(This post takes 3 minutes and 21 seconds to read.)

I admit it. I’m a tad S-L-O-W sometimes. It has taken me over 35 years to figure out the very simple answer to a question I get a lot: What’s so different about the way you teach writing?

I wondered…could it be that I think of “writing” as a conversation and that I think of a conversation as a loose string of questions and answers between two or more people and that I know simply transmitting YOUR message (transmission model of communication—sender/receiver model) usually dooms writing to failure?


Could it be that I know every document delivers its messages through seven discrete but inter-dependent systems, which, as you probably know, I call the HOCs and locs (HIGHER and lower ORDER CONCERNS), which include 1) CONTENT 2) ORGANIZATION 3) DOCUMENT DESIGN 4) paragraphs 5) sentences 6) word choices 7) mechanics?

Nope…that’s not it, exactly.

Could it be that I have created and kidnapped very specific writing concepts and skills that I teach to help writers/editors manage “message-delivery” through all seven of these systems?

Nope…not really.

Could it be that I try to persuade writers/editors that everyday, on-the-job “writing” is 90% about the CONTENT and only 10% about the PRESENTATION, the way a cargo ship is 90% about the cargo and only 10% about the ship? (If the ship sinks...that 10% becomes pretty important.)

No, that’s not it either.

Could it be that I hate the idea of assigning students to write ESSAYS???

That may be true…I do believe that whole-heartedly (at least until they become pretty proficient “practical” writers)…but that’s not the answer.

The real answer is so simple; it was hiding in plain sight. What seems to be different about the way I teach writing is the way I conceive of the very first principle of effective writing: SERVE YOUR READER!

Ridiculously simple, right?

But to do that, you need a REAL READER, not an “audience.” You need a real ISSUE to write about (a real reason to write and a real reason for a real reader to read), not a “writing situation” or a “purpose.” And you need a clear, specific set of real-reader-questions about that real ISSUE to research and answer, not a “subject” or a “thesis.” Plus you need real answers to those real questions, not a “persona.”

These familiar pearls from nearly every college writing class—WRITING SITUATION and THESIS and SUBJECT and AUDIENCE and PURPOSE and PERSONA—are so writer-centric that they’re, in my estimation, in the greater metropolitan area of Worthless…make-believe, in most cases—when a poor student is asked to write an “essay” on “a topic” for “an audience.” (At this point I usually fly into a rant…but this time I’ll forbear.)

So let me just finish by reminding writing teachers that You can’t serve your reader if you don’t really have a reader. (Do I need to define what “reader” means? Someone with a beating heart and eyes you can see the color of…someone with a real ISSUE she cares about, has questions about, and needs practical answers for.)

Not having a real reader is a big problem in teaching students to write effectively and to learn skills (skills they’re excited to learn) they can plug-and-play at work…when they get there.

So let’s get charged up. Let’s go out there and serve our students well by helping them learn how to actually SERVE THE READER! There’s magic in doing that. WRITING becomes very, very practical…not theoretical. It also becomes helpfully systematic…a basic grounding in practical writing that writers can adapt to other kinds of writing. In this “connection economy,” these skills are THE NEW BASICS. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sKXZgTzEyWY