Recent research on academic writing indicates that effective writing is much more than a skill to be mastered. Mark Richardson, Professor of Writing and Linguistics at Georgia Southern University, identifies eight truths that dispel the notion of writing instruction as a mere skill-building exercise*:
- Students who do one kind of writing well will not automatically do other kinds of writing well.
- The conventions of thought and expression in disciplines differ, enough so that what one learns in order to write in one discipline might have to be unlearned to write in another.
- Writing is not the expression of thought; it is thought itself. Papers are not containers for ideas, containers that need only to be well formed for those ideas to emerge clearly. Papers are the working out of ideas. The thought and the container take shape simultaneously (and develop slowly, with revision).
- When students are faced with an unfamiliar writing challenge, their apparent ability to write will falter across a broad range of "skills." For example, a student who handles grammatical usage, mechanics, organization, and tone competently in an explanation of the effects of global warming on coral reefs might look like a much weaker writer when she tries her hand at a chemistry-lab report for the first time.
- Teaching students grammar and mechanics through drills often does not work.
- Patterns of language usage, tangled up in complex issues like personal and group identities, are not easy to change.
- Rhetorical considerations like ethos, purpose, audience, and occasion are crucial to even such seemingly small considerations as word choice and word order.
- Writing involves abilities we develop over our lifetimes. Some students are more advanced in them when they come to [university] than are others. Those who are less advanced will not develop to a level comparable to the more-prepared students in one year or even in two, although they may reach adequate levels of ability over time.
Richardson’s observations are in keeping with recent approaches to academic writing at top-flight universities such as Stanford and the University of California at Davis, which offer ‘stand-alone’ writing units as well as workshops for embedding effective writing instruction in existing units of study across disciplines. Stanford’s Program in Writing and Rhetoric and UC Davis’s University Writing Program advocate writing as a discipline-specific enterprise, reliant upon the expertise and cooperation of participating faculties. Both programs feature thriving writing centres, where the various units are coordinated and supported.
* Writing is Not Just a Basic Skill. Chronicle of Higher Education, 55 (11), A47.