Strong feeling isn't enough to communicate effectively on a topic about which one feels passionately.
By Michelle Martin
Published February 17, 2011
Back in the seventies, in grades seven and eight, I was one of 300 or so victims of an educational concept called the open classroom.
I suppose if all the administrators, teachers and students had put on their Age of Aquarius hats and really worked that model the way it was meant to be worked, the experience would have been all about creativity and independent learning. In practice, at least in my school, it meant four classes of 25 to 30 students, each occupying one of the four corners of a very large room.
Instead of exciting and boundary-pushing learning, there was noise, distraction, noise, decreased privacy for any unfortunate child who was struggling with the material, noise, sideshows of disruptive pupils being hollered at by teachers who had reached their limits, and noise.
Did I mention the noise?
So when it was time to choose a high school to attend, I begged my parents to send me to the nearest convent school: "Please, Mom and Dad, sending me off packing to the nuns, who will teach me how to behave!"
I was ready for some peace, order and good government.
Much to my edification, there was also good grammar thrown into the mix. Sister Mary Patrick made sure of it. She taught us English in both grade nine and grade twelve, along with how to write good, clear prose.
I still remember our classroom of 14 year-olds painstakingly composing a short essay, hand-written (we practised penmanship on Fridays), with proper topic sentences and linking sentences for each paragraph.
Order reigned, and she never once raised her voice (a miracle, considering how bratty we were at other times, like the time the Oakville-Burlington route bus driver justifiably refused to drive us any further because of our rowdiness).
In grade 12, we spent our Friday English classes parsing complex sentences, without the benefit of an online parsing program. Was this tedious? Yes, it was a little tedious. How useful was it? It was, and still is, indescribably so (though I won't pretend I don't slip from time to time).
For a person to write on a topic about which he or she feels passionately, strong feeling isn't enough to get the job done effectively. Mark Richardson has already given us some excellent tips on copyright and libel issues. I will add to his useful article with some links to practical advice about grammar, and about writing prose for publication.
There are numerous comprehensive grammar resources online, such as this one from the University of Calgary. The Editors' Association of Canada provides a long list of links to assist all aspiring writers and editors in fine-tuning prose, including prose written for the web.
Our own household collection of books about writing includes Strunk and White's The Elements of Style (the electronic version of the original edition can be read online) and Fowler's Modern English Usage.
Both books are not without their critics. Indeed, if you are looking for some controversy to enjoy, language use provides plenty.
Once you are ready to move from the armchair enjoyment of controversy to actually wading in and contributing to the dialogue, there are plenty of tips available to help you frame your arguments for the public square.
Paul Russell, letters editor for the National Post, has provided some direction for those who wish to begin by writing a letter to the editor. There's no reason the latter wouldn't apply to effective writing for comboxes as well.
Effective communication is one of the keys to building cordial relationships with others, which would benefit comboxes everywhere, and which brings me back to Sister Mary Patrick.
When I was finishing up my degree, I ran into her in Toronto at one of the campus libraries. She was spending some of her retirement taking theology courses, and suggested we meet for coffee at this tiny croissant place on one of the side streets nearby (I didn't know about that spot - apparently she had cooler friends than I did).
We met and got all caught up. We talked a bit about which of her former students were doing what, and she mentioned that there was one with whom she still corresponded regularly.
This particular student had been one rough customer, always in some kind of trouble. She was Goth before there were any Goths around our neck of the woods.
Yet here was Sister Mary ("Don't cross your legs, girls, keep both feet flat on the floor under your desks") Patrick telling me how the two of them kept in touch, with genuine affection.
I've no doubt the correspondence on both sides was grammatically and stylistically correct.