Writing more important than ever

December 10, 2011


For 30 years, the English Department at San Jose State University has sponsored the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, a competition “to compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels.”

Here are the winning entries from 2010 and 2011:

“For the first month of Ricardo and Felicity’s affair, they greeted one another at every stolen rendezvous with a kiss — a lengthy, ravenous kiss, Ricardo lapping and sucking at Felicity’s mouth as if she were a giant cage-mounted water bottle and he were the world’s thirstiest gerbil.”  (Molly Ringle of Seattle, Wash.). 

“Cheryl’s mind turned like the vanes of a wind-powered turbine, chopping her sparrow-like thoughts into bloody pieces that fell onto a growing pile of forgotten memories.”  (Sue Fondrie of Oshkosh, Wis).

These sentences are wonderfully creative and very funny (and take great skill to write), but good writing is a serious issue. Increasingly, it is the way we communicate both in our professional and personal lives. Without good writing we are all handicapped.  

In its groundbreaking 2003 report, “The Neglected R: The Need for a Writing Revolution,” the National Commission on Writing stated that “writing sustains American life and popular culture.”  That is even truer today than it was a decade ago.

Let’s put writing in perspective. Documents written centuries ago still have a profound impact on our lives. Our politics are shaped by the Constitution; our religious beliefs by the Bible and the Quran; our arts and culture by Austen, Cervantes, Shakespeare and Sophocles.

The printing press, developed in the 15th century, democratized information and was a driving force in the scientific, social and political revolutions that reshaped our world.  Technology is now spurring another writing revolution and the sheer quantity generated is staggering. There are an estimated 30 billion emails and 50 million tweets daily.

For those who doubt the power of this medium, look at the bloggers and political organizers in Egypt and Iran. Look at how our businesses function. Look at how we communicate on simple daily matters such as where and when to meet. And while telephones and face-to-face conversations are still important parts of the communication equation, it is common to receive an email with a question or comment from a person no more than 20 feet away.

Unfortunately, just because writing is now more important than ever does not mean that writing has become better. The National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), the nation’s “education report card,” paints a bleak picture. One percent of our 12th-graders were graded as advanced, 23 percent as proficient, 58 percent as basic and 18 percent as below basic. Put another way, these data tell us that less than a quarter of high school seniors write at grade level.

One report estimates that American business pays more than $3 billion annually to train their employees to be better writers. A survey of state and local governments echo this sentiment, saying that one third of their employees do not have adequate writing skills.

The College Board financed the National Commission on Writing for a decade, publishing and distributing the perspectives of teachers, policy makers, business people and government. The comprehensive nature of the studies — from plain reading and writing instruction, to teaching English as a second language, to the stunning impact of technology — further adds to their value.

According to the late U.S. senator from West Virginia, Robert Byrd, the sweeping series of reports on the importance of writing and literacy was “the most significant contribution to writing in the 21st century.”

“The studies served as a national call for action,” Gaston Caperton, president of the College Board, has said. The output of the commission directly influenced policy makers, educators, businesses and government in common cause. With a united voice, they broadened the definition of what counts as literacy.

But perhaps most significantly, the studies created a public dialogue on issues that deserve a full and open debate: the importance of literacy for new immigrants and second-language learners, the importance of writing for advancement in employment, the compelling need for an explosion in the use of the latest technology in schools and creative ways to enhance classroom teaching in literacy and writing.

Let’s take our hats off to the winners of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest and keep up the quality of the winners for years to come.

Gene Budig served as president/chancellor of three major state universities, including Kansas University, and is past president of Major League Baseball’s American League. Alan Heaps is a vice president of the College Board in New York City.


jaywalker 6 years, 4 months ago

What the hell is that, Blevins?

Fine points all, Mr. Budig. I couldn't agree more. I expect it should come as no surprise that our collective writing skills have eroded when butchering of the spoken word has become so widespread. But I still find myself shaking my head while looking at professional web sites, reading email, and even news articles. I remember proofreading colleagues' fiction stories and papers in the senior level courses at KU. The plethora of simple mistakes was mind-boggling for any level past high school freshman.

Paul R Getto 6 years, 4 months ago

Good points. We lose our ability to communicate clearly at our own peril. Obviously, the Internet age is not helping, where we are swamped with "information" and little knowledge. Conventions in writing are a new invention 2-3 hundred years old at the most and they were never really taught to more than a small fraction of the population. In another generation or two, spelling and words themselves may be gone as we communicate in blogging burps and cyber grunts, whines and cryptic pops. How long before professors will accept b/c as a substitute for "because?"

Sean Williams 6 years, 4 months ago

One of my scholarly San Diego friends reported that he heard a long speech about profane adjectives in military dialouge. A military commander lauded eloquent speaking, a good vocabulary, and well thought out and researched commentary. He disapproved of profanity as uneducated, vulgar, lazy, and generally inappropriate. He expounded on active adjectives, meaningful conversation, and concise prose. He deplored imprecise, useless, and embarrassing adjectives that were apparently used as punctuation in weak presentations.
There's no place for cuss words in the military, he implored, and just because you are in the military doesn't mean that you have to "talk like a Sailor!" A gentleman says what he means without the need for unimaginative vulgarities interrupting his chain of thought while proving and supporting his premise. Please address your use of language with great care and reflection. Consider what and how you say things with the utmost importance -- I admonish you simply to speak clearly, directly, and without the crutch of ignorant, dismissable, detracting, and inexcusably trashy vernacular in all discourse! Military personnel are of high character and as such serve as an example to all -- a great example, an educated, enlightened, sensitive, and powerful disseminator of the highest ideals. You promote scholarship, philosophical purpose, public welfare, and exemplary manners. Your words are weapons, and fulcrums for peace; your strength, your mediation, and your responsibility.
Represent us well!

After the applause subsided, and a quiet hush fell over the crowd, an exuberant voice was heard above the audience: "F---in' A, Bubba!!!" As that soldier stated so poignantly, I agree.

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