A lot of people think of “writing” as presenting messages, but it’s more than that.
Yes, “writing” is mechanics (punctuation, grammar, spelling, etc.); it is words (chosen for accuracy, tone, and effect); it is sentences (the way readers breathe as they read); it is paragraphs (little houses built of sentences); it is documentdesign (visual structure for the reader); it is organization (logical structure for the reader).
BUT…it is also CONTENT (answers to the reader’s questions about the ISSUE in question).
An important part of evaluative content is a set of critical-thinking tools known to performance auditors as THE 4 ELEMENTS OF A FINDING. These include criteria, condition, cause, and effect. These elements allow a writer to evaluate anything and, if necessary, make a compelling recommendation for change/improvement.
Here’s a description of this set of critical-thinking tools, which is best thought of as a three-step evaluation process. Everyone should know about the 4 Elements; all students in any writing class should learn to use them. (They are actually far more helpful for evaluative thinking/writing than the more common 5Ws from journalism: who, what, when, where, and why.”)
The 4 Elements of a Finding Are an Invaluable Critical-Thinking Path (for evaluation)
I love English departments. I love the teachers who labor in the freshman-comp salt mines. But I don’t always like how they teach freshman composition. Usually I don’t like it. (Of course I can’t know every department’s approach to this class, but much of what I see bothers me greatly.)
I don’t see that freshman comp classes are giving students the strong writing skills they’ll need to do well at work. In fact, many students turn against writing after they take freshman comp. So let me make my case….
I think it’s important to see that "writing" sits on a wide spectrum from writing-to-inform at one end to writing-to-entertain at the other. An owner's manual for a new car is at one end. Poetry is at the other end. Reviews are usually someplace in the middle. If you're reviewing car batteries, you're probably not going to do much to entertain your reader, who’s just in it for the info. But reviews of more aesthetic experiences, such as restaurants, movies, music, and books, tend to have more entertaining language.
Your writing students (or your children at any level who are in writing classes in school/college) should be learning the following 10 fundamental writing concepts/skills. If they have these skills, they will be well on their way to mastering “practical writing,” the kind of writing they’ll need to do in school/college and for the rest of their lives at work.
If they don’t have these skills, you should be asking their writing teachers why not!
Most people, including most students, are practical; they learn best when they feel they're gaining a skill that will actually be useful to them in their lives. Once convinced there's something truly useful to learn, they learn best when the skill is broken down into its component steps and taught to them one step at a time. (One phrase for this approach is Task Analysis, an approach well known to computer program designers.)
My beginning observation is obvious enough...so it's important when teaching writing to ask two fundamental questions:
what is the practical use of writing that students will want to learn?
how exactly does my approach to one-step-at-a-time writing instruction work?
It's 1987. In the English department at Towson State University, there's a knock on my office door . A woman has come from Washington, D.C., looking for a colleague who never shows up. I discover that she's come to recruit my colleague to help her organization write better. It turns out she's a Ph.D. from Minnesota. Wrote her dissertation on Emily Dickinson, whom I apotheosize. Soon she asks me a question that changed my life....
Getting reviewers' comments on writing at work, for most staff, feels like a trip to the woodshed. It shouldn't. In an office, we're not in school anymore. Those who review our writing are not our teachers grading us. Writing in the workplace is a team activity. The goal is to produce the most useful documents--of all kinds--possible. So, please slaughter my writing, please!
The standard "5-Paragraph Essay" most of us have heard of or been required to do in a high school or college writing class is under attack: It's formulaic. It zaps creativity. It's too rule-based. It lacks sophistication. I'd agree that it is old fashioned. Some trace its roots to the school marms of the 19th century. Its roots, according to Matthew Nunes in his essay "The Five-Paragraph Essay: Its Evolution and Roots in Theme-Writing," trace back to the Roman and Greek rhetoricians several centuries B.C.A.
I trace its roots much further back than that, all the way to the architecture of the human mind.
We have a need
to say something big,
to back it up with examples,
to elaborate with small details,
to defend what we have to say from nay-sayers, and
to reenforce at the end what we just said.
Nobody invented the structure of the 5-Paragraph Essay. It's ingrained in our brains...always has been.
So why would I wish to say good-bye (in writing classes) to such a fundamental idea?
I actually don't reject it outright. I just put it offstage until later...until students understand what writing is really about. Let me explain and suggest a replacement.
Our HOCs and LOCs integrated system for teaching writing is a simple strategic framework that provides important critical-thinking and writing concepts and skills for students and workers of all ages. It seeks to demystify writing, treating it as a systematic skill that can be learned, much as you would learn golf, mountain climbing, cooking, gardening, or photography. We call it THE NEW BASICS....where the reader/customer is always the focus.
MINDFULNESS, for most people, conjures images of meditation--eyes closed, relaxed, concentrating on each breath in a peaceful environment...
That's fine. Who am I to argue with an ancient, healthy practice? (Some of the earliest written records of meditation [Dhyana], come from the Hindu traditions of Vedantism around 1500 BCE.)
But wait a sec....doesn't MINDFULNESS imply how we interact with other people and with our environment? Doing yoga and closed-eye meditation, as I said, is awesome, but what about practicing mindfulness in our everyday contacts at work, under stress, with co-workers and customers? Can't do that with eyes closed very easily.
Did you ever consider the on-the-job writing you do every day as an opportunity to practice mindfulness? Interaction with others is where the rubber meets the road when it comes to being mindful. So what better way to practice than through our daily workplace writing...or, as I think of it, eyes-wide-open meditation?
If you’re like most people, when I ask you to define CONTENT in a piece of writing, you’d say it’s the information, the facts, the details, the data conveyed in the writing. That’s what almost everyone believes, and everyone is about 25% correct.
CONTENT is better thought of as one of seven systems operating in any piece of writing. CONTENT is a system with four main components. Knowing these four components will help you generate CONTENT that’s more useful to your reader. Here’s how….
If you’ve followed this blog, you know that my NUMBER 1 complaint about how writing is taught in school/college/grad school is that most of the writing students are assigned to do has no real audience beyond the teacher. But when students go to work, they must always write to a real person, usually many real people.
The writing skills students learn in school, writing for no real audience, fall short when they go to work. Having a real reader makes writing suddenly important, risky, valuable, and, for many, frightening.
So please have your students get a lot of practice writing to a real person. Students from the first grade through grad school need to practice, practice, practice, and practice some more writing to a real person. Actually, it’s fun.
Let me first say what they’d learn from this real practice. And then let me give some suggestions for real-writing assignments….
If you want to do Powerful Writing (or Powerful Editing/Reviewing) you should have a systematic approach for developing a document draft and making it truly powerful. This post gives you guidelines for Powerful Writing, for developing any workplace document, from a simple email to a complex report….
Today I'd like to share with you a little aha moment about writing. When I have important writing to do, I find myself thinking about it...a lot. As in, need another stalk of string cheese...think, think, think...better run to the store, almost out of dental floss...listen to some music...watch some TV with the sound off. Oh yeah, that thing I have to write. Okay...let's see. Hmm, suddenly a great idea for a screen-play pops into my head:
Naïf ad copywriter, assigned to create a new for-profit religion for atheists, falls hard for the gorgeous woman contracted to kill him when he goes rogue trying to save the world. FARFA! Finally AReligion For Atheists.
Ahem...right...that thing I was supposed to write....
Well, as it turns out, you can waste a whole lot of your precious time, productively, and get yourself to a place where you actually look forward to the actual fingers-on-the-keyboard writing that's just lying there like a bear trap ready to snap your soul in two.
Here's how to make procrastination work for you and improve your writing (kind of like putting globs of whipped cream on your broccoli)....
I believe I have a much more productive and systematic way to help students from first grade through college become better writers and to help writing teachers become better teachers. The following discussion does two things:
1) it briefly analyzes the big problem--from first grade through college, students aren't being taught to write as well as society needs them to--and
2) it offers a conceptual and practical solution--a solution that has helped writers write better in the classroom and the workplace over the past 35+ years of my teaching....
This is a long post that will take you into territory that's unusual for those interested in workplace writing. Fair warning! I'm interested in everyday writing as an everyday Mindfulness Practice. So here goes....
That's the trick! (...to making your workplace writing impressive)
You probably assume I'm talking about something easy, a quick TRICK, something you can learn in a flash, a quick solution to a difficult problem. Presto! ...as if by MAGIC. These days, how we all crave as many quick FIXes as we can get!
Writing, according to Aristotle, has three purposes: to inform, to persuade, and to delight (entertain). I imagine these purposes on a line. To the far left is writing to inform. Just to the right of that is writing to persuade. And at the extreme right is writing to delight and entertain.
While I’ve dedicated much of my working life to the first two purposes, I’m not unacquainted with the far extreme of writing to delight. This blog post celebrates that far extreme where words transform into art. But specifically, this post is in honor of the Nobel Prize-wining poet Derek Walcott, my teacher, who died on Friday (March 17, 2017) at 87….
We all tend to follow the path of least resistance. That doesn’t mean we don’t ever work hard. Sometimes working to grow a business consumes your attention 24/7…but there’s no other path to success. But, as Mark Cuban reminds us in his surprisingly brilliant little book, How to Win at the Sport of Business (https://www.amazon.com/How-Win-Sport-Business-Can-ebook/dp/B006AX6ONI), whatever you’re selling will fail if it doesn’t offer the customer the path of least resistance.
And that’s why my HOCs & LOCs approach to writing—as brilliant as it is, as much as students whom I force it on end up loving it and people in my writing seminars who have paid to hear what I have to say about writing love it and retain its main ideas over many years—is having a really tough time catching on. My bad!
I wanted to talk to you now after the first 3 weeks of class about 4 things that are very important to your success moving forward in our class. So in this rather long email, I’ll talk about the following:
By definition, “editing” appears to be a reactive exercise—we have a text and edit it, finding and fixing weaknesses and whoppers. But some of the most important, time-saving editing editors can do should come before any words are written, or, to be more precise, before any drafts have begun. How does that work?
Over lighting is an international concern, with much of the Earth’s population living under light-polluted skies, which, if you live in an urban or suburban area, all you have to do to see this type of pollution is go outside at night and look up at the sky.
Maybe a good report receives great applause and appreciation from its audience and sounds like this?
In this special report there is the inclusion of recommendations whose intention is to improve the cost‑effectiveness of state programs, such as the Department of Health Care Services, School‑Based Medi‑Cal Administrative Activities programs audit that identified weaknesses in the contracts between the local educational consortia or local governmental agencies and their claiming units that effective Health Care Services’ oversight should have prevented.
Why don’t sentences in a lot of workplace writing—from email to complex, team-generated reports (and probably this very blog) SING? And how might we allow them to croon and warble just a little more pleasantly?
I checked the web to see what writing tips were out there. I found a ton. But they were all pretty much the same.
Here are the 10 I found at Forbes.com:
1. Put metaphors on the back burner. 2. Use simple, concrete language. 3. Omit needles words. 4. Stay active. 5. Use English (they mean, don’t use jargon). 6. Curb your enthusiasm (they mean, don’t use exclamation points). 7. Match your subject to your pronoun and verb. 8. Limit your use of adverbs. 9. Know when to use “that” and “which.” 10. Don’t confuse “affect” and “effect.”
I also found some tips at the Harvard Business Review: 1. Think before you write (they mean, “know what YOU want to say before you write”). 2. Cut the fat. 3. Avoid jargon and $10 words. 4. Read what you write (they mean, proofread). 5. Practice every day (as though we could choose to stop writing at work???). See their list: (https://hbr.org/2014/11/how-to-improve-your-business-writing).
If these tips could improve our writing, we’d all be great writers by now because these are versions of the typical advice we’ve heard about writing forever. But is that all there is? Are these truly the main things to know about writing? Even as just “quick tips,” how useful are they, really?....
What came first, the thought or the need to think it?
While you wonder about this question, let me continue…I’ll soon tell my answer and why I think this riddle should matter to writers and writing teachers.
In the “Faculty Robing Room” yesterday at my college’s 150th-anniversary winter graduation ceremonies, I chatted with some colleagues—smart, excellent writers/writing teachers—about whether students in a freshman writing class produce in their writing assignments imaginative, energetic content.
“No, not so much”…their answer didn’t surprise me. What did make me gasp a little was how they conceived of CONTENT....