Do You Need an English Degree to Write Well?


If I had a dollar for every time someone told me he or she has difficulty communicating in writing, I’d have . . . a lot of dollars. When I ask why, the response is invariably the same: “I just don’t understand writing, and English, and grammar, and all that stuff.” For some reason, people seem to think that knowing “all that stuff” is necessary for learning to write well.

writingmanWho knows all the rules, the meanings of all the terms, the linguistic foundations of writing strategies? Think about the people who have tried to teach you “all that stuff.” You will probably recall high school English teachers. You might think about college English professors. They have English degrees. The conclusion, therefore, is that you need to have an English degree to write well.

This is not true. Understandable, but wrong.

Writing books and guides do little to change this perception. Without the benefit of a strong background in English terms, grammar, concepts, etc., you may quickly become frustrated, confused, bored, lost, or simply turned off. For example, I was recently discussing The Elements of Style, the writing guide by Strunk and White. I like this writing guide and was describing its value to me. Someone replied that she didn’t like it because she needed a grammar book to understand it. Her statement pointed out a major problem with most writing instruction.

The first problem is that many writing books, courses, and other instruction expect people to know the grammar, the writing terminology, the concepts, etc. They freely use them while trying to impart writing strategies. People who don’t know them will not be able to take full advantage of the instruction.

The second problem is that ineffective instruction separates the academic knowledge from the writing strategies. For example, a book on writing clearly might have a separate section in the back on grammar. Then, if a person gets confused about a term, he will have to stop reading about the strategies and spend some time studying the grammar section. Other books, courses, etc. spend a lot of time on the terminology and grammar before they show you how to use this knowledge. It’s one or the other. They don’t teach the terminology in context of the writing strategies when that knowledge is relevant.

My top three writing resources are guilty of these two problems. I already mentioned Elements of Style, which has a separate section on grammar and usage. Line by Line by Cook is a powerful book on writing well, but the author assumes you already know the grammar and terminology. Williams, the author of my third favorite book, Style: 10 Lessons in Clarity and Grace, includes an appendix defining many terms used in the 10 lessons. Their assumption is that most people already know the terminology and grammatical concepts, so they put that information at the end in case any uninformed people happen to read their books.

Maybe this is true. But this isn’t appropriate for the typical person who didn’t get an English degree but still needs to communicate in writing. (You can get more information about these three books by searching Amazon or by clicking their image on http://hostileediting.com.).

In short, the books do not provide effective writing instruction because they have a faulty instructional model. The instructional model is not aligned with the way people learn. The woman who needed a grammar book to understand Elements is a good example: the problem is the instruction, not the learner.

I have a master’s degree in English, and I have spent over 15 years working in local and state education agencies designing and implementing learning systems. This gives me a unique perspective on teaching writing. I’ve learned three instructional strategies along the way that apply to writing instruction.

  1. Teach necessary terminology and concepts in context of the primary focus. This means that background information and supporting concepts should not be separate from the primary instruction. For example, if I am going to teach people to put commas around appositive phrases, and they don’t know what appositive phrases are, then this is the time to teach them—not later, not before, but now. This also means that I don’t teach about different types of phrases because they are not relevant to the main topic at this time.
  2. Provide new information in old terms. This means using common, everyday language to help people understand new concepts, i.e., using words people already know. This also means using examples that are relevant to the learners’ experiences. Research on learning is very clear about this: people learn better when they can relate new content to their lives.
  3. New concepts need to be reinforced multiple times. Just explaining something once isn’t effective. The explanations need to be employed several or more times, and in different ways.

Sometimes, the grammar terms are important. They can be very useful to discussing writing strategies and for summarizing concepts. However, they, too, can be taught following the three strategies above. First, they are introduced only when relevant to the current topic. If they are not relevant, they are not discussed. Second, they are taught using simple terms and explained according the learner’s experiences. Once the learner has grasped the basic ideas, they are explained and used multiple times. If the terms are important, then the instructor has the responsibility to ensure that the learner understands and can apply them.

These three strategies are not the result of personal speculation; I’m no armchair philosopher inventing ideas without research or testing. Abundant research literature on learning espouses these ideas. More important, at least to me, is the feedback from students in my adult education writing courses and from people who have purchased our writing guides.

I implement these strategies and pay careful attention to how people respond. Here are some word for word samples of their responses.

  • “The instructor used words I could understand.”
  • “I like very much the way Mr. Bowman presents his example.”
  • “This was the class I have been waiting for.”
  • “Written concisely in plain English . . . .”
  • “. . . very easy to understand.”
  • “. . . explanations [are] clear, concise, and very informative . . . .”

As demonstrated by this feedback, this 3-part approach works: teach concepts in context of the primary instructional focus, teach new content using common language, and reinforce new learning.

Who can use these strategies for effective writing instruction? The answer to this question is pretty simple. If you provide writing instruction in any way, these tips are for you: elementary and secondary education teachers (K-12), college level writing instructors, writing workshop teachers and facilitators, writing book writers, bloggers on writing, editors, etc.

Communication skills are important, and people do need to write well. With so many available resources on writing, why do so many people still struggle with writing? The problem is the instruction, not the learner. With these three strategies, instructors will provide effective learning opportunities, and you, the learners will learn to write and communicate effectively.


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2 Comments

Filed under Writing

2 responses to “Do You Need an English Degree to Write Well?

  1. I agree with you wholeheartedly! Grammar is a lot like math, it needs to be taught in the proper context and repeated for retention.

    Keep on writing!
    Ceylan

  2. hale

    good blog

    Contagurations

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