A radical rethinking of the teaching of writing

Can students be taught to be interesting writers?


Many people think not, but I know that they can. First I’ll answer the usual objections, then give the evidence.

Being interesting is a talent. Not true. It can be trained for.

Being interesting has to do with the subject. Some subjects are boring and some are interesting, so if you have a boring subject to write about, you will be a boring writer. Not true: there is no such thing as a boring subject, only a boring style. You can take an apparently boring subject, and if you give it to a skilled popularizer like Malcolm Gladwell or Bill Bryson or Michael Lewis you will get a very interesting magazine article or book.

Being interesting may be a skill, but it’s a vague skill and there’s no way to teach it.
Not true. All interesting styles have aspects in common. You can break the style moves involved in “being an interesting writer” down into parts, and train students in those moves one at a time.

Evidence and argument.

We can all tell boring writing from interesting writing, can we not? If I gave you a pile of magazine articles and said “Sort them into interesting and boring” that’s a task you would be able to do. It’s a matter of judgment, but most people would agree generally on which articles belonged in which pile.

The articles in the “boring” pile would tend to be: abstract, hard to visualize, impersonal and undramatic, vague, unemotional. The articles in the interesting pile would be the opposite: concrete, full of images and people, clear, concise, energetic.

Conclusion of argument.

You train freshmen to be interesting writers by training them to produce sentences that are: concrete, full of images and people, clear, concise and energetic. Then you have them produce paragraphs in that style, and then essays in that style. You want to see examples? Click on the “Student Samples” tab on the home page.

The key is understanding and mastering a limited set of style moves, one step at a time. This one-step-at-a-time philosophy structures the readability method and makes it work.

Follow the discussions on facebook/readablewriting.

John G. Maguire
Chelmsford MA