Anyone who has taken the SAT or the GRE within the last five years has been faced with the challenge of writing a brief essay on an assigned topic within a limited time period. Surveys suggest that public speaking is one of Americans' biggest fears, but this type of public writing would probably rank higher on that list if it were required more often. Many people do not like to have their written work critiqued. "It's too subjective," they say, as if that were some sort of defense. What they really mean is "I don't know what rules I am going to be judged by." As a consequence, lots of us tend to hold a more esteemed view of our writing and thinking than we ought to.
It just so happens that the same is true of driving: according to one often-repeated statistic, 93 percent of Americans placed themselves in the top 50 percent of drivers for still and the top 88 percent for safety. In another survey (same link), "almost 80% of participants had evaluated themselves as being above the average driver." Not only is it statistically impossible for more than 50 percent of people to be better than
average the median, but every reader here will have encountered many bad drivers over the course of their lifetime. We think we are better drivers than we actually are because 1) we never sit in the passenger seat when we drive (trips to the UK and its commonwealths do not count) and 2) we can never see ourselves from outside the car when we drive.
This is not to drive home a metaphysical point, but to make a parallel. Driving can be good or bad, but we often misjudge our own abilities because we fail to see from other perspectives. Likewise, writing can be good or bad, but to know the difference you have to look at it from the perspective of the reader. Really good authors (and by "really good" I mean "self-critical") can look through the eyes of their readers, but the rest of us have another resource to rely on--actual readers.
Putting your writing in front of others can be scary, but it is necessary for improvement. This is the same reason that we have driving instructors and/or parents in the car for the first year: to tell us how to improve. To argue that writing cannot be judged on an exam like the SAT or GRE is the same as arguing that we cannot know whether someone is a good or bad driver. The multiple-choice questions on the exam ask something very simple: can the driver move the car from one position (the question) to the proper parking spot (the right answer). The written portion of the exam, on the other hand, looks at actual driving ability when someone is given the task of moving from point A (the prompt) to point B (a conclusion of their own choosing). While some readers might critique the choice of destination, writing can be judged objectively on the basis of how well the trip was made. I will suggest some examples of writing rules taken from driving in the next post.