Rethinking College Writing Instruction

What’s the idea here?

The idea here is simple, so simple that I am amazed that others haven’t seen it before. But human nature is strange. Obvious things—say, the sphericity of the earth—can go unnoticed for centuries.

The simple idea is that students can learn to write if (1) there is a clear goal, and (2) a clear sequence of skills can be laid out, introduced, and practiced until they are second nature.

1. Clear goal. This requires the setting of the clear goal, and decisions about what the habits will be. The clear goal is this: readability. Writing is readable only if it is easy to read, clear and interesting. This method is built on one goal: getting students to write stuff that’s easy to read, clear and interesting.

You might question that last word interesting. You might wonder if it’s possible to train students to be interesting. It seems unlikely. And yet you are mistaken. It’s quite possible to train students to write in a way that is interesting.

2. Sequence of skills. This course has two levels. On the first level, students learn to do certain things with their sentences that produce easy reading, clarity and interest. The five skills of the first level are: writing with concrete nouns, writing with characters, writing with active verbs, adjusting sentence length consciously, and using short words.   This level takes eight weeks, or about 24 class sessions.

On the second level, students learn to combine their now well-written sentences into short essays that give the reader a smooth ride from first word to last. The five skills of the second level are: titles, first paragraphs, forecast sentences, body organization with tags, and coherent ending. This level takes six weeks, or about 18 class sessions.

The course works better than the standard Writing 1 courses because it teaches only a few things, and repeats the instruction and practice until the new skills are solid. The first level of the course teaches only five skills. The second level teaches only five skills. By the end of the course, the students are doing all ten writing skills more or less at once.  And with these ten skills consciously practiced and available, they know how to improve their own crappy fist drafts.







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