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.