OPINION: Does Creativity Outweigh Correctness in Writing?
Bill Stott's Write To The Point is a 200-odd page book discussing writing, its forms, and many examples of its applications in societal and educational contexts. Its first chapter, on which I will focus, is called "What Counts in Writing". Its overarching argument is, and I quote: "Proper writing isn't of primary importance. What is of primary importance is what the writing says." That is to say, spelling, punctuation, misdefinitions, and other "trivial" errors, are largely unimportant so long as the writing expresses something worthwhile. Similarly, another major idea is that of the "good bad writer" – one who writes creatively and with originality, but not necessarily with conventional accuracy and fluidity. According to this reasoning, written pieces of work, particularly in the educational system, should not be evaluated based on "objective" rules of the English language, but, rather, "subjective" criteria such as originality of thought. In this way, students not as strong in grammar and vocabulary are not discouraged by marking that weighs errors over content, which "[does] the student no good".
It makes sense. Surely many students, and even some teachers, find the emphasis on linguistic correctness overly pedantic. Why must every apostrophe be in the right place, and what is so terrible about an extra comma, or a sentence starting with "and"? If the notion is valuable, it should trump these mistakes – should it not?
Well, to begin with, sometimes more serious errors, such as using the wrong term, can distort the author's intended meaning: grammatically correct writing is, generally, more easily understood than incorrect. More importantly, it is usually understood as was intended. However, particularly in educational and academic contexts where there is a baseline standard of literacy, grammatical errors do no significant harm. Why, then, the emphasis on correctness?
One argument is that consistently incorrect writing can be unpleasant to read. Similarly to the tiring ums and likes frequently uttered by many speakers, errors in writing can disrupt the reader's flow and diminish what clarity was otherwise established. Another reason for correct writing would be the author's implied credibility. Appropriately formal and accurate writing is often a sign of someone well educated. In addition, sophisticated use of complex grammatical rules, such as proper syntax, conveys the author's level of intelligence, complexity and clarity of thought, and his awareness of the reader's interpretation. These rules also act as an antidote to redundancy and verbosity.
While this may be desirable for many writers – certainly those working in professional capacities – undoubtedly a large number of students care simply about completing an assignment and receiving a decent grade. However, that the latter is dependent upon formal and "proper" writing is not counter-productive, as Stott seems to suggest.
A high school student with brilliant ideas should not earn terrible grades for writing one or two run-on sentences – this I do not dispute. On the contrary, his creativity and originality should be praised and encouraged. However, that his errors never be emphasised or corrected by the teacher is where the problem lies. If the student does not learn to write properly at school, where else can he do so? Certainly not at university, where such basic competencies are not only expected but invaluable, and not beyond, where professional success depends on the formal expression of sophisticated ideas.
To a large extent, all students understand and appreciate this, even if it seems old-fashioned and pedantic. Because even if meaning is conveyed, we still expect proper use of language in the relevant situations. For example, abbreviations are very common in teenagers' texts nowadays: people becomes ppl, really becomes rly, yesterday becomes ystd, and so on. Any teenager on social media reading these abbreviations would have no problems understanding them. Yet if a doctor were to write: "ystd I diagnosed ppl who were rly struggling", no one, students included, would consider his work – or him, for that matter – credible. The issue is not that his message is not understood, which, as Stott argues, is primarily what matters, but the way in which it is expressed. As mentioned earlier, one reason why correct writing is so important is that it conveys to the reader the author's level of education and intelligence. If a doctor doesn't know how to write properly, what else doesn't he know? What else doesn't that scientist, lawyer, politician, teacher, who writes incorrectly, know? If he can't be bothered to write properly, what else can't he be bothered to do?
In fact, the ability to write properly is so important that some people equate writing to thinking: they believe that in order to think well, one must be able to write well. This is not only related to an understanding of language, but also the ability to organise and develop one's ideas. Even with perfect grammar, incoherent or underdeveloped writing is nonetheless bad writing. Uninteresting, unoriginal, or inaccurate writing is also bad writing. So what should writers, readers and, importantly, teachers, prioritise?
A writer – say, an aspiring author – need not forgo his dream because he conjugates verbs incorrectly here and there. Any editor with competence and time could easily correct his errors and, provided the author's vision is original and entertaining enough, produce a best-seller. In that case, content easily outweighs correctness, as the correctness would not be the writer's responsibility. The same would apply to a politician with a speechwriter, a lawyer with a secretary, and so on. However, when the writer is responsible for both content and correctness, I would argue that they are of equal importance. No educated reader takes seriously an author who plagues his work with unnecessary commas, or who knows not the difference between it's and its. Equally, no educated reader values, or should value, unoriginal, pretentious, and/or irrelevant work. Worthwhile content written correctly is what we seek in articles, lab reports, legal documents, emails, and other important forms of writing.
The good news for teachers is that it is not "one or the other". Language rules are, compared with more abstract concepts, easy to teach. They are an important foundation for any student wishing to write prose in a professional capacity. Creativity, on the other hand, is far more difficult to teach. The best revolutionary essays, dissertations, journalism, research, and more, are original and innovative. They introduce something the reader has never considered before – something that, as Stott puts it, "makes the rest of us pause, the spoon on the way to our lips". More often than not, the geniuses behind these pieces of writing are masters of both language and ideas, which is what teachers should aim to nurture. Although originality of thought is harder to teach, teaching proper writing at least paves the way for it to be effectively communicated.
Thus, that original thinkers are proper writers is crucial – because as far as everyone else is concerned, an idea not expressed properly is an idea potentially misunderstood.