How a College Education can Ruin your Writing

In theory, going to college should improve one’s writing. More education, better vocabulary, less grammar mistakes – it should be a winning combination. Or at least that was the theory I had going into college. But in actual practice, I am not so sure.

What if college is having the opposite effect on my ability to be a writer? What if it is making me worse? What if I start sounding like an academic? Unfortunately, I think that it might be a little too late. Besides, I really need to finish college, if only to prevent my wife from killing me.

In my wife’s mind, college is all about me getting a degre so I can get a well-paying job. For me, it is all about becoming a better writer. I have worked for corporations; they hold no appeal for me. So watching the actual effect that college is having on my writing is like watching a slow car accident – I can’t tear my eyes away, despite the fact that I suspect that the guy’s head is going to go though the windshield. Too bad it is my head that is going to be suffering the damage. Someone call a medic, please.

A few years ago, I was in this writing group with someone who was better educated than myself, actually not hard to accomplish considering at the time, I was a high school dropout. And every time I read one of his pieces, I had to stop to ask him about the meaning of at least one word. After a while, I started to carry my dictionary with me. I wasn’t alone. Turns out that a few other people had the same problem; we all had fifty cent vocabularies compared to the fifty dollar words that he was using.

Going into college, I did have the fear that I was going to develop the same problem. To my amusement, all of my English teachers have warned us (the students sitting in the back row of the class) not to open up the thesaurus looking for fifty dollar words. We are to use the right word, not an exotic one – if you don’t know what it means, don’t use it. The professor may ask you what it means and you will either confuse your reader or prove that you have not a clue about the word’s meaning. Better to go with the nickel words than have that occur. So I have managed to sidestep one problem, though it is more because the professors gave me an excuse not to develop the problem rather than my native intelligence. I still drag my knuckles on the ground, as evidenced by other nasty writing habits I have developed.

During my first English class, somehow managing to actually qualify to attend college level English (it was math that I was half-dumb and deaf), I was introduced to the complex and compound sentences. Understanding how to use a semicolon cut down on the number of comma splices I had (I puzzled over what the term “comma splice” meant the first dozen times it was written on one of my papers), but it lead me to creating extremely long sentences. Gone was the simple sentence. No longer did Jane look at her lover. Now, Jane gazed at her lover’s eyes; their intense color stabbing back at her-undressing her down to her soft pale skin. Ack! For a while, everything I wrote consisted of compound-complex sentences. It was sad.

It was also sleep-inducing, especially when combined with my urge to write really long paragraphs. I blame this one on my English 121 professor. “And the assignment is to be six paragraphs, no more.” I rose to that challenge like a pike after a red-fly. Silly man, he didn’t say how long the paragraph was supposed to be. Some people died during the long trek across the peer review of my essays. No one that I will personally miss, but I am not sure you want to force people to read page long paragraphs, so I do feel some guilt. Not a lot, but a little bit lurks in the corner.

Yet in terms of sleep-inducing, bordering on comas, research and term papers have hurt me the most. Nothing else tops them yet, for making me long-winded and my writing utterly pointless. I no longer have a point to make, or even an opinion; I just cite and cite for page after page. I think it is the loss of the “I.” Now instead of speaking as myself, I speak as a disinterested observer. Quite frankly, I could care less what I write as long as I get a passing grade. My writing has gotten drier and drier; the great dust bowl has nothing on me. I am the reigning king of sand; I kill prisoners by forcing them to read my papers. And it is all to prove that I actually did research. I don’t understand it, but I can prove I have read lots about the subject.

I was hoping that the Creative Writing class would help blunt some of the trauma. It hasn’t. In fact, all that class has resulted in is a pile of checklists that I follow methodically. “Have I included all five senses?” Check. Not did they contribute depth to the story, just did I remember to include them. The teacher says that after a while, it gets better – less methodical. I hope that she is telling the truth.

So is there any hope for me to recover? Probably. I suspect a good drink and a few hours of Monty Python would loosen me up. If not, I can always write for the literary journals. I won’t be able to afford beans, but there are still places that print moisture free text. For that matter, I am primed to write textbooks and charge big bucks to ruin your writing, too.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love college. I love writing. It is just that I am prone to developing habits. Mainly bad ones, based on obsessive-compulsive tendencies. Basically, I can take any good tool and wreck it. Give me a hammer and everything becomes a nail. Perhaps someday after I get done hammering at things, perhaps I will realize that what I am learning is just a bunch of tools. I hope so. Otherwise, I am going to be forced to hold the world hostage with my bad college level writing. After all, the wife insists that I get a job, or at least make some money.