On December 8, 1975, Newsweek magazine ran a front-cover story titled, “Why Johnny Can’t Write.” It raised national concerns about the quality of writing that students produce in American K-12 schools. And it caused a 30-year flood of thousands of protest articles with the same title.
Furthermore, in 1998, 2002, and 2007, national tests continued to prove that those concerns were still justified, tests which were reported by the National Education Association–only one out of five seniors showed they could write well enough to do writing required in college. And in 2003, the National Commission on Writing declared there was a national crisis in teaching writing in America and recommended, basically, that all levels of schools and governments chip in lots more money, time, and people to cope with the crisis.
However, what authorities have not realized, even yet, is that most of the major problems with teaching writing come from teachers focusing their students’ writing merely on the FORMS of writing, without teaching the CONTENT of writing.
For instance, teachers emphasize correct grammar, punctuation, and organization, which are all forms. And when they teach how to write essays, they spend all their time on introductions and conclusions, thesis statements, topic sentences, and paragraphs–more forms. All those writing forms are needed, to be sure, but nowhere is there a connection between any of them and the most crucial thing in writing–CONTENT that is new to the reader.
True, most teachers and textbooks DO tell students to avoid cliches, to say something interesting, to say something original or new, but they don’t provide students with an actual process for coming up with something new.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not blaming teachers of writing: I’m merely describing the situation.
Actually, it’s a cultural problem, that is, a cultural conceptual problem.
You see, nobody really knows how to talk about the concept of newness, so how can teachers be expected to instruct on newness in writing? In fact, our civilization has ignored coping with the concept of newness for thousands of years.
Why? Because for all of us newness has been this mysterious, formless, HUGE black box in our minds that we put everything into that we–
1. haven’t experienced yet, 2. haven’t been told about yet, and 3. haven’t thought about yet
Let’s verify this, right here. As a mental experiment, try this: Can you think of even ONE useful category that would fit ALL kinds of newness? (Of course, I mean other than the three groups in the previous paragraph. Let’s also add the idea of recency, making four. We do usually think of something that recently occurred as being new, such as a new headache or a new bill. What makes them new is only that they occurred nearby in time, or recently.)
So, right now, try to come up with at least one category of newness, and then resume reading after the line of asterisks, below.
**************** I couldn’t do it, either–until I realized a couple more things.
First, very like the vague concept of what’s new, the concept of what’s old has been a mysterious, formless, HUGE black box in our minds that takes in–
1. everything we’ve experienced, 2. everything we’ve been told, and 3. everything we’ve ever thought about
–in fact, everything in our lives up until now! Even with these three categories, what’s old is so huge that we really can’t wrap our minds around it, can we?
Second, I discovered that we can cope with newness and oldness if we realize this fundamental relationship between the two–what’s new always depends on what’s old.
For instance, you know the old saying, “You can’t talk about color to a blind man (who has been blind since birth).” If your reader has no experience with the kind of thing you are talking about–that is, no experience with a shared group that the thing belongs to, something it is like,such as movies or computers–then you can’t talk with him about it. You really can’t explain anything unless you use words and ideas from groups of things you already share with him.
So if your reader is Tarzan of the Jungle (Tarzan taught himself to read, in the original story) and you use the word soap in your writing without explaining it, then Tarzan won’t know what you mean, since soap is something he has never experienced, has never been told about, and has never thought about. And you can’t describe a beautiful sunset to a blind man because he has never seen that group of things we call colors.
Now, that’s not too big of a mental leap, is it, to say that what’s new depends on what’s already old (or already known) to the reader?
Okay. Then what we need now are some categories we can use to divide up the concepts of new and old so we can make a working relationship between the two.
Here is a list of what I call old views:
* Values * Expectations * Experiences * Reasoning * Language
And here is a list of what I call new views:
* Reverse * Add * Subtract * Substitute * Rearrange
With these two sets of categories, we can teach students to identify what they share with their readers–the old view, and then we can show them how to process those with the five new views, making them new.
For instance, one student may identify her own strong old view value of not liking the divorce her parents went through, also noting that her friends don’t like divorces, generally, either.
Then we can suggest that she use the reverse new view process to say that divorce has some advantages, some good things about it. And on her own she more than probably could come up with examples that show her actually spending more personal time with her father each week, going to a show or to dinner more often with him, as well as the wonderful fact that he now buys her more expensive personal gifts than before the divorce. Then we can help her put that into a thesis statement, make it resonate in topic sentences, use it to provide examples and stories in her body paragraphs, and create a fine introduction and conclusion.
We can teach Johnny–and Janey–to write content with newness and still use forms in doing it. But only if we stop focusing so exclusively on forms and start focusing first on what’s new to the reader. And only then should we show them how they can use traditional forms to support and convey that newness.
As we all know, in the real world newness of content generates forms, not the other way around.
By universally teaching “what’s new to the reader” as the most important factor in writing courses, we’ll never have to see another irritating article titled, “Why Johnny Can’t Write”–and we’ll save a mountain of money in the process.