John Warner talks sense about how to teach writing

Finally, I found a writing teacher in higher education whose philosophy about teaching writing matches mine. But we still need to align how we teach writing with how people actually use it at work.

John Warner teachers writing at the College of Charleston in South Carolina. In his piece “We Know How To Teach Writing” for Inside Higher Ed, he writes this:

I think I can generate a list of statements regarding the teaching of writing that the vast majority of those in the rhetoric-composition and writing instruction field will agree with:

  • The more reading and writing we do, the better.
  • Writing is best taught as a recursive process which includes (but isn’t necessarily limited to) pre-writing, drafting, revision and editing.
  • Writing should engage with the rhetorical situation: message, audience, purpose and genre.
  • Reflection and metacognition are key ingredients to developing as a writer.
  • Isolated exercises in grammar and mechanics that don’t engage with the students’ own writing are not helpful.
  • Sentence diagramming is not an important skill for good writing.
  • Peer response and collaboration are useful tools in helping developing writers
  • Writers write best when engaging with subjects they are both interested in and knowledgeable about.
  • Developing as a writer requires a mind-set where we seek to increase our expertise without ever declaring ourselves expert. (There is always more to learn.)
  • Writing itself is an act of thinking that allows for discovery while writing. In other words, the ultimate message is constructed through the act of writing, as opposed to being fully formed prior to starting to write.
  • Developing writers benefit from close one-on-one instruction from an experienced mentor.

I agree with every one of these points.

If writing teachers agree on these principles, why does higher ed churn out so many bad writers — writers who are ill suited to the demands of writing in the business world? Why does the average respondent in my survey from last year rate the effectiveness of what they read as 5.4 on a 10-point scale? Why do 81% say that poorly written material wastes a lot of their time?

Simply put:

  • There is not time in business for Warner’s recursive process. But there ought to be.
  • The rhetorical situation, as Warner would call it, in business calls for short, direct, clear communication. Students don’t learn to write for that situation.
  • Peer response and collaboration in class devolve into an inefficient review process at work. It’s not the same organized process that it was at school.
  • Writers might find a writing mentor in college, but they have a lot harder time finding an editor who has the time to help them at work.

Things are getting worse at college, not better. Instructors don’t have time to do justice to Warner’s principles. Writing is something to get out of the way freshman year, after which students write long academic papers unlike anything they’ll create at work.

But things are getting worse in companies, too.

I’d like to see a rapprochement between the two approaches. I’m not hopeful.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


  1. Sensible article by Warner, but should we be concerned about his burying of the lede? It’s the last sentence!

    Lede: “The state of writing instruction says much more about what we value, or don’t value, as the case may be, than what we know about teaching writing, which is a lot.”

    Or concerned that the lede is poorly written? It would be better written as “The state of writing instruction reflects our values, not how to teach writing.” It would be best to lead off the article.

  2. Writing courses in North American universities exist to justify the budget and existence of an English department where they’re isolated, despite research showing the only long-term outcome gain in student literacy skills (four years after graduation) comes from the alignment of writing/literacy instruction tasks and goals across the disciplines for all four years.

    Further, within the discipline of English, these writing courses are low-status, stigmatized work for an exploited class of precarious, contingent labour. Often the teachers are people with PhDs (or at least MAs) teaching 4-6 courses a semester for $2000-3000/course (USD). Some are part-time, but many are not.

    70-80% of all teaching faculty in the US and Canada fall into this non-tenured, non-tenurable class.

    Warner, to his credit, identifies the staffing of classes of 20-30+ students with migratory permatemps as a matter of gross injustice and “educational malpractice.”

    Given these structural conditions, it’s unsurprising that within a single writing program (if one has been organized as such), there is often little to no oversight, little to no meaningful evaluation, and little to no standardization of course content. Add to this the fact that many, maybe most English PhDs are given little to no serious instruction in how to teach but are thrown into it as Teaching Assistants and well aware that these courses are generally despised and considered worthless to their professional advancement. (Historically, college writing courses came about to cope with the influx of under-prepared students once universities no longer catered exclusively to elites. They were a convenient place to put female faculty when women began earning PhDs.)

    Writing course goals may be nominally aligned to program objectives that are subjected to some type of periodic assessment, probably quite a subjective and even arbitrary measure. There’s not a lot of affection or belief in scientific measures of an “art” like writing in the arts and sciences, so many a humanist lets himself off the hook for learning some math and social science skills in order to measure teaching effectiveness. It’s so much easier to insist that learning is the student’s responsibility. This is still very much the European (especially the French) approach where very high dropout rates are normal.

    Motivated immersion in reading, writing, and debate with smart, well-read people can be a wonderful, traditional college experience, but few students can afford the time and attention it takes, and not many schools even try to provide a Socratic approach outside of a few “great books” programs. The rare “great books” college, like St. Johns, is essentially providing a full four-year reading, writing, and speaking program — what used to bee considered elite education.