But out there in real world of work, writing is a messy business. Writers usually have incomplete knowledge of their subjects, uncertainties about how readers will react to it, and ambiguous, confusing, and constantly changing circumstances. It’s hard work.
But they always have some purpose in mind and a real subject and a specific intended audience. A reporter tells readers about last night’s city council meeting; an associate drafts a memo for her boss; a campaign manager tries to sway voters; a neighbor expresses thanks for a favor; the marketing department aims to increase sales.
Furthermore, very little writing today is done solo. Even novelists, essayists, and poets have writing groups where they toss ideas and drafts around to get reactions. Most writing projects in business, the sciences, the public arena, and the professions grow out of a meeting or email exchange. Two or more people bandy around what the piece should include, how the subject should be framed, and what to avoid.
Then someone writes a draft and circulates it around. Discussion and revisions occur. Finally someone decides it’s ready, does some final editing and formatting, and it goes out the door. If we’re serious about preparing kids to do this kind of writing, we should be giving them similar writing experiences in school, shouldn’t we?
Learning to write is a lot like learning a sport in this way: you can sit on the bench hour after hour listening to your coach lecture about the finer points of shooting baskets or hitting the sweet spot, but you won’t get any better. You have to do it, over and over, in many different situations, to develop the kind of skill, judgment, and automated response needed to win. You need game experience with many different opponents in different venues under different circumstances.
Developing writers need game experience too. Writing instruction should simulate real-world writing projects as closely as possible. That means finding real subjects for students write about; framing a real reason for them to write; and providing a real audience who will read and respond to the finished product.
It also means giving them time and opportunity to understand the context and learn about the subject, just as a retail manager would collect the data on last month’s sales and figure out what they mean before writing a report. It means giving students time and opportunity to think through what they want to write and get a variety of perspectives while they’re still framing the piece in their minds, as civic leaders do while developing a new initiative. It means learning about the interests, biases, and knowledge base of their audience, like researchers investigating possible funding sources when they apply for grants.
It does NOT mean watching Power Points about genres, styles, and rhetoric, or answering grammar questions, or memorizing vocabulary lists, or doing sentence-combining exercises - unless they’re directly related to the project at hand.
Fortunately, real-world writing projects happen to mimic the natural language-learning processes of the human brain. That magnificent organ absorbs grammatical structures, vocabulary, and nuances of language so automatically and rapidly it seems like magic, but only when students are immersed in personal and social contexts that include abundant amounts of reading, talking, listening, thinking, and interacting.
It doesn’t hurt that the subjects students write about can be whatever they’re learning in science, math, history, geography, or literature. In this way, writing across the curriculum becomes a time-saver for teachers as well as a powerful learning tool.
And what about state-mandated assessments? If assessment is supposed to drive learning upward, it has to support and encourage this kind of instruction in writing. If schools and teachers can be nudged into this kind of instruction, we might have a chance of growing a real knowledge economy.