Rethinking College Writing Instruction

Monthly archive for January 2015

Video interview with Barbara Oakley

Barbara and I talked about the problems student writers have with they get too abstract. This is a Coursera video and it will require you to sign in, but it’s free. She interviews me in Week 4 (Renaissance Learning). Trying turning the captions on when you watch. Here’s the link.

“Abstractitis” comes from -ion infection

Abstractitis is a writing disease and a threat to clarity. It’s related to another illness called Abstract-orrhea. This sickness produces an endless and thick flow of abstractions. In extreme cases, these two diseases can kill the meaning of a passage.

Abstractitis was first identified by Henry Fowler in his Modern English Usage. The effect, of the disease, he reported dryly, was to make writers produce monstrosities like Participation by the men in the control of the industry is non-existent instead of The men have no part in the control of the industry.

The famous critic Henry Fowler drolly reports on how the disease progresses:

…the danger is that, once the disease gets a hold, it sets up a chain reaction. A writer uses abstract words because his thoughts are cloudy; the habit of using them clouds his thoughts still further; he may end by concealing his meaning not only from his readers but also from himself, and writing such sentences as The actualization of the motivation of the forces must to a great extent be a matter of personal angularity.

The abstract word [is] always in command as the subject of the sentence. Persons and what they do, things and what is done to them, are put in the background and we can only peer at them through a glass darkly.

Later in his dictionary Fowler prints a small article on the result of abstractitis under the heading “periphrasis.” The phrase means putting things in a roundabout way—as if you were walking around the subject on tiptoe rather than saying it right out.

In Paris there reigns a complete absence of really reliable news is a periphrasis for There is no reliable news in Paris.

The motive for this overuse of abstract nouns in a round-about style is nicely described by Fowler:

The existence of abstract nouns is a proof that abstract thought has occurred; abstract thought is a mark of civilized man; and so it has come about that periphrasis and civilization are by many held to be inseparable. These good people feel that there is an almost indecent nakedness, a version to barbarism, in saying No news is good news instead of The absence of intelligence is an indication of satisfactory developments. Nevertheless, The year’s penultimate month is not in truth a good way of saying November. (periphrasis article)

A horrible style

Abstract words produce a horrible style when flung together witlessly. The most common abstractions in English are words ending in –tion. As Fowler puts it

Turgid flabby English is full of abstract nouns; the commonest ending of abstract nouns is -tion, and to count the -ion words in what one has written, or, better, to cultivate an ear that without special orders challenges them as they come, is one of the simplest and most effective ways of making oneself less unreadable.

Count the –ion words in what one has written. Challenge them as they come. Can it be that simple? It can be.

-ion (abrasion)
-sion (revision)
-tion (libation, pertubation, eradication)
-ction (objection)
-ition (sedition)
-ution (involution)

Walker’s Rhyming Dictionary lists about 1300 English words that end in –ion. (I use Walker’s because it conveniently lists words alphabetical order by last letter, for the sake of rhyming; thus all the –ion ending words are grouped together in Walker’s.)

But –ion is not the only ending that signifies an abstraction. Here’s a more complete list. The first section come from Latin; the second, as far as I know, from the Anglo-Saxon or other northern roots of English.Other endings that declare a word comes from the Latin and is abstract:

-ism (secularism, vampirism, Marxism)
-ment (preferment, containment)
-ence (eloquence, congruence, experience)
-ance (ignorance, endurance, reluctance)
-tude (magnitude, plenitude)
-ure (literature, adventure)
-ness (illness, kindness)
-ship (companionship, leadership)
-hood (widowhood, livelihood)
many words in –y
-ity (placidity, lucidity, chastity)
-ony (patrimony, parsimony)
-logy (zoology, morphology)
-sophy (philosophy,
-cracy (pornocracy, )
-graphy (choreography, historiography)

In English we can turn words around and make them do what we want, and we can make anything into a noun. (Author Joseph Williams called this change Nominalization.)

Do big words compensate for small confidence?

I can understand why polysyllabic writing keeps gaining ground and coming back despite many attempts to drive it fully underground. The less people write, the less confident they are that their stories are worthwhile. Feeling less-than, people compensate. They write with much longer words. Such words, after all, show you went to college. The average high-school dropout is not going to put polysyllabic and syntax in the same sentence, so if I put them in, I prove my status. I have gone to college and can handle the long words. Such posturing is understandable, because we humans are so status orient ed, but it’s not clear writing.

• Flowers are only secondarily about beauty; their purpose is reproduction.
• Writing is only secondarily about impressing anyone; its main purpose is to serve the reader.

The grammar of vividness

I don’t have research to prove it, but I’d bet that many English teachers do not understand how vividness of imagery promotes intellectual clarity.

Vivid writing is sensual writing—the kind that gives you an orange on a blue plate in Sunday morning sunshine. I think most teachers believe vivid images belong to poetry. The connection between vivid images and clear exposition escapes them. They think poetry is about emotional expression and prose is about clear explanation.

But clear images matter to the mind for all kinds of cognition. We are visual creatures, according to both common sense and fMRI scanning machines. Roaming through the veldt, our long-ago forbears used their eyes to scan for signs of danger or chances of a good meal.

Writing ought to serve up things to see, just as a matter of biology, even when the topic is an abstract idea. If writing fails to convey the visible, it fails to reach us. And the visible need not be pretty. Here’s the opening sentence from George Orwell’s “Marrakech,” a powerful essay about colonial empires.

 As the corpse went past the flies left the restaurant table
in a cloud and rushed after it, but they came back a few minutes later.

That sentence conquers your mind as you read it. You are in Orwell’s head, and he is in yours. After that first sentence, Orwell starts in on his piece about empires and the cheapness of life in colonies.

How does that first sentence work? Four physical things: corpse, flies, restaurant table and cloud.  Four short active verbs: went, left, rushed, came back.

Atlantic Monthly piece on writing concretely

Here’s my introduction in the Atlantic to the whys and wherefores of teaching students to write concretely.  Read the whole thing for the detailed argument.

The short summary is this, however. Abstract ideas are always related to objects fundamentally. You can understand this just by thinking about it, but brain studies with MRI scanners also show that we usually deal with abstract words by bringing to mind the clusters of things we associate to. It’s pretty obvious. What’s really neat is that you can consciously use this fact to write more vividly. You can replace -ion words with clusters of things.

Where you say nutrition,” I can say “vitamin pills, labels on food containers, grapefruits, slabs of meat, liver and onions, onion soup, and hot buttery steam-cooked corn.”

Where you say hospitalization,” I can choose to say, “blood, needles, wrist bands with ID on them, women in flowered tunics with stethoscopes around their necks, paper forms on clipboards, gurneys, x-ray machines.”

Where some writer might say merely “My aunt was a perfect example of kindness,” you can choose to say “Aunt Mary’s red-and-black decorated kitchen, her weird clock that looked like a cat, her moisturized gleaming face and platinum hair, her tiny cheap house at the end of North Street near the tracks, her gravelly voice, her lip-stick-marked Pall Malls in the ashtray on the kitchen table.”



You can buy John Maguire’s College Writing Guide here


“I can’t see why any writing instructor in America would use any other Freshman Comp textbook,”

says Daniel  Smith, NY Times best-selling author of Monkey Mind, and writing professor at the College of New Rochelle.  Susan Layer-Whelan, instructor at the College of Southern Maryland, says, “I used your guide the first part of my semester and found it extremely helpful!  The students’ writing significantly improved after the human interest and active verb lessons.”

My unique College Writing Guide focuses on achieving a clear style above all else. The entire focus is readability and clarity–something students badly need to learn, but which they get little of in the standard composition textbooks.  Some teachers use the Guide as an idea manual; others (like Dan Smith) buy in bulk and use it as the textbook for a one-semester Writing I course. It is designed as a textbook. If you have read the Pope Center article called “Teaching College Students to Write,” this is the book it describes. That article is here:

The text is clear and fun to read–vividly written–as any writing text should be. It offers explanations easily followed by students and teachers, has exercises with answer keys, and provides a many exercises (all classroom tested) on a small, medium and large scale. The unique “readability” approach can be understood by carefully reading my two online articles. The first is the Pope Center article, and the second, on the importance of writing with things, ran in the Atlantic:

I recommend you read one or both articles before committing to a purchase of this book. The readability approach will feel especially natural to journalists, reporters or editors who are teaching college courses.

The text contains the full method as it has been honed in the classroom, where I have taught the course at least 50 times in Boston area colleges, to acclamation from probably 1,000 students by now. I assure you that most students taking the course leave very happy, saying, “I never knew writing was this easy.”  The price is $16.95 plus $2.95 shipping and handling in the US, and two dollars more to Canada. Most people pay with PayPal–just see the button below. For information about bulk orders or shipment outside the U.S., send a note to maguirejohn at comcast dot net.

This could just be the book that will revolutionize the teaching of college writing. It’s that unique.  In any case, if you take to it, it’s going to revolutionize the way you teach college writing. You will see great results, because with it you can teach students to be vivid, clear and interesting. I’ll bet you thought those intangible qualities could never be taught, didn’t you? But they can. The skill of clarity and vividness can be built up from smaller skills that are easy to teach. This method is about being interesting–and all students want to be interesting writers, and they love the approach.

Order a copy, see for yourself, and then decide if you want to order it for your section. I have posted prices for shipping to the U.S. and Canada. If you are elsewhere, write me and I’ll figure the shipping costs for you. Write about anything: maguirejohn-at-comcast-dot-net.

Thanks and best wishes,

John G. Maguire

A radical rethinking of the teaching of writing

Because I was late to class one day, I had to improvise, and that set me on a different course as a writing teacher. It’s all described in Teaching College Students to Write.

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