Ivory Tower Writing #22: The writer’s practice

Were you expecting an instructional post? This time, I wanted to take a break from the instructionals and take a detour. I want to write a bit about the writer’s practice. 

Specifically, I want to discuss John Warner’s most recent book titled Why They Can’t Write. Among the books I’ve read this year, I feel like this is the most impactful book I’ve read. The reason being is that it forced me to reflect on both the way I approach writing and how I teach my students academic writing. 

The book itself is less of a manual for practicing writing (that’s actually Warner’s other book, The Writer’s Practice) and more of a commentary on how writing is taught in schools in United States. Now, given that there are stark differences between the state of academia in the United States and Indonesia (or any other country for that matter), Warner’s commentary may not be necessarily applicable universally. However, there are some thought-provoking bits that shed light on why students can’t write.

What is the writer’s practice?

We don’t think of writers having a practice. That’s usually reserved for doctors. Doctors have a practice, writers have… what do writers have? A routine? A hobby? A profession? For a long time, I used to think that writers could just write on the fly whenever a light bulb magically appears over their heads. They then spend hours in front of a keyboard and voila! A book is born.

Maybe a select few writers are like that. But most professional writers probably have pretty idiosyncratic (for lack of a better term) routines. But what they do have in common is that they are actually engaging in a practice. According to Warner, a practice can be identified through the following characteristics:

  1. Knowledge (what they know)
  2. Skills (what they can do)
  3. Habits of mind (how they think)
  4. Attitudes (what they believe in)

If we look at a plumber, for example, we may confidently say that a plumber knows about plumbing (they often have to learn many things before even trying to fix someone else’s pipes), they can fix your pipes (after a lot of accumulated training), they think like an engineer (“how do I fix this?”, which of course comes after years of practice), and they believe that a house deserves unclogged pipes. Thus, when a plumber is fixing your pipes, they can say that they are engaged in the plumber’s practice.

As far as knowledge is concerned, a writer may be distinguished by two separate sets of knowledge: knowledge of writing and knowledge of the subject. The former is gained through learning, either through trial-and-error, professional classes, or through a mentor. It comes from the act of engaging with writing: writing begets more writing. 

What do writers believe in? Writing is hard. That we’ll never be truly experts in what we write about. That our magnum opus will unlikely be recognized in our lifetime. There’s always something new over the horizon. Warner writes, “It is like being inside an endlessly right-scrolling game of Super Mario World—except you never get to defeat the boss.” 

As for skills and habits of mind, writers can usually be able to understand their target audience and tailor specific messages to reach them. They can also do research and think critically of things, especially when it comes to checking their sources and validity of what they write. Obviously, they need to be able to handle word processing software, and if I may add, have enough resilience to face the scathing comments of Reviewer 2 (or the editor). 

Or, as Warner prescribes:

“Writers must be able to practice empathy in order to write in ways that engage and influence their audience. Writers must wish to be accurate and truthful. Writers must be obsessive… Writers should be uncomfortable with ambiguity and complexity. Even as we seek to provide definitive answers, writers must acknowledge the limits of all ideas.” 

It seems now that these are things we want to be teaching college students so they become better writers. But Warner criticises the way writing is taught now. He argues that what schools are teaching are essentially teaching students simulations of writing, instead of real writing, which leads to frustration and the general exasperated complaint of “They can’t write!”

From what I see, there are three main problems, which Warner also covers. First, students are scared. Second, the way writing is taught is wrong. Third, we need to do better.

The problem isn’t that students aren’t writing enough, but they’re scared and exhausted…

The instant I announce a research paper in class, an immediate response is likely a bunch of collective groans, followed by a question, “How many words?” and “When’s the deadline?”, which is then followed by another round of depressing sighs. 

I think I know what is going inside their heads. They’ll be thinking, “How am I going to fit this in with another paper by Professor So-and-so?” or “Will I be able to finish this despite having to work part-time and club activities?” or “How much effort do I need to just get the minimum passing grade?” And it’s the last thought which often leads to underwhelming papers, plagiarism, or essays written entirely by an automated paraphrasing tool.

Why is that so? From the instructor’s point of view, assigning a research paper is really just another exercise designed to test the student’s capacity to do research. Typically, I would assign them a topic which they would have freedom to explore. I do provide some guardrails so they don’t go off track too much.

But then, what of the other classes that the students are taking? Students usually have 5-6 subjects per semester. This translates to around 6 papers per semester, provided that all 6 of their classes assign research papers. Assuming all of them are due on finals week, this means that a student would have to write 6 full-fledged research papers within 6 months. That’s an average of one paper per month, a feat I think even tenured academics can achieve. No wonder students are exhausted.

They’re also scared because they need to maintain their GPA. Now, maybe not all of them are keen on their GPA, but from my anecdotal experience, most of them are. They worry constantly about “getting their assignments wrong” which could lead to a dip in their high GPA. This sucks, because I really do want to encourage exploration and experimentation. Instead, what I get are these “safe” assignments, often based on what worked in the past, which are bland and uninteresting.

In general, there’s an atmosphere of fear in the university, which is certainly debilitating to students. It does not allow them to engage in the writer’s practice fully.

The way we’re exposing students to writing is wrong…

Instructors may also share the blame here. Then again, there’s some nuance here too. What Warner criticizes in his book is the practice of instructors assigning “simulations” of writing, instead of actual exercises designed to promote the writer’s practice.

What are these simulations? Warner’s main avatar for what is wrong is the five-paragraph essay, which he criticised as being:

“…an artificial construct, a way to contain and control variables and keep students from wandering too far off track. All they need are ideas to fill in the blanks. It is very rare to see a five-paragraph essay in the wild; one finds them only in the captivity of the classroom.” (p. 29)

From an instructor’s view, the five-paragraph essay is easy to grade. And anything that makes grading easier, especially if you have more than 30 students, is a gift from God. So, there’s a pragmatic reason why we assign them. 

For students, the template gives them certainty. All they need to do is come up with 3 arguments sandwiched by an introduction and conclusion and they’re assured at least a passing grade. Again, pragmatism trumps idealism.

However, not everything that’s easy pays off in the long run. As Warner writes,

“In reality, every piece of writing is a custom job, not a modular home, and by steering students toward the five-paragraph essay, we are denying them the chance to practice real writing by confronting the choices writers must navigate.” (p. 29)

And looking back, this is something I had to learn the hard way, especially when I started exploring other writing media like commentaries, blog posts, and policy papers. The templates that I learned didn’t serve me well (or rather, they did, but in very narrow contexts), so I had to unlearn them and relearn new templates. 

Over time, I got the hang of things. But, that’s it: I had time. Students generally don’t have time. They have lives outside the university and are juggling other classes with equally tiresome learning burdens.

…and we need to do better to facilitate better writing.

In this case, the burden is on instructors to expose students to different exercises designed to cultivate the writer’s practice instead of attempting to standardize everything. I know, it’s more work. But it pays off in the long run and maybe we’ll hear less “They can’t write!”

One of Warner’s proposed exercises which I particularly like because it is devilishly effective is the “how to make a PB and J sandwich”. At first glance it seems simple: write a set of instructions telling someone how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich (mind you, strawberry jelly is the only way to go). But as they say, the devil is in the details. The exercise basically forces students to think about who will be reading their instructions. If their instructions say “Spread the jelly on one loaf of bread”, a bunch of questions suddenly present themselves: What kind of jelly? What kind of bread? How much jelly? What do I spread the jelly with, my bare hands? This kind of exercise basically teaches students to keep their audience in mind, which is a key skill in the writer’s practice. 

On a side note, I get that there are writing centres in universities and having been a part of one for a couple of months, I recognize their value. Student volunteers, acting as peer mentors, are valuable resources. Then again, they are only as good as their older mentors. And if their older mentors only teach them how to deal with specific writing templates, then all the student volunteers do is teach simulations of writing.

Conclusion (wait, is this a five-paragraph essay?)

In conclusion… not!

There’s actually a lot more to Warner’s book, but I think I’ve covered his main points on the need to build the writer’s practice. I’ve just started my second reading and maybe I’ll be able to find more gems. Warner does write a lot about how the school and university system basically sets students to fail and produce mediocre writing, but most of his observations are only typically relevant to the United States. However, I think Warner made some good points, which made me rethink my entire approach to teaching. All in all, it’s a great book and I do recommend reading it.

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