Were you taught or just taught to write badly?

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I’m old enough to have witnessed poodle skirts (on my mother), Pep Chew chocolate bars, elephant pants and brown briefly becoming the new black. One of the few advantages of aging is the perspective it gives you on trends. And aside from fashion, which is a category unto itself, one of the best places for trend-spotting is education.

The education system tends to swing like a pendulum about to fly loose from its pivot point. One moment it moves to the right — with an attendant focus on memorization, spelling, grammar and timed testing. But wait a decade and it whooshes to the left — with phonetic spelling, creative writing, self-assessment and loosey-goosey math. I don’t want to take sides except to say that common sense is usually the first casualty when the pendulum is at either extreme.

But because I care so much about writing, I do have to speak against the latest school fashion I’ve noticed. It’s called 6 + 1 Trait writing. (It’s even trademarked.) And while I think the title is sort of silly, I believe the idea behind it is damaging.

6+ 1 Trait writing says there are seven traits that identify “good” writing. These are:

Ideas

Organization

Voice

Word choice

Sentence fluency

Conventions

Presentation

Of course, arguing against these traits is like arguing against cellophane, puppy dogs or chocolate ice cream. There’s nothing wrong with any of them, and they’re all useful and important in their own way. The problem — and it’s a big one — is that the 6 + 1 traits are not going to teach children, or anyone else, how to write.

At this point you may be wondering why I’ve allowed my newsletter to be hijacked by a rant about a crazy, flash-in-the-pan educational theory that affects only school kids. Well listen, brothers and sisters, if you want to write, it does have something to do with you.

That’s because this theory demonstrates yet again how poorly our society understands the writing process. Telling someone to develop a better writing voice or show better sentence fluency is like telling a tennis player to grasp a racquet like Roger Federer or directing a cook to hold a whisk like Julia Child. Not only is it not helpful — it’s also likely to conjure up feelings of inadequacy, making matters worse.

The key to writing fluently, is not focusing on mechanics — it’s figuring out the substance of what you want to say, writing it down and then fixing it later. Instead of fretting about sentence structure, spelling and voice while you write, you need to let the words flow from your brain, to your fingers, to the paper. Then, and only then, should you edit.

So, if you are a teacher, please do me a favor: If you must use this system, tell the kids it’s about editing not writing. And for balance, be sure to introduce them to mindmapping as well.

And if you are a corporate or copywriter, then use this misguided educational trend as a reminder that writing and editing are two completely separate jobs. Despite what you may have learned in school, the trick to effective writing is writing freely and rapidly — even if you produce “junk” — and then going back to improve it later.

That first draft, no matter how awful, is your starting point. After all, you can’t fix something that isn’t there. So start to write badly. And edit what you’ve done into better shape.

Photo courtesy Evoo73, Flickr Creative Commons