I’ve been doing some reading lately, both in and out of the library field. I’ve had the good fortune to read some truly well-written, well-reasoned pieces that have inspired me and reminded me why I enjoy studying, thinking, and doing research. But it saddens me that too many people who have important and interesting things to say do not write well at all.
It’s not about form, it’s about content, you say? Well, you’re right, to a point. But when I take notes and have to add “[sic]” seven, eight, or nine times within the course of a dozen or so quotes, that’s a problem. (And that only counts the typographical errors, transposed words, and the most egregious grammatical errors.) Slowly working my way through such pieces, translating and interpreting the mangled English as I go, I have little brain power left to engage the content. Suddenly, form is everything, and its sloppiness seeps down to taint my sense of the content.
Other pieces don’t have typographical and grammatical errors. They may be quite “correctly” written but beat you over the head with their own dullness. I read an opening sentence the other night that in effect said that if there are factors that make reference service more effective, knowledge of these factors should help reference librarians provide more effective reference service. Really? You don’t say. This is the sentence that’s supposed to make me want to read what those factors might be, but instead I had to force myself to go on, battling the overwhelming impression that the authors not only have nothing original to say but also think that I’m stupid.
Now, I’m not even close to a perfect writer. I’m the world’s worst speller and usually have to ask students to spell their own search terms when we’re delving into databases together. Until last year (when I started this blog), I was so ashamed of my writing that I agonized over the simplest emails and avoided situations where I’d have to write without the benefit of a dictionary and an eraser. I generally either over-think or under-think my phrasing, and when I’m “really” writing (as opposed to posting random thoughts here) I know that I have to write one draft and then go back and cross out at least a quarter of the words in every paragraph.
All this is just to say that writing is hard work, and good writers are an incredible gift to the profession and to those of us who learn from them every day. These good writers will help those inside of the profession to think deeply about important subjects, and they will help those outside of the profession to take us seriously. How can we expect to gain credibility from the academic departments we serve, the faculty members with whom we work, if we write like their sophomores or juniors? The hard work of writing well is worth it, and it’s important.
It’s not the volume we write. It’s the quality of our writing that matters. It’s the respect we show for our readers when we choose words carefully to go beyond transmitting information and into the realm of conveying meaning.