Essential writing course outcomes

A required writing course should result in students being able to perform required tasks.

I’ve never seen a college catalog or a high school schedule that listed a course in “Writing Appreciation.” I have, however, seen plenty of English teachers who taught required writing courses as if appreciating writing was their goal. That shouldn’t be the goal.

Write what everyone must write

The goal of a required writing class should be that every student leaves able to write the kinds of texts everyone must write. The kind of writing that everyone must write is short, expository nonfiction that follows a pattern.

Follow a pattern.

Most required writing is formulaic by design. Every profession, business, and organization has certain patterns it uses for the writing it most often needs done. Newcomers are expected to be able to recognize the patterns and follow them. The people who report directly to Mark Zuckerberg may be given freedom to be creative, but the new hire in the UX design division will have to follow a pattern.

Do fast, final-quality first drafts.

Emails, online chats, and reports must be prepared quickly and the first draft must be done right. The information must be correct, understandable, and free of embarrassing writing mechanics errors because outside the classroom, the first draft is often the final draft.

Nonfiction patterns help writers to recollect all the essential information to include, arrange it in a sensible way, and still have a couple minutes to check their draft for errors.

Use writing to achieve everyday goals.

Students must leave a required writing class class able to use writing for the tasks that everyone must do in what even English teachers call “the real world.”

Equally important, they must also know to use writing for these purposes in their everyday lives. Writing can be a powerful tool for figuring things out when there’s nobody around to ask.

Assess a situation.

The reporter telling what happened at the school board meeting, the nurse writing up patient notes, and the poet exploring her relationship with her mother are each using writing to assess a situation.

Explore alternatives.

The engineer evaluating locations for a new power plant, the novelist emailing her agent about locations for a book launch party, and the teen texting his cousin about which of two girls he ought to ask to the prom are each using writing to explore alternatives.

Recruit assistance.

The city planner writing a grant application, the befuddled computer user chatting with tech support, and the grandmother in Seattle posting a request for a oatmeal cookie recipe on Facebook are each using writing to recruit assistance.

Solve a problem.

The bus driver tired of answering questions about the fare uses writing to tell passengers what the fare is. The human resources frustrated by incorrectly completed new hire paperwork uses writing to prepare easier-to-use forms. The fifth grader hospitalized for three months uses writing to keep up with her class.

Share solutions.

The guy in Omaha who has Aunt Cora’s oatmeal cookie recipe sends posts it on Facebook for the grandmother in Seattle is sharing a solution. So is the Albuquerque grant writer who publishes a book of grant writing tips and computer scientist in Hong who posts online his PowerPoint presentation on applications of artificial intelligence in cardiac surgery.

If students in first year college composition class or your high school English class cannot write what everyone must write and do not use writing for the purposes for which everyone must be able to use it, you’re not doing your job.

Parts of this post appeared previously at

Ready, Set, Write nearly ready for publication

A collection of formal writing prompts I’ve been working on off and on for several years is finally nearing completion.

Each prompt in the collection is a self-contained expository writing lesson for teenage and adult writers who aren’t yet competent expository writers.

The collection contains 20 formal prompts on English Language Arts topics including grammar, literature, research skills, and a few crossover prompts that let students join ELA content to content from other disciplines.

In preparing the prompts, I’ve tried to balance writing difficulties against cognitive difficulties so that students who have not yet achieved competence as expository writers aren’t overwhelmed by having too many difficult challenges in a single assignment.

In addition to the students’ material, each prompt has a page of related material to help teachers shepherd students through using the prompt. The teacher material includes a chart showing how the prompt aligns with both

  • The Common Core State Standards and
  • A Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching and Assessing: A Revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives (2001, Anderson and Krathwohl).

If I don’t have any technical difficulties this week, all 20 of the prompts should be ready for a final edit this time next week.

I’ll keep you posted.

Just One Thing to Learn

the number one High school and college essays may have an arbitrary length (e.g. 2,500 words) or structure (e.g. abstract, introduction, literature review, discussion). However, the way writers go about writing nonfiction exposition is the same regardless of length or number of paragraphs. The expository writing process does not change. It always begins with finding a topic and goes on to:

  1. developing a working thesis on the topic
  2. finding support for and opposition to the working thesis
  3. organizing a response around the working thesis or some modification of it
  4. drafting the paper
  5. editing the paper

Hopelessly oversimplified?

Of course it is.

That’s its virtue.

Once students have gotten the hang of the process, which many can master in third or fourth grade, teachers can teach them how to approach more complicated topics and formats as modifications of what they already know.  When students aren’t focusing on their fear of something new, they can focus on their writing.

So tell students they have just one process to learn.

They will love you for it.

3-sentence introductions enough for novices

Start small with beginning writers. You can teach them to start writing expository nonfiction with three-sentence introductions:

  • First sentence identifies the general topic.
  • Third sentence presents the thesis statement.
  • Second sentence builds a bridge between the first and second sentence ideas.

Of course, that’s not how mature writers write introductions, but it is enough to launch your beginning writers into the composition process. Most of what beginners need to know about how to write they will only learn as they actually write. You need to give them less instruction in the theoretical how-to and more writing opportunities.

Remember writing is a process.

Don’t fret if beginning writers’ introductions are puny or boring as long as their essays have introductions with the requisite three sentences. Beginning writers need to get a feel for the entire writing process before they can work at developing any single part of it

Don’t waste your time talking about what students can learn only by experience. Prepare them as best you can for that first writing experience and throw them into the essay.