Rethinking Writing Instruction

Monthly archive for August 2018

Reasoning from first principles

I ran across two worthwhile essays in the last week. The first was about reasoning from first principles, and it linked to the second, about Elon Musk. Both were written by Tim Urban. I’ll put the links at the bottom of this post.

I’m writing now (1) to sketch how I came to readable writing by reasoning from first principles, and (2) to quote an amazing paragraph from Elon Musk.

Tim Urban:

First-principles thinking is one of the best ways to reverse-engineer complicated problems. Sometimes called “reasoning from first principles,” the idea is to break down complicated problems into basic elements and then reassemble them from the ground up. It’s one of the best ways to learn to think for yourself.
This approach was used by the philosopher Aristotle and is used now by Elon Musk and Charlie Munger. It allows them to cut through the fog of shoddy reasoning and inadequate analogies to see opportunities that others miss.

I read that and called out aloud to my wife, “This guy has captured what my method is about, sweetie. He’s talking about reasoning from first principles, and that’s what I did!”
“Yes, dear,” she said soothingly, “everybody knows that.”
“No! Only people who are teaching the method get it. The great big outside world doesn’t know I constructed it from first principles!”
“I guess you’re right about that, dear, but some day they will, don’t you think?”

The readable writing method solves the difficult problem of slow progress in freshman writing courses. Those of you using the book know it’s a  a reverse-engineered product. It started when I made a list of all the obstacles to learning that students face in a comp course, and then asked what I could invent to deal with them.

The major obstacle to student learning, I realized, is the problem of jumping around and changing focus in the course. Teachers jump randomly from high-level instruction, say on how to write an essay, to low-level instruction, for example, on fixing sentence fragments. It’s the randomness that’s the problem. Haphazardly jumping from focus to focus makes learning very hard. The solution from first principles is  a steady focus, with no lurching about. The solution would be a two-part course with two solid themes, one before the othter. The first half would focus on the sentence, in depth. The second half would focus on essay-writing. This single decision to stop jumping around inside the course did indeed solve most problems and speeded up student learning.

Here’s the quote about rockets I mentioned. Elon Musk is speaking. (Emphasis mine).

Historically, all rockets have been expensive, so therefore, in the future, all rockets will be expensive. But actually that’s not true. If you say, what is a rocket made of? It’s made of aluminum, titanium, copper, carbon fiber. And you can break it down and say, what is the raw material cost of all these components? And if you have them stacked on the floor and could wave a magic wand so that the cost of rearranging the atoms was zero, then what would the cost of the rocket be? And I was like, wow, okay, it’s really small—it’s like 2% of what a rocket costs. So clearly it would be in how the atoms are arranged—so you’ve got to figure out how can we get the atoms in the right shape much more efficiently. And so I had a series of meetings on Saturdays with people, some of whom were still working at the big aerospace companies, just to try to figure out if there’s some catch here that I’m not appreciating. And I couldn’t figure it out. There doesn’t seem to be any catch. So I started SpaceX.

At some future date, I will quote that when I talk with instructors and researchers about writing. I will say:

“Writing skill is clearly in how the synapses are arranged. So we’ve got to figure out how we can get the synapses in the right shape much more efficiently.”

Here’s another quote the serious teacher ought to contemplate, from Richard Feynman:

“I don’t know what’s the matter with people: they don’t learn by understanding; they learn by some other way—by rote or something. Their knowledge is so fragile!”

More on these ideas later.


LINKS: (On first principles Farnum Street). : On Elon Musk (Wait but Why).

Most of our incoming freshmen will not learn how to write

America’s writing instructors…

That American students and college graduates write lousy prose is not disputable. The Chronicle of Higher Education runs op-eds about it all the time.  The Washington Post published at least three big blog posts on the subject in 2017.  The New York Times ran a well-reported 2,000-word story by Dana Goldstein called “Why Kids Can’t Write.” However, the headline we’d like to see (“Business Owners Say College Grads Writing More Lucidly Than Ever”) will appear only in The Onion.

The concerned feature stories are symptomatic and correct, as far as they go, but they leave out the scale of the problem, the causes of the problem, and likely solutions.

The scale of the problem is huge. About 3.1 million freshmen will enter American colleges this fall, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. All these 3.1 million will take some kind of first year writing course, even if it’s remedial. The average football stadium holds about 70,000 fans, which means this fall’s incoming freshmen will fill about 44 football stadiums. They will all be taking writing courses.

Their instructors (figuring 20 students per section) will be an army of 77,500 teachers Most will be adjuncts, and if you packed them into their own football stadium, they’d fill every seat. Let’s get that camera image clear: a large football stadium packed absolutely fill with adult women and men, and every seat is occupied by someone teaching freshman comp this fall,  and most of them must be fairly ineffective at teaching students to write. Otherwise we wouldn’t have all those headlines to read.

The causes of poor writing instruction are several, including (1) the students are poorly prepared in high school, (2) most of the teachers are poorly paid part-timers, (3) many teachers are grad students with no teaching experience and (4) the field of Rhetoric and Composition is slow-moving, committed to ineffective methods and suspicious of new ideas.

The most scandalous fact—and the newspaper reporters miss this—is that the power structure in Rhetoric and Composition is no longer interested in teaching writing. Phillip Mink, an assistant professor in the English Department at the University of Delaware, wrote me an email last year and said:

The college writing profession has made a conscious decision not to teach style… If you review the scholarly literature, which I have done, you will find virtually nothing about student prose at all. [To these people] the quality of student prose is nothing more than an afterthought.

Outside the power structure, we have the adjuncts, who do most of the instruction, and many are trying to teach writing and are not bad at it. But the power structure in the field—those on tenure tracks with PhDs—if Dr. Mink is right—have conveniently defined composition to exclude instruction in prose style. The adjuncts, the untouchables in this caste system, do the labor of trying to teach writing. The Brahmins way above them teach things slightly related to writing, such as how writing, images and ideas create impact and circulate to address the issues facing our communities.  The Brahmins set the official standards, and they stay clear of teaching students how to write readable sentences.

Evidence that the power structure in composition actually killed the teaching of sentences as a serious effort comes from Robert J. Connors’s “The Erasure of the Sentence.”  Connors pointedly quotes professor James Moffett as saying, “It’s about time the sentence was put in its place”

The infection of college writing with social-justice activism is another problem, and not a small trend, according to George Gopen, emeritus professor at Duke University and author of Expectations: Teaching Writing from the Reader’s Perspective (2004). Dr. Gopen insists that writing is about clear communication to the reader. That’s the common-sense understanding, but it’s out of favor among the Brahmins and Dr. Gopen stands mostly alone. When he’s asked what would turn American college writing around, he says, “Stop teaching social ethics and start teaching writing.”

The best likely solution would be direct instruction in the classic English plain style, the sentence style that serves the reader best. It would require a revolution for a college writing profession that now barely attends to the reader.

Imagine those 44 stadiums full of freshmen writers—all colors and sizes from all over the country—perhaps eager to learn. They will learn something in comp, but not much about how to be clear or interesting to a reader. Few of their teachers will have stressed the key questions that professional editors raise all the time: How will the reader understand this? Will this confuse your reader? Can you simplify this so the reader gets it right away?

To make the turnaround, we could do worse than return to the original guru of reader service, the late Rudolf Flesch, author of The Art of Readable Writing (1949).  He invented the concept of readability scoring, and though it’s been degraded to a bit of a joke by computerized word-counting, it still has a lot of value. If we adjusted his ideas of readability a little bit, they would make a great backbone for a new type of college writing course. We really need tightly focused training in creating readable prose. It can be done, and students would benefit hugely from having a single and practical target to hit: being readable and interesting writers.

  • The Flesch approach is practical. It uses objective numerical standards as guides to the prose quality, such as average sentence length, and other word ratios. Students can adjust their behavior and gain control over their writing. They gain in self-efficacy.
  • The Flesch approach lends itself to staging from simpler skills to more difficult—something needed with today’s poorly prepared students.
  • Finally, contrary to repeated arguments from academics, the readability approach covers a wide range of readable styles, not the short-sentence style as Flesch’s detractors claimed.  Rudolf Flesch in fact argued strongly against using his insights to write at a primer-level See Spot run style.

One commenter on the Times article “Why Kids Can’t Write” made the interesting point that writing teachers decline to do what coaches do, which is run drills on the fundamentals, even though anyone who watches a well-played football game knows that’s what works.

That same student that you hope is absorbing good writing through reading, or whose voice you don’t want to stifle, goes after school to sports practice, where they drill for hours to be ready for the game. The coaches don’t merely show students films of great plays, nor are they afraid that their kids can’t be creative. They understand that without control of fundamentals, talent is wasted.

The fundamentals of written communication are sentence handling and being clear for the reader. A sequenced skill course in readable writing, if widely adopted, would begin to repair the huge mess that college writing now is.


How to confuse writing students

Suppose your skating coach told you to try skating with your laces tied, would you do it? You’d know enough not to attempt it.

In freshman comp, instructors often set up a situation that quietly sabotages learning the way tied laces would, but the students don’t realize they’re being set up to fail. They attempt to comply with the instructors but their learning goes slowly. Some then blame themselves for being stupid.

I’ve described this in many places, but will repeat it with the ice-skating image in mind.

Writing is a two-tier, or two-level skill. We all know that, but we don’t apply it when we teach. Writing is NOT one thing, but two things, in a hierarchy. The first skill is sentence construction, that is, the writing down of good and solid sentences. The second skill is the arrangement of those solid sentences into an essay, letter, term-paper or report. Without those solid sentences, no essay or report is possible.

The two skills are related, closely related for that matter, but they are not the same. Sentences–they’re one thing. Essays–though they require sentences as building blocks–they are arrangements of sentences.

Teachers who ignore the difference, and jump around from one to the other, produce confusion in their students. Since these are two different skills, they should be taught separately. Sentence writing should be taught as its own topic. Essay writing (the arrangement of sentences) should be taught as its own topic. It’s obvious which skill comes first.

Forty years ago, before open admissions to community colleges, etc, no one showed up in college writing bad sentences, fragments or run-ons. Those students did not need much, if any, sentence instruction. But today students write incompetent sentences and can’t see them nor fix them. Given this fact, sentences must be covered.

But don’t stir instruction about sentences into a comp course willy-nilly, whenever you’re inspired. Doing that is confusing, especially to the students who really don’t understand the basics of sentences and have to master them. All the sentence instruction should come first. Whatever you have to say about writing sentences should be taught as its own unit, early in the course. That way the slower students who need the material most have a chance to learn.

Jumbling sentence instruction into a course any old way just makes things so much harder. It’s a burden like having your skate laces tied together. Don’t do it.

At the Writing Program Administrators meeting, Sacramento

The WPA kindly let me have a low-cost display table in Sacramento in late July. Kelly Kinney of the University of Wyoming put out the books and the signage, and everything went well. Conference attendees picked up 33 of the 35 books, and the other two went to interested graduate students.  All in all, it was a success—if getting copies of this method into the hands of Writing Program Administrators is what counts.

Now, though, what happens? An intriguing, odd book doesn’t necessarily move people into action. It probably tenderizes the brain a little, sets up small eddies of thought that might sound like he’s teaching grammar without teaching grammar or why the intense interest in things you can drop on your foot?

Because I didn’t have the budget for a cross-country trip to Sacramento, the cheap and shoe-string show had to serve. Nonetheless, the truth is the truth, no matter the medium that carries it. The truth that writing is behavior, and that it can be taught as intelligent behavior—that holds even when presented in a Xeroxed and comb-bound workbook.

I invite any attendees at the Sacramento meeting who picked up the book and now want more information about this unique method of teaching writing to get in touch fast. Just send an email or use the contact form. I’ll respond as fast as possible.















Here’s how I do a “reverse outline” to redeem a confused working draft

Half of writing well is editing your own work, and it’s not always easy even for an experienced writer. I’ve been writing for 40+ years but sometimes still get lost in my drafts and stand there as confused as anybody. It happened just this week. I was writing a 1200-word op-ed on readable writing, as usual, but I lost control of it. I just wrote myself into a corner. The piece had many ideas and facts I wanted in,  but I kept jamming new ideas in and it was disorganized. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with it. I was really ticked off and about to give up on it.

Sometimes, in that dark spot of desperation, a little voice speaks to me like Jiminy Cricket, and this time the voice said Do a reverse outline. I usually resort to this when I have kept adding ideas to an essay that don’t fit in smoothly. They sorta fit but they sorta don’t fit, and the resulting paper feels jumbled.

A reverse outline outlines what you have already written.  I used to think I invented reverse outlining but I can see from the Web that many have written about it. To my mind, they make the process too complicated, but if you want to see what they say, a halfway decent piece is here.

But the simplest way to do it–and we’re professionals here who want to save time, yes?–is just to reformat your essay. Shrink the typesize a bit, and reformat it. Make a wide left margin of maybe 3 inches. Print it out. Now you have what you wrote, with a lot of white space to work in. Now do the reverse outline by reading each paragraph and summarizing it in a word–no more than a phrase or two–which you write by hand next to it. You can see your draft on the right, with a crude restatement of each paragraph on the left. That crude restatement is pure gold, though.

Immediately you’ll be able to see the structural problems. Yesterday, for instance, I instantly saw my forecast sentence was sloppy. It only named one topic (scale) when the paper went much beyond scale. I immediately made it a three-part forecast (scale, cause, solutions) and and saw that the body would have to match it, of course. Now that I was predicting the middle of the paper as three topics, I could see what didn’t fit into those three boxes. I knew in a flash what to take out. Confusion was over.

This can work fast. I think I did the reverse outline (actually two in a row) beginning at 5:15 pm, and I had the final draft done by 6:30. At 5:15 I was in the mood called this is crap, I’m lost with this crap and I want to quit but I reverse-outlined the piece and changed it, because I could see how. At 6:30 my mood was Hey, this works and I like it.

That’s how I use reverse outlining to retrieve disorganized drafts, which seem to happen easily when writing on a computer, because it’s so easy to insert new ideas into the middles of paragraphs.

The key for me is reformatting the essay with a wide left margin, and then working with that.  Usually I shrink the size of the type to 9 or 10 points, which keeps the proportions of the new page the same as the original.  In the image below, you see the two outlines I did one right after the other. (Click the arrow to see the second page.)  The image is sketchy, but you should get the idea.

This alteration of the layout and sketching in the left-hand margin helped me see the unbalanced structure of the actual paper. I saw right away how to balance it. The process took 75 minutes and it redeemed what had felt like a piece of garbage when I started.

So you have a new tool to try as a writer–the reverse outline.

reverse outline with clear left margin

Are you new to teaching first-year college writing?

You are entering a fascinating space. You will, if successful, do more to educate your students than any other teacher in your college.

You will enjoy contact with their minds and feel the satisfaction they feel when they learn how to get things said they want to say. You will also at times feel stymied. Your materials will not match what you are trying to do. Your students will not have open minds when they should. They will balk at understanding things that are so clear to you. While some will grasp new ideas and perform them easily, others will advance very slowly. The discrepancy can be maddening.

And to be painfully honest, you enter a field where the conventional wisdom is often wrong. The conventional ways of teaching writing are significantly mistaken, in my experienced opinion. If you comport with convention you will get the same slow progress that everyone else does.

Conventionally, writing is taught as one thing. You know—writing. We’re teaching them to do something, and it’s writing.

But that’s a mistake. Writing is two things: the creation of good sentences and the arrangement of sentences into essays. They are not the same thing. The skill of creating good sentences is one thing. The skill of arrangement into essay form is another thing. Certainly they are related—you have to build essays out of sentences—you can’t have good essays without good sentences. You can’t make good essays out of rotten sentences. Good sentences are necessary but not sufficient because you can take a whole bunch of good sentences and arrange them wrong and get a rotten essay.

If you agree that writing is actually two skills combined—sentence formation and sentence arrangement—it’s obvious what the teacher needs to do. She must teach first the one and then the other. If you don’t do that, but instead jump around in your course, sometimes focusing on sentences and sometimes on the higher-order issues, you’ll be in the mainstream like everyone else and you’ll see the same slow progress they do.

It’s unfortunate, but as of this writing, most of the field of composition either doesn’t grasp that writing is a two-tier skill or thinks it’s not important. These people are wrong on both counts. The two-tier nature of writing is the central fact that an effective writing teacher will work with.

My College Writing Guide lays out first-year writing as a sequence of skills. The first eight weeks covers sentence formation, and at the end of it students can write amazing sentences and paragraphs easily. The second six weeks covers arrangement of those great sentences into clear and organized essays. I don’t fight reality. Writing is a two-tier skill and I teach it that way, and students learn fast.

I recommend not only buying a copy of the CWG for yourself but having your bookstore order it as a required item for your students. When they have the book in hand, you save the time you’d spend Xeroxing exercise sheets, and you can use teachable moments for spur-of-the-moment practice in the book. “Okay class—we agree that what Gordon said about the verbs in paragraph 3 is right on the money. Let’s build on that by doing some verb-flipping exercises now, page 15 at the bottom.”

My book is the only textbook around that admits writing is a two-tier skill and works with that fact.  To learn how I invented the technique at the Berklee College of Music, read this. To see a video about the five sentence skills I teach, see this.

The book comes with an answer key and there’s a lesson plan you can read on this website.  You can look at sample exercises in my College Writing Guide as well as samples of student work.  I think you’ll find them both compelling.

I invite you to do the daring thing–start your career in expository writing by leaving the crowd and entering the world of Readable Writing.

All your bookstore needs to do is email me, and you could ask them today.

Readable Writing Press
John G. Maguire
28 Sprague Ave
Chelmsford,MA 01824