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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.

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Lin-Manuel Miranda on Writing

I am not throwing away my shot to tie a popular musical to how I think we should assess student progress as writers.

July 29, 2020
 
 

There is a lot to say about what’s going on in terms of schools reopening for in-person instruction (or not), institutional and administrative responses to the pandemic, the meager federal response to assist postsecondary education institutions, and on and on.

I considered writing up a version of this rather despairing tweet thread from the other day, but it only says things I’ve said many times before here.

But I don’t want to talk about that stuff today. All that will be present and waiting for us for many months to come.

Today I want to talk about the stuff that most matters to me, teaching and learning, and how a short video of Lin-Manuel Miranda is a great illustration for what I want my writing students to be able to do.

In the video, Lin-Manuel Miranda explains the origins and structure and tone of the song “My Shot” from Hamilton the musical, the song that introduces the character, background and style of Hamilton the character.

I recommend pausing your reading, watching the video and then coming back.

For those who are fans of the musical (my hand is raised), and maybe even those who aren’t yet familiar with it, the video is an amazing three minutes as he traces the influences and references that he wanted to invoke in the song, and why. Stay to the end to hear how the AOL dial-up tone influenced the song.

What Miranda is illustrating is intention and choice. The writer intends to have a specific effect on the audience and then makes choices in order to try to achieve that effect. The different dimensions that Miranda is working in simultaneously are pretty astounding, but he is a musical genius.

However, even musical geniuses create their works one element at a time.

Regular readers have probably tired of my mantra, but I’ll say it again: writing is thinking. And the way writers express their thinking is by making choices. My chief objection to the prescriptive teaching of writing -- as enshrined in the five-paragraph essay, as well as many of my own past practices -- is that it prevents students from wrestling with the choices that writers must make.

This does not only apply to artistic expressions like a musical. The same process is at work in any piece of writing with an audience and purpose, which is why it’s important to provide students with opportunities to write inside genuine rhetorical occasions.

Much of my one-on-one work with students consists of the student and I reading their work together and me asking them what they mean in particular spots, or why they chose a particular phrase, or even what they were thinking in terms of structure as they worked through the piece. My goal is to help them build a metacognitive awareness of writing as a communicative act and how choices impact the reception of their message.

Early on, the answers to my questions are things like, “I don’t know,” or “Isn’t that just how it’s supposed to be?” or worse, “Because my teacher said that’s how to do it.” These are the responses of a writer who has been given templates and prescriptions but is not connected to any deeper parts of the writing process. They have not been practicing their thinking during the doing.

Even a humble memo or progress report lends itself to this exercise. In peer review, I sometimes have students annotate each other’s work attempting to identify what the author was thinking/intending with a particular rhetorical move and then assessing its effectiveness.

If they can do this with their own compositions, as Miranda illustrates in the video, they are working at an incredibly high level of sophistication.

Another beneficial byproduct of asking students to think about their writing this way is they become better readers. They become sensitive to looking for moves they can borrow from others for specific purposes and effects, much like Miranda remixes different styles of hip-hop in the musical. They develop an appreciation for language and vernacular the different ways we communicate in different contexts.

One of the challenges of teaching in nonprescriptive ways is finding methods that allow us to measure progress. Often the written artifact itself is a trailing indicator of improvement, as students struggle with something new and without the guardrails I’d give when I was privileging the product over the process.

As their instructor, I’m satisfied if I can talk to students and simply ask them how they feel about their writing abilities, if they’re gaining confidence in solving the writing-related problems I put in front of them.

But for external audiences, perhaps I can ask them to make videos answering the questions: What did you do? Why did you do it that way?

If students can answer those questions, they are on a path to continual improvement, and now they have a method for tackling even unfamiliar writing challenges.

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As always now, you can reach me directly at [email protected].

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