In the homeschool world, articles abound about how to teach our children to write well. They tend to cover areas such as how to outline, how to write a strong thesis statement, and so forth. These articles are certainly necessary, but as we teach our children composition, we need to remember another aspect of good writing.
William Zinsser, author of the classic Writing Well, considers that “two of the most important qualities” of good writing are “humanity and warmth.” Zinsser was on to something.
We need to teach these qualities to our children, because modern writing is sorely lacking them. Writing can have all the proper syntax, subject and verb can agree like lifelong friends, and no modifier is ever left dangling, but if it is lacking charity, compassion, and empathy, can it be called good writing? Can it be considered meaningful writing? Does it have an impact?
As we’re teaching our children writing technique, we should ask them not only what they are writing, but why they are writing. Is it edifying? Does it move the reader? If it isn’t, why are you writing it at all?
For my columns over the years, I have tried to write things that matter to readers. Some columns have had a greater effect than others, but it’s been a goal.
I’m sure that an English teacher would have a field day with a stack of my columns and a red pen. Not only do I make grammatical mistakes, but sometimes I intentionally use improper grammar for effect. I usually write in short sentences, and even better, short paragraphs.
Like this one.
I fell in love with the em dash (–) years ago—because you can do so much with an em dash—and I continue to love it. These things are elements of my style (some might say a lack of style), but more important is the message. I hope that the underlying message of my columns is remarkably simple: appreciate your life, because your life is good.
If I write an article and it moves a Dad to hug his son or to spend more time with his daughter, then I consider that article a success. Many writers might deem that a strange goal, but what better reason is there to write than to move a reader to perform a good or virtuous action? Other writers might be after a Nobel; I’m happy with noble.
Other writers might want their readers to gaze at their written sentences with a certain degree of awe. When I read P.G. Wodehouse, for instance, I sometimes stare in amazement at his level of genius. Consider this sentence:
“The glimpses I had caught of his face from the corner of the eyes had told me that he was grim and resolute, his supply of the milk of human kindness plainly short by several gallons.”
Or this one.
“The proprietor of the grocery store on the corner was bidding a silent farewell to a tomato which even he, though a dauntless optimist, had been compelled to recognize as having outlived its utility.”
I don’t enjoy Wodehouse’ writing as much as I simply admire it; he could make words dance. I’d like to make words dance, too. However, from my perspective, if my words rest stationary on the page, but they inspire husbands to dance with their wives, I’m thrilled about that. For me, that’s a victory; and successes like this are usually not attributable to complex sentences and indicative moods. The power of good writing springs from something much deeper.
Scripture itself provides proof of this idea. As many others have observed, the words of The Holy Bible are evidence that humanity and warmth can have an indelible impact on the reader, and produce incredible writing. Consider the Gospel of John 11:35, which reads:
Two words: subject and verb. End of sentence. End of paragraph.
This sentence lacks object, adjective, and adverb, but it is overflowing with humanity and warmth. On many levels, John 11:35 is one of the most powerful sentences ever written. For many, it evokes a breathtaking response of love and compassion. A thousand words strung together may fail to have the same impact as these two words.
We should take a lesson from Scripture.