When I go through students’ papers and flag the misplaced modifiers, note the clichés or explain that a 15-sentence paragraph is less approachable than a five-sentence one, I sometimes ask myself a question that the students who get those papers back from me perhaps ponder as well: Does it really matter?
Is skillful writing a prerequisite for accomplishment? For contentment? Even for communication? You can make your point without punctuating it properly. The most potent ideas may well survive the most flaccid prose.
Besides which, you can now generate prose without writing at all. Wait, scratch that: You do need to fashion the prompt that you’re giving ChatGPT — the parameters of the composition you want, the objectives, the guidelines. But artificial intelligence will do the rest. It will sweat the structure, the syntax, the semicolons.
When I prattle on about dangling participles and the like, some students hear a sad evangelist for a silly religion. I can tell. Even a few of my faculty colleagues look askance at me. One couldn’t understand my frustration with a student who had toggled repeatedly and randomly between “and” and “&” in an essay. Didn’t the student’s meaning come across well enough?
I suppose so. But it could have come across a whole lot better, and that’s one of the arguments for writing well — for taking the time and summoning the focus to do so. Good writing burnishes your message. It burnishes the messenger, too.
You may be dazzling on your feet, an extemporaneous ace, thanks to the brilliant thoughts that pinball around your brain. There will nonetheless be times when you must pin them down and put them in a long email. Or a medium-length email. Or a memo. Or, hell, a Slack channel. The clarity, coherence, precision and even verve with which you do that — achieving a polish and personality distinct from most of what A.I. spits out — will have an impact on the recipients of that missive, coloring their estimation of you and advancing or impeding your goals.
If you’re honest with yourself, you know that, because you know your own skeptical reaction when people send you error-clouded dreck. You also know the way you perk up when they send its shining opposite. And while the epigrammatic cleverness or audiovisual genius of a viral TikTok or Instagram post has the potential to shape opinion and motivate behavior, there are organizations and institutions whose internal communications and decision-making aren’t conducted via social media. GIFs, memes and emojis don’t apply.
When my friend Molly Worthen, a history professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a frequent contributor to Times Opinion, took the measure of the influential diplomat Charles Hill for her 2006 book “The Man on Whom Nothing Was Lost,” she noted that a principal reason for his enormous behind-the-scenes influence was his dexterity with the written word. He took great notes. He produced great summaries. He made great arguments — on paper, not just on the fly.
Worthen noted in her book that “transmitting ideas into written words is hard, and people do not like to do it.” As a result, someone who performs that task gladly, quickly and nimbly “in most cases ends up the default author, the quarterback to whom others start to turn, out of habit, for the play.”
Good writing announces your seriousness, establishing you as someone capable of caring and discipline. But it’s not just a matter of show: The act of wrestling your thoughts into logical form, distilling them into comprehensible phrases and presenting them as persuasively and accessibly as possible is arguably the best test of those very thoughts. It either exposes them as flawed or affirms their merit and, in the process, sharpens them.
Writing is thinking, but it’s thinking slowed down — stilled — to a point where dimensions and nuances otherwise invisible to you appear. That’s why so many people keep journals. They want more than just a record of what’s happening in their lives. They want to make sense of it.
The subtitle of “The Notebook,” a new nonfiction book by Roland Allen, is “A History of Thinking on Paper.” In a recent review of it in The Guardian, Sukhdev Sandhu noted that Allen “points to evidence that maintaining a notebook with pen and paper is best for processing and retaining information.”
I think you can take the “pen and paper” out of the equation — replace them with keystrokes in a Google Doc or Microsoft Word file — and the point largely holds. That kind of writing, too, forces you to concentrate or to elaborate. A tossed-off text message doesn’t. Neither do most social media posts. They have as much to do with spleen as with brain.
What place do the traditional rules of writing and the conventional standards for it have in all this? Does purposeful, ruminative or cathartic writing demand decent grammar, some sense of pace, some glimmer of grace?
Maybe not. You can write in a manner that’s comprehensible and compelling only or mostly to you. You can choose which dictums to follow and which to flout. You’re still writing.
But show me someone who writes correctly and ably — and who knows that — and I’ll show you someone who probably also writes more. Such people’s awareness of their agility and their confidence pave the way. Show me someone who has never been pressed to write well or given the tutelage and tools to do so and I’ll show you someone who more often than not avoids it and, in avoiding it, is deprived of not only its benefits but also its pleasures.
Yes, pleasures. I’ve lost count of the times when I’ve praised a paragraph, sentence or turn of phrase in a student’s paper and that student subsequently let me know that the passage had in fact been a great source of pride, delivering a jolt of excitement upon its creation. We shouldn’t devalue that feeling. We should encourage — and teach — more people to experience it.
For the Love of Sentences
Kevin D. Williamson let it rip in a recent essay in The Wall Street Journal about how far American democracy has fallen. Here’s one whooshing stretch: “With the old media gatekeepers gone, right-wing content creators rushed in and filled the world with QAnon kookery on Facebook, conspiracy theories powerful enough to vault the cretinous likes of Marjorie Taylor Greene into Congress, fake news sponsored by Moscow and Beijing and fake-ish news subsidized by Viktor Orban and his happy junta, and whatever kind of poison butterfly Tucker Carlson is going to be when he emerges from the chrysalis of filth he’s built around himself. The prim consensus of 200 Northeastern newspaper editors has been replaced by the sardonic certitude of 100 million underemployed rage-monkeys and ignoramuses on Twitter.” (Thanks to Lisa Lee of Newton, Mass., and Emily Hawthorn of San Antonio for nominating this.)
In The Chronicle of Higher Education, Daniel Drezner charted the hell of university leaders: “The primary job of any president or dean is fundraising, and some folks might be surprised at how hard it is to perform that task with any dignity or grace. The key thing to understand is that if you think speaking truth to power is hard, try speaking truth to money.” (Lee Burdette Williams, Mystic, Conn.)
In The Times of London, James Marriott sang the praises of profanity. “Consider the force and versatility of ‘the f-word,’” he wrote, later adding: “Shouting it has been shown to reduce pain. It can be used as a verb, an adverb, a noun, an adjective, a modifier, an intensifier and an interjection. It is a valid exclamation of love, dismay, rage, astonishment, happiness, agony and grief. We are likely to hear it or to utter it at the greatest and the most tragic moments of our lives. A vulgar one-word sonnet.” (Jan Whitener, Washington, D.C.)
In The Atlantic, Tyler Austin Harper weighed in on the debate over the importance of the humanities: “When I fell in love with English on a college campus many years ago, it was precisely because studying John Milton and James Joyce and Octavia Butler was so intoxicatingly useless in market terms. It rejected the assumption that value and utility are synonyms. The humanities captivated me — and foiled the best-laid plans of mice and pre-med — because literature and philosophy seemed to begin from a quietly revolutionary premise: There is thinking that does not exist merely to become work, and knowledge that does not exist merely to become capital.” (David Schulz, San Francisco)
At some point we will have to declare a moratorium on jokes about George Santos. But not yet. In The Washington Post, Herb Scribner and Anne Branigin wrote: “If we’ve learned anything about Santos — a serial fabulist who has told multiple falsehoods about his education history, religion and physical abilities — it’s that when life hands him lemons, he stuffs them into a Hermès bag filled with cash, or something.” (Katherine Mechner, Brooklyn, N.Y. )
Also in The Post, Matt Bai explained why the financial chicanery of Ron DeSantis’s sputtering presidential campaign matters: “Only entitled and selfish people cast aside the rules of society that inconvenience them, simply because they calculate that they can. A candidate who will gleefully ignore the campaign finance rules you find so arcane is exactly the kind of guy who will leave his dog poop on your lawn when you’re not home. ” (Michael Costa, Bristol, R.I., and Valerie Congdon, Waterford, Mich.)
In The Times, Alexis Soloski profiled the actor Matt Bomer: “I can confirm that if you are a person who enjoys the company of handsome men, it is very nice to sip herbal tea across the table from Bomer. He has dark hair, light eyes, a jaw so square it could be used for geometry tutorials. Wrap that up in an off-white turtleneck sweater, and it’s heartthrob city. I had mentioned to a few friends that I would be meeting him, and they all wanted me to ask the same question: How does it feel to be that handsome?” (Mike Silk, Laguna Woods, Calif.)
Also in The Times, Dwight Garner surveyed the tipsy joys and sober shortcomings of the new book “The World in a Wineglass,” by Ray Isle: “I would take his wine advice to the bank. What I would not do is take his new book out of the bookstore. It’s too heavy. It’s also too padded, like a student’s term paper. If it were an Easter basket, it would be 95 percent shredded green paper. You must really poke around to find the candy eggs.” (Seth Lloyd, Grosse Pointe, Mich.)
To nominate favorite bits of recent writing from The Times or other publications to be mentioned in “For the Love of Sentences,” please email me here and include your name and place of residence.
On a Personal Note
It was months ago when my sister, Adelle, first broached the question of what to cook for our family on Christmas Day. She and her husband, Dan, are playing host to about 10 of us, including my brother Harry and most of his children, and the menu is everything. You can wind up with a Christmas tree that starts shedding its needles too soon. You can fail to do much else in the way of decorating. You can give someone the wrong gift. What cannot happen is a bad meal. That would be no mere culinary lapse. More like a spiritual transgression.
Adelle talked with me about lamb and she talked with me about shrimp and she talked with me about chicken — but chicken with all sorts of flourishes and frippery — and then I found myself fielding questions from Harry, who is hosting the same group of us on Christmas Eve, about his menu. He was committed to beef, but what kind? What cut? What preparation? And what about starters? We’d be gathering for at least six hours, which meant we’d be eating for at least five of them, and that required considerable plotting.
I love my three siblings (Mark, the eldest of us, can’t be with us this Christmas) and I love their spouses, so we don’t need all this feasting across all these courses to be diverted and pass the time. We’re a mouthy bunch who can pass it telling stories, arguing about who should be the M.V.P. in the N.F.L. this season, debating the best binge-watch of the past year, making plans for the next get-together and the get-together after that. We need wine, sure, but not an antipasti spread the size of Kansas. We will nonetheless have an antipasti spread the size of Kansas. It’s a proclamation not of gluttony but of love.
And in that way we’re not unusual. I don’t mean the antipasti — I mean the generosity, the use of food as a vessel for emotion, a means of expression. For many fortunate families and groups of friends, the holiday season is as much about the cakes and the cookies as about anything wrapped in gleaming paper.
I think my sister finally settled on a pork loin, my brother on a rib roast. I don’t care. I’m just moved and so very grateful that they do.