I love to write. This is pretty obvious to anyone who knows me at all: the first paid work I did for someone outside my family was writing articles for SEO, I met my high school English requirements before I started 9th grade, and still I continued to write and read profusely and extensively throughout high school and college.
Writing for me has taken many forms. For long periods of time, I kept a daily journal. I wrote posts on many different blogs over time. I wrote long essays in the comments sections of YouTube videos, arguing with strangers. I’ve written everything from letters to politicians to novels.
I just write by virtue of existing. If I’ve got thoughts, they either come out of my mouth into the air or they come out of my fingers onto a keyboard. For the dramatic most part, I took no formal writing classes. I just read interesting stuff and I wrote what I thought, and I analyzed my writing in light of what I’d read to find ways to make it better.
And it was with that background that I signed up for the AP English Language and Composition. I was excited! I got to be in a class with tons of great writers, who loved to write just like I did! The syllabus included weekly the writing of a 2-3 page essay and the reading of 1-3 novellas! Honestly, it looked like a dream come true. If all writing classes are this awesome, why hadn’t I taken one sooner?
This enthusiasm continued throughout the first few weeks. At the time, I was also taking two other classes through the same online program, so I only took about two days to do the work. One day to read, and a second to write. I got good grades, and I was happy. My only minor quip was the fact that on our class homepage, my teacher posted the best essays for any given assignment. My essays were never on there.
I was a little bit bummed, but I figured, there had to be somebody better than me. And yet, when I downloaded their essays to try and learn from them, I noticed something very strange. Their essays all seemed to be clones of each other. They all followed basically the same formula, and it wasn’t even that interesting a formula. Besides their names printed at the top, there was no way for me to tell who’d written which essay. When I read books, I felt like the author was speaking to me in their own unique voice, conveying information that was important enough to them to have written a book about it. When I read my classmates’ essays, I just saw words.
I’d like to say I was completely disillusioned to the falseness of accomplishment in academic writing, and I went on to join such great writers as Stephen King and Kurt Vonnegut in saying so. I wasn’t, and I didn’t. I was just confused.
The realization that getting good grades in an English class and being a good writer were totally different things didn’t come for me until many months later. In the meantime, I’d already begun to question what everyone in my life had been telling me for years: that I was a good writer. Over the course of the class, I didn’t just never get on the “best essays” list. I also got steadily worse grades. My literary analyses got bad marks. I occasionally got Bs on assignments. (Shut up, it was devastating at the time.)
As I do, I responded to all of this by buckling down and working harder. My two easy days for English class became three hard ones as I tried (and failed) to understand why my writing wasn’t good enough. My mental state was shot. I didn’t know what to think about myself. At the same time that my English class was telling me I was average at best, others continued to tell me that my writing was great. I started correcting them, because of course your English teacher knows more about good writing than your prospective audience. Who cares if it’s interesting, it got a B, so there must be something wrong with it.
But the class ended, and a few months passed. I kept writing, because that’s what I do, and I showed it to various people. Just like they’d been saying the whole time, they said it was great. And outside the environment of the class, I started to consider the concept that maybe the class wasn’t as important as I’d thought. After all, in real life, if you can captivate your audience with interesting work, what else is there? I got my final score on the AP test (think of it as a comprehensive final, and the only grade that matters; it’s scored on a bell curve from 1 at the lowest to 5 at the highest), and I got a 3. I wasn’t too surprised, but I also wasn’t too hurt.
At the time, I figured that I was just awful at rhetorical analysis, and that was the reason my score was low. It was a good reason for some time. But I’ve since realized that there’s a deeper problem going on here, and that is that good academic writing is not good writing.
Good academic writing feels impersonal, mostly because it’s wordy. Not in the sense that academics have a broader vocabulary, though most of them do; their sentences are just way too long for the thoughts they convey. Academic writing goes “During the upcoming period, this project will be continued”. Normal writing goes “This week I’ll continue my project”. The academic version has 1.5x the word count for the same thought, it’s in the passive voice, and it’s boring overall.
The purpose of all those words, so far as I can tell, is twofold. For one, it completely snuffs out the author’s individual voice and replaces it with the simple meaning of the words. And for another, it makes the writing super formal, because it overuses a construction that English-speakers use to make something more polite. For example: A rude apology is “Sorry.” A polite apology is “I’m so sorry, I wasn’t trying to hurt your feelings.” More words = more effort = more polite.
Plain old good writing, on the other hand, conveys a lot more about both the author and the subject. When an author lets themself write sentences like “I was excited!”, “Meh, it wasn’t a big deal”, “I was just confused”, and “Can you believe that?!”, it makes it way more obvious what the author is feeling. It makes it obvious that the essay didn’t just apparate into existence, somebody had to write it.
The main problem with using AP English as a gauge of my writing wasn’t that it isn’t a good gauge; it’s fine. It’s just a gauge of the wrong thing. AP English is designed to prepare students for academic writing (because the classes are designed by academics, so their subject matter is disproportionately biased towards things that would be useful for academics; but that’s a topic for another day). If you just want to be a good writer, you don’t take AP English. If you want to be a good writer, you do what I’d unknowingly been doing all along: read good writing, write what you care about, and fix your writing based on what you’ve read. So, since I do want to be a good writer, I suppose that’s what I’ll keep doing. See you again tomorrow!