Teaching Writing Skills the Right Way

I teach government biologists how to write more clearly. And for the past six months, I’ve been knee-deep in curriculum design. So I thought now would be a good time to share some wisdom from the trenches, the lessons I continue to learn about how to teach writing in ways that are efficient, effective, and engaging.

tools2While these are lessons I have learned working specifically with government biologists in agencies like the Fish and Wildlife Service and Animal Plant and Health Inspection Services, with a little imagination they can be applied to an English 101 college classroom or an AP English as well.

I use them to teach subject matter experts how to write long, technical documents, but you could also use them in a creative writing class. If you’re a student and you want to get the most out of your learning experience, you could also recreate the lessons your teacher is giving you into the model shown below.

1) Keep the lessons process-oriented. Lessons like Assessing the Writing Situation or Tightening Loose, Baggy Sentences, filled with however much good material, rarely resonate with the writer in a meaningful fashion. If writers can’t see how the lesson solves a problem, it’s all academic.

A better lesson plan would be Choosing an Appropriate Tone for Your Audience, or Editing Your Own Work. It’s basically the same concept but presented in process-oriented fashion.

2) Set the stage with a real document. Too often the skill of writing is taught in a vacuum. The concepts are coherent, the lessons are thoughtful, but the writer walks away retaining little because there was no opportunity to apply what was learned.

Preferably before the course even begins, work with your writers to establish a baseline document to which they can apply all the lessons throughout the course.

3) Nothing can substitute for hands-on practice. Writing is a skill. The only way to become a better writer is by writing. Pare your lesson plans down to the smallest possible unit. Be invisible. You’re a facilitator, not a talking head.

Sixty-five to eighty percent of the class should be hands-on practice. Your job is to provide the context and the knowledge for a new skill to be performed and then to provide guidance and encouragement as the writers perform the skill.

toolsYou do everything else ahead of time in terms of planting the seeds of great examples and watering the ground with fabulous exercises so that your writers can blossom.

4) Know when to give a toy and when to give a tool. Some skills are harder than others. You always want to keep the teaching relevant to your students, but sometimes a new complicated skill applied to a real life circumstance is too great of a cognitive challenge. This is when you use a toy.

Find examples from current news stories. (I find that NPR is a great source.) You can also use blogs that are relevant to your field or works of great literature.

These examples become stepping stones for writers to see how a concept or tool can be applied in a field tangential to their own. It gives them a sideways glance at a light that might otherwise be too bright, allowing them to absorb the glare and adjust their eyes before being thrust into the full light of day (to use Plato’s metaphor for knowledge).

When you use a toy, it’s a good idea to provide an opportunity for follow up, like perhaps in the form of a journal, so the writers can either reflect on what they’ve learned or apply the skill to their own documents, depending on their skill level and pace.

So there you have it – a few suggestions for how to teach writing the right way. Use these principles to develop curriculum for writers, and I think you’ll discover a classroom environment that’s more efficient, effective, and engaged.

If you’re a teacher and you’ve had experience using any of these techniques, please leave comments letting us know how they’ve worked. And if you’re a student, we’d love to hear your feedback as well. You teach the teachers far more than you realize.

For more writing tips, be sure to subscribe to my blog, Keys to Easy Writing. And follow me on Twitter: @CorpWritingPro.

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