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.


One response to “John Warner talks sense about how to teach writing

  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.

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