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Ten Things I Teach About Writing

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With high school students, undergraduates, and graduate students, I teach the same ten things about writing. It's not that these are necessarily the best things to teach, but I think they represent a subset of worthy things to work on that I'm reasonably good at helping other people with. My focus shifts a bit depending upon the level I'm working with— I never let 9th graders write more than a paragraph until about January; with my undergraduates at MIT I work almost exclusively on #9— but I give this handout to pretty much any course I teach:

The ten things I teach about writing

The sentence

1. Omit needless words.
2. Use action verbs in the active voice.
3. Express complex ideas in straightforward prose.

The paragraph

4. Paragraphs exhaust a single idea.
5. Topic sentences serve as mini-theses.
6. The best writing illustrates broad themes with specific details.
7. Quotations must be introduced, integrated, and analyzed.

The paper

8. The thesis should explain rather than describe.
9. Build connections amongst the ideas of your paragraphs.
10. The introduction introduces the central argument and main points of the essay; it serves as a road map for the argument.


The presence of all kinds of new digital forms—status updates, tweets, blog posts, annotations, email, memos, etc.— has not altered this list, which I came up with around 2004. Rather I use new media to highlight the importance of these ideas. Writing a good tweet draws upon all of the principles of a good sentence, and some of the principles of a good mini-thesis. Including hyperlinks in a blog post serves almost the identical functions of including quotations and citations in an analytic essay (demonstrate mastery of a body of knowledge, signal areas of agreement and disagreement, credit previous thinkers, provide additional evidence for an assertion); they just have a slight different and evolving set of structural conventions. When I help students think about writing in new forms, I mostly encourage them to think about the ways in which the principles of clear communication transcend specific media.

What would be on your top ten list? What do you think is really different about teaching writing online?

For regular updates, follow me on Twitter at @bjfr and for my publications, C.V., and online portfolio, visit EdTechResearcher.

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