Secret to good writing? Rewriting!
A writing coach advises instructors how to teach students to write - no matter what discipline you teach
"Writing should be a part of all [university] courses, because in the real world we all write," asserts Toby Fulwiler. "And good writing can be a whole lot of things - like a passive [voice], evasive memo terminating someone's job" - if that's what is called for.
The University of Alberta's Writing Task Force recently hosted Dr. Fulwiler's "Teaching-with-Writing" workshops, giving faculty an opportunity to learn how to incorporate writing into all courses, across the curriculum. The task force, established last fall, has a mandate to assess writing instruction and writing competency at the university, and to develop a model for improvement.
Dr. Fulwiler spent his entire academic career teaching students to write and faculty to teach writing. For him, it's the writing process that's important to learn. "The goal shouldn't be to teach students to write, but to guide them through the process of writing." To do this, you don't have to be a great writer yourself, he says. You simply need to use the right teaching techniques. He demonstrates many of them in his workshops, guiding participants through writing exercises and activities that they can then use in their classrooms.
Dr. Fulwiler fell into this area of academia by accident. After earning his PhD in American literature at the University of Wisconsin in 1973, he soon realized there were no jobs for a doctoral graduate who wanted to teach Herman Melville. So he accepted a position at Michigan Technical University, teaching first-year writing classes and a bit of American literature. "There was a lot of concern about the writing abilities of Michigan Tech's students," he explains. "So, I became involved in designing a program for instructors - to teach them how to teach writing.
There were some new ideas at the time, he adds. "One of them was writing across the curriculum." His workshops, his philosophy on writing, and the numerous books he has written and co-authored all draw upon ideas that evolved from this movement.
You might say that what started out as an accident has become his passion. Officially retired, he teaches writing part-time at the University of Vermont and delivers workshops at postsecondary institutions across the continent.
Writing to learn
One of the techniques he recommends instructors use is "freewriting." Give students a prompt or teach a new concept, and then ask them to write about it - quickly, with no concerns about style, grammar or mechanics, and with no fear of being evaluated or graded. This is freewriting. "Students shouldn't think that the reason they are forced to write in college is so that their writing can be graded. They should see that writing itself promotes learning," explains Dr. Fulwiler in an interview before giving one of his workshops at U of A.
"It gets students to start focusing in a particular direction. It gets them to take an idea further, make connections," he says. "This is the 'getting out of your head' that is 'writing to learn'."
When students engage in low-risk, writing-to-learn activities like freewriting, they discover what they know, what they don't know, what they're confused about. This writing can take many forms - letters, notes, diagrams, early drafts of papers, even questions.
"The students in your classes who are the least likely to raise their hands to ask questions are the ones who are the most lost," Dr. Fulwiler points out. They'll feel "safe" writing down the questions and submitting them. Just be sure you answer them, he warns.
"My own personal belief is that students aren't motivated to write, or don't care about writing," says Dr. Fulwiler. The secret to unlocking that motivation is allowing and encouraging students to use their language, not the jargon-filled, restrictive language of academia that is yours.
One way to do this is to incorporate peer editing or peer review activities into your teaching, and explain that these are the norm. "If students get feedback from their classmates, they might actually begin to care about their writing," says Dr. Fulwiler. The Blair Handbook, a comprehensive guide to the writing process (named after its original publisher, Blair Press) that he wrote with news editor Alan R. Hayakawa, notes: "Few great books or good stories were written by one author in one draft without some kind of help along the way."
Betsy Sargent, co-chair of the University of Alberta's Writing Task Force and a professor in the English and film studies department, likes this approach. "In the real world," she observes, "you have other readers first. You write a grant proposal, for example, and someone looks at it and tells you how to make it more powerful. You get the chance to edit it and polish it."
In many ways, the method is all about giving students more chances or opportunities to write and to improve their writing. Multiple-draft assignments do this.
"You have to respect the fact that a student's first draft will be bad," says Dr. Fulwiler. "So, I don't settle for that awkward, lousy first draft. I have that student work with it to develop something better. In a first-year writing class I would probably assign three papers, with five drafts each. You praise the good parts in each draft, and you question the awkward parts, all towards encouraging a better draft next time."
Multiple-draft assignments steer students away from the habit of throwing a paper together the night before it's due. When students do that, they're essentially handing in a first draft, which you grade. In terms of the writing process, there's not much going on. And revision, which is a key component of the writing process - well, there's obviously none. "Revising is the route to better writing," says Dr. Fulwiler. "So, a writing course is really a rewriting course."
Broaden this perspective across the curriculum and into all the disciplines, and look at this way: Any writing assignment or task is a rewriting assignment or task, whether you're a student writing a research paper, lab report or thesis, or you're employed and writing a business letter, proposal or technical document.
"Writing is one of those skills that evolve as people mature," says Dr. Fulwiler. "How do you get to be a good writer? By doing it." So, he advises, give your students as many opportunities as possible to do it, by guiding them through the process in ways that build enthusiasm and get them writing to learn, and learning to write.
The Blair Handbook, 5th Edition, by Toby Fulwiler and Alan R. Hayakawa, 2007, Pearson Prentice Hall
Writing to Learn: Strategies for Assigning and Responding to Writing Across the Disciplines, New Directions for Teaching and Learning, No. 69, edited by Mary Deane Sorcinelli and Peter Elbow, 1997, Jossey-Bass Inc.
Top teaching techniques
Here are some of the best ways to guide your students towards better writing.
1. Exploratory writing
Incorporate it into every class. It can be brainstorming, list-making, freewriting (see main article), looping, outlining, or question writing. It's low-risk and it gets students thinking. It's active learning.
2. Pre-writing activities
When you give an assignment, set a deadline that allows enough time for students to read, research and outline. These are key parts of the writing process.
3. Test out an assignment yourself first
Give yourself the same restrictions and the same time frame. Is it realistic? Will you be asking students to perform 10 cognitive activities for a five-page assignment that they have one week to complete? If so, revamp your assignment.
4. Make assignments and projects relevant
Betsy Sargent (co-chair of the U of A's Writing Task Force) asks each of her first-year English students to interview someone working in the job or academic discipline he or she is considering going into. The assignment is to write a paper about the writing that person does - what kinds, how much, how (the process used). Eye-opening and extremely relevant!
5. Multiple draft assignments
"A lot of profs really panic at the idea of multiple drafts," says Dr. Sargent, who uses multiple drafts in her classes. If you're one of those profs, take it slow. Try one multiple-draft assignment next term, provide feedback on each draft, and watch what happens.
6. Peer editing
Introduce students to this process, whether it's one-on-one, in small groups or in the form of written responses.
7. Classroom publication
It could be a newspaper, a magazine, a class book. For students, seeing their writing published can be a great motivator - to write more, write better and work through the writing process.