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Why They Can’t Write by John Warner


For a couple years now, I’ve made it a point to read John Warner’s blog at Inside Higher Ed at least every few weeks, and often much more frequently than that — indeed, these days, I pretty much click over there immediately whenever I learn of a new post. Warner’s writings have been central to changes I’ve made in my pedagogy, particularly regarding grading. Thus, his new book Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities was one I rushed to get (when Johns Hopkins University Press had a 40% off sale).

Even if I hadn’t known Warner’s work before, the subtitle would have been a siren call to me. When I began teaching a couple decades ago, I began as a high school teacher, and five-paragraph essays were all the rage. I hated them. I didn’t just hate them for what they were, but for what they stood for: a thoughtless prescription for the most mediocre of mediocre writing, a favorite assignment of teachers who didn’t have a whole lot of confidence in their own writing skills and so relied on a formula, an offense against everything I ever cherished in writing: invention, serendipity, play, surprise. I was passionate in my hatred in a way common to young crusaders. I told students that whoever created the five-paragraph essay must have been a drunk, because who else would want you to tell them what you’re going to tell them, lay it out in three paragraphs, then tell them what you told them? (This statement came back to me when another teacher at the school, a good friend of mine, said one of her students had accused her of being a stupid drunk because she liked five-paragraph essays…)

These days, I honestly don’t have that big a problem with five-paragraph essays if they’re simply used as a tool for exploring one type of structure that is, in fact, useful to some writing tasks. The structure is unexciting, but common. (Many academic articles seem to be based on the premises of the five-paragraph essay, even if they’ve got many more paragraphs. This is not, though, a ringing endorsement; many academic essays are shallow, overlong, and painfully repetitive.) The idea of killing that assignment is a good one for Warner’s subtitle, though, because it helps us understand his goal with the book: To seek out what actually works best in teaching writing rather than repeating assignments automatically, letting habits overwhelm knowledge of best practices, relying on ways of thinking that are at best unproven folklore and more often than not conclusively known to be detrimental to students’ learning. The book stands as an admonition: There are better ways — ways better both for students and teachers.

However, Why They Can’t Write is not primarily aimed at writing teachers, particularly not teachers with some background in composition & rhetoric. While there’s certainly much of interest to comp & rhet folks, Warner’s goal is to make available to a general audience the insights that have been central to composition pedagogy and scholarship for decades. “With this book,” Warner says on page 5, “I want to speak to policy makers, educators, parents of school-aged children, and even students themselves, so we can engage in conversation and collaboration that will meet the needs of our culture and communities.”

As I read it, I thought about who I would want to give this book to once it comes out in paperback. Yes, I’d love all the comp & rhet folks I know to read it, but as long as they have some contemporary knowledge of their field, they don’t need it in the way other groups do. I want to give this book to parents, to teachers outside of English departments, to anybody with authority over education policy, and to people who hire employees — in short, exactly the audience Warner identifies for himself, and exactly the audience that the title calls to: the people who do, in fact, frequently ask those of us who teach (or have taught) writing why kids these days “can’t write”.


The idea of writing in the title’s question, and in the book itself, is not all types of writing. This is a book about what we might call expository writing: nonfiction aimed primarily at communicating with a more-or-less identifiable audience. The type of writing most people do in their lives.

I found myself a bit at odds with the book when I thought about it through the lens of what, for lack of a better term, I’ll call creative writing. (Fiction, poetry, drama, lyrical essays, etc.) We need more articles, chapters, and books about the value of creative writing outside of Creative Writing programs and courses (some already exist) — but this is not that book. Occasionally, but only occasionally, I yearned for it to draw more from Warner’s experience as a creative writer, mostly because I find it difficult myself to compartmentalize my writing identities, and that difficulty with compartmentalization usually seems to me more blessing than curse. But that’s a topic for another day and another book.

Nonetheless, I do wish Warner more often emphasized the idea of play and pleasure in writing tasks . It’s there occasionally, usually implied rather than stated. However, there seemed to me to be an undercurrent of Protestant work ethic dutifulness to many of Warner’s chapters. That’s understandable, given that the book’s purpose is to persuade people that teaching writing effectively is serious work, that writing teachers are serious scholars, etc. It comes out in a telling moment in the chapter about grades (a chapter I like a lot): Warner describes achieving a goal that any good teacher should aspire to, of creating a classroom environment where by the end of the term the students barely need the teacher to be in the room anymore. “I looked around the room,” he writes, “and saw something like a playground (or maybe ‘workground’) the students had created and populated for themselves.”

It’s the parenthetical comment that I find telling. And I understand the fear of talking about anything serious as a form of play. Heck, I’ve felt the fear, many times. In the US, at least, it often feels like we’re getting away with something if we enjoy what we do, if there is pleasure in what we call our work. But still. Even though writing well often requires immense effort, focus, persistence, endurance (ugh, that day I had to write 6,000 words!), and other terms likely popular with Protestants … the most consistently accurate criterion I’ve found for knowing when I’m writing well is a sense of play and pleasure that the task allows, even if — often if! — that task exhausts me. So I couldn’t help myself when I read the 9-point list Warner offers of the feelings and situations that allow him to do his best work — reader, I couldn’t help myself: I reached for a sticky note and slammed it on the page and scrawled, “No sense of PLAY?!”

There is a certain sense of pleasure implied in two of the items on the list: “1. I am passionate about the subject and have the freedom to write about my interests” and “8. I am likely to learn something via the act of writing that I did not previously know”. If we assume that passion and learning are pleasurable then these items indicate that writing can be pleasurable. (A good assumption, I’m betting.) Each of the numbered items is sensible, and most are likely important to anyone doing good writing, but at moments when reading Why They Can’t Write, I wanted more Lynda Barry, less Martin Luther.

It’s not only pleasure and play generally that seem sidelined in the book, but pleasure and play of a particular sort: the linguistic sort. Warner asserts in a chapter called “Increasing Rigor” (more Protestant Work Ethic) that

the sentence is not the basic skill or fundamental unit of writing.

The idea is.

In fact, as almost everyone has experienced as they write, the final specifics of the sentence are often the very last thing to take shape in a piece of writing. When experienced writers struggle over sentences the battle is not about “correctness,” as we teach developing writers, but in lassoing the words that best express the idea. Even for experienced writers, perhaps especially for experienced writers, the earliest sentence-making attempts in a draft are often provisional and unsatisfactory.

Well, yes and no. More no, honestly. Maybe I’m weird. (Okay, I’m weird.) But for me when writing, at least as important as any idea is a sense of rhythm, of shape, of structure, of sound. When struggling over sentences, that’s the battle. The words may express the idea just fine, but with the writing I really care about, if it sounds wrong, I struggle with the sentence for a long time. Even with quickie blog posts like this one, I inevitably get stuck on a few sentences because I want to make them sound less awkward.

So while I agree that it’s helpful to get students to see beyond “correctness” and get them working to express their ideas, it’s exactly at moments like these in the book that I wish there were more poetic insights, more open attention to the play of language.


My writing about my qualms above is disproportionate to my admiration and gratitude for this book. If I were writing proportionally, the above would be a footnote to a much longer essay about all that is valuable in Why They Can’t Write. (No time for that. No need, either: just read the book.) Nonetheless, highlighting qualms, even minor ones such as mine, seems like a good way to work with the book, using it as a way to learn at least as much about one’s own values as Warner’s.

Rather than going on at length about it all, I find myself wanting to quote some favorite passages and respond briefly to them.

The following come from the second half of the book, mostly, which is when, for whatever reason, I seemed most inclined to note particular passages—

Following the publication of my novel, which featured an unlikeable protagonist in the midst of crisis, I tried to write a book about characters people would like and root for. I made it through about fifty thousand words before I began to loathe the characters because I was trying so hard to make them likeable. When I write fiction, I seem attracted almost exclusively to characters I want to punish on the way to partial redemption.

(p. 149)

(This I loved simply because I, too, have had an extremely limited audience for fiction because I often fail to write about characters people find “likeable”, and, worse, I rarely even give my ever-unlikeable characters partial redemption. I read this passage and thought, “Solidarity!”)

Rather than allowing students to see a writing task as familiar to the point of being rote, I want them to approach each writing occasion from scratch. Every writing occasion is a new problem to solve, a new experience, and a chance to explore and improve one’s practice.

(p. 155)

(On one hand, I want to carve these sentences into the walls of all our classrooms, because if we can help students develop the flexibility to be able to write as if each new writing task is, indeed, new, then we will have done much to empower students. On the other hand, I don’t for a moment believe this characterization of writing. Writing is an encounter with constrictions and inheritances. As writers, we work both with and against genres, styles, intertextualities, linguistic standards, cultural codes, and readerly expectations created by the mass of all that has been read before. This is where play becomes important: if writing is a matter of play, then all that we bring to the blank page — including the rules of five-paragraph essays — becomes fodder for creative expression. When teaching academic writing, I like to use They Say/I Say, a textbook I expect Warner dislikes because it provides numerous templates for students to work with. Used with a sense of play, though, these templates become liberating. I tell the students to think of them like Mad Libs. Formal academic writing particularly creates anxieties in students — both because they’ve likely been taught it punitively [“Never use first-person pronouns! F!”] and because it requires a tone different from that of most spoken conversation, which is what students so often use as a gauge of their prose. While playing around with the templates in They Say/I Say, students can learn some of the assumed moves of a particular, and often forbidding, genre of writing … but because our attitude toward the templates is open and exploratory rather than punitive and nitpicky, the effect is generative, even creative. And if you think academic writing can’t be creative and, yes, pleasurable, please see Eric Hayot’s The Elements of Academic Style and “Academic Writing, I love You. I Really Do.”)

I want students to stop thinking about rules and start thinking about values as they make choices. I want them to ask themselves questions like, “I can get away with a phrase like ‘telling shit from shinola’ in a book from an academic press?” Is profanity beyond the pale? What about the saying itself? Is it archaic? Have I included it to amuse myself or does it genuinely advance my argument and enhance my connection to the audience.

(p. 158)

(The above is a marvelous demonstration of the kind of thinking processes that will lead students toward becoming more fluent and effective writers. It’s not about correctness, but rather about purpose and audience. Although I would never tell you not to include something to amuse yourself. Indeed, I would worry about your writing if you didn’t include at least a little bit of something for your own amusement. But then, I’m not a “kill your darlings” sort of person — I think you should round up your darlings, put them in an incubator, and make them breed!)

…students [need] to be tasked with finding their own mistakes, because the worst thing a student can say after turning in an assignment or taking an exam and being asked, “How’d you do?” is “I have no idea.”

(p. 172)

(Yes, yes, yes! I make students do quite a bit of self-evaluation and reflection throughout the term. I’ve always done so to some extent, but in the last few years it’s become a fundamental element of almost every assignment. Generally, students don’t much like self-evaluation. I didn’t when I was a student. I remember one of my favorite teachers in college asking us to write reflections on our term papers — she quite reasonably wanted to know how we perceived our accomplishment. I did it, hemming and hawing my way through, and all the time thought to myself: “It’s her job to judge it, not mine!” But I was wrong. Yes, it’s nice to know what a teacher thinks of your work, especially if that teacher is accomplished and you have respect for her, but in terms of actually learning something that can be used later, it was much more important for me to develop some ability to judge my own work, since I would never have this teacher for a class again, and so knowing only her opinion of my work wouldn’t help me much with different teachers and readers later. What would help me would be if I could tell when I was writing and thinking well and when I wasn’t, so I could adjust my work as necessary, or at least adjust my expectations.)

An effective writer is confident in communicating their beliefs, while simultaneously remaining open to having those beliefs challenged and then changed as they realize their existing beliefs may be in conflict with their values. This book, for example, reflects a process of bringing my beliefs about how to teach writing into better alignment with my underlying values.

(p. 182)

(Warner talks about emphasizing with students the idea of beliefs rather than bias in writing. This is an idea I am going to steal for my classes immediately, because I frequently try to get students to do something resembling rhetorical analysis when reading, and so have often resorted to getting them to look for bias [both the writer’s and their own], but the word’s connotations cause endless trouble. “Biased = bad” is a pervasive idea that I’ve never found a good tool to overcome, no matter how many times I say there’s no such thing as a completely unbiased perspective (a perspective is, pretty much by definition, biased) and our job is not to eradicate bias but to account for it. I admire how clearly Warner articulates here the way that beliefs and values may be better words for analysis.)

Larson argues that research should be properly viewed as “an activity,” not a form or a genre. The generic “research paper” becomes a tool for students to prove that they can do certain activities, like locate sources in a library, or summarize them in an annotated bibliography, but those activities are often divorced from a larger rhetorical situation. The resulting research paper is a demonstration of having done those activities, as opposed to utilizing the tool of research as part of a robust and genuine analytical process.

(p. 189)

(For three years, I taught nothing but First-Year Writing, and during that time I got pretty good at teaching the assignments required by our program, at least if I judge my success/failure by the evidence of the students’ work. But there was one persistent exception: the research paper. I gave it the longest amount of time of any of the assignments (the others being an analytical essay and a personal essay), and I worked closely with the students and refined the assignment every term and researched all the pedagogical literature I could find about research papers and still, no matter what, every single term the results made me want to crawl under my desk and die. In the end, I had to stop caring. Or at least try to stop caring. I was required to assign an impossible assignment. Even my best students did their worst work with it. Consistently. Warner offers some good alternatives to the traditional research paper, designed to achieve the same sorts of knowledge [when that knowledge seems valuable] but through other sorts of assignments, ones much more specific in their goals, purposes, and audiences. We really need to abolish the whole phrase “research paper” from our vocabulary, because it is too general to do any good for us. Were I in charge of a First-Year Composition program, that would be one of my first commandments: Identify the skills that this mythological creature known as the “research paper” is supposed to teach, evaluate which of those skills are actually of value to students, then use other assignments to teach those skills.)

One of my most consistent frustrations with the systems in which we ask students to write is that we actually have a tremendous body of existing knowledge about what works and why it works.

(p. 225)

(Yes, yes, and more yes. Research on the teaching of writing goes back many decades — take a look at Research in Written Composition from 1963 if you want some sense of how far back it goes. For more recent research, see such books as 1986’s Research on Written Compostion: New Directions for Teaching and 2006’s Research on Composition: Multiple Perspectives on Two Decades of Change and the Handbook of Writing Research and Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts in Writing Studies and numerous other books, journals, and articles. [This is one reason why I wish there were more communication between Comp/Rhet and Creative Writing — in my experience, most creative writing programs are run on folktales about what works in the teaching of writing, and they would benefit from a little bit more evidence-based practice. There’s been some movement toward this, but much more would be valuable.] Teaching writing is an art more than a science, certainly, but as Warner says, at this point we really do know what tends to work best and what doesn’t. Yet so many policy-makers, administrators, parents, and even teachers are ignorant of this research (if not willfully ignoring it) and so folkloric ideas about teaching writing continue to have significant power. One of the great virtues of Why They Can’t Write is that it provides general readers with some information about the knowledge we have about what does and doesn’t work, and why.)