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