A Wakeup Call on Writing Instruction

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morriswalters
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A Wakeup Call on Writing Instruction

Postby morriswalters » Wed Aug 02, 2017 1:31 pm UTC

I found this article on the New York Times. The content is thought provoking for me.

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Re: A Wakeup Call on Writing Instruction

Postby Prefanity » Wed Aug 02, 2017 11:00 pm UTC

Since I've spent the last four years working at a university writing center, I am admittedly not the target audience for this article, and as a result I didn't find the reportage too awakening. I recoiled at the alarmist title—surely incorrigible SMSers can write in that genre—but teachers working under the yoke of writing instruction (at all levels) need appropriate training, and they rarely receive this training. That said, I think we too often consider "writing" as if it were a monolith; the article discusses timed writing, college application essays, and poetry almost as if gaining expertise in one genre will produce expertise in the others. Therefore, the writing instruction discussed may be further improved with some focus on audience, purpose, genre, etc. because producing timed writing for a standardized test is a far different task than writing poetry or a college application essay. Granted, similar instruction may not be as viable with students. I had a heuristic a researcher at another writing center developed that I thought would be relevant here, but I can't find it in my bombed out office. It asked questions of the writer to assess genre, purpose, and audience.

KnightExemplar
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Re: A Wakeup Call on Writing Instruction

Postby KnightExemplar » Wed Aug 02, 2017 11:46 pm UTC

I have had only two great writing teachers in my lifetime: My high-school journalism teacher, and my 3rd year College "Technical Writing" teacher.

And to make sure yall understand: my sister has a different story. She took creative writing through High School as well as took part in a "creative writing house" in her college years. So I am well aware that there are many paths to learning about writing. Take my anecdote as purely that: an anecdote into my personal experience on learning how to write.

In my personal case: writing is a directed, goal-driven task of communication. You write a journalism story to tell people what is going on in the world. You write technical documents to teach the next line of engineers how stuff works. As such, writing for me is a meticulous process where you refine your words to make them less and less ambiguous. Finally, writing to pass a test is also a goal-driven task of simply memorizing the public rubric, and meticulously hitting each bullet-point so that the test-graders can make "check-marks" as quickly as possible and maximize your score.

I do realize that a lot of teachers out there want writing to be a creative activity. But a laser-focused attempt on the shared, unambiguous, objective truths of writing is highly effective. At the end of the day, "practical writing" is about stating as much information, in the fewest words, with the least number of alternative interpretations.

There can be a lot of discussion and elaboration with the proper theory here. There's the classical principles of Logos, Ethos, and Pathos. The pace of a paragraph can be manipulated with the passive voice. And that voice which alternates between active and passive can drive a point home. Alliteration always attracts attention. Succinct sentences help too. A change to the flowery verbosity and wordiness can make writing more fun, but often times it is distracting and unfocused.

For me, writing is an objective set of skills that can be trained. But very few people seem to know the secret.
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morriswalters
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Re: A Wakeup Call on Writing Instruction

Postby morriswalters » Thu Aug 03, 2017 5:16 pm UTC

KnightExemplar wrote:At the end of the day, "practical writing" is about stating as much information, in the fewest words, with the least number of alternative interpretations.
We share at least one point of commonality. I wish I were better at it.

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trpmb6
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Re: A Wakeup Call on Writing Instruction

Postby trpmb6 » Thu Aug 03, 2017 6:15 pm UTC

morriswalters wrote:
KnightExemplar wrote:At the end of the day, "practical writing" is about stating as much information, in the fewest words, with the least number of alternative interpretations.
We share at least one point of commonality. I wish I were better at it.


I also took a Technical Writing class (With specific emphasis towards engineering students) because I was required to do so to complete my degree. I would say, behind Statics and Mechanics of Materials it was the most important class I took. KE said it exactly right, at least from my stand point as an Engineer while writing technical reports: the goal is to state as much information, in the fewest words, with the least amount of ambiguity. In fact. Our professor taught us that if you can eliminate even one sentence with a simple graphic, you should do so. And if it takes you a good amount of text to explain your graphic you didn't make your graphic correctly (whether it be a graph or some other picture).

I took first place in my university's research conference that year; due in large part to his instruction.

Now I find myself doing consulting work for a new startup company full of kids at least 10 years younger than me and am horrified by the amount of "fluff" they put in their reports. Just finished reviewing an 800 page document for them last week that could have easily been 400 pages. Hard for me to complain though since they pay me an hourly rate to review their stuff. That's on them (to be clear, I did inform them of the excessive amount of fluff...).

Edit:
This also reminds me of the time a close friend of mine told us about the curriculum her school administration was pushing down on her class (elementary level grade level). She was told they would stop spelling lessons and administering spelling tests because (and I quote nearly verbatim) "the advent of the computer and the constant access to a spell checker makes spelling lessons obsolete."
She rebelled and taught spelling anyways. She got caught because a parent (whose kid was doing poorly on the spelling tests) complained to the administration about it. So she no longer gives "graded" tests but the results at least help her guide her lessons still.

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Re: A Wakeup Call on Writing Instruction

Postby ObsessoMom » Sat Aug 05, 2017 5:12 pm UTC

A good writing teacher helps students develop skills on BOTH the analytical side and the imaginative side. Each of these makes the other more effective. Disparaging and neglecting either aspect of writing education as "less important" is a bad idea, if the goal is to help students become successful communicators.

[Edited to add: Yes, even technical writing requires creativity, in order to convey an idea to a particular audience in the best possible way.]

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Re: A Wakeup Call on Writing Instruction

Postby KnightExemplar » Sun Aug 06, 2017 5:40 pm UTC

ObsessoMom wrote:A good writing teacher helps students develop skills on BOTH the analytical side and the imaginative side. Each of these makes the other more effective. Disparaging and neglecting either aspect of writing education as "less important" is a bad idea, if the goal is to help students become successful communicators.

[Edited to add: Yes, even technical writing requires creativity, in order to convey an idea to a particular audience in the best possible way.]


The main problem with creative writing is that its innately unstructured. You can break any rules of grammar to emphasize a point or create tension. (One particular example is to create a parenthetical expression, but never close out of it. Can you feel the tension?

Sentence Fragments, poorly written. Broken English but communication of point exists.

You can expose students to a variety of creative writing "techniques", but they all come down to "practice practice practice" and "break more rules". In contrast: the nature of technical writing and journalism is structure. And structure is easily taught. Structured drawing (ie: perspective, line art, negative spaces, shading) is easily taught. But the unstructured artistic parts of drawing (such as composition) are not very easily taught. So naturally, most art schools start with the "structure" of drawing. Working with perspective and the raw mechanics of moving a pencil around on paper.

Even in "art", certain elements of art are far more structured and more suited for teaching than other subjects. Writing is the same way. I'm not sure if creative writing can be taught outside of forcing students to write a ton and share material with each other.
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Re: A Wakeup Call on Writing Instruction

Postby Liri » Sun Aug 06, 2017 5:51 pm UTC

With creative writing though, still, there's the "learn the rules before you break them" dealio.
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Re: A Wakeup Call on Writing Instruction

Postby sardia » Sun Aug 06, 2017 6:13 pm UTC

Liri wrote:With creative writing though, still, there's the "learn the rules before you break them" dealio.

I dunno, the article sounds snooty.

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Prefanity
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Re: A Wakeup Call on Writing Instruction

Postby Prefanity » Sun Aug 06, 2017 7:52 pm UTC

KnightExemplar wrote:
ObsessoMom wrote:A good writing teacher helps students develop skills on BOTH the analytical side and the imaginative side. Each of these makes the other more effective. Disparaging and neglecting either aspect of writing education as "less important" is a bad idea, if the goal is to help students become successful communicators.

[Edited to add: Yes, even technical writing requires creativity, in order to convey an idea to a particular audience in the best possible way.]


The main problem with creative writing is that its innately unstructured. You can break any rules of grammar to emphasize a point or create tension. (One particular example is to create a parenthetical expression, but never close out of it. Can you feel the tension?

Sentence Fragments, poorly written. Broken English but communication of point exists.

You can expose students to a variety of creative writing "techniques", but they all come down to "practice practice practice" and "break more rules". In contrast: the nature of technical writing and journalism is structure. And structure is easily taught. Structured drawing (ie: perspective, line art, negative spaces, shading) is easily taught. But the unstructured artistic parts of drawing (such as composition) are not very easily taught. So naturally, most art schools start with the "structure" of drawing. Working with perspective and the raw mechanics of moving a pencil around on paper.

Even in "art", certain elements of art are far more structured and more suited for teaching than other subjects. Writing is the same way. I'm not sure if creative writing can be taught outside of forcing students to write a ton and share material with each other.


Much creative writing still relies on narrative though, which means it's typically structured. True, even if a writer is consciously using Freitag's Pyramid or Janet Burroway's inverted check mark model (or another narrative structure), their adherence to that structure is going to be far looser than it would be if they were doing some technical writing using, say, the IMRD model commonly found in science writing; but that structure isn't inherent to science writing anymore than the pyramid or the check marks are inherent to narrative.

Structure itself is probably inherent, but the structure of a piece of writing is dependent on the relevant discourse community that produces and consumes the writing. Some discourse communities favor strict adherence to structure more than others, and sometimes the preferred structures will change as the community does, as we've seen with how quickly journalism has changed over the last ten years.

The old adage of learning the rules before breaking them boils down to knowing your discourse community before you challenge their expectations.

I agree that teaching structures is easy, but when we teach a structure, we've taught the student to focus on form over audience and purpose. This method is expedient, but it doesn't allow for much student growth, since a five-paragraph essay isn't what students write in their science classes anymore than creative workshop students use the IMRD paper. We can see this issue play out in universities as STEM departments complain that the core writing curricula doesn't adequately prepare students for the specific writing those departments expect.

Unfortunately, training students to assess audience and purpose is a harder task; and this task may even be a bit misguided with students who care more about learning the structures they need for their majors than about becoming better writers in the abstract.

At the core writing level, I think the best solution is to teach structures that correspond to the common degrees students are pursuing while also training students to perform rhetorical analyses on each new structure to get them thinking about audience and purpose. This requires a core writing instructor to have rhetorical knowledge beyond their own field, and I don't know many professors who can claim that. However, I think such an endeavor is feasible, provided the department curriculum allows for some play.

However, I don't know if high school students are ready for similar instruction.


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