Formal writing may be a dying art. Today, written communication is so easily produced that many forms of it are disposable. In previous generations, one might jot down a list for shopping and discard it when completed. However, today’s texts, tweets, emails, and posts cause the inboxes of contemporary lives to overflow. One loses the desire to communicate with excellence when his words will soon evaporate. Consequently, writers have become lazy, using every cliché, colloquialism, and ambiguous construction heard at the mall’s food court.
Nearly every form of verbal communication—in print, online, in person, and broadcast—contains such folksy turns of phrase that one can scarcely find genuine formal prose. Writers use first person, second person, contractions, and questions with increasing frequency. The ubiquitous, casual use of the English language creates challenges for students and tutors of writing.
Years ago a tutor could appeal to a student’s experience to help her recognize informal speech patterns. “Imagine a newscaster telling this story. Would he use that colloquialism?” Students today so rarely watch newscasts that they cannot even imagine a newscaster’s vocabulary.
When this writer chose his topic, his natural inclination was to approach the subject with frivolity and a figurative arm around the shoulder. However, a casual treatment of the topic would not suffice. A treatise on formal writing cannot be undertaken using first person or shopping mall phraseology. A tutor must set an example for his students, showing them that good writers can communicate the intended tone, even with formal language.
Students may well avoid informal language if they can recognize it. So, the challenge remains of helping students recognize common informal phrases. By reading excellent literature, students will learn to recognize the engaging quality of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s prose. They will appreciate the poetry of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. They will enjoy the wit and irony of Shakespeare. By comparison, the bland nature of casual blogs and repetitive song lyrics will become obvious.
Students also learn good writing by diagramming sentences. When they analyze difficult prose in important American documents, students grasp the foundations of language. When they diagram sentences in their own papers, they sharpen their skills of precision. Good writing is hard work. Good writing can change the course of history.
Sloppy writing is disposable and history will sweep it aside. Those who express good ideas in precise, colorful language may contribute to the body of literature for the present and future generations.