A Post-Academic in New York City has an interesting post up about thesis statements and how they undermine good writing.
I don't disagree with this, nor with PAINYC's conclusion: "It’s better to teach students – and to remind ourselves – to admire ambivalence and contradiction and to think of writing as a way to cultivate those things, not abolish them. That is what very good writing – a rare and beautiful thing – should be: a reflection of a commitment to knowing nothing at all and to writing forever into that void."
To be clear: I am not currently teaching writing and don't ever expect to be doing so again. However, I did teach it for going on a decade, and one of the things I never really resolved was how to teach students what "very good writing" is at the same time I was teaching them pragmatic ways of tackling the kinds of writing tasks that would most likely be required of them in other college courses and beyond.
Because "very good writing" as PAINYC describes it above -- and I basically agree with this definition -- is not the kind of decent, clear, concise, good-but-not-great writing nonacademic, nonliterary, non-artistic, non-scholarly writers need to practice.
When I was transitioning out of academe, before I started the secretary gig at Think Tank, I had a few interviews for writer/editor jobs. When these would-be employers asked for writing samples, I was somewhat surprised that they didn't want examples of "very good writing." They wanted mundane things. They wanted to see my course policies, assignment sheets, one-pager handouts, not my published academic papers or creative experiments. They didn't want ambivalence and contradiction. They wanted clarity, simplicity, and precision.
When I write today at the Petting Zoo, ambivalence and contradiction are not the goals. While I'm certainly not under the tyranny of a thesis statement or any other such formulaic bullshit, I also do have specific things I need to communicate. Putting together a report starts with a question or set of questions. With collaborators, I collect data with the objective of answering those questions. We analyze the data and draw conclusions. Writing the report requires communicating what we found -- answering the questions. While answering those questions might lead to other questions and other research and other reports, the task of writing itself in any given report is the opposite of generating ambivalence and contradiction, unless the research itself is inconclusive, in which case we still have to communicate that inconclusiveness in clear and understandable language.
So, as someone who appreciates and values and studies "very good writing," I struggled, as a writing teacher, with reconciling how to get students to at least recognize "very good writing," if not practice it, and how at the same time to cultivate the kinds of "decent" writing skills they would most likely have to practice in the rest of their college and professional lives.
Staring into the void of writerly oblivion is a beautiful thing, but it's also dangerous, especially if your goal is to get out of academe. It's a lot like staring at the sun. Before you know it, you won't be able to see anything at all.