Where is Mrs. Greer?

Writing is difficult, and it becomes no easier the older and more experienced you get. You run into a dizzying array of problems that can turn a work of art into a hunk of junk.

But no matter how thoughtful your message, you will never communicate it well if you cannot get the basics straight. College students today struggle with the basics more than I did back in college.

OK, I am the classroom curmudgeon who dreams of the old days, a time when usage, grammar and diagramming sentences led to nightlong headaches. Regardless of what Mrs. Greer said to ease my suffering back then, it did not work.

Somebody needs to visit that suffering on students today. They need it. I read their prose and wondered where is their Mrs. Greer. Is she asleep at her desk?

That might explain stiff, almost-unreadable writing I slogged through as an evaluator for a prestigious scholarship. I read applications from six students – the standard fare of resume, cover letter and work samples. 

I could pick the work of any of the six to share. I will bore you with the writing of one. The candidate started the cover letter with this gem: “As a third year HBCU student double majoring in Mass Communications w/a concentration in multimedia journalism and Theatre.”

Yep, that was the first sentence. I reread it in search of a complete thought; I did not find one. I then waded through the first paragraph, an untidy piece of prose, and reached the second paragraph. It, too, was no gem. It read: “Working with my universities’ media outlets has given me opportunities and skills I’ve only dreamed of.” 

As poorly crafted as the first two paragraphs were, the third trumped them in sloppiness (or was it carelessness?). Here it goes: “Going into my senior year as a media personality, actress, and director it is imperative that I obtain as much experience as I possibly can in my field.”

And can someone, please, tell me what the writer was trying to communicate in this sentence: “To be able to work with like minded students with the same background pursuing a similar type of career as me and having guidance from those in the industry would be a dream.”

I saw sentences like this – and worse – published in the campus media at Ohio University before I rode into the sunset last May. I did not leave teaching because of the drudgery of having to read poor writing; I left partly because we seem not to care that our students cannot write. 

Remember, I taught at a top-notch journalism school, and the students I was asked to evaluate majored in journalism or mass communications at lesser programs. All had wanted to become storytellers – accurate, clear and concise stories told across multiple news platforms. 

You cannot tell stories well if you have no grasp of the basics. Subjects and verbs must agree; sentences must make a point; commas should not be sprinkled across a piece of writing like rock salt on a slippery sidewalk.

I stepped away from the task to gather my thoughts. I soon realized that we must find more teachers like Mrs. Greer – ones who are unafraid to tell a student or parents that their “Johnny can’t write worth a damn.”