When John Warner released The Writer’s Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing soon after his Why They Can’t Write, I highly recommended both volumes for those teaching writing (here and here). Of course, a much better barometer of the value of books on how to write and how to teach writing is to put them in the hands of students and teachers.
A bit past midway through this fall semester of 2019, my first-year writing students have just finished reading and reflecting on The Writer’s Practice; the final reflections and our in-class debrief yesterday revealed high praise and key lessons we who teach writing can learn from what my students valued about the book, and how they framed those lessons for them as students and writers.
One student began her reflection as follows:
As I opened up The Writer’s Practice to read the final section, I felt myself experiencing emotions similar to those when I am about to finish a really wonderful piece of fictional writing. This feeling for me is more guttural, and it comes about when I am truly sad or upset to be finishing a piece. Most of the time it is because there is a change in the plot that I didn’t enjoy, or I just truly don’t want the happily ever after to conclude. But I was genuinely confused as to why I experienced this feeling when reading the final few sentences of this piece. Never in my life has I been saddened by the conclusion of reading a book for school, fiction or nonfiction, besides The Catcher and the Rye and now this book. Because of this, I have come to the conclusion that I truly did enjoy reading this book. And I believe it was mostly because of the informal language used throughout. The way in which Warner speaks to the audience is something very intriguing to me, and it made me feel like I was holding a conversation with an actual person instead of reading a boring and monotonous book for school.
In the two sections of FYW I teach, I read in reflections and heard in our discussion some powerful patterns throughout the student endorsements of Warner’s book as an effective textbook for teaching writing. Those patterns include the following:
- One student expressed relief that Warner encouraged progress, and not perfection. In fact, many students recognized that Warner’s lessons combined with my approach to teaching writing had significantly reduced their levels of stress and anxiety about writing. The overwhelming result of reducing stress and anxiety for students as writers is that they are more eager to write, they produce better early drafts of their essays, and they are also more motivated to revise (and even begin again) in order to produce the essays they want to write. In short, Warner’s messages resonate with and compliment my commitment to having students choose their topics and types of essays as well as my low-stakes approached to teaching (delaying grades, emphasizing feedback and revision, and fostering a writing and learning community among students and with me as a mentor/teacher).
- Several students responded directly to Warner speaking from his own humble authority as a practicing writer, an authority grounded in his recognition that becoming a writing is a journey, and not a destination. Here, I think, was one of the most powerful aspects of how students praised Warner’s book: students valued that Warner did not speak down to them; they felt respected and appreciate the casual and empathetic tone Warner maintains throughout the book. A common response was that teaching and textbooks can too often be condescending, and students have found that this book and some of the different aspects of my teaching and writing instruction honored their basic human dignity.
- In terms of nuts-and-bolts writing lessons that were effective because of Warner’s text, I would highlight that students almost universally came to recognize and value the role of having a clear audience at the center of their work as writers. I have always struggled with helping students move away from writing for the teacher/professor (working mostly as compliant students) and toward thinking and working more as writers (drafting for real audiences). Students reading and engaging with Warner’s text while completing my second essay assignment, a public essay that incorporates hyperlinks for citation, was mentioned as very effective experiences for a number of students, especially in terms of writing with an audience in mind and writing by choice about a topic that interests and even invigorates the writer/students.
- Broader and foundational lessons (ones that are essential for students making the transition from high school to college, from writing like a student to writing as a scholar) include students rethinking what essay writing entails (different disciplines have different expectations for essays), students moving away from rules-based thinking to conventional awareness, and students thinking and working more purposefully through their writing process. The one-size-fits-all effect of the five-paragraph essay (which all of my students bring to the class in some form) and the tyranny of grammar rules and writing mandates definitely were at least strongly confronted if not entirely debunked through the combination of students reading Warner and receiving similar messages in my class.
As a teacher, specifically of writing, this experience with assigning Warner’s The Writer’s Practice has reinforced the importance of the relationship among the teacher, students, and the textbook. When the messages and learning environment are cohesive, like a good piece of writing, everything is more effective.
My initial recommendation for this book is now strongly supported by actually incorporating it into my FYWs, but I must hasten to add a final word of caution as well.
This really positive experience with teaching writing and with students showing real and often observable learning as writers also exposes one of the most challenging aspects of formal writing instruction and learning in formal schooling: Even as first-year college students, these young writers are at a very early stage of development as writers, and thinkers.
Once again, placing too much emphasis on evaluating my teaching, evaluating the students’ writing, or evaluating the effectiveness of an FYW course is quite dangerous and likely very misleading.
Many of the students expressing effusive praise for Warner stumbled mightily in the writing of those reflections, and continue to struggle in their formal essay assignments. People evaluating as outsiders those students’ writing would likely find it hard to identify the growth (or quality), especially the changes in attitudes these students have experienced about writing forms and the writing process.
For students as writers and me as a teacher of writing, it remains as issue of progress, not perfection.