Writing: How to Make It Better
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By Susan Packer Davis

At the start of each and every school year, my mother, Sonya Packer, a professor in the Speech Department at UCLA for thirty years, would receive a note in her box from the Chancellor, imploring all the professors at UCLA to do whatever they could to raise the level of writing on the campus. My mother’s reply was always the same: make the students write.

In order to write well, a student must actually write, and write often. In addition, a student must also have his or her work reviewed and edited by a knowledgeable, trained instructor, and returned to him or her in a timely manner, so that he or she can revise, and revise again. A student’s writing will improve with successive drafts; content, choice of words and transitions between ideas will get much better each time a paper is re-written, after it has been edited for grammar and style.

Too often these days, students take too many multiple-choice exams, and analyze only “excerpts” and “snippets,” for which they are required to give only short-answer responses, in middle school and high school English and history classes. I like to call that sort of instruction Reader’s Digest English. Students today do not write regularly, or for real; they do not write enough timed, in-class, interpretive essays of the sort that are required for the exams they will take at the university, writing that must be done by the student alone. Very often, the only lengthy writing that is done is for “projects,” or “take-home” assignments, for which, unfortunately, much of the writing is “borrowed,” or worse, stolen, from external sources on the Internet.

In my view, students should be required to write constantly, especially in class, in their English and history classes, for all the years they attend middle school and high school. And their instructors should be properly educated and trained to edit and correct their written work, so that students’ writing improves with every passing year. There is really no substitute for that process.

For the student’s part, he or she should become well-acquainted with Elements of Style by Strunk and White, a classic, and the lesser-known Elements of Grammar, by Margaret Shertzer, invaluable resources for writing well. Both (very small) books should become a high school student’s constant companions, well before his or her college years.

I was fortunate, in terms of developing my writing skills and style, as well as in many other ways, to be the daughter of a writer (my father, Peter Packer) and a university professor, who instilled in me a love not only of reading, but of writing, and a true reverence for the craft. Our house was, literally, furnished in books, and I was exposed to many different forms of writing, and introduced to many different kinds of writers, some in person.

My father treated writing as if it were a real job, with set hours and definite deadlines, many of which were, in fact, not imaginary. He left for his office, a small, plain affair above a Security Pacific Bank in Hollywood, every day at 6 a.m., and did not return until 6 p.m., having spent the entire day in front of his manual Royal typewriter, even on weekends. He taught me, by example, that great writing is far more than the result of sporadic inspiration; it is, instead, what results from the union of ideas and discipline, the daily ritual of writing, editing and rewriting, until the work in question is, actually, better.