Writing: The Long and Short of It, Continued

Written By admin

On May 4, 2012

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In my March 23rd post, I described the lengthy research paper required of all junior English students in my public high school many moons ago.  I cited a recent article by the New York Times’ Matt Richter (Blogs vs. Term Papers) on the blogs versus term papers debate taking place among academics in some postsecondary circles, and promised to share my thoughts on the merits of each.

student on computer

In the meantime, I came across an essay by John McWhorter, also in the New York Times (Talking with your fingers), in which he points out that texts and tweets, much maligned by teachers of writing for undermining the skills of today’s young students, are actually examples of “written conversation,” different in origin and purpose from “writing,” as it is generally understood—and so subject to different guidelines and expectations.

Since I’m a writer, you might guess that I’m still strongly in favor of long form writing, including those good old academic stand-bys, term papers, as well as multi-page articles, reports and thoughtful essays—and you’d be right.  There’s no question that the skills required for research, analysis, development and clear communication of ideas get an excellent and necessary workout when students produce the traditional forms of academic writing.

But you’d also be correct if you surmised that I think blogs, texts, tweets and all other forms of written communication can also be useful and important in the classroom and beyond.  What’s important for students, I believe, is to develop an understanding of the diverse array of origins and purposes for which we write, regardless of the form.  I would argue that the same basic skills are required of all forms of writing, beginning with an understanding of purpose and audience, a need to gather and cite information, and the necessity to organize and transform ideas into words that make it possible for others to understand those ideas.  Even a 140-character tweet requires an idea, specific information, a sense of potential audience and a conscious selection of words—even abbreviated words.

What longer form piece writing offers, however, is an opportunity to flex those intellectual muscles in a systematic way over a broader stretch of time.  I agree with Douglas B. Reeves, a columnist for the American School Board Journal, who is quoted in Richter’s story that, “Writing term papers is a dying art, but those who do write them have a dramatic leg up in terms of critical thinking, argumentation and the sort of expression required not only in college, but in the job market.  It doesn’t mean there aren’t interesting blogs. But nobody would conflate interesting writing with premise, evidence, argument and conclusion.”  I would add that lengthy and rigorous doesn’t have to mean boring and impossible to execute—my high school term paper on the musical Oklahoma! as a great example.

In this era of electronic media, shorter forms of writing like the very blog post I’m composing now, have the wonderfully motivating advantages of authentic communication, instantaneous publication and engagement with an audience, and educators should clearly make use of that.  Indeed, we can help students to recognize that all forms of writing, regardless of length or age in the academic canon, should be examples of clear, honest communication and connection with an audience.

What have been your experiences using both long and short forms of writing in the classroom?  How do you help students to understand and build on the common links across all forms of written communication?  Share your thoughts, and I’ll respond in a future post.