Rethinking College Writing Instruction


“If you don’t let them write full essays for a while, and make them focus on the quality of sentences, they begin to get it.” — Kim Holcomb, Ohio U.

Hi John,

I’m happy to explain how we used your book in my four sections of freshman writing last year. Your idea that students need to learn how to write good sentences before they can write essays struck me as game-changing, and I immediately ordered The College Writing Guide. When I first got hold of The Guide last fall, my classes were already underway, but I took a several-week detour to focus on exercises from the book, which worked to change my students’ thinking about sentences. Many of them come into college not understanding that writing is a matter of putting sentences together. They can’t tell a good sentence from a bad one—in fact, I think it’s never crossed their minds that some sentences are good and some bad. They seem to think their job is to impress with big words and overly wordy, sometimes impenetrable, sentences.

Using The College Writing Guide as a workbook changed that.

As you know, I first used the book in the fall. I copied pages from it and we did various exercises for three weeks, putting their first essay aside. Students loved it and many said it was the best, most useful part of the course.

Since we’d had such good luck in the fall, I decided to jump in deeper and for spring semester 2016 I had them buy the book, and I incorporated it into the syllabus. We used it in both sections as a workbook for the first five weeks of the course.  We worked through the different exercises at the start of the book, starting with concrete nouns and then active verbs, flipping the passive active, avoiding there is/there are constructions, and so on. If you don’t let them write full essays for a while, and make them focus on the quality of sentences, they begin to get it. Their writing improved a lot this semester—it might be the best semester I’ve had. Their sentences got a lot better.

I sent you some of the student comments I got at evaluation time. These are anonymous comments I received about how the course went, and here’s some of what students said about how the “workbook” (which is what we called The College Writing Guide) improved their writing:

  • “I think the way that the course is set up has a nice flow to it. We first start off by going through the workbook and the text. This really refreshed my memory on effective ways to write. Then we wrote our papers and the intensity of the papers increased as the year went on. I think the way this class was taught was very effective to me.”
  • “I found that the workbook assignments were helpful as well as the essays we did throughout the semester. They challenged me intellectually and I ended up producing my best work because of it.”
  • “I found the college writing guide most helpful.”
  • “The workbook work we did was really helpful for me as a writer. It taught me a lot about things I had never even thought about that affect writing style and quality.”

John, I’m a real fan of this book; I tell everybody about it. I’m thankful for it because I don’t have the time to invent more materials for my classes, and this package really works. I’ve been teaching college writing for more than 20 years, and this is the best resource I’ve found. I assume you don’t mind if I put some flyers out mentioning it in the faculty lounges? I’m going to do it!

If you want better writing from students, order the low-cost CWG now.

Readable Writing  gets great results—much improved student writing—in record time. Plus–it engages students, gets them completely involved, wakes them up, and lights up their eyes.

Readable Writing hammers home a few key writing behaviors that make all the difference.  Its exercises build from the simple in Week 1 to quite complex in Week 12.  It’s a well-tested course that I’ve taught more than 70 times at Boston-area colleges and universities. The first eight weeks covers sentences and the last six weeks essay writing.

Students find this course fresh and engaging because it’s not the same-old same-old. A typical comment after the semester: “I never knew writing was this easy.” Another comment: “This is nothing like an English course, but at the end of it, I know how to write.”

Robert Garnet of Gettysburg College says:

I like your approach very much, with the strong emphasis on the concrete.  I also like the multitude of exercises, which hammer the ideas home and make for an active experience for the students (and a time-saver for the instructor).  If I were teaching composition this coming year I would definitely employ your text, and I will hang on to it and recommend it if anyone asks.

Please click around this web site. You’ll find several articles, sample pages from the book, and samples of student writing. You really need to look at the samples of student work to see what this course can do.

The best way to see how this approach works is to order a copy of the book and look for yourself. You will find an unusual textbook where the explanatory material is concise and interesting. Most important, you’ll find bushel-baskets of all kinds of exercises, which can be done in the classroom and for homework. There’s a complete answer key.

If your students work the exercises, their writing will change from vague and confusing to vivid and concrete. You’ll spend much less time reading and having to grade terrible papers.

Many instructors have bought the book. Kim Holcomb of Ohio University said this:

“Their writing improved a lot this semester—it might be the best semester I’ve had. Their sentences got a lot better…. I’m a real fan of this book; I tell everybody about it. I don’t have the time to invent more materials for my classes, and this package really works. I’ve been teaching college writing for more than 20 years, and this is the best resource I’ve found.”

Training students to be readable is a simple and logical idea, and when you do that, students write better, and much faster than you would believe.

Every conscientious writing instructor will want to check out this new approach that is good for your students and will save you a lot of work. Order it and see for yourself?  If you like what you see, there’s still time to get it to your college bookstore. And the book retails for less than $20!


Teaching writing vs. learning ballet

I had a cup of coffee and an hour’s conversation with an artistic friend, Leslie M., in Andover, Massachusetts yesterday. Leslie has been the head of the Andover Cultural  Council for a number of years. I figure her to be much more a diplomat than I am, so I asked her to consult with me about how to get the word out about my book and my method. (In a few words, Leslie is both generous and intelligent. I want to get that said immediately.)

We met in the Caffe Nero, a high-ceiling place decorated with old books and wooden tables. The coffee was tasty. Anyway, it was a fun conversation. Leslie had never heard of the method, and she didn’t say if she’d ever taught college writing, so I don’t think she has. Her son, though, is a professor in a fine arts field in a Catholic University somewhere in the U.S., and she reported that he has been groaning about the poor quality of the student papers he gets:

“He doesn’t assign many papers, but he does assign a few. He’s been telling me they’re terrible, and I thought he was exaggerating, but one day he was home and left a pile of papers somewhere and I looked into them and I saw, my God, he’s right.”

So I said to her, “Leslie, that’s my market. There are tens of thousands of professors out there who are either teaching Writing 101 courses, or else reading terrible papers submitted after students have taken such courses. These are the people feeling the pain. Most administrators, like heads of English departments, are resigned to the current situation, and not in active pain. They hear about the terrible writing, but most are not down there in the mud trying to fix it.

“So the market for this method is the people who are feeling the pain. That would be the students, who of course do not want to be terrible writers. They wish they could write good, they just can’t figure out how. And the instructors are the key audience. They feel the most pain because they know it’s fairly simple to write well, but they’re stuck with methods that don’t work with today’s students and progress is very slow.”

I asked her for advice, and she said, “People never like to be told they’re doing things all wrong.”

Now I know that, in theory, but I don’t think about it often, because in fact some open-minded folks are okay with being corrected.  Her comment reminded me of a fact I often forget about–that people are defensive.  I responded as best I could.

“Well, it’s not like people are doing things all wrong,” I said. “I’m not saying that and it’s not true. Many writing teachers are doing things quite well.  Some talk a lot about active verbs. Many of them probably give great coaching advice in individual sessions. The problem is not that they’re doing things wrong, it’s the usual course arrangement makes them inefficient. It’s a huge problem that students come in with very different kinds of preparation. You have people who would never leave a fragment on a page, and other kids who really think a fragment is some kind of sentence.  How do you teach in that situation?”

“I look at what the Army does, and it’s interesting. The Army takes in recruits and it used to take in draftees and it trains them to use a rifle properly and skillfully in eight weeks in Basic Training. The Army doesn’t separate out the country boys who’ve been shooting squirrels since the age of 10 from the pale city boys who have never seen a firearm before, and give them two different courses of training. The Army makes the assumption that no recruit knows anything about firearms. It trains them all from the ground up. This is the end of the rifle that shoots, these are the names of the different parts, this is how you take it apart and clean it and put it together, here is how you adjust the sights, squeeze the trigger, hit the target. And on and on.”

“Even though it’s not true that everyone comes in ignorant, that’s the best assumption to make if you want to train everybody.”

I went on and on and she listened generously like the fine human being she is.

“I’m not saying that teachers are doing everything wrong, but I am saying it’s very ineffective try to build on what kids learned in high school. Some have learned a lot, and some nothing. You can’t build on what they know. That’s the big conceptual mistake too many people are making. Far better to do it the Army way, and to assume that no one knows anything about the topic of writing, and to build the skill from the ground up. That’s what my course does. That’s why I get such great results.”

“And we start our writing training with the concrete noun because it’s a great starting point, where everyone is equal. When I tell students Write with things you can drop on your foot, everybody is equal because everybody has a foot. The lousy writers like it because they can do it. It’s so simple. The good writers like it because it’s so unusual and no one has ever asked them to do it before. Even though it’s a weird way to start a course on writing, it’s interesting and everyone gets engaged with it.”

Leslie said, “I remember when I took ballet when I was a little girl. I thought I was going go up on the stage and just dance and be beautiful. But all they let me do was stand in place and point my toes a certain way, over and over again. It went on for six months, and I kept wondering when are we going to dance? This isn’t dancing!

“You were learning the sub-skill,” I said. “It was going to be combined with other stuff and become dancing later on.”

“Right!  And I didn’t understand why they weren’t teaching me to dance.”

“You hit it,” I said. “That’s the perfect example. That’s exactly what we’re doing, we’re teaching the sub-skills first, and frustrating them deliberately. We’re not letting them write thesis-organized papers until they have the basics down cold. We’re making them point their toes right until they’re sick of it.”

It was a great conversation with Leslie M, and I felt supported in quite a nice way. I left her with a copy of the CWG and mailed one off to her son, the professor. We agreed to talk again about the problem of getting people to try out something that is so different from the conventional way things are done.

15 wasted weeks

“Information does not translate directly into knowledge. It must first be processed, accessed, absorbed, comprehended, integrated and retained.”

–Robert B. Cialdini:  Influence,Science and Practice, p 237.

If you are a teacher you know that. You know that telling students about active verbs will not change their writing. In the ongoing stress of the classroom, it’s almost impossible to invent ways for students to absorb, comprehend and retain what you’ve told them. You, like most instructors, don’t have time to invent and test activities that produce absorption, comprehension, integration and retention.

I invented the Readable Writing in order to integrate knowledge and action. I built the course on five style lessons that are combined with really interesting  practice activities. The whole point of the course is the integration of sub-habits into a full, skilled performance. I use only five style lessons because I want every one of them to be mastered.

About two weeks back, I went to the Alliance for Liberal Learning conference in Chicago, gave a short talk about the method, met some interesting people. I want to recount a side conversation at lunch with a friend I hadn’t seen in a while–I’ll call him Ben. I showed him some student work and he didn’t believe it was first-draft work. He said, “Where are the fragments, Johnny Boy? Where are the terrible abortions of sentences?” I explained the method as best I could and he was receptive and polite; he wanted to be friendly, he likes me, and he didn’t want to put me on the spot.

He said used to teach in a community college in the Chicago area. He never saw work like I was showing him. “We had a 15 week course,” he said, “And we covered the 15 most common grammar errors, one per week. subject-verb agreement, fragments, you name it. Very thorough. And you know what, Johnny Boy, at the end their writing didn’t improve at all! They made the same mistakes in their papers anyway.”

Ben is going through a tough patch with an ex-wife, and I didn’t have the heart to point out the design flaw in his 15-week course. The skill of fixing grammar errors has two parts: first, recognizing the error in the middle of a paragraph, and then fixing it. But Ben’s course overlooked the recognition part. Students got work sheets to practice on, but were deprived of the most important part of the skill, the perception of the grammar problem in an otherwise correct paragraph. So when it came time to integrate the grammar into a new performance, they couldn’t do it.

Writing is a behavior and it’s not a simple behavior, either. Course design has to take that into account.

Is this a business or a movement?

The lady from the entrepreneurship group was on the phone yesterday and she asked, “Have you shown your book to the English departments?”

“No,” I said, “they’re not interested. The department heads are resigned to the idea that today’s kids are semi-literate and nothing much can be done about that. When you are selling a product, you are selling pain relief, right? I know that’s what your group says, and it’s true. In this domain, the pain point is the individual instructor, not the head of the English department.”

She was silent.

“It’s the individual instructor who feels that pain and frustration because though the kids are improving their writing, it’s so slow. The instructors feel the pain of that. Most department chairs are above it. ”

“I can see you’ve done your homework,” she said.

“I’m not sure that being in the small business enterprise group will help me. Yes, I want to sell books, but I am not so much in the business of selling books as I am trying to change the way freshman composition is taught. Everywhere. This is a method that really works and I want to see it adopted.”

“You see yourself as a thought leader.”

“A little bit, yes.”  I agreed to think more about joining the entrepreneur group, and she hung up.

I now put the following questions out to the small band of teachers who believe in this method and are using it: What should I do next? What should we do next? What’s to be done?

Here’s what I am doing:

  • I am speaking wherever possible. Later this month I’ll speak at the Alliance for Liberal Learning conference in Chicago (October 29th, Pinstripes restaurant).
  • I’m giving out the occasional sample copy of the CWG.
  • I have set these three goals for the next eight weeks:
    • To spread the word about the method
    • To ask instructors to assign the book as a text
    • To improve the product itself

The “product” right now is the CWG with two supplements. The first supplement is a full answer key with answers for every single assignment or suggestion in the book. It’s available as a pdf to anyone who asks for it. The second supplement is a set of 39 one-page lesson plans that will convey the full course, both Part I and Part II; however it’s not finished. It’s my top writing priority this month.

The bottleneck in spreading the word right now is that teachers are ordering single copies to use as a resource book, but only a few are ordering the book in bulk for their courses.  A set of lesson plans keyed closely to the book should help.

A new edition should have more student examples, better linked to the assignment language. It will also contain more combo assignments, that is, assignments where several skills are combined and practiced at once. It’s the combo assignments that distinguish this course and help students to construct useful writing habits fast. Without combo assignments, student progress slows a lot.

The insiders know the theory of the course: that writing is a presented as a single complex skill, built up from simpler skills that are properly combined. It’s like bicycle riding. To ride a two-wheeler requires learning distinct skills and then combining them. In bike riding there are six skills: mounting, pedaling, steering, balancing, braking and dismounting.  In writing at the sentence level it’s concrete noun use, people language, active verbs, sentence length control, and conciseness. Later at the essay level it’s title, beginning, forecast sentence, body paragraphs organized with tags, and ending.

The reason we need more combo assignments is obvious: though the sub-skills are introduced one at a time, they must not remain separate. They have to be pulled into a single performance the way pedaling, steering and balancing are combined in bike riding.

So into the future. For my part, there’s the talk in Chicago and the lesson plans. I will report when the lesson plans are done.

For your part, if you like the CWG, spread the word. I will send examination copies to your teaching friends if you ask. You could also get me invited to speak at your institution.

If you don’t like the CWG so much, please, please send an email and tell me where it let you down; I’ll change and fix it if I can. As we all say to our writing students, “Anything can be improved.”

Should I rewrite my entire comp course?

The CWG gives you material with which you can create a brand new course, and several teachers have done that, but you don’t have to go all the way. It may work simply to graft stepped instruction in style techniques onto your current course. There might be several ways to do it—I’m guessing here, because I haven’t done it.  But I think you  can use many of your own assignments to better effect if you arrange them differently.

The key in this method is to have students focus only on certain kinds of word-choice issues in the first half of the course: concrete nouns, people words, active verbs, sentence length control, and editing for conciseness. They should write a lot and practice those skills a lot. During that time, any kind of short assignment will work. However assignments in this section must not include a thesis sentence, and the word “thesis” should not even be mentioned.

Organizing a paper around a thesis sentence must be delayed. You don’t want students to even think about organization issues until they have mastered the active verb and sentence editing. But six to eight weeks in, after they are skilled at adjusting their own sentences in different ways, then you can introduce the higher order skill that is organizing an essay. Organization is the second part of this course and its basics can be conveyed in three weeks.  When all your students can write decent sentences at will, it’s a snap to teach them organization.




A Conscious Decision Not to Teach Style

[Here’s a note from an anonymous liberal arts professor. Does it strike you as true that the “composition profession” has decided to be uninterested in the quality of student prose? Be the first to comment!]

Actually, I’m involved in a research project on the way we teach college writing. In particular, I’m examining the scholarship that has led the profession to the strange conclusion that the quality of student prose is nothing more than an afterthought. The college writing profession has made a conscious decision not to teach style, and if you review the scholarly literature, which I have done, you will find virtually nothing about student prose at all. So even though the profession claims to teach student writing, student writing is irrelevant.

But I do prattle on. I look forward to reading your book!

Michael Laser: ignoring awkward writing is a great mistake

Novelist teaches freshman writing, is shocked by students’ inability to construct basic sentences

Gradual shifts in a teacher’s point of view

I don’t remember just how these shifts in my beliefs happened, but they arrived at different points in the first few years of testing this method. I came to believe certain ideas because I saw them validated in the work of students in the course.

o All students have something to say and the poor writers are embarrassed by their lack of eloquence. All want to be eloquent.
o Students must be given things to do they can succeed at, such as reading a passage and circling the concrete nouns. Throwing students into writing complex assignments early amounts to throwing non-swimmers into the deep end of the pool. All you get is panicked flailing and distress.
o The five variables taught in Course 1 do actually and fully determine the readability of a piece of writing. There are no other variables.
o Students improve rapidly if you arrange skills in steps, give them the ability to judge their own performance, arrange for their best writing to be read by the class, have them write a lot, and keep up a rapid pace of improvement. Each week should announce and require a higher level of performance than the week before.
o The only grammar one needs to insist on is the writing of complete sentences at all times.
o You draw good ideas from students simply by insisting that they write in the plain and vivid style you have taught them.
o There’s no such thing as a boring subject. There are only boring styles. Any subject will be interesting if you write about it in an interesting style.

Response to teacher Tammy Tilley

Tammy Tilley asked:

You outline the number of weeks for students to work on their skills, but how many minutes per lesson should I expect each lesson to take? I teach one evening per week for 4 hours, for a total of 14 weeks. I am trying to determine a reasonable amount of class time versus outside the classroom time it will take for my students to acquire their skills.

Another way of asking is, when you created the skill acquisition chart and referenced the number of weeks, how many hours are spent in class working on those skills?

Dear Tammy,

If you don’t like The Curious Writer, either skip it or pick one or two exercises from it that your students will understand.  Several college writing teachers are using my College Writing Guide as the main textbook. The good news is that it’s cheap—a plus for everyone—and it has both readings and exercises in it.  If you want to do that, your bookstore can order the books from me, sending an order to me via email..

I think you can do whatever you want, but the advantage of having them write with objects first is this: it’s easy to do, everyone finds it kind of fun, and it sets up a good habit.  I would devote an hour of instruction and an hour of in-class exercises in each of the first two weeks to concrete nouns.

Remember that in teaching them this category you need to get them to perceive concrete nouns as well as write with them. So you can always have them read something and circle the concrete nouns in it.

Lecturing is not as effective as lecture+practice. So whenever you are telling them about concrete nouns, or people language, or active verbs, make sure that you have several in-class exercises set up to go.  This is what I do when introducing a new idea:

  1. Talk about it for maybe ten minutes. Ask students to talk with me about it. I write things on the board. I refer to things they and I have read.

  2. I do exercises. I say, “Now lets try this out. See if you can read the following handout and circle all the objects you can drop on your good. After you’re done, count them up. We’ll compare.”

    The minutes later we go through the exercise and see who circled what. Then I might say, “Here’s something more challenging. I want you , with a partner in the class, to write a 100-word narrative about something that happens in a convenience store. You have to include 15 concrete nouns. Make a good copy that you can read from.  You have 20 minutes.” Then they do that and we read what they did afterwards and discuss it.

  3. Then I might give them a more complex homework assignment on the same topic. “Okay, you have to write a 600-word profile of a person you love, despise or fear. At least 1 word in 20 must be something you can drop on your foot. When you are done writing, circle the concrete nouns. Write the number of circles on the top left of the paper. It must have a title. Due next class.”

I would follow the same pattern with each of the skills:  concrete nouns, people words, active verbs, sentence-length control and conciseness.  The pattern is:

  1. Brief lecture

  2. Short exercise in finding what we are dealing with

  3. Maybe a second such exercise

  4. A short writing exercise in class using the new skill

  5. A longer homework exercise that involves writing with the new skill

I hope that gives you a sense of how to proceed.


John G. Maguire
28 Sprague Ave
Chelmsford,MA 01824