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The Power of Informal Writing
by Alexandre Enkerli


I usually teach ethnographic disciplines, not English. As a linguistic anthropologist, my perspective on language is usually a non-prescriptive one. Furthermore, my native language is French and though I have received positive comments about my English writing skills, I feel relatively uncomfortable correcting the prose of English-speakers in their native language. In this context, I typically refrain from "grading language" in the courses I teach. In fact, when I mark assignments, I rarely notice errors in writing because I focus on content. I want insight in the assignments I give, regardless of the form in which it comes.

I know, some of you might hate teachers like me. There is little I can do about this. My hope is simply that, by the end of this column, those of you who hate us may perceive ungraded writing in a new way.

See, I do get students to write a fair amount of words, every semester. Almost all of my assignments are done in writing and I frequently have students write messages or forum posts for my courses. In terms of writing practise, I favour quantity over quality.

The results are satisfying. In my experience, those students who understand my perspective on grading are able to provide me with assignments which appropriately display the quality of their learning processes. On the other hand, those students who remain concerned about the quality of their work in view of external criteria (such as writing style) frequently submit assignments which show limited engagement in (and understanding of) the conceptual material for the course. In other words, those who focus too much on writing what they think is a "good" paper often miss the point of the learning experience.

None of this is meant to say that writing is easy or unimportant. Au contraire! In my view, writing skills are a very specific domain of expertise and this domain should be adequately valued. My claim is that low-stakes writing assignments are often more appropriate than high-stakes ones in terms of developing writing skills. My courses provide opportunities for low-stakes writing assignments as a way to balance with the large number of high-stakes writing assignments on which students put so much effort.

There are theoretical and practical dimensions to this claim, yet what I wish to share here is mostly a personal perspective. The present column is meant to be, in itself, fairly informal. "Practising what you preach" appears to be the most appropriate strategy, in this case. In view of this informality, I elected to add a few links to this text instead of providing formal citations. After all, in terms of retrieving references, links are more effective than citations.

In writing, as in most other sets of skills, practise is essential. Cognitive scientists have it as a rule of thumb that "it takes ten years or 10,000 hours to make an expert." The most quoted source for this statement seems to be work on chess done in 1973 by William G. Chase and Herbert A. Simon. Unfortunately, I have so far been unable to locate an unequivocal statement of theirs about the time needed to achieve a specific level of mastery. Apart from hearing about this "10-year rule" from colleagues, friends, and in an episode of Scientific American's Science Talk podcast (about Philip Ross's "The Expert Mind" article for that magazine), the written statement about this rule that I remember most clearly comes from Daniel Levitin's 2006 This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession (New York: Dutton/Penguin). Levitin's main quote on the issue resembles most of those claims found in a variety of cognitive science texts, even though there seems to be a diversity of opinions as to the precise implications of these statements.

"The emerging picture from such studies is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert - in anything" (Levitin 2006: 193)

In terms of writing, the required experience needed to achieve a certain level of mastery could probably be measured in terms of the number of words written. If my interpretation of the cognitive literature on expertise is correct, extensive experience in informal writing may be appropriate training for expert writing.

From a personal perspective, informal writing is relatively painless as compared to formal writing. Case in point: the level of difficulty in writing this column. Given a specialised audience of English teachers, I feel somewhat pressured to choose my words wisely, to approximate normative language, to make a good impression. Because of this perceived pressure, I tend to procrastinate, to wander off the page, to take breaks... Though the exercise is far from being painful, it could hardly be associated with the proverbial "walk in the park." Perhaps more problematic is the fact that I have a strong tendency to hypercorrection in such a context, making this text much heavier than it needs to be.

Like other academics, I may reasonably be called an "expert" in writing, having acquired enough experience to perceive writing as easy. I write this column for fellow teachers whose evaluation of my work is unlikely to be very consequential for me. Yet, even in this context, I feel some pressure as I write this column. Thinking about students who write texts which will be evaluated by their teachers, I can only imagine the type of pressure they feel.

This is the power of formal writing, for non-experts: instilling the fear of writing.

I have never taught spoken English but those among my friends who teach "English as a second language" (ESL) have often said that the best way to block learners is to constantly correct their speech. In my own experience, there have been several occasions in which I have become self-conscious after noticing a mistake I had made. Incontestably, self-consciousness can make any oral communication quite difficult. It seems likely that something similar happens in writing. If an "internal editor" is constantly checking on your writing, writing becomes a painful activity. The best way to wake this "internal editor" up is to insist on formal rules such as those about "split infinitives."

Contrast this with informal writing.

Informal writing can be easy. With a bit of practise, it flows very naturally. Words just come out on the page. Formal writing can be quite artificial and arduous. Instead of flowing through, words seem to be picked one at a time.

Though I have never measured this very precisely, my impression is that I probably write between a thousand and 1500 words an hour when I write for my blog. In terms of formal writing, my writing rate is likely to be at least two to three times slower (less than 500 words an hour).

I recently wrote a 7430-word blog entry in one stretch. I had fun doing this, I felt energised. Though I made no special effort to proofread that text, I think it contains relatively few mistakes. More importantly, I felt no pressure at any time while writing it, even though it touched on issues which could have personal ramifications. That specific blog entry is in French but I tend to have an easier time writing in English, so the fact that this writing session was relatively painless is in itself quite relevant.

One reason blog entries are so easy to write is that there is no set expectation as to the form of the text. Almost any text can qualify as a blog entry, from a few words used to describe embedded content to a structured text of essay length. Granted, bloggers (and blog readers) tend to value texts which are relatively short. The point, though, is about unconstrained writing.

When I start a blog post, I may have a general idea of what the finished text may look like. I have a rough plan of what ideas I wish to cover. Perhaps more importantly, I have an idea of what I want to achieve with my post. Even if it simply means that I want to get a few ideas "out of my system," there is a goal, a sort of "endgame." Obviously, I also have goals when I write more formal texts. But the ultimate goal is accompanied by secondary goals having to do with the formal requirements behind the text.

It would be possible to compare blog entries to drafts. It seems to be common practise, among teachers, to ask for drafts of writing assignments. But there are important differences between blog entries and drafts. A draft carries some of the weight of the final version. A blog entry is but a step in a longer process, without any notion of a final version. After having written a blog post, I often expand my thinking to the point that what first seemed like a simple idea starts connecting with many other things in my life. This process encourages me to write new blog entries, instead of rewriting the same text.

Feedback is the foundation on which several blogging practises are built. More than a general motivation to continue blogging, feedback from peers has effects on almost every dimension of blogging.

Bloggers in general are often compared to journalists and many blog entries do resemble journalistic pieces. The comparison often advantages journalists for a very simple reason: professional journalists have editors. Bloggers are their own editors. Not that bloggers spend inordinate amounts of time editing their texts. But they build up their own editorial policies through extensive experience.

Bloggers often claim that fact-checking and proofreading is done by their readers, through a distributed process known as "crowdsourcing." Once a blog entry has been posted, readers have multiple opportunities to provide feedback. Readers of some blog entries are quick to point out mistakes in any dimension of the text, from ambiguity over the use of a term to statement inaccuracy. However, blog reading tends to be more forgiving than, say, newspaper reading. This is especially obvious when most readers are bloggers themselves. Even if some people enjoy being corrected, the informal code of conduct among bloggers is based on "giving a friend a break," at least in terms of writing. In fact, those occasions which warrant correction have more to do with facts or opinions than with details of syntax or orthography. When a reader wishes to challenge a blogger's point, commenting on the inappropriate use of apostrophes seems unnecessarily finicky.

Going back to educational contexts: while I blog rather extensively and while I have created blogs for specific courses, I have yet to push my students to blog. I do talk about blogging in class, on occasion. In fact, I have noticed that students react rather positively when I mention blogging. Yet, if I were to require blog entries from students, blogging would become a task among others, acquiring some of the weight of formal writing. The type of blog writing which seems to have the most beneficial effects in terms of writing practise is self-compelled.

Students are unlikely to feel compelled to write essay-length texts on most occasions. But online writing can be quite effective at generating written reactions from members of a given group.

Much online writing is conversational in tone. Even blog posts tend to read more like "internal conversations" than like polished essays. An advantage of this conversational tone is in the connection between writer and reader. In this context, online writing is less intimidating than the literary prowess which serves as a model for much formal writing.

For better or worse, strong personal reactions are one of the main motivations for online writing, generally. Comments on newspaper articles, blog entries, forum posts, mailing-list messages, and even social network content may all come from an urge to respond. A "gut feeling." Though many of these comments are raw, their effectiveness often depends on following some common practises. Not strict rules, but broad techniques for efficient communication. Some of these techniques go counter to the rules of formal writing. The vocabulary used in some of these comments may appear quite limited. But these comments are a path to more elaborate writing.

In terms of civil discourse, course-based online writing benefits from its context. Contrary to most online contexts, educational institutions are stratified. Though incivility does occur, student behaviour is constrained by both explicit and tacit rules of conduct which may prevent some of the most improper reactions which are frequent online. In this sense, learning contexts are safe environments.

The technical and pedagogical requirements for online writing are quite low. "Course Management Systems" like Moodle and Sakai provide multiple tools for integrating open forums in the structure of the course. Typically, course forums remain inactive unless students are prompted to post in them. But with casual prompting, it can be quite easy to use course forums as a way to get students to write. Perhaps more importantly, active course forums can be a way to maintain student engagement between course meetings.

Collaborative tools like wikis provide another option for course-based online writing. Using a wiki, a class can create material as a group effort. Different students can take on different roles such as that of proofreader or editor. Through collaboration over a unified set of texts, students share the writing burden and the result is more impressive than their own individual efforts. Wikis specifically are hailed as some of the most promising tools for online writing and they work especially well in contexts which allow for teamwork. For instance, a wiki can be set up to serve as a glossary for the course as a whole and diverse students can submit multiple entries for the same items. However I have yet to use wikis extensively in my own courses.

My expectation at this point is that you have given some thought to diverse implications of informal writing. You may never set up forums, wikis, or blogs for your courses but, the next time you think about writing styles commonly found on the Internet, you might think about the power of informal writing.

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