Rethinking College Writing Instruction

Preface to “Ten Things Successful College Writers Do Differently”

When printed letters were mysterious, I wished I could read. Was it the same for you?

There’s a dark moment, before you learn any skill, when you’re all desire. It’s when you wish you could ride a two wheeler like other kids on your street, but you can’t do it and you watch them and feel a sting. It’s when you wish you could work a typewriter but you don’t know how. And it happens in college, too, when you want to turn out that good, interesting writing that people admire.

Before we learn a skill, when the unknown looms ahead like a featureless concrete wall, we look around and hope that someone will show up and make plain the entryway we somehow overlooked.

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I do remember when letters on a page were baffling. As when I was five, sitting in a small room off our kitchen, in our rundown house in North Albany, New York. In this scene I sit as my father reads to me from a book he calls Treasure Island. Most of the book was over my head (I didn’t know what a treasure was, nor an island) but I sat there with my father as he read Stevenson’s Treasure Island aloud in a gruff voice that I had never paid much attention to before. We did this every night before supper for an eon—maybe 30 days. My mother must have pushed him into doing that, as she pushed and pulled me into reading and writing. My father’s name was Jack, and my mother was Helen.

Center Street in North Albany in June and July in 1952 and 53 was the safest, snuggest place in the world. If you went out the front door and down the steps and turned right, you could walk up the gentle hill for about 100 feet and then stand at Broadway where the buses went back and forth. Broadway was called that because it was wider and broader than Center Street—my father had explained all that to me.

I usually hung around my mother downstairs, where we had the kitchen, the living room, the bathroom and the side room. The living room had the low bookcases holding fat grown-up books with broad backs of different colors whose titles faced out into the room; when opened they all smelled interesting, but there were no pictures, only inky marks in rows. I was shocked to see no pictures. It was hard to believe that my mother and father occupied themselves flipping the pages of these bleak items. I remember them in their different chairs holding up books as they read. What they could see in those pages of black marks with no pictures was beyond me.

Upstairs, on most days a quick clacking sound came from the room where my father sat at a desk, typing. The exact connection between the books downstairs and my father’s typing upstairs never hit me. I didn’t know my father was writing; he was just hitting those clacking keys, a highly dignified calling. He was a giant. I did go up from time to time, and look over his shoulder or look across the keyboard to watch him hit the keys that made the black marks show up on the paper he had rolled through the machine. The bell that sounded at the end of each line—followed by that thunk– I knew it was coming but it was always a surprise.

One afternoon when I was probably about six, Helen sat me—or had me kneel up– on a kitchen chair in our kitchen. She set down a black box with chrome latches and a black handle on the oilcloth surface of the table. When she got the box open I was surprised to see a small typewriter. It was just like my father’s, with all the same keys circled in chrome, only shorter, kind of boy-sized.

Every week my mother would do something that would amaze me more. My mother’s skin had the olive tone of a Greek woman. She was more amazing, basically, than the entire outside planet which began at the front door and went on forever. This day, she said, she was going to teach me to type.

She said, “Put your fingers here. You have to hit the key with the finger that is on it. You can’t move your fingers to a different key. You hit the A key with your pinky.”

“It’s hard,” I said. It took great work it took to hit the A key with my left pinky.

“Yes, it’s hard, and you’ll get used to it. Everybody has to do it.”

She put her apron over my hands, with the apron strings splayed out to the left and right.

“If you are going to be a touch typist you can’t see the keys,” she said.

It had not occurred to me that one might not want to see the keys. Why would one not want to see the keys?

“Now, hit A-S-D-F with the fingers I showed you. When I say A, use your pinky to push the A key. And then hit J, K, L and semi.”
She was teaching me A S D F , J K L semi-colon. She was drilling me. It felt great fun and a major honor to be a conducted into the club of men who attacked the typewriter keys. She was helping me learn the skill what my father knew, how to type and how to make the little bell ring.

After some practice with this, we moved to writing. I could read a little by now, simple words. With a pencil she wrote a few words like cat and pat on scrap paper. I typed them for her. It took concentration. To check, I had to roll the paper partly out of the platen. Indeed, I now had the words cat and pat on the paper. She had me change the first letters, and I watched cat turn into pat and then hat and rat and mat. I still remember the word mat specifically, because it was a word I had heard only a few times and it needed explanation. “When you step out of the tub, the towel on the floor is the bath mat.” I was astounded to see how logical mat looked on the page.

The typing lesson occupied just one afternoon. Helen was an inspired, impulsive, sometimes disorganized woman who did not plan ahead, as far as I can remember now, and she did not schedule things in datebooks. No working-class woman in that decade had a datebook. I suspect she was just seized with a bright idea to teach me to type, and she surged into the task and I followed her. She could have said, “Stop pestering me—here, you can play around with this typewriter,” but instead she taught me.

It was an experience of learning and closeness—intimacy.

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In that child world, writing meant punching the keys on the machine and making words show up. When I grew up to the point of getting into college, I found writing took huge amounts of time. In my freshman year I had to write and type a one-page paper every week (with demerits for spilling over onto the second page.) To my astonishment I found that a one-page paper called “The Role of Size in Gulliver’s Travels” took me four hours, an entire Sunday afternoon from 1 until 5 pm.

Today I teach writing to first-year students. Many of these young men and women have a hard time with writing. At least there was reading and books in my home. If you don’t come from a reading and writing family, the effort of writing is especially daunting. It can sting to look around and see that other students already have the writing skill you don’t have yet. They turn in good work, and it sounds good when the teacher reads it. How did they learn how to do that?

I myself have come up against that concrete wall of wanting to learn something, but being stuck, quite a bit, quite often. Some years ago, for example, I was well into my career as a writing instructor and I felt stymied. I could not get students, even those who were trying hard, to make progress fast enough. I was trying to find a new way to teach writing, some way to permanently alter the brains of my writing students so that they never ever wrote badly again, and I couldn’t do it. I did feel confronted by a featureless frustrating wall that I could not climb over and not walk around. The frustration went on for months and it seemed permanent—and then one afternoon, because I was late to class and hadn’t prepared, I started to give direct instruction in active verbs. Something clicked, something unlocked, a light showed in student eyes—and I had a new course.

This book summarizes that new course, which at this point roughly a thousand Boston-area college students have taken over the years. They have been through the concepts, exercises and attempts at humor you’ll find here.

In writing this book, for freshmen and for anyone who wants to write better, I have kept my mother’s kind directness in mind. I learned from her that learning is not hard. I plan to point out to you how writing works, dispelling the mystery for you, the way she demystified the typewriter for me.

Make yourself comfortable at my kitchen table, and we’ll start.

John G. Maguire
307 Market Street, #306
Lowell MA 01852