Famous Last Words: Learning to Write
When I ran this magazine, I told the editors we were experts talking to experts. They not only had to understand everything they wrote, but they also had to be able to explain it to their grandmothers. “This is the real world,” I admonished them. “We cannot fake it.”
One editor was a very facile writer, but her writing frequently turned into gibberish. “What does this mean?” I would ask her. “I don’t really know,” she would answer. “That’s what the guy told me.” After a string of such instances, we had to let her go.
How do you prepare young people for the real world?
About 20 years ago, two professors from Harvard were invited to address the Harvard Club of Fairfield County (Conn.), and I was invited to hear them. The premise: give the old grads a taste of what currently was being taught at Harvard.
It was instantly clear that Harvard’s Richard Marius—Reformation scholar, novelist and director of the Expository Writing Program—was a truly great teacher. Fiftyish at the time, he had a mop of dark hair, a black mustache, a wicked glint in his eye and a disarming smile. He described the first assignment he gave to his incoming freshman writing students—hotshot kids who graduated at the top of their class in high school and were very cocky.
Marius’ classroom was in Harvard’s Memorial Hall, a wonderful Victorian pile of bricks dedicated in 1874 to the memory of those Harvard men who died fighting in the Union Army during the Civil War. The first assignment handed to the new kids was to write a short paper about Memorial Hall—say, 300 to 500 words.
“Sir, what do you want the paper to be about?”
“That’s up to you. Here is this fine old building. I would like you to write something about it.”