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”

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: 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””

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”

Language learning as a tornado (or: yes, we do need to teach this again)

Don’t raise your hand because you might be in public, but are there any other ESL teachers out there who, in moments of frustration, have thought or said, But we covered that last class/week/semester/level/year? Yeah, thought so. Continue reading “Language learning as a tornado (or: yes, we do need to teach this again)”

When is a grade a bagel?

In one of my favorite moments in the TV series The West Wing, politico Josh Lyman winces when a member of the president’s staff uses the word “recession”:

Larry: “If the economy is heading into a recession–”
Josh: “No, no, no. We don’t ever use that word around here.”
Ed: “What word? Recession? …What should we call it then?”
Josh: “I don’t care. Call it a boat show or a beer garden or a bagel.”
Larry: “So if it is a… bagel, the Fed thinks it’s gonna be a mild bagel.”

If you work in the West Wing, then calling an economic downturn a recession makes it a recession (once repeated on cable news, Twitter, and around the proverbial water cooler). On the other hand, if the average English teacher, say, reads in the Delaware News Journal that the stock market has fallen and declares to his two young children at the breakfast table that the US is in a recession … nothing happens. The president’s economic advisors’ utterances have illocutionary force: they make something so by speaking it into existence, just as a licensed official alone can declare two people married.

So what does this have to do with grades?

Continue reading “When is a grade a bagel?”

Preparation for what?

I work in an intensive English program, whose purpose is to prepare international students for undergraduate and graduate degrees in the US. (So this would be a good time to note that all opinions on this blog are mine alone!)

I’m increasingly bothered by the idea of education as preparation. To some extent, it’s true: we need our schools to prepare young (and not so young) people to contribute usefully to society and fulfill their own potential. Such has always been one of the functions of schooling: education is a public as well as a private good. It’s also true that we in ESL have a duty to help our students develop the language proficiency that will help them accomplish their future academic, professional, and personal goals. To that extent, my teaching is very much concerned with preparation.

But I have a problem when the goal of preparation so dominates our mindset as teachers, curriculum designers, materials writers, and administrators that the lesson, course, or program ceases to have any meaning as an educational experience in itself.

Continue reading “Preparation for what?”

A criticism of critical thinking

A couple of years ago, I had the good fortune to travel to Japan to speak at JALT and visit some schools and universities with the wonderful representatives from OUP. During a book fair at a university near Tokyo, a tall Australian ex-pat teacher asked me if we had any books on critical thinking. I dutifully pointed him to a series I’d written for which has “critical thinking tips” and explained how we tried to embed them in the content and assignments. “No,” he frowned, “I want a book that just teaches critical thinking, not a language textbook.”

Honestly, I have no idea what that kind of book would look like, and I certainly couldn’t write it. I’m not even sure what critical thinking means, and I’ve been teaching academic ESL for over 15 years. So I’ve stopped talking about critical thinking, and I don’t claim to teach it. I’ll leave thinking to the psychologists and philosophers.

Continue reading “A criticism of critical thinking”