Rethinking College Writing Instruction


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.

Poor college writers compared to non-swimmers

Some kids are well oriented at the start of the course—confident and skilled. But it’s the silent Lower third, the unconfident, who challenge us.

They are always tempted to withdraw or disengage, because they have memories of failing before, memories of not learning what they were supposed to learn about writing. What’s to be done so they stay in the course and learn?

What you need to do is deal with their disorientation. Where other students can see the verb in a sentence—perhaps they used to diagram sentences in a home school—the Lower Third can’t see the verbs distinctly. It’s all words to them, words hard to tell apart.

Sometimes teachers inadvertently increase student confusion by (1) jumping topics too quickly, and (2) using unneeded technical language. The solution is to slow down and focus on one thing at a time. Pick one down-to-earth word or phrase to cover an important topic and stick with it. Don’t fear constant repetition of an important concept.

My students and I probably say the words “active verb” 1,000 times in a one-semester course. It’s the key concept and the phrase an important tool.

In a swimming pool, the non-swimmers are visibly disoriented. They thrash around, while the trained swimmers pull through the water with effective strokes. The difference is orientation and habit. The swimmers limit themselves to a few ordered movements (kick, stroke, breathe), while the non-swimmers kick, grasp, grab, thrash, and gasp in chaos.

We really help students by giving them just a few moves to practice. It’s an iron law that economizing on what you have to pay attention to helps learning. In your class, it’s the disoriented Lower Third who will most benefit from a tight focus on (1) concrete nouns, (2) people words, and (3) active verbs.

In baseball, batting coaches never stop saying, “Eyes on the ball.” So you the writing teacher should never tire of saying, “Watch the verbs.”


Why writing teachers should not tell students to “have good ideas.”

This phrase jumped out at me this morning:  “wrong classifiers.”  I saw it in a blog about politics–but it relates to writing instruction. Here’s the original:

“My guess is the global world order proved so fragile because it was organized around the wrong classifiers. Moreover, these classifiers were ideologically static so errors even when detected were ignored.”

“Wrong classifier” is another way of saying “wrong category.”  When you use the wrong categories, which means categories that don’t match reality well enough, you get into trouble.

Today’s writing teachers often use the wrong classifiers. They talk about “having good ideas” and “writing a good thesis sentence” and using “transitions.” While these categories have some meaning, they are the wrong categories to teach writing with.

Telling a student in writing to “have good ideas” is like telling a student golfer to “swing like Tiger Woods.” To restate it, swinging like Tiger Woods is a good thing, but “the Tiger Woods swing” is the wrong classifier to use when teaching.

The good teacher uses categories that are meaningful to the absolute beginner. He or she does not use categories that are meaningful only to the expert. Having good ideas is something you understand only after a lot of experience as a writer.

Readable Writing had its origin in my search for categories that beginners can use. That’s why we start with the concrete noun—something you can drop on your foot. Because it’s physically rooted and because everyone has a foot, “concrete noun” is a useful classifier.

Out of the blooming and buzzing confusion that writing is for the rank beginner, something solid emerges that can be used: the concrete noun. The beginner grasps it and begins playing with it, and soon he is writing with enjoyment.

You remember Mr. Miyagi, who started teaching his young karate pupil to do karate moves with a classifier the kid could understand, “Wax on, wax off.” All serious teachers meet their students where they are, with classifiers they can use immediately, and that’s what we do in Readable Writing.

College Writing: two methods, compared

In the standard compare-and-contrast essay, the writer has to take two topics, items, or people and state how they are like and how unlike.  In these few paragraphs, I will take the same approach, contrasting the standard way of teaching first year writing and the Readable Writing way.

Readable Writing, as I call it, is a specific way of teaching writing. I designed it to counteract the problems that I saw with the standard methods. I can’t claim complete originality for the method–it did not spring out of my forehead whole and beautiful—but it indeed rests on the work of two highly original thinkers who came before me: Rudolf Flesch, the linguist and readability expert, and Karen Pryor, a famous authority on animal training and behavioral modification.  From Rudolf Flesch, I took the theory of readable prose that forms the spine of the course. From Pryor, I took a step-by-step behavioral modification plan that makes the course efficient and effective.

If I had a plan in designing this writing course it was:

  • Break it down
  • Make it simple
  • Make it learnable

Below I contrast the new method with the standard method. I describe the standard method from memory, because I formerly used it; it’s what can be read between the lines when perusing conventional comp textbooks. The new method is easily described because it’s what I do now.

The comparison below is a bit rough and inexact, but it will serve to point up differences the reader will want to know. RW means Readable Writing and SP means Standard Practice.

RW is like SP:

It’s a one-semester course, 14 weeks.

It can be taught in various rhythms: 3x per week, 2x per week or once per week.

It aims to improve student writing.

The writing assignments are roughly similar in each method.

This table stresses the differences, and it’s quite a good summary.

Readable Writing

Standard Practice

·Teaches a [roughly] defined “readable style.” · Is agnostic or neutral as to style.
·Focuses on words
· Focuses on both words and ideas.
·Defines good writing as a compound skill composed of a five sub-skills. ·Has no definition of good writing beyond that it pleases the teacher.
·Uses a sub-skill-to-top-skill framework. ·Has no hierarchy that relates different writing skills to each other
·Instruction is tightly sequenced and lessons must be taught in order. ·Order of lessons is up to teacher
·Objective performance standards are used. ·Subjective standards (Does it please the teacher?) are common.









Slow reading aloud in the bathroom

Many students who commit truly ugly sentences are just not paying close attention to their own words.  They have skimmed the meaning of emails and text messages for years without needing to attend to every syllable. Then when they come into a comp course they don’t know how to pay attention to words at the level needed.


To counteract that lack of attention, slow reading is needed.


I sometimes assign students to take a short passage home, and to go into the bathroom or some other quiet place, and read it aloud, slowly, twice.  “Just read it slowly and notice the words going by as you say them,” I say.  “Read every syllable and all the small words. Noticing words is important to being a writer.”


The assigned passage may be from a well-written professional or student essay. When I see the student next, either in class or after class, I ask him or her to tell me what the experience was like. “What did you notice when you did that?” I will ask.


The writing instructor says: “I once was blind…but now I see.”




I used to believe… Now I know…
There’s no way to stop students from writing a mixture of bad sentences and good sentences.


I can prevent students from writing bad sentences by training them to write good ones first.
Careful notes in the margins of papers made a difference Notes in the margins waste my time, which is better spent reading the paper aloud in conference with the student


Students understand what an active verb is Students can understand what an active vcrb is after thorough training and practice.


Students can identify a fragment or run-on Many students can’t tell a fragment from a real sentence, and they must be trained.


Students can tell when a sentence is confusing because it is too long Students must be trained to look at long sentences and check them for clarity.


You have to let students write their confusing first drafts and then improve them during revision. You prevent students from writing confusing drafts—by insisting on short clear sentences from the first day of class.


Modest improvements in writing are possible in freshman comp. Dramatic improvement in writing is possible in freshman comp.



How writing is taught at one community college–comment on Tinberg and Nadeau

I’ve been reading Howard Tinberg’s monograph on the teaching of first semester writing at Bristol Community College, which came out a few years ago.

Tinberg and his co-author Jean-Paul Nadeau studied both faculty and students for a semester; they did surveys and personal interviews. Sixteen students took part. The style is somewhat weighty, but you can find interesting material in there, if you look for it.

The study is heartfelt—it certainly expresses concern for and interest in the student who has entered college and doesn’t know how to handle college writing assignments. There is no doubt that Tinberg and Nadeau are committed and concerned instructors with great feeling for the dilemmas of their over-stressed community college freshmen.

The book describes the way writing is currently taught at Bristol, which I would call either (a) unfocused or (b) with shifting focuses. The teachers are not sure what their goals are, though Tinberg doesn’t say that in so many words. Sometimes they are teaching “academic writing” (not clearly defined) and sometimes they teach or wish they could teach “writing in the disciplines” (also not clearly defined). The students express wishes that the writing would be useful in the real world, but the teachers, not so much.

Sometimes the instructors want the student writers to be more aware of the reader, but the only reader on the scene is the instructor, so in effect Tinberg wants the students to be more aware of the instructor.

In this study, almost all feedback to student writers takes the form of written notes; some of these are effective, some—like non-specific checkmarks—much less so. Feedback via in-person conference is mentioned, but it seems secondary. Overall, the assumption that teachers should provide written feedback is unquestioned. Tinberg himself comments that he does most of his teaching through written remarks on paper.

In a famous Sherlock Holmes story, the dog does not bark in the night when it should have—and the detective notes this absence and solves the crime thereby. In this monograph, something does not show up that should be there: the reader. The authors do mention the desire to make students more aware of the reader, but it’s just a few sentences in a 135-page book. This is reality in today’s classroom—the standard freshman comp courses have no systematic way of focusing on the reader experience.












A friendly dispute with comp teacher Todd Anderson about sentence length

Mr. Maguire,

One of my more significant struggles (besides convincing students that to be good writers, they have to read good writing)–a struggle that is also contrary to one of your “Five Rules”–is cultivating in students the ability to compose beyond the simple and compound sentence structures.

Compounding the difficulty is that many do not take the time to study and memorize the various conjunctions used in complex sentences that, when practiced consistently, opens more relationships among ideas that students can establish. (I especially stress the importance of coherence in my courses.)

I understand the desire for more straightforward, concise sentences, but many of my students throughout the years have expressed similar complaints about their sentence skills:  that their sentences are “too boring,” or “too choppy,” or, what I find to be the comment with the greatest brevity, that their sentence skills just plain “suck.”  

Any advice on how to negotiate this common impasse of mine would be appreciated, too! That would be my “magic wand” wish.  Todd Anderson  

I answered:      Well, I teach writing somewhat differently and I’ll explain it and it will have some bearing on your compound-complex sentence worry.  I certainly appreciate your kind words about the exercises and am glad you call them “wonderful supplements.”     

In my course, almost every assignment is subject to being discussed in class.  So if they are doing a 500-word essay on some topic, and they turn it in, I’ll Xerox maybe three of the papers and we will discuss each paper and its readability. I write very little private feedback in the margins of papers. I don’t want students people-pleasing me the teacher–I want students to think about the average reader as their audience. And that means their peers are a reasonable jury, at least on the subject of clarity and interest.     

Although too many short sentences in a row can be choppy, I don’t warn them off that. If they write really choppy prose, their own ears will tell them and then they’ll have to fix things.     

I teach balance. The average sentence should be 15-17 words, but the writing should include medium, short and very short sentences. If you look in the book and read the last student essay, called “If Love Closes,” you will see a vivid and heartfelt argument that is quite moving. The sentences are all short, but it doesn’t matter to me, because the writer’s ideas are clear and vivid. I would never counsel students to write in that style all the time, but I’m willing to accept it, because it’s so clear.  If you read “Going Home,” earlier in the book, you’ll see a more balanced pattern of long, medium and short. They’re both beautiful papers.     

I think there is nothing inherently good in a long sentence, at least in terms of communication. Sentence length is something students must have conscious control over, but I do not give brownie points or any other kind of points for the construction of a 40- or 50-word sentence. A long sentence (if it’s clear) is just a kind of sentence, the way an intense patch of blue in a painting is just a color. If I were teaching painting, I wouldn’t say “Always include two patches of blue.” I don’t think long sentences communicate more clearly than short ones. And in fact, all other things being equal, were we ranking the value of sentences, I’d argue for the short.  Students need to be given permission to write short for the sake of clarity. If they produce choppy work, I’ll say, combine those three short sentences into something longer–just do it by ear.    

When students get more involved in their arguments, more passionate about what they are trying to get said, they will write longer and more rhythmic sentences naturally. And when students read each other’s work they pick up on what works, and if Suzy Brown has a beautiful long sentence that works, they may well imitate it in a later paper. The key thing is total clarity. When long sentences are good and clear, they’ll have a powerful effect on the reader, and the students in the classroom will note that. Sometimes they’ll say, “That long sentence was neat,” but more often they’re saying,  “That short sentence was great.”     

Good topic to talk about. Thanks for your candid question.


College Writing Guide Adoptions as of August 2019

  • University of North Carolina, Pembroke
  • Boston College
  • Bluegrass Community and Technical College, Lexington KY
  • Ohio University, Athens OH
  • University of Hawaii, Hilo HI
  • Ridgewater Community College, Hutchinson MN
  • Williams College, Williamstown MA
  • Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Houston TX (Darlington Correctional Program)
  • College of New Rochelle, New Rochelle NY
  • Berkshire Community College, Pittsfield MA
  • University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh WI
  • University of South Florida, Tampa FL
  • Hunter College ESOL program, New York NY




Sarah Perry defends the plain style in the Times of London

Read this essay by Sarah Perry. author of The Essex Serpent, in the Times Literary Supplement. It’s the most eloquent defense of the plain English style in years: lovely, clear, concrete and impassioned.

John G. Maguire
28 Sprague Ave
Chelmsford,MA 01824