Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Value in Writing for an Audience, Not a Grade

After not reading any non-fiction books in quite a while, I picked up Better Than College by Blake Boles this afternoon and started reading. Instantly, something sparked a blog post idea. Blake writes:
Instead of working on homework, papers, and presentations destined to be seen once and tossed into a trashcan, self-directed learners turn much of their hard work into useful products for other people.
I don't know about "products," per se, but definitely something useful and appreciated.

Reading that, I had a thought that somehow had never occurred to me before. Most young people view non-fiction writing as something primarily done to get good grades, something that is only useful insofar as it pleases a teacher or professor and thus leads to good marks.

I've never written a five paragraph essay. Count paragraphs, you say? Construct an essay based on a rigid outline? Why would I do that? I've worked within word or space or time constraints numerous times, writing articles for magazines or talks for conferences. But I've never written an essay expected to adhere so closely to a specific outline, nor have I ever written something designed to please just one specific person.

I learned to write for an audience. I started writing before I even started reading, dictating silly stories for my mother to write down. Creating with words is something I've been doing since I was a small child. But when I really started writing in my teens, I first started writing book reviews for a homeschooling magazine, and then I started blogging. And it was through blogging that I became good at writing.

An Idzie writing.

I think blogging has been helpful for me in developing good writing skills for several reasons, and I think it's helpful for other people for the same reasons.

  1. Your content is personally meaningful. You're writing about things that are actually important to you, things you're interested in, things that are relevant to your life. This isn't something boring you're forced to do, it's something you actually want to be doing, so you're going to care more about it and invest a lot more effort.
  2. You get feedback. That's supposed to be the point of teachers grading papers, but blogging does that much more effectively, both because the audience is wider, and because feedback isn't the main point. The point is whatever you're writing about: politics or stories of daily life or unschooling philosophy. Getting feedback on your writing, directly through comments and emails and indirectly through which posts are more and less popular, allows you to improve your writing in a much more organic and meaningful way.
  3. You learn to write accessibly. I'm generally considered a decent writer, with a good vocabulary. Yet when I read an academic paper written at a university level, or listen to a couple of academics discuss something suitably academic, often as not I'm left understanding only half of what's being said, and encountering a whole bunch of unfamiliar vocabulary--and I don't mean vocabulary related to a specific field, just academic jargon. It's a form of gate-keeping, separating people into those who have had access to ivory towers and those who have not. Blogging breaks that down. No matter your subject, you're likely writing for a wider audience, and so you want a large number of people to be able to understand what you're saying.
  4. You get better at communicating. I can't count the number of times someone has misinterpreted something I've written. That has happened less though as I've been pushed to be ever clearer in my writing. Expressing yourself clearly and concisely is a good skill, and blogging is a platform very conducive to improving that skill.
  5. You focus on the content, not the mechanics of writing.  Schools often emphasize writing first as a technical process, teaching proper grammar and structure, with content coming second. In reality, it works so much better if you instead focus on things that feel like they have more meaning, on the actual content, and let skills be built naturally through the practice of creating meaningful content.
  6. You have something exciting to strive for. Having people interact with your writing, commenting on it and sharing it and sending you emails about it, is super rewarding. Knowing people value your voice, value what you have to share, feels wonderful. A blog is also something that feels like it can grow, not only as more and more people discover it, but also in content and style, as your perspective and experiences change. It can also lead to a lot of other cool things: having your work published in magazines and books; getting your own books published; making money or getting a job. All of that is likely to be a lot more exciting than just writing to get a good grade!
Writing can certainly be meaningful in both high school and university settings. If you like the topic you're studying, you might be quite happy to be writing about it. I just think blogging can provide an excellent self-directed way to grow as a writer.

Through blogging I've created a bunch of content I'm really proud of; I've had my work published in magazines and books; I've gone to conferences I never would have gotten to go to otherwise; I've made many friends; received many free books; and discovered a bunch of great content created by other people.

Through it all, even when it's been difficult, writing has felt like something good. Important. Something that has meaning.

I may have never written a five paragraph essay, but I have learned to write, and write well, for an audience of people who really care about what I have to say. 

And that seems like a much better way to learn.