Graduates need good writing skills
I’m not sure how many high school seniors are getting writing pens for graduation presents this commencement season, but I suspect that few of them will. Even when I got a writing pen or two for my own high school graduation 30 years ago, the custom was already starting to seem a little quaint. We were becoming a keyboard culture — a revolution now more or less complete with the rise of texting as a young person’s choice of communication.
This is the point, I suppose, at which I should recall my youthful joy at peeling back the gift wrapping and finding a heavy pen in a smart black box. But as graduation presents go, this was a soberly sensible gift — the commencement equivalent of finding socks or pajamas under the Christmas tree.
The presentation of a nice ink pen to a graduate was probably more important for its symbolism than its substance. For years, as elementary students and high schoolers, we had composed our homework and fledgling love letters with by-the-dozen ink pens bought from the school supply shelf of the local drug store. Getting an elegant pen in a sleek gift case was a rite of passage. Now, with a grown-up writing instrument befitting a banker or insurance salesman, we were expected to put away childish things and write like grown-ups, too.
Although the tools for writing change, the need for young people to cultivate basic writing skills remains. College often requires longer and more involved writing. Beyond university campuses, people from all walks of life benefit from being able to write a simple business note, a grant application or an email to their member of Congress.
Each generation laments the supposed decline of the skills and morals of its young people, but I’m not so sure that the desire to write competently is on the way out. New how-to books on writing continue to cross my desk with comfortable regularity, and I’m assuming that publishers, who are keen about making a profit, wouldn’t keep printing them if no one were interested.
One of the most assuring signs that civilization isn’t lost is the fact that “The Elements of Style,” a compact writing guide authored by William Strunk and E.B. White, has never gone out of print since its commercial debut in the 1950s. One of the book’s famous dictums, “Omit needless words,” has been a clarion call to brevity for generations of Americans.
When White gave his granddaughter Martha a copy of “The Elements of Style” many years ago, he included an inscription telling her that “you can use all the needless words you want to.” Martha White recently recalled that beyond its dispensation on brevity, the inscription winked at another long-running family joke by ending in a preposition, a no-no among grammatical puritans.
It was a rule her grandfather recognized, yet wasn’t above breaking if it suited his purposes.
I like the story of White and his granddaughter because it reminds me that the people we love really don’t care about how we put words together. The other folks who read our prose probably do. Graduates of 2012, take note.