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. She's a Ph.D. from Minnesota. Wrote her dissertation on Emily Dickinson, whom I love. Soon she asks me a question that changed my life....
"Do you want to come to Washington, D.C. to help my organization write better?" she asks me.
During my doctoral studies in writing in the early '80s, I met Joseph M. Williams, author of the watershed book on writing clear sentences, Style: 10 Lessons in Clarity and Grace, a book I practically memorized. He had just started what he called The Little Red Schoolhouse at the University of Chicago to teach students and the wider community how to write more clearly "in the real world," as we academics call it.
He advised me to do writing consulting in the workplace if I really wanted to learn about the English language--his expertise had originally been in the history of the English language--and if I wanted to earn a few extra bucks to fortify the meager salary I could expect to earn as an academic. He was very proud of how much he charged companies to lecture on better writing.
My first love was poetry. I'd gotten an MFA in creative writing at Columbia University where my teachers were Pulitzer- and Nobel-Prize-winning poets and Poet Laureates of the United States, including Stanley Kunitz, Derek Walcott, Mark Strand, Joseph Brodsky, Amiri Baraka, and so many others. I'd won a few poetry prizes, had been granted a $20K Individual Artists Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. I'd published a thin volume of poems, and my poems were appearing in many of the top literary magazines. I taught literature and creative writing classes in college. My professional life was sweet.
But the advice Joe Williams offered resonated with me. As a grad student I'd gotten my feet wet as a writing consultant. By the time the woman from Washington knocked on my door, I had consulted with engineers at the Bendix Corporation, which was about to go out of business, and with engineers at Whiting Turner Contracting, the 65th largest company in America. WTC had televised my series of ten lectures and continued to show them to employees, without my knowledge or consent, for several years :(
"Yes," I told the woman from Washington, "of course I'll help your organization write better...what organization did you say you were from???"
I said yes because I knew EVERYTHING there was to know about writing, and I'd published a fair amount. I told her I was happy to come down to D.C. to cast some pearls of wisdom before her crew.
She told me she was from GAO. I had never heard of GAO...whatever. It didn't matter. I knew writing inside and out. (If you don't know what GAO is, look here: https://www.gao.gov/about/index.html). In those days before the interweb, I didn't bother to find out what GAO was.
That first day at GAO "teaching writing" changed my life forever.
As I talked to the GAO participants about writing, I started getting odd looks from the 30 or 40 assembled. Soon I got questions. But I'd never heard "writing" questions like these:
- what's the essence of GAO style?
- how do we make our reports deductive?
- how do we make our reports clear and still pass through "referencing"?
- in what order should we arrange the four elements of a finding when we write?
- how is "condition" different from "cause"?
- do all findings need to link back to our objectives?
- how do you write a good objective?
- what's the best way to deal with attribution?
- what's the best kind of evidence for developing "cause"?
- should we subordinate "condition" when we're showing instances of non-compliance?
These were just a few of the questions participants asked. I had no idea what they were even talking about.
THEN IT HIT ME!
I'd spent my time as a student learning--and now as a writing professor I was teaching--a very specific kind of writing...
WRITING FOR TEACHERS.
It's often called "academic writing." (But that's a vague and ambiguous name for what we teach students about writing in college. Let's save the phrase "academic writing" for the kind of writing professors do for their learnéd journals.)
What we actually teach in college (throughout all school, really) is best thought of simply as WRITING FOR TEACHERS.
This epiphany in the middle of my first writing class at GAO stripped me naked. I realized I knew next to nothing about "real" writing....
Humbled and stricken in that moment, I managed to get through the day with GAO. The participants soon realized I had little if anything of value to offer and politely listened to what I said throughout the rest of the class.
Trying to recover from the trauma of the day, driving home that evening, I thought about the obvious ways in which writing-for-teachers differs from writing in the workplace:
- first, the difference with the most repercussions is "audience."
In school we don't have a REAL READER to write to, a real reader who really needs the information we have to offer, a real reader who is busy and distracted, who expects useful information fast! Instead we have a teacher who gets paid to read what we write...to read it and GRADE it, carefully marking every error along the way (((as grading time permits))).
As students, we are told, incessantly, about the import of "audience" in writing. But, LOL, there's almost never a real audience. Instead, we imagine phantom readers who might, in some other dimension, be interested in our prose...but we know the only actual reader is our teacher.
By the way, this is fine if the teacher wants to know specific things to test our learning: how did the Battle of Gettysburg fall to the Union? what is the difference between a monocot and a dicot? explain Feuerbach's Theorem on the 9-point circle. Etc. Such writing has a real audience who has real questions, and the real questions have real answers, which the student must be able to convey.
Most often in writing classes, students are assigned "essays" of some sort. IMVHO, essays are the worst writing assignment ever for beginning writers...they have no REAL audience. Why does this matter? Because students must learn writing from the ground up.
The most basic aspect of writing is generating USEFUL CONTENT for the reader. Without useful content, nothing else matters. The grammar of generating content should come before the grammar of how to present useful content. Both grammars, obviously, are indispensable. (Let's save essays for advanced writing classes.)
Without a real reader, there's no such thing as real content.
- Also, teachers often give page requirements for writing: write a ten-page research paper on Teen Pregnancy, on Global Warming, on Tribalism in America, etc., etc.
Why these topics? Why ten pages? Who, may I ask, truly needs this information from this student??? (Clearly, just the teacher.) How do you develop useful content when there's no real reader to write for?
Those who are successful in college writing classes learn to play this game. They learn eloquence and self-expression. They know how to impress the teacher. But the skills they learn, however fluently, usually don't work so well in "the real world."
Writing teachers have for a very long time assumed that eloquence and self-expression were the primary goals of college writing instruction. (And, of course, there are those who turn up their noses at eloquence and self-expression and focus simply on "correctness.")
But writing for busy, distracted readers at work is a very different skill, which must be clearly defined for students and taught focusing always on serving the real reader.
To cut this long story short, let me just say that in that moment at GAO, I realized I had to shut up and listen, carefully, asking many questions of many people. And, finally, I had to develop a systematic method for teaching students and those in the workplace how to write effectively, which I'd define as generating useful information for real readers who really need the information and presenting it in the most helpful way possible (for the reader).
Yes, my own Little Red Schoolhouse...for the real world.
This experience has revealed to me how sadly meager and short-sighted all the lavish, well-meaning efforts of writing teachers are. That students enter the workplace with poor writing skills is not a big surprise. Consider all the articles and surveys that decry the writing skills of recent graduates. Eloquence and self-expression are fine. Correctness is necessary. But why atomize the activity we call "writing"?
The basics of writing have changed.
Starting from the ground up now means the first task in helping students write effectively is teaching them specific techniques for generating useful information for real readers. That's #1!
- Throw out the useless transmission model of communication (sender/receiver model). It's not robust enough.
- Show students how "writing" is a form of "conversation." Conversations are grounded in questions and answers. The key to generating useful content is simply knowing what real questions the real reader has about a real "issue."
- Then you need to develop a methodology to research the answers. Once you have the answers, you have the useful content the reader needs...this technique is called "question factoring."
- Teach document design.
- Teach chunking and labeling.
- Teach deductive structure.
- Teach paragraph construction.
- Teach the sentence core--how the human mind is wired to make sense of language (not S-V-O).
- Teach sentence grammar: it's quite simple, very functional...think of it as the special vocabulary we need to talk about sentences, the way an auto mechanic can talk about a car.
Serve the reader!
To do that, you need a reader, a real reader, a real reader who needs real information to deal with the real issue in question.
Yes, I wrote a textbook that offers this approach (Mastering Workplace Writing--https://www.amazon.com/Mastering-Workplace-Writing-Harvey-Lillywhite/dp/0692520082/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1533919989&sr=8-1&keywords=mastering+workplace+writing). Buy it. use it.
Yes, I wrote a 200-page ebook full of tons of pictures that cover this approach (Mindful Writing at Work--https://gumroad.com/l/mindfulwriting). Download it, be inspired.
Invite me to your college, school, or office to talk this kind of writing.
But, above all, serve the reader.
That was my revelation.
It changed my life.