Post Academic

Why Do So Many People Assume They Can Write?

Posted in Absurdities by Caroline Roberts on January 29, 2011
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Image Source,Photobucket Uploader Firefox ExtensionWhen people start questioning funding for higher education, they often take dead aim at the humanities, assuming that the humanities aren’t as useful as, say, marketing. What makes the humanities such an easy target?

I think much of it stems from arrogance, in that so many people think they can write. Stringing words together seems easy, and companies don’t always invest in skilled writers because they think they can do the writing themselves.

That’s not always the case. How many times have you seen a company brochure that goes on and on without any awareness of who the audience is? Or blatant grammatical errors? Or misapplied sales-speak? Or blatant logical fallacies? (Campaign brochures whose arguments rest on the slippery slope fallacy, I am talking to you!)

I’m not a master writer, but writing calls for a base level of competence, one that goes beyond the ability to spell words correctly. A writer needs to know spelling, grammar, history, logic and even psychology. Companies wouldn’t dare attempt to tackle computer programming themselves, but they’ll change the words of a writer with the utmost confidence that “anyone can do it.” The words of a writer aren’t sacred–far from it–but writers do not pull stuff out of their butt. In order to write well, a person must also be able to read critically to find evidence and assemble an argument. Writing may not be as difficult as being a doctor or a physicist, but it isn’t a place where you can cut corners or offer low wages.

Image of typing in water from 1926, Bundesarchiv from Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons license.

20 Responses to 'Why Do So Many People Assume They Can Write?'

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  1. the peeling cheek writer said,

    People assume they can write because they can. The question that should be asked is…why do people assume they can write well?

    I think my writing is decent, not award winning, but not bad either.


    • I think your question nails it. It may also be that they are successful at verbal communication, but speaking is far different from writing.

  2. Caroline, you’ve been hiding your cranky side from us — I like it 😉

    • Hee-hee. Thank you. I wrote this post thinking it was a screedy one-off and disappeared for a few days. I had no idea that this post was going to stir up such a response! Maybe I should let Ms. Crankypants out more often.

  3. ReadyWriting said,

    I think it’s because it’s because early on, kids are told in school either they’re good writers or they’re bad writers. No effort is really made to change that, and so the good writers (I was one of them) continue through school thinking, no, believing, they are good writers and that that will never change. Why were some kids tagged good writers and others bad? Good writers always made writing seem effortless, or at least easy. Bad writers were the ones who struggled to get words on the page. Why should a good or bad writer work to improve if their roles are already set?

    With the lowering of standards, it’s all too easy to earn the label of good writer. It always shocks me the number of my developmental writing students who were either in AP English or just regular English but near the top of their class in HS. These kids continually got the message that they were good writers.

    I also think it’s partly American Idol’s fault; everyone thinks they can sing. Singing is seen as the easiest of the “arts” to succeed in without any formal training outside of the shower. Writing is perhaps seem as the second-easiest.

    Thankfully, I went to grad school, read some really, truly, great writing and come to my senses. I didn’t give up writing (hence the blog), but I did realize that I had a lot of work to do, and that I needed to practice (hence the blog).

    • It’s a shame to label kids as “good” or “bad” writers. To me, struggling to get words on a page is a positive sign. It might show that the student is trying to self-edit. Unlike math, where it is okay to struggle until you get the right answer, writing skill is seen as something you’re born with, like magic. Alas, like the aspiring “American Idol” singers (love any and all pop-culture references!), people eventually find out you have to work at it.

  4. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Professor Snarky, Lee Skallerup and tressie mc, Post Academic. Post Academic said: Why Do So Many People Assume They Can Write?: […]

  5. recent Ph.D. said,

    So true! My task this weekend (as I’ve blogged over at my place and which I’m clearly avoiding at the moment) is getting up to speed with Windows 7 and Office 2007, and I’m finding that even some of the instructions in the “Help” functions are written for an audience clearly more computer literate than I am. The world needs good technical writers, but I think there are a lot of people who call themselves technical writers who know a lot about technology but not much about writing. Audience awareness is one of the first things I’ve always taught my freshman comp students!

    • I’ve been reading about your prep for your new job. You’re going to do great–learning how to learn IS the most important key to work success. As for your tech-savvy, you’ll pick up the skills quickly. If you aren’t afraid to make a mistake every now and then, you’ll be fine. Also, have you been reading Reading that blog on a regular basis will take you beyond tech-savvy. Those writers know their audience. I picked up most of my tech skills from reading that site.

  6. Re: ‘People assume they can write because they can’, and because I just remembered it:

    One of my snarky prof friends always said to her students, ‘That’s not writing, that’s typing‘. She was the only person I know who was meaner to students than me, but sometimes it’s really the only way to get across how much that garble of words wasn’t actually writing!

    • Heh. I’d like to buy your snarky prof friend a drink. She probably did her students a favor by calling them out.

  7. During my short time in the working world I’ve noticed that it’s always my most intelligent coworkers who appreciate good writing the most. I work with science & tech people, and although their writing seems perfectly fine to me, they always say that they “can’t write” and seem to have great regard for people who can express their ideas clearly.

    It’s really the people who are truly terrible writers are the ones who seem to think it matters the least…

    • Science and tech people know that, if you are going to make a claim, you have to back it up. (Why I LOVE working with science and tech people: Exhibit A.) The bad-writing culprits think they’ll be fine if it “sounds good.” Good writers use a thesaurus; bad writers abuse it.

  8. Mom, Ph.D. said,

    I was on a college committee discussing budget cuts. The Writing Program was on the chopping block at my U. Some were saying that students could be taught writing in other courses. I argued that I was not trained to teach students to write, and thus I supported separate writing courses. A prof from one of the “hard” sciences cut me off, saying that was ridiculous, of course any of use could teach students to write. She thinks writing well means proper punctuation and grammar…. I have higher standards for what good writing entails (and thus believe I’m not trained to teach it).
    My writing classes in college were probably my most valuable classes (and I’m a social scientist). They taught me how to develop and refine my ideas through writing and rewriting. If the working world values critical thinking skills from college graduates (as media reports keep claiming), then we need to value writing as central to the college curriculum.

    • I’d love to see the prof from the “hard” science department try to teach a writing class. I would love to see her try to explain the finer points of grammar and syntax. Then there’s narrative arcs, counterarguments, consideration of audience (discussed above), the works. She’d break a sweat. Thank you for defending writing courses! Far too many people simply do not understand that good writing takes time and practice. It is like any other subject, and people don’t learn it through osmosis.

  9. L Eaton said,

    I think it’s also because most of us just seek writing as an extension of talking; we are by nature social creatures and we have now become the most prolific generation in history; writing away much more than we ever could before because 1. Easy access digital-text generators (keyboards, cellphones, text-to-speech–hell, even the copy and paste feature). 2. We’re more literate than we have been in the past. 3. Bigger markets for reading consumption from the blogosphere to the twitterspehere to books, ebooks, scripts for films, radio, TV, Internet, etc….

    unlike computer programming, microbiology or astrophysics, writing is an extension of spoken language and one that most of us use quite regularly to a degree that other people understand what we’re saying 95% of the time (if not more). So by nature, we assume we’re good writers too…

    and not for nothing, we’ve always had our abundance of bad writers; look at the penny dreadfuls and dime novels…many are by and large; nothing to write home about…but people still wrote them thinking they could write well enough to earn money.

    • I love how good talkers think they are good writers. Usually, they are good talkers because they are good performers. They can get a point across because of personality and presentation. If you took away the personality and presentation, the words themselves must work a lot harder.

      Regarding the penny dreadfuls: I’ve tried to write a few, and I learned they are harder than they look! Some people get lucky, but it’s pretty amazing how some writers can build suspense or stir up emotion, all through words alone. Just like writing, it takes time, practice, and research.

  10. Mackie Blanton said,

    I am just noticing here what must be Part One of this thread. These comments are wonderful. I shall share them with colleagues. They remind us that writing and composing are different and are twin skills of the same process.

  11. Kevin said,

    A company will hire a programmer for the same reason they’d hire a translator to speak Swahili if they needed it. A large portion of the world speaks English relative to the number that speak Python, Java, C, or SQL.

    I believe that the assumption that everyone can write is based on the faulty reasoning that everyone should be able to write.

  12. CanaW said,

    I believe that people who think they can write clearly, when they can’t, don’t read enough. Reading a variety of materials may not magicially turn one into a good writer, but it should certainly help you to recognize good or bad writing when you see it…even your own.

    We need MORE writing instruction, both at the K-12 level and in higher education, not less. I can’t tell you how much time I waste at work, trying to decipher long, meandering, emails, with lots of big words,that leave me more confused than I was when I started reading. What a waste of time on both sides, on the part of the writer and the reader. You’d think that companies, presumably interested in having productive workers, WOULD care very much that their employees be able to write effectively.

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