Twitter user Ben Kuhlman and I had a brief talk about the #10summerblogs project, and I offered to write 10 blog posts this summer on the theme/hashtag #teachwriting — I think the goal is to create a body of shared knowledge on teaching writing. There are a lot of good people involved, and I figured I’d add my pieces to the puzzle of teaching writing.

I’ve certainly written about writing and teaching writing before — on sonnets (and its follow-up) and other formal poetry for example — but the topic that’s dear to my heart these days is how-to writing. By which I mean, writing that explains how to do something. Such writing is usually accompanied by diagrams or pictures. It would be hard to avoid such things, really: a five thousand word article with five pictures is really 10,000 words!

Let me say that another way: the adage that a picture is worth a thousand words is not a casual joke.  Rather, the effort that goes into one ‘simple picture’ is easily the same as the effort that goes into four pages of writing — I use the “standard 12-point type, double spaced, is 250 words” estimate here. A well-executed drawing of a pyramid or a section of the Egyptian Book of the Dead or the creation of an illustration for an illuminated manuscript is thinking on display. The artist has thought very carefully about what she has drawn, and made a set of visual ideas manifest.

In this context, writing about how to do some thing is thus revolutionary: bake a cake, perform a martial arts move, dance, build a wooden box, construct an electric circuit, dig a row of fence post holes, cut down a tree safely, weld steel plates together, build a bridge.

Yet writing about how things are built or made is often seen as a curious side show to the main business of teaching students to write essays. Most such essays are vague clouds of abstractions — Latinate and Graecist verbiage thrown onto the page in an effort to impress with $1.00 foreign loan words instead.

The challenge is always to find the right line between clear language, and technical jargon. But the really elegant thing about writing how to do something — is that you have to have done it. Mastery of this kind of descriptive writing is a serious challenge. I think Chris Schwarz, formerly of Popular Woodworking, and now of Lost Art Press (this piece against perfection is lovely) is a master of this kind of writing, for example. He conveys ideas about woodworking with simplicity and grace, and a pared-down vocabulary of technical terms known only to the cabinetmaker or carpenter. Esther K. Smith writes about bookbinding in the same way. So does Sachiko Umoto — and though I read her in translation, her books have the advantage of teaching drawing alongside how-to writing!

We live in an era when children are being overly tested —so much so that I have encountered fifth and seventh graders who don’t know how to read or use a ruler in a project. The hands-on logic of the tool escapes them because they have never used the tool. 

Yet I hope this blog has shown, over and over and over again, that mathematics suffused and underlies the entire work of Making —  carpentry, sewing, bookbinding, illustration, graphic design, cooking, papercraft— are all suffused with so much mathematics that it is small wonder that it was easy for medieval and ancient people so see God as the architect and the geometer.

So, some guidelines for how-to writing:

  1. Write description and command. Do this to have that result. 
  2. Write with numbers that have measurement units. Combine these two ingredients in this ratio. 
  3. Write with time. Whip the ingredients together until soft peaks are formed. 
  4. Write as if a reader were a computer, with if-then statements. If the potato is green under the skin, then do not eat it. 
  5. Include tests of progress. Stop every few minutes of planing to check that the board is square and flat.

There will be more on this subject over the next few months.  I think that I’ll be talking about some of the elements of design thinking that go into a piece of writing, next.