Writing to learn

I’ve been sporadically reading William Zinsser’s Writing to Learn: How to Write - and Think - Clearly About Any Subject at All. I’ve frequently recommended his On Writing Well to students who are trying to improve their writing, but I had yet to read any of Zinsser’s many other books.

Zinsser’s thesis in Writing to Learn is that writing about a subject is a means of learning about it. This is the same premise as Niklas Luhmann’s note-taking system. By actively synthesizing what we’ve learned in written form we consolidate our understanding.

Zinsser also advocates studying masterful writing as a way to improve one’s practice. Writing to Learn recounts a number of interviews with professors at Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota, following the introduction of writing across the curriculum:

‘Reading, writing and thinking are all integrated,” said Kevin Byrne, associate professor of history. ‘An idea can have value in itself, but its usefulness diminishes to the extent that you can’t articulate it to someone else. …’

Early in the term Professor Byrne told his students to bring in a historical passage that they considered well written and to explain why. ‘It forces them to think about the elements that go into good writing,’ he said, ‘and it shows them that there are many different kinds of good writing, not just one.’