Everyone I know who is a good writer is also a good reader. A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, then, helps to explain why so many of the students I teach are (to put it bluntly) bad writers.
The article reports on a study released by the National Endowment for the Arts called “To Read or Not to Read: A Question of National Consequence.”
Among the findings: in 2006, 15- to 24-year olds in America spent just seven minutes on voluntary reading (including online reading) per day during the week and 10 minutes a day on weekends. On the other hand, they spend 2-2.5 hours a day watching television.
There it is.
In class the other day, a student made a presentation on his desire to become a lawyer in order to ensure greater justice in the legal system. Among other things, we talked about people convicted of crimes they did not commit.
Coincidentally, the New York Times ran a cover story over the weekend presenting their analysis of the lives of 137 men who are among the more than 200 individuals who have been imprisoned and then exonerated since 1989 by DNA evidence. The interactive feature on the Times’ web site especially puts a human face on the lives that were destroyed by this injustice. (They can probably relate to the Duke lacrosse players, but maybe not shed any tears for them since their more privileged backgrounds helped them establish their innocence prior to incarceration.)
Imagine facing a judge at your sentencing and hearing what Jeffrey Deskovic heard:“’Maybe you’re innocent,’ the judge conceded before sentencing him to 15 years to life. ‘But the jury has spoken.’”
Since he was exonerated, the Times story reports, Deskovic has struggled:
“Having spent nearly half his life locked up, accused of brutalizing a high school classmate he hardly knew, Mr. Deskovic was sent into the world last fall lacking some of life’s most fundamental skills and experiences.He had never lived alone, owned a car, scanned the classifieds in search of work. He had never voted, balanced a checkbook or learned to knot a tie.
He missed the senior prom, the funeral of the grandmother who helped raise him, and his best friend’s wedding.”
The Times identified their cases using the database kept by The Innocence Project, which I’ve mentioned before. Their website also does well to put a human face on the tragedy of this injustice.
Somewhere along the way, probably in high school, college students learn that “good” writing means long sentences and big words. But in my experience, most students don’t have the linguistic dexterity to pull this off. It just becomes an overwrought jumble of words and punctuation.
Not that I can do much better myself, but I do try to take the advice of William Zinsser in On Writing Well to cut everything I write IN HALF.
I was reminded of the strength of spare prose in a review of Run by Ann Patchett in the September 30th issue of the New York Times Book Review. Reviewer Leah Hager Cohen writes, “Among the many things to admire about Ann Patchett is the lack of frivolity in her prose. She prefers nouns and verbs to crowded flights of lyrical adjectives and adverbs, and she doesn’t dally excessively over a pretty phrase. Patchett is more hammer and nails than glue and lace; small wonder, then, that her books tend to be such solid, weight-bearing constructions.”