Writing to Teach

The following summarizes and extends our bi-weekly Tweet Chat #WrMatters from Thursday, August 9th. I’d love to hear your feedback, since this is an idea I’m still developing. And big thanks to Shakirah Dawud and Michelle Walkden for their contributions!

Writers are lifelong learners. And not just in the ever-changing realm of style guides. Because we work in a variety of content areas, writers and editors both retain an ability that many adults lose – the ability to learn.

Knowing what questions to ask, seeing a topic as a novice would, and understanding the quickest route to the topic’s core: these are the learning skills that most directly translate into learning’s counterpart – teaching. (Unfortunately, we’ve all been subjected to writing that’s didactic or preachy, but that to me is not teaching. It’s just being pretentious.)

Adult Writer

When we write to inform, we perform a service.

In yesterday’s Tweet Chat, I stated that providing information, whether in the classroom or in writing, is a commodity. Let me explain that. We live in a culture of information overload, and there is value in a writer’s ability to select the information appropriate to a topic and an audience, sort the wheat from the chaff, organize it, and present it in a way that’s interesting and readable. Not everyone can do that. But at the end of the day, that’s still a commodity-based business model.

Professional coaches talk about that 10-degree shift that differentiates someone who is competent from someone who is stellar. I wonder if we can take the skill that’s already so natural to writers and editors, the skill of learning, and make that our 10-degree shift. If we began to teach instead of merely write, imagine what our readers would gain. (And as Shakirah pointed out, what an enriching experience we too would have!)

At that point, writers would no longer be a commodity. They would be a skilled professional whose work was irreplaceable and invaluable.

Here’s what I mean:

1) Start by doing. As a teacher, I begin curriculum development with objectives, and those are always action-oriented. The verb in my objective statement is never understand. It’s always a do-verb, like apply, or balance, create, or analyze. So first, let’s start to see our writing as action-oriented. That alone makes a massive shift in not only the way we write, but the WHY we write. What do you want your reader to do after finishing this piece?

2) Create context. I provide my students with just enough information to accomplish the objectives. And that to me is the hardest part of teaching. Because it’s tough to remember what it was like to be a novice, what you didn’t know. It takes practice. And I’m constantly surprised by the questions my writers bring to the table. It’s not until I’ve run a lesson 3-5 times that I know how much is context my writers need. So audience analysis, testing, and revision are vital.

But we’re so fortunate in this age that we’ve got tools like social media that allow us to engage with our audience and determine their needs during the process of writing. And that brings me to my final point:


Young Student

When we write to teach, we change the world.

3) Hands-on practice. That is the bulk of the teaching work that I do, designing opportunities for students to actually do what I’ve asked them to do. We as writers have a tendency to fill the page with language instead of opening the page to our reader. Devices like rhetorical questions or imperative sentences allow the reader to enter the document. Headings, subheadings, and paragraph breaks create visual space for the reader to participate. Images invite the reader to make his or her own associations with the text. And technology allow us to offer surveys and polls and other forms of interactive engagement.

Finally and most importantly, recognize that there’s a human being at the other end of this document who needs to glean something from it. That in and of itself is the most important way we can shift from writers to teachers and propel ourselves to the top of our profession.


All images: http://freedigitalphotos.net


  1. Michelle, you are so right!

    This ties in so well with my current predicament: I’m having a hard time sticking with a career. At first I thought there’s something dreadfully wrong with me (or my personality), but then a career coach advised that I was a “learner”. In other words, I find everything so very interesting that I’m perpetually distracted. For this reason, I am compelled to write. Through writing, I’m first learning about a subject and then teaching it to others in a way that is digestible, interesting, and engaging.

    As a technical writer, I am always in “teaching” mode. I’m explaining not only the how but the why (or purpose) of the goal or action. But a deeper analysis of my constant angst (and the reason I can’t stick to just technical writing) reveals that I really want to write to educate others on different subjects, not just on the technical stuff. The idea that I can somehow do this successfully makes my palms sweaty, in a good way.

    I’ve known intuitively that some writing is about teaching or enlightening, but I’m glad that you’ve spelled it out for us. Great post!

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