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.

The August 6th, 2017 Education Life section in the Sunday New York Times featured a provocative article by Dana Goldstein, "Why Kids Can't Write." It concluded that "The root of the problem, educators agree, is that teachers have little training in how to teach writing and are often weak or unconfident writers themselves."

This is probably true. But I saw a more fundamental problem, a problem I've run into often over the past 35+ years, a problem that speaks to why writing instruction through high school and on into college is not only not working (the article cites "the most recent National Assessment of Education Progress," announcing that "Three-quarters of both 12th and 8th graders lack proficiency in writing") but seems stalled somewhere in the 1970s...if not the 1870s!

I love and respect well-meaning and hard-working writing teachers everywhere, but in the article I saw two of the most common problematical yet widespread approaches to teaching writing, best summed up by two questions asked in the article's subtitle: "Should there be a return to basics, with a focus on grammar and mechanics? But won't that stifle the writerly voice?"

Therein lies the problem.

Let me take the second question first...the question of how we teach our students "the writerly voice." 

Let's admit that WRITING is an extremely broad topic. Aristotle and other ancient rhetoricians identified two broad types of writing, which I'll call WRITING TO INFORM and WRITING TO ENTERTAIN. Imagine these two types of writing on a long line, informative writing at the left end of the line and entertaining writing at the far right end of the line.

Somehow, writing instruction for decades, if not centuries, has been obsessed with teaching students "eloquence," emphasizing "the writerly voice," which students are told to search for and discover in their own writing. The prime expressive genre used to get students to eloquence has been the essay (an extended statement of the writer's feelings and views on some topic with no true, flesh-and-blood audience--READER--waiting to read and needing to read that information: an odd situation given that most writing teachers stress the importance of AUDIENCE--imaginary???).

In the English composition classroom, writing is seen as primarily a means of personal expression, as an exploration of the world of ideas, as a way to discover what it means to be human and creative in a complex world.

But writing is none of these. Writing is simply a tool we use to communicate to other people, or perhaps even to ourselves. But it is the TOOL part of writing that seems to be ignored.  Students and writing teachers suffer much from this ignor/ance.

Students must learn what kind of TOOL writing is. They must learn to operate that tool.

The WRITERLY VOICE camp of writing teachers loves to assign students to read great stories or novels or poems or essays. This great writing is then discussed in class. Students are expected to somehow imitate this great writing in their own essays.

If you'll excuse the sports and arts-and-crafts analogies that follow, I'd liken that approach to writing instruction to taking students to watch the great golfers compete at the Masters tournament in Georgia and then taking them out to a golf course and asking them to play golf like the masters. Or you might take students to an exhibit of master quilts at the local museum of arts and then give them a basket of materials and ask them to quilt like the master quilters.

Golfing and quilting require concepts, terminology, and techniques, which must be mastered by themselves before masterful results can happen. Writing is much the same. There are fundamental concepts and techniques that writers must master before writers can be eloquent.

This brings us to "the basics."

Yes, learning writing-to-entertain, eloquence, "the writerly voice" is a useful endeavor, but it can't be the starting point. It's an advanced, a very advanced skill. Student writers must master the basics. And, to do this, they ought to start at the left side of WRITING, which I've called writing-to-inform.

Let's understand what the BASICS are and then teach them.

When we hear the growing chorus of writing teachers exclaim that we must return to basics, what they mean is returning to grammar, and usually grammar as taught in conjunction with teaching students how to write a proper English sentence. As Judith C. Hochman, founder of a fine organization called "the Writing Revolution," proclaims in the NYTimes article, "It all starts with the sentence."

This approach is what cognitive neuroscientists call using DIRECT CAUSATION. You read a student's writing. You see sentence-level errors, so you work with the students to fix those errors, and, in the process, you make them better writers...see mistake/fix mistake.

But writing is far more complex than this diagnosis using direct causation--see a mistake, fix the mistake--implies.

We must understand that WRITING is an interdependent group of distinct SYSTEMS at work. 

Much like our bodies are an interdependent group of distinct systems  (nervous system, skeletal system, muscular system, cardiovascular system, digestive system, respiratory system, etc.) working together to maintain our life, writing is a tool made up of an interdependent group of distinct systems. Therefore, to teach writing, we can't rely on diagnoses gleaned from direct causation. We must use another approach: systemic causation...or "SYSTEMS THINKING."

To write well, a writer must manage (at least) seven basic systems that affect usefulness and readability. (Remember, we're talking about WRITING TO INFORM...the best place to begin writing instruction, a solid foundation that can support the loftier writing lessons inherent in the idea of "the writerly voice" and eloquence later on.)

So here's a quick overview of this systems approach to writing (instruction).

1) There are seven main systems that affect usefulness and readability:

  4. Paragraphs
  5. Sentences
  6. Word Choices
  7. Mechanics

It's helpful to divide these into High Order Concerns (HOCs) and Low Order Concerns (LOCs). Let me note here that my formulation of the HOCs & LOCs of writing is different from and predates the more widely known formulation as published on OWL's wonderful website: https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/690/01/. That formulation was created for writing tutors working in college writing labs with students who needed help on their college essays.

My formulation of HOCs & LOCs began in the 1980s--working with the GAO (writes reports to congress) and other organizations where writing is considered an activity that often puts the organization at great risk. My formulation of the HOCs & LOCs describes the main systems at work in the writing process and in any piece of writing. 

The HOCs are capitalized, the LOCs are in title case in the previous list. AND each of the seven systems is indispensable to effective writing. I could argue that truly useful CONENT is the most important system, but it's like asking whether the brain, the heart, or the lungs is the most important organ in the human body. If any of these should fail, you're dead. And so it is in writing. If any of the seven systems fails, the writing will be significantly affected.

Each of these systems has component parts. Writers must know these parts and learn to manage them to make effective writing. So THE BASICS are NOT simply grammar or the sentence. 

THE BASICS are all seven of the systems that affect usefulness and readability.

2) CONTENT is a system with four major parts:

  • THE ISSUE...Writing to inform (if not all writing) begins with an ISSUE. We define an ISSUE as an area of shared interest between the writer and the reader (a.k.a., "the audience"). The ISSUE is the reason the writer is writing and the reason the flesh-and-blood reader is interested in the information.

  • THE READER'S QUESTIONS ABOUT THE ISSUE IN QUESTION...content shouldn't be generated by what the writer wants to say. It should be generated by what the reader needs to know. What the reader needs to know is the answer to each of her questions about the ISSUE. If the writer doesn't know the reader's questions, how can that writer be responsive to the reader's needs--which is the primary purpose of WRITING TO INFORM (if not all writing).

  • THE ANSWERS TO THE READERS QUESTIONS ABOUT THE ISSUE IN QUESTION...the writer must use her expertise and experience or do research to find answers to the reader's questions about the issue and then deliver those answers as directly and as clearly as possible. 

  • THE SUPPORT FOR THE ANSWERS TO THE READER'S QUESTIONS...big answers to the reader's big questions often (usually) raise other, smaller questions for the reader. I call these smaller answers, "the support." We think of this information as evidence, examples, or further descriptions. Let's take one simple example. When we evaluate anything, the big question is Does the thing being evaluated meet our evaluative criteria, a.k.a., our standards? To arrive at such a big answer, we need to ask smaller questions: What evaluative CRITERIA are we using as our standards? What is the actual CONDITION of the thing we're evaluating? Is there a GAP between our criteria and the actual condition? If there's a GAP, what are the CONSEQUENCES (where's the present or likely benefit or hurt)? If there's a true gap with true consequences, what is the CAUSE of this gap? If we can state this cause, we can move to the final question, can this gap be eliminated? Knowing the causes of the gap, we can offer our RECOMMENDATIONS.

3) In looking at the adequacy of content, you can imagine two circles. The first circle is filled with every bit of information about the ISSUE that the writer included in the piece of writing. The second circle is filled with all the questions reflecting everything the reader needs to know about the ISSUE. If there's great content, the two circles completely overlap--they are one. If they don't overlap, the content in the writing is lacking, to whatever extend the two circles fail to overlap. 

The goal of content is to keep the reader's level of interest as high as possible.

4) ORGANIZATION is a system that relates to the way readers read and where the big answers are in relation to the little answers (where the TOPIC is in relation to the SUPPORT). Speaking at a very macro-level, readers read by cycling through three big questions. These big questions relate to the INTRODUCTION/DISCUSSION/ENDING, the three parts of most documents (all documents?). The three big questions readers use to read are as follows:

  • What is this and why should I care? (Yes, it's a two-part question, but the two parts are, as they say, joined at the hip and should not really be separated.) This information belongs in the INTRODUCTION, along with a preview of the main questions (topics) that will be addressed--like giving the driver a roadmap before she sets off on her road trip. The INTRODUCTION is NOT the same as a summary or a background section. These two parts of a document address other questions. In the INTRODUCTION, the writer should be explaining why she is "bothering" the reader and why the reader SHOULD care (and offering the preview....).
  • What's the "story"? Once the reader is interested (btw, our questions are the physical manifestation of our INTEREST), the writer must address the reader's questions, one by one. These big answers make up the sections in the DISCUSSION in a document. And, as I said, the big answers must be supported by answers to any smaller questions that are raised by the answers to the big questions. That's the "story." (We're not talking about a literary narrative here.)
  • What, if anything, is next? After the story is told, the reader will want to know--in the ENDING--what, if anything, will or should be done next. If there's nothing to do next, the writer can thank the reader for attending to all the information and offer to answer any remaining questions.

Once the writer knows all the reader-questions that best get at the ISSUE in question and develops the answers and support, the information must be arranged. Writers should be aware of two strategies here, DIRECT arrangement and INDIRECT arrangement. Direct arrangement means the answer comes first at any level and then the details/explanation. Indirect arrangement provides the details/explanation first and provides the answer at the end.

We can think of organization as a standard sentence outline with its major section roman numerals, its capital-letter sub-sections, and so on. Writers can also organize from most important to least important or, sometimes, chronologically. This is rich territory to explore with student writers. It allows teachers to discuss the elements of an argument, for instance, and the effect of placing information strategically to assist the reader in reaching a fair conclusion. PERSUASION originally meant giving helpful advice, not brainwashing. But this topic is great for introducing how words physically affect our ability to think through "framing" and "synaptic reinforcement": see the work of Frank Luntz and George Lakoff, etc. 

Within the system of organization, we might also study genres.

5) DOCUMENT DESIGN is the art of creating a visible structure and of literally embodying our thoughts in fonts and figures on the screen or on the page. Yes, you can get a Ph.D. in doc design. But there are basic concepts student writers should learn for presenting information in print or electronically. The idea is to keep the reader's level of effort as low as possible. Make documents skimable. Make documents easy to navigate. Make documents LOOK as though they were meant to be read.

6) Paragraphs are a too neglected part of writing. Writers need to understand these structures and how they can best serve the reader. How long can they be before readers wince? What logical shape should they be? How does a writer generate a point (topic) sentence? How much should a paragraph be developed? How do we make a paragraph unified? How do we make a paragraph coherent? How do we make sure a paragraph follows the known/new contract?

7) Sentences should be structured the way our brains are physically wired to create meaning from a series of words. This is an extremely rich system. What is the logical core of a sentence from the reader's point of view? How can a writer best use coordination and subordination, right-branching, mid-branching, and left-branching sentences? Where are the natural points of emphasis in any complete sentence and how can a writer use those emphatic locations to put the reader's attention where it most needs to be? What are the four manifestations of the wordiness virus, which is begotten when the writer uses a "weak verb" (a verb that fails to state the true action in the sentence)? What is the effect of nominalizations and how should they be used? When are active voice and passive voice appropriate? Etc.

Yes, Dr. Hochman, sentences are important. But it's really not true to say that "writing well" starts with the sentence.

8) Word Choice affects our accuracy, our clarity, and our tone. It also has actual physical effects on the reader's brain. This, obviously, is another hugely rich system. Plain English, anyone???

9) Mechanics include grammatical correctness, capitalization, punctuation, etc. Yes, every writer should be aware of her choices at this level. It's useful to teach functional grammar. Every writing student should know a noun from a verb, a subject from a predicate, an adjectival structure (word, phrase, or clause) from an adverbial structure (word, phrase, or clause). Writers should know about phrases and clauses. Throw in direct objects and objects of prepositions. Why shouldn't writing students be able to diagram any sentence?

Grammar has been called "the skunk in the garden."

Too bad.Grammar is merely the specific vocabulary (we call it "terminology") we use to talk about sentence structures. Every activity we need to learn how to do has its own specialized vocabulary. Would a golfer balk at learning terminology like "golf ball," "golf club," "grip," "stance," "fade," "draw," "driver/wood/iron/wedge/putter," "eagle," "par," etc., etc., etc.? Would a quilt maker balk at learning "4-patch/9-patch," "backing," "basting," "batting," "betweens," "cross hatch," drunkard's patch," etc., etc., etc.?

Is not sentence-making a worthwhile activity? And if it is, wouldn't it make sense for sentence-makers to know the requisite terminology? Of course. Otherwise it's very hard to talk about that worthwhile activity. Sentence diagramming is fun. See Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog by Kitty Burns Florey--it's a hoot. STOP WITH THE GRAMMAR PHOBIA. Functional grammar is not that hard to teach or learn! I taught several groups of senior executives at the IRS all the grammar they needed to diagram every sentence in an article in the New York Times. The training session ran for two half-days. We don't need to make learning grammar so hard.


Please talk about the HOCs & LOCs approach. Talk about the systems approach necessary to help student writers write well and writing teachers to teach well.

This approach comes right out of Greek and Roman rhetoric. A how-to course in Invention/Organization/Style. Yes...let's get back to the basics--all of them!

As it turns out, I'm an expensive writing consultant who has worked with many important government agencies on writing, including the GAO for 30+ years, NASA, the Departments of Defense, Justice, Commerce, Transportation, Homeland Security, Labor, Housing and Urban Development, and with many important state agencies, with KPMG, the National Institutes for Health, Veterans Affairs, with Catholic Charities, with many private companies, and with writers all over the world. I was Director of the graduate program in Professional Writing at Towson University, where I've worked since 1984 with undergrads and grad students on writing.

But I'd love to come and talk to your school, college, program, or group that needs to teach writing better and to teach the teachers of writing better.

It's crucial that you understand the systemic HOCs & LOCs approach to writing. It's systematic. It's easy to learn. It's NOT reductive in any way. Those I've worked with tell me this approach has completely changed how they think about writing (to inform)...it gives them a sturdy boat they can easily navigate in the multiple shifting crossroads of human written expression (thanks, Mr. Burke). 

The writerly voice? That's something we can tackle next semester!

I hope to hear from you (Harvey @QCGwrite.com).