I have been in school for most of my life. I went to a private school in fourth grade, remained in private schools through my senior year in high school; then I graduated and went to university. I attained both a Bachelor’s degree and a Master’s degree in Computer Science. I started on a Doctorate of Philosophy (i.e., PhD) ten years ago at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County (UMBC). Yet, here I am, in middle age, learning how to write. All of the education and all of the training I have has never prepared me to write.
Writing is primarily defined by Merriam-Webster 2https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/writing as:
the act or process of one who writes
We start the process of writing around kindergarten or first grade (in the United States). I am re-starting the writing journey now with my daughter, who has just finished first grade. Like me, she struggles to present her thoughts, although her struggles are mechanical in nature. She fusses about being neat when inscribing her letters. Our problems both stem from the same issue, how can someone accurately convey information through writing?
Conveying accurately what you think or feel shows an ordered mind. Poor writing reflects a disordered mind. Poor word choices, allusions, reliance on ambiguities; all of the items on the preceding list reflect the disorder that surrounds poor writing. I am no ‘word saint’, I recognize that my own writing can suffer from a litany of poor writing ‘sins’. Education was (and is) the tonic for a poor writer.
My current struggles with education arise because I have a lack of discipline in my writing. The question is, why? I do not lack for time in classroom. My education has been mostly technical.
A Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education is something that the US has been pushing now for almost thirty years. STEM degrees are highly sought after by companies and academia. Yet, in my seventeen years (today) of working as an engineer, I have found very few STEM degree holders who can articulate (in writing) what they do for a living clearly.
From my experience, the engineers’ lack of clarity comes from the use of the passive voice. The passive voice is my bugbear, too. My STEM professors inadvertently taught me to use the passive voice. Why, because technology is uncertain. For example a streaming appliance is connected to a network device that is physically connected to the internet. The streaming appliance states that there is no connection to the internet. An engineer is taught to report, “The device may be connected to the Internet.” The engineer relies on the passive voice because of the uncertainty of technology. The engineer has also been taught to use the passive voice to depersonalize a statement.
A better summary when dealing with my previous example is: “The device has a physical connection but shows no service in the graphical user interface (GUI).” My example states the same information only in the active voice. I did not conjure the active voice example easily. Again, I ask the question, why? Years of de-personalization, reliance on jargon, and a professional plus academic push to show uncertainty creates imprecise writers. The quest is attaining the ordered mind in writing.
I begin the quest today. My journey started in schools that stressed how to write. My own lack of ordered writing is apparent now that I am teaching my daughter to write. Somewhere in my own academic journey I lost my way. Becoming an engineer, I lost the ability to convey topics in an ordered fashion. STEM degrees focus, rightly or wrongly, on the technology. The myopic view on STEM subjects comes at a cost. STEM degrees do not prepare their owners to explain their subjects. I invite all to come on my quest for better writing. This blog post is not the beginning of the end, rather it is the end of the beginning.