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Writing To Learn
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47 of 49 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon September 16, 2000
I think we all have a "fear" of certain subjects. For me, that fear manifests itself in the field of math. I was terrified of it in school and even now would rather discuss almost any other subject. Zinsser helps us face our fear of subjects we think we don't understand by writing. How will that help? You probably know a lot about the work you do. You could probably also write very competently about your profession. In "Writing to Learn," Zinsser shows us that writing across the curriculum (which is very prominent in education right now) can help anyone learn how to organize and present their thoughts in a logical manner so that they can be understood by those who might otherwise be intimidated by them. Zinsser gives many examples from writers that support his statement that writing is helpful in all subjects in the curriculum: science, history, music, math...MATH??? How can you write about math? It's all in Zinsser's book, which is as entertaining as it is informative.
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63 of 71 people found the following review helpful
on November 17, 2002
For those who have read _On Writing Well_, the classic guide to writing better--meaning: clearer--prose, an excellent follow-up is this book, entitled _Writing to Learn: How to Write--and Think--Clearly About any Subject at All_. With such a title little needs to be said regarding the book's purpose and content. (It focuses on a variety of subjects, from philosophy all the way to chemistry, and shows how each can be written about in clear prose _for the benefit of the writer_.)
I got the book after listening to a course by Leonard Peikoff on the philosophy of education. In it, he states that writing should be an integral part of every subject, so much so that there should be one grade based on _what_ the student knows and another based on _how_ he expresses that knowledge in writing. When I bought it, I wanted to see how this would play out in real life, were it ever enacted. Also, to be honest, I was just a tad bit skeptical that it could be used effectively with such subjects as mathematics and chemistry.
What I learned from reading the book was that writing about a variety of subjects is not only possible but of inestimable help to the student--not to mention the teacher too, as it makes their job of evaluating the status of each child's education much easier. There were many insightful comments in the book and a few precious gems of wisdom. On the topic of obscurity, for instance, Zinsser writes:
"Obscurity being one of the deadly sins, anyone might suppose that serious people would labor mightily to avoid it in their writing. But to suppose this is to overlook another force of nature that almost equals entropy as a drag on life's momentum. That force is snobbery. Yes, gentle reader (as the Victorian novelists put it when they had to deal with the darker traits), it pains me to say that there are writers who actually want to be obscure. Their principle habitat is Academia, though they can be spotted without the aid of binoculars wherever intellectuals flock. Not for them the short words and active verbs and concrete details of ordinary speech; they believe that a simple style is the sign of a simple mind. Actually a simple style is the result of harder thinking and harder work than they are willing or able to do."
Unfortunately, such witty observations do not occupy every page of the book. There are times when teaching children long-division is looked down upon because we now have calculators, others where Zinnser argues that the "creative process" is some sort of mystical mystery. And yet, with all the good attributes of this book--including a host of smartly chosen essays--these faults that I so unmercifully find can be, if not overlooked, at least seen in their proper context.
That context is not unlike one where a few small dents appear after close inspection on a good-looking sportscar. The errors may detract a little from its over-all value, but not by much (they do not, for instance, change the fact that what you are getting is worth a lot). And thus my recommendation to you, with both, would be--and is--similar: do not let any minor faults distract you, but rather place them in an appropriate context so that you can unapologetically enjoy the value that they give. With this book especially I can assure you that your investment will be wisely made and handsomely rewarded.
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29 of 31 people found the following review helpful
on August 23, 1998
Zissner entices the reader to write, write, write! It is one of the best guides to aid professors, high school teachers, and every day people to write for everything. His chapters on writing for math, science and other fields where writing is sometimes difficult for students, are practical and full of examples. Great for first-time college students.
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26 of 31 people found the following review helpful
on January 17, 2006
The book is funny at times, and recounts a few interesting anectdotes. It seems dated to me though, as its purpose is to argue for the inclusion of writing instruction accross all subjects in the introductory undergaduate curriculum. This is no longer a novel idea, and many liberal arts colleges and universities already do this. Furthermore, Zinsser's argument is purely anectdotal, and focusses on demonstrating that professors, especially in the sciences, can indeed implement writing components in their courses. Zinsser does not do much to analyze the effects of these efforts, to see if previously bad writers improved, or that the writing assignments actually helped increase either understanding of, or curiosity in, a given subject.

The book is *not* a guide on how to write, or on how, specifically, one can structure one's research and writing to best learn one's subject matter. Zinsser illustrates only the most basic principles (be specific, avoid excessive jargon).
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39 of 48 people found the following review helpful
on July 6, 2002
The book starts by expressing how we can use writing to learn, but it seems to get more into stating over and over THAT we can use writing to learn, not HOW to learn through writing, or how to teach through the use of writing. But maybe it's just me.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on September 5, 2013
In this book, the author challenges the conventional view that nonfiction writing is intended primarily to express or communicate ideas and conclusions that a writer has already formed or reached. Rather, the author contends that (1) writing can be an important method for clarifying thinking, improving teaching, and facilitating learning; (2) good writing can and should be a goal in all disciplines (not just English and literature); and (3) fear of writing is an unnecessary impediment to better education. The author supports his contentions with a combination of reflections on his personal experiences, examples of good writing from a variety of disciplines, and interesting observations about how various professionals use writing to clarify their thinking and better communicate their ideas, and various teachers use writing as a tool to get students to learn better.

This book is written for the general public and does not assume the reader has any particular training or experience with logic, grammar, rhetoric, written composition, or teaching pedagogy. The book is easy to read, and provides many interesting and thoughtful observations and ideas that do not require any particular training or expertise to understand and follow.

The book does not present a systematic approach or a structured exposition, but rather uses anecdotes and reflections on the author's personal experiences to set forth his contentions, arguments, and conclusions. The book contains an impassioned call for using writing to teach and learn, but it does not provide any organized or detailed proposals on how this can or should be done. The book would have been better if it had included a closing chapter that summarized the conclusions the author reached, and offered specific proposals on how teachers could try to use writing to improve their teaching and assist their students to learn better.

I recommend this book for anyone interested in: (1) a different perspective on writing; (2) a different approach to generating and refining ideas; or (3) a different methodology for education. Readers interested in the subject of this book should consider taking a look at V.A. Howard & J.H. Barton, Thinking on Paper, which offers a less anecdotal and impressionistic approach to the idea of using writing as a tool for thinking.
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16 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on July 29, 2002
William Zinsser has lived an illustrious life as a working writer, editor, and teacher. He draws from this extensive experience and writes to encourage the teaching of writing accross the curriculum, as well as to allay fears of writing and of subjects we don't have an aptitude for.
Zinsser provides thorough and stunning examples of good writing from diverse disciplines, sprinkled with his own insightful commentary about what makes it good.
Buy this book if only for the catalog of excellant examples of the writing of notable thinkers like Thomas Lewis, Albert Einstein, Steven Gould, and many more.
Zinser includes excellant stories of how writing in any subject area encourages clear reasoning and thinking and concise expression in reader and writer alike. Students who write learn more and know why they do. Encourage your students to do so.
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10 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on April 10, 2011
This book is a series of anecdotes and personal stories assembled in support of the idea that writing should be considered an important skill in all disciplines, and that the best way to learn and to think critically is to practice writing. It suffers from some very serious problems, though ultimately there are some gems worth discovering.

First, the book is essentially an meandering argument for why writing is important, but it doesn't actually include any data or evidence to back up the claim. If in fact it needs to be argued at all, then it needs to be argued with more than Zinsser's personal narrative. His assertions stand virtually unsupported, which leaves the book struggling to be anything more than an extended editorialization on writing as a means of learning.

Second, Zinsser makes some very surprising claims that are incompatible with my own observations. They come out of nowhere, as most of the book is filled with very superficial observervations about how it is important to write, and the obvious assertion that it is, in fact, possible to do so. Suddenly, though, there will be a passage like the following, which comes after a tirade about why a book by Richard Feynman was beneath his dignity to read:
"I finally had to stop reading [Feynman's] book. I can't handle an A-plus mind expressing itself in C-minus sentences."
This is not only a very condescending comment by Zinsser, but as someone who has read Feynman, I find it absurd. Zinsser's objections seem entirely based on the fact that the particular book he was reading (which was autobiographical in nature) uses dialogic style with words like "Fella" and "guy" when referring to the *other* pre-eminent scientists of his day. What he ignores is that to Feynman, those "guys" were his colleagues, and it is a fact that they would have been "fellas" to Feynman, and the fact that this is reflected in his text is a mere consequence of style. Zinsser, though, finds it to be unforgivable, which is clear because he refused to even read through the book. Feynman is famous for writing about the nearly incomprehensible field of quantum mechanics in a way that makes the layperson able to apprehend it. Feynman, a career physicist, has made an esoteric topic accessible to two generations. Ironically, Zinsser slams Feynman in a book largely concerning why it is so important that people in all fields (i.e. physics) need to be capable of expressing themselves in a way that is clear and accessible. Again and again, I found myself thinking that what Zinsser determines to be bad writing is writing that Zinsser doesn't like, what Zinsser determines to be unclear writing is writing that Zinsser himself doesn't understand, and what he determines to be "noise" is information he himself does not understand the pertinence of.

Finally, even conceding that most of the book can't help but be right (since it's about how we should learn to use language clearly) Zinsser's ideas weren't even remotely new even when the book was published over two decades ago. Few living students will be able to even recall a time where such an argument was relevant or necessary. This book will introduce no new information to the discussion of writing and learning for anyone who has been participating in an educational curriculum designed after the 1970's. Unless you want to read the book to enjoy Zinsser's writing style and personal anecdotes, or you actually do need (against all probability) to be convinced that writing is a useful interdisciplinary skill, this book is not even worth opening.

On the other hand, it must be mentioned that he is spot-on in his diagnosis of many bad habits of the educated and business elite in their writing styles. He exposes corporate jargon and beaurocratic convolutions as more illiterate than even very poorly formed counterparts. If I had one part of this book to keep, it would be chapter 5, in which he offers a breakdown of some of the most egregious problems with contemporary writing that are STILL (20+ years later) starkly relevant.
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17 of 23 people found the following review helpful
on December 7, 2000
Writing to Learn William Zinsser, in his instructional nonfiction book Writing to Learn, incorporates the methods of writing well with examples of good writing. A recurring theme from his work is the theory of writing across the curriculum. Writing across the curriculum is a technique that he has adapted over years of approaching topics he knows little about. By writing about something, one can learn about that subject, and that's the main point of the book. College students, for example, who have trouble in English or humanity-style classes but excel in science and math, can benefit from writing about a topic they are interested in and familiar with. With selected examples from writers who are considered the best in their field, Zinsser offers the reader a clear picture of what good topic oriented writing should be. Writing to Learn is written in the same lighthearted concise style as On Writing Well, another of the author's works. In Writing to Learn William Zinsser applies anecdotes from his liberal education combined with light humor to develop chapters that vary from writing about art to writing about mathematics and music.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
What a clever idea, to write about all subjects and not relegate writing to a grammar or English class. I always thought the made up writing assignments in English class were insipid and contrived.

William Zinsser suggests that writing can be taught using courses like science, math, philosophy, etc. He puts forth the idea that if you can learn to make other subjects clear and even fascinating. But beware, there's no easy way to teach writing.

He feels that many Americans never learn to write well because they are afraid of writing but if they can simply and clearly write about a topic that interests them, they will begin to write well.

It really makes so much sense; why dream up silly compositions when the entire fascinating world is set before you to write about? Lucky for my students that I read this before heading of to an art exhibit, they were given the privilege of writing a page about their favorite piece in the exhibit.

Zinsser's writing is so perfect that I love reading even this semi text book on writing by him!

A few nuggets that most helped me:

Simple style is the result of hard work and hard thinking.

Short is usually better than long. Zinsser writes, "Somehow it never occurs to sloppy writers that they are being rude." Subjecting a reader to flatulence is rude.

Brevity is a sign of an organized mind.

Active verbs are a writer's best friend.

Comic writing needs audacity, exhuberance, and gaiety- most importantly audacity. The reader needs to believe the writer is feeling good even if he isn't.
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