Harvard News 9/26/1983–Editorial – NOTHING TO WRITE
By E. Randol Schoenberg, Editor-in-Chief
Ten o’clock and my mind is blank. For the first time in six issues I am unable to find a meaningful, thought-provoking topic for an editorial. There is no scarcity of subjects, just a scarcity of ideas . I considered the issue of parking (nothing to say and what there is to say is being said in a news article), computers (same problem as parking), and the Emery Room (no issues, pertains only to 12th grade). All other topics would be more appropriate in the future. So I am resigned to analyze my own problems of non-creativity with hopes that it may somehow be universally applicable to the average Harvard student.
This is not the first time I have been unable to write a unique composition. I experienced the same problem when asked to write an essay for my Senior Questionnaire, a sample college application designed to prepare Seniors for the ultimate tasks inherent in the application process. I, therefore, have come to the conclusion that our Harvard education may not adequately prepare us for what I term “creative essay writing with a sense of audience.”
When asked to write an “essay,” Harvard students always must answer a specific question or statement. If done correctly, the student must factually represent an opinion on the topic given him. This is balanced by “creative writing” in our English courses. We are encouraged to write emotional poetry or comical histories. Usually we are given the form that this “creative” writing is to be in and, more often than not, we are given a certain subject area. The result is a paper written mainly to show a mastery of the English language rather than creative ideas or insightful thoughts.
With both types of papers we have an extremely limited sense of audience. The writing is directed toward the preferred style of the teacher, a single person who has no choice but to strain through each and every paper he must grade. This practice will have disastrous consequences if applied to college essays (or newspaper editorials).
The closest Harvard comes to teaching “creative essay writing with a sense of audience” is the 11th grade English writing needed to pass the English Achievement Test. Mrs. McGuire’s “Red-Liners” emphasize a much-needed sense of audience although it is a known fact that her red pen is a far more tolerant critic than a college admissions officer (or a newspaper reader).
Realizing the exclusive concentration on either creative or essay writing with almost no sense of audience, it is not surprising that a Harvard student might have difficulty writing a creative essay on the topic of his choice. The difficulty becomes even greater when a real-world audience is considered. Essay writing and creative writing are essential skills, but their ultimate value is in a combination of the two. Most articles published in magazines or literary journals combine creativity in essay form with an added sense of audience. If a writer cannot meet these standards, he will not succeed.
College admission, the immediate goal of any Harvard student, also places a premium on the ability to write a creative essay and the readers are considered the discerning audience. Every college requires an essay of this type as a part of the admissions packet. Harvard University asks in these words: “On the following page please write a brief essay of 200-500 words on any topic which is of direct personal importance to you.”
“Our Harvard Education may not adequately prepare us for … ‘creative essay writing with a sense of audience.’”
“Omigod! What should I write?” is the most common response to this typical question. This is not because of an inability to write an essay—we’ve done millions of those—but rather inexperience in creative essay writing. Students are so accustomed to having the topic of their essays handed to them that they freeze when asked to write their own.
Training for these questions would be easy, however. Essays on final exams could be made to involve more creativity. For example, “Pick an event in the development of Western Civilization up to the Reformation and relate briefly the significance of its implications” would test broad knowledge and understanding of Western Civilization along with the writing skills useful if one were to write on such a topic in the real world. The possibilities for questions and essays are endless.
Eleven thirty and my mind is still blank. Again, I have managed to squeeze out of my untrained brain a relatively thought-provoking, meaningful editorial. I hope that there will be easier topics to find in the future but I am thankful for this opportunity to test my ability to write a “creative essay with a sense of audience”—I hope.