Teach writing in 1 hour via military tactics

When I started teaching writing a half century ago, I could teach students all I knew about writing in an hour. When the hour was up, they knew as little about writing nonfiction as I did. Together we stumbled through figuring out how to write.

It took me three decades to figure out what actually worked for me (newspaper reporting taught me that).  But it was another decade before I learned how to explain to students how I wrote nonfiction.

I learned the explanation from a magazine article about military strategy.

I can almost hear you thinking, “Huh? Military strategy? What’s that got to do with writing?” It turns out, the two have a lot in common.

The article explained that military strategies must be phrased as a short series of  simple sentences presented in the order in which they must be accomplished if the goal is to be met. Each sentence specifies the outcome which its strategy will accomplish.

Strategies must use the simplest words and the shortest sentences that will convey the goal because every strategy has be understood by everyone from the private to the three-star general. Combat situations are like the College Board exams: there’s no one to consult if the strategy isn’t clear.

To understand strategies, think about films about World War II soldiers who have to accomplish some objective without the equipment they had been trained to use to accomplish that objective. The soldiers have to figure out what they need, how to make it or steal it, and how to keep their activities from being discovered. They are able to improvise because they were drilled to be able to know what they must make happen to achieve a specific outcome.

That military “do this to accomplish that” approach is what I found worked for teaching high school and college students how to write nonfiction texts. Here is my eight-step strategy:

Notice that the word write does not appear in the directions. That is not an oversight. I find students are much more comfortable making things and doing things than they are writing. They are much less stressed by producing a text than they are by having to write. (I suspect that military training doesn’t start by telling recruits, “today, we’re going to learn to kill people” for the same reason.)

A woman who had taught 40 high school English for 40 years before retiring and taking a job teaching college English, used my material in her 20th year of college teaching. At the end of the term (and of her 60-year teaching career),  she wrote me to say the strategies worked like magic. She presented the strategies and at the end of that period every student understood how to write nonfiction. They still had to practice to master the skill, but they understood how to write.

Once students understand how to write, you just need to have them practice every class period until they all can write. That’s not hard. You just walk around looking over shoulders, asking questions, and suggesting options. Do that enough times a week and you won’t need to go to the gym.

©2022 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Prepare students to fight today’s wars of words

Quote: When your remote has 50 buttons, you can't change the channel any more.Educators are like generals: They spend most of their time preparing their troops for the previous war.

No where is that tendency more obvious than in composition classes where even today writing teachers are preparing to fight to their last drop of red ink for the compound-complex sentence.

That war was lost years ago.

Compound-complex sentences drowned in mud-choked prose in the late 1980s. The 20-page essay with footnotes and annotated bibliography has been replaced by 1½-page hyperlinked texts supplemented by graphics and/or video. What-shall-I-write decision paralysis has been replaced by operational goals that drive writing.

Today’s writers fight a guerrilla war, strategically aiming precisely chosen words at clearly defined targets and making a quick exit. The 20-page essay with footnotes and annotated bibliography has been replaced by 1½-page hyperlinked texts supplemented by graphics and/or video.

Instead of polysyllabic words and strings of clauses, today’s student writers need a larger repertoire of smaller, more precise terms suited to shorter, more readable sentences.

Instead of memorizing a different strategy for each type of message they must deliver, student writers need to master one strategy for all the writing they must do. And they must have extensive practice using that strategy in different writing situations so that it isn’t rendered unusable by unpredictable circumstances or events.

Above all, student writers must be able to improvise to accomplish a writing task for which they haven’t been given reproducible forms and templates and checklists.

If you’re still fighting the war for writing complexity, it’s time to surrender your red pen, ditch your kit full of all types of essays, and take aim at simplicity.

The war for clear, concise writing is waiting to be won.

Let’s get strategic about writing strategies

Last week a publisher sent me an ad for a new book for teachers which is now on pre-order:

The Reading Strategies Book made the New York Times Best Seller List by making it simpler to match students’ needs to high-quality instruction. Now, in The Writing Strategies Book, Jen Serravallo does the same, collecting 300 of the most effective strategies to share with writers, and grouping them beneath 10 crucial writing goals.

In her introduction, Serravallo explains her purpose:

My aim in this book is to offer my favorite, most useful collection of strategies that span all aspects of the writing process, all genres and modes of writing, and that will work well with students in grades K–8.

advertisement for book 300 Writing Strategies

Appealing and practical

I just dipped into The Writing Strategies Book, but I found it pretty impressive.

I can see why the book would appeal to teachers.

Serravallo writes well: There are no long-winded, polysyllabic sentences. She has an authentic voice that sounds like person-to-person communication.

The book’s page layout makes it easy to find information and apply it quickly.

What Serravallo says is practical. She knows her audience and gives them what they need.

But 300 strategies is excessive

I have reservations, however, about needing 300 strategies.

My career blended writing nonfiction for adult readers with teaching nonfiction writing to post-secondary writers, which I realize is a far cry from teaching K-8.

However, I’ve found both as a writer and as a writing teacher, the fewer the strategies, the better the writing outcomes.

definition printed on photo of block wall: Strategies are ways of systematically implementing a process designed to achieve carefully defined goals.

One of my gripes about K-12 English programs is that they are not strategic: Strategies are ways of systematically implementing a process designed to achieve carefully defined goals. Does that sound like anything that happens in K-12 education?

Students come to first year college composition with no strategies for tackling routine writing situations. They treat every writing situation as if it were unique when, in fact, they, and most other people, regularly encounter perhaps a half dozen different writing situations.

10 strategies instead of 300

Instead of 300 writing strategies, I have just 10—and three of them are actually research strategies.

Ten are all I need to write nonfiction on a daily basis.

Ten are all I need to teach nonfiction writing.

Ten are all my students require to learn to write nonfiction competently.

To make the writing process efficient, I need to make sure each individual:

  • Understands the strategy.
  • Memorizes the strategy.
  • Uses the strategy repeatedly in disciplined practice.

Something that’s done once is not a strategy.

A strategy is only strategic after it’s an automatic response to a set of stimuli.

A real strategy enables the user to recognize almost at a glance when conditions require something other than the strategy — something innovative, something creative.

Real strategies scale.

Real strategies can be deployed in situations far different from that in which they were learned and on tasks far more complex than the tasks on which they were practiced.

I’d call them feedback

What Serravallo calls strategies, I’d call feedback.

In a writing class, feedback is talking to an individual student about what he’s doing, finding out what the student is having difficulty with, and and helping the student find ways to overcome the problem.

Strategies enable the writing student to get along without the teacher present.

Feedback shows the writing student how to understand and use the strategies.

I’ll continue to advocate for a few good strategies for writing teachers: I think my system beats Serravallo’s.

But regardless of what age your writing students are, if you’re looking for good suggestion on how to provide students with feedback on their writing while they’re writing (when it can do some good),  you ought to take a look at Serravallo’s Writing Strategies Book.