How do you get to the point where you can start and finish writing projects efficiently? Many people who have attended my workshops ask that question or some variant of it. Those same people already know of the vast self-help literature on the topic: a search of an online bookseller will turn up pages of listings, many offering "tips" and activities guaranteed to turn readers into writers.
My experience teaching writing for 35 years and running workshops for both students and instructors tells me a different story. For a recent workshop and podcast, I decided to look at the problem of academics who are having trouble getting their writing done from a different perspective. I took as my jumping off point Stephen Covey's 7 Habits of Highly Successful People: 25 million readers couldn't be wrong, could they? I then combined his ideas with Helen Sword's Air & Light & Time & Space: How Successful Academics Write. Finally, I added insights from research in writing studies about what kinds of knowledge writers need to have to succeed, drawn from Anne Beaufort's College Writing and Beyond.
Here are Covey's habits with my translations of them for writing in parentheses:
In a recent podcast, I took up the topic of online writing tools and what they can, and cannot, do to help you with your writing. What is out there? What might help you?
Let's get started by establishing some baseline ideas about writing. First, writing is a process, that is iterative (repeated) and social: you write, largely, to communicate with others. One more thing: Writing is genre-driven, which means that there are types or kinds of documents that are used to accomplish a variety of specific purposes (resumes are a genre that serves the social purpose of getting hired). At first glance, it isn't clear how online tools can help with those aspects of writing.
We also need to consider the sub-skills that contribute to good writing performances. To write well, you need to understand your writing process and what would help you at each stage of the process. You also need rhetorical knowledge: who are you writing or communicating to and for what purposes? Do you understand and have experience writing the kind of document (the genre of document) that your communication situation calls for? And finally, do you know enough about the topic to write well about it?
So, what online tools can help? At the early stages of drafting a document, some sites can help you add to your subject matter knowledge base. Because these are specific to each person and context, I can't really link to any. But Google Scholar will connect you to academic research, and other sites and search techniques would also help.
After you have a draft, grammar and spell-checker software can help you with sentence-based grammar and spelling. Grammarly is one popular tool; GradeProof is another, free one (an add on for Google docs). There are many others, some of them free. Check out the many reviews to find something that fits your needs and budget. But try to select something that not only corrects the errors but also explains why the correction needs to be made at all.
A key component of improving as a writer is feedback: how can you get it? You might use LinkedIn and Twitter to follow others with a similar subject matter interest or writing consultants that might give answers or advice if you are one of their followers. You could also search out hashtags that identify strings of posts that might help you with a writing issue.
Most important, though, is joining a writing community or finding others who are working on similar documents. If working in a large organization, perhaps you could connect with others in your organization. That would sidestep the problem of sharing work-related documents outside of the organization, and it would help build your network within the company. Writing well depends upon excellent reading skills; if you exchange drafts with others in your organization, you can learn an enormous amount about how to write well from reading and offering comments on those texts. Google Docs, Dropbox, Word, and other file sharing software applications that offer the ability to comment on documents are all tools that can support sharing and commenting.
How can we develop better graduate student writers? In this episode of the Teaching Writing podcast, I discuss several strategies for developing the writing skills of graduate students: mapping out a plan of development over the entire degree program; developing and using specific models of the genres students need to master in order to graduate; and four specific strategies to adopt right away.
For instructors who are not teaching a writing course, how much attention should they give to grammar errors and proficiency in student writing? In a business context, the issue presents itself differently, and I'll talk about that in a future podcast. For instructors at post-secondary institutions, though, this presents something of problem.
Students sometimes resent losing grades for grammar and punctuation errors because "this isn't an English course!" But for instructors who are aware that writing proficiency is part of the graduation outcomes for university degrees, not pointing out errors in grammar and punctuation can seem like they are not helping students achieve that important outcome. So what should they do?
In this podcast I review the research that explores how effective it is to teach grammar to native speakers of English at post-secondary schools. I then review the social issues around enforcing Standard Edited English before offering some positions instructors can take when they prepare rubrics or scoring guides to help them grade student work.
Grammar and Errors in Student Writing
What is the best way to respond to the writing of a student or a co-worker? If you work as a teacher or post-secondary instructor, your main concern might be efficiency: the sheer number of papers may pose your biggest challenge. That workload can take time from your other job requirements and your personal life. If you are working with co-workers or employees you supervise, managing the relationship with that person may well be the number one priority. You want to help them, but if you are too critical you risk offending them.
Let's start with students: In a recent episode on my Teaching Writing podcast, I reviewed the best practices for that context:
In the workplace, the context is much different. I've worked as a writing consultant to help employees learn how to create better documents faster. One of the keys to that work is to translate or even identify for the writers the criteria for good writing in their workplace. Those criteria change from one workplace to another, so building a firm understanding of what makes for good writing is a key starting point. After that has been established, we work on identifying how closely the writer's drafts have approximated the key criteria.
In many ways, best practices for workplace feedback are similar to classroom feedback: focus your comments, understand the key aspects of the documents being written, and make sure you encourage the person doing the writing. In the workplace, though, respect the power structure: you may not agree with the criteria for good writing in that workplace, but whoever is in charge gets to make that decision. Identify what they want, and help the writer give it to them.
How can you improve the writing of those you work with? In this week's Teaching Writing podcast I review best practices for designing a writing prompt for students. In this article, I'll try to draw parallels for the workplace.
New employees, including internship and co-op students, may be at a loss when trying to generate the kinds of texts that are standard in your workplace. One researcher (Doug Brent, University of Calgary), when he interviewed internship students at work, found that a key strategy those students employed was to search the web for example texts. This isn't a winning strategy, but it is reasonable when your back is to the wall.
To help students produce better writing in a classroom context, writing researchers advocate that instructors provide more context for the document: why is it needed? who is going to read it? what is the primary purpose of the document (to persuade? to inform? to analyze?)? what kind of document is required (a memo? a white paper? a one-page summary?)? This kind of detail is immensely helpful, but it does take a few minutes for the supervisor to pull together.
In classroom contexts, best practices require that students be given an explanation of how they will be evaluated. In a teaching context, this makes sense and is efficient because of the large number of students. In a workplace, however, where there are only a few employees who are being supervised by one person the time it takes to identify the hallmarks of a good document may not, at first blush, seem worth the effort. Some people will be able to discern the characteristics of a good text on their own; others might be able to do so much more quickly if they have some help.
Where is that help going to come from? It doesn't have to come from the supervisor. Recent research that examines online peer-commenting systems suggests that students who commented on other students' texts learned more than those who did not. I'd suggest that having peers in the workplace offer comments (short, pointed, focused) on each other's texts will accelerate learning for everyone while adding minimally to the work of the supervisor.
"Crossing Boundaries: Co-op Students Relearning to Write," Doug Brent, College Composition and Communication, Vol. 63, No. 4 (June 2012), pp. 558-592.
Writing academic articles well and quickly determines how successful you will be as an academic researcher. The latest episode of the Teaching Writing podcast discusses three key features of articles: introductions, citations, and visuals:
Write like your career depends on it
Research articles are highly structured texts, and researchers in various fields aligned with writing studies have mapped out how those texts are structured, how the texts construct arguments, and how the texts use visuals to convey information. To get good at writing academic articles in your discipline, you will need to examine those articles in the same way as writing researchers have, though not to their level of detail.
Note: This podcast refers to slides that are available here:
How can we assess the writing of our students in ways that are valid, reliable, and fair? That is the subject of the latest podcast episode of Teaching Writing:
Writing assessment: An interview with Dr. David Slomp
In this 30-minute conversation with Dr. David Slomp, Associate Professor of Education at the University of Lethbridge and co-editor in chief of the journal, Assessing Writing, you'll find out how to create assessments that satisfy all three of these criteria. "Valid" speaks to the point that your assessment tool must really assess the characteristic you are measuring. "Reliable" means several things, including that the test or assessment tool gives the same result. And "fair" asks us to consider if all the people who are subject to the assessment have an equal opportunity to perform the task or skill being assessed.
If you a manager and are assessing the writing of people in your workgroup, these three cornerstones apply equally to both summative assessments (year-end reviews) and formative assessments--the kind of coaching or feedback you give on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. Do some people in your group receive more difficult assignments? Less time to work on them? Fewer comments or opportunities to revise?
Good assessments are difficult but extremely useful if they give you a good picture of the overall effectiveness of your work group and/or a clear sense of progress or lack of it for those in the group. If some people aren't improving, and you have good data about that, you can then work with them to find ways to get them help with their writing: coaches, seminars (online and in-person), and even peer mentoring. For more information about some of the resources out there, visit my website and check out the online courses available through LinkedIn's Learning page.
Audience, or perhaps "readers" is a better term for text/discourse, defines many communication situations. That is, who you are talking to or writing to is often the most important aspect of a document or speech. The problems for writers are at least twofold: helping them understand this component of a communication, and helping them figure out how to adjust what they plan to say to that audience.
Audience is really part of a larger concept called a "rhetorical situation." Lloyd Bitzer coined this term to refer to the way that language (that is, rhetoric) can be used in situations in order to move towards a solution to the problem under discussion. When we write or speak in a situation we always do so for an audience (and almost always an audience external to ourselves). For this reason, we need to understand that audience so that we may adjust our discourse to them. These adjustments of language are the "rhetoric" of the situation.
In my most recent podcast, "Audience and rhetorical situations," I talk about how audienceis a key component of rhetorical situations; exigence (the perhaps best thought of as the problem or issue under discussion) is another key component, along with constraints (the range of possible solutions). These components are important both for academic writing--the exigence for my podcast--but also for workplace writing. For LinkedIn readers, workplace exigencies abound: what demographics should we focus our advertising on? Which project is most important to our unit? Where are we in our progress on our strategic plans?
Even more importantly, workplace communication tends to target audiences in much more specific and obvious ways than academic communication. For this reason, when you write or communicate at work you need to have an even more sophisticated understanding of why your are writing (the exigence), who you are writing for (are you writing to someone more or less powerful), and what the possibilities are for solving a problem through language (the constraints).
So what should you have remembered or taken from the writing courses that you took as a post-secondary student? What counts as good writing is highly context specific. That is, good writing in school contexts is not what counts as good writing in workplace contexts. More specifically, many workplace contexts differ from one another in what they value as good communication. Your job is to have a good theoretical understanding of communication--exigence, audience, constraints--and apply that understanding to the workplace you find yourself in.
For more information about this and other podcasts, visit wecanwrite.ca, follow me on Twitter (@rogergraves), or visit the Writing Across the Curriculum page at the University of Alberta.
How does an overall sense of the rhetorical situation help a writer move forward and write well? In earlier episodes of my podcast, Teaching Writing, I considered how audience and purpose contribute to an answer to that question. Today I want to complicate and add to those two factors by considering the genre that a writer--at work or in an academic setting--faces.
So, to refresh: when you are writing, you need to know why you are writing--what is the point or purpose? At work, this is usually pretty clear cut. You email to follow-up with someone on a project, confirm a course of action, request information, arrange a meeting, and so on. Some documents, however, have more than one purpose, and that can complicate things considerably. The second main variable to consider is audience: who will read your message? With email particularly, there is a "To:" field that answers that question; keep in mind, however, that email is easily forwarded and the initial or primary audience you have in mind may ultimately be only one of the audiences that reviews your message.
For more extended texts, such as reports of various kinds or performance reviews, researchers have noticed that the genre or kind of document itself exerts a great influence on what can be written. The "work" a writer wants to do by creating the document--get a raise, pass a probationary period--is constrained by the genre. You need to write within the limits of what a specific kind of document allows. When writing at work, your organization probably has unwritten expectations for the documents produced within it. A year-end review is probably not the right place to pitch an idea for a new marketing program.
In some cases, lower ranking employees may be asked to write background reports--white papers, for example--that provide information about a topic or new product without recommending a course of action. The person requesting that report will use it in discussions with those further up the hierarchy to come up with an action plan. Knowing your place within the group is essential information for deciding how much of a recommendation or argument you should include in your documents.
If you are supervising new employees or people new to your workgroup, consider sketching out a plan for them to learn the written genres that are important to your work. Partner them with a more experienced employee who can review their documents before you see them; create a file or folder with examples of good work that they could review; perhaps make point form notes about what you are looking for in the documents you request.
These are all techniques for helping people learn new genres. Try to keep in mind that the way things are written in your organization may vary in important ways from other, similar organizations. Don't assume that new employees will bring specific knowledge of how to write well for you, and do put a plan in place to help speed their learning and acculturation into your organization.
Roger Graves, wecanwrite.ca