Wednesday, April 4, 2012


April 4, 2012

Writing fascinates me.  


Except, of course, when it irritates me.

I have writing on the brain.  I think it's because I have graded non-stop since the week after spring break and see little respite on the horizon.  Not all students write badly, but enough do that I'm tempted to despair.

I constantly seek ways to support students' writing.  I start with the obvious:

FD Not Equal FC (First Draft Doesn't Equal Final Copy)--although, admittedly, in blog writing, sometimes it does.

I introduce them to the Seven Dwarfs of Bad Writing:  


I warn them not to pull a Snow White and set up housekeeping with these bad influences.

I give them general advice and specific guidelines.  I point them to writing experts at the University and in the public domain (for instance, Constance Hale on sentences.  She begins, "I like to imagine a sentence as a boat.").

Mainly, I wonder about their previous writing instruction.

Teaching writing is just not held to the same standards as the other two Rs (readin' and 'rithmatic).

Educators attack the process of teaching reading.  We have multiple methods and a huge number of weapons in our arsenal:  phonics, "look & say," language experience, context clues.  Teaching reading is designed to span the entire range of intrinsic capability and interest.  Once a student can read Hop on Pop, teaching doesn't stop.  Even if most of the class is still "sounding it out," other kids move on to chapter books, literature, and discerning reading (which means you figure out that you don't read the newspaper the same way you read your favorite blog or your chemistry text).

Math is much the same. No one expects everyone to learn in the same way or at the same pace.  Students who master basic operations go on to algebra, geometry, and beyond.  Others get more practice on the basics.  Teachers differentiate the curriculum and there is always more to learn for everyone.    

I wonder about writing instruction.  Do instructors meet every student where they are?  Do students who figure out basic sentence structure get channeled into more challenging writing opportunities?  How much effort goes into remediation?  Is there an armada of opportunities to figure out a range of writing skills and strategies?

When I read my students papers, it feels like everyone has had exposure to writing instruction, but at some point (8th grade, maybe?) their writing became frozen in time.  Somebody signals that is good enough (and from my vantage point the bar here is pretty low) and then everyone stops progressing.  So I'm faced with college students and even college graduates who write by formula, who can't discern the appropriate type or style to adopt for any writing opportunity, and who really haven't explored the concept of writing beyond trying to avoid it.  I think that many of my students believe that writing is an innate skill/gift that you either have or you don't, and that if you are a "bad" writer there is no hope and if you are a "good" writer you are a lucky dog and don't need any more instruction. 

That drives me crazy.  They are wrong.  They need to learn and then practice what they learn.

For the record, if you work at it, your first draft could should look like this:



  1. Natalie Goldberg "Writing down the bones"
    This website by a colleague of my dad:
    The craft of editing: A guide for managers, scientists and engineers, Michael Alley
    The craft of scientific writing by Michael Alley
    Writing for the Social Sciences by Howard Becker.
    On writing: A memoir of the craft, by Stephen King.

    Make them read and do exercises from all of the above. That's what my dad would do.

    Oh, and blogging helps to, writing every day or so. That's a Natalie Goldberg thing too. She also has some other books. My dad was a big fan. He also stressed writing abilities with his students.


    1. You are right on all counts. And what matters most? Practice, practice, practice.

  2. I am always in such a rush and I refuse to proofread that if I was in your class you'd have me escorted from campus. I sometimes go back and will read a post and flush with embarrassment from some of the egregious errors that proofreading would have caught - I can only imagine your mental read pen striking my posts with errors left right and center.

    1. Pat,

      I hope I don't give you the creeps like I always feel when I meet a psychologist (are they analyzing me as we speak?). I was really talking about all of my reluctant writers and not my favorite bloggers!