Everyone has a relationship with writing. Everyone has an opinion about it, too. Some people love writing so much that they build their careers around it; others get frustrated by the prospect of writing and avoid it whenever possible; still others lack literacy skills and find writing impenetrable. Our views of writing are very much shaped by our experiences. Those views can be shaped by public perceptions and general assumptions, as well. In 1975, Newsweek ran “Why Johnny Can’t Write” — a cover story that empowered a nation’s public to become indignant over how writing was taught in college. Because everyone has ideas about writing.
But here’s the problem: Many of those ideas about writing are bad.
In 2015, Cheryl E. Ball and Drew M. Loewe addressed the issue of widespread inaccurate understandings of writing by issuing a call for chapters in a book they proposed called Bad Ideas About Writing. The book, published in 2017, tackles head-on the misinformation writing scholars often encounter in their classes, their social groups, and their society. It presents a collection of chapters, each establishing a bad idea, and each working to explain to a broad, generally informed audience, why each idea presented really is bad. It’s a great book based on an amusing conceit, and the authors share great thinking. Each chapter presents concepts that should be central to writing classes.
Unfortunately, Bad Ideas About Writing is a rough way to introduce students to core concepts of the discipline. When’s the last time you learned something by talking about the wrong way of looking at the issue? You probably learn best from people telling you what you should do, rather than warning you to avoid what you shouldn’t do. Sure, some corrective guidance along the way can really help correct errant ways or doomed decision-making. But most folks learn best starting from what they should be doing, then working to improve that process through practice. The alternative, focusing on bad ideas, while fun for making a point, can create havoc for clear instruction in the classroom.
Problems arise when students read Bad Ideas About Writing. From my experience in classes I’ve taught since Bad Ideas came out, students more often than not reach the end of the chapter and feel confused — they reach the end of a chapter agreeing with the chapter author (just as they should). Then they remember the title of the chapter (phrased as an actual bad idea) but swear they’ve just been talked out of that exact idea (because they have been). These students then have a crisis of mind trying to decide whether the idea is good (because a chapter is named after it) or bad (because the author argued against it). If this brief scenario description has confused you, that’s intentional. Welcome to how my classroom feels after students read Bad Ideas.
Let’s fix that confusion. This book you are now reading was designed, first and foremost, with clarity and relatability as its central goals. Rather than collecting bad ideas writers should avoid, we have assembled good ideas that students and/or teachers should implement. It’s sort of like an instructional guide to life in a writing classroom, arguing for a better way to do things than students might naturally try. And rather than having established composition scholars write chapters about material they’ve studied for years, we have students, themselves enrolled in writing classes, figuring out how best to explain ideas they themselves are actively working through. The chapters in Good Ideas About Writing serve as a guide for fellow students wandering their way through a writing curriculum, written by students currently embarking on that same journey.
It is our hope that Good Ideas About Writing preserves the aspirations of its predecessor by addressing the most common (mis)understandings of the work and the study of writing. We also hope this text addresses the specific needs of a very particular audience: students in post-secondary writing classes. We hope you find these good ideas both helpful and accessible.