Learning to Write

When it comes to teaching writing, we have studies, data, books, articles, and complex standards. And we have a never-ending flood of each. New ones every week. It is impossible to keep up with the deluge.

It makes me think of this satirical jab by C.S. Lewis at the myopia of a focus on research:

“Hypothesis after hypothesis has been tried, and still we can’t find out. Yet we must never lose hope; more and more complicated theories, fuller and fuller collections of data, richer rewards for researchers who make progress… all this, pursued and accelerated to the very end of time, cannot, surely, fail to succeed.” (Lewis, C.S.. The Screwtape Letters. 87)

And reminds me of the unspoken plea in this from Paula Stacey:

“The truth is, the more we try to tease apart what writing is and serve it up processed and predigested, the more we either confuse students or, …deny them engagement in the messy process that is thinking. At the very least, it is a benign waste of time and empty calories in the educational diet. At the worst, it crowds out the rich and complex array of intellectual nutrients we need.” (Stacey, Paula. Ed Week. Vol. 31, Issue 04. 26-27)

Certainly there is value in measuring and tracking a student’s progress, but I want to offer some practical counterpoints to the science-lab approach to teaching writing… by simply sharing some simple quotes:

“Unlike medicine or the other sciences, writing has no new discoveries to spring on us. We’re in no danger of reading in our morning newspaper that a breakthrough has been made in how to write a clear English sentence—that information has been around since the King James Bible. We know that verbs have more vigor than nouns, that active verbs are better than passive verbs, that short words and sentences are easier to read than long ones, that concrete details are easier to process than vague abstractions.” (Zinsser, William. On Writing Well. 297)

There is no royal path to good writing; and such paths as do exist do not lead through neat critical gardens, various as they are, but through the jungles of self, the world, and of craft. (West, Jessamyn. Saturday Review. 21 September 1957)

And, of course, reminds me of quotes from Peter Elbow:

“I discovered that I couldn’t write when I tried to write everything right, and I could write when I let myself write things wrong.” (Elbow, Peter. “50 Years of Research On Writing: What Have We Learned”. Voices, University of California. 2006)

“Hopeful Truths

  • It is possible for anyone to produce a lot of writing with pleasure and satisfaction and without too much struggle.
  • It is possible for anyone to figure out what he or she really means and wants to say and finally get it clear on paper.
  • It is possible for anyone to write things that others will want to read.
  • When people manage to say what they really mean and to get themselves into their writing, readers tend to have the experience of making contact with the writer—an experience that most people seek”

(Elbow, Peter. Everyone Can Write. Oxford University Press, 2000).

“Some Premises

  • Students understand and retain course material much better when they write copiously about it. We tend to think of learning as input and writing as output, but it also works the other way around. Learning is increased by “putting out”; writing causes input.
  • Students won’t take writing seriously till all faculty demand it.
  • Writing needn’t take any time away from course material.
  • We can demand good writing without teaching it. The demand itself teaches much.
  • Students won’t write enough unless we assign more writing than we can comment on–or even read. There is no law against not reading what we make them write.
  • Writing can have a powerful communal or social dimension; it doesn’t have to feel solitary.”

(Elbow, Peter. “Writing for learning—not just for demonstrating learning”. University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1-4. National Teaching and Learning Forum. 1994)

Here are select quotes by Peter Elbow from an interview with John Bush, “On Writing II” for Critique Magazine, Nov 2003:

“The most important thing a writing teacher can do is write with the students.”

“An engaging prompt is the most important factor in getting students to write.”

“Over the years, I’ve finally concluded that safety in writing is my highest priority. Or, at least, it’s a foundation that I’ve got. I must make a classroom where safety happens, but due to the lack of safety in some classrooms, student writers don’t take risks; they don’t feel safe when they write. They are trying to follow directions. But teachers like students to take risks and to be adventuresome: I’d like to use an analogy for adventuresome and risk-taking writing. We want students to jump off a diving board at twenty feet. That’s taking a risk. But if we hold a gun to somebody’s head while they’re standing on a twenty foot high diving board, they’re actually not taking a risk. They’re reducing their risk by jumping off the board in order not to be shot. The only way you can get someone to really take a risk is to build up foundations of safety. We want to get them to jump from a one foot diving board, then a five foot diving board, then gradually, until they dare, jump off a twenty foot diving board. I think safety is terribly underemphasized, and with grading, it’s hard to pull it off.”

“[The traits in most writing rubrics] seem to me the dullest and least useful questions we can ask about a paper. There are so many more interesting questions—what does it say? How does the reader react? What is it almost saying? What is the structure? All those are non-evaluative questions. Anyway, of all the things I’m interested in, I’m not interested in trying to lay down guidelines of what constitutes an A. I’m much more interested in those other questions than I am in (I have a little litany here) how good or bad it is, what the strengths or weaknesses are, and how we make it better. Yeah, we have to do that sometimes, but there are so many more interesting questions.”

Maybe teaching writing need not be a mad scramble for the latest research, for the latest magic bullet, for the latest great instruction. Maybe we already have what we need.

Maybe teaching need only be teaching helping student. Human to human.

If you want to go deeper into teaching writing, here is a one hour video titled, “50 Years of Research on Writing: What Have We Learned?” (Shocker… Peter Elbow is one of the panelists.)



  1. Excellent, well-written post that puts words to what many students are thinking and feeling (and questioning) about the writing process.

    “If you look at a piece of finished writing, all neat and orderly, and know nothing about how it actually came about, you might deduce that it was created using what Arlo Guthrie calls ‘the good old-fashioned boring method.’ But this isn’t how good, finished writing usually occurs…” Bolker (1998) goes on to report that Brett Candlish Millier looks at the seventeen drafts of Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘One Art” to discover how exquisite writing really gets done! The most shocking thing he found out from reading Bishop’s drafts was that her first draft looked pretty awful!! (Bolker, 1998, p. 33).

    Just write! Begin with a point, a question, a thought, a passion, and engage the reader to go on a journey that will move them as it moves you!

  2. I look forward to watching the video… you are a teacher extraordinaire, Mr. Huhn.

    There is no royal path to good writing; and such paths as do exist do not lead through neat critical gardens, various as they are, but through the jungles of self, the world, and of craft. (West, Jessamyn. Saturday Review. 21 September 1957)


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