I found this out empirically when teaching a remedial composition class at a small college. The school took composition skills seriously, and thus the remedial class met for 5 hours a week, instead of the usual 3. The kids had been assigned to it because they’d bombed a test, and as I was soon to discover, this test had some flaws.
Out of a class of about 30, I found that 10% of them had just been having a bad day on the test–they were already writing at an acceptable college level. Having been the bright kid in a group of um, less stellar talents for much of my life, my heart went out to them, and they were my inspiration to keep the class from becoming as horribly boring as it might have been. (Not hard. My glory as a teacher is that I’m not boring. This is also my bete noir, as it stems from my not being as consistent as I should be.)
Anyway, I did some digging (small schools mean you get to know the students) and found that the big difference between my good writers and my awful writers was that the people with skills read. And the more they read, the better their writing was.
So for the last couple of months of class, I broke it down by letter grades. The A’s only had to attend class Monday and Tuesday. B’s got to add Wednesday, and C’s came through Thursday. This left me five or six D’s for Friday, and that was boot camp. Every day, they had to read something, and then write about it. I wasn’t too fussy about the source, as long as it wasn’t some hiphop-esque piece of trash not written in standard English.
The results were impressive: My boot campers pulled themselves up by at least a letter grade, with one guy going from a low D to a satisfactory B. Yeah, extra teacher time. But I’m telling you, it was the reading. These kids might not have been good students, but that didn’t mean they were stupid, and when exposed to the different language that is written English, they soaked it up through their pores. I was so proud, I mighta been their mama.
Now, twenty years later, I review book manuscripts, and I suspect the same pattern exists. Some of these adults–all successful and wealthy enough to afford our firm–need boot camp. And it’s not just the mechanical flaws, it’s basic structural stuff like repeating themselves (occasionally endlessly), failure to shore up their characters beyond two dimensions, and (oh ye gods) saying stuff that shouldn’t need to be said: About 75% of people who have the stirrings of a book within plop out a self-help book, and because (I suspect) all they read are self-help books, and they all take the same classes in juicing and yoga, they all sound the same.
I don’t read self-help books in my personal life, but I’m beginning to suspect that they’re not very well written. What my current boot camp candidates need is structured non-fiction, like popular science books written by scientists who have gotten their degrees from schools we’ve heard from. They also need classic novels written by people who knew how to punctuate. (Start with Angela’s Ashes–it was written by a whip-cracking English teacher.) Until there’s a matrix of written English in the brain, I believe it’s impossible to spit it back out. And I’m not being a snob: We’re talking about basic meaning. If you’re pulling down 70k in your own consulting business, writing a simple sentence that turns out to be gibberish should be a flogging offense.
Not that I’m cranky, heh. I just sweat over everything I write, grateful to my ex-husband for having cured me of comma splices in grad school. Is it wrong to expect the newbies clustering in the doorway to have a little respect for my art and profession?