March 7:  Power of the Pen Day

On this day in 1839, Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s play Richelieu opened in London. Today Bulwer-Lytton’s play is largely forgotten; however, one line from the play lives on as a proverbial saying:  “The pen is mightier than the sword.”

Before he was eclipsed by his contemporary, the British novelist Charles Dickens, Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803-1873) was the most popular novelist in Britain.  In fact, his 1830 novel Paul Clifford features what is probably the most famous — and most mocked — opening line in all of fiction:  “It was a dark and stormy night.” It’s this opening line that inspired the annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest where contestants are challenged to deliberately write a bad opening line for a new novel (see April 15:  Deliberately Bad Writing Day).

Although few people remember its author, Bulwer-Lytton’s famous insight about the power of writing (“The pen is mightier than the sword”) lives on today.  Rhetorically speaking, the line is a classic example of metonymy, a type of figurative language where a thing or idea is not called by its own name, but instead by the name of something closely associated with the thing or idea.  In Bulwer-Lytton’s line, “pen” is closely associated with the written word and “sword” is closely associated with military warfare. When we refer to the film industry as “Hollywood,” the executive branch of the U.S. Government as “the White House,” or McDonald’s as “the golden arches,” we are using metonymy.

Bulwer-Lytton’s great insight reminds us of the power of the pen, the empowering act of putting words to paper and the monumental effect those words can have on an audience.

The following are just three of the many possible reasons you might argue that writing is so mighty:

  1. Writing helps us to learn more effectively

In the book Make It Stick:  The Science of Successful Learning, the authors recount a study that examined the effectiveness of “writing to learn” strategies for over eight hundred students in college psychology classes.  After listening to lectures, students were required to generate written summaries of specific key ideas in their own words. At other points in the study, students were instructed to simply copy down key ideas and examples verbatim from slides. The results of the study revealed that when students were tested on their understanding of key concepts, they scored significantly better on questions dealing with the concepts that they had written about in their own words. In his book Writing To Learn, William Zinsser uses an apt metaphor to explain how writing helps us to learn:  

Writing enables us to find out what we know — and what we don’t know — about whatever we’re trying to learn.  Putting an idea into written words is like defrosting the windshield: the idea, so vague out there in the murk, slowly begins to gather itself into shape.

Writing then not only helps us record our thoughts, it also helps us to clarify and improve our thinking.

  1. Writing helps us think more effectively.

When we write down our thoughts, we can pause to examine them.  Expressed on paper in the form of written words and sentences, our thinking can be read, re-read, and revised.  This written record of our thinking allows us to compare past thoughts with present thoughts and propels us to produce future new thoughts.  As Dennis Sparks, executive director of the National Staff Development Council, put it:

Writing is a way of freezing our thinking, of slowing down the thoughts that pass through our consciousness at lightning speed, so that we can examine our views and alter them if appropriate.  Writing enables us to note inconsistencies, logical flaws, and areas that would benefit from additional clarity.

Writing not only helps us think better, it also helps us think about our own thinking, a high-level thinking process called metacognition.

  1. Writing helps us communicate our ideas to others.

When we write essays, reports, or presentations, we move beyond just thinking about ourselves.  Effective writing requires us to step outside of our own shoes and into the shoes of a reader. It’s a bit like cleaning up your house before you have guests over for dinner; writing for an audience forces you to clarify and organize your thinking.  As writer and historian Jacques Barzun said, “The process of writing is the best means of overcoming the mind’s natural resistance to logic, order, and precision.” Writing for an audience ups the ante, forcing a writer to be clear, to be coherent, and to be cogent.

  1. Writing helps us get a good job and get promoted.

Writing is not only a foundational skill for meaningful employment, it has also become a gatekeeping skill across the workforce.  A 2004 report by the College Board that surveyed 64 major American corporations found that two-thirds of employees have duties that require them to write coherently.  Furthermore, survey respondents reported that 50% of companies take writing ability into consideration when hiring employees. Respondents also reported that an inability to write also hinders employees from being promoted (1).

Today’s Challenge:  Writers and Their Reasons for Writing

What some of the best things people have said about the power of writing and the reasons it is so important?  Select a quotation from a specific person that resonates with you; then, write an explanation of how the quotation relates to your understanding of writing and why it is so important.

Quotation of the Day:  If people cannot write well, they cannot think well, and if they cannot think well, others will do their thinking for them.  -George Orwell



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