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Classical Christian Movement

The Essentials of a True Writing Program

By November 1, 2010January 30th, 2023No Comments

A question was once, somehow or other, started between Collins and me, of the propriety of educating the female sex in learning, and their abilities for study. He was of opinion that it was improper, and that they were naturally unequal to it. I took the contrary side, perhaps a little for dispute’s sake. He was naturally more eloquent, had a ready plenty of words; and sometimes, as I thought, bore me down more by his fluency than by the strength of his reasons. As we parted without settling the point, and were not to see one another again for some time, I sat down to put my arguments in writing, which I copied fair and sent to him. He answered, and I replied. Three or four letters of a side had passed, when my father happened to find my papers and read them. Without entering into the discussion, he took occasion to talk to me about the manner of my writing; observed that, though I had the advantage of my antagonist in correct spelling and pointing (which I flow’d to the printing house), I fell far short in elegance of expression, in method and perspicuity, of which he convinced me by several instances. I saw the justice of his remarks, and thence grew more attentive to the manner in writing, and determined to endeavor at improvement.

About this time [around 14-15?] I met with an odd volume of the Spectator. It was the third. I have never before seen any of them. I bought it, read it over and over, and was very much delighted with it. I thought the writing excellent, and wished, if possible, to imitate it. With this view I took some of the papers, and, making short hints of the sentiment in each sentence, laid them by a few days, and then, without looking at the book, try’d to complete the papers again, by expressing each hinted sentiment at length, and as fully as it had been expressed before, in any suitable words that should come to hand.

Then I compared my Spectator with the original, discovered some of my faults, and corrected them. But I found I wanted a stock of words, or a readiness in recollecting and using them. . . . Therefore I took some of the tales [in the Spectator] and turned them into verse; and, after a time, when I had pretty well forgotten the prose, turned them back again. I also sometimes jumbled my collections of hints into confusion, and after some weeks endeavored to reduce them into the best order, before I began to form the full sentences and completed the paper. This was to teach me method in the arrangement of thoughts. By comparing my work afterwards with the original, I discovered many faults and amended them; but I sometimes had the pleasure of fancying that, in certain particulars of small import, I had been lucky enough to improve the method or the language, and this encouraged me to think I might possibly in time come to be a tolerable English writer, of which I was extremely ambitious.“

–Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography

Thus did Benjamin Franklin, after some hints from his father, teach himself to become one of the greatest writers in the English language. The occasion for this long quotation is the consideration of the question whether classical schools should adopt a specialized “writing program” or instead teach writing as an art that is closely allied with and emanates from the other disciplines of classical training. The temptation in schools is to opt for a “program” that can be handed to the teachers in a binder, the teachers being told, “Here, follow this.” I contend that students learn to write rather by reading good writing and by being required to write often under the tutelage of someone who has an eye for good writing and who can bring to bear all other parts of the curriculum in teaching students how to organize and express their thoughts on the blank page. That endeavor is an art, not a “process,” and not a canned “program.”

We should first be frank about what a “writing program” is. These programs, which have been “adopted” in schools throughout the country, public and private, attempt to reduce all thoughts on all occasions to a contrived, prescriptive, mind- numbing formula by means of a lot of gimmicks. These programs are all deficient in major respects, though each usually has one or two fairly obvious suggestions that might prove useful. Mostly they are deficient because they are not written by good writers nor written for good writers as a guide to teach good writing. Instead, they are made for the typical uneducated schoolteacher who has no love of nor proficiency in the English language, who cannot write well, and yet who must “teach writing” because the curriculum calls for it. With this need in mind, textbook publishers and program-makers are ready to come up with an easy-to-use method that promises higher standardized-test scores, a method, by the way, that no real writer has ever used. One wonders how Bacon and Locke and Addison and Johnson and Franklin and the Federalist authors and all the great essayists of our language, not to mention the poets and playwrights and novelists, ever learned to write a sentence without Six Traits and Step-Up to Writing. The greatest deficiency of these programs, however, is that in showing teachers and students the quick-and-easy method of getting thoughts down on paper, they never quote or make reference to those great writers in our language from whom we have the most to learn. Had Franklin learned from Six Traits rather than from Addison’s Spectator, he no doubt would have learned to slap some words down on paper but would never have fulfilled his ambition of becoming a “tolerable English writer,” certainly not a writer whom anyone wanted to read. We must begin, then, by asking, “what is good writing?” All good writing makes a point. Without a point, writing is in vain. We have all read articles and essays, some written by children, others by older students, some by those who appear in journals and newspapers, and wondered, “What’s the point?” Professor Joe Williams, my own writing teacher and the author of the acclaimed Style, used to say, “the biggest problem with undergraduate writing is that it’s pointless.” By that he meant that immature writers often make no claim, have no thesis, do not build their writing around a central theme. Very often they have no point because they have nothing to say or do not know what is at stake on a given topic. To this end, young writers often have to be given topics. Nonetheless, even young children and adolescents have big questions on their minds. Notice that the young Franklin’s point in his first essay came from an argument he had been having with his friend Collins. (Whether girls could undergo a classical education—“learning”—in those days was still an open question.) Writers must take care not to drift away from their points as they write. Furthermore, they should avoid being wishy-washy. Too many papers of young writers take on an “it’s-sort-of-this- but-sort-of-that” quality. I tell students to write their papers as they would argue a legal case. As a prosecutor you would not make a very strong case by arguing that the defendant is “sort-of guilty.”

Once a writer has a point, he must harness the forces of knowledge, logic, and eloquence to support it clearly and convincingly. All good writers must have a thorough knowledge of their subject and of the world in general to find supporting evidence for their case. Writing without knowledge only exposes one’s ignorance. Knowledge differs from mere opinion. Opinions are people’s raw desire to express themselves without having studied an issue or given it any thought. Knowledge comes as the result of patient study combined with sound judgment.

Such knowledge is derived from many sources, but two are crucial: books and nature. With the former, only books that are themselves the result of patient research and sound judgment are worth reading. The latter can be divided into the physical and the human world. Any good writer will then be a voracious reader and a careful observer of the natural world and of the human condition. Consider Franklin’s essay. Even given the knowledge about women at the time, he could easily have argued that women could undergo a classical education. From books he would have learned about Cornelia, mother of the brothers Gracchi, who had essentially home-schooled her famous sons. He would have cited Locke, the great philosopher of the age, who had similarly observed women schooling their children. He could have referred to many young women privately educated in the home who had acquired French and Italian through their singing lessons. Finally, he could have decimated his rival’s arguments with a bit of common sense. “Learning has always centered upon the learning of Latin. Girls can learn Latin as well as boys. They merely have not done so recently because no one bothers to teach it to them. If girls cannot learn Latin, then what did women in ancient Rome speak? Surely, they did not speak a language wholly different from their fathers, brothers, and husbands. And unless my opponent wishes to argue that human nature has changed fundamentally since the times of the ancient Romans, he cannot provide a reason for thinking girls in these enlightened times are any less capable of learning that noble language.”

Good writing is also logical. In a logical essay the arguments are separate and coherent and follow a sensible order. Forming separate and distinct points to support the major one is critical to good writing. Immature writers will often make the mistake of taking up the same topic two or three times over the course of an essay rather than dealing with it all at once. At other times, the individual points seem to have no connection with each other. Redundancy and incoherence are major faults the young writer must overcome. The writer must further arrange those distinct points in the most compelling order. To teach himself logical arrangement, Franklin even jumbled up his individual “thoughts” and later put them back together as Addison had originally written them. No writing program can teach this logical order since too many variables exist for each attempt at writing: the demands of the subject, the style of the author, the nature of the audience, and the occasion for the essay. Should the most powerful piece of evidence come at the beginning or end of an essay? No writing program can answer that question.

The good writer must be both a master and a lover of the English language. The writer deploys words as an artist uses paints or a composer arranges notes: by putting words together to achieve a sublime composition. Language consists in many elements: principally grammar, vocabulary, and style.

Grammar, though to some not an alluring study, ranks as the most necessary for any writer. The English language, after all, has a structure or framework. That framework is essential to the stability of the edifice, and its integrity cannot be compromised. Had Jefferson written, “We hold that these truths is self-evident,” no one would have read what he had to say. Teachers of writing must not content themselves with correcting bad grammar, surgically, that has gone awry; they must teach good grammar prescriptively. Here is how Winston Churchill, one of the greatest writers and speakers of the English language, described his learning of English grammar:

[B]y being so long in the lowest form [grade] I gained an immense advantage over the cleverer boys. They all went on to learn Latin and Greek and splendid things like that. But I was taught English. We were considered such dunces that we could learn only English. Mr. Somervell—a most delightful man, to whom my debt is great—was charged with the duty of teaching the stupidest boys the most disregarded thing—namely, to write mere English. He knew how to do it. He taught it as no one else has ever taught it. Not only did we learn English parsing thoroughly, but we also practiced continually English analysis. Mr. Somervell had a system of his own. He took a fairly long sentence and broke it up into its components by means of black, red, blue, and green inks. Subject, verb, object: Relative Clauses, Conditional Clauses, Conjunctive and Disjunctive Clauses! Each had its color and its bracket. It was a kind of drill. We did it almost daily. As I remained in the Third Fourth three times as long as anyone else, I had three times as much of it. I learned it thoroughly. Thus I got into my bones the essential structure of the ordinary British sentence—which is a noble thing.

There is no getting around it. The English sentence is a noble thing, but not a thing that can be picked up on the fly. Grammar must be drilled into a student’s very bones.

If grammar is the framework of the language, words are the bricks and mortar. We have a great many words to choose from in English. There are a couple of hundred thousand words in a good collegiate dictionary and around a million in the OED. English is said to be the richest language for its sheer volume of words. And yet any good writer knows that at a certain moment only one word will do. It is one thing to call a girl pretty. It is quite another to call her radiant. True, one girl may be pretty and another may be radiant, but they are not the same girl. A good writer does not blast away at his target with a shotgun but uses a rifle with a scope to achieve pinpoint accuracy. To achieve such accuracy, the good writer must be a lover of words. “Lover” is no hollow metaphor and no exaggeration. Again Churchill: “I had picked up a wide vocabulary and had a liking for words and for the feeling of words falling into their places like pennies in the slot. . . I admired these words.” In the middle of World War II, Churchill visited his alma mater Harrow to listen to the boys sing the old school songs, which he loved so much. To one of the school songs the boys had added another verse: Not less we praise in darker days/The Leader of our Nation,/And Churchill’s name shall win acclaim/ From each new generation. Though immensely touched by the added verse, Churchill requested that the boys change “darker” to “sterner.” Though admittedly difficult and challenging, these were not dark days. What sort of man, himself at the helm, would take the trouble in the middle of the greatest war in history to change a word in a school song? Was Churchill a pedant? No, indeed. To him the difference between darker and sterner was everything.

In addition to a solid grammar and a precise vocabulary, a good writer must possess style. The chief flaw of the contrived writing programs is their total want of style. Style is the manner, the tone, the address, the quality of a person’s writing. We normally use the word style in reference to dress. The analogy is apt. We change our dress to suit the occasion. One does not wear a tux to the gym or flip- flops to a funeral. Style in writing, too, must suit the occasion. Certain moments summon energy and force while others invite a lighter touch. Style also gives texture and nuance and force to writing by the use of various literary devices such as simile, metaphor, alliteration, parallelism and the like. When Lincoln called the nation a “house divided,” he did more than quote the Bible. He perfectly diagnosed the nation’s malady. More than suitability or literary device, style is the true signature of the writer. I remember reading somewhere that style is the image of the mind. The way one writes does, indeed, reveal qualities of mind, perhaps even of character. Consider the character that comes through in Darcy’s letter to Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice. Not only does each author have a style, but we may say that each age in history writes with a particular style that reflects the society’s manners and habits of mind. In the eighteenth century, men and women dressed with elegance, spoke with elegance, and consequently wrote with elegance. Is it any wonder that we in the twenty- first century dress in jeans, speak mostly of trivial things, and therefore too often write in a sloppy and slapdash manner? In classical education, though, there may be a remedy.

Having shown that the sources of good writing derive from disciplines and habits of mind that are not acquired in a “writing program,” we should be able with some force and perspicuity to demonstrate in a subsequent essay that a thorough classical education is the best means to learn and practice the art of good writing.

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