Reflecting on my writing, I feel I only truly began to write purposefully in graduate school. In high school and most of college, my writing constituted a form of contained verbal diarrhea. As long as I put everything I knew on paper, I was bound to hit all the points that my teachers wanted, and therefore deserve the best grade. I think of this as the fire hose method – a little better than a full-on information eruption, at least the information has a direction and, hopefully, makes an interesting point or two.
While I was a teaching assistant, I realized how awful this style of writing can be for the reader. Students know that only the teacher will read what they write, so as long as they pander to that person and hit the important points, they believe they deserve a good grade. If students thought that their writing would be read by a wider audience, it’s likely that they would put a little more polish and direction into their work. That’s where peer and group review activities can be useful in the classroom.
In graduate school, I participated in a four-seminar series led by Dr. George Gopen, Professor Emeritus in the Duke English Department. Gopen has written books and articles about how to write more effectively. You can also hire him as a consultant if you have an extra few thousand dollars burning a hole in your pocket. Barring that, his books (The Sense of Structure and Expectations) are available through Amazon at a more modest price. He also has a piece in American Scientist about writing in science.
Gopen makes some excellent points with clear examples in his books and seminars. His overarching theme is to give the readers the information they need when they need it. To accomplish this, he illustrates how to structure a sentence so it says precisely what you mean effectively and efficiently. Don’t make lengthy, overwrought sentences (I’m looking at you technical and statistical papers). Don’t end a sentence with a parenthetical statement (like I just did in the preceding and current sentences). Your words have more impact if you don’t suddenly tag on an extra thought at the end of a statement.
After mastering sentences, Gopen continues with piecing sentences together into paragraphs and paragraphs into sections. Each statement and paragraph should lean backward on the material that came before. Connect your points in a clear and logical fashion. Don’t make your reader have to guess where an idea came from. Lastly, make your information lean forward toward the next point. Each sentence and paragraph should have hands reaching out to those that come before and after, creating a human chain throughout your narrative.
If you go to Duke, I’d highly recommend attending Gopen’s yearly seminars. Sign up early as they fill up quickly. Otherwise, the books contain much of the same information, but they you don’t get to hear Gopen’s interesting way of vividly describing his writing advice.
If you want to include Gopen’s writing tips in the classroom, I’d recommend assigning readings from his books. After your students have read through his examples, give them some poorly written paragraphs to improve. These paragraphs can either be made de novo or can be found in the literature. As the students make corrections, show them how their improvements make for generalizations on what constitutes good and bad writing. Keep referring back to these principles throughout the semester as the students complete more writing assignments, blogs and even tests. Maybe even add some extra credit or point incentives for good writing. Stressing writing in different courses will help students realize that communication in any subject requires a little extra attention and direction.