Every day in my work with applicants, I hear from people who tell me, "Oh, I'm a great writer! You don't have to worry about that part of things." And immediately I know we have a long road ahead of us, because what they usually put in front of me reads like a long stream of tweets.
I find it criminal that many college students who have worked hard and moved mountains to attend good schools have no idea what good writing is. And you shouldn't even have to attend a top school to learn the basics of good writing. It's not your fault. You are not stupid. But you have been allowed to get away with sloppy work. You have been poorly served, and I'd like to take a crack at explaining why that matters.
The best thing that ever happened to me, truly, was when I got a paper back from one of my teachers at the University of Cambridge with the word "facile" scrawled across the bottom. You should be so lucky. The days of getting back a paper covered in red ink -- correcting all your bad punctuation, fixing your verb tenses, changing "which" to "that," and explaining the fourteen different ways in which your syntax and grammar and argument are flawed -- seem, from my viewpoint, to be over.
I'm amazed when I look at students' undergraduate writing samples -- ones they want to submit to graduate school admissions committees, particularly for PhD programs -- and the graded copies don't have a single correction in them. I'm not exaggerating; that's been true for most of the papers I've seen.
Even worse, those educators who hand back unmarked papers haven't just failed to teach you how to write; they have also lied to you. Whether indirectly through unmarked papers and easy As, or directly to your face, they have led you to believe that you're great writers. And that particular fiction sets you up for a lot of disappointment when you've left behind the world of lazy As and have to write something that actually counts and will be read with a critical eye.
It's not your fault that some of these teachers have neglected to teach you how to write, but it's also now your responsibility to learn. (Professors themselves are often terrible writers, so perhaps you're actually better off if they haven't tried to teach you how to write. At least you can start with a clean slate.)
Your whole ability to think critically is at stake. In Politics and the English Language -- which anyone who wants to write anything of consequence should read before graduating from college -- Orwell reminds us that sloppy thoughts lead to sloppy writing, and that sloppy writing leads to sloppy thoughts. So bad writing actually makes us stupider: the language "becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts." The good news? "[T]he process is reversible."
So before you start writing, think about what it is you want to communicate -- not just with this word or that sentence, but also in this paragraph, and the next one, and in this essay as a whole. You'll have to turn off the tweeting part of your brain and ask yourself how every single word, sentence, and paragraph ties together. Because admissions officers, BigLaw partners, managing directors, and all sorts of people who hold your fate in their hands will be absolutely merciless about your writing.
Good writing does NOT have to be about blind adherence to conventions. Learn the rules, and then break them to great rhetorical effect. Here's a slice from my ever-morphing reading list for good writing (some are how-to books, others are examples of good expository writing, because you'll also have to read to become good writers).
- Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose by Constance Hale
- E.B. White's The Ring of Time (I'm not crazy about his Elements of Style, however -- there are some weird and clunky examples in that one.)
- The Best American Essays 2007, edited by David Foster Wallace
- The Best American Essays of the Century, edited by Joyce Carol Oates
- What is an Academic Paper, from the Dartmouth Writing Series
- Introduction from Jane Jacobs's The Death and Life of Great American Cities
- Gilles v. Blanchard, Judge Richard A. Posner, US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit
I'll likely add more as I think of them, but please contribute your own in the comments!
Edited to add: On reflection, and after receiving some pointed feedback, I have edited some of my less nuanced statements to make clear that I do not think all teachers neglect their duties to teach good writing, and that I do not think they are all lazy. Throwing around such categorical descriptions is itself, of course, a form of bad writing, so I've made a few changes.
Former Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School and a recovering lawyer, Anna Ivey founded Ivey Consulting to help college, law school, and MBA applicants navigate the admissions process. Read more admissions tips in The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions, recently updated and available as an e-book. Follow Anna on Twitter (@annaivey).