National Writing Project

On Writing Well, the National Writing Project, and the Future

By: Richard Sterling
Date: January 2005

Summary: In his address to the general session of the NWP 2004 Annual Meeting, Richard Sterling describes the drastic changes in the tools of writing that have taken place over the past thirty years, and the explosion of print that has resulted. As a result, there is a greater need than ever for the NWP to support people working to improve the craft of writing.



It is a thrill to be here with colleagues who have been in the forefront of the teaching of writing in our nation's schools.

Today at the close of our thirtieth anniversary year, I want to invite all of us to think together about the future, particularly the future of professional development. As a network, we've been remarkably successful. You may remember that last year we ended the general session with inspiring talks by Carol Tateishi, Bob Tierney, and Patsy Lockhart, all from the Bay Area Writing Project. They spoke to us about, among other things, the power of writing and learning in the project's professional community and the power of the network in supporting them as active contributors to others' professional development throughout their careers.

All across the country there are directors and teacher-leaders who can and do tell similar stories. The NWP Legacy Study, currently under way under the direction of Paul LeMahieu, NWP's director of research and evaluation, is gathering data from teacher participants who attended their first summer institute between 1974 and 1994 to learn about the impact of the writing project on their educational careers and the profession as a whole. Over two thousand surveys have been returned to date by writing project teachers from all across the country. If you got one in the mail, it's not too late to be included.

For those of you in the audience who joined the project after 1994, don't worry! We're also in the midst of a teacher leadership study in partnership with Inverness Research and Ann Lieberman to learn more about current writing project teacher-leaders as well. Because those of you here today are active in the project, you know how important this research will be in demonstrating the impact of our work over time on both teachers and students. And, one might add, to help policymakers understand how effective our projects are and why they deserve support.

On Writing Well

Recently I had the opportunity to reread William Zinsser's wonderful book On Writing Well. The book, as many of you will remember, was first published in 1976, so the various editions of this book have paralleled our own growth as a network. Like so much of the pioneering work in our field, Zinsser's writing still speaks clearly and distinctively to us. Let me quote from his introduction to the recent twenty-fifth anniversary edition. He begins by describing the history of writing in his life, from the pen and typewriter to email and the Internet, and then says,

To me this is nothing less than a miracle, curing overnight what appeared to be a deep American disorder. I've been repeatedly told by people in non-writing occupations—especially people in science, technology, medicine, business and finance—that they hate writing and can't write and don't want to be made to write. . . . Then along came e-mail and all the formalities went away. . . . E-mail writers are like people who stop a friend on the sidewalk and say, "Did you see the game last night?" WHAP! No amenities. They just start typing at full speed. So here's the miracle: All those people who said they hate writing and can't write and don't want to write can write and do want to write. In fact, they can't be turned off. Never have so many Americans written so profusely and with so few inhibitions.

He concludes with,

E-mail is also where much of the world's business is now conducted. Millions of e-mail messages every day give people the information they need to do their job, and a badly written message can cause a lot of damage. Employers have begun to realize that they literally cannot afford to hire men and women who can't write sentences that are tight and logical and clear. The new information age, for all its high-tech gadgetry, is finally writing-based. E-mail, the Internet, and the fax are all forms of writing, and writing is, finally, a craft, with its own set of tools, which are words. Like all tools, they have to be used right. (2001, ix–xi)

During the recent election period, I spent some time reading blogs from Berkeley students. The quality varied from (to steal from a recent headline) the incompetent to the incoherent. But then there were some extraordinary blogs—powerful, passionate, brilliant, insightful, wise beyond the writer's years. Just ponder for a moment these legions of people writing into the unknown to speak to anyone ready to listen, and expecting a response. Just try to remember before this phenomenon and imagine imagining that idea. And it's all about writing! While reporters who call us are still asking, "Is writing important?" these people are creating new scenarios. Perhaps every person will end up (online of course) with a lifelong portfolio of ideas, thoughts, rants, celebrations, displays of deep knowledge, and, in short, rhetoric, in the Aristotelian sense.

And it's not only content. Writing and the rules about writing evolve, particularly in English (described by many as among the more promiscuous languages), in part because so many nations are inventing their own versions of it. I think we're lucky not to have an academy of what's right and what isn't to slow things down. Some of these changes may be irritating: I asked one young member of my family why he refused to use capital letters at the beginning of each sentence. He paused and said, "If you explain to me what a capital letter does that a period hasn't already accomplished, I'll consider it!" I couldn't!

The NWP and the Future

This is an exciting time. Technology is making it possible for everyone to write, and our students and the public are experiencing a host of new opportunities to create texts in multiple ways using tools that didn't exist when the writing project was founded. In many ways, our task is more complex than when paper and pencil and typewriter were the only tools available. Our work to improve the "craft of writing" in Zinsser's terms—learning to use the tools of writing well—for different audiences and purposes, with this increasing array of technology at our students' fingertips, is daunting. And supporting students in overcoming their fears of thinking and of expressing their ideas is as important as ever, if not more so. Zinsser is exactly right; the technology has allowed many people to overcome the fear of writing. But fear of rewriting has not vanished, nor has the agony that often accompanies it. In learning to write, it still comes down to the essence of hard work, which technology can support but can't replace.

Through our collective work across the network, we still meet teachers [who are themselves] trapped in the fear of writing and teachers who have limited access to technological tools. And over and over again, teachers describe their first writing project summer institute experience as life-changing. And for those of us fortunate enough to have overcome some of our fears and to have access to great computer equipment, there is always the next hurdle to leap.

Many of you may remember the wonderful scene in the movie Apollo 13 . When the space ship was in great danger, the director of mission control brought his team together, gave them the same equipment and supplies the astronauts had, and said over and again, " Work the problem ." I think education problems could do with some thinking like this. This approach could operate at every level, and would help those not teaching in classrooms to reach a better understanding of what teachers are trying to do. Many times the solutions in education suffer from an enormous failure of the imagination.

Imagine a system of professional development as part of a larger system of professional learning for teachers across their careers. Not the ad hoc, fragmented system that exists today. Imagine one that works the problem and embeds inquiry into the process. Imagine some of the nonteachers who make decisions about our schools and classrooms trying to work the problem. All teachers, of course, need a way to participate in the building and sustaining of professional learning communities throughout their careers, and writing project professional development in the teaching of writing needs to be part of that system.

Of course, the central challenge for such a system of high-quality professional development is implementation—one challenge that we know well. And working the problem is what implementation is all about. In a recent report from California 's Center for Teaching and Learning on the status of the teaching profession 2003 (CFTL, 2003, researchers identified three central challenges to providing quality professional development across the state:

  • poor working conditions, competing time demands, and too many beginning teachers in low-performing schools
  • the diversity of the workforce in terms of experience, assignment, and location; in other words, the "one size fits all" problem
  • state and federal standards-based reform and testing requirements that have narrowed the breadth of professional development offerings

What the NWP Is Doing to Help Address All of These Challenges

To address these challenges, NWP needs to explain its model ( still!! ) and tell why it is relevant today.

Powerful professional development in the hands of knowledgeable teachers can, and does over time, change and improve classroom practice. Even the No Child Left Behind Act insists in its documents that professional development must be long term and sustained. So why is so much of it not ? Many districts are driven by external concerns—adequate yearly progress (known as AYP), state assessments, and the threat of action if results cannot be shown within a short period of time. Many may well show short-term gains. Some districts, particularly those at the bottom of the scale, will have some initial success before the curve flattens out and then declines. We need to halt that cycle with long-term investments with clear goals and good research to track our work.

In another arena, the National Commission on Writing has issued a second report—a survey of representatives of the business community, drawn largely from Fortune 500 companies. To underscore the fact that Zinsser's point about writing is understood broadly, let me read you a quote from this report:

"With the fast pace of today's electronic communications, one might think that the value of fundamental writing skills has diminished in the workplace," said CEO Joseph M. Tucci, chairman of the Business Roundtable's Education Task Force. "Actually, the need to write clearly and quickly has never been more important than in today's highly competitive, technology-driven global economy." (2004)

Two conclusions from this survey will suffice here:

  • People who cannot write and communicate clearly will not be hired, and are unlikely to last long enough to be considered for promotion.
  • "All employees must have writing ability. . . . Manufacturing documentation, operating procedures, reporting problems, lab safety—all have to be crystal clear." (2004, 3)

Despite all of this attention, it will still take a concerted effort to "place writing in the center of the school agenda" and to bring about such changes for every student in America . Many of you have been engaged in this work for some time and you know how difficult it is. However, the new information age is writing-based and we must find ways to teach writing well to all students. The NWP is addressing this challenge in planning for deliberate scaling up both in the depth of our work and its breadth.

With more resources, NWP will

(1) increase the number of writing project sites and expand the reach of existing sites to areas far from local universities, particularly in rural parts of the country

(2) significantly increase services to teachers and schools by providing programs for new teachers, for teachers of all disciplines, for teachers connecting the teaching of writing with reading, and for teachers using technology to improve writing and learning

(3) increase research and evaluation in order to build our capacity and enhance our knowledge—to "get better at getting better," to use Mark St. John's [Inverness Research Associates] phrase.

The future of the NWP and of professional development in writing then has to take into account the new demands on teachers, the new tools available, and the possibilities they offer in helping students learn to write well, not just to write for enjoyment and connection to others. People born in 1980 may have grown up with computers and may now be working as teachers, but they are also faced with new problems, challenges, and demands for helping all students to succeed. The daily job of teaching hasn't gotten any easier, although the new technologies may be changing the nature of the enterprise.

The sheer dynamism of education—new populations of students, new technologies, new curricula, new and changing assessments—means that the ad hoc nature of professional development—the instant fix—has to go. Professional development must become a central part of the education system; it must be a significant part of every teacher's life; and it must stand as the intellectual center from which instruction and achievement can flourish.

And finally, what has to change for all these ideas to become an everyday part of the educational landscape is for teachers to have the time and the resources in their hands, to make their own decisions about how to teach children, and to demonstrate what real accountability means to the children whom they teach. The National Writing Project first and foremost will support teachers in every way that we can to become the best professional teachers of those children that they can be.

Thank you.


Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning (CFTL). 2003. The Status of the Teaching Profession 2003: Research Findings and Policy Recommendations . Santa Cruz , Calif. : CFTL.

National Commission on Writing. 2004 . Writing: A Ticket to Work . . . Or a Ticket Out: A Survey of Business Leaders. New York : College Entrance Examination Board.

Zinsser, William. 2001. On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction , 25th Anniversary Edition. New York : HarperCollins.

Richard Sterling is the executive director of the National Writing Project.

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