Rethinking College Writing Instruction


Hunter College ESOL instructor: “They understood concreteness more clearly because they were practicing on a smaller scale.”



Dear Mr. Maguire,

I used your College Writing Guide with my Advanced Grammar for ESL students, and my TOEFL preparation class last semester and saw great improvements in their writing.  More importantly, they saw their writing improve.  

All students agreed that eliminating “be” verbs and using concrete nouns helped improve their syntax and style.  This required a lot of hard work on their part.  In fact one student who had repeated the class from the previous semester said that it was a much harder method than what we had tried before, but also much more productive.  In previous semesters, I would tell the students to use concrete examples to make their writing more clear, but your exercises, having students move from abstract to concrete nouns, made the process more obvious.  They understood the concept more clearly because they were practicing on a smaller scale, not in complete essays, but with your activities.  As the semester progressed, and they started to write complete essays, they were able to self-edit, especially for the verb “to be”.   It gave them hope that they could improve on their own; it gave them a strategy that they could apply in the future after our classes ended.

Over our eight-week semester, “too many ‘be’ verbs” became our mantra.  They developed a strategy of thinking through writing, just as you wrote in your response to John Langan.  On the last day of class, they said that I should thank you for creating this booklet, and I encouraged them to write to you personally to thank you and tell you how they had improved.   

So, thank you for your wonderful book.   I have ordered 20 for this semester through your website.  


Mary Fierro

Hunter College/CUNY, IELI


I’ll have a booth in Kansas City!

I’ll be at the CCCC convention in Kansas City, operating Booth 116 with the famous Kim Holcomb of Ohio University. If you are nearby, stop in! It’s March 15-17 at the KC Marriott Downtown. We’ll have handouts, including imprinted pens, and will conduct drawings for free copies of the guide. And we can talk about getting student writing to improve fast.

Dear John Langan: Here’s how paying attention to style improves thinking

I’ve been doing this method for 20 years, and it’s second nature to me now. I cannot imagine going back to the old ways any more, and frankly I have to listen hard to today’s teachers telling me what they do in order to remember what I used to do, long ago.

In Houston over the weekend I had a long breakfast with David Ross of Houston Community College. Great guy, bright and good talker. We talked a blue streak for two hours, about all kinds of things, but mostly about language. He taught me stuff about a, an, the that I did not know and had not figured out.

To get across to him the research base of this course, I told him about its first three years, when I had the luxury to be teaching 9 to 10 courses a year, fall, spring and summer, at the Berklee College of Music. Most of these were Comp I.

“David, once I figured out this method and saw it working, all I wanted to do was test it out. I had a lab experiment going and I started a new experiment every semester.  Back in the mid-90s, I taught about 8 Comp I sections per year, so during the first three years of Readable Writing, I taught it 24 times.”

He understood. I wanted to share that with anyone who isn’t clear how much research and experience has gone into this method. I taught it 24 times in three years!

When I got back from Houston, I had an email from JOHN LANGAN.

He has written and published many textbooks and workbooks for the community college and high school markets. He’s well known in the field, the Pope of Community College writing instruction.  He runs Townsend Press.

He bought a copy of the College Writing Guide, read it very closely, responded that he believes in teaching students clear thinking before teaching them clear writing. I wrote back and explained how the skills of RW (see hand image above) actually train students into clear thinking as they train for clear writing. Here’s what I told him, and what I now think is true.

 Dr. Langan, I believe my method works this way. Searching about for concrete nouns, human beings and active verbs–as my students must do to meet course requirements–activates the brain a good deal. If I am writing about, say, to choose a cliché, racism, and I must find objects to put into my writing because it’s required, I will have to think hard to find those objects in my memory that relate to racism. Maybe it’s the coffee cup and the cigarillo of the deputy sheriff in the movie “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” Maybe it’s the porch his prejudiced mother sits on in her rocking chair as she encourages him to be mean to people who can’t retaliate.

The mental effort of looking for those images and objects is thinking.

Also a form of thinking, I assert, is changing a to-be verb into a real active verb. To change He is a collector of baseball cards one has to weigh the new verb one will use: collects, acquires, likes to grow his collection, pursues, searches for….  All that mental effort is thinking, and thinking spent at the right level, which is attending to and weighing words.

The same general idea applies to each of the 5-finger skills.  It is thinking when one puts in mental effort to (1) search for people words to use, (2) control average sentence length, and (3) edit for conciseness.

These are the thoughts of a craftsman trying to work his craft and be clear for the reader, and because these crafty moves are undertaken in the service of getting an idea across, they are about “improving thinking” as well. Basic fact: if you improve the appearance of your inchoate idea on the page, you have improved the idea.





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.


How is writing like juggling on a unicycle?

An open letter to Dr. Douglas Hesse at the University of Denver.
In which I complain that the composition profession doesn’t understand
writing that well. In which I assert that writing is much more like juggling
while on a unicycle than the composition profession thinks.
I sent this on 1/18/2018.

Dear Dr. Hesse:

As I was writing a speech to give at a professional development day—the topic being college writing—I did some web searching and came across a number of pieces you have written, and comments you have made, for the Chronicle of Higher Education. Your piece called “We Know What Works in Teaching Composition” seems to me to be partially true and partially not true. Certainly it’s a reasoned piece. When you say “we know,” however, it does seem you are referring to yourself and your estimable colleagues at the University of Denver.

One could argue, and I would so argue, that the administrators of most colleges and community colleges do not know what works in teaching college composition—or else they know but don’t want to act on the knowledge. I’m basing this on the fact that colleges will throw almost anyone with a BA or MA into a freshman comp class and just let them sink or swim. In the last couple of years, for reasons I’ll explain, I’ve talked with at least 20 adjuncts from around the country who express extreme frustration with their freshman comp classes. A typical phrase is “I’m banging my head against a wall trying to get them to improve.”

And when the colleges don’t let instructors do their own thing but force them follow a particular syllabus, those syllabi are usually incompetent. A syllabus is a list of topics to be covered, but as you truthfully said, writing requires “sustained, guided practice.” Writing instruction provides skills to be learned and integrated. I have never seen an imposed syllabus built on any kind of sustained and guided practice. Administrators are blissfully or willfully ignorant (with some few exceptions, I assume) of how to write and how to teach writing. That’s because the effective teaching of writing is expensive and administrators gain praise for saving money, not for creating powerful writers.

The foregoing is fairly general and I’m happy to admit it’s my take on things, based on my 30 years of teaching writing in and around the Boston area at various schools including Boston University, the Berklee College of Music and Babson College, not to mention a community college or two.

You are a well-established authority, judging from your CV and the positions you’ve held with NCTE and such organizations. I got nothing against that.

In the last five years I’ve written a number of articles about writing pedagogy. They’d have to be called contrarian because I assert that the field, as a whole, is not teaching writing effectively. The authority figures in the field keep saying, more or less, we know what we’re doing—don’t bother us even though there’s a nationwide chorus of complaints that college grads can’t write clear sentences, memos or reports when they reach the workplace. Are all the business owners and managers distressed about the inability of their young employees to write decently—are they all wrong?

The 20 or more adjuncts I’ve spoken to recently have all gone to my website, read what I have to say about “readable writing,” and bought my freshmen comp book to use or steal from. Some of them love it, some are baffled by it, but a great many say “There’s nothing else like this out there.” I know they’re right, for various reasons, one of which is that I wrote the book in order to be different from everything else because all the standard books have a built-in teaching error that the field has not noticed.

We are both veterans of life, so we both know that people high up in a field have a natural investment in the status quo and when confronted by someone saying “you guys have missed something really important,” they will often respond (imagine a Victorian Dr. John Watson expostulating): “Confound you, sir, that’s a damnable insult to my peers!”

Anyway. Let me take another sip of my beer and continue.

I think the field of composition knows the basics but has in fact missed something important. The field knows that writing is a two-tier skill—that sentence composition is the first skill, and arrangement of sentences is the second skill. But currently, in most places, instructors try to teach both skills at the same time. They make assignments, and then give marginal feedback on both the sentence level (“use more active verbs”) and the essay level (“thesis sentence needs better focus”) at the same time. You can teach this way, but it’s ineffective; it’s a classic training error that somehow the field of composition has not noticed.

If you wanted someone to juggle while riding a unicycle, you would not ask them to attempt both skills at once. You’d train for one, and then for the other, and then combine them. I assert that expository writing is the same sort of thing: there is handling sentences and then handling arguments. It’s like riding and juggling. They have to be done at the same time but they are not the same thing.

I’ve found that the effective way to teach freshman comp these days is to separate the course into two phases, teaching sentence control in the first eight weeks and essay construction in the last six. When you do it that way you get rapid improvement. I have specific, well-reasoned and well-tested techniques for each phase.

Doug, If this interests you and does not seem damnably impertinent you’ll find a bit more at the links on this website. This piece by Michael Laser, a New Jersey novelist who teaches sometimes, might be instructive, also.


John G. Maguire







Steven Pinker on style

Pinker gave an excellent talk at Oxford a few years back. He’s completely right about almost everything he says, and his analysis of how academic writing goes wrong is spot on. Take a look.

Philosophy prof: “I’ve been reconsidering how I teach writing.”

Here are recent emails between me and a professor of philosophy I’ll call K.F. It’s an interesting discussion and I like KF’s seriousness about writing. I share this just for camaraderie’s sake. First me, then him, then me.

JM: Thanks for ordering the book yesterday. It will be mailed to you today. Attached is the answer key.
How did you find out about the CWG and what problem do you hope to solve with it? I see you teach at the University level. Are you a writing instructor, or do you teach something else? Where do you teach? I also wonder what student problems are most frustrating to you.

KF: Thanks for the answer key and the email. I’m really looking forward to reading your book. I’m a philosophy professor at the University of ___ and I’ve been reconsidering how I teach writing and how I employ writing in my classes to help students engage with the material. I’m also interested in writing as a parent and as the future head of our department’s graduate teaching methods course.

I’m a huge Doug Lemov fan–and through him, a fan of Judith Hochman. I’m convinced that many problems in student writing (and thinking) originate at the sentence level. Because students lack syntactic and lexical control, they struggle with thinking critically. Sadly, they’ve gotten little relevant writing instruction in K-12 or in university. Asking many students to write a five-page essay is analogous to asking me to repair my car’s transmission–in theory I could do it, but I don’t know the steps to get me there.

While searching for more Writing Revolution related articles, I came across Michael Laser’s article from 2015 at the Hechinger Report. That led me to your site. I liked that you started with the sentence. I also liked that you recognize the need to stick to “clear and minimal goals” and that the biggest challenge is determining which of those goals, if achieved, would produce the biggest bang. In this most recent semester, I decided to identify two principles of sentence revision for the students, which we would practice over and over. I don’t have time in my classes to do much more than that and I also worry that too much guidance ends up being counter-productive and distracting. I drew the two principles from Bizup and Williams’ book Style. I like the book and the principles–making sure the subject expresses the main character of a sentence and that the verb expresses the main action–but I worry that even these concepts might be a bit abstract and hard to grasp. So I’m curious to see what principles of revision I might discover in your book. The excerpt’s treatment of ‘drop it on your foot’ nouns intrigued me.

That’s a rather long account!

JM: Regarding your two principles of revision, they are fine. They just about do the job in my opinion. I have found that freshmen really need lots of practice even to see the verb in a sentence. But you can’t run hours of practice on seeing verbs because you would bore them and it would come to seem pointless to the majority. The way I get students to pay close attention to the words, the way a professional writer does, is to emphasize readability as Rudolf Flesch defined it long ago in The Art of Readable Writing. He was a computational linguist and he studied texts by counting words of different sorts. He’s the guy who learned that the general accessibility of a piece of writing had to do with short sentence lengths, low average syllable count, and the presence of people as named and speaking characters. I’ve adopted and slightly changed his approach. I tell students, more or less, “You must be clear to your readers and interesting; here are the patterns I want to see in your work from now on.”

The focus on the reader is highly deliberate, and over time, students find it interesting to work toward reader service. We do a lot of reading of each others’ work, but limit ourselves to certain questions useful for training student perception. I might say, “Let’s take a look at the first two paragraphs of Susan’s profile of her grandfather; what can we say about the verbs?”

Speaking in Houston TX, attending CCCC in Kansas City

Next Feb 16 (2018) I’m the keynoter at a one-day conference on writing sponsored by Houston’s Community College system. It’s a Friday and it happens at the West Loop Campus. The program begins at 8 am and I will talk at 9 am and 10 am. The event is open to the public and all who teach writing should come!  More on this later.

The following month, roughly March 15-18, Readable Writing Press will have a booth at the annual Conference on College Composition and Communication in Kansas City, Missouri.  Contact me via email (using the contact form) for details on how to attend. It’s the world’s largest professional organization focused on teaching composition in college. If you are going to the CCCC, come by the booth, say hello, and talk about the tough and honorable vocation of teaching college students to write.


Karen Pryor’s shaping laws

Karen Pryor, one of the world’s best animal trainers and dog trainers, inspired key parts of this course. Look at what she has to say about reinforcing new skills, in the scanned paragraph.

Though she’s talking about animals, we can easily imagine freshman writing students in this paragraph. Read the paragraph and imagine she’s talking about students.

I am most inspired by the first rule–start with something simple enough that he or she can earn the reinforcement–then raise the standard slowly.  That’s why a long time ago I began to start my semester with “things you can drop on your foot.” Anyone can drop something on his foot. Everyone can succeed at that. It’s a morale booster and gets the semester off to a hopeful start.


Geraldine worries about “concrete nouns”

Some teachers worry that emphasizing concrete nouns will reduce your ability to say interesting things about ideas. Geraldine A., who teaches freshman comp in Boston, expressed that worry recently.  She wrote:

“I appreciate the section encouraging use of concrete nouns, but I would want to be careful not to jeopardize precious abstracts.”

Geraldine, using concrete nouns does not jeopardize “precious abstracts”—it adds to their impact on the reader. Concrete nouns actually increase your ability to express ideas.

What really diminishes the power of “precious abstract” words is overuse. Writing that chains together abstractions, no matter how precious they are to you, ends up baffling the reader. For an example, here’s something from a college document:

The institution’s academic programs are consistent with and serve to fulfill its mission and purposes. The institution works systematically and effectively to plan, provide, oversee, evaluate, improve, and assure the academic quality and integrity of its academic programs and the credits and degrees awarded.

Can you tell what that means? Easily?

Here’s the same passage with the abstract nouns bolded (remember these are nouns you can’t drop on your foot). They don’t look so precious this way.

The institution’s academic programs are consistent with and serve to fulfill its mission and purposes. The institution works systematically and effectively to plan, provide, oversee, evaluate, improve, and assure the academic quality and integrity of its academic programs and the credits and degrees awarded.

To me they look like dead weight.

Remember that all abstract ideas are drawn from the physical world of things and people. (ab straho in Latin means draw from.) In other words, abstract ideas having been drawn from the physical world can be related back to it. (S.I. Hawakawa, a linguist and philosopher, uses the metaphor of a ladder of abstraction to explain this. All writers should understand the ladder of abstraction.)

Rudolf Flesch sees the problem with abstraction as the problem of being clear to the reader. You can never tell what image a reader will get in his or her head when an abstract idea is mentioned. It’s the image in the reader’s head you are concerned about. He counsels returning to the physical world as often as you can when writing about ideas so you can give the reader good guidance.

You cannot prevent a reader from reading meanings into your words that you didn’t think of; but you can guide his interpretation of the more abstract words—which are the most dangerous—by using as many concrete cases, illustrations and examples as possible. As a rule, you should never stay at the abstract level for long; as soon as you get there, turn around and plunge again into the down-to-earth world of people and things. This “up-and-down” writing is the only protection against misunderstanding. It’s no guarantee; but it’s the best method there is. (Flesch, Art of Readable Writing, 1974, p 195.)

Abstraction is not the enemy. Abstract ideas are beautiful, needed and precious. But the skilled writer will always root them wherever possible in people and things. That takes practice. You have to think about it and work on it. That’s why we begin this readability course with a two-week focus on “concrete nouns”–so we can get our ideas across.

John G. Maguire
28 Sprague Ave
Chelmsford,MA 01824