(This post will take you 9 minutes and 31 seconds to read.)

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: 

  1. what is the practical use of writing that students will want to learn?
  2. how exactly does my approach to one-step-at-a-time writing instruction work?

Before I answer those two important questions, take just a minute to understand the background/context against which I offer my answers to these questions;


My approach to teaching writing, which is nothing but practical, offers an alternative to what I perceive to be a very standard approach to teaching college writing...an approach that can be called, to put it kindly, a more aesthetic approach.

Though I could select many hundreds of examples of the standard approach, I've selected a representative excerpt from the Middlebury College Writing and Rhetoric program's website for Faculty Resources on best practices for teaching college writing. This excerpt is Step 2 from a document titled "Nine Steps in the Writing Process." (see their website here: http://www.middlebury.edu/academics/writing/teaching/assessment)

[spacing, bolding, and italics for emphasis are mine....]

"2. Searching for a paper idea: Starting from what he knows, the writer casts about until he feels he has something that will work in terms of the writing situation of the moment.

"Sometimes what he comes upon is no more than a feeling and at that one too indefinite, too uncertain to be called a purpose; really it will be something like a sense of direction, a feeling that if he starts writing along a certain line, something right will come into being.

"At other times he may get a sense of shape or form; he may have the beginning of his piece, or the end, or both; and the whole will grow from the part or parts.

"Sometimes the writer will have a notion or an idea--some thing that he wants to say, that he thinks others should hear or will want to.

"Generally speaking, what the writer doesn't have is material. And a writer writes by finding material that will somehow give reality to his feelings, his notions, his ideas."

That's the excerpt: STEP 2. It makes me respond very emotionally. It actually exasperates me. Here's why....

This step imagines a student in a college-writing class trying to come up with something to say about nothing in particular for no real reader. Putting a student in this situation, to me, is highly unsettling. (No wonder so many students HATE writing classes.)

Imagine a student trained in this approach to writing trying to write on the job, or, the student equivalent, in a class where a student must write a real paper (that is, a paper that must address the teacher's real questions).


CONTENT comes from knowing what information your reader needs. It's easiest to imagine this as understanding all the appropriate questions the reader actually has about the ISSUE in question.

The ISSUE IN QUESTION part is fundamental to understanding REAL writing, as opposed to casting-about-writing. All writing at work and in the classroom (minus the writing classroom) grows from an ISSUE--an area of shared interest between the real reader and the writer.

College writers should be taught that almost all the writing they'll have to do in life, and while they're in school (minus the writing classroom), will spring from an actual ISSUE. The student needs to be able to identify that ISSUE. The student must also know how to discover the set of reader-questions from the ISSUE. This is NOT "casting about." 

Once you see that "casting about" defines a HUGE problem for me, you can go through the rest of the "Nine Steps..." and well imagine my negative reaction to the advice.

Yes, this advice comes from assigning "essays," from believing that the goal of teaching writing is "self-expression" and "eloquence." It ignores the crucial fact that writing for almost everybody is a highly practical skill, a skill that can be taught (one step at a time, focusing on very practical, tangible writing concepts/techniques) without "casting about."

I cry out in the wilderness: Please begin by teaching PRACTICAL WRITING. Once the student knows how to do that, any interested students can then move on and learn more advanced, aesthetic writing principles. (Begin by teaching practical writing...in Grade 1.)

1: what is the practical use of writing that students will want to learn?

Students should want to learn two practical uses for writing: A) writing for teachers, B) writing at work. 

A) They should want to learn the writing concepts/skills that will help them on writing assignments they have in school (minus the writing classroom).

Let's not call this kind of writing "academic writing." Let's reserve that term for the learnèd articles professors and researchers write for academic and technical journals.

Let's call this kind of writing "writing for teachers" (WFT).

Outside the college-writing class, students are expected to write "papers" to reflect their knowledge, critical thinking, and research abilities. Thus the following WFT topics might be assigned. Each topic calls for practical writing skills (which begin with answering the reader's questions).

  • Discuss, in no more than 500 words, the strategy Hamlet uses to discover who killed his father.
  • In no more than 2,000 words, describe, using three examples from each writer, Hemingway's use of parataxis in "Hills Like White Elephants" and Faulkner's use of hypotaxis in "A Rose for Emily." Discuss possible emotional effects of each style. Is there a reason why these writers use these techniques?
  • Describe, in no more than 2,000 words, the military strategies of General Robert E. Lee and General George B. McClellan at the Battle of Antietam. What were the results of these strategies?
  • In no more than five pages,  discuss the following. One of the most famous paintings of Escher shows a disc filled with little angels and demons crowding towards the boundary circle. What refractive index would produce the metric distortions shown in that picture?
  • After the corporate scandals of the early 2000s, Congress passed legislation that it hoped would renew faith in the accounting profession. Study the laws that were passed and examine the effects of those laws. Why were they passed? How has the accounting profession changed as a result of the laws? What conclusions can you draw from your findings? What recommendations can you make to accounting educators regarding programs that train accountants? You have a limit of 10 pages for your discussion.

  • In no more than three pages, discuss the following question: Should nurses be authorized to prescribe medicine? What would the implications be for nurses, patients, and doctors?

All these topics require students to address real questions from a real reader: their professor. The professor actually needs the information to determine whether the student has learned a specific body of information. The student doesn't need to CAST ABOUT for CONTENT. The content, quite clearly, will come from the main questions and all the follow-up questions the student must anticipate and answer.

Students must be taught this practical concept: CONTENT comes from the reader's questions (unless you don't have a real reader who actually needs the information, i.e., a teacher who has asked a student to cast about for a possible essay topic--see 1580, Michel de Montaigne, &c.).

B) They should want to learn the writing concepts/skills that will help them to write better so they can have a marketable skill when they apply to jobs and when they actually have to write at work.

Almost all the writing one does at work is practical writing, which I'd define simply as the writing a writer does to convey useful information to a real reader who needs real information about a real ISSUE in question.

2: how exactly does my approach to one-step-at-a-time writing instruction work?

My approach to teaching practical writing differs markedly from the standard approach to teaching writing in the college-writing classroom. I advocate a "SYSTEMS APPROACH." It's really the step-by-step approach referenced in the title of this post.

You teach students that any document has back-stage and on-stage aspects...just like a musical concert from any student's favorite musical artist.

The musician on stage for 60 minutes gives "the performance." Similarly, any piece of writing (printed or digital) is "the performance."

But the performance onstage is impossible without all the backstage support--all that happens behind the stage. This includes getting an act together, selling tickets, travel, equipment transport, setting up the stage, etc. Similarly, any piece of writing requires backstage support.

First, there must be an ISSUE. There must be a real reader who is connected to this ISSUE. There's the discovery of all the reader's necessary questions about this ISSUE. There's the methodology required to find this information. There's the research needed to discover the answers. There's evidence to support all statements. And, if there's evaluation involved, there must be appropriate evaluative criteria, an accurate assessment of the actual condition, a clear sense of the effect of any gaps between criteria and condition, and an understanding of the causes of these gaps so recommendations (to causes) can be generated.

All these back-stage aspects of writing are necessary to develop useful content--that is, CONTENT that the real reader will actually find USEFUL.

The on-stage aspects of writing include other systems, best studied separately (step by step):


I believe a writing class should take a step-by-step approach to teaching students the very specific, tangible concepts/skills associated with the back-stage and on-stage aspects of writing. (Writing is not just the show on the stage. It's all aspects of the production.)

Here's where I direct you to my two books. Or just email me and we can chat!







No more CASTING ABOUT…please!!!