Rethinking College Writing Instruction

Posts Tagged teaching writing

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







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.


On the 70% active verb ratio

(This is an excerpt from the verb chapter of my new book, which is addressed to students: Ten Things Successful College Writers Do Differently.)


Build most of your sentences on active verbs

You’ve no doubt heard of the active verb from prior teachers, but just hearing about it is not nearly enough to be a good writer in college. You have to master it. You have to know the active verb, think about it, turn it over in your hand, taste it like a chocolate melting in your mouth. You’ve got to come to like it.

The verb in the sentence is the engine in the car–the power. You can’t escape its importance. Without an engine, the car goes nowhere, and without a good verb, the sentence won’t move either. Verbs, like other engines, vary greatly in horsepower. Some are like little putt-putts you find on a small lawn mower but others roar like race cars.

Active verbs are the verbs that roar. They matter hugely and you must have them in mind whenever you write or edit. The first four chapters of this book promote some nice-to-know style moves but this chapter is serious as a heart attack.

When you can write with lots of active verbs, you will have moved from the minor leagues to the major leagues of student writing. Learning about verbs takes a little while and more than a little practice. If your writing teacher is a fanatic about active verbs, he or she’s on the right track and you are lucky.


A. What to Do: Write So That 70 per cent of Your Sentences are Active

What does it mean to have 70 per cent of your sentences active? It means that when you count up the number of sentences in your paper, and you go through them one by one to check whether the verb is active or not, you will find an active verb in seven out of every ten sentences. For example, if you wrote a 40-sentence paper, 28 of those sentences would use active verbs. Of if you wrote a 30-sentence paper, 21 of the sentences would have active verbs. If you wrote a 200-sentence chapter of a book that met this standard, 140 of the sentences would be active.

Most teachers don’t talk about active verbs this way. Most of your English teachers in high school advised you to write with active verbs, and perhaps exhorted you pretty strongly, but they didn’t come within ten miles of asking you to maintain certain ratios of active verbs in your writing. To many, the idea sounds pretty whacked.

I’ll explain more about this later, but if you ask me for proof I have it: Highly readable writing is full of active verbs. Consider Shakespeare, Daniel Defoe, Rowling’s Harry Potter books. The active verb wakes up the reader’s mind—again, more on this later—and the non-active verbs, the other kind, put readers to sleep.

[add Examples from Shakespeare, Daniel Defoe, and Harry Potter]

As I write this chapter I am also working on the side as a writing coach for a few high school students. I just now met with a bright 17-year-old senior named Connor and discussed his college application essay. He has ambitions to get into some very good schools so he needs his essay to be good.

“What do you know about active verbs?” I asked him in the study room of our local library which I’d reserved for an hour. “How did your teachers talk about them?” He answered that his teachers had “mentioned them” but “they didn’t make a big deal about them.”

“Boy are they wrong,” I said. “In high school, active verbs are just kind of a nice thing to shoot for. In college writing if you are going to be any good, the you have to master the active verb. It’s crucial.” We looked through his 650-word essay paper and found and circled 22 non-active verbs, far too many. “Not every verb needs to be active, but most of them do,” I said. “I never knew that,” he said. Connor’s at home as I write this, reworking the essay and changing a lot of the verbs so they become active.

By setting a standard of 70 per cent active verbs, we’re imposing a kind of objective order on our writing styles and setting an objective standard for ourselves. You can count active verbs and count sentences and come up with your percentage score, and when you identify and count the active verbs you will get a handle on this very important style variable. The number 70 comes from my experience in the classroom. It’s a little arbitrary (it could have been 60 or 50 per cent). But the point is that a paper with zero active verbs, or 10 or 20 per cent, will be a mess.

I and 10,000 other writing instructors have seen 100,000 vacuous papers whose whole problem was the near complete lack of active verbs. Perhaps the students who write that way had been encouraged to use active verbs when possible, but like Connor had missed the real point (one that all professional writers know): that a high proportion of active verbs is needed for readability.

If a 100-sentence paper should have 60 to 70 active verb sentences, that leaves about 30 per cent of the paper for the lower energy sentences, which are either sentences of being or passive-verb sentences. The first type does just what it says, and the second type focuses on the passivity of someone receiving an action rather than doing it. E.g.:

My front-yard squirrel was a chubby thief of bird-seed from feeders. (being)

The squirrel was flattened by a passing UPS tractor-trailer. (Squirrel is receiving the action.)

Passive sentences and being sentences are certainly useful, and a good, natural style will make sparing use of them, especially when a certain word needs to be the subject of a sentence and the only way to do it is through the passive. “The habitual use of the active voice, however, makes for forcible writing,” says E.B. White in the third edition of his famous Elements of Style, and to show what he means by forcible writing, he contrasts these two sentences.

There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground.
Dead leaves covered the ground.



B. How to achieve the 70 per cent ratio? Identify the verb, decide if it’s active, and change it if needed.

Here’s where the problem comes for students whose grammar is shaky. Identifying the verb is not as easy as easy as identifying a concrete noun with the foot-drop test. With verbs, you have to learn (1) which word or set of words in the sentence is the verb, and (2) what kind of verb it is.

You need to know the type of verb so you can decide whether to change it and how.

This multi-level skill (where is the verb? what kind of verb is it?) may come easy to you or it may take a month. However long it takes, work at learning it. The best way is to jump in and compare them in this chart.

Active verbs show people or objects taking action Verbs of being: existence but not action
Passive verbs are phrases. They show people or objects receiving an action being done by someone else.

He walks
He leaps
She reads
She thinks
The cat moves
The brick falls

To be verbs:
He is
He was
She will be

He was beaten by thugs.
He was fired by Tim.
She will be dipped in chocolate.
The cat was burnt.
The brick will be broken.

Here’s the gist of this chapter: write most of your sentences in the manner of the first group. Frankly, if you just memorize is-are-was-were and cut them out of your writing, that will go a long way toward making you the active-verb writer you have to be.

My band is famous for playing Mozart on steel drums.
My band plays Mozart on steel drums.

Terry is an athlete devoted to swimming in the river every morning.
Terry swims in the river every morning.

The anti-slavery Republican party was the result of the highly popular anti-slavery novel
Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
The anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin played a key role in the rise of the
anti-slavery Republican party.

Active verbs can exist in any time frame They don’t need to be in the present.

My band will play Mozart serenades for the head of Parliament. (Future tense.)
Terry has swum in the river every morning since 2014. (Perfect tense.)

When you are trying to write a draft with active verbs, if a complete sentence doesn’t come to mind, just aim for two words. Squirrel ran. Terry swims. Birds fly. Trees sway. Jim pondered. Lincoln planned. Once you have the two words, the full sentence will come to mind easily.

Do not make the beginner’s mistake of thinking that the actor has to be a person. The actor can be anything—sidewalk or shoe or revolution or style.

Near midnight the wet sidewalks reflected the red neon bar signs.
The cannons pounded Fort Sumter throughout the night.
The American Revolution drew aristocratic volunteers from France.
The Baroque style of painting spread across Northern Europe in the 1640s.

C. Why Active Verbs Intrigue Us

It’s because we are alive that action intrigues us. Life itself is intrigued with action. Creatures from elephants down to mice must for the sake of survival be riveted to action in the environment. Like all animals, we scan the environment for action and movement–because something moving could be a threat, or a friend, or something to eat. So when language began to arise among pre-human communities long ago, and conversations went on around campfires, movement and action must have had expressions in sound. If specific movements were expressed by specific sounds, then they were what we now call active verbs.

Active verbs alert us, the way a something moving in the corner of our vision alerts us, forces a turning of the head. Such verbs intrigue us, wake us up, make us feel smarter, make us be smarter. Nature or God has created many visual species, or let them survive, and now after millions of years there is one species called human that speaks aloud, and it’s completely logical that the key sounds he makes are those conveying actions.

(Start or follow discussions on facebook/readable writing.)

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