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  • Writer's pictureBethann Garramon Merkle

Saying Yes to Helping Students Write

Updated: Nov 24, 2023

NOTE: I've been focused the last several weeks on resources and tools for saying no to the bazillion things that we all could be doing so that we can say yes to the things we most want to be doing. This book project is one of the things that I have been able to do this year only because I pared down a *lot* from the past few years' commitments.

 

I’ve been talking with folks about my current book project for a while -- on this blog, on social media, and out in the world.


But, I want to tell you more about it.


I have a book draft that is almost ready to send to first-pass (aka “beta”) readers!!!


I’m co-writing this book with Stephen Heard (and we have had a blast working together on it!) [1]. As I mentioned a while back, our working title for this book is Helping Students Write: Strategies for Mentoring Early Career Writers in the Sciences.


Lots of “self-help” writing books exist (Steve desperately wanted me to mention this one). These books are for “you” -- the writer trying to get better at writing. Some are specifically for scientists or generally for academics; others are for folks looking to write memoirs or poetry or the like. Other books exist for people who teach English/writing in K-12 and university settings. But, none of those books help my/our colleagues -- scientists -- to teach their students to write better. And, between us, Steve and I are pretty certain that few of our colleagues have had any formal training in writing, and absolutely none in teaching writing.


That’s where Helping Students Write comes in. Steve and I think we can help you teach and mentor early-career writers more effectively, and more easily too – a double win. That’s true for teaching writing in the classroom, and also to mentoring writing outside the classroom – with your grad students, your research undergrads, your early-career colleagues, and more.


If you find it challenging to teach or mentor writing, you’re not alone [2]; and we’re writing this book for you.


As I’ve discussed widely, scholars in fields such as Writing Studies and Rhetoric and Composition have spent decades studying how to teach and mentor writing effectively and efficiently. But a lot of that knowledge is hard for scientists to access: it’s buried in pedagogical literature, published in unfamiliar journals, uses unfamiliar research approaches, and is replete with unfamiliar terms. I pitched Helping Students Write to Steve (and then we pitched it to University of Chicago Press) as a short and readable book that translates what’s known about writing instruction into straightforward, actionable suggestions that scientists can understand easily and put to use right away.


But, also: as you can tell from this one blog post (or anything else you’ve written of mine), I’m a big fan of extra info, asides, parentheticals, and tangents. So, if you want to dig more deeply into the literature behind our suggestions, we’ve written this book with copious endnotes where we cite and explain key parts of the relevant research. (Putting the more technical material in endnotes means that when you read our book, you have a choice: if you’re willing to take our word for things, the main text is quick and easy to read. If you want to know more, you can use the endnotes to go down as many rabbit holes as you like.)


Since we’re about to send the book out to beta readers, we can now tell you what’s actually going to be in it. Here’s a Table of Contents with some notes about what's in each chapter.

 

TABLE OF CONTENTS FOR Helping Students Write: Strategies for Mentoring Early Career Writers in the Sciences

by Bethann Garramon Merkle and Stephen B. Heard


Introduction – We introduce our belief that teaching and mentoring writing is hard – but that it can be easier and more productive if you tap into the existing evidence about how to do it better. We discuss the backgrounds of those who teach writing, and of the students and other early career writers they teach it to [3].


Chapter 1. Getting on the same page: Understanding and communicating with the developing writer – We explore some common attitudes and positions common among students and other early-career writers. For example, we discuss the desire developing writers often have to use acronyms, big words, and formal structures in order to sound science-y; their tendency to look for rules and correction rather than discussion; and their unfamiliarity with writing as a practiced skill rather than a talent.


Chapter 2. Efficient, productive writing feedback – Here we tackle most people’s biggest concern about teaching writing: it’s so much work. That’s not wrong – but it can be a lot easier with careful thought to how you assign writing and how you give feedback on what students write. We also discuss ways to teach and mentor more efficiently and more effectively at the same time.

Chapter 3. Writing in the classroom – Next, we focus on the undergraduate classroom, considering the different kinds of writing courses we might teach (or send students to), and how each can be set up. We point to strategies and resources for those wanting to offer writing-intensive courses in the discipline, dedicated scientific-writing, or scientific-communication courses. We also consider options for writing training outside what’s normally taught by scientists in science departments.


Chapter 4. Writing outside the classroom – We also discuss non-classroom forms of writing instruction and mentoring. This obviously includes mentoring graduate students through thesis and paper writing, but it doesn’t stop there. We emphasize mentoring writers as they develop a writing process, not just a particular writing product; and we consider what developing writers need as they become more familiar with writing in their intended genre and move from being students to being full coauthors.


Chapter 5. Teaching and mentoring toward independent learning – We also deal with a central truth: with any given developing writer, we’d like to stop teaching them some day. We address questions like the following: How do you give writers the tools to begin directing their own further development? How do you nurture independence, so your students fledge and you turn your attention to the next writers who need your help?


Chapter 6. Sharing the workload (and the fun) – We assert that teaching writing also needn’t (and shouldn’t) be all on you. Among other resources, we highlight writing books, university writing centers, writing-expert colleagues beyond the science disciplines, libraries and librarians, and even student peers (and peer feedback). Each of these offers valuable help – but some need to be accessed and deployed with some care.

Chapter 7. What learners do with writing – There is an ubiquitous claim that writing is a “transferable skill,” or at least that it should be. We discuss what that means, and how developing writers use their writing skills in the range of careers they’ll follow. We also explore how you can take advantage of this in writing instruction by using authentic writing assignments to motivate learners.


Chapter 8. Writing in a broader curriculum – Here we allow ourselves to dream a little, imagining the power of having writing instruction included and coordinated throughout an entire (undergraduate or graduate) curriculum. Specifically, we discuss how you can make teaching and mentoring writing even more efficient and effective by designing courses and other writing experiences to work together rather than to deliver conflicting advice.


Chapter 9. Teaching and mentoring the EAL writer – There is a simple truth: most scientific writing is done in English, by scientists whose first language isn’t English. Mentoring speakers of English as an additional language (EAL) is, therefore, extremely important – but it’s something too few of us have considered. We discuss how mentors can understand the challenges facing the EAL writer and help those writers overcome them.


Chapter 10. From pencils to ChatGPT: Tools to improve writing, and writers – We share with you an array of tools available to the developing writer, and to those who teach or mentor writing – all the way from pencils and paper to ChatGPT. Most importantly, we discuss how you can make sure these tools don’t just improve a particular piece of writing, but also build writing skills for the long term.


Does this sound like a book you could use?

We can’t wait to be able to put copies in your hands. Look for Helping Students Write from the University of Chicago Press, we hope in late 2024 or early 2025 [4]. And of course, you’ll hear a lot more about this project as the book gets close to its release!


In the meantime, here's a link to other writing resources on my blog. And, if you're at the University of Wyoming, please feel free to connect any grad students and other early career writers you know to the scholarly writing practices support program I co-run.

 

Notes

1 It’s not just a nice perk that it’s been fun to write this book. Given the bad rap that writing, especially academic writing, gets, it's vital. And, it’s especially important to me that we’ve had fun writing this book because this book is supposed to help people write better (via teaching/mentoring writing). In my experience, compelling teaching and better writing are not possible if you hate writing, feel a sense of dread or loathing about your own writing, or are dealing with other people making you feel that way about writing. Put simply, if this book hadn't been fun to write, it probably wouldn’t have turned into a very helpful book.


2 I’ve formally taught writing/communication for nearly a decade, and I’ve mentored and professionally edited writing for nearly 20 years. In that time, one thing has become crystal clear: most people who struggle with writing think they are alone in their troubles. And, most people who are frustrated or challenged in their efforts to help developing writers to build their own writing skills also feel alone, or at least, caught in a situation where they see no resources and little help. We hope this book can help people overcome this double trouble.


3 Does that sentence end with a preposition? Shocking. Wait until you hear what we have to say about grammar, and the degree to which we should stop obsessing about it so much (or at least confine that obsession to the place and times it’s actually helpful).


4 Books take a long time. As of October 2023, we’re about a month away from sending a complete draft so some beta readers (thanks in advance to those who have agreed!). We’ll submit the full manuscript to University of Chicago Press in February or March 2024; and then UCP has to do all the things a press has to do. Full reviews! Cover art! Typesetting! Marketing!

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