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teaching writing
it's not just abc any more
by sarah ficke (@DameMystery)

Starting next fall, you can call me Teacher. Or Ms. Ficke, if you happen to be in my class.

I'll be teaching freshman composition. Oddly enough, I've never taken a composition class. Luckily, my university offers a class specifically for new composition teachers to explain the mysteries of the science.

Firstly, they'll tell you it's not a science; it's a process. Then, they'll tell you it's not so much a process as an ongoing community endeavor. Then they'll tell you that writing is the most important skill these students need to succeed at college.

No pressure.

None of the things above were really news to me. Everyone who is reading this knows that writing is never static, even though the words on this page may be. Writing is dynamic, constantly interacting with the writer, the reader, and even the format it is presented in. This piece you're reading is not just what I make of it, but what you will make of it. No wonder that trying to teach good writing is like trying to... come up with a good simile for the end of this sentence. Hard.

One way teachers and theoreticians try to make the hard thing easier is to impose geometric forms on the act of writing. I'm sure we've all encountered the more familiar ones: the inverted triangle that is meant to give shape to the ideal introduction, and the five blocks that form a rubric for the traditional essay. According to some, if you put all of the blocks and triangles and inverted triangles together, you come out with a good piece of writing. It’s a tempting proposition, isn’t it? But inevitably these building blocks will be discarded by one teacher even as they are embraced by another. Imposing geometry on writing is like drawing a circle in a pool of water: it will stay defined for a second and then melt into irrelevance.

As an alternative to those forms, I started thinking about the ways that I was taught how to write, and more importantly, whether or not I learned anything from them. Did workshopping my wretched rhyming poetry in 6th grade really improve my writing skills? Did diagramming sentences ever do me any good? Did diagramming sentences ever do anyone any good?

There are some moments that I can point to that did impact my writing. For instance, the day my 10th grade English teacher, Mrs. Baylin, pulled me aside after class and carefully explained what a comma splice was and introduced me to the magic of the semicolon.

Of course now I've got a professor who crusades against the semicolon because he believes that they create unnecessarily complicated sentences. The catch is, of course, that both teachers are right. Writing is like that. It’s all the same language, but never the same creation.

But slowly, I've been stringing together in my mind the moments that made a difference in my life as a writer: the time a Religion professor told me that she wanted my voice in a paper, not an anonymous academic drone; the day I discovered the prose of Toni Morrison; the day I submitted my first Intrepid column and got back the helpful reminder "Include the reader more next time." And out of all of these things, I’ve been trying to pull something coherent that I could translate to my students in class. Some way for writing to become more for them than a graded essay.

I’ve got a draft of the syllabus I’ll be taking into class with me in September. It's been carefully constructed with every skill in place, stressing the dynamic process of writing, but I feel like that final touch that will give it life is missing. When I get into my classroom next fall, will I be able to make the bits and pieces that make up writing combine into something more for them than putting tab A into slot B to create an essay? Will I be the person that can convey to them what writing in your own voice really means? The person that demystifies the semicolon once and for all? Will I merely be teaching them to form a defensible thesis, or will I be able to teach them to be writers?

The truth is that writing is more than the sum of its parts. Even though we can break it down into skills and concepts like "paragraphing" and "flow" you can't just put them together like a set of Lincoln Logs and build the ideal text. And another truth is that I can't teach them writing from my experiences alone. No two people approach writing the same way. Not even my sister and me, even though we had an almost identical education up until the age of 18.

That is where you all come in. Through Intrepid, I’ve gotten access to not only my ways of thinking about writing, but the ways that you think about writing. Thanks to you, I’ve got a model for how a group of diverse people can come together in one space and participate in the process of writing. Somehow, I’m determined to recreate at least a part of this in my class. And I’m leaving this article here as a note to myself, to prove that I do believe that it can be done. Someday, when I've turned from an idealistic student into a bitter, disillusioned TF, I think it will be a welcome reminder.


Sarah Ficke will make sport for you, and laugh at you in her turn. She has channeled her obsession for books into a career as an English professor.

more about sarah ficke


a masterpiece in pink
my love affair with the romance novel
by sarah ficke
topic: writing
published: 8.15.05

a curious paradox
or, why a literature major is the last person to ask about books.
by sarah ficke
topic: writing
published: 3.4.05


matt morin
4.22.04 @ 6:31p

The best piece of advice about writing I ever received was, "Write the way you speak."

Once I started doing that, I became a much better writer.

tracey kelley
4.22.04 @ 10:20p

Imposing geometry on writing is like drawing a circle in a pool of water: it will stay defined for a second and then melt into irrelevance.

Awww, see, now, this is why you'll be a good teacher.

russ carr
4.22.04 @ 10:40p

Writing is like cooking. You can follow a recipe and get reasonable, if predictable results, and that's great if you're just starting out. But the real fun starts when you toss the cookbook out the window. You have languages and person and settings and the well-stocked larder of your vocabulary (and the supermarket of words to be shopped in your dictionary or thesaurus). The joy of writing, like cooking, is in discovering which flavors work best in combination. The rich descriptions that cling to your spoon; piquant adjectives to make your eyes water or your heart melt; meaty phrases held on the skewer by -- yes! -- semicolons. Maybe you slaved over a hot keyboard all day. Maybe it poured onto the page faster than cereal from the box. To you, it's delicious...and worth seconds.

dan gonzalez
4.23.04 @ 12:03a

Here is some advice from a guy who was a good enough teacher and writer to end up being a network engineer:

1. What you're doing is awesome, stay fired up!

2. Don't worry about being an authority, you're shrewd enough to know your limits, just be the best guide you can be.

3. What Matt said: "Write the way you speak." Guide them on a path toward their own voice, regardless of the formality of that path.

4. Try to convince them that expressing themselves is the most important thing they will ever do, because it is.

5. Keeping the spirit of IM alive in your class is good, this is an example of a diverse bunch of writers hanging out and doing our thing, just like a classroom.

6. Either ignore all the cooking crap Russ just said or try to distill it into something useful. :-P

7. All male Mexican-Irish students will use sarcasm and disenfranchisement to conceal their crushes on you. (This one is really more for Erik.)

You're gonna be awesome, I don't know you, but I can tell from your stuff around here. Good luck, but you won't need it!

dan gonzalez
4.23.04 @ 11:34a

Side note: I was kidding Russ, the analogy is great, I never would have come up with it.

russ carr
4.23.04 @ 11:43a

Watch it, buster, or I will crush you like garlic in the press that is my sarcasm.

roger striffler
4.23.04 @ 3:20p

Sarah, you're going to completely rock. I can't wait to talk to you as you're doing it and hear all about it. I'm totally envious, and proud of you for doing it!

erik myers
4.23.04 @ 4:01p

All male Mexican-Irish students will use sarcasm and disenfranchisement to conceal their crushes on you. (This one is really more for Erik.)

I have plans to lurk outside her classroom with a billy club. All it will take is one googily-eyed stare from some too-enterprising freshman and they'll stop learning composition and start learning pain.

Of course, I mean this in the most non-intrusive, non-posessive, least creepy, and cutest way possible.

sarah ficke
4.23.04 @ 4:25p

Now, now, there will be no threatening of my students.

Thanks for the words of encouragement, everyone, and the tips.

Michelle? Any comments from our current teacher-in-residence?

jael mchenry
4.23.04 @ 4:31p

It ain't easy and it takes time. When I took my Teaching of Writing class (before my single semester of Freshman Comp teaching) one of my classmates pointed out that people who are naturally good writers often aren't the best at teaching bad writers how to be good. The best teacher for a bad writer is the teacher who started out as a bad writer, but got better.

But I like to think that I helped students by teaching them a few basic points: be clear and concise; longer sentences and longer words aren't better, they're just longer; and it doesn't matter what order you organize things in as long as you organize them. Actually, that last bit has also been really helpful in business. You'd be shocked how much stream-of-consciousness crap makes its way into business correspondence.

michelle von euw
4.24.04 @ 2:44p

Sarah, I loved reading this column -- UNC's program sounds very similiar to Maryland's, so I'm happy to share my experience. The key thing I've found is flexibility -- my perfectly planned syllabus is, on occasion, thrown out the window. Sometimes my students impress me with their insight, sometimes I want to hit them over the head for getting their apostrophes wrong AGAIN.

"Write the way you speak" -- I don't think this advice has been helpful in general; it's best saved for individuals who gravitate toward fancy (sometimes) words and long, unclear sentences. But I have fewer of those students, and more whose first papers resembled transcripts of chats with their friends -- sentence fragments, casual slang, and mistakes like "under minds" instead of "undermines."

tracey kelley
4.26.04 @ 10:33a

To those of you who have taught, what do you think is the hardest thing about teaching,especially older students?

rachel levine
4.26.04 @ 7:46p

Hard things about teaching:
-- maintaining enthusiasm in the last month and a half of term
-- having a life outside of teaching
-- giving a C minus to a student who is interested, engaged, enthusiastic, and an all around good person (separating personal and professional feelings)
-- grading
-- grading (it really sucks)
Older students are a breeze to teach, especially if you can be understanding of the fact that their jobs, their children, and their regular life will understandably be more important than class. They take school seriously and have ironed out basic issues such as a night of drinking vs. finishing a paper. Depending on how familiar they are with the internet, though, they may not be open to chat sessions, etc.

matt morin
4.26.04 @ 8:19p

When my father was a teacher, he always said that it's easy teaching the people who want to be there. What's tough is teaching the people who don't.

I'm sure there are plenty of students who don't want to be there - be it on that particular day, or just in general.

sarah ficke
4.26.04 @ 10:27p

I think that will probably be my biggest problem, since composition is a requirement, not an elective. The program tries to make it better by starting off with a "pop culture" unit, but winning them over is probably still rough work.

jael mchenry
4.27.04 @ 9:10a

That was my problem with comp also. You will certainly have students who are unenthusiastic and frankly, not very good at writing. Gotta set realistic goals. Nudge them up. But you will have some stragglers, unless you're very lucky with your class.

rachel levine
4.27.04 @ 9:35a

Another point worth mentioning. Not every day will be stellar. No matter how well prepared you are (or not), not every day is going to be your best. You will have off days. There will be days when the students are just inert and listless through no fault of your own. Just roll with it.

dan gonzalez
4.27.04 @ 3:30p

I only taught 9th-graders, so I can't be of much help. I agree that grading is a pain, even crass in a sense. Time is probably the hardest thing to manage, next to coherent grading, because all students need it, even ones who are doing well.

I'll never forget one poor girl who loved to write. She was from a woefully broken inner-city home. She shouldn't have been in my class, she was only reading/writing at about a 6th-grade level, and I couldn't understand how she had made it that far. But she loved it, and she wanted to be a writer. I stayed after school with her, but I was never sure how much I helped, nor who I might have denied needed time to in her stead.

Like Rachel said, not everyday will be stellar, there are no easy answers but to believe in yourself and do your best.

Oh yeah, one cool thing, one of my favorite teachers, for freshman comp no less, used to participate in the process. He wrote a paper for every assignment we had, and read it to us aloud to kick off the workshops and such. I always liked that, it helped immerse us, helped him bond and it set an example.

matt morin
4.27.04 @ 4:09p

As homework after every class, give your students a logic problem to figure out by the next class.

Teach them to think of things in a different way, then apply that to their writing.

rachel levine
4.27.04 @ 6:48p

Oh yeah, one cool thing, one of my favorite teachers, for freshman comp no less, used to participate in the process. He wrote a paper for every assignment we had, and read it to us aloud to kick off the workshops and such. I always liked that, it helped immerse us, helped him bond and it set an example.
That is one excellent prof.

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