Writing the Wrongs

In my travels around the blogosphere and LibraryLand, I’ve been somewhat troubled to find people pooh-poohing the importance of writing skills. One misguided person, whom I’ll call Tweep, checks in on Twitter with this: surprised so many ppl still talk abt writing skill, what abt freedom of expression! Right on, Tweep. The humanities are all about freedom of expression and so am I. Like e.e. cummings wrote, “feeling is first.” But poetry aside, the freedom to express oneself is no excuse for poor grammar, spelling, and mechanics, especially when writing anything of a professional nature. Why do we still talk about writing skill? Well, maybe we’re not talking about it enough.

Textese and other budget-conscious SMS language have created a serious devolution among American language arts learners where there already existed widespread deficiencies in student writing abilities. You can read this as, Kids weren’t writing well. Now they’re even worse. The influence of technology is always growing and spreading. Now in an age of digitization and mobile communications, educators have had to adapt and develop methods of teaching literacy skills to students who want lightning-quick communications and on-demand connections. And here comes the funny part: Texting, IMing, Tweeting, e-mail, Facebooking, blogging, and other cloud applications have everybody writing all the time. Multi-age writers of every skill level are writing for more reasons in more formats than ever before. That’s good. Writing, sharing, and getting involved in written conversations are all great ways to strengthen fundamental writing skills. All this writing–this transliteracy, if you like–can make people smarter. Great! We love smart. Smart is good.

Still, constant engagement with the typed word doesn’t necessarily mean an emergent writer is getting better at the craft of writing. She has to be conscious of what she is writing. She needs to be not only writing, but practicing writing. In order to learn, writers must have some awareness of the fundamental guidelines that, when followed properly, can be the difference between an acceptable product and an unacceptable product. Otherwise, all this writing amounts to nothing more than useless repetition. Many people like Tweep have been engaged in multiple forms of written communication outside the classroom for years. Yet they still don’t get it. To many, Textese is more than a cheeky budgetary consideration. It’s an acceptable means of communication. It’s second-nature.

So I can’t help feeling a bit worried when I bump into literacy humbugs like Tweep in LibraryLand. They are students in graduate library programs. They are librarians. Sometimes–and this is the uh-oh part–sometimes they are blogging about libraries.

Increasingly, educational technology pushes literacy instruction beyond traditional learning methods. Computing technologies and the Internet give students and library people power to communicate worldwide in many formats, and the need for strong reading and writing skills is greater than ever. By altering how information is processed, interconnected, and applied, technology is changing how people read, write, listen, and communicate. It can be a tremendous instrument for teaching and learning. Misused, it can be spell failure and embarrassment.

I’m all for using digital media of every kind to promote literacy and make stronger, more confidant writers. Many hep, progressive teachers and professors encourage student writers to use blogging as a means of practice and growth. How they suggest students manipulate the public accessibility of those blog posts, I wouldn’t know. Different strokes, I suspect. But people in the library field–in fact, people in every field–should hold themselves to a higher standard of quality when adding their two cents to the professional cashbox. Particularly in a field like library and information science, one that aligns itself with educational institutions of all types and all levels, bloggers of professional content should conduct themselves as professionals and understand who they represent. Most bloggers, like me, write and publish on their own time and are accountable to no one. So it should move any professional contributor to hold himself accountable to his colleagues and his readers.

I’ve met all kinds of professional people in LibraryLand, but I’m sure not one of we smartypants librarians would dare submit a résumé and cover letter without first making sure those materials were proofread and free of error. Professional bloggers should consider their public blog posts in the same regard: your posts are professional documents submitted for the evaluation, education, or even casual perusal of your peers (and a hell of a lot of peers, at that). Many of those peers are close readers and may even be gifted writers. They may not be snobbish literary elitists or armchair editors, but they will hold your work to a higher standard and they do want to be impressed. Try to impress them. Don’t be a twirp and don’t be like Tweep. Why are so many people hung up about writing skills? Don’t find out the hard way.

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About Steven V. Kaszynski
librarian, editor, contributor

3 Responses to Writing the Wrongs

  1. Paul says:

    The terrible writing skills are just the beginning. So many people in libraries just want to hide in the back room and read books all day because they can’t communicate at all. How does a professional promote himself without writing skill? How does he promote his library? How can we do anything when we can’t write, give presentations, speak to colleagues or speak to patrons? Maybe it’s just me, but I see this as a bigger problem, usually in public libraries.

  2. Library Jones says:

    Although I don’t particularly agree with your choice of the word LibraryLand, I agree with every other point you make here. I’ve spoken with LIS professors who literally read papers and say “Oh. My. God.” Have you been in a library program lately? These people are earning master’s degrees and can’t so much as turn in a 3-page paper without first sweating all over it and complaining about it, and then using terrible grammar, spacing, spelling, and everything else. And many of them have English degrees! I just hope these folks are being weeded out by employers at jobsearching time.

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