Readers of The Philadelphia Citizen are solutions-oriented people. Tackling problems requires effective communication. And yet many, even those who are highly educated, inappropriately feel inadequate when it comes to putting words on paper. Why? They are imprisoned by misunderstandings of what writing is and don’t realize that every intelligent person can achieve goals through written communication.
Too often, one’s lack of confidence gets in the way. Insecurity about writing is sometimes the result of misguided instruction. As a scholar and a founder of writing across the curriculum, I will say that in the last 40 years we have significantly reformed the teaching of writing at all educational levels. But we still have a long way to go.
When I was a full-time English professor and seat-mates on planes would ask about my profession, I would hesitate, then say, “I teach English.” Their response was likely to be something like, “I’ll have to watch my grammar,” followed by embarrassed silence as my companion watched his grammar across the Rockies and into California. Clearly, my silent fellow-traveler had learned to fear writing and writing teachers.
Oh, the irony! One of my goals in life — to encourage communication — was again scuttled by negative classroom experiences. The lesson here is to take a good look at writing instruction, pre-K-12 and in colleges and universities. Ideally, students should see themselves as writers and readers and never remember a time when they were not.
Some believe that advances in artificial intelligence will kill the need for writing instruction. I strongly disagree. It turns out that the web-based GPT-3 software program, developed by an Elon Musk-backed nonprofit called OpenAI, can respond to common writing assignments. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, “You type in a query — say, a list of ingredients (what can I make with eggs, garlic, mushrooms, butter, and feta cheese?) or a genre and prompt (write an inspiring TED Talk on the ways in which authentic leaders can change the world) — and GPT-3 spits out a written response.”
But these responses lack what’s essential about writing — the human element. Anything produced by artificial intelligence will lack the imagination and critical thinking that makes a difference in the world. But how many understand the true essentials of writing — not commas and semicolons (although control of grammar and punctuation are essential for public communication) — but writing as thought made visible?
Now, thanks to vision, philanthropy, and scholarship at Miami University (Ohio), everyone, especially working adults, but also college and highschool students, with a phone or laptop has the opportunity to challenge previous assumptions about what writing is and how it works. The course, which became widely available on September 15 — but attracted more than 1,000 takers in its summer pilot — debunks myths about writing and assists participants in analyzing their own professional writing tasks. (Sign ups for the course are free until October 23 and $11 thereafter.)
In 1997, the philanthropy of two Miami University alumni established the Roger and Joyce Howe Center for Writing Excellence. This Center has now fully funded the free Miami Writing Institute. The online course, based on the most current and effective scholarship on writing, is designed by Professor Elizabeth Wardle, director of the Howe Center. This preeminent researcher worked in collaboration with her graduate students and staff to design the course.
Debunk common writing myths
In the following, I draw heavily on the Miami Writing Institute website.
Myth 1: Writing is just words, and rhetoric is empty speech.
Writing has purpose and is directed to particular readers, sometimes just to yourself. There is no such thing as “writing in general.” The various kinds — or genres — of writing include shopping lists, diary entries, emails to friends and strangers, budget proposals, case studies, and much more. Rhetoric is not empty or misleading words but a way of thinking about how to communicate persuasively and effectively.
Myth 2: There’s only one proper way to write.
Good writing is not something produced only by novelists and poets. Good writing is practiced by everyone seeking solutions to a full range of problems. Good writing is ethical writing that does not lie or manipulate. It comes in many styles.
Myth 3: Sticks and stones may break my bones …
Ha! Wrong. Words can hurt. And they can heal. Words are powerful. They create action. They do things in the world. Those who master words have a better chance of influencing outcomes.
Myth 4: Writing is solitary and some people are just born good writers.
Writing is social, not the work of a solitary genius. All writers have been discouraged, either by self-doubt or from teachers or colleagues. Effective writers learn how to replace this destructive litany with constructive observations and questions. Reading the acknowledgments in published texts demonstrates that experienced writers seek out helpful comments on work in progress. It’s important as you write to show it to a friend before you show it to a stranger. Writing is a process and everyone has more to learn.
How the Miami course works
Professor Wardle and her colleagues have designed the Miami Writing Institute as a series of self-paced interactive units inviting participants to reflect on their own conceptions and practices. The coursework includes everyday work projects and published cases.
The goal is for participants to see for themselves how writing works in different contexts, consider the implications, and apply the newly attained knowledge to their personal and professional lives. For instance, the course analyzes three kinds of workplace writing — a work order, software code documentation, and blog post. Another module involves reading and exploring a case study presenting several memos written before the Challenger explosion.
It’s worth the time and energy for reform-minded people who are nervous about their writing abilities to take this engaging, enjoyable — and free! — course. In these perilous times of fake news and disregard for evidence, it’s never been more important for ethical and intelligent people to address stubborn problems through writing. As we say in the Jewish tradition, writing persuasively and effectively is a way to heal the world.
Things to do:
- Take Miami University’s free course in writing, free until October 23, $11 (total) after that.
- Write confidently to address problems and express your ideas.
- Evaluate writing instruction in local pre-K-12 schools. Ask if writing is taught as a process with commentary on drafts and peer review.
- Evaluate writing instruction in colleges and universities of potential interest to family members. Search their webpages for references to writing across the curriculum.
- Follow the example of Roger and Joyce Howe, 1957 alumni of Miami University, and generously support Centers for Writing Excellence at your Alma Maters.
- Encourage colleges and universities to bring together faculty expertise and donor generosity to develop and offer free public service courses.
- Explore the free university courses available now. One of my personal favorites is the course in Modern Poetry offered by the University of Pennsylvania’s Kelly Writers’ House.
Elaine Maimon, Ph.D., is the author of Leading Academic Change: Vision, Strategy, Transformation. Her co-authored book, Writing In The Arts and Sciences, has been designated as a landmark text. She is a Distinguished Fellow of the Association for Writing Across the Curriculum. Follow @epmaimon on Twitter.
MORE BY ELAINE MAIMON