Teaching and Training

“Can such principles be taught? Maybe not.

But most of them can be learned.”

William Zinsser, On Writing Well

It’s rare for people to say they don’t know how to run. They may admit to being out of shape, or just lazy, but they will not say that what is getting in the way of their running is a lack of knowledge. They know how to do it and, in so far as they are not good at it, they know what to do about it. You put one foot in front of the other.

When people say they don’t know how to write I try to get them around to that way of thinking too. They may write less well than they’d like, I suggest, but they know how to do it. I tell them to pick a topic they know something about, then to pick a single thing that they know about it. (If they can’t do this then writing isn’t their problem.) I tell them to write a sentence that expresses that idea and to make a plan to spend 18 or 27 minutes the next day writing at least six sentences and at most 200 words about it. In effect, I tell them to put on their running shoes and get at it.

Once they’re doing this regularly we can talk about technique. But there’s not a whole lot to say, actually. Many writers find that simply working in discrete, focused writing moments shows them what they need to be doing better. They also feel themselves becoming stronger writers. They are getting their prose into shape. I can look at their work and suggest simple things to try, but most of their improvement is in their own hands. Every day they find a little more of their voice, they become a little more aware of their options as writers.

When people say that “writing can’t be taught but it can be learned” this is what they mean. They mean that no amount of instruction in either the rules of grammar or the rules of genre will make you a better writer if you’re not actually writing.

By “actually writing” I mean putting words on the page with the intention of communicating them to someone else, and in an academic setting this means writing down what you know for the purpose of discussing it with other knowledgeable people. To train this ability, teachers must get their students to write for the other students in their class about what they are learning together. They must try to explain what they think about the material to their peers, i.e., people who are looking at the same material in more or less the same way. Everything the teacher is telling them about style and grammar is directed at making them better able to do this.

What the students are learning how to do is really to expose their ideas to criticism, they are making themselves corrigible. They are putting what they think in terms that other people who are thinking about the same things at the same level can understand. If there are disagreements they can now be made explicit and that’s the first step to deciding who is right. At the end of the day, we’re teaching our students to present their ideas to people who are qualified to tell them that they are wrong. This takes a very particular kind of strength and that strength is acquired through training.

There’s a lot of talk these days about how we can better teach writing. We want our students to write better and we think there must be something wrong with the way we are teaching them. But I think the bulk of the problem lies in getting the students to actually write, to practice. If genre-based instruction gets them to write more than assigning five-paragraph essays does, for example, this will explain why students are getting more out of it. But if you can get your students to actually write those five-paragraph essays, with their fellow students in mind as they write, then you’ll accomplish much the same thing.

The important thing is that they are writing in a way that lets them experience their competence. We have to give them a way of writing that makes them better writers every time they write. They know how to do it: you put one word after another on the page. It’s regular practice that will get their prose into shape.

4 thoughts on “Teaching and Training

  1. I would suggest that your running metaphor is going to filter out a lot of students who do have foundational problems with the basic building blocks of writing. A much better metaphor is of ‘writing as a foreign language’. That also cannot be ‘taught’ but can be ‘learned’ – in that meaningful acquisition can happen only through independent practice.

    But the role of the instructor in language teaching is essential. And there is a lot that writing instructors could learn from them.

    I’ve been working with some struggling students recently and I’m finding that a lot of the advice they are getting is from people who just assume that writing is putting down words. But it is not. It is constructing a media and genre specific communication. Asking these students (often undergrads or professionals returning to education) to just write without helping them with the building blocks is like asking a begginner French student to write poetry in French.

    Also, much of the advice on what constitutes good ‘academic’ writing is just plain wrong. I was just reading Pinker’s ‘Sense of style’ and was horrified how much he ignored research by people like Douglas Biber.

    Writing is a multidimensional activity – I tried to outline some aspects in this session for students on tools to help with writing https://canvas.sbs.ox.ac.uk/courses/56/pages/Writing%20Help and here for staff on simple writing: http://digiknow.sbsblogs.co.uk/2019/05/22/tools-and-strategies-to-help-with-writing-simple-english.

    I do start with ‘Writing is a skill that can be practiced’ and point to your great work on this blog but I also want to focus on what needs to be practiced. And this could be something much more fundamental than ‘just explain something you know well’.

    1. That’s worth thinking about. I used to use the foreign language metaphor a lot, but I’ve recently had second thoughts about it. I guess I’m thinking that writing should be seen as a natural extension of your linguistic abilities, not as some completely other beast. I think that telling someone who knows English that learning to write in English will be like learning to speak French overstates the difficulty. “You already know how to write,” I want to say. “You just want to get into better shape.”

      That said, I’ve also been thinking about the basic mechanics of writing, and I’ll have a look at what you suggest. I do want to help people with their technique.

      1. The funny thing is that my first instinct was to agree with you. There’s only so much talking about writing you can do, you have to write. And write. But you also need to acquire some metacognitive tools to help you focus on what’s improving (I think deliberate practice is a useful model here).

        The foreign language metaphor is useful up to a point. There’s new vocabulary, new grammar, new ways of expressing oneself – and for some people it’s almost as hard to learn. Others, of course, just pick it up by reading. But many students just don’t read enough or they struggle with the comprehension enough that they don’t have time to focus on the structure. They just never get enough ‘comprehensible input’ to let them develop the correct mental representations.

        But I think there’s another useful metaphor and that’s music. Everybody can listen to music and get a certain emotional response. Everybody can sing a tune (even if poorly). But to actually learn to play a musical instrument requires a lot of structured effort. And academic writing is a bit like an instrument.

        I was just watching this video on jazz which makes very many of the same points: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lD66s4m8wIw

        Another analogy that may appeal to some people is computer games. If you watch somebody play a narratively complex game, it looks like they’re just automatically expressing the story using buttons, actions and sequences. But try it yourself and you realise that there’s so much to learn. You cannot just do it.

        I think the good news here is that you can learn academic writing a lot more easily than music or a foreign language. But a lot less easily than ‘just doing it’.

        1. Yes, music is a case I often use to show that quality is not a mystery. I would estimate that music teachers are much better at enforcing an appropriate ratio of practice and teaching: say, at least 80:20. The teacher will reprimand the student for not putting in the necessary time outside class, week after week. Writing instruction, I sometimes fear, is more like 20:80. Too many students are much more willing to show up for class than to sit down and practice.

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