Being a good writer is generally considered the strongest general correlator for success in intellectual fields. Every student's high school and college GPA is affected significantly by how consistently he can produce a good essay. Even in technical fields, some writing skills are usually necessary to move beyond the technician level. Good writing skills are important for administrators and managers, and essential for executives.
However, most students do not get anywhere near their potential for becoming clear articulate writers, let alone polished persuasive writers. This has a lot to do with how we teach -- or actually don't teach -- them good writing. What is usually missing from writing instruction?
Good writing is holistic in its final form, but it can be broken down into a definable set of increasingly advanced skills that can be deliberately taught and developed. Basic composition consists of vocabulary, tense, grammar, some sentence structure, and other fundamental writing skills. Advanced Composition includes consideration of style, voice, word choice, clarity, conciseness, and other intermediate composition skills. Rhetoric level composition is the refinement and polish phase, where style, clarity, parsimony, and eloquence are continually improved.
Many writing curriculums have students "just write," without really isolating and teaching skills. However, learning to write by "just writing" is like learning to sing by just singing, or master a sport by just playing. No player comes close to his full potential without some deliberate muscle-isolating skills-building coaching. Similarly, good writing is developed through a judicious and individualized combination of progressive skills building, that are also regularly brought together into a holistic composition.
Some self-study writing programs do deliberately and progressively build skills, but they invariably stop somewhere before the middle of the intermediate composition level. This is because to go much beyond the basics of writing requires individualized instruction and training by an expert teacher. Even the best workbook and DVD-based writing curriculum can take a student only to an early intermediate level if there is no experienced writing teacher to provide focused instruction and individualized feedback. Rhetoric level writing, in particular, is rarely actually taught (as opposed to just evaluated, usually without a standard) in high school, because of the teacher planning, expertise and time required.
Furthermore, good writing is not just a set of skills that make up the writing, it is also part of a process that is larger than the writing. A Western-style academic essay -- which is the form of almost all college and professional writing -- is built on a process of analysis-thesis-argument, where the "argument" portion includes the writing itself. Deliberately and progressively teaching good writing requires deliberately and progressively developing the entire analytical process -- integrated together. Without insightful analysis and thesis, there is no meaningful content for the engaging and persuasive argument, and then nothing to work with in developing advanced rhetoric skills.
Beyond early high school, essays are evaluated but writing is no longer deliberately taught in analytical courses. On the other hand, dedicated writing courses taken in high school and beyond rarely teach analysis. The result of failing to deliberately teach and develop both together at all levels is that student analysis-thesis-argument skills remain underdeveloped, and writing is usually not improved beyond an early intermediate level.
To summarize, teaching excellence in writing requires (1) a systematic approach to developing skills progressively, through the rhetoric level; (2) an experienced talented teacher to provide the individualized training, feedback and evaluation necessary to progress beyond where a curriculum alone can take a student; (3) integration of the writing with the larger process of analysis-thesis-argument, where all are developed together through each level in a coherent approach to teaching a student to consistently write a clear and even eloquent essay.
The Potter's School teaches its students to be superior writers, through a coherent program that starts in grade 5 and continues to deliberately teach writing and the analytical process through grade 12. TPS offers a comprehensive and integrated analysis and composition program, from basic foundations to rhetoric level, covering a wide range of literature and other media. Students who complete TPS through grade 11 or 12 English go to college and career as well-read, insightful analysts of media and culture, who can write clearly and argue persuasively, well ahead of their peers, even at top colleges.
(c) 2012 The Potter's School and Jeff Gilbert. May not be posted, distributed or otherwise used without permission.