Monday, October 14, 2013

don't just make stuff up #writing

"Just make stuff up." I've heard this piece of advice shared by numerous writing teachers, and it bothers me. It's not like I have a finely-honed truth-o-meter when it comes to writing, but I'm left with the idea that most teachers who dole out this advice can't be bothered to giving advice that matters.
Les Perelman, the recently retired former director of MIT’s Writing Across the Curriculum program, has got a doozy. To do well on the essay, he says, the best approach is to just make stuff up. “It doesn’t matter if [what you write] is true or not,” says Perelman, who helped create MIT’s writing placement test and has consulted at other top universities on the subject of writing assessments. “In fact, trying to be true will hold you back.”
“What they are actually testing,” he says, “is the ability to bullshit on demand. There is no other writing situation in the world where people have to write on a topic that they’ve never thought about, on demand, in 25 minutes. Lots of times we have to write on demand very quickly, but it’s about things we’ve thought about. What they are really measuring is the ability to spew forth as many words as possible in as short a time as possible. It seems like it is training students to become politicians.” 
(Source: SAT Essay Section,
What a profound truth...our school writing instruction teaches fiction writing, not because throughout the course of our lives we write more fiction (we actually grow up to write non-fiction), but because it will help us pass standardized tests.

It would be easy for students to infer the following from this approach:

  • That's what writers do, they "just make stuff up" because their lives are blank mirrors to cover empty souls.
  • Just make stuff up because life for a writer isn't a boring adventure or's just nothing worth writing about.
  • Writing is fundamentally an act of dishonesty, a lie shouted from the mountain, made believable by its audacity.
Having been a student and taken the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) at one point in my life, having written countless essays throughout my academic career, research-based drivel, I can understand why some would say, "Just make it up." But I don't agree with it.

I'm sorry, but I have problems with this. I've always been able to spew words that are true and that's what we should be aiming for...this article is an indictment of attitudes like Les Perelman and others who advocate creative fiction when it comes to writing truth. It is profoundly disturbing that young writers may receive this advice...just make stuff up.
"Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing." - Benjamin Franklin

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