Helping Students Become Better Writers
There is no greater gift to give your students than the ability to write clearly, convincingly, and analytically.
We may not be able to help them write with style, grace, elegance and panache, but we can certainly help them write with clarity, conciseness, precision, impact, engagement and consistency.
But we rarely do. Teaching writing is largely relegated to first-year rhetoric and composition classes (often taught by creative writers who reject the idea that they work for the corrections department) or a writing center.
It is obvious why this is the case. Most faculty members have no formal training in teaching writing. We lead busy lives, juggling teaching, research, service and personal responsibilities. We have too many students to pay attention to a few. Either way, providing feedback that goes beyond the substance seems too demanding for most of us.
But not engaging in written instruction is anything but a victimless crime. I think it’s fair to say that college graduates with poor writing skills are going to hit a pretty low glass ceiling sooner rather than later. Any job above entry level requires writing proposals, writing reports, submitting grant or other funding requests, entering employee reviews, writing sales pitches, and many other forms of written expression.
The classic approach to advice writing – exemplified by Strunk and White’s Style elements – sets out a series of rules of grammar, use and composition that are simple, even memorable, à la Dr. Seuss:
- “Use defined, specific and concrete language”
- “Avoid starting a sentence with however. “
- “Omit unnecessary words.”
- “Avoid tame, colorless, hesitant, evasive language.”
Among the many well-known injunctions of the text: avoid the passive voice, start paragraphs with thematic sentences, use concrete language and, at least at the beginning, avoid manners, tricks and ornaments.
Readers of Strunk and White learn how to use parentheses, possessive nouns, commas, colons, cases and hyphens, how to avoid misspellings or misuse of words (such as homonyms). ) and avoid idiomatic phrases.
All good advice, but not particularly useful for students who need to answer a prompt or write an essay.
The success of Strunk and White has encouraged a multitude of contestants to throw their hats in the ring, the most widely read of which include John R. Trimble Write in style, Joseph M. Williams Style: the basics of clarity and grace, and that of William Zinsser Write well.
Some of their advice is similar to Strunk and White’s: Avoid clutter. Avoid trite, wordy, or unnecessary expressions. Value brevity, clarity and simplicity. Replace the fancy language with ordinary words. Focus on strong, active nouns and verbs rather than adjectives and adverbs.
But most of the advice directly challenges Strunk and White’s concern about grammatical and stylistic rules. Trimble, Williams, and Zinsser all seek to overcome Strunk and White platitudes and show how to translate abstract principles into the construction of coherent, powerful sentences and coherent paragraphs.
So Zinsser, for example, emphasizes the importance of voice, flow, and structure, starting with a lead to engage readers. It invites writers to speak in the first person, speak directly to the reader, and use a variety of tricks to keep readers attentive.
All very interesting, but not appropriate in most academic or professional contexts.
The problem with most popular advice is that the precepts strike many readers, eager for useful suggestions, as exceedingly abstract and rarefied. Much more practical is that of Gerald Graff They say / I say, which provides models for students to deploy.
According to Graff, students misunderstand academic writing when they think of it simply as a matter of imparting information. Rather, the key to successful academic writing is to place an essay in the context of a larger conversation, debate, or controversy.
Come on, I say.
More recently, Harvard cognitivist and linguist Steven Pinker offered another alternative to Strunk and White. For Pinker, language is a living entity that cannot be reduced to a series of rigid rules or precepts. Rather, the measure of the success of a non-fiction work is whether it helps a reader understand complicated realities. The art of writing is therefore to take a complex web of ideas and translate those ideas into a story or argument presented in a linear sequence.
Just as effective teaching benefits from an understanding of certain principles drawn from cognitive science – for example, those involving active engagement, retrieval and transfer, mental modeling, cognitive load and metacognition – writing, it also, benefits from an understanding of cognitive theory.
Here are some lessons I take from my own engagement with cognitive theory and how these lessons can help us improve student writing on a large scale.
1. Make sure your students understand the purpose of a particular writing assignment.
Are you sure your students understand the goals of an assignment? To describe? Inform? Argue? Assess? Analyze? To persuade? In my experience, many students, perhaps most, have no idea of the goals of a particular assignment. No wonder their written work seems confusing.
Once students understand the purpose of an assignment, they are much better equipped to write well. Students, in short, need to understand your learning goals. Only then will they know whether a particular piece of writing should be descriptive, argumentative, analytical or evaluative.
2. Explain how bad writing comes from wrong thinking.
Why do writers rely on the passive voice? Because they don’t want or can’t explain causation and agency.
Why do writers cover themselves up, mix up metaphors, rely on jargon and nominalizations, or use overly complicated syntax? To hide unexamined hypotheses.
Why is an essay disorganized? Because the author’s argument is not coherent or logically developed.
Of course, we’ve all encountered bad writing which is largely a by-product of haste, lack of preparation, or inattention to basic grammar. But more often than not, such writing represents a failure to clarify and develop his argument. This ability is not innate. We, as instructors, must teach students how to generate and refine a thesis, weigh and evaluate evidence, and organize an argument.
3. Make sure your students understand that writing is thinking.
There are many myths surrounding the practice of writing: That more words or more sophisticated words are better than shorter or ordinary words. That good writers are born, not made. May the five paragraph essay provide a perfect template for any academic assignment.
But the most destructive misconception, in my opinion, is that you shouldn’t write until you know exactly what you plan to say. In most cases, it is the writing process itself that generates ideas. It certainly is for me. As I write, a thesis or argument emerges and gradually becomes more nuanced as weaknesses or counter-arguments appear.
4. Remind your students: An opinion is not an argument.
We all have opinions, intuitions, and prejudices, many of which simply reflect prejudices, prejudices, or implicit personal emotions. An argument, on the other hand, must be based on evidence, knowledge, logical reasoning, and critical thinking.
Effective writing involves making and developing a nuanced and compelling argument. You need to develop the argument in a well-organized manner, gathering and evaluating the evidence and carefully considering alternative views and interpretations. We need to guide students through this process.
5. To write is to rewrite.
The polished prose reads effortlessly. It’s witty, engaging and often conversational. But students should know that crafting such prose is hard work. It does not come without effort.
Writing is a profession, and like any profession, you need know-how. It takes practice, professional judgment, attention to detail, taste and fit.
Let’s be clear: Writing is not just another marketable skill that will increase a student’s value in the job market. It is, in my opinion, the central skill that lies at the very heart of a college education.
It is only through writing that arguments or ideas take their most sophisticated form. When we teach students to write effectively, what we are really doing is teaching them to think: formulate a compelling thesis or interpretation. To connect, critically assess and apply ideas. Develop generalizations, synthesize contrasting points of view, and present an argument in a logical and persuasive manner.
We have all met great talkers. I myself have met some of the most impressive talkers in the academy and can categorically say that Dr Johnson had nothing these speakers did not have. Their humor, intelligence, storytelling ability, passion and quick wit are incredible. But when we examine a transcript, their magic usually slips away.
Whatever one thinks of Plato’s theory of forms, it seems to me that the ultimate reality of ideas and arguments does not reside in the world of speech but in writing. For without writing, thinking is inevitably fuzzy, easy, disorganized and superficial.
Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.