A radical rethinking of the teaching of writing

RW enlarges student empathy for reader


Readable Writing only looks odd or seems odd. In fact, it’s quite close to what we teachers currently do. The difference is this: we recombine standard elements of writing instruction into a different sequence with a slightly different target goal.

We wanted students to think all the time about the average reader, which is a major shift in focus. Usually students think only about the teacher-reader. They try to guess what the teacher wants, knowing that if they please the teacher, they’ll get a good grade. Composition should not be practice in people-pleasing the teacher, but it often is. We have set different goals and changed the sequence because we wanted students to change their focus.

When students shift to thinking about the average reader, they must imagine how the reader will understand what they’ve written. They must empathize. Enlargement of empathy for the reader is the whole point of the course; it changes the student and makes him or her a writer.

The only standard for prose quality here is readability and clarity. While standard writing courses also cover prose quality, it’s not front and center. Furthermore, without a theory of prose quality to build on, instructors can’t organize classroom lessons on it. Instead, they deal with unclear prose by marking papers or giving advice in coaching sessions.

Our lessons cover five things to do to help the reader out.  It does take time to master this handful of skills and to practice enough to make them second nature, but it’s not forever, only about eight weeks.

Because it’s a skill course, where student have to demonstrate certain behaviors, the sequence of lessons has to go from simple to harder to hardest. Our order of topics in the first eight weeks is: (1) concrete nouns, (2) people language, (3) use of active verbs, (4) control of sentence length, and (5) editing to cut flab.

Every topic we teach in Readable Writing is well-known, but we give those topics different weight and teach them in a different order. We think of writing as a behavior (mental and physical) and our breakthrough is making this sequence of writing behaviors the spine of a course. We have found that when you pull these topics together and teach them this way, they reinforce each other, and students become better writers fast.


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John G. Maguire
307 Market Street, #306
Lowell MA 01852