Rereading “Writing to Learn”

Rereading “Writing to Learn,” William Zinsser’s 1988 book about helping students overcome the fear of writing. That’s how I remember the book, but it’s also about hacking the act of teaching so that we don’t inadvertently convey the notion that students who make mistakes during the writing are doing something wrong.

I spend a lot of time prepping my assignments, breaking the larger assignments into chunks, timing things so that I can get feedback to the students when they need it, and letting students redo discovery / exploration assignments at no penalty if they realize they have to shift their focus.

When I used to teach technical writing, I noticed that my students made the same mistakes semester after semester. They didn’t ask their clients what they wanted, so clients who said “Anything you decide will be fine” ended up requesting major changes late in the process, which meant the students who thought they were almost finished had to throw away hours of their work. Or, they didn’t take the “usability testing” assignment seriously enough, so that when I tried evaluating their instructions I found surface-level errors (wrong page numbers, fake Latin placeholder text, broken hyperlinks, missing graphics) that rendered the document useless for end users.

I tried writing lists of common problems to avoid, adding to the list and wording the items more and more strongly with each passing term, because no matter how much time I spent warning them not to make these mistakes, students kept reading my warnings about making those mistakes, then making those mistakes, and then getting frustrated at “unfair” assignments (because why else would I have assigned it if I already knew exactly what mistakes they’d make, I must have been expecting them to fail).