Good Writing Is Not a Luxury

Imagine, if you will, opening up a Bible for the first time.  You turn to the gospels, and you read: “ok ther wuz this chick adn she wuz all omgz wut baby???!!! srsly i dont even!!1!!1!!!”

Impressed, aren’t you?  Ready to sell all that you own and go follow the one who could inspire such words?

Or maybe not. 

Just imagine if, like so many today, the Evangelists had been unable to express themselves in the written word.  Yes, they were inspired by the Holy Spirit—but we’re not talking about auto writing here.  They went into the project with some skill, some ability to write complete sentences and coherent paragraphs, and to put across the facts of a story—some with mere competence, some with style—when it really mattered. 

Well, it still matters today.  It’s very important for Catholics to learn how to write.  At least, if they are going to write, they need to learn how to do it competently.  People form their opinions of our faith based, at least in part, on what they see online—and that means the written word, in articles, but especially in blog posts, and maybe most especially in the comment box.

As far as I can tell, people who readily self-identify as Catholics tend to be among the more literate of those with a public writing voice.  When our local newspaper runs a story about, for instance, priests or abortion, 90% of the comments are the typical chorus of unpunctuated, misspelled, stream-of-consciousness regurgitation of whatever last fell out of Keith Olbermann’s head.  Two percent of the commenters are educated, articulate people who despise the Church.  Two percent are blathering, hate-mongering Catholics who apparently own neither a Bible nor a dictionary. 

And six percent are calm, articulate Catholics who patiently explain the larger idea behind the Church’s teaching on a particular issue.  With complete sentences.  And punctuation.  And a main idea.

And this is what we need more of.  And it’s not going to happen if someone doesn’t teach the coming generations to do it.

When my children reach college age, we’ll have plenty of questions for prospective schools—and near the top of the list will be, “Do you make your students write a lot?”  I’m dismayed by how many otherwise excellent schools don’t seem to require regular composition.  I’m guessing this is because college professors can only ask so much from kids who are barely able to form complete sentences, or even complete words—and they can’t make up for what the high schools and elementary schools never taught.

Still, I would think long and hard before sending my kids to a school that didn’t value writing very highly, no matter what the major.  Good, clear writing is not just for academic types.  Ever been discharged from a hospital with instructions from a nurse who had no idea how to put across a simple idea?  Ever tried to put together an appliance according to instructions written by a semi-literate engineer?  Ever heard pro-lifers defended by someone with the best intentions and the purest soul, but no capacity for putting abstract thoughts into writing? 

It’s a disaster.  Next thing you know, you have an infected knee, a vacuum cleaner that blows instead of sucks, and a secular public who thinks the Church has no particular reason for teaching what it does, other than a vaguely hysterical nostalgia for the 1950’s.  Clear writing isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessity.  It’s not enough to have good intentions, to understand ideas ourselves, or even to be intelligent - we must be able to put these ideas across.

I’m not saying that everyone needs to be a scholar (John the Evangelist wasn’t).  I’m not even saying that everyone needs to be a good writer.  Heck, I don’t even think that converts are made through comment boxes:  when we’re showing the world what our Faith is like, the best way to do that is through our behavior, not our logical prowess.

And yet. 

In the beginning was the Word.  And in the beginning of the Church was the written word.  Let’s keep that going.