SHIFTING GEARS: One Writing Skill at a Time

P.E. ROWE

 

A major step in becoming a teacher of writing is coming to the realization that a lot of what you do as a writer just happens. You perform so many of the tasks of writing so automatically that you’ve likely forgotten exactly how you do what you do. Even more importantly as a teacher, you’ve likely forgotten just how hard it was to learn how to do those things, which makes it doubly hard to teach students skills you might not even be consciously performing. When it comes to writing, done is often easier than said.

Why is this the case, though? And why is it so difficult to teach writing anyway?

There are a lot of answers to these two questions, but perhaps the biggest reason teachers struggle to teach writing is that we’re not really teaching writing at all. We’re teaching a massive collection of sub-skills that get grouped together under the umbrella of “writing.”

Take the following analogy as a model. Let’s assume that you know how to drive a car with a stick shift. A friend who has never driven a car before asks you to help them finally get their driver’s license. The day comes for the first lesson and you find yourself seated in the passenger’s seat looking across at your overwhelmed friend, who turns to you and asks, “What do I do first?”

Good question? At this point, unless you’re a driving instructor, you probably come to the realization that you don’t have a clue what you actually do when you drive. You just drive.

Consider how many different sub-skills go into the “skill” we call “driving.” Each of these sub-skills needs to be taught and learned before a new driver can safely be let loose on the road. That new driver needs to learn how to adjust their mirrors before they start driving, when to look in their mirrors while in motion, which mirror to check when performing specific maneuvers (like parallel parking versus merging onto a highway versus changing lanes), as well as habitually scanning their mirrors to be aware of their surroundings. All of those individual sub-skills might be filed under “mirror-skills.” Each major skill component of driving a car with a stick shift has at least a handful of sub-skills: wheel-skills, braking-skills, signaling-skills, clutch-skills, shifting-skills, situational-awareness-skills, defensive-driving-skills, anticipation-skills, and even getting-pulled-over-by-the-police skills, which hopefully you’ll never need to use.


Like driving a car with a stick shift, writing is a similar “skill” with a host of sub-skills that all need to be integrated to make the vehicle go. Similar to teaching a newbie to drive, each of these sub-skills needs to be taught, drilled, refined, assessed, remediated, and then re-assessed. Teaching writing is much more complex than driving, though. These sub-skills must be learned over a much longer period of time—one that requires many instructors over an entire education. Additionally, these different instructors are teaching “writing” over a multiplicity of disciplines. Unlike a proper driving school, though, there typically isn’t a lot of coordination about teaching writing across the curriculum.

So, what’s a teacher to do—especially if they’re relatively new to the game? Probably one of the easiest mistakes to make would be to think that you’re expected to teach all of the skills. Bear in mind that you’re only one of the many teachers each of your students will be interacting with. They’re going to pick up little pieces of the writing skills they need from many different teachers and even more assignments. This can work both for and against your students. The positive aspect is that most students will leave college having some command of most of the important skills and sub-skills of academic writing. Conversely, though, the lack of coordination between instructors almost ensures that very few students will master all the sub-components of academic writing. Some pieces will inevitably slip through the cracks.

Your students are going to be getting a lot of writing instruction by doing. If they’re taking mostly classes where they don’t get an opportunity to turn in outlines or drafts, there’s little opportunity for remediation. The reality is that the good writers of the world get to be good writers by rewriting, revising, and refining their work. If the only writing instruction your students are getting is through a few comments when they get their papers back, they won’t have a chance to incorporate changes to individual assignments or their writing style as a whole.

Excellent writing comes from precision at every level, and unfortunately, there’s not enough time in the world to teach every student with that level of precision for each of the sub-skills of academic writing. What is reasonable for a writing instructor to aspire to do, though, is to add a writing emphasis to an assignment, a paper, a unit, or even a semester. Highlighting a specific sub-skill and giving students instruction and the opportunity to practice this sub-skill offers two major elements of good writing instruction. First, it teaches a specific skill, raising the student’s performance in that area. Second, it emphasizes the level of precision required to master all the sub-skills of academic writing.

Rather than trying to teach all of the skills a little, try focusing on teaching one of the skills of writing a lot. Whether it’s deconstructing what makes an effective topic sentence or hammering home the importance of good transition phrases—demanding precision and practice from your students in a single area will at least get them working toward the type of mindset a good writer needs to possess. And with practice, they’ll be performing this skill without having to think about it, almost like shifting gears.