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 www.readablewriting.com.
Editor’s note: In the first part of this article, John Maguire described his frustration as a writing teacher at the Berklee College of Music in Boston in the Fall of 1994. He described how the insights of animal trainer Karen Pryor led him to suspect that freshman comp courses work badly because they are badly designed, in that they blur the quite different skills of sentence writing and essay composition.
PART II: Serendipitous semester
I was loafing around my apartment on a bright, warmer-than-usual morning in late January 1995, when, at about 11:30, it hit me that this might be the first day of classes. I hunted around for the paperwork and learned my writing course met at 1 p.m. Oh boy. It would take an hour to drive down to Boylston Street and ten minutes to park. That would leave 20 minutes to walk from the car to the main building, find the roster in my mailbox and get to the classroom—but I had nothing prepared. I had never missed the first meeting of a course. I could picture expectant students watching the door with me not arriving. I had to leave within five minutes. Think fast.
I looked over at my dining room table and saw a neat stack of papers and handouts from the last semester, a tall stack, about ten inches high. I went over and looked. At the top of the pile sat active-verb handouts from early December. Could I use them? Maybe I could. I wouldn’t be changing the course, just doing things in a different order.
It was that or nothing, so I drove into Boston, parked in a $20 pay lot to save time, hustled into the copying room and made new sets of the active-verb handouts. Then I grabbed the roster, got into the classroom and said “Hello, I’m John Maguire,” and sailed into my favorite topic, active verbs. The class was a breeze. This one-day emergency fix had gone just fine and I’d proven I could teach active verbs on Day One.
But driving home, thinking about getting back on track, I decided to keep on with the verbs, since we were rolling along, and to do it in all my sections.
There’s nothing like a fresh approach to wake up both teacher and students, and I improvised quite smoothly for about four weeks, more pleasantly than usual—and then there was a shock. The student writing suddenly got much better than it should have been. My Berklee guys were doing little one-page papers and the quality was a good two notches higher than normal for that point in the course. The average sentence had an active verb, and the difference that made to clarity was unmistakable. Their papers shone with a vitality unlike the usual flat freshman stuff. They seemed to have committed to active verbs and even to have understood the idea. I had not expected this. I thought, Well, let’s continue with concrete nouns, people words, conciseness and sentence-length control.
Later in the spring, I got back on track and assigned the standard persuasion and argument papers. When these longer papers came in, they also read much better than the groan-inducing dreck I was used to. Again I was amazed. Measured across all 70 students in my four sections, the percentage of terrible sentences had dropped steeply. Most students now said things neatly and clearly. I spent almost no time correcting sentence grammar, and when I had to do so, most students understood me. Because I had required them to prove mastery of basic concepts like “active verb” and “average sentence length,” we now had a common language.
It took months before I woke up to the fact that I had begun actually teaching the course I’d dreamed about during the previous fall—maybe not the whole course, but most of it. I was teaching sentences first, that’s for sure. In the fall my idea for a sentences-first course had been a vague dream. Now I’d stumbled into it and I had proof of concept.
So in May, convinced by a semester’s experience, I sat down with paper and pen to redesign Writing 101 into my longed-for two parts. First part: solid sentences (telling good wood from rotten) culminating in mastery. Second part: essay construction using solid sentences only, culminating in mastery. Where to put the dividing line? I had 14 weeks, so I decided to use eight weeks for sentences and six for essays. I guessed students would need lots of time and practice to master the sentence.
The mini-course in sentence mastery began with ideas from Rudolf Flesch’s The Art of Readable Writing, plus materials I had drawn up for grad students at Boston University, especially my “hand diagram.” It showed the outline of a hand, with five two-word reminders: Short Words, Short Sentences, Active Verbs, Concrete Nouns, Personal Language. My grad students had said they loved that diagram and claimed they taped it up by their keyboards as a reminder.
I decided to spend four weeks on active verbs. I wanted students to be able to write with active verbs at will—consciously, all the time—the way a professional writer does. I didn’t know if it was possible to bring freshmen to that level, but I wanted to try. Of course, half these kids knew no grammar. Leading them from “no grammar” to “skillful active-verb writers” would take many steps. Four weeks seemed too little time, but I didn’t dare go longer. Training chickens to dance might go quicker.
In the other four weeks of Part One, I decided to would cover: concrete nouns, “personal language,” sentence-length control, and conciseness. These are concepts from Rudolf Flesch.
I experimented a bit and soon decided that concrete nouns should come first, because it met the Karen Pryor requirement that skill acquisition must begin with the simplest possible activity. A concrete noun is defined as something you can drop on your foot. Nothing is simpler than dropping something on your foot, so that’s the right place to start.
In Part Two, I did essay organization. I defined the capstone skill as the on-demand writing of interesting two-page essays, using a thesis, where the reader never gets confused and always reaches the last sentence with a feeling of satisfaction.
First Year of the New Course
In fall 1995, I finally began the new course. We worked from one- and two-page Xeroxed handouts.
On most teaching days I went to my IBM Selectric right after getting up. I sat there in my skivvies, drinking coffee and writing materials to use that day. I remembered where students had been stuck—or I could see it in papers right in front of me—so it was easy to invent new in-class activities to get them unstuck. On most days I had fresh material.
After typing up a few pages, I’d drive to the college, make Xeroxes in the copy room, and then try it out on the three or four sections I had each semester. I’d try a brand new idea on the 10 a.m. class in a lecture-discussion at the whiteboard. If a few students didn’t get it, I’d tweak it for the 11 a.m. and do it a different way. I might try a third way for the 1 p.m. section. By the end of the 3 p.m. class, I knew what worked. On many days I got a fresh teaching idea in the morning, turned it into an activity while I was still in my bathrobe, and had it tested and perfected in one day.
I had gone back to Don’t Shoot the Dog and reread it carefully. I decided to let Pryor be my guide and to train students in one skill at a time, period.
Separation of skills became my watchword, and I took no one else’s word for what the skills were to be. I kept asking What is the basic skill? What is the actual behavior needed? What do students misunderstand about it? What’s the best way to practice the behavior?
I taught Skill A and checked for mastery, then Skill B and checked for mastery. Then I taught the combination of A and B as its own separate skill, and checked that for mastery, too. Karen Pryor would have been proud.
For each skill I tried out different approaches, but generally I announced the name of each new skill and then the names of its parts, using as little jargon as possible. Eventually I had a general template for the introduction of new writing skills.
—Introduce the concept; name it; identify its parts, if any.
—Discuss how and why this behavior, or skill, helps the reader. This ties the new concept into the course theme of readability.
—Practice finding examples of it in a list of words, then in sentences, then in paragraphs.
—Practice writing with it in sentences, then paragraphs, then mini-essays.
—Find examples of the skill being used in published essays. Stress how the writer used the technique to make his essay more readable.
—Practice writing using the skill in combination with all earlier skills.
Because I aimed to transmit behaviors, not just talk about them, we spent time generously on the few skills that concerned us. If the day’s topic was concrete nouns, for example, we spent the full 50 minutes on it. And we did that for two weeks.
Starting in fall 1995, and every semester afterwards, I had an exciting reason to get out of bed. I had to get in there to teach. I was a researcher now—I had experimental subjects--each section I taught was a lab trial. I looked forward to every semester because I could invent new exercises, games and assignments. That endorphin reward lit me up and drew me on. No longer did I feel like a slave chained to an oar, and in fact I have never felt like that again.
“I never knew I could write this well!”
I had no idea at the start that the new course would be so effective; nor that it would become a research project going on for years. After three years of running the course, when I had exposed 24 sections to it, I could see that the student writing kept improving. Skeptically, I wondered if students were doing so well just because of my enthusiasm for the new course. Then I remembered that I’d always been an excited and lively teacher, even when using the standard approach. No, it was the method.
Our nuts-and-bolts focus on language produces a remarkable effect about six to eight weeks into the course. Student perception of language changes and their taste improves—not just among the better students but among all students. Students start to prefer vivid, punchy assertions; the teacher, of course, encourages this. The better students produce sentences like the following, and everyone, including the lesser students, appreciates them:
Two women eating ice cream discuss bathing suit sizes.
I believe in actual funerals, with glossy caskets, and bodies with folded hands.
The copper weathervane atop Quincy Market's dome squeaks and clatters in the wind.
My mother would be cooking all day: chopping green bell peppers in even strokes and adding paprika to the browning chicken.
With my blade in one hand and straight edge ruler in the other, I confidently sliced away the unwanted chipboard, thus building up and breaking down my cube.
There’s something about the sentence focus and rapid progress and reading one another’s work that ignites a feeling of revelation in mid-course. A light bulb comes on. The brighter students get the lightbulb moment earlier, and the laggards a bit later, but eventually it comes on for everyone.
It goes like this. They’ve been doing admittedly odd activities, circling words on paper, writing little sentences with teacups or bulldozers in them, searching for verbs, flipping verbs into the active voice. So they follow the teacher’s odd rules and obsessions (objects, people, verbs) as they write. About Week 6 they notice something weird, and they come into class and talk about how their writing reads differently from the way it used to. It doesn’t even look like their own work! It looks professional. They like it. It’s a surprise. The quiet ones just smile and the outgoing say, “This stuff you make us do really works!” They redouble their work. The course seems to make a lot of sense now, and it’s interesting.
For myself, I’ll say it’s a major buzz when this happens, and it happens to almost all the students. It’s a great moment to hear a kid say with a sense of wonder, “I never knew I could write this well!”
Subsequent years of the new course
Each time I taught the course I got more evidence that step-by-step instruction in composition blew away competing methods and made every teacher hour more productive. Student writers came out transformed. Not every student hit all the targets, but most hit most of them. They came to understand how sentences operate on the mind. As one student wrote in his evaluation, “I may not know how to do everything Mr. Maguire wants me to do yet, but I do know why interesting writing is interesting.”
I learned that:
- Immediate success builds morale. Students must be given things to do they can succeed at, such as reading a passage and circling the concrete nouns. No activity is too simple. The best activities are simple, surprising, directly exercise the skill, and permit the student to assess his own progress.
- Stressing the through-line of readability builds morale. The through-line, a concept from Tina Blythe’s Teaching for Understanding, refers to the long-term goal of a course. The teacher knows that the goal of this course is Readable Writing, but openly announcing that—early and often and continuously—strengthens morale. Students stay engaged with a course when its purpose is always plain.
During later renditions of the course I began to think of myself as a sort of athletic trainer, bringing beginners to advanced levels of performance. That image worked well with the jazz students at Berklee, who thought about performance all the time. When I said, “Writing is a performance skill,” they understood. When I said, “By the end of this semester, you need to be able to sit at the keyboard and turn out a good essay in real time,” they nodded. When I said, “This course is about improving your chops so you can do that,” they smiled.
Tight Constraints Produce Powerful Work
Berklee only required five or six two-page essays for Writing 101—no library research or foot-noting—so I could focus on writing. I felt like Huck Finn lighting out for the Territory, free. Having a tight frame of 14 weeks sure focused me, and I tried out every bright idea that occurred. Year after year I tested new material for each module, so that between the new papers that came in each year and my new inventions, the course was always fresh. It was a fun course with a lot of laughter. After four years of development, the course ran like a polished, lubricated, smooth-running machine. It had scores of interlocking lessons, images, games and assignments, all about readability and all in sequence from Hour 1 to Hour 39.
The step method requires that the teacher know a behavior has been mastered before proceeding. It’s not easy to do in a writing classroom, but one way is to give assignments with objective behavioral constraints that both you and the student can monitor. So in Week 1, the constraints are simple ratios: “Write a 300-word narrative in which one word in 20 is something you can drop on your foot.”
In later weeks, when the student has learned several behaviors, he or she faces multiple constraints. In Week 6, he or she would have to meet numerical standards for (1) concreteness, (2) people words, and (3) active verbs. The most intelligent students rise to the challenge of multiple constraints and produce quite interesting papers, which make a great impression on their peers.
Here’s a multiple-constraint assignment students get in Week 6, midway in the verbs unit.
Assignment “Path Through the World.” Head out on foot to an interesting place: a store, a river, a church. It might be a place you have strong feelings or curiosity about. It should be at least 10 minutes away by walk. Start walking. You will take notes, not continuously but intermittently. Every half block or so, pull to one side, lean against a doorway or telephone pole, and make notes. Poll all your five senses consciously. Observe. Be detailed. When you get home, write 900 to 1000 words about your Path Through the World. Requirements: Near the start of the paper, announce where you are walking to, and end the paper when you reach your goal. Write in time-order. Show many things (concrete nouns). Show people, using “people language.” Use only active verbs in the present tense.
This assignment requires a lot of attention; most students have to work hard at it. It’s interesting because freshmen are often in a new city that they haven’t looked at closely. And it’s an odd assignment because it’s a physical effort. Because the student note-taking takes time, the supposed 10-minute walk often takes up 45 minutes. And then the writing takes two to four hours.
When these “walk papers” come in, I copy the best of them and we study them closely. Everyone wants to see what their fellow students perceived during a ten-minute walk and how they wrote about it.
This highly constrained assignment has always stimulated good work. Here’s the first two paragraphs of the paper that freshman Jason Patera handed in for my summer class in 1996:
I burst from the front doors of Berklee and immediately stop and blink. At 5:15 p.m., the sunlight is a brutal contrast to the dimly lit halls of the school behind me. My eyes begin to focus, and the world slowly regains form. Chaos reigns on Massachusetts Avenue. Scores of musicians linger at this end of the block, and several non-Berklee pedestrians have to elbow their way past. Beyond the sidewalk, a disgruntled cab driver blasts his horn in frustration: rush hour is in full bloom.
I turn to my right and start to head up Mass. Ave., following my carefully planned route back home. The wide sidewalk here allows for easy maneuvering around slower paced walkers, and I quickly approach the Boylston Street intersection. A young-looking guy skids towards me on a bicycle and asks if I’ve read the Scriptures lately. Fortunately, the light is green, so I avoid the question and jog across the street.
When I read Jason’s paper in July 1996 and watched those active verbs doing their jobs, as I had requested, I was shocked. It had been less than a year since I’d made the big jump and designed a course to force an active, concrete style, and now I had the result. This brand-new freshman had come through with a power like a professional writer. He had done what I’d trained him to do. I read the paper and thought, This method really works.
Four years later
I’d designed the new course to alter synapses permanently, to be memorable—but I couldn’t prove that it worked long term. I taught only freshmen (quite happily) and I didn’t see their writing after that. I didn’t know how long the course stuck with students.
Then one day, three years after I’d grabbed the verb handouts from the dining room table, my Berklee colleague Judith Hahnisalo stopped me in the hallway outside her office. Judy taught various art history courses, including a junior-level course in which she required several papers on topics like “The Rose Window Motif in French Cathedrals.”
“You know these kids can’t write,” she said.
“I sure do.”
“Most of the papers are unreadable, you can’t tell what’s going on. It’s confused and depressing stuff.”
“Yup, I know that for sure.”
“So, on this last assignment, I got the usual garbage from students, mostly incompetent, but this time three or four papers in the stack read differently. They were very simple papers, and all written in a similar style, unusually plain and clear. I thought they were from students trained to write overseas, because they were not written like American students write. You could tell what was being said. So I called each of them in and asked where they’d learned to write. I figured they would tell me France or Great Britain. They said no, but they had all learned to write in the same place. Your course.”
I calculated rapidly. I’d taught them as freshmen. Now they were in the second half of their junior year, two and half years later. Now an objective observer—unbiased for sure—has told me that their writing stands out dramatically from everyone else’s.
“I figured you’d want to know,” she said.
“I think this counts as a win,” I said.
* * *
From then on through 2015, I taught the Readable Writing course at colleges and universities in and around Boston. We always had fun. (Virtually always. I do remember one section of dull, sullen, impossible-to-revive twits at a community college.) Throughout this period, I knew I should spread the word about this method, and knew that if I only stayed in the classroom, it would get nowhere. I kept putting off the effort. (What, me procrastinate?) Finally, after a trip to an NAS convention where I talked up the method and got some encouragement, I wrote about it and got published online (here, here, and here). I was shocked that teachers wrote to ask for my course materials. I responded with a small textbook called John Maguire’s College Writing Guide. Now in 2016, about 800 copies have been sold. Four freshman writing instructors are now using my Guide as a text in New York, Ohio and Kentucky. The readability method I started at Berklee is now spreading.
For more information about the readable writing method and the textbook John Maguire's College Writing Guide, visit www.readablewriting.com.
Image Credit: Marlene Cote.