Editorial: The tools of the writing trade

By focusing on form, Penn's writing program gives students a better understanding of the writing process

The Daily Pennsylvanian
April 7, 2008

The Daily Pennsylvanian recently called for the Critical Writing Program to expand the number of disciplines represented in its seminars, and to reconsider its pedagogical approach.

We second the desire to have an expanded disciplinary range. We are always on the lookout for qualified faculty willing to teach writing in underrepresented disciplines.

That's why Penn's writing program offers seminars in so many fields, including anthropology, chemistry, sociology, political science, fine arts, music, film, history, English, urban studies, journalism and service learning.

This array of courses is taught, moreover, by an extraordinarily diverse writing faculty: professors, independent scholars, journalists, editors, artists, musicians, scientists, archeologists, cultural critics, poets, screenwriters and novelists.

That we are able to attract this diverse faculty is a testament to Penn's top-notch students, its prestige and location. But it is also a result of our innovative approach to teaching.

Broadly speaking, writing can be taught in one of two ways. It can focus on what to write (idea) or on how to write (form). Our program blends both but emphasizes form, because writing, as any professional writer will attest, depends upon form.

Our students seldom arrive with exposure to prose forms. They may have wrestled the five-paragraph beast or SAT essay and from these learned a bit about introductions and conclusions.

The body - where the real work is done - remains a mystery, blocks stuffed with big words and evidence. Resourceful students unwittingly reinvent (not altogether well) the weakest of the forms, the additive model, or what we call the "two reasons" form, a simple associative list.

Most high-school students learn to write from the top down, which results in meandering, bottom-heavy, conclusion-dependent papers.

Disallowing our writers from leaning on conclusions (which should be no more than grace notes), we teach how to write from the inside out by testing and refining the thesis and then planning, developing and sustaining it by consciously drawing upon a variety of forms and strategies. The writer thus takes control of the writing, rather than the reverse.

We also train students in professional peer-review techniques. Typically, novice writers confuse proofreading with review and revision. They read and revise cosmetically, changing only those items that another has flagged.

While our method of outlining an already-written essay may seem counterintuitive, it provides intensive practice in paraphrase and summary ("says"), and in identifying writing strategies ("does"). A grasp of both is fundamental to understanding when and how to revise. Immersed in the practices of evaluation used by professionals, our students learn how to assess problems with thesis, structure, order, unity and coherence. They no longer must depend upon teachers' comments. Writing is demystified.

Students exit our seminars with an improved understanding of the process of writing, the importance of audience and the utility of an expanded writing repertoire.

Our most capable students take to this method like swans to water. They do wonders with the outlines and forms, which they find in every sort of writing, from the humanities to business and the sciences.

Once they grasp the principles, students discover how forms can be expanded, combined, contracted, adapted, mixed, matched, even deformed. Like artisans, they can break down a piece of writing and identify its moves.

Like artists, they make these their own. Once writers can compose three strong paragraphs - and know how and why they're strong - they can take on any writing task, great or small. They realize that great papers and books cannot be written overnight, like high-school assignments, but must be dispatched chunk-by-chunk, miniature essays linked and reordered as thought and research unfold, with conclusions necessarily deferred, tentative.

This is not to gainsay the relevance of our seminar topics. Writing is a conversation. The topics give us interesting, provocative ideas to talk and write about, part and parcel of learning the craft. The topics are indeed so engaging that all, professors and students alike, must restrain themselves from converting writing seminars into topics seminars and thereby neglecting our mission.

Our job is to equip Penn students with the writing skills they need to excel in their coursework and careers. While we can always do better, we are confident that our approach is working. Faculty complaints about student writing have been declining, replaced by praise.

Instructors and tutors remark the steady improvement that thousands of Penn students have now demonstrated. Final evaluations are thick with students' acknowledgments of improved writing and confidence.

By semester's end or thereafter most students begin to realize the value of what they have learned. Of late, we've even begun to hear about this from alumni.

The proof, however, is in the writing.

The most persuasive evidence has been provided by our new portfolio-assessment process, with instructors and outsider readers confirming that nearly every student trained in this method improved markedly by semester's end.

Valerie Ross is the director of the Critical Writing Program in the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing.