Writing to Learn – Part I

Writing to LearnWere you ever forced to participate in one of those Writing Across the Curriculum programs? Ugh!

Great theory, terrible execution.

William Zinsser (yes, the same Zinsser who is responsible for the gem On Writing Well) memorialized the concept in Writing to Learn (NY: Harper & Row, 1988).  Zinsser describes a call that he received from a professor at Gustavus Adolphus College in 1985 that “crystallized an idea [he] realized [he] felt strongly about: that the teaching of writing should no longer be left just to English teachers but should be made an organic part of every subject” (12).

Unfortunately, as the Writing Across the Curriculum programs demonstrate, English teachers are necessary to the equation because they are the ones who are trained to teach language. Yes, as Zinsser highlights, they do tend to focus on literature, because that is where language is being used to its fullest potential. And they do teach students how to read, because it is by learning how to read that one learns how to write, just as it is that infants listen in order to speak.

But the point that I wish to make today is the reverse of the disastrous educational program instituted in the 1990s, and that is this – for those of us professionals who write as part of our daily routine, those businesspeople, scientists, academics, corporate communicators, medical doctors, researchers who convey to our colleagues and the world at large the ideas that we have spent so much of our time immersed in, the writing process is not just a means of communication. It’s not only a presentation of our ideas; it is also a learning experience.

If we as writers open ourselves to become students, to be curious, not only during the phases of the research leading up to the writing process, but actually during the process itself, if we allow ourselves to learn as we write, we can write with more grace and ultimately with more power and thereby reach our reader at a far deeper level.

One way to do that is to consider our own learning style and incorporate that into our writing process.

The first step is to discover your learning style. I must admit that I fought my entire way through graduate school thinking that I was a read/write learner, because I have such a passion for language. It was not until my 2nd year writing my dissertation that I realized I am truly a multi-modal learner.

I should have realized earlier that my penchant for dictating was not simply the result of a long commute but was actually my need for an aural expression. Once I began diagramming, mindmapping and otherwise visualizing my outlines, not only my writing process but also my teaching process suddenly became much more smooth. I found myself being open and creative in ways that I didn’t think were possible. And what was once a struggle suddenly became a flow.

Here is available a fun, easy test to help you determine your learning style. I have just a few hints for anyone who would like to take it, and they are these.

First, as you read each question, close your eyes and consider what you would do in that situation. That way you are not unduly influenced by the suggestions that are on the page. Also, keep in mind that you can select more than one of the answers that are there. So if none of the answers there seem to fit your preselected answer, choose as many of those as seem to fit what you would have done.

Second, when your numbers return, calculate the total. If it’s more than 25, you are a multi-modal learner. That means you need to incorporate all of the learning strategies in your writing process in order to be truly effective. Focusing on one will lead to frustration.

Now that you’ve taken the test and you know what type of learner you are, let’s consider the four. We have Visual, Aural, Read/Write, and Kinesthetic. There’s no point in discussing the Read/Write, because language by its nature is built for those who are Read/Write focused. But let’s break the process of writing into its 6 discrete components for those of us who are Visual, Aural, and Kinesthetic learners.

During the brainstorming process, a visual learner can benefit from a technique known as mindThe Writing Cycle mapping. The inventor of this technique, Tony Buzan, has developed and patented an entire suite of software tools allowing the user to integrate Microsoft Office’s programs so that your mind maps no longer have to be painstakingly transferred from page to screen.

During the selection and arrangement process, a visual learner should be using a wide range of color and can benefit from a white board, a cork board, or a large easel. During the writing process, a visual learner needs to keep the segments small. The outline needs to be carefully arranged so that the visual learner is working on one small part of the document at a time. Color coding can help, but only to a certain extent.

I personally find that it’s beneficial to use pen and paper only because Word forces a linear progression, whereas on a sheet of paper, I can scatter my words like a reverse game of Mad Libs. I can put key ideas into subject-verb-object positions and fill in transitions around them until the sentence is built in a way that looks pleasing and rounded.

When revising, the visual learners should be sure to keep a set of tick marks so that they know which tasks have been done and which tasks have yet to be completed. It’s also helpful during this stage to keep your document in a different font or color in order to maintain some editorial distance from a document, particularly if you don’t have the time to get that perspective. That can also help you to keep track of the sections of the document that you have already completed.

Finally, during the editing phase, make sure that you’re working with fonts that are large enough to see clearly, and practice reading the work backwards to get the best from your proofreading efforts.

In Friday’s post, we’ll talk about how to incorporate Aural and Kinesthetic strategies into each stage of the writing cycle. In the meantime, how do you think approaching your document as a student could enhance your role as the author? And remember, you don’t have to register to leave a comment.


  1. Joel Deluxe says

    Two links in this article: Writing to Learn – Part I, in paragraphs 8 and 10, which refer to a link of http://www.vark-learn.com/english/index.asp, are no longer correct. The updated link to the Vark learning profile is now http://vark-learn.com/the-vark-questionnaire/ . Please make a note of it. And I learned I was multimodal, and more of a visual and read/write learner. But I think I knew that already. Thank you

  2. Robert Bayley says

    Read/write and kinesthetic. And I was a “participant” in the Writing Across the Curriculum effort. My biology professors were actually pretty dutiful about assignments for WAC, and made them sufficiently subject-matter useful (my primary professor was actually a good writer and applied that in the courses). But I guess I never saw, then or later, any feedback indicating that WAC actually produced anything.

    By the way, I was amused that you actually used the phrase “Here is available a fun, easy test to help you …” How about “A fun, easy test is available to help you…”?

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