Michael He

March 8, 2021

Why Kids Hate Writing

This post streak is a little challenge for my spring break. I aim to write one post a day. So far, so good. But this brings me to an age-old question.

Why do people hate writing, and why do people think they can't write well? 

I know my reasons. Perhaps they apply to teenagers and college students too.

  1. We don't write for ourselves. 
  2. We don't read.
  3. We don't edit.
  4. We buy into the bullshit myth of writing. 

The first reason is the most important. When we write essays in high school English classes, papers in college, and more "bleh" at work, we are not the readers. We often write for external factors - grades, publication, or some type of metrics.

We just don't write for ourselves. The curiosity to understand something, the attachment to that subject, the joy of sharing this passion, all of these wonderful things are buried deep inside us. As a result, we put on shackles, before each writing assignment begins. And we hate every minute of it.

We are not lazy. We are not stupid. We are not the bad guys. The perverse incentives are the villains. And they are everywhere.  

Unfortunately, this is an uphill battle. Being aware of such absurdity is hard enough.

How many people write fun essays for school and get praised by their teachers? Not many, I guess. Yet that is exactly what teachers are supposed to do. To get you interested in learning more, to help you along the way, and to make you feel accomplished

My English teachers are great, but they have other bosses. In a school, students are not the customers, but the products. Things are taught to satisfy government standards, to transfer intangible knowledge into tangible numbers (standardized testing), and to keep students busy with busywork.

Teachers don't want to force things on students. They have to.

This is why school boards approve and disapprove certain books to read in English classes. This is why a great book like To Kill a Mockingbird may not probe kids until they read it on their own, often many years later.

CliffNotes and SparkNotes shouldn't be viable businesses, but they are highly profitable. No, it's not because students are lazy. It's because students have no freedom. It only gets worse in college, as complexity and over-intellectualization overwhelms many and internal resistance stumbles many others.

Kids love reading storybooks, but many stop reading altogether in a few years. Why? And why do adults use books to signal for other things?

Take away the freedom of time and the freedom to immerse in stories and ideas, you will get a generation of people who don't read and will only read for trite reasons. They watch YouTube, play video games, and chat on smartphones just fine. Because that's fun to them. They will even read things on Instagram and Twitter. Once again, because that's fun.

 Interests to learn often stem from fun things. Students don't have that luxury anymore. Who has time to think, let alone feel, when there are a dozen books to memorize for AP Lit essays, the plot, the characters, the themes, and else? 

If you are a student or a parent, guard your (child's) freedom carefully. Don't lose the connection to the fun of learning.

If that's not enough disservice, we are not taught to edit, nor to value editing. This is normally the last 5% of the writing process, when it should be the last 45%. Editing is a valuable skill, even a craft for some people. Akira Kurosawa edits his own films, and that alone makes Yojimbo and a dozen other Kurosawa films the most enjoyable out there.

Writing indicates clarity of thought. A succinct and well-made point is better than ten mediocre ones. That's not to say lengthy writings are bad, but lengthy first drafts are always bad. 

Editing is important, because extra sucks. We like a clean and crisp action sequence, because that's cool. You can feel the punches. Hemingway gets paid a lot of money per word because he does not write one unnecessary word. On the other hand, Charles Dickens writes so many words, because his income is tied to word count. Incentives.

If you have ten pages of important things to say, then use ten pages. If you only need five, saying that in ten is horrible. We often don't have that much to say, but have to write so much for crappy reasons. I do that all the time.

You can at least edit some stuff out and hopefully add some good new points instead.

All of this is to say, writing well is a myth for many. Perhaps bullshit is more emotionally accurate. 

  • Writing well must be a talent.
  • Writing is hard.
  • Writing is boring. 
  • And a million more...

These things are often true. But that's because we don't care about that type of writing. My friend hates writing for school, but loves anime, to the point he can easily write insightful essays on that topic. I have no idea how he can trace the lineage of various studios, directors, and productions.

Writing well is the result of practice. Combine that with fun, with enthusiasm, with a sensei, and improvement is guaranteed.

At least, that's what I think. My sincere appreciation to Paul Graham, whose essays show me how fun writing can be. 

If you only write what other people make you write, you won't enjoy writing. And if you don't enjoy writing, you won't do it well. - Paul Graham (tweet on this very essay)

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I think senioritis is a great time for doing fun things. That includes writing and any creative mediums.

Just as Jason Fried says writing classes should be a priority for college students, this applies to younger students as well. If I were to organize such a program, it would be very simple.

  • Weekly meetings, students talk about topics that interest them;
  • They go write whatever they want;
  • They meet with an instructor privately and make lots of revisions;
  • They write a few more versions, in different lengths (pages, a page, a paragraph, a sentence);
  • They share things with their friends and have fun together;
  • Repeat.

Do this for a summer of 12 weeks, I'm sure the results will be quite good.

Notes:

  • I cannot dig into every reason for this question. These four are the most obvious to me. 
  • I made a little tweet, then Paul Graham and Jason Fried shared this link!  Thank you so much! Now I am really embarrassed. This is just a little rant with many errors, but their acknowledgment will go a long way. 
  • I am grateful for my high school English teachers: Mrs. Chen, Mr. Smith, Mrs. Dolter, and Mr. Hoague. They all did their best to make me a better student and writer.
  • My sincere gratitude to people for pointing out typos and positive feedback. I hope to do better than misspelling SparkNotes as SprakNotes.