Why Writing Matters
by Kristina Brooks
Good writing—no, truly great writing— can tantalize our senses, tease our intellect, surprise our conception of ourselves, and ultimately delight us.
We all practiced the fundamentals in school, but it’s a long way from “subject + predicate” to the artistry of Jane Austen or Toni Morrison. How do good writers become great? And is writing still a significant skill in an era of tweets?
“Writing is a powerful source of discovery and knowledge in its own right,” says Julie Liss, professor of history, who has been teaching and reading student writing at Scripps College for 22 years. “I always tell students, especially when working on a longer project like the senior thesis, that if they knew everything they were going to say before they even started, something would be wrong. Writing and thinking are deeply connected, which is probably why it is both so difficult and so rewarding.”
Indeed, the acts of rewriting and editing are attempts to clarify and refine our thoughts, to arrange our words so that the distance between the writer and reader is bridged. Creating meaning—whether through music, movement, paint, or words—is a powerful process. No wonder students struggle to craft a thesis statement, to hit the required page count, and to escape the instructor’s red pen.
Writing is hard work
Writing has always been central to the Scripps curriculum. However, theories about writing pedagogy and modes of writing have evolved since 1927, when Professor Hartley Burr Alexander and the Board of Trustees developed a twoyear core humanities program focusing on the history of Western Civilization. Today, all first-year students take reading and writing-intensive Core I as well as a section of Writing 50: Critical Analysis, designed to develop skills in general academic writing through outlining, drafting, writing, rewriting, and proofreading. Students also learn how to develop an original central argument, expand their research skills, and assess their audience and its expectations.
“My goal for a first-year composition class is to transition students from high school to college writing,” says Glenn Simshaw, visiting assistant professor of writing. “Coming to Scripps, students have developed skills in composing formulaic, narrow essays that serve them well on standardized tests. My course exposes them to a messier, wider range of arguments, and asks them to construct discursive prose that promotes meaningful disagreement by confronting conflicting perspectives.”
The intense focus on writing in their first semester is often unsettling for new students. Ariel Bloomer ’12, a self-designed creative writing: fiction major, had never written a research paper before.
“That was the biggest growth I had as a writer,” she says. “I was able to write about things I was interested in and cared about for the first time, and I was pushed to do better.”
“Gayle Greene’s memoir class was challenging because the content of the writing was so personal. It made sharing my work out loud even harder, because it was not only a piece of writing, but a piece of my life. Even though my major’s concentration is in fiction, memoir writing was one of the most helpful courses I took and is really the heart of the statement, ‘write what you know.’”
As both professors and students note, writing is hard work. Powers of observation must be honed and the challenge to expose one’s “warts and all” on paper must be met. Too, one must be willing to delete a favorite expression or restructure what seemed like a perfect edifice of words. As Ernest Hemingway said, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”
“This hard labor continues long after their first semester of college,” says Simshaw. “I’m preparing them to think of writing as a lifelong endeavor and not just a 15-week program of study.”
For Kendra Atleework ’11, who designed a major in creative writing for contemporary media, this message has struck home. Writing has become her life’s focus.
“I’ve seen huge changes in my writing since my first year at Scripps,” she says. “The difference is that now I more fully understand and know how to carry out and experiment with the craft.”
Writing can—literally—pay off. After taking a course on grant writing, Kendra was able to parlay her writing skills into a successful grant application to benefit an Inglewood non-profit that provides after-school tutoring and other activities for children. Kendra has written for alternative news outlets and sees her future goal as “combining activism, music, and writing. The guidance I’ve gotten at Scripps has allowed me to actually realize that goal.”
Writing changes us
As Liss points out, the process of writing is thinking writ large.
“Writing contributes to growth in that it clarifies our thinking and allows us to communicate ourselves—who we are, what our passions are, our strengths, our fears, how we shape our ideas and see the world,” says Rosann Simeroth, who has taught in the writing program at Scripps for the past decade. “We are constantly interpreting the world around us, whether this is on a conscious level or not. Writing helps us take a look at our own interpretive grid. This brings about transformation.”
Although not always respected as an academic major, much less a lifelong pursuit, writing well is both difficult and rewarding. At Scripps and the other Claremont Colleges, students interested in focusing on writing must design their own majors. This process brings about growth.
“Scripps has made me a more powerful woman in many ways,” says Annie Dreshfield ’13, “but I truly believe that writing for contemporary media] has contributed to that more than anything else. Instead of being handed a list of classes to complete in order to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in four years, I designed everything with the help of Professor Kimberly Drake, my advisor, and presented it to the Committee on Academic Review. What better way to make a stronger woman than to have her fight for what she loves?”
Recently named the director of the Writing Program, Kimberly Drake has taught at Scripps since 2005 and had served as interim director of the program for several years. Since her arrival, she has been instrumental in increasing the number of writing majors, from two in 2005 to about 15 who are in the process of completing a major or minor today. She is an enthusiastic proponent of writing as a practical major.
“We have courses covering all genres,” says Drake. “After taking our grant writing course, for instance, students can get jobs immediately. Our students can really sell their writing skills.”
Lindsey Galloway ’07, an English and women’s studies dual major who has forged a career in journalism, recalls the immersion in writing she experienced at Scripps. From the moment she had the brainwave to become an English major (while sitting in Cheryl Walker’s American literature class her first year), Lindsey experienced many moments of inspiration related to her development as a thinker and writer.
“I was that rare beast who managed to take at least one class from each of the 5-Cs,” says Lindsey. “I think the expectation for a high level of thought was there at all of them, but the nuts and bolts of writing were definitely focused on more at Scripps.
“One really random writing assignment I remember was in Nathalie Rachlin’s French 44 class. We had to write a five-page fiction story in French. It stretched my creative mind and my foreign language mind to work with metaphor, dual meanings, and back to the basics of grammar and sentence structure. Perhaps surprisingly, writing in French eventually helped my English grammar and language skills.”
After internships at Denver’s city magazine, 5280, and at U.S. News and World Report, Lindsey secured jobs at Alternative Medicine/Natural Solutions magazine and Examiner.com. Currently working on a website for a new startup and regularly freelancing for BBC Travel (bbc.com/travel), Lindsey feels “the whole process and art of writing has definitely evolved with technology over the last few years, and I think it’s pushing new and creative work. One thing I love about Twitter is the fact that you have to be clever and creative in 140 characters— kind of like writing a headline or cover line for a magazine.”
Does writing still matter?
Professor Drake, though, feels digital media has positively influenced young writers. “You get more immediate feedback about your writing. I think these writers realize they have to be clear, funny, and/or interesting. Even if someone reading your work can’t write that well, they will still recognize good writing.”
Faculty voted in revisions to the writing requirement in spring 2010; a steering committee is working this year to implement and pilot those revisions. The goal is to offer students greater flexibility, support, and options as they hone their writing skills.
While the sentiment may be quaintly put—“Of all those arts in which the wise excel, Nature’s chief masterpiece is writing well”—the Duke of Buckinghamshire Sheffield (1649–1720) was on to something in his Essay on Poetry. Writing still matters, and great writing cannot be easily wrung from the pen or keyboard. The phenomenal recent success of Groupon, an email marketer worth billions, should give young writers plenty of hope about the value of their craft. Employing more than 400 young creative people to write its incredibly witty and original pitches, Groupon demonstrates that, although language and form might change, the art of writing is far from dead.
“Creative writing is my passion,” says Anissa Joonas ’13. “‘Do what you love, and let your passions drive you’ is what my parents repeatedly say. And I am doing just that.”
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