Don't be alarmed - this is not a post about trying to make a living as a writer. I don't have that many funny jokes in me this week. But my previous post about would-be writers not reading led one reader of this blog to send me a link to a Washington Post article. This was by a uni teacher who was astounded by the number of students who didn't know what relatively simple words meant - words such as affliction, for example. The guy put it down to a lack of reading - if you don't read enough, you simply don't come across these words in context and so you never get to "experience" them.
I've been having similar problems, and the most recent example was having to explain to a class what a canon of literature was. However, although I do see this as a problem for students who want to be writers, it's not a problem for me. I actually enjoy having to pull a definition out of my head (can't always guarantee one will be there, but then that's what dictionaries are for). I think where the issue lies for young writers is that without a good knowledge of the words that are available to them in creating their stories and novels, how are they going to write things that are a pleasure to read? Where do imagery, metaphors, similes, great description, style, tone etc come from, if not from your use of language? You can't argue that genre writers don't have to worry about that stuff, because the really good genre writers are doing exactly that!
In Short Story 2 I have recently inflicted a series of close reading and editing exercises on the students, amidst complaints. The exercises have been about examining language and sentence construction initially, delving into how a writer creates what is on the page by looking at a short excerpt, word by word (if you want to know how to do this, take a look at http://www.fas.harvard.edu/~wricntr/documents/CloseReading.html and also at http://www.mantex.co.uk/samples/closeread.htm )
One of the excerpts I used, which they had to examine in minute detail, was from the latest Janet Evanovich. It had plenty of description, a great voice, and interesting, varied sentence constructions. Evanovich might be writing humorous crime but she knows how to write well and dismissing her as a simple genre writer is a mistake.
This week I made them do close editing on their own work, just one page. I probably sound like a pedantic, boring nit-picker, but I am convinced that until you engage with what a writer is doing at the micro-level (and that includes your own writing), you won't be able to improve your use of language, your understanding of how good writing works, and raise your writing to the next level. I did get the feeling that when I told them this, there were still disbelievers around the room, but at least I tried!
The other thing that we discussed briefly was what I call "living as a writer". What you do in order to become a better writer. Under this heading, I listed: reading widely and critically; writing lots and then writing more; being in a good critique group; being aware of the world around you and finding ideas in it; giving up other things in your life in order to have a decent amount of time for writing; informing yourself about the world of publishing, how it works, who does what and why, and then updating your information regularly; researching markets for your work so you don't waste your time and money or the publisher's.
I also know from experience that people don't take in information and knowledge until they are ready for it (usually at the moment when they need it), so I recommend a good library of books about writing. Not to read slavishly, but to delve into when I want someone else's point of view on point of view, or setting or dialogue.
It can take a few years to build up to a point where all these things become a natural part of your writer's life, but it's worth the effort.
P.S. One of my favourite student misuses of language is still the novel where the main character put moose in her hair. After a rewrite, the character then proceeded to put mouse in her hair.