Improve your writing “quickly and easily,” Pearson promises

Fyodor Dostoyevsky

The grammatically challenged of this world have new hope: Pearson Education announced today that it’s releasing a series of applications for the iPhone and iPod touch called “GrammarPrep” that will apparently help “college students, professionals and English learners quickly and easily improve their writing skills.”

Really? I didn’t know there was a quick and easy way to improve one’s writing. (Why didn’t Pearson tell me this sooner, back when I made my living as a full-time English teacher? Nowadays I just teach writing part time.)

Call me old-school, but I don’t believe there’s a quick or easy way to get better at writing. Rather, it’s a lifelong battle, a labor of love, a daily commitment to the written and spoken word. And I’d be willing to bet most writers and writing teachers would agree. Shortcuts don’t exist.

Show me a great writer and I’ll show you a voracious reader. The most surefire way to become a better writer? Read. Read a ton. Read until you’re blind.

And then write, write, write. It’s trial and error. It’s revision. It’s the realization that everything expressed in writing can somehow still be better expressed — a tweak to the diction here, a reworking of the syntax there. Good writers are unafraid of rewriting; in fact, they see it — rightly — as central to the writing process.

And, at the end of the day, we should acknowledge that some things are just too hard or important to express in words (written or spoken). Stephen King’s line on this, in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, is one I’ll never forget: “The most important things are the hardest to say, because words diminish them.”

And then there’s the brilliant paragraph Dostoyevsky gives the memorable character Prince Myshkin in The Idiot: “in every serious human thought born in anyone’s brain there is always something left over which is impossible to communicate to others, even though one were to write whole volumes and explain the idea for thirty-five years; there will always be something left which cannot be coaxed out of your brain and which will remain with you forever; you will die with it, without ever communicating to anyone what is perhaps the essence of your thought.”

So, yeah, I don’t really buy Pearson’s promise to make everyone a better writer “quickly and easily.” As an educator, I believe everyone can get better at writing — but doing so is neither quick nor easy.

Justin Snider

(Postscript: The good reader, the close reader, the reader who delights in detail and notes nuance, will perhaps point out that I’ve failed to distinguish between “writing” and “writing skills.” Pearson’s promise, to be precise, is that people who use its “GrammarPrep” apps will “quickly and easily improve their writing skills” — which isn’t the same thing, one could argue, as “quickly and easily” improving their writing. But I’d counter that this is a distinction without a difference: better writing skills matter only to the degree that they lead to better writing.)