Writing: Ideas

Many students hate writing because they haven't been taught to think. Education for over a century has divided subjects rather than showing how all knowledge connects, so that learning history and learning algebra are completely unrelated endeavors.

Logic and writing are also contrasted. Students equate writing with grammar, and view logic as a merely scientific function. But the truth is that logic skills inform writing ability, and in the old days logic was a distinct stage in writing instruction.

Even the most basic writing requires good reasoning. A shopping list only works well if it's complete and clear, and it only works really well if it's organized. You don't want to spend all day running between home and store to get items you forgot, and you don't want to go from end to end of the supermarket because your items were grouped poorly.

The more logical you are, the better your shopping list will be. You don't have to be a genius, but you need to be able to think clearly and in advance. But a shopping list is just words—does it matter how you write them down?

Not if there's no difference between a good list and a bad list. But there are good and bad lists. A list with bits of poetry thrown in, illegible abbreviations, no organization, etc. is a bad list. A good list can take many forms, but generally it has headings for different types of products (dairy, cereal, etc.) with the items listed clearly beneath.

An essay is not a shopping list. But if you can organize a shopping list you're on the way to organizing an essay. Clear thinking is the ability to identify the pertinent elements of an idea and present them plainly for the benefit of yourself and others. Doing this in an essay is more complex and difficult than in a shopping list, but the principles are the same.

For a shopping list, you need to know what you have and what you need; when writing an essay you need to know what you to say and what to leave out. A shopping list is best when it's concise, and this is certainly true for an essay.

A shopping list and an essay are both intended to accomplish something specific in the lives of readers. The change effected by a shopping list isn't all that meaningful, but that doesn't make it any less the objective of the listmaker.

Change won't happen if you don't know what change you want to encourage. To know that, you need a clear idea of what you'll write and how you'll write it. This is a skill best imparted to kids from as early as possible, using normal life situations to train them.

In one sense serious thinking is a skill that should be taught thoroughly only to older students. Logic is heavy business, and seven-year-olds aren't equipped to think entirely rationally. However, teaching logic as a formal discipline in later grades doesn't mean it shouldn't be introduced more subtly earlier.

If you take time to show your kids how essential good reasoning is to all their daily activities, and to include them in important tasks that require thinking and logic, you'll be surprised at how much those influences will make their way into their schoolwork and their ability to write even short sentences and paragraphs in ways that make sense and impart meaning.

Impartation of meaning, after all, is the goal of all writing. How can meaning be conveyed, however, if the writer muddles ideas, can't think clearly, or has a poor grasp of logic? The cultivation, organization, and presentation of ideas is the cornerstone on which all other writing skills rest, and the one most important to foster in ourselves and our children.

Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur.Read more of his reviews here.

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