Online writing

Want to write better? We recommend this free online writing course.

Readers of The Philadelphia Citizen are solution-oriented people. Solving problems requires effective communication. And yet many, even the highly educated, feel inadequate when it comes to putting words to paper. Why? They are imprisoned by misunderstandings about what writing is and fail to realize that any intelligent person can achieve goals through written communication.

Too often, lack of confidence gets in the way. Sometimes scripture insecurity is the result of wrong teaching. As a scholar and founder of writing in all curricula, I will say that over the past 40 years we have significantly reformed the teaching of writing at all levels of education. But we still have a long way to go.

When I was a full-time English teacher and people on planes asked me about my profession, I hesitated, then said, “I teach English.” Their response was likely to be something like, “I’m going to have to watch my grammar,” followed by an awkward silence as my companion watched his grammar across the Rockies and into California. Clearly, my silent fellow traveler had learned to fear writing and writing teachers.

Oh the irony! One of my goals in life – to encourage communication – was again scuttled by negative classroom experiences. The lesson here is to take a good look at the teaching of writing, pre-K-12 and in colleges and universities. Ideally, students should think of themselves as writers and readers and never remember a time when they weren’t.

Some believe that advances in artificial intelligence will eliminate the need for written instructions. I strongly disagree. It turns out that web-based GPT-3 software, developed by an Elon Musk-backed nonprofit called OpenAI, can handle common writing tasks. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, “You type in a query — for example, a list of ingredients (what can I make with eggs, garlic, mushrooms, butter, and feta cheese?) or some kind and a prompt (write an inspiring TED talk about how authentic leaders can change the world) — and GPT-3 spits out a written response.

But these answers miss what is essential in writing – the human element. Anything produced by artificial intelligence will lack the imagination and critical thinking that makes a difference in the world. But how many understand the real essentials of writing – not commas and semicolons (though controlling grammar and punctuation are essential for public communication) – but writing as thought rendered? seen?

Now, thanks to the vision, philanthropy and scholarships of the University of Miami (Ohio), everyone, especially working adults, but also college and high school students, with a phone or laptop has the ability to challenge previous assumptions about what writing is and how it works. The course, which became widely available on September 15 – but drew more than 1,000 participants during its summer pilot – debunks myths about writing and helps participants analyze their own professional writing tasks. (Course registrations are free until October 23 and $11 thereafter.)

In 1997, the philanthropy of two University of Miami alumni created the Roger and Joyce Howe Center for Writing Excellence. This center has now fully funded the free Miami Writing Institute. The online course, based on the most current and effective writing scholarship, is designed by Professor Elizabeth Wardle, Director of the Howe Center. This distinguished researcher worked collaboratively with her graduate students and staff to design the course.

Debunking Common Writing Myths

In what follows, I draw heavily from the Miami Writing Institute website.

Myth 1: Writing is just words and rhetoric is empty talk.

Writing has a purpose and is for particular readers, sometimes just yourself. There is no “writing in general”. The different types – or genres – of writing include shopping lists, journal entries, emails to friends and strangers, budget proposals, case studies and much more. Rhetoric is not empty or misleading words, but a way of thinking about how to communicate persuasively and effectively.

Myth 2: There is only one right way to write.

Good writing is not something produced only by novelists and poets. Good handwriting is practiced by anyone seeking solutions to a full range of problems. Good writing is ethical writing that does not lie or manipulate. It comes in several styles.

Myth 3: Sticks and stones can break my bones…

Ha! Bad. Words can hurt. And they can heal. Words are powerful. They create actions. They do things in the world. Those who master the words have a better chance of influencing the results.

Myth 4: Writing is lonely and some people are just born good writers.

Writing is social, not the work of a solitary genius. All writers have been discouraged, either by self-doubt or by teachers or colleagues. Effective writers learn to replace this destructive litany with constructive observations and questions. Reading acknowledgments in published texts shows that experienced authors seek useful comments on work in progress. It is important that you write to show it to a friend before showing it to a stranger. Writing is a process and everyone has more to learn.

How the Miami course works

Professor Wardle and his colleagues designed the Miami Writing Institute as a series of self-paced, interactive units inviting participants to reflect on their own conceptions and practices. The course includes daily work projects and published cases.

The aim is for participants to see for themselves how writing works in different contexts, consider the implications and apply the newly acquired knowledge to their personal and professional lives. For example, the course analyzes three types of workplace writing – a work order, software code documentation, and a blog post. Another module involves reading and exploring a case study featuring several memos written before the Challenger explosion.

It’s worth the time and energy for reformers who are concerned about their writing abilities to pick up this engaging, enjoyable, and free book! – Classes. In these perilous times of fake news and disregard for evidence, it’s never been more important for ethical, smart people to solve stubborn problems through writing. As we say in the Jewish tradition, writing persuasively and effectively is a way to heal the world.

Things to do:

  • Take the free University of Miami course in writing, free until October 23, $11 (total) after that.
  • Write confidently to solve problems and express your ideas.
  • Evaluate writing instruction in local pre-K-12 schools. Ask if writing is taught as a process with feedback on drafts and peer review.
  • Evaluate writing instruction at colleges and universities that might be of interest to family members. Look on their web pages for references to writing throughout the program.
  • Follow the lead of Roger and Joyce Howe, alumni of the University of Miami since 1957, and generously support your Alma Maters Centers of Writing Excellence.
  • Encourage colleges and universities to bring together faculty expertise and donor generosity to develop and offer free public service courses.
  • Check out the free college courses available now. One of my favorite classes is the Modern Poetry class offered by Kelly Writers’ House at the University of Pennsylvania.

EMaimon woolPh.D., is the author of Leading academic change: vision, strategy, transformation. His co-authored book, Writing in the Arts and Sciences, has been designated as the reference text. She is a Fellow Emeritus of the Association for Writing Across the Curriculum. Follow @epmaimon on Twitter.