Sorry, there are no rules for good writing

There’s something about the phrase good writing that bothers me. Don’t get me wrong, I love good writing, I try to produce good writing, and I really want my students to get better at writing.

But when I see generic lists of tips or, worse, rules for good writing, I always want to ask “writing what?” As I said in Changing Practices in the L2 Writing Classroom: Moving Beyond the Five-Paragraph Essay: “We don’t just write. We write something to someone for some purpose.” What makes good writing in one situation would be out of place in another. That’s why a lot of Onion and McSweeney’s parodies work so well (this list of “top millennial injuries reported in urgent-care facilities” detours into a rant against the stereotyping of millennials, while using the word existential correctly, unlike some newspapers of record).

So I was rather concerned by a piece that circulated back in January with Steven Pinker’s “13 rules for writing better.” Oh good. Only 13.* Now, to be clear, I am a fan of Pinker: he signed my copy of The Language Instinct when he came to speak at the Cambridge Union in about 1998. He was also the first person I ever saw using a PowerPoint presentation, which looked pretty funny against the ornate wood paneling. I think he’s a great writer about linguistics**, and judging by the number of books he sells, so do many others. Continue reading “Sorry, there are no rules for good writing”

The anti-5PE Campaign Hits the Big Time!

[Changing Practices for the L2 Writing Classroom: Moving Beyond the Five-Paragraph Essay] is a thorough look at the research and practices surrounding the use of the five-paragraph essay, particularly as it has been employed in second language writing instruction, though I believe it speaks to all writing classrooms.

John Warner, Inside Higher Education, 5/21/19

John Warner (author of Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities) interviewed Ann Johns and me last week about our new co-edited volume Changing Practices for the L2 Classroom: Moving Beyond the Five-Paragraph Essay (available from the University of Michigan Press or as a Kindle e-book). You can read the full interview over on his blog on Inside Higher Education. We had a lot of fun jointly composing our answers to his questions by email (thanks, Google Docs!), and I think we’ve set out many of the arguments we and our contributing authors make throughout the book. Our goal in Changing Practices is:

Available now from the University of Michigan Press or as a Kindle e-book

dispelling the myths of universality (everyone writes five-paragraph essays and has always written them), transfer (the training-wheel syndrome), scaffolding (it will help them later), and generalization (all students write essays in all their classes).

John takes a slightly different approach to the the five-paragraph essay in his book, viewing it as a symptom of many other problems in the US education system. I definitely recommend reading the book: he has an interesting background as a composition teacher, and he makes important points about the larger picture of writing in schools and, particularly, universities. In our volume, we’re not really trying to kill the five-paragraph essay (which I jokingly called graphicide on Twitter recently!) but rather to encourage teachers and curriculum designers to change their practices, even if that means starting by revising just one assignment from an “essay” to a genre.

Take a look at the interview and let me know what you think!

Moving Beyond the Five-Paragraph Essay

It’s here! After two years of hard work, our ultimate collection of arguments against the five-paragraph essay hit the physical and digital shelves this week. Changing Practices for the L2 Writing Classroom: Beyond the Five Paragraph Essay (University of Michigan Press) is an edited volume that makes the case for moving away from the five-paragraph essay by suggesting classroom practices that lead to purposeful, meaningful writing instruction from elementary to graduate school.

The book started out as a popular panel at TESOL 2017, but it was a much more complex process than just writing up the papers we presented. We expanded the scope, both in terms of authors and topics, and really focused on the changes we recommend in practice. We wanted to write this book not only for the anti-5PE choir (in which we all sing loudly) but also for teachers and administrators who are hesitant about or resistant to these practices or who sense that the five-paragraph essay is inadequate but aren’t sure what to do instead.

As Ann Johns and I wrote in the conclusion, we don’t expect this one book to be the death knell of the five-paragraph essay. We need new textbooks and teacher handbooks (we’re working on both – watch this space!). But Changing Practices is an important step forwards, and I’m really proud of the work we’ve done here and thankful for the amazing authors who contributed to the volume.

You can read more about the book, including the table of contents on my website, and purchase the book directly from the publisher or as a Kindle ebook.

What do you think? Write a comment or contact me to follow up!

Genre Makeover: The Compare/Contrast Essay

So, I sat down at my computer just now and thought to myself, “I really should write an essay comparing me and my brother” … no, wait, “comparing watching a DVD with going to the movies”, … or, even better, “comparing large cars to small cars” … said no-one, ever.

Throughout this genre makeover series, I’ve attempted to show how boring and meaningless writing assignments become when rhetorical modes are confused for genres. One way to understand a mode is as a pattern of development. For example, there are writing tasks that call for you to compare stuff, but you rarely do it just for the sake of the comparison: there has to be a purpose to the comparison. That’s where genre comes in. Continue reading “Genre Makeover: The Compare/Contrast Essay”

Genre Makeover: Problems and Solutions

For some reason, in the usual litany of rhetorical modes that are mistaken for genres in writing textbooks, problem/solution is often omitted, which is unfortunate because this one is actually useful. But before you rush to class and assign a “problem/solution essay,” let’s give it the genre makeover treatment and consider why anyone might write about problems and their solutions. Continue reading “Genre Makeover: Problems and Solutions”

Genre Makeover: The Process Essay

One of the strongest arguments against the five-paragraph essay is that the 5PE approach to writing (textbooks) tends to confuse mode with genre. Briefly, rhetorical modes are patterns of development, such as description, comparison, causation, or — the focus of this post — process. Genres are the ways we get things done with language in social contexts. Genres might include pedagogical genres (describing an economic principle on a test; writing a lab report), professional genres (user manuals; methodology sections), or home genres (recipes, Facebook rants). We know we use genres, but for some reason we don’t always teach them. Continue reading “Genre Makeover: The Process Essay”

Genre Makeover: The Descriptive “Essay”

One of the staples of ESL textbooks and writing courses is the descriptive essay. I’m not honestly sure what one of this is: description is definitely an important mode of writing, but when would we describe anything in the form of an essay? Even worse, this assignment is often used as an excuse to drill features that are inappropriate for this type of writing (a description can’t have a thesis because it’s not making an argument!). Continue reading “Genre Makeover: The Descriptive “Essay””

Grammar Choices: What’s new in the second edition?

Grammar Choices (2nd edition coming January '19) | More information
Second Edition

The second edition of Grammar Choices has been published by the University of Michigan Press (available only directly from the press right now, and soon from Amazon). This is an exciting moment because it means enough people bought and liked the first edition to warrant a new one!

Why did we produce a second edition? The first edition of Grammar Choices was published in 2012, so it’s had a healthy life-span of 6 years, but of course academic English hasn’t changed much in that time! With any second edition, you have to strike a balance between adding and changing enough to justify a new edition, while not alienating users who liked the first edition. There’s always going to be a reading, exercise, or example that you’re angry at me for dropping (sorry).

My philosophy with this revision was to: Continue reading “Grammar Choices: What’s new in the second edition?”

Genre Makeover: An argument essay

Greetings, genre warriors! Welcome to an occasional series in which I’ll makeover a boring old five-paragraph essay into a genre-based writing assignment. No, you don’t win a house or a new wardrobe, but you might not fall asleep during your next grading session. Deal? Continue reading “Genre Makeover: An argument essay”

An ode to the teacher-led writing classroom

I knew I shouldn’t do it, but I fell for Inside Higher Ed’s clickbait and read an article headed “Professor with no formal training shares some effective tools for others who must teach writing classes” on Twitter and titled “An Ode to Teacherless Writing Classrooms” on the site. I have thoughts. Continue reading “An ode to the teacher-led writing classroom”