Some Research on Writing

Dear Reader,

Don’t you love it when you find an article that backs up what you already think or want to do? I loved this recent article by Dr. Jennifer Spencer on The Due Use of Writing. It starts with Charlotte Mason’s assertion that good writing is achieved through much reading of good books and that lessons in composition should be avoided. And then it finds scholarly articles to back this up.

Now I have been doing some writing this year with my 10 and 12-year-olds. Though my aim is to have imitate good writing. They are not typical composition lessons nor are they frequent. We also do some grammar, but I try not to belabor it. I am not sure if it is truly helpful, but I am not sure I can give up the traditional methods entirely either.

I do have a couple of observations related to this subject. The first is that I have noticed with my son in particular that he often writes in the style of books he reads. I think this is just more obvious with him than with my daughter because he is more likely to read books with a distinct, often humorous, style. And if this is the case, then I suppose one must be careful what sort of books one lets one’s child read.

My second observation relates to the conversation quoted in which it is stated:

“[Someone who has not read widely] might have a functional command of the language, so you could get across your ideas if you were fairly intelligent and had had some practice, but it would lack the craft. It would lack fluidity. It would lack a deeper, skill-like, intimate knowledge of vocabulary and careful word choice, or a sense of how one sentence flows into another, or even one paragraph flows into another, a sense of the balance in sentence length. Those kinds of things I think you only learn from hearing them. It’s the natural idiom of the language….”

This quote about really knowing how a language works reminds me of some phone conversations I had with my credit card company recently. There were some problems and I ended up talking to three different people there. Their English was perfect. It was unaccented (to my ear; “unaccented” is of course subjective). There were no misspoken or misplaced words. And yet I could tell very quickly that they were not in the U.S. and were not native speakers. They were just very well-trained in how to speak. My point here is that the credit card company employees were like people with a lot of training in writing. They have had lessons. They can make everything technically correct. But it still doesn’t sound right. There is something intangible missing. Something that only comes with really being immersed in the langauge and understanding intuitively, not based on the grammar rules, how it works. The problem, I suppose, is that their English was too perfect. It followed all the rules. And to be authentic they would have to know when and how to break the textbook rules. That can’t really be taught.

So I am encouraged. To read more. To seek out quality books. And not to overdo the writing lessons.

[See those last sentences? They are fragments. I am aware of that, and yet I used them anyway. Is thta okay? My goal is not to have scholarly writing here but to sound conversational. What do you think? In the context, is such informality in writing okay or should I try to clean up my act a bit?]


6 responses to this post.

  1. I read that article too and was encouraged. It seems to me there are different types of writing. You can get away with a lot (fragments, idioms, casual speech) in a blog post. But a more formal book you would want to stay away from those. Some fictional works do not lend themselves to casuality and some nonfiction works are very conversational in tone and you can almost hear the author speaking to you. I think you can choose your approach (considering your audience) and stick with it.


  2. Oh, and I think you do just fine with your writing!


  3. Thanks for reading and for linking to my blog post! I didn’t have space to include everything from my research, but something else that came out was that we do, indeed, write in the style of what we are reading. I talked to one Mason high schooler who said that, when she looks back at her narrations and other writings from years ago, she can tell what she was reading at the time just by the style of her writing! Basically, we absorb all of those things through immersion, and they just come out naturally–in writing, in conversation, and even in children’s play. It’s a fascinating subject!

    Jen Spencer


  4. […] kids to write. (And how many times have I addressed this issue already! Here are posts one, two, three, four, five and […]


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