How we really should teach writing

teach writingHere’s a radical idea. Let’s teach high school and college students to write stuff that they’ll actually need to write in life or in an office: emails, blog posts, social media posts, marketing copy, research reports, and presentations.

Take time from analyzing Plato, Great Expectations and Catcher in the Rye and spend it instead analyzing great non-fiction writers like Mary Roach, Malcolm Gladwell, Michael Pollan, and Isaac Asimov. When you read vivid narrative written in active voice, you write that way, too.

Immerse students in Seth’s blog and Guy Kawasaki, then assign them to write their own practical, how-to blog posts. Have fellow students attempt to follow the instructions, and comment on the posts based on whether they succeeded.

Tweet for a week. Practice short, grammatically correct, practical tweets with links to promote a cause. See if they can get their school interested in diabetes prevention, global warming, or diversity and tolerance in 140 characters or less. Include videos or animated GIFs, too.

Assign students to write emails that accomplish something. Write the mayor about changing police procedure, or write a local celebrity to request an interview. Earn more credit by getting a response, not just writing well.

Require students not just to research, but to edit Wikipedia based on the results.

For longer pieces, students must prepare with fleshed-out “fat outlines” or “treatments,” not sterile outlines that prepare you for nothing. Train on clever Google research tricks. Write final documents with embedded links along with citations.

Turn in all assignments electronically. Grade them with redlines in MS Word or Google Docs, the way it really works in an office.

When I was hiring, I would have paid a lot more for students trained this way. Why aren’t we teaching this way? (If anybody reading this is actually teaching this way, please tell us about it.)

In case you think this is impossible: I’ve already taught this class once. My teen students ate this stuff up. ( I’m running it again this summer and I’d love to have your teenager this year — sign ’em up.)

A conversation with my son Issi inspired this post.

Photo: Pete Forsyth demonstrating Wikipedia use by Ellis Christopher from Wikimedia Commons

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  1. I like the theory, but I still think students should study the classics. I think many of the current writers (some that you mentioned above) won’t stand the test of time. Their writing is fine, but their science isn’t sound.

    But I agree that if the output resemble the work product they will be required to produce it would be more beneficial. In my work life, I have never had to write a 10-15 page report, double-spaced with 12-point Times Roman type.

      1. I respectfully disagree. Teaching a practical writing course in upper levels may be hugely beneficial, but there is a huge need and place in this world for the Jane Austens. How dreary a world it would be if we all wrote like automatons.

        1. “Teaching a practical writing course in upper levels” . . . I want to teach practical writing in EVERY level. Sorry, but I believe Jane Austen is an elective, and practical writing is a requirement.

          It is a dreary world, and the reason is it’s filled with writing from people who never got the right training. Jane Austen is there for anyone who wants to read her. But the guy who writes the horrible copy on the average Web site is the one polluting my world right now.

  2. Josh, I’d love for Ellie (12) to take your course when she’s old enough. Think you’ll be able to offer it remotely by then?

  3. But by the same argument, would you also teach people to write like lawyers? If they want a career in legal that’s going to be more useful to them than the ability to tweet or have a celeb agree to an interview.

    Or teach them to write insurance policies? Or technical manuals for Boeing? Or owner handbooks for Ford? Contracts of employment? Contracts in general? Application forms for bank accounts? Credit card terms and conditions?

    There’s a lot of writing out there that isn’t blog posts, tweets and marketing copy. It might not be particularly good. But it is necessary.

    Why not simply teach high-school and college students to write well? Good writing is good writing. It doesn’t matter if it’s a legal contract or a screenplay for a short story.

    Learn from the sciences. Teach people the generics and all of a sudden the specifics take care of themselves.

    “Jane Austen is there for anyone who wants to read her. But the guy who writes the horrible copy on the average Web site is the one polluting my world right now.”

    Aren’t you answering your own objection there?

    1. Good arguments, Steve. They made me think. Here’s my response.

      The lawyer, manual writer, and owners’ guide writer all need to learn to express themselves powerfully, precisely, logically, and briefly. They all need to learn to do research, edit, receive edits, and rewrite. They all must plan and do outlines.

      Blogging includes how-tos. Tweeting isn’t always marketing, it’s also customer service. Research skills help prepare you to write almost anything you’re going to have write in the real world.

      If we teach the lawyers and manual writers of tomorrow to express themselves well and write for the screens of computers, phones, and dashboard displays, all of us readers will be better off.

      1. So do we simply want to teach everyone to write better Josh? Regardless of the medium.

        We want authors who can use words and structure to write more engaging novels. We want screenplay writers who can convey thoughts, stories and emotions with nary the need for the movie that sits alongside their script.

        But at the same time we want the Boeing engineers who write the service manual for the 787 to write with authority and without ambiguity.

        And we want the people who write the GUI for our dashboards to rewrite and rewrite so many times that they agonise over every single word.

        Does everything come back to simply wanting everyone who writes to be better at it? Tweets, blogs, legal pleadings and all.

        1. I have no interest in improving novelists. We have plenty of them.

          I want people who write non-fiction to write better. That’s what my plan is intended to do.

          Your comment implies that “write better” is some abstract thing. “Write better” means writing clearly, briefly, and powerfully, with an audience and a purpose in mind.

          I believe what I have suggested in this post will train people how to do that. Better emails, better manuals, better everything.

    2. No. “Good writing [isn’t just] good writing.” Good writing accomplishes its purpose and attends to its audience. THAT’S what we should be teaching. And at every level. Good website text is very differently written than, say, good student writing about Jane Austen or good corporate marketing text.

      Josh: I DO teach my college students to write the very way you suggest. And I completely agree with your premise that students must learn precision and concision. But I find that those who were exposed to Jane Austen and struggled with Plato during their high school years are better writers, primarily because they are the better thinkers (and, probably by extension, the better readers).

      When I teach persuasive writing and research techniques to first year writers, I’m also teaching logos, pathos, ethos, kairos (Aristotle) and claims and warrants (Toulmin), etc. It’s really the nature of assignments that need to change so that our students are ready not only for college/grad school writing but also workplace writing. That’s why I use Letters to the Editors, PSA assignments, Websites and blog posts, Pecha Kuchas and Meographs, Slams, and tandem and collaborative writing.

      My business writing students write micro bios for their LinkedIn pages, employment rejection letters, policy change announcements, and emails in response to customer complaints. But those students already have experienced a rigorous curriculum in rhetoric. And they think differently than most college writers because of it.

      1. Thank you for saying this. I’m glad I cruised the comments before posting my own.

        I will only add that, while this is a fairly easy sell to students, it is a difficult sell to parents who are anticipating either worksheets (shudder) or the same canon they read in school.

        The worksheet contingent is the worst since they are looking for objectivity in grading. Rubrics are too subjective to suit their needs. English, and especially writing, is just not the sort of activity where “the bridge fell down, you fail” can be used as a measure of success or growth.

        You have to persuade more than teachers of your practical ways.

    3. Thank you! Good writing is good writing. Good research is good research. A clear, concise, evidenced argument /narrative can be written in many styles. Giving students the opportunity to stretch themselves and reapply ideas in different forms is what students need and get from taking a variety of courses over their college career. Most colleges are not solely ‘professional practice’, but are, and should be, a place to learn how to think, experiment, synthesize and apply their knowledge in a variety of ways. This prepares them for a rapidly changing world. When they engage with the world, they can apply these lessons at will. Universities prepare them for the world, but they cannot be formulaic about that preparation. Don’t forget, practice, practice, practice.

  4. Josh,
    Good ideas here, and I agree that students should master the forms writers actually use. David Carr makes this case better than anyone, and his course syllabus, Press Play, is a masterwork:

    But good writing is the product of critical thinking. Parse the finest critical thinkers and writers, test their ideas intellectually, and construct a persuasive argument about those ideas. Students must apprentice themselves to the greats, follow their thought patterns, and then construct original thought patterns on that scaffold.

    Let’s not argue fiction or non. Start with George Orwell.

    1. George Orwell is a great essayist. By all means, let’s study him along with the other authors I suggested.

      I still think reading non-fiction is a better way to learn about writing non-fiction than writing fiction.

      I think teachers assign fiction for two reasons: 1) they are English majors trained in lit crit and 2) they think students like fiction.

      But when my students read Mary Roach’s hilarious and personal description of how plastic surgeons in training practice on cadaver heads, they were in love. One insisted on borrowing the whole book to read it.

      Great non-fiction is at least as entertaining as great fiction, and more relevant.

      Write like George Orwell, Mary Roach, Isaac Asimov. Please don’t write like James Joyce or Emily Bronte. At least, not when you’re sending me an email.

  5. What are we educating for?

    I do not want our command of the English language is to be reduced to emails, tweets and social media posts. You can’t present Dickens and Shakespeare and Twain in power point slides.

  6. After reading the post and the comments, my two cents is a healthy dose of both.

    Our kids should read the classics—as many and as wide a variety as possible— and they should learn to write creatively about things they imagine could be.

    And they should learn how to write copy that’s clear, compelling and convincing.

    Now that I think about it, both forms should be clear, compelling and convincing, but let’s give our kids both sides of the coin. Both are important.

  7. Great suggestions! I just finished teaching a course for first-year students and their final assignment was to create a blog post for our course website, with embedded media and linked sources. It was a first for most of them, and now they know how to use WordPress.

  8. Love this post and the comments. How about teaching the art of explanation (especially about complex, systemic problems)? Teach ways to frame an issue. Bring back the art of debate and ask students to present a case in writing from various perspectives.

    By the way, where do lawyers and manual writers “learn” to write the way they do?