A few years ago, when I was running Baylor University's student program in Washington, D.C., I asked a U.S. senator, "What do you need in an intern?" He responded: "Three things: writing, writing, writing."
He needed interns who could draft communication or attend a meeting and write-up a succinct, clear and intelligent summary. It isn't so easy to find. Writing is consistently cited by employers as one of the skills most lacking in applicants. Law schools devote a great deal of attention to the craft of legal writing. And there is increasing evidence that writing skills are valuable for STEM students as well.
High schools and colleges have not, generally speaking, been very good at producing students with solid writing skills. Teaching writing is difficult and time-consuming. For most of us, students or not, good writing is rewriting.
For students, that means at a minimum not waiting to begin a paper until just before it's due. What's more, it requires that students become their own best critics. Students need to be able to read what they've written and learn to distinguish what is clear and cogent from what is unclear and incoherent. The realization that what I've worked on is mediocre or worse is a humbling and often painful experience. It's also one that is deeply beneficial to the person coming to that realization. And given the amount of poor thinking and sloppy expression we see all around us these days, we can be sure the need for self-correction is hardly limited to students.
This is not a new phenomenon, it's just one we could use some reminding of lately.
Writing 75 years ago, in an essay titled "Politics and the English Language," George Orwell noted that "Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way."
The problem, he concluded, was both political and economic. For a writer who focused a lot of his thinking on "thoughtcrime" and "Newspeak," the connection between good writing and clear, solid thinking is one we need to be cognizant of.
Now, here we are beginning another academic year, and we would do well to reflect on the importance of the skills of written communication, both as part of career preparedness and as a tool for safeguarding our souls from manipulative advertising techniques and political control that wander across our screens with worrisome regularity.
Thankfully, "Politics and the English Language" remains influential 75 years after its initial release. It is still recommended reading for writers at The Observer, a British newspaper for which Orwell wrote. Beyond practical suggestions about how to improve one's writing, the essay prompts us to weigh seriously the costs of failing to take ownership of our own use of language. The loss is not just a limiting of our prospects for internships or jobs.
For Orwell, writing is the activity in which we are most likely to become reflective about our use of language, much more so than when we are simply speaking. It is also the activity in which we can discern the connection between language and thinking. Our language, he writes, "becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts."
Determining what we think and want to say and how to say it, as we put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, involves taking ownership of our thinking. We don't need to make the effort, of course; we can, Orwell notes, simply open our minds and let the "ready-made phrases come crowding in." Clichés or "ready-made phrases" seem obvious to us only because we've never reflected critically on what they really mean.
In a lesson that is spelled out in more dramatic detail in his famous novels, Animal Farm and 1984, Orwell insists that if we don't consciously use language, language will use us. Others can seize upon the sloppiness or deceptiveness of language to use it and us for their own aims. The ready-made phrases "will construct your sentences for you — even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent — and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself."
Learning to write well is learning to think well. And learning to think well is what we want our young people to do. It's what we all need to do. It is an art. And it one with the deepest sort of value.
Thomas S. Hibbs is the J. Newton Rayzor Sr. professor of philosophy at Baylor University.