So how do we teach writing?
That's the question I received recently from a reader. Obviously, it's such a broad topic that many volumes have been written to address it. I'll tackle it, but by necessity I must first whittle it down.
First, let me be clear that I'm just going to deal with newswriting and perhaps, more broadly, with general nonfiction scribbling. I'm not a novelist or poet and so will immediately disqualify myself from pontificating on those areas.
Second, I'll break it down further by dealing, in this article at least, with beginners who are just learning the craft, which for our purposes I'll define as the the straightforward conveyance of information for a general audience.
Finally, I'll narrow things further by focusing on hard-news stories. Let's save feature writing for another time.
How do I teach newswriting? I'm a big believer in repetition. In my job teaching journalism at a community college, I have my students, in nearly every class meeting, do newswriting exercises. They're given a somewhat jumbled set of facts about a typical event a reporter might cover - a fire, a press conference and so on - and given a fairly tight deadline, say a half-hour.
Needless to say, when I go over these exercises I give students lots of feedback on what they've done wrong, and what they've done right. My comments are very much like what an editor at any newspaper would give a reporter. Since we use Microsoft Word, I use the "track changes" function so that my edits are clearly marked in red.
And I make a point of telling my students to actually READ my edits, and learn from them. Typically I don't even grade such exercises, in an effort to get students to focus more on the comments.
Through this kind of sheer repetition - call it the carpet-bombing theory of learning - my students master the basic newswriting format while also increasing their writing speed, which of course is vitally important in any newsroom.
I find that by giving such exercises over and over, nearly every student improves over the course of the semester. By semester's end they are, to a person, better, faster writers than when they started.
But what you've heard is true - students typically have short attention spans, and if I lecture for too long - for more than, say, 20 minutes at a time - I can see them start to drift off. (Of course, this may also say something about my lecture skills, or lack thereof, but oh well.)
So by having them write, instead of listening to me drone on, they are engaged with the process of learning.
What complicates matters is the fact that, especially at a community college, we have students of widely varying abilities. Some are naturals; others struggle to compose just a simple, lucid sentence.
So if everyone starts from different places, that means they will finish at a different places. Yes, I demand a certain level of competence, but beyond that I've learned to accept the fact that some students are just naturally more talented scribes than others. I can turn a poor writer into a competent one; I can't transform him into Rick Bragg.
Having said that, I think it helps to demystify the process. I stress to my students that newswriting is basically a format, one anyone can master. Come up with the lede, I tell them, and then just follow the inverted pyramid. Plug in the various elements of the story in the right spots, and you'll be good to go. It's not Shakespeare; it's a story about a fire, or a press conference, or a meeting. Simple.