Scholarly Writing Versus Commercial Writing

When I was in high school, I was constantly having arguments with my English teachers. At the time, I didn’t really understand why this was happening.  They were constantly telling me that there was something wrong with the way I was using the English language. And I have to say, I simply could not comprehend what they were talking about.  I mean, I knew how they wanted me to write, and I was certainly more than capable of writing in that style, but I simply preferred not to.  In my opinion, my way was better, and they failed to convince me otherwise.

I have always had a “way with words,” and at the time I felt (quite strongly I might add) that every word I put on every page expressed the meeting I wished to impart with great clarity. I saw the English language as a tool for communicating ideas with other human beings, and if I achieved that goal with a given group of words, that was the end of it. The fact that they didn’t like the way I used English, well, that was their problem.  I suppose that they were confused by my not recognizing their authority.  Oh well.

I have since come to an understanding of what was going on in that situation. Basically, there are two kinds of writing: scholarly, and utilitarian. And for the most part, all of my government-paid English teachers were immersed in teaching me to write in a scholarly manner, that is to say, in a very correct/conformist manner. Departing from the rules, even if this was done purposefully, was unacceptable to them. They survived by being obedient to a system that supported them. Even if a given piece of writing was boring, this was OK with them as long as it followed all the rules.

Part of why I was such a difficult customer in English class was because I had gotten into a form of utilitarian writing very early on. When I was in the seventh grade, I sort of fell into having my own little PR firm. I would write and present advertisements on the school PA system at least once a week. Anyone who was doing an event like a school dance, etc., would have me do their promotion for them. And so I was under constant pressure to come up with phraseology that would influence people’s choices and behavior. Scholarly writing is not designed to do that.

Scholarly writing is very much about being, not just correct, but also very obedient. I suppose this has its place in society. If you’re going to have large concentrations of power, this requires lots of people being automatically obedient to it.

But it does strike me as sad (also a little annoying) when I run into people who think scholarly writing is the only way to do it. It’s amazing just how often I will pick up a book that has been offered for sale, only to find myself being put to sleep by its scholarly style.

I sometimes wonder if this is the problem with classical music performance and marketing these days as well… are these musicians playing for commercial purposes, i.e., to get the best possible result in terms of sales, or have they simply fallen into a scholarly approach, of believing that if they just do everything perfectly, and never do the musical equivalent of saying “irregardless,” that this correctness by itself will somehow translate to having commercial value? If all you’re thinking about is playing the notes perfectly without mistakes, and doing it exactly the way your teacher has told you to do it, you are a scholarly player.

Scholarly writing (or performing) has some value because there are some people who desire that kind of consistency and loyalty to the past in writing or approach to music. However, scholarly approaches to communication often run counter to the purposes of effective/commercially viable communication.

Scholarly writers and performers tend to believe that their system is inherently superior to all others. The idea that one approach is intrinsically superior to the other is an argument that has no basis. It all depends on what you’re trying to do. Are you simply maintaining the status quo, and demonstrating a willingness to be obedient? This has a certain amount of market value. But if you’re trying to make changes, and if you’re acting in a way that challenges authority, the idea that this is “incorrect” by an indisputable standard is a bit of self delusional gamesmanship and not a true argument.

© Justin Locke

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