Is There a Message? Does it Matter? Part I

Yes. There must be a message!

In academic and business settings, a piece of writing--letter, essay, paper, resume--should always have a purpose. I spend 90% of my Freshmen Composition classes trying to convince my students that even a personal narrative must eventually relate back to the reader.

I sometimes use the analogy of home movies: "Have you ever gone to visit people you don't really know, and they insist on showing you all their home movies, and you are SOOO bored because the movies doesn't mean anything to you?"

Some of my students laugh, but not nearly enough. In fact, I don't use that metaphor as often as I used to because I get the impression that a lot of my students actually love showing their home movies to whomever they can corner long enough.

"In any case," I tell them, "your readers are not your parents or your best friends. You need to show them why your story about your life should matter to them." Readers are ultimately very self-serving.

In academic and business writing, this approach involves a degree of directness that,  unfortunately, far too many English teachers refuse to teach. Far, far, far too many of my students have been instructed by English instructors to not use "I" (even when it is appropriate), to not use the words "in conclusion" (even though lawyers and business analysts do it all the time), to not present their own opinions in their thesis statements (even though a thesis IS an opinion, not a statement of fact, no matter how it is worded) and, more than anything, to not be direct.

In other words, far too many of my students have been instructed to be artistic, heaven help them, even though very few of them are going to writing artistic masterpieces in their workplaces.

"Tell me what you are going to prove," I say. "Prove it. Then, tell me what you proved."

"It will seem redundant to you," I say. "But it won't to the reader."

"Communicating clearly," I add, "is more important than communicating creatively" (because oh so many insurance adjusters just can't wait to read summaries that include long-winded discourses on the nature of philosophy, not to mention all those the judges who spend hours wishing someone would hurry up and use phrases like "liminal hermeneutics" in a Complaint).

This problem arises because most English teachers and instructors would rather teach Literature than Composition (which is why some of us hang in there and keep teaching Composition!) and to be fair, understanding Literature involves almost exactly the opposite approach to what I just wrote!

Coming up: No. Story is everything.

1 comment:

Eugene said...

Here's a practical argument for what the lowly essay can bring to the real world of business: "accountability, coherence of thought and planning, and commitment to vision and mission." Tell your students they're channeling Jeff Bezos.