There is just SO much information/advice out there on writing, by many experts, who mean well and have their own approaches to teaching others to write well, approaches they swear by, approaches backed by rhetorical theory or possibly the latest brain research from neuroscientists.
However, I find myself on an island, all alone, with an idea about writing and teaching writing that's different, perhaps idiosyncratic, and pretty much iconoclastic. Not everything I have to say about writing is new and out of the blue, but my whole approach is certainly unlike the others.
Students love it. They send me testimonials when they go to work in what academics call "the real world." The many people who've attended my writing training over 30+ years also love it. But it's not just a feel-good kind of love. It's not that I'm just a good presenter who can engage a large group of adults for a day or more talking about writing. The approach itself is radically powerful.
I meet past participants five or ten years later, and they still recall and still use the techniques I taught them. Mr. Tom Barnickle, the Legislative Auditor for the state of Maryland, told a recent class that what we've taught his office about writing over the past 15 years has had as big an influence on the way they do business as any other factor. Dr. Paul Tannenbaum, Director, Survivability/Lethality Analysis Directorate at U.S. Army Research Laboratory, wrote a great style guide for his office heavily referencing our approach. We've worked with the GAO, whose main business is writing reports for congress, continuously for 30 years. Our approach to writing has been shaped by and has helped to shape that organization's approach to writing.
We have worked extensively at NASA, the Departments of State, Commerce, Labor, Transportation, and at many other federal and state agencies, and at KPMG, JMT Engineering, Whiting Turner Contracting, and with people from all over the earth. They love our approach.
But when I come back to my "home" in academia, in an English department, my colleagues seem to mistrust the idea that I could have something new to say about writing and how to teach it. They are dismissive in their mistrust. And their mistrust doesn't offend me as much as it saddens me when they show little interest in this approach.
Here I am teaching writing as a full, tenured professor of English, past Director of the graduate Professional Writing program at my university, and the English department turns a deaf ear to my approach. On the other hand, the College of Business and Economics at my university has adopted this approach and requires our textbook for most of its writing classes.
What is going on? What makes me an expert on writing? Why do I feel that I have a significant part of the answer to the BIG QUESTION: Why can't we teach our undergraduate students to write better? Or, as the question is often asked, "Why do employers find the writing of recent college graduates lacking?"
Since I brought it up, let me quickly summarize my answer to the BIG QUESTION.
Students need to write for REAL readers, not teachers, readers who ACTUALLY need the information. They need to learn a few simple techniques for providing useful information to real people who need it.
They need to learn specific techniques for generating useful content.
They need to learn specific techniques for presenting that useful content so their reader's level of effort remains low while the level of interest remains high.
Teaching "academic writing" has failed to equip students with the practical skills they need to succeed once they go to work.
These practical skills I use are not abstract or complex.
Through the large-scale work I've done with writers in workplaces where writing is vital, I've learned a lot and I've been able to teach a lot. My approach to writing and teaching writing developed from this work.
Yes, I have a Ph.D. in writing. Yes, I've read rhetorical theory. I'm conversant with the usual approaches to teaching writing at all levels in college. And this experience in the academy has no doubt had some positive effects on my approach. Thomas Edison supposedly said that his 1,000 failed attempts to make a light bulb taught him an indispensable lesson: how NOT to make a light bulb. (FAIL=First Attempt In Learning)
Steven Pinker, though I question his latest book on writing (The Sense of Style), taught me a lot about writing. Joseph M. Williams, whom I worked with in grad school, influenced my view of sentences. Noam Chomsky's ideas about grammar, profound as they are, have enriched my view of writing and thinking. I've studied the work of reading specialists. I've read Edward Tufte's books and been to his seminars. I've carefully studied the early rhetoricians, whose work was refreshingly practical.
What I have to say about writing and teaching writing, as reflected in my blog posts and in the textbook I co-authored, will, I hope be helpful to all who encounter it.
My approach is nothing if not practical. It has developed over the years as I helped writers in the workplace solve writing and communication problems
If I could, I'd even stop calling it "writing." I'd stop calling it "critical thinking," though it's certainly focused on what others call critical thinking. I'd call it CUIng--Clustering Useful Information.
The systems approach to writing I've developed with Dr. Kevin Dungey is rich with critical-thinking skills, content development skills, document design skills, and very specific writing skills.
The Reader-Focused Writing Tools course we created for the Veteran's Benefits Administration in the mid-90s won Al Gore's Hammer Award, was mentioned by President Clinton in his plain English Directive in 1998, and has since been studied by scholars like Cooley Law Professor Joseph Kimble and others.
I guess I'm an expert because I've been able to combine academic training with 30+ years of writing consulting in the workplace, because I've been willing to let go of standard approaches that didn't help real writers, because I've been thoughtful and as practical as I knew how to be, and because I've been fortunate to work with great thinkers, such as Dr. Dungey.
I hope my approach to writing catches on. I don't ask that my name follow. I wish only that kids in grade school through high school, from undergrad to grad school learn these techniques and become better writers, and pass it on, wherever writing evolves in the future.
Let's call it CUIng. Let's keep it evolving. Let's make students truly better writers, as measured by their ability to solve writing problems in whatever workplace they enter, as measured by the thank-yous they get from their readers.
Is there any way I can help you with your writing or your teaching of writing?