Information Sheet #113

February 18, 1998


[What follows is a sample of items from a filing cabinet folder in which I collect articles, quotes, and jokes.  From this hodgepodge--a word which has survived in English since the 13th century and, according to my folder, once meant the “collecting of property in a common pot”--I have pulled out a few interesting or entertaining items, ranging from a theoretical commentary on the nature of General Writing Skills Instruction to a cartoon by a favorite cartoonist.  --Bob Marrs]

Writing is not merely the ability to form letters or follow grammatical rules and stylistic conventions (although this is certainly part of writing, and a dimension of writing to which many educators usefully devote their attention), but in its fullest sense it is a social behavior that we use as a tool to achieve social ends in cooperation with others.                        --Joseph Petraglia, “Writing as an Unnatural Act”

How to Write a Paper

1. Sit in a straight, comfortable chair in a well lighted place with plenty of freshly sharpened pencils.

2. Read over the assignment carefully, to make certain you understand it.

3. Walk down to the vending machines and buy some coffee to help you concentrate.

4. Stop off at another floor and visit with your friend from class. If your friend hasn't started the paper yet either, you can both walk to McDonald's and buy a hamburger to help you concentrate. If your friend shows you his paper, typed, double‑spaced, and bound in one of those irritating see‑thru plastic folders, drop him.

5. When you get back to your room, sit in a straight, comfortable chair in a clean, well lighted place with plenty of freshly sharpened pencils.

6. Read over the assignment again to make absolutely certain you understand it.

7. You know, you haven't written to that kid you met at camp since fourth grade. You'd better write that letter now and get it out of the way so you can concentrate.

8. Go look at your teeth in the bathroom mirror.

9. Listen to one side of your favorite tape and that's it, I mean it.  As soon as it's over you are going to start that paper.

10. Listen to the other side.

11. Rearrange all of your CD's into alphabetical order.

12. Phone your friend on the other floor and ask if she's started writing yet. Exchange derogatory remarks about your teacher, the course, the university, the world at large.

13. Sit in a straight, comfortable chair in a clean, well lighted place with plenty of freshly sharpened pencils.

14. Read over the assignment again; roll the words across your tongue; savor its special flavor.

15. Check the newspaper listings to make sure you aren't missing something truly worthwhile on TV. NOTE: When you have a paper due in less than 12 hours, anything on TV, from Masterpiece Theater to Sgt. Preston of the Yukon, is truly worthwhile, with these exceptions: a) Pro Bowler's Tour  b) any movie starring Don Ameche.

16. Catch the last hour of Soul Brother of Kung Fu on channel 26.

17. Phone your friend on the third floor to see if she was watching. Discuss the finer points of the plot.

18. Go look at your tongue in the bathroom mirror.

19. Look through your roommate's book of pictures from home. Ask who everyone is.

20. Sit down and do some serious thinking about your future plans.

21. Open your door and check to see if there are any mysterious, trench‑coated strangers lurking in the hall.

22. Sit in a straight, comfortable chair in a clean, well lighted place with plenty of freshly sharpened pencils.

23. Read over the assignment one more time, just for the hell of it.

24. Scoot your chair across the room to the window and watch the sunrise.

25. Lie face down on the floor and moan.

26. Leap up and write the paper.

27. Type the paper.

28. Complain to everyone that you didn't get any sleep because you had to write the damn paper.


A linguistics professor was lecturing to his class one day.  “In English,” he said, “a double negative forms a positive.  In some languages, though, such as Russian, a double negative is still a negative.  However, there is no language where a double positive can form a negative.”  A voice from the back of the room piped up, “Yeah, right.”

The Writing/Ball Handling Analogy

The object(ive) of GWSI [General Writing Skills Instruction: the  instruction typically found in a university’s freshman composition courses] is most often described as teaching students “to write” or to “improve their writing.”  If writing were an autonomous skill generalizable to all activity systems that use writing, improving writing in general would be a clear object(ive) of an activity system.  However, writing does not exist apart from its uses, for it is a tool for accomplishing object(ive)s beyond itself.  The tool is continually transformed by its use into myriad and always-changing genres. . . . Learning to write means learning to write in the ways (genres) those in an activity system write. . . .

To illustrate the ambiguity inherent in GWSI courses, let me draw an analogy between games that require a particular kind of tool--a ball--and activity systems (disciplines, professions, business, etc.) that require a particular kind of tool--the marks that we call writing.  Many different games are played with a ball.  The originators of each game have appropriated this tool for the object(ive) of each, the “object of the game.”  The kind of game changes the form of the ball (tool)--large, small, hard, soft, leather, rubber, round, oblong. . . .  The object(ive) and the history of each game also condition the uses of the ball.  One could play volleyball by using the head, as in soccer, but it is much less effective in achieving the object of the game than using the wrists and hands.

Some people are very adept at some games and therefore at using some kinds of balls, whereas they may be completely lost using a ball in another game because they have never participated in it.  (I play ping-pong pretty well, but my 9-year-old daughter laughs at my fumbling attempts to play another game with a ball of similar size--jacks.)  However, ways of using a ball (ball handling, if you will) are “generalizable” to the extent that in two or more games the tool (ball) is used in similar ways for similar object(ive)s.  A good croquet player might easily learn to putt, or a good tennis player learn squash.  However, there is no autonomous, generalizable skill called ball using or ball handling that can be learned and then applied to all ball games.

As one becomes adept at more and more ball games (and thus learns more ways of using more kinds of balls), it is more likely--but by no means certain--that one will be able to learn a new ball game more quickly, because it is more likely that there will be some ways of ball using in the new game that resemble ways of ball using in a game one already knows. It may also be true that one may have “learned how to learn” ball games. . . . However, this does not mean that a person’s ball-using skill is autonomous and general in any meaningful sense.  It is the accumulation of some specific ball-using skills (and not others) learned in some specific ball games that bear some similarities.

To try to teach students to improve their writing by taking a GWSI course is something like trying to teach people to improve their ping-pong, jacks, volleyball, basketball, field hockey, and so on by attending a course in general ball using.  Such a course would of necessity have a problem of content.  What kinds of games (and therefore ball-use skills) should one teach?  How can one teach ball-using skills unless one also teaches students the games, because the skills have their motive and meaning only in terms of a particular game or games that use them? . . . .

Like the handling of balls, the writing of genres is generalizable to the extent that written text is handled in similar ways for similar object(ive)s.  A person who can write a footnote in a history paper may find it easier to learn to write a footnote in a chemistry paper than a person who has never written a footnote (although the differences in citation purposes and practices may actually make it more difficult--what second language teachers call interference).  However . . . there is no autonomous, generalizable skill or set of skills called “writing” that can be learned and then applied to all genres or activities.

                        --David Russell, “Activity Theory and Writing Instruction”

[Any analogy will break down when pressed too hard.  How much pressure can Prof. Russell’s “writing/ball handling” analogy withstand?]


You can’t teach writing simply as a formal technique.  Each technique is determined by the specific content of the field.”  --Jacques Derrida


Deer Editor,

Wee wont too male yew this letter as won weigh two show that too no how two spell is know longer kneaded too bee able too rite.  Won weigh two bee board and waist thyme is learning two spell!  Sum won may here they knead two waist there thyme two due sew butt knot us!  Know weigh due we knead two waist hour daze from mourning two knight too no how two spell.

A weak ago hour President said won weigh too solve the hole problem of learning wood bee two hook all schools too the “internet” buy come-pewter sew wee can rite too any won without kneading two use the U. S. Male.  Wee herd hymn and due knead too fined the rite weigh two meat these principals.

If ewe wont two sea if hour spelling in this letter is write yew knead only sum thyme and a “spell checker.”  Yew will fined this letter will cheque out owe quay. 

[Thanks to Frank Travis, a ‘43 Coe Alum, for sending Dave Ostrander this piece.]

It is the task, not the employer,

that is served.

--Peter Matthiessen

Pray to God,

but continue to row toward shore.

--Russian Proverb


Consider this cartoon an advertisement for the work of Sidney Harris, America’s greatest commentator on academia; author of Can’t You Guys Read?

This website created and maintained by the Coe Writing Center. Copyright 2001.
Email Dr. Bob Marrs with any questions, comments or suggestions.