kitchen table math, the sequel: Writing to the Point by William J. Kerrigan (intro)

Friday, September 7, 2007

Writing to the Point by William J. Kerrigan (intro)

I wish I could remember, now, the path that took me to William J. Kerrigan's Writing to the Point. I suspect it started with a precision teaching web site somewhere, but then again, maybe not.

I don't know.

[update: I remember now. I found a reference to Kerrigan's book in Why Johnny Can't Write: How to Improve Writing Skills by Myra J. Linden & Arthur Whimbey, and looked it up on Amazon. The review posted there, which I believe is accurate, sold me.]

What I do know is that Writing to the Point is the single most brilliant book I've read on the subject of what writing is and how to teach it I've ever seen, second only to Why Johnny Can't Write: How to Improve Writing Skills by Myra J. Linden and Arthur Whimbey.

Naturally, Kerrigan is out of print. Lucy Calkins is earning untold millions suppressing childhood imagination and marching children lockstep through one memoir after another. (As my friend's son said in 8th grade, when asked to "write a memory of an afternoon,": I'm running out of memories.) But Kerrigan, the anti-Calkins, is out of print and unavailable.

Well, not for long.

As it turns out, my editor on Temple's and my sequence works for Harcourt, the house that published Kerrigan. So it will be easy to find out who owns the rights, if anyone; I may be able to persuade her to look into a reissue.

In the meantime I've begun typing the manuscript in full. I'll post it on the blog as I go.

Parents, students, and teachers need this book.


first installment

To the Instructor

It really works.

That is the lesson those of us in the English department at MacMurray College learned, more than a decade ago, when we took the first edition of Writing to the Point into our freshman composition classes.

There were seven of us in the department at that time, with widely differing backgrounds and approaches. Some were traditionalists, some innovators, some liked to lecture on grammar, others encouraged students to talk about their feelings; some emphasized mechanics, others structure, the reading of literature, or creative expression. We met weekly, as we still do, to argue for our respective emphases and to reach some understanding of what everyone else was doing.

But when Writing to the Point came along, we were amazed. Unlike the other attractive texts we had used for a year or two and then discarded, it actually made a difference in our students’ writing—a palpable difference.

With Writing to the Point, we saw our students—good, fair, and indifferent—making a point and generally adhering to it; supporting that point with usually relevant particulars; and, most of the time, making clear connections from paragraph to paragraph and sentence to sentence. Moreover, we found ourselves able to talk about writing with a consensus and precision previously impossible, not just with students but also with colleagues.

In the first year or two, we were still suspicious. Our initial inclination was to quarrel with the dogmatic certainty and authoritarian persona we found in the book, even as we instructed our students to follow along. We knew there were many different ways to write well and many competing theories about the teaching of writing. How could Kerrigan presume to know?

But he did. The evidence mounted, year after year: in testimonials from students, like one who took the course in 1977 and recently said, “That book saved me in college” (she went on to get A’s in later courses); and in papers written by transfer students, who turned out to be far behind our Kerrigan-trained students in simple expository writing. We the faculty, too, found ourselves consciously improving our own writing through one or another of Kerrigan’s lessons, as we had never done when using other writing books. And so we took Kerrigan to heart.

New faculty as they joined us went through the same initiation. At first came the shock of having to follow a stern and unfamiliar method Then followed the shock of seeing students learn it. And finally, after a year or two, came the realization that the Kerrigan method is unusual only in its approach and style,not in its content. What it teaches is what anyone would want in expository writing: unity, coherence, detail.

The approach of Writing to the Point is holistic. But it is holistic in a far different sense than the approach in those textbooks which simply offer chapters on the word, the sentence, the paragraph in the belief that the parts will somehow add up to the whole. In marked contrast, Writing to the Point has an organic unity. Each element intimately relates to the whole; in fact, the book begins with the whole (the thesis of the theme) and then shows how to develop the whole so that every detail relates to it.

And we gradually learned that, despite its insistence on a very specific method, Writing to the Point offers both instructor and student room for individuality and creativity, even while ensuring that any student who can write a sentence (the starting point) will both learn and appy the basic principles of expository writing.

The flexibility is such that no instructor need abandon techniques that have worked in the past. Those who value prewriting will find ample opportunity to call for it, especially with Steps 1 and 4; those who favor rewriting will find occasion at every step, but especially in the chapter on “Correcting the Theme.” (Kerrigan calls it “correcting,” a term less daunting and more familiar to the students than “revising”; but the chapter requires, and demonstrates exactly how to undertake, thorough revision.) Sentence combining, though not treated at length, has a moment of special emphasis in this book. Grammar and style may be incorporated as the instructor wishes at many appropriate points of connection. Readings of fiction or nonfiction will be grist for the mill.

What makes this book different, then? What makes it work? The answer to both questions is the same. Kerrigan set out, not to make a textbook, but to teach writing. A man of much practical as well as academic experience (as the autobiographical vignettes scattered through the book will attest), he hit upon the first steps of his method while struggling to make the principles of exposition clear to composition classes at Iowa State in the 1950s. For two decades, there and at Fullerton College, he improved on the method, and finally in the early 1970s, at the suggestion of a student, wrote it as a book.

Writing to the Point, then, is an actual course written down—a course actually taught to students like yours and mine, good, fair, and indifferent. Consequently, its style is deliberately and strikingly oral: not just making use of “I,” “you,” and contractions, but also with emphasis supplied by italics and repetitions not usually found in writing. The result is a book that students can read; even as Kerrigan teaches them how to write (and read) the kind of formal prose with which they are less familiar.

Furthermore, because it reflects actual teaching, Writing to the Point has a structure quite different from that of a textbook that proceeds from an idea; it meets the psychological needs of students, not just their logical needs. It has the pacing of an actual course. So instead of chapters of equal size devoted to each of the six steps, Kerrigan makes some short, some long, according to the need of the student and the place in the course. He puts Step 1 in a short, simple chapter, to provide a confident start. Step 2, which needs much attention, requires a chapter three times as long. Immediate relief follows in the short, simple chapter on Step 3; that is succeeded by the longest chapter of all, on Step 4, which appropriately emphasizes the importance of going into detail. Then, instead of continuing with the last two steps, Kerrigan interpolates three chapters, two shorts and a long, to exemplify and review Steps 1 through 4. Psychologically, the student comes to realize that the earlier steps must be thoroughly learned before the mystery of Steps 5 and 6—those that do the most to make a student’s writing look professional—can be revealed. In practical terms, these chapters give the student time to write a few themes incorporating Steps 1 through 4 before going on to 5 and 6.

Finally, after Steps 5 and 6, four chapters remain. They contain further exemplification and practice for those last two steps, just as Kerrigan provided for the earlier steps after introducing Step 4. But these last chapters also do more. They complete the incremental, almost unnoticeable stages of development from the amazing simplicity of the early lessons to the complexity of writing an argumentative theme or a research paper. Thus, at the end, by sure degrees, the making of an effective expository writer is complete. And the lesson will not be forgotten.

If the book is an actual course, what is left for the instructor to do? The question answers itself in the reading. At each stage the student needs practice in doing the steps—in class discussion as well as in homework. The instructor is needed to provide intelligent, precise criticism of the student’s writing, just as Kerrigan provides for the examples in the book. Step 1, for instance, asks students to write a sentence of a certain kind. The class needs discussion of many such sentences so that students will have a sure sense of which ones work.

One of the virtues of Writing to the Point is that it has no pointless, supernumerary exercises. For the most part, the students’ assignments are simply to write themes or parts of themes, or to improve on themes already written. If there is opportunity for further assignments, the instructor can then simply ask for more of the same, because the way to learn writing is by writing.

Moreover, the Kerrigan method doesn’t get dull. Each set of sentences X, 1, 2, and 3 is a stimulating intellectual challenge for the instructor as well as the student: a triumph if all the sentences stay on the point, an exercise in revision if they do not. Each theme is a similar exercise in virtuosity. The method is simple, but its application to the actual matter of writing is endlessly challenging, and the visible development of students into sure practitioners is a recurring satisfaction. And Kerrigan’s book itself offers challenges to conventional nostrums about teaching writing, challenges that stimulate thinking anew each time the instructor guides a class through the Kerrigan experience.

This book does not attempt everything. It does not attempt to teach grammar, style, or the research paper, for example. Students who have trouble writing a grammatical sentence, or wish to improve the flow of their prose, or need the rules of research documentation, will have to turn to books designed for those purposes. But important lessons on all three topics appear in Writing to the Point just where experience shows students are most ready for them.

To Kerrigan’s own years of teaching, this Fourth Edition adds the wisdom of more than a decade of using all three earlier editions at MacMurray College. Those at MacMurray who helped me in this revision included both new and experienced instructors, with a combined 54 years of teaching Writing to the Point. Equally helpful were five reviewers from other institutions, who gave the draft of this revision the painstaking scrutiny it needed—and the benefit of their similarly long experience with the Kerrigan way. The result is a far better edition than any solitary reviser could have produced.

Yet this Fourth Edition will not at first glance seem different. My intent was not to make a new or different book, but to help an already excellent book live up to its fullest potential. There are changes, sometimes many changes, on almost every page, but my aim is simply to bring out the true Kerrigan that was already latent there.

In preparing this edition, I was assisted by MacMurray colleagues Richard McGuire and Philip Decker, with whom I have shared Kerrigan since the first printing of the First Edition; Elizabeth Crowley and Robert Seufert, who joined us during the Second Edition; and Ulrike Jaeckel, who came along for the Third. Eugene Laurent, who had also been with us for the first, died just before work began on the Third Edition that is incorporated here. At MacMurray Colllege, much-appreciated help has come at crucial times from Jeff Decker, Edwin Ecker, Richard McFate, and Teri Metcalf. At Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, my special thanks go to Paul Nockleby, who brought us all together, and to Bruce Daniels and Merilyn Britt, who guided the book into its final shape.

Finally and happily, I acknowledge the help of the man who started it all, William J. Kerrigan. This is my own revision, but it remains quintessentially his book. It has been a great pleasure to make the acquaintance of a person who is almost as fascinating as the persona of the book, a man who might be called the Nikola Tesla of English composition. After you read the book (and Chapter 9), you’ll know what I mean.

Allan Metcalf


excerpt from:
Writing to the Point
Fourth Edition
William J. Kerrigan
Allan A. Metcalf
ISBN: 0-15-598313-X
New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1987


1990 edition:
Lawrence Erlbaum, 1990
ISBN-10: 0805808531
ISBN-13: 978-0805808537


Writing to the Point Fourth Edition Table of Contents
Amazon review Kerrigan & home program
Writing to the Point, first installment
William J. Kerrigan and the sentence
writing and swimming: pp 1 & 2 Kerrigan
writing and swimming: pp 1 & 2 Kerrigan
To the Instructor

4 comments:

Tex said...

I’m intrigued.

I have to confess I can be a sucker for “dogmatic certainty and authoritarian persona” if whatever is being espoused actually WORKS.

KarenA said...

I am also intrigued. I searched the online data bases of our local libraries to see if I could locate a copy, but was unable to find the book.

Catherine Johnson said...

Kerrigan's book is life-altering.

His fundamental insight is:

the sentence

A sentence is a paragraph is a chapter is a book.

Brilliant.

His book has altered my way of thinking about writing -- and it's making my book-writing better and easier.

Incredible.

concernedCTparent said...
This comment has been removed by the author.