Too Much Structure and Style; Not Enough Content

Earlier in my career teaching writing, I often found myself focusing on structure and style. It's important to have appropriate conventions, to make your writing move logically throughout its delivery, to consider the way you communicate your ideas.

But in considering the quality of a piece of writing, there is another factor that affects the outcome more: content.

Perhaps I found it easier to focus on structure and style because they seem more teachable. It is difficult, after all, to look at a student and say, "You need better ideas." (How do you scaffold better ideas?) So I can feel as if I'm doing my job when I help them consider ways to communicate the ideas they do have more clearly and intentionally. Ultimately, though, I always felt empty with this teaching focus. Writing would improve, but it was rarely great.

The tension I was confronting was in trying to force good ways onto a poor what. But it's the what of our communication that should be guiding the ways, and not the other way around.

I feel this same tension at my school during our professional collaboration time. We examine data around student behaviors and discipline, school rules, ideas for future opportunities to examine data around behaviors and discipline, and ideas for how we can rethink our school's purpose and mission. In other words, we spend a lot of time thinking about ways to manage our hallways and classrooms.

When we collaborate, we do not think or talk about what we're teaching and assessing, at least not concretely. We spend hours pondering what powerful learning could be. But the nitty-gritty content and instruction pieces are saved for individuals, which is ironic since we're a small school, where work around the concrete nuances of instruction and learning are supposed to have collaborative time built around them.

I'm frustrated.


  1. I know exactly how you feel. Do you have to follow conversation protocols? I swear, their only reason for existing is to ensure that conversations can occur without anybody saying anything of substance, ever.

    1. We don't use them at my current school, but I've been at schools where they were used often. I know what you mean.

  2. One resource you might want to check out is the Rutgers Expository Writing Course. Rutgers saw a number of students coming in unprepared for college level writing and created this course that is required of all students. The course focuses a great dean on developing ideas. Check out: I think some of the links on the site are down (perhaps hurricane sandy?). I hope you find this helpful.


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