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

It’s nice, but is it writing?

I’ve been rereading William F. Irmscher’s 1979 book Teaching Expository Writing. In his chapter  “Lore and Folklore about Writing,” Irmscher takes up the question of whether students should be forced to write.

He says writing shouldn’t be imposed as punishment, but that if writing is important enough to be taught then all students ought to be required to do it.

Irmscher tells the story of an English department teaching assistant who gave students the option of choosing their mode of expression: They could paint, draw, write songs, whatever they chose.

Of the 25 students in the class, only five opted to write.

The TA was fired because the English department believed that in a writing course, students should write.

That experience occurred in the ’70s.

Today, a teaching assistant who allows students to express their ideas in any medium they choose is more likely to be commended than fired.

Unfortunately, many employers haven’t tuned in to the new way of doing things yet.

In many businesses, employers still require—require!—employees to write on an assigned topic.

Not only that, but those employers expect the writing to be done in a specified format.

Those same old fashioned employers think high school graduates should be able to write three paragraphs that stick to the topic, use complete sentences, and employ reasonably correct spelling and grammar.

Although I think the movement to tie teacher pay to student performance is no answer to the problems of education, I can understand why it has strong support among the business community: Employers simply don’t understand how making videos can be considered writing.

Neither do I.