Going beyond a Washington Post academic’s prescription for college writing teachers

Photo: Trinity College, Dublin, via Wikimedia Commons

Jeffrey Selingo wrote a piece called “Why can’t college graduates write coherent prose?” for the Washington Post. He’s right to require more practice, but ignores the need to practice writing that’s appropriate for a screen.

Lots of college students can’t write

I know. I’ve hired or mentored many of them. Writing skills are spotty and in-demand. Selingo cites this evidence:

According to national surveys, employers want to hire college graduates who can write coherently, think creatively and analyze quantitative data. But the Conference Board has found in its surveys of corporate hiring leaders that writing skill is one of the biggest gaps in workplace readiness.

That’s why so many employers now explicitly ask for writing and communications skills in their job advertisements. An analysis by Burning Glass Technologies, which studies job trends in real time by mining data from employment ads, found that writing and communications are the most requested job requirements across nearly every industry, even fields such as information technology and engineering.

I mistrust mushy statements like “according to national surveys.” But follow the first link and you see that in Hart Associates’ 2014 survey of senior executives at 400 employers, 82% of them described “The ability to effectively communicate in writing” as very important (8, 9, or 10 on a 10-point scale). There’s no question that there’s a problem here; just ask any hiring manager.

Selingo thinks reviewing and editing drafts will cure students’ writing problems

As Selingo points out:

Good writing takes practice, and it seems that many college students, especially outside of writing-intensive liberal arts majors, are just not being asked to write often enough. In their book “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses,” sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa described a study that tracked more than 2,000 students at four-year colleges. Among those who graduated on time, exactly half said they took five or fewer courses that required at least 20 pages of writing.

So here’s what he suggests to fix things (these are excerpts)

  • Writing takes time, in preparation and in actually writing. . . .“Too often students let their brain spill onto a page, and then they submit their masterpiece,” said Leslie Nicholas, my high school journalism teacher and a former teacher of the year in Pennsylvania. “They need to learn that the writing process is not linear” and includes pre-writing, drafting, revising, editing and sharing, with components of that process repeated often. . . .  too much writing instruction in schools encourages writing on the fly by requiring students to compose essays during class time or to submit only final papers rather than drafts along the way.
  • Editing is part of the writing process. One problem with a single deadline for writing projects is that it doesn’t introduce students to the idea that self-editing is a critical part of good writing. . . . [A]fter each draft, students should print out what they’ve written, wait a while — maybe an hour or a day — to view it with fresh eyes and edit it on the printed page.
  • Writing is not a solitary experience. The best writers learn from others. Without sharing multiple drafts of their writing with anyone else, students never get the chance to apply feedback to improve their work. . . . Feedback shouldn’t just come from teachers, but also from peers. Many of the best writing teachers use the “workshop method” in their classes where students exchange drafts to critique.

This is one good idea repeated three times: plan, submit drafts, get edits. The challenge is that this is labor-intensive. To make it work, colleges would need to pay English composition teachers enough (and keep class sizes small enough) that they could edit and provide feedback on drafts. As helpful as peer editing is, students will make more progress when a professional edits their work in progress.

And while that may help with English composition, it’s not going to help in the rest of the writing intensive classes. Who’s going to edit the drafts of your papers in history, sociology, or science? The obvious answer is “research assistants,” but those studying for graduate degrees are skilled in their fields, not in writing. Perhaps universities should hire some writing assistants to review drafts in college classes, or require students to get their content reviewed by experts in a writing center.

Students should practice writing in the formats that matter

Selingo doesn’t go far enough. Writing in the working world doesn’t mean “writing papers.” To actually prepare students, here’s what colleges should do:

  • Practice writing in screen formats. That means blogs, emails, social media posts, and tweets, and even PowerPoint decks. That’s what new graduates will actually be writing in the workplace, so they should practice in those formats. Because they’re short, students can whip off a bunch of them quickly, and teachers can edit them quickly as well, creating a rapid feedback loop that will accelerate learning.
  • Demand varied elements, not just paragraphs. College papers are made of paragraphs. Workplace writing isn’t. Break students of the paper-focused habits they learned in high school. Have them write with executive summaries, headings, bullets, and graphics. Grade skimmability, not just raw prose.
  • Create major-focused writing classes. Business writing is a common class. Writing for scientists should be, too. Pre-meds should have their own writing class; pre-laws need a firm foundation to counter all the bullshit writing they’re going to encounter in their future studies. It may be efficient to have one set of writing classes for everybody, but it’s more effective to teach people how to write for their specialty.
  • No more literary criticism. Don’t study Dickens. Study Malcolm Gladwell and Peter Drucker. The way to learn non-fiction writing is to critique practical non-fiction writing.

If only there were a textbook for such classes . . . if you’re a professor, check out “Writing Without Bullshit.” If you require it, I’ll Skype into your class and answer your students questions.

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  1. “No more literary criticism. Don’t study Dickens. Study Malcolm Gladwell and Peter Drucker.”

    Not sure I agree. Better advice, I think, comes from Faulkner. On April 16, 1947, he led a Q & A session in the English department’s creative writing course at Ole Miss. During the session, a student asked him, “What is the best training for writing?”

    Faulkner advised, “Read, read, read! Read everything—trash, classics, good and bad; see how they do it. When a carpenter learns his trade, he does so by observing. Read! You’ll absorb it. Write. If it is good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out the window.”

  2. Josh, I need a little help. Every so often I’ll run across a sentence I just don’t understand. It happened today with one of yours, “He’s right to require more practice, but ignores the need to practice writing that’s appropriate for a screen.” I’ll probably feel like an idiot when you explain what “that’s appropriate for a screen.” means, but I have to ask.
    Thanks, Tom

    1. It might have been clearer if I wrote “that’s more appropriate for people who read text on screens.” We write for print traditionally, but now read on monitors, tablets, and smartphone screens.

      1. Well, I was right. I do feel like an idiot. I read your sentence many times and not once did I think that “screen” meant a display device. I thought you were referring to some sort of filter, sieve or mesh. Doh! Thanks for clarifying it for me. Tom