I would like to apologize to the class of thirty students to whom I taught “Clarity in Writing” last night.
I was overwhelmed that thirty of you showed up, since I thought it would be just three. Because there were thirty bored and saddened faces in front of me, I got nervous and sweaty and forgot much of what I wanted to tell you.
I was flustered when none of you wanted to answer the questions I was posing, since I am often very excited to consider and answer questions; this, after all, seems to play a large part in an active university life. However, I should not have started randomly calling on people, because I don’t think people deserve to be embarrassed simply because they are uninterested in what I am saying.
I understand that you wanted easy extra credit, but I was being frank when I said that I was going to attempt to make you earn it.
I almost got into a good rhythm when I started talking about how writing was not simply about book reports. I asked how many among you studied business, finance, accounting — a lot of you do, probably twenty. I meant what I said: writing is the most useful skill that the “practical” majors can glean from a university like Loyola Marymount. I meant what I said when I told you that you don’t want people to say “What the hell does this say?” when they finish reading an e-mail, a business proposal, or a marketing report that you wrote.
But what I really wanted to tell you — and forgot, because I was so damned nervous — is this: you have to know how to pare down and make your writing fundamentally sound before you can ever develop a voice that is unique, a word that I am loathe to use.
I know you probably thought I was being sarcastic when I said that the class was a lesson in style, because all I told you was how to get redundant words, ill-tasting phrases, and vile fluff out of your writing. I’ll tell you why I did that in several analogous ways: beautiful clothes are useless if you don’t have a skeleton that gives you form; vibrant paint doesn’t salvage a house that cannot stand on its own; a fancy workbench won’t make you a good carpenter.
If you cannot write fundamentally sound sentences, it doesn’t matter how many times you say “in virtue of the fact that,” or if you can manage to fit words like “zeugma” and “synecdochic” into your paper, or if you have Microsoft Office 2012 Ultimate Badass Edition. No one will know what the hell you’re saying anyway.
So I’m really sorry that I wasn’t as well-prepared as I should have been, or as engaging, or as considerate of the fact that you attend a university but cannot endure life in a classroom — but I am not sorry that you were forced, for a mere forty-five minutes, to be told that writing is important, because the simplest message is this one: if you think about what you write, you can think about what you think, and you can think about what you do.
If you write by literally throwing shit on the page in an effort to be done — why the hell do you think things are going to be better when you’re done writing all these lame papers and getting a college degree, anyway? — you’re an automaton, drudging through life aimlessly. If, on the other hand, you obsess over a sentence, a comma, a word, you’re hopefully going to be capable of that same sort of sympathy — empathy — toward other human beings. It matters what you say and how you say it. It really matters. Please, please pay attention.