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Formal Education doesn't make you a better Writer

Writing Oct 4, 2021

More people are sharing their knowledge and expertise online now. Writing online has become an efficient way to establish domain expertise and connect with people and communities.

Perhaps, you want to share an idea with the world as well. And then you start writing; A personal blog? Or even a Newsletter!

But as you write, you realise no one is paying any attention to what you are writing. You wonder why! After all, you have been writing ever since you entered school.

If you have completed a college degree, that's 16 years of writing experience right under your belt. But even with such a long experience of writing words on paper, you are left flabbergasted by the fact many people don't read your stuff.

I hate to be the bearer of the bad news. But the not-so-secret-anymore fact is that; "Formal Education Doesn't make you a better writer".
In this article, we will look more into why that is so!

TLDR; Schools and Colleges do involve a lot of writing practice. But the problem is that formal education leaves you with years of bad writing habits, making your writing unremarkable and stale for those who read it. Writing for any audience that is not your teacher is a completely different ball game. The formal education system doesn't prepare you for it.

Writing in education institutions exist to serve the following functions:

  • To test your comprehension of a concept
  • To measure your ability to reason and apply a concept
  • To enforce certain rules of language

Now, let's take a look at the bad habits that academic writing instils in you.

Writing to reveal your head

The primary role of the essays in schools was to reveal your thought process to a teacher. It was a test of your comprehension and ability to reason. Teachers use it to evaluate how well you have understood something or how you apply a concept to a given situation.

You are thus incentivised to reveal and explain what is going on in your head. Every writing hence becomes a painting of your thoughts, meant for your teacher.

In the real world, your audience is not interested in knowing what's inside your head. They are looking for an idea that's of use to them and only you can give them.

You don't write to create value

This is the most important aspect that writing in an academic setting misses. You write for grades instead of writing in terms of generating value.

Habitual writing for grades dissolves the real function of writing. The transfer of value from the writer to the author.

When writing for an audience, you are trying to offer something of value to them through your writing.

It is always about the rules

Rules are only conventions that exist to make the application of language easier. Teachers give you some rules and enforce them thoroughly as they evaluate your essays. You are often penalised for not "following the rules".

The truth is rules are only scaffolding to aid communication. But inside the walls of academia, you are ready to sacrifice function and narrative for the sake of following rules.

When writing for an audience they don't care if you are following the rules. Clear communication of ideas is what the readers look for.

You don't write to engage your reader

To put it simply, your teachers are paid to read your papers and essays. No matter how you write your essay, teachers have to read and evaluate it.

This guarantee of a readership makes you complacent. You default to a writing style that doesn't empathise with your reader. It becomes boring.

When writing for an audience, you are fighting for their attention. You don't have their trust, neither do they have any motivation to read your full text. So how you engage your reader matters a lot.

Having used to teachers who read your work puts you in a blind spot when it comes to writing for engagement.

Saving Grace

While all this is true, all the writing you have done isn't a complete waste of time either. It should have helped you think better and frame polished arguments. But if you do want to write for an audience you will have to unlearn these habits. You have to look at writing as a transactional communication between two people. This lecture by Professor Larry McEnerny of the University of Chicago is a good starting point.

If fear is what stops you from writing online, I have an article to help you with that.


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