How does one learn to write? Not by taking writing classes, that's for damn sure.
No, people learn to write primarily by reading. When I took my first college writing class, I was amazed when people thought I wrote well. I had no idea why. I was only doing what felt right. And I knew what felt right because of extensive exposure to the written word: I've always enjoyed reading and was raised in a household that encouraged this enthusiasm. The same cannot be said of many of my students. I realized a few years back that any attempt to improve students' writing skills would flounder unless, at the same time, these students were being exposed to well-written, edited prose. How could they produce good writing if they didn't know what good writing looked and sounded like?
I devised a simple assignment: In all my writing classes, regardless of level, students must every day select a piece of published writing. The source doesn't matter: newspapers, magazines, novels, textbooks--any prose is acceptable. From this piece, they must select a paragraph or so--about 150 words--and hand copy it. That's all. Just copy it out, on lined paper, exactly. Simple enough, right?
By doing this, students read a little bit every day. More importantly, though, this slow, deliberate hand-copying forces students to pay attention to what a writer does; to the way a sentence flows; to the choices made in the construction of any piece of writing. I encourage students to write comments on these entries, particularly when they notice something "strange": "You can start a sentence with 'And'?" "Why isn't this word capitalized?" What does this '--' mean?"
Of course, there are some conditions, the most important being that students must copy the writing EXACTLY: For each entry, I "allow" three mistakes--misspellings, dropped words, punctuation errors, whatever. If an entry has more than three mistakes, a student receives no credit for it. How will I know if there are mistakes? Well, I explain, if an entry from a professionally edited, published piece of writing has, say, five spelling errors, I'm going to assume the mistakes belong to the student. If the student shows me the original piece, and if, in fact, the errors appear in the original, I will gladly give the student credit--and then tell him/her never to use that source again.
The one drawback to this assignment, though, is that I must actually READ the various entries. Oftentimes, students will simply copy out pieces from the newspaper, which is fine, and occasionally I'll get Dickens or Austen--or if I'm really lucky Vonnegut or Stephen King. But I also get more of the "Twilight" Saga than I had ever hoped to read. I get automotive repair manuals. One semester, I had a student copy out long sections of a treatise on maritime insurance. I've had one student who spent the entire semester copying out the autobiography of Donna Summer, and another who has copied out selection after selection from Seventeen magazine.
It's OK though. The students still get exposure to professional writing. And I learn how to put together an outfit that's both appropriate for school AND fun and flirty.