(This post will take you 7 minutes and 59 seconds to read.)
My approach to teaching writing is radically reader-focused.
In my view, practical writing is nothing but serving the reader. Students should realize how very important the skill of serving the reader is for them in their lives as students and future workplace writers in our new connection economy. So be sure to emphasize this.
Further, students must appreciate how “writing” has two aspects, which can be thought of as the back-stage and on-stage aspects of writing. Writing is like a musical performance: the performer does the music onstage for 60 minutes in front of a live audience. That’s the on-stage aspect. But this performance is made possible only through elaborate and often very complex back-stage preparations (starting with that musician’s music lessons at age 6….).
What appears on the screen/page in front of the reader in real time is the performance, the on-stage part of writing. It must provide useful content in a way that best serves the reader. All the preparations for that performance constitute the back-stage aspects of writing: finding a real reader and a real ISSUE the real reader is interested in, figuring out how to generate useful content, etc. Make sure your students understand this.
Make sure your students leave your writing class with the following 10 writing skills:
1. Students must know that effective writing is writing that a real reader finds useful and easy to read.
2. Students must know that useful writing means writing that provides a real reader (defined as a reader who really needs the information) with answers to all her appropriate questions about an ISSUE the reader is interested in. (I see all practical writing as ISSUE DRIVEN. I think of an ISSUE as an area of interest/concern/risk for the reader.)
3. Students must know that the most basic practical writing skill is generating useful CONTENT, so students need to learn QUESTION FACTORING (QF), which is the most efficient way to generate useful content.
QF is the process of figuring out all the real reader’s questions about the ISSUE in question.
The writer “factors” the ISSUE into all the appropriate reader questions. (Question outlines are invaluable for this step.)
QF can be done by asking the reader what she wants to know. However, it’s often true that readers (who want real answers to their real questions about a real ISSUE) don’t know the appropriate questions to ask. That’s where the writer’s expertise comes into play. The writer is presumably writing because the writer is “an expert” about the particular ISSUE. (That is, I go to a doctor to ask health questions, to a mechanic to ask car questions, to a golf pro to ask golf questions—you get my drift.)
The writer must know from experience/expertise (or research) what the appropriate questions are for a given ISSUE.
Knowing the questions is the magical gateway to generating useful content.
4. Students need to know what methodology is and why the value of the content is only as good as the methodology used to find the answers to the reader’s questions. So discuss with students the reality of methodology. Sometimes the information comes from our personal experience/expertise. Sometimes we need to do research. So students should be aware of what makes good research for a given ISSUE.
5. Students should learn to make outlines before they write. Once the information that will answer the reader’s appropriate questions has been gathered, the writer should make a sentence outline, listing key points and, if appropriate, supporting points. Keep in mind that a TOPIC is no more than a QUESTION and its ANSWER. Supporting topics/points are just smaller questions and their answers.
The teacher (or necessary internal stakeholders) should evaluate both the question outline to assess the quality of the questions being asked given the ISSUE in question. The teacher should also evaluate the sentence outline for content and organization.
Only when both outlines are okay, should the student be allowed to write.
6. Students must understand that readers read/scan/absorb any practical document by asking three macro-questions:
A. WHAT IS THIS & WHY SHOULD I CARE?
B. WHAT’S THE “STORY”?
C. WHAT, IF ANYTHING, IS NEXT?
Each of these three macro-questions must be addressed in the corresponding part of the document. (Students need to understand this process.) That is, documents have three main parts. Each part addresses one of the the reader's three macro-questions:
A. INTRODUCTION = (WHAT IS THIS & WHY SHOULD I CARE?) = brief statement of why the writer is writing and, if the reader doesn’t know, why the ISSUE should matter to the reader. AND it should end with a brief PREVIEW of the main points in the document.
B. DISCUSSION = (WHAT’S THE “STORY”?) = each topic is discussed as fully as required to answer the reader’s questions. AND each new topic should be visually indicated with a heading (preferably in sentence form) so the reader clearly SEES where each new major topic begins (subheadings can also be used if required).
C. ENDING = (WHAT, IF ANYTHING, IS NEXT?) = a statement of what needs to be done next, if anything, by the reader or writer. If nothing needs to be done, the ending is merely a quick offer to help if needed in the future, maybe a quick thanks for the reader’s consideration, or any other polite closing.
7. Students must know that although inductive organization is sometimes important in practical writing, by far the majority of practical documents should be structured deductively—as in journalism, the main point should come first, then the details. Deductive structure offers a big service to BUSY/DISTRACTED readers.
However, few students know how to make documents deductive throughout. They should understand how the PREVIEW at the end of the INTRO provides a road map for the reader and how headings SHOW readers where new topics begin. AND, if they are sentence headings, they can state the main point for that section, just as a newspaper headline does. They should also understand how to make paragraphs deductive by putting the main point first.
Learning to create thoroughly deductive documents will help students produce writing that is carefully focused and concise.
8. Students should be introduced to the basic principles of document design. They should understand how different designs affect comprehension and readability. Instead of teaching them to follow generic formats, they should learn about their document design choices and be able to design a reading experience for the reader that will be most helpful. This discussion of document design should include a discussion of and practice in developing visual content--graphics of all kinds.
9. Students should know how to manage paragraphs. They should know that long paragraphs (over 8 lines long) are not reader-friendly and suck emphasis from what's stuck in the middle. They should master the deductive paragraph to serve busy readers better. They should understand paragraph unity. They should understand paragraph coherence techniques, such as the known/new contract.
10. Students should master basic sentence skills so they can control the sentence core. They should know how and when to use S (ACTOR) + V (TRUE ACTION) + O (RECEIVER OF THE ACTION) sentences and S (NOUN) + V (LINKING VERB) + C (ADJECTIVE/NOUN that complements the subject) sentences. (Learning a little grammatical terminology helps students write better!)
They should know when to use coordination and subordination.
They should know how to spot nominalizations and convert them into verbs to reduce wordiness, when possible.
Students should be aware of word choice—issues of correctness, precision, and tone are especially important.
If students have remedial issues with punctuation and grammar, they should be referred to the writing lab for remedial help.
Do your students learn these 10 writing skills?
P.S. Most people think the most basic aspect of writing is grammar and punctuation. I don’t. It isn't. Ground zero is generating useful content, without which nothing matters. Actually, English punctuation and grammar are fairly high-level skills, especially for students who write with an accent.
Here's where I direct you to my two books. Or just email me and we can chat!