Rethinking College Writing Instruction

Why writing teachers should not tell students to “have good ideas.”

This phrase jumped out at me this morning:  “wrong classifiers.”  I saw it in a blog about politics–but it relates to writing instruction. Here’s the original:

“My guess is the global world order proved so fragile because it was organized around the wrong classifiers. Moreover, these classifiers were ideologically static so errors even when detected were ignored.”

“Wrong classifier” is another way of saying “wrong category.”  When you use the wrong categories, which means categories that don’t match reality well enough, you get into trouble.

Today’s writing teachers often use the wrong classifiers. They talk about “having good ideas” and “writing a good thesis sentence” and using “transitions.” While these categories have some meaning, they are the wrong categories to teach writing with.

Telling a student in writing to “have good ideas” is like telling a student golfer to “swing like Tiger Woods.” To restate it, swinging like Tiger Woods is a good thing, but “the Tiger Woods swing” is the wrong classifier to use when teaching.

The good teacher uses categories that are meaningful to the absolute beginner. He or she does not use categories that are meaningful only to the expert. Having good ideas is something you understand only after a lot of experience as a writer.

Readable Writing had its origin in my search for categories that beginners can use. That’s why we start with the concrete noun—something you can drop on your foot. Because it’s physically rooted and because everyone has a foot, “concrete noun” is a useful classifier.

Out of the blooming and buzzing confusion that writing is for the rank beginner, something solid emerges that can be used: the concrete noun. The beginner grasps it and begins playing with it, and soon he is writing with enjoyment.

You remember Mr. Miyagi, who started teaching his young karate pupil to do karate moves with a classifier the kid could understand, “Wax on, wax off.” All serious teachers meet their students where they are, with classifiers they can use immediately, and that’s what we do in Readable Writing.

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