Unlearning Academic Writing

In this recent blog post, “Blogging is the New Persuasive Essay,” Shelly Wright argues that learning how to write for blogs is just as important (if not more so) as learning to write the ever-present 5-paragraph persuasive essay. I was cheering as I read this post!


In the last few years, I have spent quite a bit of time “unteaching” academic writing. My previous job was training people to maintain websites. Much of the coaching was about how to write for the web. The staff I work with are all college-educated, very well versed in that 5-paragraph persuasive essay. But guess what? That doesn’t work online, as Wright suggests.

Academic writing is the antithesis of good online writing. As Wright says, good blog – or web – writing has short, succinct paragraphs. Quotes and references can be just links. It’s important to not be long-winded. I’m famous around work for the saying: “Write it. Cut it in half. Cut it in half again.” (I cannot take credit for this saying. Credit goes to Ginny Reddish.) You need to think about how you write link text — it is NOT ok to write “click here.”


Digital communication gives us many more tools with which to express our meaning, including images. It is important to include images to convey meaning or to add context to online communications. (I fully admit my blog is not a good example of this. I am a text-based learner, and am trying very hard to add visuals!)

This addition of visual communication opens up the world to many more learning styles. A student who may not be good at stringing words together may be brilliant at conveying meaning by putting visuals together, making a movie, or through music. Expressing meaning through these other modalities is no less complex – I would argue it involves far more higher level thinking skills than just writing a 5-paragraph essay. A documentary requires a script, visuals, and music. The same process has to happen: picking a point, forming a thesis, and supporting your thesis with evidence.


So why limit students to the 5-paragraph essay? I would like to hear a rationale for limiting a student’s means of expression to text when all these other tools are available. The excuse of “we’re preparing them for college” doesn’t hold water anymore (I’ve heard this excuse with my own kids.

It’s the opposite. We owe it to these kids to teach them to express themselves in many modalities. Yes, they should write 5-paragraph essays. They should also be assigned visual ‘persuasive essays,’ such as documentaries, photo essays, exhibits, speeches, etc.

As an employer/employee, I can’t say I’ve written many 5-paragraph essays in the last 25 years. Have I had to “persuade” someone about something? Of course. Have I had to support a point in a meeting or presentation? Of course. The skills of a 5-paragraph essay are essential – but so is learning to present it in 21st century communication styles.