When I travel the country, people ask me if Yale students can write. Most seem to expect a teacher of writing will complain about horrors such as dangling modifiers and dangling earbuds. I say that the Yale students I know write brilliantly, lucidly and often thrillingly. I sometimes add that, in the form that many of my colleagues and I teach called “nonfiction writing” — writing that is at once true and creative — I believe Yale students write better than students at any other university in the country.
Needing evidence, I mention a contest run by the Atlantic Monthly, which since 1997 has invited university students in America to submit an entry of up to 7,500 words to its annual student writing contest, with results announced officially in its May issue.
Beginning with a first prize and an honorable mention in 1997, work by Yale students has always led the contest in total awards. This year, as honorees just learned in e-mails from the Atlantic, Yale students for the first time swept the contest’s three nonfiction prizes, with awards going to Jialu Chen ’11 (1st prize), Isaac Arnsdorf ’11 (2nd prize) Alice Baumgartner ’10 (3rd Prize), Emily Appelbaum ’10 (Honorable Mention) and Laura Gottesdiner ’10 (Honorable Mention). These victories lifted the percentages of nonfiction awards to Yale students to their highest level: 46 percent (6 of 13) of 1st prizes, 38 percent (15 of 39) of total prizes and 32 percent (39 of 120) of all nonfiction awards (including prizes and honorable mentions) since 1997.
How can students from one university take nearly a third of all the awards and almost half of the first prizes? I believe that I know part of the answer.
Saying that I know how Yale students learn to write brilliantly runs against conventional thinking. The esteemed writer’s program of the University of Iowa states its “conviction that writing cannot be taught.” Even the great Yale teacher of nonfiction writing of the 1970s, Bill Zinsser, whose Yale class turned me into both a writer and teacher, in “On Writing Well,” expresses doubt that the great principles of good writing can “be taught.” All he seems to assert with confidence is that most “can be learned.”
Having gone out on a limb by saying that I can explain at least partly how Yale teaches writing successfully, I offer a list of a few of Yale’s secrets:
ENGAGE IN CLOSE READING FOR CRAFT
Most of us who teach writing at Yale believe that strong reading fosters strong writing, which leads to a teaching method that I call “close reading for craft.” Close reading is the core of the teaching of English literature at Yale, and indeed most Yale teaching in the humanities. Close reading for craft makes only a tiny shift, seeking to produce not written analysis but written emulation. A teaching question might ask: If this is how a great essay by George Orwell begins, or by Virginia Woolf begins, or by Malcolm Gladwell, then how should your own next great essay begin? The challenge becomes, in effect, can you match Virginia Woolf or Tom Wolfe?
START EARLY AT A HIGH LEVEL
With the course called English 120, “Reading and Writing the Modern Essay” (in which I’ve worked as course director for more than a decade), Yale may be the only university that offers a freshman course modeled on upper-level nonfiction teaching and using close reading for craft. And Yale offers 24 of them each year.
ENCOURAGE THE INTERACTION OF WRITING COURSES WITH STUDENT-EDITED PUBLICATIONS
Many of the nonfiction pieces written in upper-level nonfiction courses in the English department, including those that win Atlantic awards, become published in campus publications such as the Yale Daily News, the New Journal, the Globalist, or the Yale Herald. Many writers and editors of campus publications, in turn, enroll in nonfiction courses. Although most of the pieces that have won Atlantic awards (34 of 39) were written in writing seminars, of those 34, at least two-thirds were written by students who were contributors to Yale’s campus publications.
HIRE GREAT TEACHERS
In some years not long ago, the English department offered only one upper-level nonfiction writing course, but that has changed. In about 2003, Paul Francis ’77, told then-Dean of Yale College Richard Brodhead ’68 GRD ’72 , that he wanted to endow a position for “a Bill Zinsser for the 21st century” — a leader in the teaching of nonfiction writing at Yale. The dean found that leader in Anne Fadiman, our Francis Writer-in-Residence. (Students in Anne’s English 469 courses have won two Atlantic first prizes in the past three years.) In 2006, Steve Brill ’72 LAW ’75 founder of the American Lawyer magazine, funded the Yale Journalism Initiative, which supports two sections of English 467, taught by him in the fall and in the spring by Jill Abramson, managing editor of The New York Times. Recent additions to upper-level teaching are Cynthia Zarin, staff writer at the New Yorker, Carl Zimmer, writer on science for The New York Times and Jack Hitt, a contributing writer for NPR and The New York Times Magazine.
Putting this teaching together has required innovative work by Yale deans and provosts. This week when news began to arrive that Yale students had swept the Atlantic nonfiction prizes, quite a few wrote notes expressing admiration for this show of excellence by Yale’s student writers. Replying with thanks to one of those e-mails from Provost Peter Salovey, I sent a note saying this: “Lots of small choices have built a remarkable culture supporting Yale’s campus journalists and writers … We can’t tell who around here will be the next Fareed Zakaria or Samantha Power or Bob Woodward. But whoever it is will believe Yale worked to help.”
Fred Strebeigh is a 1974 graduate of Yale college and a senior lecturer in the Department of English and the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. Work written by students in his writing courses has received 25 Atlantic nonfiction awards.