College writing instructor John Maguire was feeling frustrated in trying “to turn poor writers into good ones”, but then he realized he needed to start with the basics.
These kids don’t know what a good sentence is. They attempt to write papers with bizarre strings of words that are not sentences, and they don’t know what the problem is. Their high school teachers let them write fragments, and now they think of a fragment as a kind of sentence. They have been trained to accept fragments, and I can’t get them untrained. Papers cannot be made from terrible sentences.
He started with having students focus on using active verbs, which just by itself improved their writing. Eventually he structured his course to so that the first eight week of instruction concentrated on “these five rules of readable writing”:
- Be concrete rather than abstract
- Use active verbs
- Put human beings in rather than writing impersonally
- Use shorter sentences
- Use simpler and more compact words
After that, the second part of the course “contained the skeleton of a “normal” comp course including argument, narration, thesis sentences, and arrangement of parts”.
The ‘sentence is the basic unit in writing‘, and author Ta-Nehisa Coates believes “teaching kids how to write compelling sentences is a lost art”.