Final Word: Let's Get It Write

A writing professor argues that his is an interdisciplinary—and indispensable—craft that should be universally taught.
by Anthony Di Renzo

Ten years ago the University of Colorado at Boulder and New Mexico University developed a software program called Intelligent Essay Assessor (IEA). Through latent semantic analysis, IEA supposedly evaluates student writing as reliably as a trained human instructor. Now owned by Pearson Knowledge Technologies, IEA scores millions of essays for clients ranging from the College Board to Wharton.

Good-bye, Strunk and White. Hello, HAL.*

Facing obsolescence, I considered a new career at my local auto repair shop. After all, as a corporate writing consultant, I am often called a “grammar mechanic,” and efficiency experts and bean counters define effective writing instruction as “teaching nuts and bolts.” “Concentrate on spelling and editing,” they say. “Leave content and analysis to the experts.” As a writing professor I sometimes get the same advice.

Rather than embossing a wrench on my business card, let me make an analogy, courtesy of linguist Ferdinand de Saussure and Staples Office Supplies:

Language is like a sheet of paper. Thought is one side, sound the other. Just as it is impossible for a pair of scissors to cut one side of the paper without cutting the reverse, so it is impossible for language to isolate sound from thought, thought from sound. Writing works the same way. Critical thinking cannot be separated from format and mechanics.

More employers and educators now accept this fact, not necessarily because eggheads have convinced them but because the market has compelled them to do so.

Most colleges prepare students to work for the global economy. A result of the division of knowledge as much as the division of labor, this new economy consists of billable expertise, compulsory upgrades, and chronic ulcers. Thanks to rampant specialization, no one possesses either total understanding or total autonomy in the marketplace. Instead, competing but interdependent disciplines and professions must understand and communicate with each other.

Unfortunately, what should be a meeting of the minds too often becomes more like a Nascar rally. Just as attorneys hate dissecting malpractice law for doctors, and doctors resent spoon-feeding test results to lawyers, academics bicker about the best ways to train students to write well across disciplines. One biology professor growled at me: “I can’t trust you English types to teach good lab writing because you’ll make it sound like ‘Ode to a Paramecium.’ ” To end this babel, more disciplines and professions are investing in college writing instruction that works well no matter one’s field of study.

At Ithaca College, the Department of Writing participated in several dialogues with faculty from the School of Business and the natural sciences. We sought ways to improve our academic and professional writing curriculum, while our colleagues looked at best practices for including more writing in their own courses. We began by asking, “What characterizes good writing, whether in the class, the office, or the lab?” This question seems simple, but the answer proved complicated.

Good writing, we concluded, has less to do with nuts and bolts and more to do with goals and outcomes, forms and functions. Even as we learn the inside jargon and genres of our particular discipline or profession, we must struggle to engage with multiple outside audiences. Because audience and context are always unique and changeable, no ready-made technique or state-of-the-art technology can do the job.

Not even Intelligent Essay Assessor.

As an experiment, I submitted an essay to IEA at the Pearson website. Actually, what I submitted was an excerpt from Gulliver’s Travels. Posing as “Johnny Swift,” I wrote a letter to a Principal Knight proposing a field trip for my sixth-grade English class to the Language Institute at the Grand Academy of Lagado, where the main exhibit is the Lagado Language Engine (LLE), a slot machine. Pull the lever, and the engine will generate an academic essay on any subject you choose.

To my delight, IEA awarded me six points out of six, but with reservations: “This essay clearly states your position, effectively persuades the reader of the validity of your argument, uses strong transitions to link words and ideas, supports claims with specific, well-elaborated facts, varies sentence structures, and makes good word choices. However, your submission is three times longer than the recommended model and contains archaic and misspelled words. Edit further.”

Mechanics indeed matter—provided they are not applied mechanically.


Associate professor Anthony Di Renzo teaches academic and professional writing and contributes to the Journal of Technical Writing and Communication. His latest book, The Discourse of Design: Composing and Revising the Professional and Technical Writing Curriculum, will be published by WAC Clearinghouse Press.

* HAL 9000, the famous intelligent computer from the influential 1968 sci-fi film 2001: A Space Odyssey, directed by Stanley Kubrick