Every great writer has a strong voice. Helping students find their own is key to any "writing revolution."
Left: Museo Nazionale Romano, Rome; right: Reuters
The debate about the "writing revolution," sparked by Peg Tyre's recent Atlantic article, is grounded in a false dichotomy -- the notion that somehow creativity and an expressive voice exist in opposition to lucid expository, analytical, or persuasive writing. Our experience teaching writing at Hampden-Sydney College and the success our writing program has enjoyed for more than 30 years have convinced us that this stark opposition is both unnecessary and counterproductive.
Good writing is clear writing, no doubt. But the best writing -- writing that informs and persuades simultaneously -- is engaged, passionate prose that unites head and heart in an individual voice. Writers and teachers since before Aristotle have understood the powerful link between reason and emotion, structure and style, that is essential to powerful, persuasive writing and speaking. How else can we account for the lasting impact of Pericles' Funeral Oration or Lincoln's Gettysburg Address or Second Inaugural? How else can we explain the persuasive arguments of Martin Luther King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail" or his "I Have a Dream" speech?
We sell young writers short -- and wall them off from access to the world's conversation -- when we imply that readers will be willing to plow through disordered personal impressions. But we also sell them short when we tell them that no one cares what they feel or think.
Hampden-Sydney College is one of four or, depending on how one counts, five liberal arts colleges for men in the country, and teaching students to write and speak well has been a primary focus here since our founding in 1775. With that in mind, it's not surprising that our former students include such wordsmiths as William H. Armstrong (Sounder), Michael Knight (The Typist), and Stephen Colbert.