In grad school I knew a young ninny who believed taking courses in technical writing would plug the gaping holes in his undergraduate academic experience and give him all the tools he needed to enjoy success in his anticipated professional life. I don’t know where he is now and I can’t say for sure whether those technical writing courses lived up to his expectations, but sitting around in a student lobby one morning I gently opined to him that coursework in English literature might serve him better. Why? he wondered. I tried to distill down my answer as best I could, but mainly, I explained, you’ll write your tail off in those classes—this is why they’re called writing-intensive courses. What do you do in literature courses? You read and read. And then you write and write about what you read. You become a better writer the more you write. And there is a depth and breadth to those writing assignments you probably won’t get in technical writing courses—you’ll have to think critically and explain yourself on paper, in a way you hope engages your reader.
In the end my suggestion was lost on him, an outcome probably as much a consequence of my flawed attempt to explain as it was his thick skull. But to this guy’s way of thinking, and to scores of others like him, taking a technical writing course was the only tincture you needed to treat the Awful Writing plague. (These were also the folks who cleaved stubbornly to the juvenile notion that undertaking coursework in anything that could not be harnessed directly for professional life was time wasted.) I submit that if you lack an understanding of the written word, or if your command of it is limited, your technical writing will reflect these deficiencies as much the rest of your writing does.
It’s a truth that should have come home to you the day your freshman English literature professor handed back your half-baked paper on Gulliver’s Travels marked up in red. If you were worth your own salt, you recognized that as a gift, all the notes he wrote diligently on the back of every double-spaced page of your pedestrian work—the missives about your over-reliance on the verb to be, your wearisome overuse of passive voice, the absence of descriptive language, but also your wordiness, and countless other missteps—all of that amounting to an essay in its own right. It was your wake-up call, if you were not a nubbin head. And there’s the rub: if you never possessed the desire to write well in the first place, it was all for naught.
That professor taught me in my early life as an undergraduate. He was an untenured newbie with a fresh-from-Columbia doctorate, now paid to stand before sleepy liberal arts majors at the University of Tennessee to try to pique our collective literary interest. Poor man; I feel sure most of us cared not one jot about his Canterbury Tales lectures or much else on the course syllabus, but were there mainly to tick another prerequisite box. The morning he recited the Prologue to us in a gorgeous, lilting cadence, though, that morning we bore witness to high art in a brutalist cinderblock classroom—Geoffrey Chaucer paid us a visit that day. This professor’s penchant for elevating the written word, and his unfaltering willingness to rip my flawed prose and then calmly explain why, kept me coming back for more. I even suffered with him through Restoration drama, a course I feel certain he was handed to teach because nobody else wanted it.
I believe this because of the King Lear incident which unfolded in an adjacent classroom one morning. Through the voice of an esteemed Shakespearian scholar, Lear had the audacity to reverberate so explosively from the room next door, the young academic before us was forced to suspend his own lecture for a few moments. He stepped back from the lectern while Lear howled on. And when the king finally fell silent, he quietly lamented to those of us who were listening, I wish I were teaching that. I heard these words fall from his lips, a tiny and rare glimpse into this man’s true demeanor, and somehow admired him more for it.
One of my favorite writers was a distinguished English professor at my alma mater, a teacher of fiction writing; he was also a friend. His uncensored wit and telling of stories were as artful and engaging as his published work. Something he once told a woman at a book signing so beautifully encapsulated the truth about writing and has stayed with me all these years. She was working on her first novel, she explained, seeking any advice he could give her—she desperately wanted to be a writer. The room collectively rolled its eyes, and I braced myself for what was coming.
Without flinching he quipped, I can’t advise you if you want to be a writer, only if you want to write.
This wisdom transcends writing to include other disciplines: don’t be a doctor, practice medicine. Don’t be a carpenter, build things. It certainly applies to writing “subdisciplines,” if you will: don’t be a technical writer, explain things. Don’t be a marketing copy writer, influence consumers with brilliant prose. Maybe. At the very least this statement expresses its sentiment with a more active voice, with less reliance on the verb to be, after all. It emphatically describes something more akin to a heartfelt yearning.
As for the would-be Lear lecturer, I hear he holds an impressive title at the University of Tennessee these days but continues to teach. Evidently it’s wicked difficult to get a coveted spot in one of his classes; must be the Chaucer.