Writing is a craft like furniture making. Writing helps comprehension. Writing helps memory. Young writers begin by writing as they think, transcribing words sub-vocalized before speaking, and this often reads as a jumble. Clear writing must be organized, structured, and logical. Otherwise, no one understands what you write. Worse, they will mistake your meaning for something else.
You must start with a subject and a plan. Imagine you want to make a chair. The chair is the subject, but still vague and general. You could gather a jumble of wood, tools, screws, sandpaper, stain, and start, but where? You could begin with a leg and start building, working your way toward a chair. The result is still a jumble.
You cannot just begin to build. You need a plan, a design, and a process. First, make the plan, then collect the components, and finally assemble the chair.
Furniture making is learned like any craft through experience. It is common to begin as an apprentice and work under the supervision of a master for some years to learn how to best plan, design, and assemble quality goods. Even when some formal training in design, draftsmanship, materials allocation, and teamwork accompanies the job experience, the experience makes the master.
Writers also must be trained in the fundamentals of writing and then practice until proficiency arrives. Writers also learn on the job, but the job is school for most students. The better schools hire more proficient writers as teachers. The time spent with these teachers offers more opportunity to practice the craft of writing and to have it improved by the teacher. Better writers usually emerge from these schools. Most quality writing comes from people who studied with teachers who were proficient writers.
Why Do Some Write Better?
The American education system has always been a two-tier system. The people charged with becoming the leaders of the country in government, in law, in academia, and in industry go to private schools. The majority of people who will work for these leaders in the future go to public schools.
The top-tier private education provides the best training in writing. Students develop these skills and practice them rigorously under competent, literate teachers from prep school to Ivy League College. The top track supplies a rigorous competitive advancement maze. To progress students must compete for an ever narrowing set of positions at the next level. This is a pressurized atmosphere that motivates students to learn the skills and practice them to proficiency. Some go on to graduate studies and often a graduate thesis becomes the graduate’s first book. People emerge from the prep track with sharply honed writing tools at their disposal.
The lower-tier education provided for most people is served by the public schools. It creates good employees and good citizens. Writing is not as competitive and the tools are not sharpened to the degree that they are in prep schools. Students develop a functional literacy and the writing skill to write standard business communication. Teachers provide adequate writing skills at the level of journalistic content, complexity, and form. Writing a Power Point on this year’s sales strategy is much more important than writing a monograph on the “Risks of the Ninth Circuit Court’s Ruling on the Effect of Eminent Domain On Regional Environmental Preserves.” Writing remains relevant to job expectation in either case.
The New Writing Workshop
The rise of the Internet and the proliferation of online publications is changing this dynamic. The homeschool sits outside the usual structure. The government in every state has put homeschooling under the jurisdiction of the Local Education Authority, so it is clear that the state regards homeschools as a variant on the lower-tier education. The expectation from the state is that homeschools will staff local shops, organic farms, Amazon distribution centers, real estate offices, and local government, the same as public school. No one expects the homeschool graduate to enter politics, move into corporate executive management, or attend an Ivy League University.
A homeschool that replicates the best writing craftsmanship, rather than the public school process, can accomplish a mastery of superior skills. Through these skills the homeschool graduate can provide top tier intellectual leadership.
The greatest difficulty in gaining this proficiency in the basic tools comes from the absence of competent writers as teachers to set high standards for students. A critical trained eye to teach them to use the tools needed to write well is missing. Online mentors help. Reading the best writing that can be found helps too. Emulation works. Many writers like Benjamin Franklin and Henry Miller copied good books manually and learned how to present their thoughts. This is just an extension of the Charlotte Mason copybook method. The activities do not change, but the discipline to master them must come from within.
All Good Writing is Rewriting
How do you pursue a disciplined approach to improving your writing? First, learn the basic tools. Then, write with an eye to continual improvement. When you find a public writing opportunity seize the chance. These days the opportunity may be on social media, but if so, try to gather useful feedback and ignore the trolls. No social criticism is constructive in improving writing proficiency. Finally, try to become proficient in forming clear ideas by writing precis of others’ work. A precis is a brief statement of the essential thought of a paragraph or a longer work. This should not be a paraphrase or reproduction of the original. It is an attempt to capture concisely the essence of the thought from the original. It is harder than it seems, but is an essential step in deconstructing the methods used in a well-crafted piece of writing.
As a piece of fine furniture begins with an idea, so also an essay, article, or book begins with an idea. From this idea, a formal design is formed. The precis drill can teach the writer how to establish this initial idea. From that idea, develop a formal plan. The plan might be described in a list, or a cloud of sticky notes glued to the walls and windows.
Arrange the information logically. Too many writers leap into sentences directly from the sticky note cloud. An outline is the old fashioned idea for this structure. This requires some practice for those writers who have always proceeded informally, but it is worthwhile to see the ideas in their logical order. The pieces assembled in the outline can be arranged logically into the final form and then expanded into sentences and paragraphs.
The parts now assembled allow the writing to proceed until the piece emerges as a draft. The most important step arrives along with the first draft, this is the beginning of the first revision. All good writing is rewriting. The piece must be sanded and varnished like furniture. All good writing is rewriting. The work is revised and perhaps revised again. Sometimes a period of ignoring the piece occurs before the next version. Think of it as letting the primer dry. The mind will improve the product when the work is put aside for awhile. When the piece is done, subject it to copy editing for detail accuracy. This has always been an opportunity for an outsider to improve the writer’s material, if not their thought. If no outsider is available, then read the entire piece backward, word by word. Then, read it aloud the right way. This is tedious, but the result is worth the work.