Writing to Learn – Part III

William ZinsserThis series of posts was inspired by two things: 1) William Zinssers’s book Writing To Learn, from which it takes its title, and 2) my own experience teaching students how to write.

Zinsser was writing to and about professionals in a wide range of disciplines who had not considered themselves writers, but who were responsible for creating a body of literature within their respective fields. His goal is to eliminate the fear that many students have of the writing process as some intuitive or magical gift that one either possesses or does not, to show them that when we write about a subject we care about, are knowledge about, and are curious about, we all possess the capacity to become skilled writers.

I agree with him in theory, though I differ with him in method.

I can’t help but notice that the people Zinsser cites as examples – Rachel Carson, Clifford Geertz, A. Hyatt Mayor, Archie Carr, Robert Coles, John Muir, Roger Sessions – are by nature writers. By that I do not mean that writing comes easy for them. After all, as Nathaniel Hawthorne said, easy reading is damn hard writing.

What I do mean is that their mode of learning is through language, the presentation of words on the page. In other words, they are read/write learners. They kept journals. They took notes. They approached their discipline through the vehicle of language and they then shared what they learned with us through that same vehicle.

A second inspiration for this post has been my experience as a teacher. When I began as a teaching assistant at the Catholic University of America, I assumed (!) that all college students were read/write learners. Why else would you attend college?

In my third semester, a class was struggling to answer basic comprehension questions, and I thought they hadn’t read. So I conducted an anonymous survey. The results told me that they had read, but they didn’t understand either what they had read or what I was asking them to do with it. It was then that I began investigating learning styles.

I was shocked to discover how many of students were kinesthetic learners; it seemed to me far more than the 5% average. It took me 10 years to learn how to teach them to read and write.

I had intended this to be a two-part post to offer some suggestions for visual, aural, and kinesthetic learners to write in a way that is more organic for them. But as I was sharing some ideas on LinkedIn, a colleague who is herself a read/write learner prompted me to consider some ways that those with a natural gift for language can likewise approach the writing process with a spirit of curiosity and connect with their readers as students rather than teachers.

So here goes, starting with the model I just offered in this very post. I read Zinsser, and I learned from my students. Easy, right?

1) Employ the skill set with which you have been blessed. Read. Read often. Read more than what you are reading now. Read in different disciplines. Read what your readers are reading and help them see it from a fresh perspective.

This does not mean that you have to be contrary or argumentative, nor does it mean that you must be repetitive and merely summate. It means that you need to engage in the skills that come most naturally to you and sit with curiosity to see what follows. Read, and you will find something to say.

2) Observe. Who are your readers and how do they like to process information? Chances are they are not read/write learners like yourself. A startling 65% of the population are visual learners. Another 5% are kinesthetic. Learn what that means. Educate yourself as to the preferences of your audience.

a) Use metaphors to engage the visual learner. We’ve all heard the expression show, don’t tell. Give your imagination free play and use the fullest expanse of your vocabulary to paint the picture so your visual learner can see exactly what it is you are trying to explain.

b) Employ rhetorical devices such as parallel structure and alliteration to engage the inner ear of the aural learner. Let them hear what you have to say.

c) Provide checklists, exercises, homework, and links to engage the kinesthetic learner. Give them something to do.

3) Realize that opposites attract. Chances are that your reader is drawn to you because you possess a gift they do not. Capitalize on that.

Discover the places in your own work that you simply cannot engage any of the above strategies. Realize that these are the most maddening parts of your subject for your reader. Employ all of your skill to engage him or her, remembering what it is like for you to be mystified.

I welcome your comments, questions, and suggestions. Did you find this post helpful? Did you learn anything new – about yourself or your reader? Remember, you do not have to be registered to leave a comment.


  1. thomas park says:

    Dear Michelle, I can so identify with the quote from the article, “In my third semester, a class was (really)struggling to answer basic comprehension questions, and I thought they hadn’t read (or could not read). So I (too)conducted an anonymous survey. The results told me that they had read, but they didn’t understand either what they had read or what I was asking them to do with it. It was then that I began investigating learning styles.

    We have to investigate and employ new learning styles (especially using technology) for many of our students. I understand Visual Learnining, Kinesthetic learning, differentiating and scaffolding, however there seems to be a larger more troublesome disconnect at the base of adolesent reading and writing woes. Many students are not concerned with historically revelant literature of any type, I could almost forget the classics, and language has deteriorated to such a degree that every day words are not tantalizing enough to fire up their interest…so we must figure out ways to stimulate healthy fired up discussions around reading and the ultimate writing responses we would appreciate. Thanks for sharing!

    • Oh Thomas – I so totally sympathize. You know, when I was working with a group of freshman who were classified as an “endangered population,” the type who were not likely to survive their first semester of college, I took them to the library. We were conducting a lesson on effective reading strategies, and we had already covered active reading and note-taking. I gave them a reading, showed them how to outline, and highlight, and paraphrase, and summarize. I had them turn in their notes, and I commented on their note-taking ability.
      So then, before we got to the library, I reviewed their majors. And I went through and picked books off the shelf that I thought might interest them. I got some football player and coach autobiographies for my athletes. I got some case studies about subliminal messaging in advertising for my marketing majors. I got gangland studies for my social worker – stuff like that, mostly non-fiction.
      I booked a conference room, and I rolled in the cart. You should have seen their faces! They looked like kids in the candy store. I couldn’t believe it.
      I thought they would have been bored to tears. Nope!
      They tore those things up!
      I gave them the whole class to just go read – find a corner, settle in with a book. I figured they would hop on their cell phones or fall asleep. I was SOOOO wrong. They kicked back, put up their feet, and devoured those books. And more than half of the class stood in line at the check out desk afterwards to take their book back to the dorms.
      No one can tell me that this generation doesn’t like to read. We’re not giving them the right material, we’re not giving them the freedom to make their own choices, and we’re not giving them permission to chill out and do it.

  2. It seems that you are very reliant on NLP as a reference point, for your article. The NLP approach is not a “given” and most people are a mixture of different learning types. I am not sure where your article really leads us.

    • Hi Dean – and welcome.
      NLP stands for Neuro-linguistic Programming. It is a pseudo-science that combines empirical psychological and linguistic research with spiritual thought to create a discipline whose tenets cannot be challenged because they cannot be disproven.
      My reference point is learning theory, specifically VARK learning theory, which I referenced in part I of this series, and which you can find here: http://www.vark-learn.com/english/index.asp
      To my knowledge, there is no connection between a theory of learning styles, inspired by the Multiple Intelligence theories of Howard Gardner, and NLP.
      You stated that most people are a mixture of different learning types. Research indicates that 85% of people are visual learners. A small percentage of people are multi-modal. Others have strong preferences for either Visual, Aural, Read/Write, or Kinesthetic approaches. You can discover your own learning style by taking the questionnaire here: http://www.vark-learn.com/english/page.asp?p=questionnaire. If your TOTAL SCORE is higher than 25, you are multi-modal and need to employ all 4 learning strategies to enjoy the most benefit from any learning experience.
      My series of 3 articles is intended to make the following points:
      1) Anyone can write more efficiently if they approach the writing cycle from the perspective of their own learning style.
      2) Read/Write learners can communicate with their reader more directly if they take their reader’s learning style into account.
      3) We can all benefit by approaching the task of writing with more curiosity and less authority.
      I hope this helps Dean. I welcome any additional comments or questions you may have. Thanks for stopping by – Michelle

  3. wonderful publish, very informative. I ponder why the opposite specialists of this sector don’t realize this. You must proceed your writing. I am sure, you’ve a great readers’ base already!


  1. […] those same ways. In no particular order and leaving out many more, I have to thank Angela Atkinson, Michelle Baker, Shonali Burke, Lynnette Benton, Adam Toporek, Erica Allison, Jayme Soulati, Jennifer Whinnem, […]

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