In 2012, a young Seattle engineer from Amazon contacted me, saying her boss had admonished her to improve her business writing if she expected to move up in the company. A native English speaker, she confided to me that she “hated” writing and everything to do with it. Her mother was a retired English high school teacher, and she actually carried trauma from memories of being criticized for everything she wrote.
I created a new way of teaching writing that worked for her, founded in the idea that English syntax is a code not all that different from coding languages such as Java or C++. We learned all the “strings” of English — not that hard as it uses only three types of dependent clause and seven types of phrase. Once a writer has these components down, we can look at ways to combine them and potential errors that might crop up as we do so. We look at certain sentence templates, combinations of phrase and clause that can be used to incorporate a variety of information into relatively simple, flowing sentences — like this one! [main clause + modified appositive phrase].
This young engineer now serves high up in that company and has sent me perhaps a dozen colleagues over the years who also seek to improve their writing. “Mathy” people tend not to think of writing instruction coming from a writing coach who quantifies options and moves as concretely as I do, and they are delighted when the process starts to click. Many have told me, “Now, when I go to write an email or create a doc, I feel like I have all these tools or patterns available to me — so much more than the talky “X is Y” sentences I used to string together!”