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Writing to be read

But the familiarity of bad academic writing raises a puzzle. Why should a profession that trades in words and dedicates itself to the transmission of knowledge so often turn out prose that is turgid, soggy, wooden, bloated, clumsy, obscure, unpleasant to read, and impossible to understand? - "Why Academics' Writing Stinks" Chronicle of Higher Education, September 26, 2014. 

I turned in the second draft of my book on creativity Teaching Outside the Lines to my editor at Corwin Press a couple weeks ago. Commercial book publishing is a long and involved process of which actually writing the first draft is perhaps the easiest and most enjoyable part. (See "So you want to write a book" Blue Skunk, 12/29/11).

I wrote the second draft with an eye to comments made by six or seven reviewers to whom the manuscript had been sent. While I would love to say that each and every reviewer had nothing but praise for the brilliance of my work, I'd be a big fat liar. Seeing faults in our writing (as with our grandchildren) is difficult, if not impossible. That's why everyone needs the outside, critical eye. 

While many of the suggestions for improvement dealt with content (more stories, more examples, see this work by ______, clarify this idea, etc.), this book's criticisms, more than any of the other eight I've written, dealt with its tone.

While my writing style has always been purposely informal (to avoid the pitfalls of academic writing in the opening quote), I intentionally worked on a more conversational voice in this book on creativity. What I did not realize until some lines were singled out by several reviewers, was that some of my off-hand remarks were taken as sarcastic. Ouch!

As the Spanish proverb states, if three people call you an ass, look for a saddle. I re-wrote, eliminating the side comments that could be viewed as mean or dismissive while still keeping the narrative voice and personal tone of the work.

After writing for professional publication for 20+ years, I am still not sure exactly what it takes to get one's writing read...


  • Brevity.
  • Compelling topic and an original treatment of it.
  • Userfulness and WIIFM (What's in it for me) clearly stated, upfront. 


Personally, I always like a bit of humor and humility in my non-fiction reading. Serious topics do not always demand serious writing styles; difficult topics don't always require difficult language.

It's always seemed to me that the best ideas in the world if trapped in incomprehensible writing, might just as well stay in the mind of the originator.

What do you, as a reader, like in your professional writing?

Oh, here is the rest of the schedule for my book...

A brief outline of the upcoming production process for your book follows, and the items in bold are stages that will directly involve you:

  • Copyediting — November
  • Typesetting — December
  • Proofreading and Indexing — January
  • Corrections — February
  • To Press — March
  • Publication! — April




BFTP: What defines expert thinking?

As things so very often are
intelligence won’t get you far.
So be glad you’ve got more sense
than you’ve got intelligence.

                                   Piet Hein

In my 2009 post Gone Missing*, I speculated that many now automated jobs are those that could be described as "Routine Cognitive Work" - jobs answering questions like "What's my checking account balance?" or  "May I have a window seat?" or "Would you like fries with that?" The growth in jobs has been in the "Expert Thinking" and "Complex Communication" sectors.

I don't remember either term - "Expert Thinking" or "Complex Communication" - ever being defined. I'm guessing most of us apply the same standards to such terms as we do to "obscenity" or "art" or "creativity" - we can't define it but we know it when we see it.

One way to look at Expert Thinking might be to determine what skills are needed when something of out of the ordinary occurs that makes following the procedures or routines impossible or nonsensical. Or when there are no rules or routines to follow in a situation at all.

For example, the library circulation policy dictates that elementary children can check out three books each week. A teacher tells the librarian that Frieda is a very good, very fast reader and that three books a week do not meet her reading needs. The librarian, using Expert Thinking, quickly sees that there are two possible solutions to the problem: either allow Frieda to check out more books at one time or to allow Frieda to come to the library on a more frequent basis. The librarian will also make a note to query her advisory group at their next meeting about whether three books a week constitutes a sensible circulation policy. Either a machine or a person who operates in the Routine Cognitive mode would simply re-state the current policy and allow Frieda to remain under served.

Creating new procedures, policies or routines brought Expert Thinking into play when Jen Hegna and I worked on our Guidelines for Educators Using Educational and Social Networking Sites. The development of these guidelines required research, synthesis, experience, and confidence. I'd argue that the ability to see relationships between the physical and virtual worlds, working knowledge of professional conduct, and a willingness to concede a degree of uncertainty are all a part of the Expert Thinking that went into creating these guidelines. I would also concede that a sense of humility that values the opinion of others, resulting in the revision of one's original thoughts, is a part of Expert Thinking.

So a couple thoughts about Expert Thinking and schools...

As I remember, most textbook chapters ended with a list of fairly standard comprehension/recall type questions: List three causes of the Spanish-American war. But I also remember the "extra credit" questions that were far more interesting: Is it possible for a newspaper, though its editorials, to start a war? If so, should newspapers be regulated to keep this from happening? Even sets of math problems were often followed by an application question or different angle on the math concept being taught.

It seems to me that it's not the standard questions, but the extra credits that asked us to use our "Expert Thinking" skills.

I am also concerned that there is a concerted effort to turn teaching into 'Routine Cognitive Work" instead of "Expert Thinking" work. Teachers, are you becoming ever more scripted? Are the number of minutes you spend on each content area being dictated to you? Is your performance being measured in only one way - student performance on standardized test scores? Are you more concerned about the rules of grammar that what students are actually saying?

Are the questions you ask your students the pedagogical equivalent of "Would you like fries with that?"

* These study cited in this post has been recently verified. See: Autor, David and Brendan Price. The Changing Task Composition of the US Labor Market: An Update of Autor, Levy, and Murnane (2003). Available at <>

Original post October 11, 2009.


Calculator or tablet?

A logical step in implementing a workable BYOD plan in a school is to put a device (or a selection of devices that meet a set of specifications) on the school supply list.  A $150-$200 tablet or Chromebook seems a reasonable purchase for most families if such devices will last at least two years and actually be used in school*. (Yes, I've blogged about this before. See BYOD and the school supply list.)


But one thing that may be holding such a plan back is the monopoly TI has on the graphing calculator biz and the death grip it has on math teachers. In "The unstoppable TI-84 Plus: How an outdated calculator still holds a monopoly on classrooms" (Washington Post, September 2, 2014), Matt McFarland writes:

Texas Instruments has been so dominant in part because of its ecosystem around its calculators, which keeps teachers and students happy with services such as 1-800-TI-CARES. Since 1986 more than 100,000 U.S. teachers have partaken in Teachers Teaching with Technology, which offers workshops in person and online to educate teachers on how to teach effectively with Texas Instruments calculators.

Once Texas Instruments had teachers and school districts comfortable with its calculators, offering low prices or cutting-edge hardware weren’t required to run a successful business.

He also observes:

Smartphones have steadily eliminated the need for other electronics, be it wristwatches, cameras or flashlights. Could graphing calculators be next? The average smartphone today has gobs more memory and a sharper screen than any graphing calculator on the market. Free graphing calculator apps are available. But smartphones can’t be used on standardized tests such as the SAT and ACT. Schools are understandably reluctant to let them be used in classrooms, where students may opt to tune out in class and instead text friends or play games.

So for now, overpriced hardware and all, the TI-84 family of calculators remains on top and unlikely to go anywhere.

Smartphones? How about iPads or Chromebooks or tablets running $2 graphing calculator software?

So parents, do you want to pay $100 for a calculator or $150 for a Chromebook that runs a calculator but also functions as a work processor, search engine, camera, photo editor, spreadsheet, slide show maker, e-mail station, weather station, digital textbook reader, ...

Let's figure out how to break TI's monopoly on mathmatical devices and SAT/ACT's paranoia about using networked devices during tests.

There has to be a solution.

*So my biggest fear is that we ask parents to buy a device and then have their kids come home saying they didn't use it. My goal would be to use personal devices every day in every class.