Academic writing Writing

Steven Mintz — Helping Students Become Better Writers

This post is an essay by history professor Steven Mintz about how to help students improve their writing. It was published recently in Inside Higher Ed.  Here’s a link to the original.

He gives some very good advice here, which builds on the advice of some authors on writing whom I’ve used with my own students, people such as Joseph Williams and Gerald Graff.  

Here are his key points:

  • Keep in mind why you are writing this particular piece, so you don’t wander off topic.
  • Remember that writing is how we think about difficult subjects. Bad writing comes from bad thinking.
  • Your job as a writer is not to give your opinion but to persuade the reader that your argument is valid and important.
  • Writing is re-writing.  Nobody gets it right in the first draft, which exists only in order to get you started thinking through an issue.  It’s in revision that you move the text toward something you’ll be proud of.

I hope you find this useful — for you and for your students.

Helping Students Become Better Writers

Are cognitive science and psycholinguistics better guides to writing than Strunk and White?

Steven Mintz

October 22, 2021

There is no greater gift to give to your students than the ability to write clearly, compellingly, and analytically.

We may not be able to help them write with style, grace, elegance, and panache, but we can certainly help them write with clarity, concision, precision, impact, engagement, and coherence.

But we rarely do that.  Writing instruction is largely relegated to first-year rhetoric and composition courses (often taught by creative writers who reject the notion that they work for the department of corrections) or to a writing center.

It’s obvious why this is the case.  Most faculty members lack any formal training in writing instruction.  We lead busy lives, juggling teaching, research, service, and personal responsibilities.  We have too many students to pay much attention to any but a few.  Anyway, providing feedback that goes beyond substance strikes most of us as too demanding.

But failing to engage in writing instruction is anything but a victimless crime.  I think it’s fair to say that college graduates with weak writing skills will, sooner rather than later, hit a rather low glass ceiling.  Any job above the entry level requires drafting proposals, writing report, submitting grant or other funding applications, entering employee evaluations, composing sales pitches and many other forms of written expression.

The classic approach to writing advice – exemplified by Strunk and White’s Elements of Style – lays out a series of Dr. Seuss-like simple, even memorable, rules of grammar, usage, and composition:

  • “Use definite, specific, concrete language”
  • “Avoid starting a sentence with however.”
  •  “Omit needless words.”
  • “Avoid tame, colorless, hesitating, noncommittal language.”

Among the text’s many well-known injunctions: avoid the passive voice, begin paragraphs with topic sentences, use concrete language, and, at least at first, steer clear of mannerisms, tricks, and adornments.

Strunk and White’s readers learn how to use parentheses, possessive nouns, commas, colons, cases, and hyphens, how to avoid misspelling or misusing words (such as homonyms), and to eschew idiomatic phrases.

All good advice, but not especially useful to students who must respond to a prompt or write an essay.

Strunk and White’s success encouraged a host of competitors to throw their hats into the ring, of which the most widely read include John R. Trimble’s Writing with Style, Joseph M. Williams’s Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace, and William Zinsser’s On Writing Well.

Some of their advice is similar to Strunk and White’s:  Avoid clutter.  Steer clear of trite, wordy, or useless expressions.  Value brevity, clarity, and simplicity.  Replace fancy language with ordinary words.  Focus on nouns and strong, active verbs rather than adjectives and adverbs.

But much of the advice directly challenges Strunk and White’s preoccupation with grammatical and stylistic rules.  Trimble, Williams, and Zinsser all seek to move beyond Strunk and White’s platitudes, and show how to translate abstract principles into the construction of coherent, powerful sentences, and cohesive paragraphs.

Thus, Zinsser, for example, emphasizes the importance of voice, flow, and structure, beginning with a lede to engage readers.  He calls on writers to speak in the first person, talk directly to the reader, and use various tricks to keep readers attentive. 

All very interesting, but not appropriate in most academic or occupational settings. 

The problem with much of the popular advice is that the precepts strike many readers, hungry for useful suggestions, as excessively abstract and rarified.  Much more practical is Gerald Graff’s They Say / I Say, which provides templates that students can deploy.  

According to Graff, students misunderstand academic writing when they think of it simply as a matter of conveying information. Rather, the key to successful academic writing is to situate an essay in the context of a larger conversation, debate, or controversy.  

Right on, I say.

More recently, the Harvard cognitive scientist and linguist Steven Pinker offered yet another alternative to Strunk and White.  In Pinker’s view, language is a living entity that cannot be reduced to a series of rigid rules or precepts.  Rather, the measure of success of a work of non-fiction is whether it helps a reader make sense of complicated realities. The art of writing is, therefore, to take a complex web of ideas and translate these ideas into a narrative or an argument presented in a linear sequence.  

Much as effective teaching benefits from an understanding of certain principles drawn from cognitive science – for example, those involving active engagement, retrieval and transfer, mental modeling, cognitive load, and metacognition – so writing, too, profits from an understanding of cognitive theory.

Here are a few lessons that I draw out of my own engagement with cognitive theory and how these lessons can help us improve student writing at scale.

1. Make sure your students understand the purpose of a particular writing assignment.

Are you certain that your students understand an assignment’s aims?  To describe?  Inform?  Argue?   Assess?   Analyze?  Persuade?   Based on my experience, many students, perhaps most, have no idea about the a particular assignment’s objectives.  No wonder their written work seems confused.

Once students grasp an assignment’s aim, they are much better equipped to write appropriately.  Students, in short, need to grasp your learning objectives.  Only then will they know whether a particular piece of writing should be descriptive, argumentative, analytic, or evaluative.

2. Explain how bad writing grows out of flawed thinking.

Why do writers rely on the passive voice?  Because they are unwilling or unable to explain causality and agency.

Why do writers hedge, mix metaphors, rely on jargon and nominalizations, or make use of overly complicated syntax?  To mask unexamined assumptions.  

Why is an essay disorganized?  Because the author’s argument isn’t coherent or logically developed.

Sure, we’ve all encountered bad writing that is largely a byproduct of haste, a lack of preparation, or inattention to basic principles of grammar.  But more often, such writing represents a failure to clarify and develop one’s argument.  That ability isn’t innate.  We, as instructors, need to teach students how to generate and refine a thesis, weigh and evaluate evidence, and organize an argument.

3. Make sure that your students understanding that writing is thinking.

Many myths surround the practice of writing:  That more words or fancier words are better than shorter or ordinary words.  That good writers are born, not made.  That the five-paragraph essay offers a perfect template for any academic assignment.

But the most destructive misconception, in my view, is that you shouldn’t write until you know exactly what you plan to say.  In most instances, it’s the writing process itself that generates ideas. That’s certainly the case for me.   As I write, a thesis or an argument emerges and gradually becomes more nuanced as weaknesses or a counter-arguments appear.

4. Remind your students:  An opinion is not an argument.

All of us have opinions, intuitions, and prejudgments, many of which simply reflect implicit personal biases,  prejudices, or emotions.  An argument, in contrast, must rest on evidence, knowledge, logical reasoning, and critical thinking.  

Effective writing involves making and developing a nuanced and compelling argument.  You must develop the argument in a well-organized manner, marshaling and evaluating evidence and carefully considering alternate viewpoints and interpretations.  We need to guide students through that process.

5. Writing is re-writing.

Polished prose reads effortlessly. It’s witty, engaging, and often conversational. But students need to know that crafting such prose is hard work.  It doesn’t come effortlessly.

Writing is a craft, and like any craft requires craftsmanship.  It requires practice, professional judgment, attention to detail, taste, and fine-tuning. 

Let me be clear:  Writing is not simply yet another marketable skill that will increase a student’s value in the job market.  It is, in my view, the central skill that lies at the very heart of a college education.

It’s only through writing that arguments or ideas take their most sophisticated form.  When we teach students to write effectively, what we are really doing is teaching them how to think: To formulate a compelling thesis or interpretation.  To connect, critically evaluate, and apply ideas.  To develop generalizations, synthesize contrasting viewpoints, and present an argument logically and persuasively.  

We’ve all encountered great talkers. I myself have encountered some of the academy’s most impressive conversationalists, and can say categorically that Dr. Johnson had nothing that these talkers didn’t have.  Their humor, cleverness, storytelling ability, passion, and quick wittedness are incredible.  But when we review a transcript, their magic typically slips away.

Whatever one thinks of Plato’s Theory of Forms, it seems to me, that the ultimate reality of ideas and arguments lies not in the world of speech but in writing.  For without writing, thinking is inevitably unfocused, facile, disorganized, and superficial.  

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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