Who will educate the educators [Writing Class Ideas]?
October 19, 2009 1:22 PM   Subscribe

I have 2 hours to lecture to a bunch of 18 year-olds how to write well. The bulk of their work-load will be somewhere along the lines of position papers, research papers and summaries of conferences. How do I keep them glued to their chairs? More info in explanation.

I have a pretty senior research and writing position where I work, with my work ranging from position papers to industry updates and as far as speech-writing. Due to my experience and the fact that I, unlike many of the other researchers in the company, am not reduced to a quivering blob of terror when exposed to larger social settings, I have been asked to give a two hour intro lecture on writing to the fresh-blood - a bunch of post-high school kids joining our ranks.

I would like to focus less on how to throw together a bibliography or how to research a topic and more on the conceptual idea of structuring a paper and other techniques which could prove valuable. I don't want to be boring though. The hive mind clearly has experience in writing and so I turn to you educated folk - what is the most important thing you know about writing non-fiction? What could I throw into a class on writing in order to save me from the fate of being relegated to the boring, monotonic teacher (Bueler? Bueler?)?
posted by eytanb to Education (9 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I think Orwell's essay always applies: http://www.pickthebrain.com/blog/george-orwells-5-rules-for-effective-writing/
posted by gonna get a dog at 1:34 PM on October 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

Will you have the ability to interact with the kids? It could be a lot more engaging simply if it wasn't a one-sided lecture. If you can run it like a workshop, ask lots of questions and provide some exercises that turn it from a passive experience to an active one. Maybe try some break-out sessions where small groups are formed to write according to a prompt and then share their results. In addition to helping them write better, it would also be great for team building and helping the "fresh blood" come together.

Not sure how well this approach would work for non-fiction but I've enjoyed the heck out of fiction classes like. I'm a very hands-on learner in general.
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 1:37 PM on October 19, 2009

My freshman year of college, my composition 101 teacher, on the first day of class, handed out the first essay on which we would be basing our first writing assignment and our first discussion on good/bad non-fiction and essay writing. The reading was an essay by Susie Bright, involving, among other things, lesbians fisting in an alley behind the bar. We read it aloud and our professor treated the entire thing very, very scholarly and seriously, despite the content. As you might expect, it was not at all a boring class. I mean, when you get to say things like, "Well, my exegesis with regard to the alley fisting is..." Let me tell you, that set quite the tone for the semester - we all loved the class, and I learned a lot about good writing.
posted by Lutoslawski at 2:21 PM on October 19, 2009

I recently attended a presentation that used interactive polling-- the audience sent SMS messages via cellphone, and everyone could see the results in real time. It worked very well.
posted by oceano at 2:34 PM on October 19, 2009

Hmm. while the concept behind Lutoslawski's english 101 is interesting and definitely attention grabbing, any 18year olds like I was would probably feel really uncomfortable and switch off, and dislike the course.

This is a presentation, not a class that runs for a semester, but it should be. There is a crazy amount that goes into good writing.

Use websites that point out humorous grammar flaws as an example- this one is alright: http://www.apostropheabuse.com/

Grammar, tone, format, research. In that order.
posted by titanium_geek at 2:52 PM on October 19, 2009

Depending on what sort of logistic limitations you have (is this 20 students? 50? 200?), one thing I've always found that works well is to give them "good" and "bad" examples of writing. The bad ones were always a combination of things I found on the web, with creative modifications made by me -- just a page or two in length -- and the good ones were from the class itself (but if you have just one class period, you would have to make your own). Then I would have them split into groups, figure out exactly what is so bad about the bad one and what works in the good one, and then come together as a class and discuss it all.

The reason this works well is that: (a) you learn way more from seeing mistakes and seeing bad writing than simply being told not to do this or that; (b) the interactive content makes everybody get interested; (c) it's often kind of fun to tear into bad writing, if you know nobody's ego is getting trampled on; and (d) it makes the focus be on all the important things about writing -- structure, flow, word choice, etc -- and not on the superficial details like the formatting of footnotes.

I did this with 19-20 year olds as part of a semester-long course (not one focused on writing, but one in which they incidentally had to do some writing). It was one of the classes that the students found most useful and enjoyable, I think.
posted by forza at 3:08 PM on October 19, 2009 [2 favorites]

I'd be entertained by lessons learned from Dan Brown. Or awful metaphors. Eats, Shoots, and Leaves might have some good examples and lessons as well.
posted by starman at 3:08 PM on October 19, 2009

Best answer: Use the technique that got me through middle school, high school, college, and both graduate degrees -- detailed outlining.

Teach them the basics of



Point I







Point II


Make 1 or 2 outlines (kittens vs. puppies) or (why Voldemort is misunderstood) and put each point/subpoint on a separate index card. Use more than one color if you need more than 25 index cards. Pass them out at random to the students, and make them get up and run around talking to each other till they have puzzled out the correct order of the points and are standing in order of the outlines.

Have them parse them on the board, and fill in more detail/add more points, then show them how to turn the outline into sentences and paragraphs and a coherent argument.

Result -- they understand how to make a coherent, supported argument in a paper, which most 18 yo can't do.

If you have more time, divide them into two or more groups and have them produce their own outlines, which they then turn into paragraphs.

Best luck.
posted by jfwlucy at 4:24 PM on October 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

Two hours with 18 years olds? Give them a five minute break every half an hour. And keep everyone on their toes by asking questions to specific, but randomised, people.
posted by kjs4 at 10:46 PM on October 19, 2009

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