Monday, July 23

Writing Is A Process: Don't Treat It Like A Single Skill

With my half-day session, Editing and Proofreading Your Work, slated for this Saturday, July 28 at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, I've been giving considerable thought to the class and writing classes in general. We don't do enough.

I'm not the only one who thinks so. It was the topic of Jay Mathews' article in the The Washington Post.

Reading the comments didn't give me much faith. There were plenty of well-intended solutions, but most of them make an assumption. The assumption is that these students have the skill sets they need by the time they reach a particular instructor. Most students don't.

And I don't believe it's the students fault in every case, even if there are five things writing instructors cannot teach. So even for my part, I can raise most students two letter grades per assignment over ten weeks (especially if they take Editing and Proofreading Your Work first). It's not enough.

We treat writing like a discipline, but it requires multiple disciplines. 

The problem is that we treat writing like a single discipline. It isn't. It's more like six distinct and overlapping disciplines. But rather than build curriculum around those subjects, most writing instruction today is designed to circumvent some disciplines with replacements for rote memorization.

Research. As much as 40 percent of the time on any project needs to be dedicated to research, but few people are willing to put in the work (and many employers aren't willing to pay for it). According to the National Center for Education Statistics, most students spend three minutes on research.

But even if they took more time, I'm not sure they know how to do it. The illusion of information immediacy has made for lazy research. People invest more time in proving themselves right than they do looking for the truth. And this doesn't even consider how little some writers know about their readers.

Creativity. Even instructors who value research tend to overlook creativity as a separate discipline, assuming they define it correctly. It has nothing to do with the chosen words as much as it has to do with being able to foreshadow the final product.

Not only does it encompass organizational structure, but also how the material is best presented. It includes problem solving to bring in new ideas as well as how to present those that are sourced or attributed. Although it varies, about 50 percent of the students I've taught start with no sense of structure.

Writing. This is the real physical work of sitting down in front of the keys. Most instruction today places all of the emphasis on free writing, often following the cookie cutter semblance of an outline or rubric to get the job done. They are wrong.

The art of writing is all about inquiry and improvement. It's an opportunity to develop better ideas than the research collected, improve the impact of the prose, and discover area where stronger support and evidence is needed. It's also the place where the hook, whatever is being used to draw the reader into the piece, becomes developed and the flow of the piece is fleshed out in a draft.

Editing. Simply put, editing is what you do to the draft. You work through the entire document to make sure the communication is well organized, that the transitions between paragraphs are smooth, and that the evidence clearly backs the position.

It's also an opportunity to double-check the organization of the entire piece and decide whether or not the order, flow and feel of the work are right for the people who will read it, hear it, or see it. As I often tell students, the best writers are often the best rewriters. People who know it can always be better.

Proofreading. This is the final stage of the process and requires plenty of tricks, tips and tactics that each and every writer will eventually customize to suit their skills. It is the process of looking for surface errors, misspellings, bad grammar, and punctuation problems.

This used to be where education invested all of its time because it is the easiest to teach (although it takes time to cover all the rules and exceptions) and easiest to test against. But memorization has its shortcomings (especially if people remember incorrectly) so I tend to teach people how to look for what they don't know rather than recite the rules.

Publishing. The standard typewritten page and all its rules (margins, paragraph breaks, etc.) that once gave writers the freedom to press print and send is dead. How things look on the page or published screen can be just as important as the content.

Until you see it as close to the finished form, you really don't know how the prose will feel as a physical entity. As communication moves toward more visual and interactive environments, writers have to make provisions for the final product.

The tragedy of written communication today in all of its forms.

More than anything, people have to accept that writing is a lot like playing the Theremin, a musical instrument that is easy to play but difficult to master. There is an abundance of players, doubly so since social media is such a content hungry beast. There are few masters because the rewards are weak.

Still, that is hardly an excuse to cheapen the craft. Where writing differs from the Theremin is that it lands everywhere. Even when the presentation eventually lands on a screen or is spoken from a podium, someone has to write it down or rough it up somewhere. And that requires better curriculum.
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