Michael He

March 8, 2021

Why Kids Hate Writing

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

I know my reasons and they are not restricted to writing. It’s a broader problem.
 
  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. 

When we write essays in high school English classes, papers in college, and reports at work, we are not the readers. We write for external factors - grades, publication, or some other metric. 
 
We just don't write for ourselves. The curiosity to understand something and the joy of sharing this interest get buried deep inside us. We put on shackles before each writing assignment begins. And we hate every minute of it. This is the source of all misery.

We are not lazy. We are not stupid. We are not the bad guys. The perverse incentives are the villains and they are everywhere. Once again, quotas, standardization, the detachment of creative ownership, and a million others. Of course, it’s easier to blame students for not writing well. The reasons are almost endless. 
 
Unfortunately, changing how people approach writing is an uphill battle. It’s already hard enough to become aware of such absurdity. How many people get to write fun essays and stories in school and receive praises from their teachers? The number is low, perhaps very low. Yet that is exactly what teachers are supposed to do - to get you interested in learning more, to help you along the journey, and to make you feel accomplished. 

My English teachers are great, but they have other bosses. In schools, students are not the paying customers, but the products. The end goal is to satisfy government standards, to translate intangible knowledge into tangible numbers via standardized testing, and to keep students busy with busywork. The funny thing is no one voted for this to happen. Not the parents and certainly not the students. We are not that stupid.

I don’t think many teachers want to force things on students, either. They just have to. 
 
It’s truly the wonder of our times, how the citizenry slowly gives away the power of education and empowerment to people they don’t even know. For example, school board members, education department people, academics, etc. To insult us even more, most of them never go through a democratic process.

This is why school boards can approve and disapprove certain books to read in English classes. This is why a great book such as To Kill a Mockingbird may not probe kids until they read it on their own many years later. School district can even ban this book… 

Kids love reading storybooks, but many of them stop reading altogether in a few years. Generally speaking, high school is when students lose interest in reading. Things get worse in college, as academic complexity and over-intellectualization overwhelms many and internal resistance stumbles many others. Then many adults use books to signal anything but curiosity. Why is this happening?
 
Part of it has to do with how books are used for instruction in school. The ubiquity of prep guides is the best evidence for the downfall of a reading public. It’s not a surprise that the trend of standardized education coincides with the loss of creativity among students at large.
 
CliffsNotes and SparkNotes shouldn't be viable businesses, but they are highly profitable. It’s not due to laziness. If students are that lazy, why would they use these guides in the first place? Students use them because they have to do something for their silly classes and these guides save them time for other things they deem more worthwhile (e.g., YouTube, video games, dating). There’s no buy-in from the students’ end, when it comes to education.

Take away the freedom of time and the freedom of mind, you will get a generation of people who don't read. They will only read for trite reasons, not to immerse in stories and ideas for curiosity’s sake. 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 Reddit. Once again, because that's fun. 
 
The one thing not reading guarantees is terrible writing. Personal anecdote may not represent the objective reality, but I write at my best when I’m curious in something. In turn, things I enjoy reading are written by people who are curious and read a lot.

True interests in learning 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 Literature exams? You need to know the plot, the characters, the themes, and symbols to write those horrendous essays, and you have to prep an entire year for the exam. How disgusting.

Here’s a sincere advice to any student or parent out there: guard your (and your child’s) freedom carefully. Once you lose the curiosity to learn for its own sake, you will lose it for a long time, perhaps even forever. 
 
There is also a technical aspect of writing that explains why do people may hate writing. We are not taught to edit nor to value editing. This negligence is a disaster for individuals and society at large. 
 
Editing is normally the last 5 percent of the writing process, but the process should be much more important than 5 percent. Editing is a valuable skill, sometimes a craft. Akira Kurosawa edits his own films and makes sure every frame is exactly how he wants it to be. That sets him apart from most film directors. Yojimbo and a dozen other Kurosawa films are extremely enjoyable and re-watchable for a reason.

Writing indicates clarity of thought. A succinct and well-made point is better than ten mediocre ones. That is not to say lengthy writings are bad, but lengthy first drafts are always bad. I’d love to read a first draft masterpiece, if anyone would like to share with me.

Editing is important, because bloat sucks. We like clean and crispy action sequences, because you can feel the punches. It’s that much better. 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, partly because his income is tied to word count. Incentives matter.

If you have ten pages of important things to say, then write ten pages. If you only need five, writing ten pages is horrible. If it sucks to write those extra pages, imagine the readers who have to read them! We often don't have that much to say, but have to write so much for various reasons. Reasons outside of our control. I do that all the time. It’s truly a tragedy.
 
Even in the worst possible scenario, try to edit a little more. Correct grammatical mistakes and typos. Catch the awkward phrases and fix them. Cut out boring or irrelevant sections. If page count is an issue, cutting things may free up the space for new interesting ideas. Either way, editing measures how much you care. 

Editing is also about taste. When you edit, you refine on what’s already there. It implies betterment by definition. Each markup in red is another round of style-and-grammar tennis. Those who write for themselves are much more aware of how things sound and how they should sound. Those who read a lot know that gap and how to close it as much as reality allows. Even though creative people constantly ask others for feedback, they are good editors themselves.
 
I am not good at writing, but I enjoy editing other people’s writings. It feels oddly calming and satisfying, similar to chopping carrots. It’s a happy tragedy that I have plenty of chances to edit people’s writings. I wish more people can appreciate and enjoy the editing process. It benefits everyone.
 
Writing for oneself, reading for fun and curiosity, and editing. These are the reasons behind my decent writing. They also destroy most myths (or bullshit, if you so incline) about good writing.
 
  • Writing well must be a talent.
  • Writing is impossible.
  • Writing is boring. 
  • And a million more...

These things are often true, only because we don't care about that type of writing. A friend hates writing in school, but loves anime. He can easily write fun essays on that topic. 

Writing well is the result of practice. Improvement is not easy, but definitely possible. And it’s definitely fun, if you get to decide what to write and what to learn. 
 
Write more often. Write with more fun, more enthusiasm, and more feedback. It’s only a matter of time, before you become a better writer. At least, that's what I think. My sincere appreciation for Paul Graham, whose essays show me how fun writing can be. Anyone that helps others write is a friend I’d like to meet. 

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’s response to this very essay.

My sincere thanks to Samuel Kim and Andrew Zhao. Without their feedback, this essay would not be readable. Thanks to Paul Graham and Jason Fried for sharing this link. I am grateful for my high school teachers, who help me understand that writing is more about a grade, that it’s a journey to be a better thinker and a more creative (thus liberated) individual.