To Write, Draw

Rob Weir shares techniques for teaching writing to students who don't know how to convey ideas.

March 3, 2010

In my career I’ve taught so many different courses that I’d have to consult my own vita to name them all. If I include my high school teaching, I’ve taught at least one class from each of the major disciplines within the humanities and social sciences fields except psychology, and I’ve more than dabbled in that one. Ask me what the hardest thing is to teach, though, and I’ve got an instant answer: writing. Guess what most academics are being called upon to do more? Teach expository writing classes, of course. To paraphrase a cereal commercial, “Writing: It’s Not Just for English Professors Anymore!”

Teaching writing is hard on many levels, not the least of which is the gnawing suspicion that it's impossible. There are techniques instructors can share and exercises that sharpen student skills, but what is it exactly that makes one student’s writing sparkle while another’s lies pallid on the page? Answering that is akin to resolving the nature-versus-nurture argument by assigning precise percentages to each. I’ve been reading Sarah Vowell books lately. Scholars can, do, and should critique some of her glib comments, odd intellectual connections, and fanciful conclusions, but one thing is irrefutable: that gal sure can make a phrase dance. Did writing instructors at Montana State teach her that skill, or did they realize that she had the knack and have the sense to stay out of her way? (Don’t underestimate the importance of butting out. How would you like to have been Jackson Pollock’s painting mentor after Pollock gained fame by breaking all the rules?)

I wrestle with what I can realistically teach about writing. Frankly, when I have really good writers I don’t intervene much. I’ll discuss ideas with them, suggest sources, and comment on drafts, but I do my best to keep my voice off of their pages. It’s the mediocre writers with whom I work the most closely, and my greatest success has been teaching them how to structure their writing. The comment I hear most from weak writers is, “I can’t organize what I want to say.” How does one address such a problem? Consider this. Students come to your office with few ideas of how to assemble their words. What do you do? Do you spend lots of time trying to talk them through the obstacles? Try that and most will leave your office no wiser than when they entered. Think about it — your attempted cure is intellectual homeopathy. Students have word and concept problems and you feed them additional words and ideas. It might work for a few, but you’ll miss all those who want a bite of concrete.

There’s an old adage about a picture being worth a thousand words, and I take that to heart when helping inexperienced writers get better-organized. I don’t teach creative writing, so my students have to argue, defend, explain, and synthesize. They quickly learn the terms that dictate the nature of their assignments: thesis, evidence, examples, and conclusion. Some time before the first paper I draw geometric shapes on the board that might be analogous to a paper’s essential organization. Then, when a perplexed student drops by my office and springs the can’t-get-organized comment, before anything else occurs I ask that individual, “How would you draw your essay?”

The only thing original about my approach is that I came up with it before I learned that others had the same “brilliant” idea long ago. (Folks at the Poynter Institute used to draw a house and challenge writers to furnish it.) The cool thing isn’t the cleverness of the method; it’s its effectiveness. Do you have students who literally have no idea of how to structure an essay? Draw an upside-down equilateral triangle. Tell them that the top line is where the thesis goes. Then ask them to contemplate how easily a triangle would collapse if either of the two remaining sides was unsupported. Ask the students to write inside the triangle some of the things that are necessary to prop up the thesis. The conclusion comes at the end — the bottom tip of the model.

Is it mechanistic? Yes. Does the model make for engaging reading? Not really, though these essays are page-turners compared to their stream-of-consciousness alternatives. Would I impose such a model on a gifted writer? Not for a truckload of Mont Blanc pens. This model is as advertised — a place for a very weak writer to start. If a student can’t work with this one, he or she likely has writing issues that a specialist needs to address and you’d be wise to steer the student in that direction. On a more positive note, I often find that this is confidence-boosting exercise that gets students to see writing as a skill, not alchemy. (In the best case scenario, a student comes to see that there’s “art” involved as well as skill.) I’ve also found the upside-down triangle appeals to older students seeking to regain their academic sea legs.

I’ve got a grab bag of models for students to consider. If they are comparing and contrasting, I have them draw a simple grid. At the top of columns marked A and B they write terms that describes the subjects for analysis. They number the lines beneath the headings and list the factors they will discuss. I ask them to make certain that A1 is a logical comparison to B1, A2 to B2, etc. If there are more than two things being compared, we simply draw more columns. The major challenge for this essay is figuring out where the main point goes, so I often ask them to draw a T-bar above the columns and write the thesis there.

Things that progress or decline are easy: Students draw a slanted line with an arrow pointing up or down. I ask them to places dots along the line that are the examples they will use to demonstrate advance or retreat. (I often have to remind them that it’s a good idea to put evidence in chronological order so they can discuss or suggest cause-and-effect relationships.) Analytical thinkers recognize that linearity is seldom reality, so I work with them to reshape the drawing into something more like a roller coaster.

Consensus and conflict essays are likewise easily rendered. They start with a circle into which is inscribed the idea, event, or subject at the essay’s heart. We then discuss how many examples are needed to show how society either rallies around or is fragmented by the subject. If it’s consensus, we draw arrows pointing toward the center and label them; if it’s conflict, we reverse the arrow tips.

Want to show how one thing builds upon another? Draw stacked boxes and label them. If it’s a small idea that leads to bigger ones, start with a small box and draw progressively bigger ones. If we want to show how an idea diminishes over time, start big and get smaller. A what-goes-around-comes-around essay? Just a circle with an arrow embedded in an arc with points labeled along the path. As the old comics used to say, “I’ve got a million of ‘em.” You can easily come up with models that are more applicable for your subject.

Let me be painfully obvious about this. These models are strictly for students who struggle with organization. Every one of them is something that college students should have learned in high school. The models won’t add the magic that differentiates sparkling from pedestrian prose. They will not turn your students into Marlowe or even Sarah Vowell. Nor will they cure syntax errors, grammar, shallow thinking, or lack of command of the subject. What they can do is provide students with methods of imposing order upon randomness. Teaching this level of writing isn’t as satisfying as teaching content-based courses, but if at the end of the semester all you’ve done is help students turn chaos into coherence, you’ve earned your writing instructor wings.

For Further Reading:

1. Tips for narrative essays from Cuyahoga Community College.

2. David Hedley blog on "mapped" writing models in journalism.

3. Intriguing lesson plans from The New York Times.

4. Cabrillo College's writing tips.


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