Rethinking College Writing Instruction

“I don’t have any good ideas.”

Instructors often hear this question. Which is more important, the ideas or the words? Or sometimes, Which comes first, the ideas or the words? How do you answer that question?

The conventional idea is that you get some good ideas, and then you write them down in good clear language.  The ideas precede the writing. Seems obvious.

As most writing teachers know, it’s a partial truth. Ideas sort of precede the writing of them, but they also sort of don’t precede the writing of them. Maybe you can get a wisp of an idea before you write, but you can’t call it an idea until something is written.

That’s why experienced instructors usually teach an inversion of ideas-before-words.

Write some things down in good clear language.
Then you will see what your ideas are.

The instructor says: So here’s what comes first: the words. You throw some words down on paper and make some sentences. You play with them and boil them down until you get one really good sentence. You look at it and you say to yourself, “Those words capture something real.” Then you start expanding.You cannot get a good idea before you start writing.

I’m not alone in stressing the importance of words, of course, but I have bet the ranch on it in my Writing 1 course. I am so sure that getting the words right comes first that we don’t even think about ideas for the first eight weeks of Writing 1. We just produce good, clear sentences in massive amounts. We learn good clear language as a defined topic and a performance skill.

Again: We learn the production of clear language as a performance skill.

College writers are tongue-tied and produce embarrassing writing because most have an immature and confused style and don’t know how to change it. If  a student’s style is awkward and confused, his or her ideas are going to look awkward and confused. He will look at what he wrote and say, “I don’t have any good ideas,” when in fact he can’t see what his ideas are, because his style is so bad.

It’s best to teach students the readable style and force them to practice until it’s second nature. When they can write in the plain style, the ideas that once seemed obscure or stupid will now solidify and shine on the page.

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