that private schools teach English and public schools teach mathematics. My first two years I completed intensive grammatical training. Then, in public school, I made the difficult transition to a more rigorous math program. The effects of the differing points of focus between schools were near tangible, making the cliché a rather harsh reality.

In college, however, I figured the lines would be blurred. Perhaps I was naïve, but I assumed all students at a liberal arts school would have a proficient grasp of grammar and formulating an argument. But I was wrong.

As an editor for The College Reporter, I receive my fair share of proofreading requests. Every week, I sift through article after article of writing that will be disseminated to the masses; I peer edit research papers in my science courses; I act as a second pair of eyes for my friends’ work. One semester I even took an English class and perhaps took too seriously my task of peer editing.

 Every week I come across the same mistakes, and, every week, my blood starts to boil. At first I attributed the errors I found to careless proofreading, but, while a blatant disregard for self-editing is sometimes evident, I came to find the problem lies more with my fellow students’ understanding of grammar.

I agree with accusations pointed at schools for failing to teach vital topics such as writing, geography, and basic mathematics, and I understand more than many how a student’s background and level of high school rigor shape his or her skills and competencies in college and beyond. I acknowledge that not everyone comes to F&M on an equal playing field, but it is time for students to stop hiding behind the excuse that they “never learned these things in high school.” It is time for students to stand up and take responsibility for their education, to seek out training to supplement the skills they lack.

 I have nothing against the writer who tries hard to follow the rules but keeps missing the mark; I have nothing against the student who makes mistakes but then learns from them. What I do resent is the lazy writer, the person who throws something together last minute and hits “submit,” the student who gives someone a paper to edit but never follows up on the corrections, the student who knows he or she has a problem with passive voice and never bothers to figure what passive voice is. At an institution where writing resources are abundant, it is inconceivable that so many of F&M’s students not only struggle with writing but fail to seek proper assistance.

To those students — and to all students — I have a challenge for you. I challenge you to change your approach to writing, not just for the sake of your professors, editors, and readers but for personal betterment. I challenge you to visit the Writing Center, go to your professor’s office hours, or take an English course. I dare you to make an appointment with the Office for Student and Post-Graduate Development and learn to write a résumé and cover letter. Write for The Reporter and actually compare the published piece to the one you submitted. However you do it, learn from the changes people make, identify your weaknesses, and modify your habits.

Most importantly, never underestimate the power of a well-constructed sentence. I promise your future employers will be impressed if you know the goddamn difference between a dependent and independent clause — and how to correctly join any combination of the two. You have my word.

Finally, as you scan my writing for mistakes, praying to stumble upon a case of passive voice to shove down my throat, I promise you something else: you will find them. My writing is nowhere near perfect, and it never will be. I start sentences with conjunctions to make a point, I have not quite resolved my issues with passive voice, and, if I am not careful, I can write sentences so long they would force an auctioneer to run out of breath. But, you know what, I’m working on it.

Junior neuroscience major Alanna Koehler is the Managing Editor of The College Reporter. Email her akoehler@fandm.edu

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