Is Nonfiction Writing The Answer?

In a stack of papers called Writing.

  • Oct
  • 18
  • 2006

The suggestion that fiction writing cannot prepare students with the same rigor that nonfiction writing can is ridiculous. It shows poor faith in teachers to do what they have been hired to do. If you’re teaching writing, you’re teaching writing regardless of the genre.

The Article

Instead of building an argument for the need to assign more research-driven writing, how that style of writing prepares students for life and not simply for more school, Will Fitzhugh’s “Where’s the Content?” throws out misinformed ideas, ones that are myopic at best. The ending implication is that, unless teachers assign nonfiction writing, we are doing our kids a disservice, that fiction or autobiography (“personal memoir and ‘fictional nonfiction’” as Fitzhugh calls them) do nothing to teach skills that can be applied across writing styles.

“The problem is that students must know facts, dates, and the viewpoints of various experts and authors to write their college term papers.” Isn’t it the job of high school teachers to prepare students for life, inside or outside the walls of academia? If the only application we see of those facts and dates is in a college term paper, doesn’t that say something about the relevance of those facts and dates or that college term paper?

After reading his article, one may think that the rise of remedial courses is directly related to the “touchy-feely” writing high school teachers assign. But there’s no causal relation shown and no reason to believe one exists unless you really want to believe that.

Remediation Needed

My students do a horrible job of reading the actual prompt, scoring low on standardized writing for that reason almost alone. In reality, most teachers know why remedial courses are on the rise: poor writing and thinking skills. Combine that with the fact that teachers have to dance to the state standards, and that college writing considers those same standards not at all, and the mixed message sent to teachers adds up to a no-win situation. If we’re expecting public education to be everything to everybody, then all schools have failed already.

If my students had to write a summary of events in a sustained nonfiction narrative (a la Simon Winchester or John Krakauer, perhaps), they would be at a loss for several reasons, not the least of which is poor grasp of how to use the language to convey ideas. We can work on that facet of writing by using more personal writing prompts so students know what they want to say and just have to focus on the how. That’s a focus many students never successfully master and to usher them past it in order to write to some arbitrary genre and page requirement is an injustice.

Communication More Than Ideas

And it is arbitrary if all we’re doing is preparing students to write… for more school. The style of writing Fitzhugh exhorts is seen very regularly in academia, but I question its application in the world outside of school. The ability to communicate ideas is far more important than which ideas are being communicated. In order to push students to discuss those ideas, we need to pick subjects about which they already feel they have something to say.

Mutually Exclusive?

There’s also the suggestion that writing cannot be “emotional and personal” as well as rigorous: “Unfortunately, solipsism seems to have become the order of the day; the lack of sustained focus on objectivity and rigor in writing is showing up in poor literacy rates, greater numbers of remedial classes in college, and higher college dropout rates.” That shows a horrible lack of understanding of the writing process.

It is a challenge to read The Scarlet Letter and attempt to make a connection to that text, to bring those issues into modern day. Further, it is a challenge to pick an event that’s happened to you, narrate the sequence of events, reflect on the significance of those events, and make that reflection something that anyone reading the paper would care about. Students who can do that level of reflection and consideration would have an easier time writing about “facts, dates, and the viewpoints of various experts and authors” because those would end up mere additional facets to their already-existing effective and proper writing style.

Paper Swamp

Lastly, no credence is given to teachers who would be potentially swamped for weeks on end with stacks of 12-page research papers collected from 120-175 students, depending on class sizes. That’s a lot of writing to grade and results in a martyr attitude of teachers, that if it’s for the good of kids it should be done, no matter the cost. I feel confident that if I can get my students to write a solid 3-page paper, extending those writing skills another 10 pages is not too tough a task, one that the college professors are more than capable to take on.

But wait. Is the implicit suggestion in all this bickering that learning about writing stops after high school? If we’re looking at high school as the last stage in developing writing skills, if we’re looking at the teaching of writing as something beneath what should be going on in college, then that’s yet another flaw that needs to be highlighted.


1. JM says:

[1/4/2007 - 2:48 pm]

Well, I say that while everyone must learn how to write an exciting true story, the most important type of writing is fiction, because everyone knows that the imagination is more important to a writer than a set of learned facts. Although facts are important, without imagination, you can’t do anything with them.

2. Todd says:

[1/4/2007 - 3:06 pm]

Simon Winchester and Stephen Jay Gould employ plenty of creativity to tell their tales. Nonfiction does not mean that it’s free of creativity. In fact, the suggestion I’m reading in articles like the one I point out in this entry is that students don’t have the ability to put together a narrative that makes use of all the facts they’ve gathered, that the creative aspect of writing a nonfiction piece is what they lack the most. I wonder if learning how to write a fictional narrative imparts skills that students can then take into writing a nonfiction piece. Do those narrative techniques translate?