Help me design a course on writing
August 22, 2006 5:12 AM   Subscribe

This September I'll be teaching a workshop on writing skills at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. Help me design and choose some great readings for the course!

Students at KSG are in one of two programs: Masters in Public Policy or Masters in Public Administration. I've been working with them for the past year one-on-one, and they have a variety of writing tasks to perform: they write, for example, op-eds, memos, emails, academic papers, policy analysis documents, and synthetic summaries of extant research. All of them are very smart and very motivated. Every week they are reading The Economist, the WSJ, the NYT, Foreign Affairs, and so on. A lot of them are former consultants or have previously worked in a business environment.

The workshop will meet every week for about 75 minutes. I'm anticipating that different students will come on different weeks, although some students may be coming every week. I'm envisioning something like this:

- 1-30: Presentation on a particular writing strategy or challenge;
- 30-60: Workshopping of one or two pieces of student work;
- 60-75: Q&A about grammar and style.

Ideally, I'd like to present the students with some examples of really great and really bad writing from the world of news, politics, and public policy. I’ll be focusing on what I’ve perceived as weak points in the typical student’s writing arsenal. For example, I’ll be presenting on:

- common logical fallacies and failures of argument (e.g., the genetic fallacy);
- avoiding mixed metaphors, and using metaphor and simile effectively;
- dialectical argument;
- organization in memos, op-eds, and academic papers;
- using humor;
- using storytelling;
- using statistics;
- writing for oral presentation vs. writing for reading.

So, that’s the course so far! What I’m looking for are great (or horrendous) readings that relate to this kind of writing (either reading about writing, or examples of great writing). What are some truly great op-eds, for example, that you’ve admired? What are some sources for consistently shoddy writing? I’m also really interested in your personal experience with this kind of writing. What’s made you a better writer? What are some important problems or strategies that you use as a writer? As I’m just organizing the course now, I’m interested in hearing about everything. The more the better.
posted by josh to Writing & Language (8 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
This just in from the Blue. I particularly recommend this essay .
posted by Mister_A at 7:39 AM on August 22, 2006

For really classic public policy writing, I'd assign Jane Addam's Twenty Years at Hull House. It uses storytelling to great effect as well.
Also, I'd assign Frederick Douglass's Narrative of the life of a Slave as an interesting approach to public policy, as Douglass through his life experience came not only to instinctually abhor slavery, but also to reason through the fallacies that kept him enslaved.
For op-eds assign some Molly Ivins! Consistently hilarious and sharp as a razor.
posted by Sara Anne at 7:39 AM on August 22, 2006

This course sounds really useful!

Crimes Against Logic is a pithy little book about logical flaws, especially in rhetorical and political discourse. Some parts of it could be a little inflammatory (the author is strongly anti-religious) but if you pick and choose readings out of it, you can avoid most of that. Best of all, it is a fun and easy read that your students will enjoy reading and discussing.
posted by slenderloris at 1:01 PM on August 22, 2006

(I was gong to recommend Orwell) Also, I don't know where to find these but if you can get your hands on letters written by Abraham Lincoln, they are some of the most lucid thoughts about politics and the reprocussions of decisions at the highest level and in the midst of the gravest of crises that have even been penned in the USA.
posted by iurodivii at 1:11 PM on August 22, 2006

Three items worth consulting as part of your preparation:

Francis-Noel Thomas and Mark Turner, Clear and Simple as the Truth: Writing Classic Prose (Princeton University Press, 1994)

Joseph M. Williams, Style: Toward Clarity and Grace (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1990)

Howard S. Becker, Writing for Social Scientists: How to Start and Finish Your Thesis, Book, or Article (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1986)
posted by davemack at 2:23 PM on August 22, 2006

I'll second slenderloris, and say that I would love to take a course like this.

The Elements of Style is, IMO, a must.
posted by ewiar at 8:55 AM on August 23, 2006

The Opening Hooks site collected hundreds of opening lines and paragraphs. There were some duds, but lots of real grabbers.

It's gone, but still available at the Wayback Machine.
posted by KRS at 2:28 PM on August 23, 2006 [1 favorite]

If you want to see some great editing of terrible speech, I recommend Hansard. I assume the US has a similar record.

(Please note that this is generally terrible political and public policy speech, but there is a lot to be learnt from the excellent editing.)
posted by Lucie at 8:43 PM on August 23, 2006

« Older Champagne scheduling app on a beer budget.   |   We need advice about having sex in the woods. Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.