The Origins of the Readable Writing Method: Part I

John Maguire

John G. Maguire is a man obsessed with 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. His website is

About twenty years ago, in a mood of intense frustration, I created what is now called the Readable Writing method of teaching freshman comp.  It grew up over the course of five years and eventually became a textbook. I think it is the best possible way to teach college freshmen, and there’s a solid handful of other instructors now using the method who agree.  For their sake, and for anyone skeptical that a radical new writing pedagogy is possible, I’d like to recount how this method came about and how it works.

It began in the academic year 1994-1995 when I taught writing at the Berklee College of Music. My mood that fall was uneasy and conflicted. I thought I knew how to teach writing, but I noticed the students at the bottom of the class were making little progress. I began to get glimmers of my errors and to suspect that only radical changes would make any difference. I did not have the nerve, however, to make those changes. And then on the first day of the spring semester, more or less by accident, I had to improvise a class--and in that moment of improvisation the new method arrived. It was a clumsy beginning, but it turned out to work. Here’s the story.

PART I. The Berklee College of Music

Teaching at the Berklee College of Music in Boston amounted, in general, to a hoot. Berklee is a jazz-focused music college, maybe the best in the world. Gary Burton, Keith Jarrett, Melissa Etheridge, and Branford Marsalis attended or graduated. The College’s web page lists 107 alums who have received 207 Grammy awards.

The incoming freshmen at Berklee were not famous musicians, but they wanted to be, and that added an ambitious edge to these 18- and 19-year-olds. They came from all over the U.S., and from Europe, Israel, South America, and Japan. Many were guitar and percussion majors, some sang, others played sax, trumpet, or other instruments. All had passed an audition on their main instrument before being accepted. Some already played like pros, and they were assigned to ensembles of equally brilliant players, Level 6 or Level 7 ensembles. The less brilliant were assigned to Level 3 or Level 4 ensembles. Some had just made the cut, and played with Level 1 or Level 2 groups.

Most kids wore the standard Berklee outfit of those days—black tee shirts, black jeans, black sneakers. You’d see them clustered on the sidewalks near the intersection of Boylston and Massachusetts Ave—a busy intersection—most hours of the day and night, carrying instrument cases and just missing getting run over as cabs and other cars ran the red lights and honked.

I’d landed at Berklee through necessity. Just before coming there, I’d taught science reporting and writing for three years at Boston University. My original career was newspaper science reporting, and I had good clips, so BU hired me to run its graduate science journalism program, called the Program for Reporting on Science and Medicine. The grad students, averaging about 26 or 27, mostly had BS degrees in science, and wanted to begin a career in science writing. They were serious about this specialized masters in science journalism.

My BU assignment lasted three years, and afterwards I took a job as Senior Editor at a high-tech newspaper. With the new salary I moved to the suburban town where my sons, Daniel and Justin, lived. Then a recession hit, I got laid off, and I needed work. When a friend said Berklee wanted writing teachers, I jumped.

Teaching Freshmen Music Students

At Berklee, the young students impressed me with their serious devotion to music. But even though many were good musicians, and all quite alert in class, I realized when I saw their first essays that a quarter of them couldn’t write their way out of a paper bag. Many did fine, but there were three to six students in each section who turned in papers with bad mistakes in grammar, the kind that made it impossible to understand what the sentence meant. You’d see a page with four to six fragments or run-ons, or in other cases, meandering sentences where the student had forgotten his idea by the time he reached the period.

Two years earlier I’d been up the street at BU, teaching grad students how to write a magazine article that might have a chance at Harper’s, Discover, or The Atlantic Monthly. Now at Berklee a quarter of each class could not reliably produce a grammatical sentence. I had no idea what to do.

So I slogged ahead, trying to adjust. Being new to freshman comp, I took advice from my fellow instructors, who tipped me to the standard textbooks. I ordered one and followed it. I also followed the crowd and read and marked up papers. I thought students would pay serious attention when I wrote “use active verbs” in red ink, and perhaps they did, but it didn’t make much difference. The worst students, in particular, handed in final papers scarcely better than their first ones.

Fall of 1994

Back then I rarely altered what I taught from one semester to the next. I used a standard comp textbook with essays, despite the fact that it seemed off target most of the time. I gave presentations about punctuation, handed out assignments, collected them, marked them up, and handed them back. I did this for several years, but no matter how hard I tried, the guys at the bottom usually stayed at the bottom.

Each semester was a new start, and each semester I hoped for better results; they didn’t happen.  I remember I ended one semester by reading about 150 short papers in two days. Somewhere near the end of it, bleary-eyed and cranky, I began to say aloud, “They are just not learning.”

None of my fellow writing instructors had useful advice. They were charming and friendly; they commiserated but tried not to get too anguished about a situation where students didn’t learn much. This was life. We were galley slaves below decks in a New Yorker cartoon, making jokes with each other to pass time.

Aside from a sense of ineffectiveness that I tried not to dwell on, I enjoyed myself. I liked being a professor. I liked talking to students, all that eye contact. And the job allowed me to live near Daniel and Justin. I now had a large, sunny apartment, where I built bookcases. From the balcony I could look up the street to where the kids lived. I used to buy books second hand at yard sales and library fund-raisers where you could fill a shopping bag for $10. I would cart home almost any book I thought I should read some day, because it was a known classic (Knut Hamsun’s Hunger) or it had a great first sentence (Elmore Leonard) or it had great blurbs on the cover.

Discovering Karen Pryor

One impressively blurbed book I brought home that fall was a Bantam paperback called Don’t Shoot the Dog! The New Art of Teaching and Training. I liked the bizarre title. Its author was Karen Pryor, a master animal trainer, and a trainer of animal trainers. I could not put it down. She was a great writer and she knew her stuff.  Pryor had thought deeply about positive reinforcement and she had also thought hard about breaking bad habits. (When your dog begs for food at the dining room table—how do you stop that?)

Pryor asserted that you could train any animal—fish or fowl, dog or human—to do almost anything physically possible. You communicate what behavior you want and deliver rewards until it’s done right. You must proceed step by step, rewarding and reinforcing progress at each stage, until you get the final result. But you must find the right place to start—a behavior that the animal can do easily.

She had a dry sense of humor. Here she is on the quite serious subject of how she would train a chicken to dance.

I might begin by watching the chicken moving around as chickens do and reinforcing it every time it happened to move to the left. Soon my first goal would be reached: the chicken would be moving to the left quite often—and, being variable, sometimes a little and sometimes a lot. Now I might selectively reinforce only the stronger movements to the left—turning a quarter circle, say. When these responses predominated, natural variability would again ensure that while some turns were less than a quarter circle, some would be more like a half a circle. I could raise my criteria, set a new goal, and start selecting for half-circle turns or better. With the chicken shaped to make several full turns at high speed per reinforcement, I might consider that I’d reached my end goal, a dancing chicken.

Pryor’s interest in bad habits intrigued me. As a teacher, I had never thought of breaking bad habits as a specific problem, but she had done so in depth. Pryor said you couldn’t attack bad behavior head on, and that made sense to me. (Shouting at the dog doesn’t work.) If your friend had a crooked tennis swing, I realized you could not stand in front of him and say, “Just do it like me.” Karen said you had to retrain from the ground up.  To construct a proper tennis swing you’d ignore the old bad one, and train a new swing beginning from a different starting point altogether. (To make the dog stop begging, you could counter-train him in a behavior that prevented begging, say lying down on the threshold of the dining room. If he stayed there, he would be unable to beg.)

“Why Didn’t You Fix the Run-Ons?”

Karen Pryor’s little book haunted me that fall. I read her at night. During the day, I pushed big stones uphill so I could watch them roll down. I exaggerate, but it felt like that sometimes.

One day that fall, after a class had ended, I confronted a student I’ll call Pete about a paper I’d returned to him. We both stood by the door of the classroom as other students filed out. It seemed to me the guy was recalcitrant.

“Why didn’t you correct the run-ons?” I asked, with an irritated edge in my voice.  “I told you to fix the run-ons in the last draft and you agreed to do it, but now I read the new version and they’re still there. Do I describe this accurately?”

“Yes,” Pete said.

“So how come you didn’t do it?”

“I tried to.”

“Yeah, and then what happened?”

“I couldn’t tell which ones were the run-ons,” he said.

“What do you mean?”

“I tried to find the run-ons and fix them, but I couldn’t tell which ones they were. They look the same as the other sentences to me.”

That interchange began gloomy but yielded light in the end.  I began to understand that Pete and others were not just ignorant; they were trapped in bad perceptual habits that would not easily be fixed. Exhortation to do better would not work. I set time aside and gave Pete a couple of hours’ special coaching on fragments and run-ons, but I couldn’t do that with everyone. In my four sections I had a dozen students in Pete’s situation.

I could coach individuals into being good writers, but in the classroom I began to notice signs that I wasn’t getting through, at least to the laggards. One day that fall I really did see several students’ eyes get glassy when I said, “Remember to keep a high proportion of active verbs in your sentences—that’s what really works.” (Sure, prof. High proportion. Active verbs. Right.) From other cues, I could see that when I talked about telling an active verb from a passive verb, or a real verb from a gerund, I went over many heads.

One Skill at a Time?

Karen Pryor’s viewpoint worked on my thinking. She’s a great writer and I could not stop reading her. She seemed to see the entire human world as a hierarchy of training situations.  I felt excited to see the world as she did, but also a bit sick, because by her lights I was doing many things wrong.  In her world one of the biggest mistakes you can make is trying to train two skills during the same session.  Here she talks about it in the context of dolphin training:

While you are working on a given behavior … you should work on one criterion at a time, and only that one. If I were training a dolphin to splash and I were to withhold reinforcement one time because the splash was not big enough and the next time because it was in the wrong direction, the animal would have no way of deciding what I wanted from it. One reinforcement cannot convey two pieces of information. I should shape for size of splash until satisfied with that and then shape for direction of splash, whatever the size, until that, too, is learned; only when both criteria are established could I require both to be obeyed.

When a student or subject is learning too slowly, Pryor asserted, you are probably trying to train for two skills at the same time and those two trainings interfere with each other. In other words, the training for Skill A interferes with the training for Skill B, and vice versa.

I wondered if that had anything to do with the odd fact that when I marked up papers, students would often hand the revisions back with only the grammar problems fixed. They would ignore my structural comments, which frustrated and irritated me, because problems with thesis or ending matter more in the long run. When challenged they’d respond, “I did fix most of the problems.”

I understood I wrote two kinds of comments in the margins: sentence corrections and structure comments. The students themselves grasped that, even if vaguely, since they were able to fix one kind of error and ignore the other.

This seemed like a classic situation from the Pryor handbook, a classic example of the wrong thing to do. I was blurring things for the students by giving feedback on two different skills at the same time. I didn’t know what the fix was, but I knew she wouldn’t like what I was doing.

On my long drives home I thought about all this, and I riled myself up.  I began talking to myself, lecturing the steering wheel. “Writing is a two-tier skill!” I would announce. “There’s the sentence level and the essay level. Essays are built from sentences, but they aren’t the same as sentences. They are made out of sentences.” I argued as if I were in a courtroom and could win some important case. “It’s two different things, two different skills, don’t you see! Essay writing is a two-level skill. It has two tiers. Tier one, solid sentences. Tier two, arrangement. You should not be teaching them at the same time. They are different skills. It confuses people if you blur them together!”

Why Hadn’t the Experts Noticed?

I wondered why hundreds of composition experts had never noticed that writing is a two-tier skill, and that you can’t train two skills at the same time. I decided the answer was “tradition.” I could remember that thirty years earlier, in 1965, no one who wrote fragments got out of high school. Back in 1965, all freshmen admitted to college wrote standard grammatical sentences, and knew the standard. If they made mistakes, they recognized them and knew how to correct them. But as the years went by, more students were admitted with writing problems, until now a significant number could not write clear grammatical sentences. Nonetheless, the traditional syllabi persisted. Now, students unable to write sentences were being assigned complex, thesis-organized papers—which they botched, of course. No lessons in writing sentences were given, you see, because back in 1965 they weren’t needed! Hah!

The injustice of this grew on me. I knew even the Petes in my sections wanted to learn, and they trusted that we knew how to teach writing. But we instructors were the dummies. We had set up freshman comp in a way that could not work. They wanted to learn, and we blocked them.

Telling Good Sentences from Rotten

People often compare the craft of writing to carpentry, a fair parallel that breaks down when you look at how these two skills are taught. Carpentry instructors don’t let students try to build things using both solid and rotten planks. We college writing teachers, however, do. We accept essays larded with rotten sentences, and then give ridiculously ineffective feedback in the margins. In a carpentry course, I imagine, an instructor facing students who could not identify rotten planks might first run a mini-course (“Telling Good Planks From Rotten”) before letting them proceed.

Wouldn’t it work better to teach writing that way, separating the skills? You could have a mini-course called “Telling Good Sentences From Rotten.”  You could demand that they pass that mini-course before being allowed to write essays. I wondered what it would feel like to out-and-out forbid students to write essays until they’d passed a course on writing active-verb sentences.

Despite the day-dreaming, I stuck to business and did finish the 1994 fall semester in the usual way. Working from my own handouts, I taught them about the plain style, covering control of sentence length, and the active verb and its importance.  As usual, I returned a pile of student papers in the last week of class.

That semester ended in the third week of December. The snow was flying and driving had become difficult.

The New Year came and went and the restful semester break rolled on into January. I’d be teaching the same old course soon enough.

Or so I thought.

[Continued in Part 2.]

For more information about the readable writing method and the textbook John Maguire's College Writing Guide, visit

Image Credit: Marlene Cote.

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