In The Secret to Good Writing: It’s About Objects, Not Ideas, John Maguire graces the readers of The Atlantic with a negative generalization about student writers based on a group of college freshmen that Maguire states, “lack certain skills that were common among college freshmen 40 years ago.” While Maguire fails to articulate the exact list of skills, he does, however, present what he deems the sole answer to better writing: writing physically!
While I’m sure that many of my classmates would take issue with such a broad generalization of student writers, I’m not offended. The fact of the matter is: many incoming freshmen can’t write (I was one of them); however, I take great issue with Maguire’s logic as to WHY these students can’t write well.
Maguire’s solution to students writing well is using more concrete nouns, yet how does Maguire expect young writers to rid their writing of abstractness and write physically, when Maguire can’t explain physical writing to his students without being abstract? When asked to define concrete nouns, Maguire responds, “It’s something you can drop on your foot.” Even as a senior philosophy major that has taken many upper level writing courses Maguire’s retort sounded a bit vague, so I did what any college senior would do “40 years later”…I Googled it!
(The following is the result of my Google search)
You experience concrete nouns through your five senses: sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch. If you cannot see, hear, taste, touch, or smell something, it is not a concrete noun. Concrete nouns can be: Common nouns.
Now, if I were Maguire’s student, I’m now just as confused as the first moment “ drop on your foot” left Maguire’s mouth. In the sentence: “There is a smell in the living room,” smell is a concrete noun, yet I can’t drop a smell on my foot. The fact of the matter remains that the writing problems students face are far more complex than Maguire would like to acknowledge.
Turning from his pedagogical position, Maguire’s characterization of physical objects seems to align with that of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Csikszentmihalyi’s proclaims that, “ [e]very artifact is the product of human intentionality, but that intentionality itself is conditioned by the existence of previous objects,” which is similar to Maguire position that “all abstract ideas derive from objects.” Although Professor C goes a step further than Maguire by attaching a temporal value to physical objects, one still arrives at the age old philosophical question: which came first: the chicken or the egg?
Given every object is preceded by an abstract idea, the resulting inference is either an infinite regress or, for those of us who believe in a deity, the abstract idea known as God. Thus, Maguire has committed what the philosopher Nietzsche refers to as Confusing Cause with Consequence, abstract ideas don’t derive from physical objects… physical objects derive from abstract ideas. At the foundation of Maguire’s position rest a misrepresentation of not only college writers but also of physical objects. Writing embodies a synthesis of physical objects and abstract ideas. The reason many freshman arrive to Maguire’s class without the ability to write well is the lack of basic writing skills being taught in lower grades. Writing physically isn’t the answer, better teaching is!