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college writing guide john maguire

The Forgotten Man We Need Now for College Writing Reform

Academia has a long history of ignoring original minds who push their fields forward. There was the monk Gregor Mendel, who experimented with cross-breeding peas in his monastery garden. His … Continue reading “The Forgotten Man We Need Now for College Writing Reform”

Why Many College Students Never Learn How to Write Sentences

Today’s college writing is a big, knotted mess, decades in the making, and I don’t know for sure how to untangle it or what sword will cut through it. Still, if you can’t write a sentence, you can’t write, and too many of today’s students just can’t write sentences. Many graduate without that fundamental skill.

Teaching College Students to Write

A faculty member explains how he figured out the way to turn poor writers into good ones.

  • John Maguire

John Maguire

The Secret to Good Writing: It's About Objects, Not Ideas

It's all too easy for students to float away on abstract words. Here's how to get them back on solid ground.

  • October 2, 2012

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John Maguire's Readable Writing Guide

John Maguire's Readable Writing Guide

  • ISBN: 9780997081114
  • Author: Maguire
  • Publisher: Readable Writing Press
  • Copyright Year: 2021

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college writing guide john maguire

college writing guide john maguire

Can You Drop It on Your Foot?

John Maguire

  • June 02, 2011
  • Critical Thinking

We college writing teachers don’t have much time to talk about the craft of writing or teaching writing, but sometimes it does happen. Sometimes brief conversations occur in the crowded cubicles. Usually I can’t gain much traction for the topic I really love: writing with objects. “It’s important to write physically,” I say, “don’t you think, even in Freshman Comp?”  

Eyes glaze over, though. I’m going against the conventional wisdom that says students have to handle abstract ideas, and what the heck does writing physically have to do with that? I recall one chat I had with my friend Bernadette on the fourth floor of the Engineering Hall, between classes.

“Ideas are what matter,” she said at that time. “Getting them to define and handle ideas is what’s important, not things.” She was confident of her point.

I thought she was wrong, but the students were streaming by, and I had no time to counter-argue. I knew where she was coming from—her assumptions—and I wanted to say:   When you boil it down, Bernadette, all abstract ideas derive from objects and you can approach abstract ideas that way. You can teach students to approach abstract ideas from the direction of objects.   I wanted to remind her that abstractions are what you get when you pull back from (abstract from) concrete reality, from the world of things. But she was on her way to class, and we never did finish the discussion.

Student papers are often unreadable not only because their grammar is bad, and sentences incomplete, but also because they are way, way too abstract. Abstractions really trap students. Assigned to write about some idea, students get caught in the sphere of abstract words and stay there. Abstract words multiply on the page in unpleasant clusters. If you ask freshmen to write about, say, The relationship between wealth and productivity in a market society, watch out. Few will notice that the four abstract terms relationship, wealth, productivity and market society need definition or examples. They will just move those abstract terms around like checkers on a board, repeating them, and hoping through repetition that something will be said. The resulting paper will be mush.

The classic writers on style have talked about this problem going on a hundred years. Henry Fowler coined the term “abstractitis” for this multiplication of abstractions, about which he said:

A writer uses abstract words because his thoughts are cloudy; the habit of using them clouds his thoughts still further; he may end by concealing his meaning not only from his readers but also from himself.

In “ Politics and the English Language ” George Orwell restates the theme, but explains how concrete objects are involved:

When you think of a concrete object, you think wordlessly, and then, if you want to describe the thing you have been visualizing you probably hunt about until you find the exact words that seem to fit. When you think of something abstract, you are more inclined to use words from the start, and unless you make a conscious effort to prevent it, the existing dialect will come rushing in and do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your meaning.

Fowler’s advice to the writer was to strike out all the  –ion words possible, to put every such word on trial. Orwell went a step further than Fowler, actually advising writers to start wordlessly, to think of a visual thing, and then to try to find words that fit it.

If the professional writers whom Fowler and Orwell addressed had to be warned off from over-abstraction, how much more do freshmen writers need that advice! Yet the college writing textbooks on the whole say nothing about abstractitis, mentioning it at most only in passing.  And instructors do not focus on over-abstraction, even though that’s the major problem freshmen writers have.  

An alternate approach might be to start the course with physical objects, training students to write with objects, and to understand that every abstract idea summarizes a set of physical facts. I do in fact take that approach. “If you are writing about markets, recognize that marke t is an abstract idea, and find a bunch of objects that relate to it,” I say. “Give me concrete nouns. Show me a wooden roadside stand with corn and green peppers on it, if you want. Show me a supermarket displaying six kinds of oranges under halogen lights. Show me a stock exchange floor where bids are shouted and answered.”

“What is a concrete noun?” a student might ask.

“It’s something you can drop on your foot,” I always answer. “It’s that simple.”

“So if I am writing about markets, productivity and wealth, I am going to….”

“Yes indeed—you are going to write with things you can drop on your foot, and people, too. Green peppers, ears of corn, windshield wipers, or a grimy mechanic changing your car’s oil. No matter how abstract your topic, how intangible, your first step is to find things you can drop on your foot.” 

Students led into writing this way at the start of a course—writing about abstract ideas in terms of concrete objects—find it strange at first, but they are pleased that the task is actually doable. They don’t understand why this bias toward the physical matters nor why it works. But they will learn after six or eight weeks of practice that it does work; about that time they start to smile because their thinking on paper is clearer, they can see what they are talking about, and their writing has become vivid. 

John Maguire teaches college writing, most recently as an adjunct professor at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell. He wrote the Newsweek College Writing Guide. His email is maguirejohn[at]comcast[dot]net.

Image:  Feet  by  Thomas Fitzgerald  /  CC BY-NC 2.0

college writing guide john maguire

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  • Editing/Coaching
  • Other positive comments
  • “Teaching College Students to Write” (Martin Center)
  • “The Secret to Good Writing: It’s About Objects, Not Ideas” (the Atlantic)
  • “Origins of the Readable Writing Course” (NAS)
  • “Why College Students Can’t Write Sentences” (Pope Center)
  • Student Work
  • John Talks Concrete Nouns
  • Five Keys to Readability
  • Biographical Interview
  • Sample Pages
  • Teacher Guide

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John G. Maguire

28 Sprague Avenue

Chelmsford MA 01824

[email protected]

Cell: 978-761-4515

Wide background in writing and editing non-fiction. Most recently specialty has been the development and testing of unique methods of teaching writing. A physics major in college for three semesters, I switched to English, and then pursued a career as a science writer, teacher of science writing, and editor. A number of my former grad students in writing and reporting are now successful professional writers

  • Pulitzer Prize nominee in journalism.
  • Assistant Professor and Former Director, Boston University ‘s Program for Reporting on Science and Medicine.
  • Senior editor on the computer-industry trade journal Unix Today.
  • Twenty years of experience teaching college-level writing.
  • Author of Newsweek College Writing Guide. Newsweek Educational Program, 2004.

________________

Master of Fine Arts , 1983, English University of Massachusetts at Amherst

B.A. cum laude , English, 1970, State University of New York at Albany

FREELANCE OVERVIEW.       Have edited many grant proposals to NIH in epidemiology, genomics and statistics for Principal Investigators at the Harvard School of Public Health, the University of Michigan School of Public Health and Dartmouth College Microbiology Department .  Also have written and edited for Boston area pharmaceutical companies, including Genzyme and Enanta .  2010 to present.  Also extensive legal writing (a dozen O-1 immigration applications) for Seyfarth Shaw LLC, Boston.   Also work 2012-present as technical editor for Nobis Engineering, a civil and environmental engineering firm.  Also writer of several grade-school writing textbooks for Writers Express, which was later acquired by Rupert Murdoch’s Amplify, an  educational company. In April 2016, conducted a two-day scientific editing seminar for graduate students and post-doc researchers at Dartmouth College.

WRITING INSTRUCTOR, MIDDLESEX COMMUNITY COLLEGE, BEDFORD. Teaching Writing I, Fall 2013-present.

  WRITING INSTRUCTOR, UNIVERSITY OF MASSACHUSETTS AT LOWELL.  Teaching expository writing., half time, 2007 to 2011.

ADJUNCT PROFESSOR, DEPARTMENT OF COMMUNICATION, BABSON COLLEGE. Taught courses in Mass Media Theory and Mass Media and Social Change, 1992-1993.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR (Adjunct) Berklee College Of Music, Boston.  Teaching expository writing, 9-10 courses a year, 1992-1999. During this time I developed a new syllabus, with a unique step-by-step sequence of skill development.  Newsweek published the course as a small text called The Newsweek College Writing Guide. I have taught this course roughly 50 times. (For an account of the development of the course, see the Pope Center article referenced below.)

SENIOR EDITOR  Unix Today! (circ. 100,000)   1990‑1991. CMP Publications, Newton, Mass. Reported on the computer industry for this aggressive bi‑weekly high tech trade journal.

DIRECTOR, BOSTON UNIVERSITY PROGRAM FOR REPORTING ON SCIENCE & MEDICINE 1987‑1990       (Assistant Professor) Journalism Department, College of Communication, Directed master’s‑degree program in science journalism. Taught science and technology reporting and writing.  Hired faculty, recruited and admitted students. Administered program: marketed it, represented program to outside companies and publications, supervised and gave grades to students for work experience, recruited industrial support, etc.

SENIOR EDITOR , Tufts University Medical School, Boston

Edited in‑house newspaper and newsletters. Wrote and produced the glossily printed Celebration , a report given to major donors at the end of a $150 million fund‑raising campaign. Also wrote press materials, feature stories, dealt with national news media in this university setting.

Also SCIENCE WRITER OR REPORTER at:

  • Jackson Memorial Hospital Miami , FL   Edited in‑house newspaper and newsletters. Conceived, wrote and supervised production of the unusual Mid‑Decade Report (an annual report). Also wrote press materials, medical feature stories, dealt extensively with national news media in this university hospital setting.
  • The Miami News (circ. 95,000)   Miami, FL. Science and medical writer.
  • The Rochester Democrat & Chronicle (circ. 220,000)  Rochester, NY.   Nominated for Pulitzer Prize. Covered  science stories from the University of Rochester and R.I.T.
  • Albany Times-Union (circ. 100,000) beginning while a college student.

BOOKS & BOOKLETS

  • Newsweek College Writing Guide. Newsweek Educational Program, 2004. My freshman writing pedagogy laid out in a new form and structured to use readings from Newsweek magazine. Very successful product for Newsweek before it closed its doors.
  • Can You Drop It on Your Foot? And Other Hints for Beginning Writers . Self-published textbook and notes for beginners in expository writing.
  • Mid‑Decade Report . A photo-documentary  profile (a la Evans and Agee) of Jackson Memorial Hospital, an inner-city university hospital in Miami.
  • Hold Hands and Die , Dale Books. A full-length  ‘instant book’ about the Jonestown suicides in Guyana,  researched and written in 11 days.

WEB PUBLICATIONS ON WRITING PEDAGOGY             

            Atlantic Monthly: “The Secret to Good Writing: It’s About Objects, Not Ideas ”  (2012)

https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2012/10/the-secret-to-good-writing-its-about-objects-not-ideas/263113/

John W. Pope Center : “Teaching College Students to Write.” May 7, 2013.

https://www.popecenter.org/commentaries/article.html?id=2843#comment-div

John W. Pope Center: “Why Many College Students Never Learn How to Write Sentences.” April 1, 2016.  https://www.popecenter.org/commentaries/article.html?id=3350

“How to Write Like a Champion.” Seminar for computer usability specialists, sponsored by the Boston Computer-Human-Interface SIG.  January 26, 2007.

Organizer of public panels in journalism, communication theory and political science. These have taken place at sites including Harvard University, Boston University, Salem State College, the annual Conference on Culture and Communication, and at a by‑invitation meeting on East‑West cultural and security issues in Stockholm, Sweden.

News articles, features and interviews for various papers and magazines, including the Washington Post.

“Media, Place and Multiculturalism,” with Joshua Meyrowitz, in Society , Summer 1993.

Member of Cambridge Academic Editors Network (CAEN):  www.cambridge-editors.org .

          Board Member, Mistral Chamber Music (formerly Andover Chanber Music).

HONORS & AWARDS

Voted among “Top Ten Professors” by students at Berklee College of Music.

Judge, Acer Computer Corp. “Excellence in Technology Communication” Competition.

Scholarship, Breadloaf Writers Conference.

Fellowship, University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Gannett and AP news writing awards.

Empire State Medical Writing Award, First Place.

Pulitzer Prize nominee for coverage of the Attica Prison riot.

Personal Website : www. readablewriting.com

Linked-In:  www.linkedin.com/pub/john-maguire/3/607/31a

Second Edition Readable Writing Guide

college writing guide john maguire

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  8. The Secret to Good Writing: It's About Objects, Not Ideas

    John Maguire is a writer and editor who authored the Newsweek College Writing Guide. He teaches college writing courses in the Boston area. He teaches college writing courses in the Boston area.

  9. John Maguire

    His textbook, John Maguire's College Writing Guide, is now being used at 10 U.S. colleges. Home schoolers also use it. The Readable Writing website is www.readablewriting.com. Articles by John Maguire The Forgotten Man We Need Now for College Writing Reform Jun 1, 2018 · John Maguire

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  12. The Origins of the Readable Writing Method: Part I

    His textbook, John Maguire's College Writing Guide, is now being used at several U.S. colleges. His website is www.readablewriting.com. About twenty years ago, in a mood of intense frustration, I created what is now called the Readable Writing method of teaching freshman comp.

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  14. The Origins of the Readable Writing Method: Part II

    His textbook, John Maguire's College Writing Guide, is now being used at several U.S. colleges. His website is www.readablewriting.com. Editor's note: In the first part of this article, John Maguire described his frustration as a writing teacher at the Berklee College of Music in Boston in the Fall of 1994.

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    He's the author of the Newsweek College Writing Guide, and its descendent, John Maguire's College Writing Guide. He currently lives in the Boston area. He teaches, he coaches teachers, and he edits scientific papers. Posts by John G Maguire: Learn to see the "verb spine" in a paragraph (January 25, 2021 - Uncategorized )

  23. Can You Drop It on Your Foot? by John Maguire

    John Maguire teaches college writing, most recently as an adjunct professor at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell. He wrote the Newsweek College Writing Guide. His email is maguirejohn[at]comcast[dot]net. Image: Feet by Thomas Fitzgerald / CC BY-NC 2.0

  24. JM Resume

    JM Resume John G. Maguire 28 Sprague Avenue Chelmsford MA 01824 [email protected] Cell: 978-761-4515 Wide background in writing and editing non-fiction. Most recently specialty has been the development and testing of unique methods of teaching writing.