Writing skills are essential for communication in nearly every area, professional practice and discipline. So, why are there so few courses teaching upper-level, transferable writing skills?
Most writing courses are considered first and second year general education requirements and are gateway courses into upper-level studies in the students’ field of choice. These writing courses are often taught by contingent (adjunct) faculty who, by definition, are wildly overburdened and desperately underpaid. But that’s a conversation for a different day.
When the subject matter is considered, these general writing courses typically are even less useful. Do we need students to be able to write only classroom activities? Clearly, gaining familiarity with how to write for classroom activities and cite sources is important and will help students in their next several years of university study. Properly attributing ideas to their source is also a lifelong skill. Yet, these classroom writing skills are not necessarily transferable, particularly without modeling how they can transfer.
Much like the vitriol directed at high schools for the five paragraph essay structure, writing is less formulaic and more adaptable. Many professional situations necessitate a multitude of forms of writing. Yet, there are few courses that actively facilitate the development of writing skills or dedicated courses that focus on teaching upper-level writing. Notable typical courses are narrowly focused, for example, a grant writing course or a technical writing course. Generally, these focus on a small range of activities (or a single, specific activity) and rely on students building implicit understanding of how these skills may apply in other areas.
One of the first activities that I do when talking about writing with students is have them focus on the types of writing that they do. This includes classroom activities, personally, in jobs and internships, on social media, and similar. Starting early and helping students recognize how they adapt their style, word choice, and tone to various situations personally and professionally facilitates later lessons on written communication.
With the trend towards larger and larger class sizes, teaching writing or even having written assignments as part of the course becomes even more of a challenge. Giving quality feedback does not scale well. Writing courses or those with written activities typically are both time and feedback intensive - or should be, when they’re done well.
A few common misconceptions about writing:
Writing isn’t an important skill to develop. Very few professions exist that don’t have individuals writing professionally. From email communications to policy briefs to grants and peer reviewed articles, most disciplines have some sort of writing. Perhaps why we don’t value these skills is because they are difficult and time consuming to teach.
Shorter articles and activities are easier to write. In reality, sometimes the shorter professional articles are the most challenging. Conveying meaning, particularly in a small word count, can be one of the most challenging professional writing endeavors. Anyone who has spent time cutting words and then cutting more words from a publication should see this. However, recognizing this in their own writing versus acknowledging the same in student activities appears to be less common. This may stem from observing student writing habits that center on bare minimums (what font, spacing, and similar) and enhancing writing with repetitive filler. This may necessitate a shift of expectations rather than a change in assignments. Creating quality work does not necessarily mean longer activities. Some of the best, most impactful professional written products can be shorter.
Writing skills for typical “classroom” papers help students develop transferable career skills. Without demonstrating and modeling how the skills transfer, students may be left with the ability to create excellent written products that meet classroom writing skills and little else. Activities that simulate products they may create professionally (for example, mini-grants, policy documents, advocacy statements, letters, and similar) help to model writing skills that students will use later. This is particularly important to emphasize what the skills are and how they students can apply them to other situations.
I’m looking ahead to Write to Change the World, a writing course for graduate students focused on developing transferable writing skills. Graduate students need another opportunity to identify and practice these skills in order to prepare for future careers across disciplines. Further, the option of non-technical communication and instruction in these areas (op-eds/letters to the editor, magazine articles, and similar) are very rarely available to students, particularly alongside training and learning in writing research articles and other professional publications. However, these types of non-technical publications often create opportunities for professionals to develop impact and influence in their fields. I’m looking forward to sharing more about this course and resources for it in the coming weeks.