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Writing classes aren’t working so well. I invite you to watch a short video from CNBC, narrated by Kelley Holland, “Why new employees can’t write and why employers are mad.” (http://video.cnbc.com/gallery/?video=3000217064)

She points out that we’re doing more writing in the workplace than we did 30-40 years ago, so writing skills have become even more important. But employers see that new employees lack strong writing skills. She points out that even graduates from the nation’s top business schools often lack necessary writing skills.

I’ve seen this to be true in my 30 years of writing consulting for the public and private sectors, working with the best and brightest graduates from programs in public policy, engineering, and business, etc.

Ms. Holland suggests one cause for this problem: we focus more on math and science in schools to the exclusion of writing classes. This may be true. But I believe we teach writing ineffectively. We teach students to write essays. Writing essays does not develop the kind of critical-thinking and writing concepts and techniques students will need on the job.


In high school and college, when students are in a writing class, most likely they’re writing essays. Most likely they’re taught how to write primarily by writing essays. Perhaps essays have their place in the curriculum. But essays should be excluded from most writing classes and saved for advanced classes that seek to teach students expressive writing and eloquence.

The essay is a bad way to teach writing for most beginning and intermediate writing classes…from first grade through college. Here’s why…..

Assigning students to write an essay does not force them to confront and understand a real issue for a real reader who needs information on that issue and who needs to take action or make a decision based on that information.

Therefore, they don’t know how to generate content that will be useful to that reader, content that will keep the reader’s level of interest high.

They don’t learn to organize their writing efficiently for the reader to keep the reader’s level of effort low.

They don’t understand the principles of document design for print and e-docs.

They seek to adopt a stilted style and tone that makes their writing sound impressive instead of learning plain English techniques to make their writing clear and concise.

They also no longer learn grammar and punctuation. (sentence diagramming anyone??? http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/06/18/taming-sentences/?_r=0).

These specific writing concepts and skills are NOT the focus of teaching students to write essays for the teacher.

Let’s look at the origin and purpose of the essay.

An essay is supposed to give the author's own argument on some topic of interest to the writer. Formal essays have a serious purpose, dignity, logical organization, while informal essays are more personal and feature self-revelation, individual tastes and experiences, attempts at humor, a graceful style, a rambling structure, and unconventionality or novelty of theme." (thanks Wikipedia)

The word essay comes from the French word essayer, "to try" or "to attempt.” The first essays are attributed to Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592), who described his work as essays—"attempts" to put his thoughts into writing.”

We expect students to put their thoughts into writing when they write an essay. That’s the point of the exercise. But who cares? Students struggle to find topics that interest them, narrow those topics to a thesis, and develop the thesis with various points and evidence. But who’s the real reader for these essays? Primarily the teacher, who reads them only to give a grade—and because he/she is paid to do it. After all, they’re written only to be graded. The exercise is usually painful all around. Few students care much for the essays they’re forced to write. How many résumés boast “great essay writer!”? What résumé reader would care?



Go back to the basics and tweak them so they apply to the digital age!…The New Basics.

And always have students write to a real reader about a real issue so they can develop real information that’s really useful for that reader!

You can’t get much more basic than the 5 canons of traditional rhetoric—the traditional tasks necessary in designing a persuasive speech/document—first named in classical Rome:






Let’s talk about them in contemporary terms that can help students write better in the digital age...master the new basics…concepts and skills that will be highly sought after in “the real world.”

All five canons (writing tasks) are pertinent to teaching students to write well except for “memory,” which is mainly about how to remember information for a speech. So let’s have a quick look at each from a very contemporary perspective.

INVENTION: this is how you generate real content for the real reader.

Students should learn (in writing for a real person who needs real information about a real issue) that content is NOT simply the information they glean from their expertise, experience, or research and transmit to an imaginary reader.

CONTENT begins with an ISSUE (a word I use to describe an area of shared interest between the writer and reader: it’s the writer’s reason for writing and the reader’s reason for reading).

Student writers must learn to FACTOR that ISSUE into all the appropriate questions a reader needs the writer to answer about the ISSUE in question.

Then students need to find answers to those appropriate reader-questions, using their expertise, experience, or research.

Finally, students need to know how to support the answers with details, examples, and evidence.

Invention means generating content. Only when a student writer understands that content has four parts can that student do the kind of critical thinking employers require. 1) Define the ISSUE you and the reader are interested in; 2) Factor that issue into all the reader’s appropriate questions about the ISSUE; 3) Answer those questions; 4) Support the answers with further information (this information turns out to be smaller questions the reader needs the writer to answer).

ARRANGEMENT: this is how you order the information.

Student writers must learn the power of “deductive” (message before details) structure.

Readers are busy and distracted. That’s why newspapers present news stories from the top down—first a headline, a full sentence, that captures the main point of the news story. The first paragraph presents the lede and traditionally tells who, what, when, where, and why.

Student writers need to learn how to serve their busy, distracted readers well. Such readers appreciate conclusions up front, then explanations.

Arrangement also involves what topics come first. Classical rhetoric provides rich discussions on possible arrangements of information for various rhetorical effects. But teaching students to order information from most to least important is a good place to start. They can also be taught to order information chronologically, when necessary to outline a series of past or future events or to describe a process.

Save the four common rhetorical modes—narration, description, exposition, and argumentation—for a more advanced writing class…maybe one that emphasizes “the essay.”

Student writers should, however, be taught the fundamentals of analysis: criteria, condition, cause, consequence, corrective action. See https://iaonline.theiia.org/good-internal-audits-focus-on-the-roots-not-just-the-trees.

DELIVERY: this is how you physically present the information in print or as an electronic document of some kind.

Student writers must learn the fundamental principles of document design, readability/usability, and graphics.

See Karen Schriver’s book (https://www.amazon.com/Dynamics-Document-Design-Creating-Readers/dp/0471306363); Jakob Neilsen’s website (https://www.nngroup.com/articles/usability-101-introduction-to-usability/) , and any of Edward Tufte’s books (https://www.edwardtufte.com/tufte/books_vdqi).

STYLE: this is how the content is “said”—stated.

Student writers must learn the virtues and intricacies of plain English.

Eloquence has its place. Learning the old “S.A.T.” words is laudable. There’s nothing wrong with the well-honed periodic sentence or the voluptuous cumulative sentence. But students should realize that writing in “the real word” does NOT need to be artificially stilted to merely sound impressive. The impressive thing is having something useful to say and then using plain English to say it. See the Center for Plain Language’s web pages: http://centerforplainlanguage.org/.

Please kill the student essay. It’s a fake activity. Or at least save it for a senior seminar. And can the case studies, unless they’re real and include a real reader who needs real information right away.

Students need to get real. Student writers need to know how to be responsive to real readers who have a real issue and real questions about that issue that they need to have answered.

Try this experiment in class. Instead of having students write an essay for an imaginary audience, think of the students as your own personal research staff. Ask them about something YOU need to know about. Let them write to YOU about this real interest/issue. See if they can address YOUR appropriate questions. See if they can arrange the information in a way that makes most sense to YOU—the user of the information. See if they can design a document that makes the useful information easy for YOU to navigate. See if they can adopt a clear, plain style to convey to YOU the information you actually care about.

For instance, I’m interested in buying an electric car. I had my students tell me which one to buy. I gave them no more than 1000 words. I explained by driving habits and my budget. Two thirds of the reports failed to give me the information I needed. The ensuing semester was full of learning. I loved it. My students loved it even more.

P.S. If this approach seems interesting to you, check out our workplace writing textbook, Mastering Workplace Writing. My students tell me it’s literally “a keeper.”

Any comments?