Greetings Inkshedders: This is an article which was submitted to Young
People's Press. I contacted the writer, Laurance Yap, and he agreed to
allow me to submit it to this list. If possible, he would like to see it
published - if there's a spot for in the newsletter, I'm sure he'd be
happy. Whatever the case, it is an interesting indictment of academic
prose, etc., and, regardless of one's visceral response as a teacher of
writing, worth a read. . .
Comments to Laurance can be sent directly to him at the e-mail address at
the end of the article.
Director of Education
Young People's Press
Academics & Writing
Young People's Press
>"I don't know why I'm doing this," a friend told me on the phone a few
>weeks ago. We were talking about a film essay she was due to hand in the
>next week. "I know that you're not supposed to start with a quote, but
>I'm going to do it anyway. It sounds so bad to say this, but I just don't
>Strange, that. If there's anything that university is about, after all,
>it's about caring for your writing. You've got to be able to write
>reasonably well to get in, and if you somehow slip through the system at
>admission time, you're told enough about what constitutes good writing
>while you're there.
>Writing is the foundation, after all, of academic life: careers are made
>on whether your stuff has been published or not; on the number of
>acronymed letters you can scribble before and after your name--one of my
>acquaintances' business cards reads Dr. Susan R. Makin, B.A. (hons),
>M.A., Ph.D., P.G.C.E, A.T.R, and R.C.A.T., whatever those mean.
>Yet the more courses that I take, the more writing classes I attend, the
>more my own writing seems to trickle down towards the gutter. Unlike most
>writers, I look back at work that I once put out and wonder not, "how
>could I have written this kind of drivel?" but "what the hell has
>happened to me? Where's my writing gone?"
>The narration in my short stories no longer crackles, pops, does
>backflips; my essays are chock-full of footnotes and page references, but
>lack any sort of verve or imagination. Even the articles that I've
>recently had published in the paper lack the turns-of-phrase and
>one-liners that I once took an amazing amount of pride in just a scant
>few years ago.
>Some of the fault for this literary decline, no question, lies with the
>books and articles that we're forced to read in university. Since the
>quality of your writing is largely based on the quality of what you read,
>the wordy, imprecise and often pompous horseshit put out by academics has
>ruined many a student's talent.
>Things that could be said in five hundred words often are said in five
>thousand in an effort to make what's being said sound more important and
>profound than it really is; reviewing other writers' ideas is valued more
>than coming up with original ones. For the most part, academic life has
>become reading and commenting on other academics' pieces--a system that
>scorns "popular" work and contributes to a viscious writing cycle that
>makes the denseness and impenetrability of academic work worse every year.
>Worse still is the unfounded attitude that only academics know what's
>really going on, and that if one reads non-academic work, one isn't
>reading at a level appropriate for university. I once got burned big-time
>for not being "sophisticated" enough in a first-year communications
>course because I referenced a book about Hollywood special effects
>written by a thirty-year veteran of the industry; my professor pointed to
>an article that was written by someone who had spent a couple of weeks
>watching what went on in a special-effects studio as something more
>"appropriate" to use, no matter how inexperienced or clueless its writer
>was. (Perhaps it was because his article had footnotes; no piece of
>writing, after all, is valid without footnotes.)
>Having to read academics for eight months does terrible things to your
>normal reading habits too. I used to be able to read a novel a day, so
>long as it was a good novel. But now, even the best book I've read this
>year* (incidentally lent to me by the same person who didn't care about
>her introduction) was itself digested in twenty-page chunks over a
>Why? Because every dry, boring, academic article that I've read since
>entering university has been about twenty pages long, and the
>mind-numbing experience of reading them has conditioned me to the point
>that all of my reading acumen seems to disappear after twenty pages, no
>matter how good the piece is. This may be why it takes the average
>adult--who for the most part doesn't have homework to deal with--three
>weeks to read a hardcover novel instead of a couple of days.
>But we can't lay all the blame for our terrible writing at the feet of
>what we read. A lot of the decline has also to do with what we're taught
>writing is about, what we're taught writing is. All of the creativity we
>had during junior and senior high school, if it hadn't yet been battered
>out of us in those two institutions, is systematically annihilated in
>Here, it's not the reader's interest or your thought-provoking ideas that
>are valued; instead, it's your ability to restate other people's
>viewpoints, on being able to compile the best and most
>beautifully-formatted footnotes. It's about MLA documentation, about
>underlining titles, not putting them in quotation marks; about learning
>how to use the ibid. instead of "same." It's your ability to state and
>restate, not provoke and inflame and criticize and piss-off. It's about
>conformity, not creativity.
>Case in point. About a month and a half ago, an adviser from our school's
>Writing Centre came to one of our classes to tell us how to approach the
>upcoming final essay. She began by asking us what the elements of a good
>story were, and then, after listing the characteristics on the board,
>told us how to exorcise the story-like elements one-by-one, and replace
>them with "logical," "concrete" and "serious[ly] academic" arguments.
>I had a problem with that, contending that a paper that managed to
>combine the best of both worlds--interesting plotting, vivid description,
>fascinating characters and controlled pacing, combined with intelligent
>argument and reasoned input from various authors--would result in a much
>more creative and thus compelling paper, one that would read better, and
>thus was likely to get a higher mark. After all, many of the best stories
>I've read have taken cues from nonfiction writing, using scientific
>terminiology, ideological discourse and kick-ass proof to better explain
>their characters and plot machinations.
>I was wrong. "What your instructors are looking for," we were told
>finally, "is not original thinking here. What they want to see is if you
>can read other authors and analyze their writing in an intelligent
>Was she kidding? I thought that we came to university to broaden our
>minds and our horizons, to exploit, not supress, our creativity. To come
>up with original ideas, not to rehash some other author's work--something
>I probably could have done back in grade five, and probably a lot more
>succintly at that.
>There is hope, though.
>I rebelled, and my final essay in that course, a knee-jerk reaction to
>the Writing Centre advisor's lecture--combined five-hundred-plus words of
>pure storytelling with a lighthearted, sometimes glib, but most of all,
>lively, tone. It had pictures and full-page headlines and typographic
>effects; I spent an hour and a half photoshopping the front cover. My
>instructor liked it enough that she gave me a perfect grade. "You don't
>have to have a perfect paper to get a hundred," she scrawled on it.
>"Sometimes, you just have to be creative."
>My friend eventually wrote the wordy quote out of her film essay
>introduction and decided to stand on her own two cognitive feet
>throughout the paper, rather than relying so much on authors who were
>repeating each other ad infinitum. Reebok and Jerry Maguire took on more
>importance than Meaning Transfer Theory.
>Not so fast, though, my left brain tells me. That book she lent me--the
>best one I've read this year? She hasn't even started it yet. And this
>morning, I just rushed off the first draft of a paper for an English
>course and decided that that was all the time I wanted to spend on it,
>that the extra couple of marks that I would have gained from reading it
>over and making some minor revisions, adding some more footnotes, just
>weren't worth the time or effort.
>It's probably better off that way, though. At least right now, warts and
>all, the ideas in it are still mine.
>* Rothenberg, Randall. Where the Suckers Moon: An Advertising Story. New
>York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.
>Laurance Yap's summary of the works of Dr. Seuss in the second grade
>didn't start with a quote. Had he not spent two years in York University,
>this piece would probably also have been half as long. He hasn't learned,
>though; he's going back for more next year.
>Laurance Yap - Automotive Journalist
> Toronto Star - Wheels
> AutoMotive Magazine
> e-mail - [log in to unmask]
> [log in to unmask]
> phone+fax - 416-321-5078