For many people, writing is painful. The idea of writing is painful. Their memories of being taught to write in school are painful. Writing is something other people do, people who just know how to write, people who are not them.
Those of us who teach and study writing for a living know that this just isn’t true, that writing is a skill developed through practice, not something we’re born with.
And yet, somehow, the misconceptions about writing remain widespread. And those misconceptions are harmful—to the people who hold them, and to those with whom they interact: to employees they supervise and whose writing they mock; to students whose writing is evaluated through high-stakes tests they design; to children whose parents dismissively tell them, “You just aren’t good at this.” Our ideas have consequences in the world. And in this case, our bad ideas about writing have negative consequences in the world, and on real people’s lives.
At Miami University, we were charged decades ago by two of our alumni, Roger and Joyce Howe, to do something to make big changes around writing. Roger was a successful businessman who made his fortune remaking a small company he purchased in Cincinnati, US Precision Lens. He could have given money to his alma mater in the ways that most wealthy businesspeople do—by naming a business school for himself, for example. But Roger wanted to change how people write and how writing is taught, and so he instead invested $15 million in helping Miami do things differently.
And we have been, since 1997.
The COVID pandemic provided an opportunity to reach beyond Miami. In January 2021, at the request of our president, we began designing something completely new: a free, self-paced online Miami Writing Institute that set out to take on four big myths about writing and help people embrace healthier, more productive ideas. It only seemed right to take the advice I gave in an earlier column and remember that “the time for small ideas is over” and that we need to “tell our story in compelling ways to change public conceptions.”
We wanted to do better than the available, sometimes high-priced, online courses that are often rooted in bad ideas about writing. We set out to invite people of any age, from any walk of life, to rethink writing—to help them recognize that writing is about much more than grammatical correctness, and that writing effectively is not about avoiding errors.
Four common myths about writing constitute the course “units.” For example, “Myth 4: Writing Is Solitary and Some People Are Just Born Good Writers.” The institute counters this idea with healthier and more accurate ones, helping participants understand that writing is not the work of a solitary genius but is, instead, inherently social, and that no one is born inherently gifted (or not gifted) at writing.
Thanks to the new platforms for learning, we were able to design a course that is self-paced and asynchronous, does not require monitoring by a live instructor, and is multimodal and interactive. It is not a “how-to” course, as many of the fee-based courses are; we do not share “how to write an elegant sentence” or “how to avoid comma splices.” Rather, our focus is on the big ideas that often trip people up and keep them from embracing their abilities as a writer.
There are visual, audio and video elements along with text. Learners reflect through writing on what they are learning and also take short quizzes and complete multimodal activities. In creating the Writing Institute, we drew on everyday writing examples (grocery lists, text messages, memes, ads for tax services and public service messages for heart health and SIDS), published studies of writing in specific contexts, and the experiences of non- writing faculty and students who changed their practices once they came to understand writing differently.
Each unit features a case study to help illustrate ideas to counter the myths. Some cases are taken from published research in rhetoric and writing studies. In addition, we partnered with Miami faculty members and graduate students who have themselves embraced research-informed approaches to writing and changed how they teach and write as a result. As non-writing specialists who have come to embrace research-informed good ideas about writing, they are fantastic writing ambassadors.
Apparently, people saw a need for what we were giving away.
In spring 2022, we opened the course to Miami alumni and staff, and over 900 people enrolled. In summer 2022, we opened the course more broadly, though with little marketing, and nearly 300 people enrolled. A 60-something retired pilot from Los Angeles showed up in my office in Oxford, Ohio, one day; he wanted me to know how life-changing it was to hear the news that the Miami Writing Institute offered. “It touched my heart,” he said, “to know that I’m not a bad writer and that I can practice and improve.”
The course ends with a written reflection on what the participants learned and what most stuck with them. It seems clear that people are broadening and shifting their ideas about what counts as “writing” and “good writing,” and rethinking what it means to be a writer and for them to claim that title for themselves. Participants shared how they shifted painful ideas about who can be a writer and what that means. For example, one person wrote,
I’ve always bought into the idea that successful writers are “naturally gifted,” and that they are a lone wolf. I still think some people have a little gifting in this area, but I love turning that idea on its head that anyone can write, and learn to write better. I’m encouraging that writing is also a process that works best in the community with feedback.
As we hoped, participants noted that their changed ideas were going to lead them to change their behaviors. For example, when asked what they might do differently now, two participants wrote:
Stop being so hard on myself with my own writing experiences, and not be so critical of others’ writing.
I am going to put myself in situations in which I will seek collaboration and advice. I have been a “solo” writer for too long.
So what lessons have we learned from delivering this institute?
- Bad ideas about writing abound, and they are harmful.
- Writing scholars can change harmful ideas about writing, and we need to do this beyond university walls.
- Any college or university with a writing specialist on staff can begin to do this work—with support and resources from their campus leaders.
There is a lesson here for presidents and provosts, too: when your donors want to put their money behind something meaningful, talk with them about supporting teaching and learning in direct ways rather than putting their names on buildings or benches. In the process, they gain a long-term legacy and positively impact our democracy by supporting teaching innovations like the ones Roger and Joyce Howe have funded at Miami.
In a world that needs strong writers and thinkers more than ever, we cannot afford to share what we know only with paying students fortunate enough to enroll at our institutions. And we cannot afford to squander money on rock-climbing walls, new buildings and beautified campuses while our central mission of educating informed citizens languishes.
Want to learn more? This fall, the Miami Writing Institute is open to all, hosted on a platform that allows you to enroll at any time. Give it a try! It is free to anyone who enrolls by Oct. 23 and will be $11 after that date.