Teaching College Students to Write

Today’s college freshmen can be trained to write well—and in one semester. I will describe one way it can be done.

Let’s start with an example from “Tom,” written in the first week of a freshman course.

Ever Since my childhood I worked many different jobs. In my teenage years I worked on a farm. My job was one to remember. Early Saturday and Sunday mornings, I would bring a bundle of chicken and rabbit food into a coop: Feeding the rabbits and chickens was the fun parts. Cleaning there manur was not so pleasant, but it taught me a leason. In regards to working on a farm my limits started and ended with cleaning manur.

When I graduated high school I became an Ra. I worked with Wellesley/MIT Upward bound Program. It was an enjoyable experience. Monday through Friday I was taking care/tutoring the Students. Being Able to teach Someone, anything while they are Struggling is a good feeling. On the other hand working with students who are not ready to learn, is extremely frustrating. I never wanted to give up on a student, but sometimes the student made that choice for me. Being an Ra I realised my limits was getting too involved and taking it personally.

That’s thirteen errors in fourteen sentences.

I used to drag guys like Tom through, gamely correcting all their errors, writing notes in the margins about the principles of clarity, subject-verb agreement, and the importance of active verbs. Huge expense of effort by me, but little learning by the likes of Tom.

After a few years of this purgatory I woke up and had an epiphany: 

These kids don’t know what a good sentence is. They attempt to write papers with bizarre strings of words that are not sentences, and they don’t know what the problem is. Their high school teachers let them write fragments, and now they think of a fragment as a kind of sentence. They have been trained to accept fragments, and I can’t get them untrained. Papers cannot be made from terrible sentences.

Papers made from incompetent sentences cannot succeed. There was no way to correct all the bad sentences in the 120 papers turned in every semester, but even if I could, students would not benefit. They had fully established habits of sentence-rot. Who has ever changed an ingrained habit by reading the margin of a paper?

That understanding (many instructors have had it) —sentence incompetence is the root of this hell—left me stranded. I was right, but I didn’t know what to do.

One January day I stumbled upon the answer. I was running late and my first comp class of the semester was meeting in 90 minutes. The school (Berklee College of Music) was about an hour away, and my usual prep wasn’t complete. Then on my dining room table I saw the handouts from the end of the previous semester about active verbs. What the hell, I thought, I’ll teach them what an active verb is. They’ll have to learn it eventually—we’ll just do it today. 

I drove into Boston, met the students, handed out the materials, and we learned about active verbs. They were surprised—and that’s a good thing. The class was really a breeze—I still remember my pleasure at that. I had thought this would be a one-day emergency fix, but as I drove home, I decided to continue with direct instruction in verbs, because the students seemed to enjoy the topic.

Soon I noticed improvement in students’ writing. Within a couple of weeks, much of the class was writing decent sentences and half-page passages made of decent sentences. They were using good verbs and coming to get the whole point of using good verbs.

Eventually I got the course back on track, but it was never the same as the old course. In the old course I had unwisely followed the standard textbooks, which cover genres first, and treat style as an afterthought. One such 550-page book (!) devotes its first 250 pages to genres like narrative, argument, causal analysis, literary analysis and rhetorical analysis, and doesn’t get around to the need for vigorous clear writing until page 378.

Through procrastination, I had been forced to start a freshman comp course backwards, focusing on the question of how to use verbs, what they are, what they do, and why active verbs produce clarity. As a result, the number of incompetent sentences in all papers dropped.

On reflection, it made some sense. When teaching a complex skill, people often start small. The Red Cross begins its swimming instruction by having students blow bubbles with their faces in the water—that’s starting small. I learned to read starting small, by identifying letters, then sounding out short words, and then reading See Spot run. If reading was taught that way, why wasn’t writing? 

Next semester, I rearranged the course into two tiers. The first half would be about clear sentences, built on Rudolf Flesch’s concept of readable writing. I would do verb choice and noun choice. And students must learn how to control their sentence lengths—basic to readability. They would also have to learn how to follow E.B. White’s admonition to “Omit Needless Words.” 

I wouldn’t let them write papers with bad sentences. They would be dying to write, and I’d say, “No, you can’t write papers until I am confident that all the crappy sentence habits you have are gone.”

This was really a new course with two phases. The first phase took about eight weeks, saturating students with these five rules of readable writing:

  • Be concrete rather than abstract
  • Use active verbs
  • Put human beings in rather than writing impersonally
  • Use shorter sentences
  • Use simpler and more compact words 

The second phase, six weeks long, contained the skeleton of a “normal” comp course including argument, narration, thesis sentences, and arrangement of parts. I felt guilty about shrinking composition proper to six weeks but stopped when I saw the great work they were producing.

During all this instruction, students write a great deal, though at the beginning of the course it’s short assignments with focused constraints. They may have to write a 20-sentence narrative in which 16 of the verbs are active. They may write a 20-sentence account of a walk across campus, making sure that 70 per cent of the sentences are active, ten objects are named, and the average sentence length is between 15 and 17 words.

Those numerical constraints train students to monitor their own performance consciously, forcing them to focus on the actual words—really looking at them, seeing them and hearing them.

By week nine of the course, it has become almost impossible for students to write passive or vague sentences. They write short, clear and often vivid sentences. Even E.B. White would like what they are turning in. 

Now they are ready to arrange those clear sentences into clear essays. Now we learn composition skills: how to write titles and many different kinds of thesis sentences; how to write beginnings, middles and endings, and so on.

At the end of the course, students are galloping along and can write three highly readable 1,000-word essays in the last three weeks. These essays meet the readability standards from the first half plus the new composition standards: fast beginning, well-constructed forecast or thesis sentence, organized middle and effective ending with a strong sense of closure. Doing three papers in three weeks solidifies the complex performance skill that is clear writing.

The two-phase design of this course has now been refined and perfected. I have taught it nearly fifty times. It forms the backbone of a booklet, The Newsweek College Writing Guide. I’m glad I was running late that day and that the Berklee College of Music gave me free rein to develop a new way of teaching writing—one that works.