A radical rethinking of the teaching of writing



maguireIf you train them properly, today’s college students can learn to write really well in one semester of freshman comp. Yes, you can train them to become good writers in one semester.

But you need a clear and minimal set of goals so you can teach them only the skills that matter.  Getting the goals and the skills right–that’s the rub. 

The Readable Writing Method makes readability the top and only goal of the course. Every action you perform and every activity you assign contributes to the final skill: easy writing of vivid short essays.

The skills we cover are pretty unusual. Half my topics overlap the standard stuff, but the other half do not, and we learn the skills in a unique sequence that starts with the laughably easy but ends with the quite complex.  We teach certain things–like how to be vivid–that most people assume cannot be taught at all. Here’s my promise: lead students through eight weeks of readable writing exercises, and they will never  write incompetent or dull sentences again.

The first eight weeks are “sentence school” and there we master five skills needed for clear sentences, paragraphs and passages. Then we do six weeks in essay school, learning five techniques that work together to organize any paper of any length. Sentence school is all about clarity of perception for the reader. Essay school is about the reader’s clarity of movement through the paper.  

By the end of the course, with lots of practice, students have assimilated these ten separate skills into a single behavior: the production of good, interesting essays. And the essays are totally readable and clear. Don’t believe me? Check the student samples tab to see what “totally readable and clear” student writing means to me.

The Essays tab, above, links to articles on the method published in the Atlantic Monthly and on the Pope Center web site.  You’ll find more details around the site, including on the “Buy the College Writing Guide” page. (Clicking that button won’t complete the transaction; it will just take you to a page where the buy button is.)

Bottom line summary: this Readable Writing method is governed by the radical idea that picking the right single goal is the key to student mastery. I have picked the single goal of readability, and  it has proven a far better way to organize student understanding about writing than the standard diffuse and unfocused syllabus.

Here are six sample pages from the 76-page book to give you a sense of how the focus on readability is introduced and built up from week to week in the course.

John G. Maguire
Chelmsford MA