Teaching writing

Pen!While I was working on my PhD dissertation, I started teaching writing courses at the University of Ottawa. I haven’t stopped, and teaching has forced me to clarify my writing process in order to share it with others.

As a grad student, I was assigned mostly first year courses for non-English majors, designed to teach them how to write proper essays. The courses were based either on non-fiction (Introduction to Essay writing) or sometimes using literature as the basis for the essays (Prose Fiction, or Poetry and Drama). Today I teach part-time at Humber College, both a course called Workplace Writing to the general student population, and in the Professional Writing and Communications program I helped develop and now help administer.

Being a writing teacher is interesting because you learn yourself how to break down a skill that comes very naturally to you. Like many instructors, I think I found grammar the most difficult to convey: things that just sound right to me now needed to be given names and explanations and required answering difficult questions about exceptions.

Another challenging is describing less tangible elements like audience and voice and the techniques to use in writing for different readers.

Challenging for my general writing students focussed on essays and papers is how to narrow and focus a topic. In teaching undergraduates, I found myself reading a lot of opening sentences that read along the lines of “Since the dawn of literature, writing has been important to the human condition.” Following up in class, I would suggest that perhaps it was not required to start quite from the dawn and that their writing might even be more interesting if it started at a manageable point.

Again pencilling “vague” next to sweeping statements reminded me of the need for specificity in my own writing, to always use an original example when it was warranted.

A final lesson from teaching was a reminder about the need for proofreading, and if possible to leave a bit of time between the first and final copy. Fresh eyes are the gift you give yourself.

By now my students have moved on towards the careers they were heading for, but I hope they still remember to reread their work.