Becoming a Good Writer: On Purpose and Authority

While watching (re-watching for me) Marvel’s The Punisher (Netflix), my partner noted, “He is a really good actor,” about Jon Bernthal who plays Frank Castle (The Punisher).

This is something we all do in our daily lives, declare “good” and “bad” as we navigate the world. In the so-called real world, we rarely interrogate those evaluations—what makes something “good” or “bad”?

However, in academia, not only do we bristle at the low terms themselves, but also we are in a nearly constant state of unpacking exactly what constitutes quality.

The comment about Bernthal (who is a captivating actor) came just after I had spent more time than I wanted addressing the Aaron Rodgers/Ayn Rand moment trending on social media. Any time Rand is mentioned, “Rand is a bad writer/philosopher” is not far behind.

For example, I found Adam Weiner’s How Bad Writing Destroyed the World, an analysis of Rand’s harmful influence on real-world politics in the U.S.

Also concurrent with people debating Rand’s quality as a novelist (since Rodger’s pointed to her Atlas Shrugged), I noticed Neil Gaiman (and Bill Sienkiewicz [1] in the comments) post the following on Facebook:

Gaiman’s comment: “The thing that makes me sad is that the incorrect apostrophe destroys the joke.”

So in those contexts, I want to consider exactly what we mean about whether or not a writer is “good” or “bad”—notably as a framing for students who are themselves trying to become good writers.

A first-level problem with considering the quality of writing is distinguishing whether we are focusing on the content of the writing or the actual composing itself. What does that mean?

When people blast Rand as a “bad” writer, they almost always are attacking the content of her novels, how she uses narrative to propagandize about her philosophical and ideological commitments.

If you look carefully, some who proclaim her a “bad” writer also concede that Rand crafted engaging stories and constructed those stories in purposeful ways (her craft as a writer).

By contrast, although Gaiman suffered some appropriate challenges, Gaiman is targeting how the credibility of any writer is inextricable from many elements of craft (diction, tone, grammar, syntax, sentence and paragraph formation, etc.).

While the field of rhetoric has a long history of debating medium versus message, for students learning to write better, I emphasize that it is nearly impossible to separate the two. To reach the Holy Grail of “good,” then, I think anyone learning to write must focus on purpose and authority (internal v. external authority).

All writers are seeking ways to establish and develop their authority (convincing readers of their credibility so that their writing is read and considered seriously). And that authority is impacted by the purposefulness of the writing (both in terms of content and craft).

Gaiman’s Facebook post represents how the credibility of a text (the humor of the eatery’s sidewalk advertisement ) is impacted by surface features (in this example, confusing the use of the apostrophe for possessive versus plural)—a seasonal debate often when people send out Christmas cards and can’t navigate how to pluralize their family names.

As a writing teacher, I would use Gaiman’s post to note that, first, we should resist shaming anyone for surface features, and, second, we can interrogate the text of the ad to note that “dogs” and “human’s” is not about correctness, but a sort of lack of purpose.

I would note that a student essay having these usages would be a signal of lack of control of language (and thus, an erosion of authority), and not about “correctness.”

Here, especially when working with students and developing writers, we must be very careful about how we explain the relationship between medium and message since Gaiman is triggering the urge toward correctness as an absolute marker of quality [2].

Since most students have come through formal education that uncritically fosters an unhealthy attitude about grammar and usage (correctness), teachers of writing are often confronted with how to unpack correctness and shift students toward purpose.

So-called standard English is problematic, often a veneer for racism, sexism, etc., so I invite students to consider, for example, James Baldwin’s If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is? and this wonderful unpacking of dialect quality, which in part notes:

The characteristics that distinguish African-American English from standard American English include the pronunciation of consonant clusters at the ends of words (“desks” and “tests” become “desses” and “tesses,” for example), the elimination of some third-person singular verb inflections (“He throw the ball.” “She write the book.” “He vote for the candidate.”), and certain distinctive uses of the verb “to be.” Among the latter, perhaps the most emblematic is the frequently misunderstood construction that linguists refer to as the “habitual be.” When speakers of standard American English hear the statement “He be reading,” they generally take it to mean “He is reading.” But that’s not what it means to a speaker of Black English, for whom “He is reading” refers to what the reader is doing at this moment. “He be reading” refers to what he does habitually, whether or not he’s doing it right now.

Ebonics

The marginalized dialect (often referred to as Black English, Ebonics, or AAVE) is in fact nuanced, complex, and powerful—as the unpacking concludes:

Only by moving beyond the deeply ingrained negative attitudes of the past, the speech researchers agree, is it possible to appreciate the multi-faceted subtleties of all human language. “Language is not just a matter of words and sounds and syntax,” says Seymour. “It’s an identity issue, it’s a social issue. It’s very complicated.”

Ebonics

Beyond fostering an unhealthy understanding of language, focusing on correctness often leads to students practicing an imbalance in the relationship between medium and message; many students have received high grades on writing that conforms to correctness but expresses very little, offers jumbled thinking, and/or simply misrepresents a topic.

Too often, as well, students have been rewarded for conforming to prescriptions that are neither good writing nor good thinking (five-paragraph essays that force all topic into 3 points).

Ironically, students spend so much energy confirming to scripts and correctness that they become bad writers.

Although there certainly is some wiggle room in spelling and punctuation, students must be aware that surface features in writing trigger assumptions about their credibility, the authority of the writer; in other words, purposeful writing and writer authority work together, are symbiotic.

Again, in the real world, there are far too many examples of public writing that shows how a writer’s established authority allows that writer to express some really careless and false ideas (let me note David Brooks, for example, who certainly can craft words and sentences in all the so-called correct ways while saying nothing or, more often, expressing simplistic thinking).

Students are in a very difficult position since they are almost always less authoritative on their topics than their professors/teachers as well as still on their journey to being “good” writers (in terms of having control of the language they craft).

We are left then with a journey, helping students develop their sense of purpose with composing that establishes their internal authority (the authority grounded in the essay itself) in order to create their external authority (the authority associated with them as people/students/scholars; again, see Brooks or Rand, who many recognize as people who think and write with some established authority).

Students must move away from correctness (the learned belief in rules such as “Don’t write fragments”) and toward purposefulness (crafting and choosing sentence forms, medium, that reinforce the message of their writing).

To be a good writer is a paradox, then. Good writers have a healthy understanding of writing (as Baldwin advocates for) while also being aware of the consequences of norms (see Gaiman’s somewhat petty lament).

When my partner praised Bernthal as a “good actor,” I agreed and noted several of the Marvel series on Netflix benefitted from many good actors, often allowing rather bad elements of superhero narratives to slip by (although several of the series also have good writing).

For students learning to write, we must do much more than say writing is “good” or “bad,” however, by helping students recognize and practice the elements of purpose and authority that lead to those evaluations.


[1] Sienkiewicz notes his own parody of misspellings on business signs from his run on Elektra: Assassin:

Elektra: Assassin (1986-1987) #6 (of 8) - Comics by comiXology
Elektra: Assassin 6

[2] See my poem parodying this phenomenon: grammar Nazis (post-apostrophe literature)

UPDATE: Possibly the best example of apostrophe confusion yet: