John Maguire is a man obsessed with teaching readable writing. A former newspaper reporter, he has taught college-level writing at Boston University School of Journalism, the Berklee College of Music, Babson College and the University of Massachusetts at Lowell. His textbook, John Maguire’s College Writing Guide, is now being used at several U.S. colleges. He blogs about writing pedagogy at www.readablewriting.com.
Everyone knows that American students and college graduates write lousy prose. The Chronicle of Higher Education runs op-eds about it all the time. The Washington Post published at least three big blog posts on the subject in 2017. The New York Times ran a well-reported 2,000-word story by Dana Goldstein called “Why Kids Can’t Write.” However, the headline we’d like to see—“Business Owners Say College Grads Writing More Lucidly Than Ever”—will appear only in The Onion.
These stories are correct, as far as they go. But the problem is even worse than they say, they don’t know what caused it, and they don’t know how to solve it.
The scale of the problem is huge. The National Center for Education Statistics estimates that about 3.1 million freshmen will enter American colleges in the fall of 2018. The average football stadium holds about 70,000 fans, which means this fall’s incoming freshmen will fill about 44 football stadiums. Almost all of them will take some kind of first-year writing course.
Their instructors (figuring 20 students per section) will be an army of 77,500 teachers. Most will be adjuncts. If you packed them into their own football stadium, they’d fill every seat. Let’s get that camera image clear: a large football stadium packed with adult women and men, every seat occupied by someone teaching freshman comp this fall—and most of them must be fairly ineffective at teaching students to write. Otherwise, we’d be reading a different headline in The New York Times.
Why is writing instruction so poor? The students are poorly prepared in high school. Then in college, most of the teachers are poorly paid part-timers, and many of them are grad students with no teaching experience. And worst of all, the field of Rhetoric and Composition is slow-moving, suspicious of new ideas, and committed to the wrong ones.
That’s the most scandalous aspect of college writing, and the one that newspaper reporters miss. The Rhetoric and Composition establishment has stopped teaching students how to write well. Phillip Mink, an assistant professor in the English Department at the University of Delaware, writes that:
The college writing profession has made a conscious decision not to teach style… If you review the scholarly literature, which I have done, you will find virtually nothing about student prose at all. [To these people] the quality of student prose is nothing more than an afterthought.
The adjuncts who do most of the instruction aren’t bad at teaching writing. But the tenured establishment conveniently defined composition to exclude instruction in prose style. They’ve remade Composition to cover things like how writing, images, and ideas create impact and circulate to address the issues facing our communities. The official standards don’t require instructors to teach students how to write a readable sentence.
Robert J. Connors’s “The Erasure of the Sentence” summarizes nicely how the Composition establishment killed the teaching of sentences. Connors pointedly quotes Professor James Moffett: “It’s about time the sentence was put in its place.”
George Gopen, emeritus professor at Duke University and author of Expectations: Teaching Writing from the Reader’s Perspective (2004), points out that the infection of college writing with social-justice activism is an equally serious problem. Gopen insists that writing is about clear communication to the reader. That’s the common-sense understanding—but it’s out of favor in the Composition establishment. Dr. Gopen stands almost alone. When he’s asked what would turn American college writing around, he says, “Stop teaching social ethics and start teaching writing.”
The best solution would be direct instruction in the classic English plain style, the sentence style that serves the reader best. It would require a revolution for a college writing profession that now barely attends to the reader.
Imagine those 44 stadiums full of freshmen writers, coming to college from high schools throughout America. They will learn something in their freshman writing classes—but not much about how to be clear or interesting to a reader. Few of their teachers will have stressed the key questions that professional editors raise all the time: How will the reader understand this? Will this confuse your reader? Can you simplify this so the reader gets it right away?
We could do worse than return to the principles of the late Rudolf Flesch, author of The Art of Readable Writing (1949). He invented the concept of readability scoring, which is still a good idea when it isn’t reduced to an exercise in computerized word-counting. His ideas of readability would make a great backbone for a new type of college writing course that focused on training students to create readable prose. It can be done, and students would benefit hugely from focusing exclusively on how to become readable and interesting writers.
The Flesch approach is practical, since it uses objective numerical standards as guides to the prose quality, such as average sentence length, and other word ratios. Students would have an easy tool to help them adjust their behavior and gain control over their writing.
The Flesch approach also lends itself to a properly staged transition from learning simpler writing skills to learning the more difficult ones—from learning the elements of syntax to learning the felicities of good style. Today’s poorly prepared students desperately need this sort of careful transitioning.
Finally, contrary to repeated arguments from academics, Flesch’s readability approach covers a wide range of readable styles. Students don’t just make cookie-cutter short sentences. After all, Flesch argued strongly against using his insights to write See-Spot-run essays.
One commenter on the Times article “Why Kids Can’t Write” made the interesting point that writing teachers decline to do what coaches do, which is run drills on the fundamentals, even though anyone who watches a well-played football game knows that’s what works.
That same student that you [teachers] hope is absorbing good writing through reading, or whose voice you don’t want to stifle, goes after school to sports practice, where they drill for hours to be ready for the game. The coaches don’t merely show students films of great plays, nor are they afraid that their kids can’t be creative. They understand that without control of fundamentals, talent is wasted.
The fundamentals of written communication are sentence handling and being clear for the reader. America needs a sequenced skill course in readable writing to repair our failing system of college writing instruction.