Course Meeting Times

Seminars: 2 seminars / 1 week, 1.5 hours / seminar




"If you want readers to breathe life into your writing... then you must breathe experience into your words as you write"- Peter Elbow, Writing With Power

"Good writing is about telling the truth"- Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

"Life is an endless recruiting of witnesses"- Carol Shields, The Stone Diaries

Our reading and writing in this course will focus on the art of self-narrative or autobiographical writing. Such writing can be crafted in the form of a longer autobiography or of separate, shorter autobiographically-inspired essays. The various forms of autobiographical narrative can both reflect on personal experience and comment on larger issues in society.

This course explores, through our reading and writing, what it means to construct a sense of self—and a life narrative—in relation to the larger social world of family and friends, education, media, work, and community. What does it mean to see ourselves as embodying particular ethical values or belonging to a certain ethnic, racial, national or religious group(s)? How do we imagine ourselves within larger "family narrative(s)" and friendship groups? In what ways do we view our identities as connected to and expressed by our educational and work experiences, including experiences at MIT? How do we see ourselves as shaping and shaped by the popular media culture of our society? How do we think about our ethical and social responsibility to our friends, families and communities (large and small)? Readings will include autobiographically-inspired nonfiction and fiction.

Throughout the course, we will explore the craft of storytelling and the art of persuasion, exploring different ways to employ the tools of fiction (e.g., character, setting, dialogue) in writing creative nonfiction narratives that draw upon autobiographical experiences. In discussing some readings, we will examine the ethical issues involved in defining the boundary between fiction and nonfiction in life writing. We will also explore multiple ways in which students can write effective and persuasive creative nonfiction essays that draw upon life experiences and establish a perspective or craft an argument, drawing on outside sources and citing these sources appropriately.


This course meets MIT's CI-HW requirement.

MIT students taking this course can only receive credit if they have not taken another 21W.022 Writing and Experience class.

Required Reading

Lunsford, Andrea A. Easy Writer: A Pocket Guide. 5th ed. Bedford / St. Martin's Press, 2013. ISBN: 9781457640469.

You should also have on hand a college dictionary and thesaurus. The Oxford English Dictionary is available online through the library website for MIT students. There are also other valuable writing and research aids available online to MIT students through the library website. Check the "virtual reference" section of the library website. For general writing reference, also see Easy Writer.

Writing and Oral Communication Assignments

The goals of this course are to develop your skills in writing creative nonfiction that draws upon your own life experiences as well as secondary sources. We will focus specifically on: (a) translating the material of personal experience into vivid, reflective, well-organized and persuasive prose that expresses a clear perspective or central idea; (b) using outside sources effectively and appropriately. By the end of the term, you will have written about 25 pages of revised prose, as well as your homework assignments.

In writing from your own life experience, it is crucial that you shape your material to motivate a wider reading public. There needs to be something at stake for readers in your writing about, for example, your Halloween rituals, community service experiences or your pride in your grandmother’s dedication to her job. The motive for readers might be the desire to meditate on common human fears, desires, conflicts or life stages or to understand a particular social issue from your perspective. Remember that argument can take many forms; life experience is a type of evidence.

There will be four major writing assignments; students will submit each piece in a first version (a fully realized piece, not a “rough draft”) and later, in revised form. In each assignment, you will be asked to draw upon autobiographical material. In the first essay of 4-5 pages (typed, double-spaced), you will focus on a core aspect of individual identity. The second essay is a “personal investigative” assignment (7-8 pg.); you are asked to explore a significant question that arises from your own experience and integrate relevant material from outside sources.

The third and fourth essays (6-7 pg. each) focus on topics/experiences of your own choice. These four major assignments, as well as regular homework exercises are at the center of the course. Each major assignment will build upon the skills of the previous piece(s) that you’ve written. Reading assignments and preliminary writing exercises will prepare you for each piece that you will be crafting. Over the course of the semester, you will revise each major piece. Throughout the semester, our class will focus on writing as a process of initial crafting and revising to create works that are lively, clear, engaging and meaningful to a wider audience.

Students will also give an oral presentation and readings from their own writing at the beginning and end of the term. There is no final exam in this course.

Class Participation and Attendance / Writing Workshop

To foster a sense of intellectual community, this course is structured as a seminar. Throughout the term, we will be discussing the work of professional, as well as student, writers. It is crucial that you come to class prepared to offer thoughtful comments on assigned readings as well as helpful feedback to your peers. A vital, ongoing intellectual conversation—about our writing and that of published authors—is at the heart of the course. To be effective as a seminar participant, you will need to complete reading and writing tasks by their due dates. Please arrive at class on time and bring assigned readings with you.

The writing workshop—in which students respond to their peers' works-in-progress—is a very important part of the course. For all four major writing assignments, we will have an in-class workshop after first versions have been submitted. We will also workshop some shorter pre-draft writing assignments. My expectation is that you will respond to each other's work seriously and critically and approach each essay with sensitivity, insight and imagination. For each workshop, you will be asked to read several essays, discuss them with your classmates and respond to each piece in the form of individual letters to the writers. The ethical norm of our class is that all students writing (including your comments) is considered confidential; you should store other students’ works-in-progress in a secure place and not discuss your peers' writing (or your comments) outside the class community. This ethic, regularly practiced in professional writing workshops, enables us to develop the trust and security we need as a small writing community.

Since our class functions as a writing community and the first "public" for your essays, it is essential that you attend class faithfully. If you have more than two absences, it may affect your final grade. Under Writing Program policy, you cannot pass the course if you have more than five absences. Three latenesses (more than ten minutes) count as an absence. If you miss class because of a personal or medical emergency, please contact me (or have a dean contact me) as soon as possible. Do not miss workshop classes except in an emergency.

Policy on Electronic Devices in the Classroom

All students in our classroom community have an equal right to a distraction-free educational environment, which is most conducive to learning. The unnecessary use of electronic devices in the classroom ("multitasking") is distracting and unfair to other students and the instructor.

Within our classroom, laptop computers and other electronic devices may only be used to access online readings or assignments, in the event that a student is unable to bring a print copy. Otherwise, laptop computers and other electronic devices must be closed at all times; cell phones should always be completely turned off and stored away.

Commenting and Grading

Essay 1 15
Essay 2 25
Essay 3 20
Essay 4 20
Attendance, Homework, Participation 15
Oral presentations 5

This semester you will write four pieces, each with a different focus. Each piece will be initially submitted as a first version and later, in revised form. In reviewing first versions of your essays and stories, I will evaluate your work-in-progress and provide comments and suggestions for revision. I am also available to meet with you to discuss your writing. First versions of the first three essays are evaluated and commented on; revisions are letter graded. The first version and revision of Essay 4 are both letter-graded. Pre-draft and homework exercises will be acknowledged with a check and / or brief comments. It is important that you submit work on the due date. In the event of a personal or medical emergency, please contact me (or have a dean contact me) as soon as possible. Late submission of work without an extension may result in a lowered final grade.

To pass the course, all required work must be submitted. Your final grade will reflect the quality of your revised essays, the thoughtfulness of your homework exercises, your oral presentations, your attendance, preparation for and participation in class, and your contribution as a reader for your peers. The four major essays count for 80% of your final grade. The first essay is worth 15%, the second essay is 25%; the third and fourth essays are worth 20% each.

Class attendance, homework and participation count for about 15% of your final grade. Oral presentations are 5% of the final grade.

Writing Objectives

In commenting on your writing, I will encourage you to:

  • draw upon your own life experience to create vivid and readable prose
  • address an intelligent, public audience in an appropriate style
  • adapt the tools of fiction (setting, character, dialogue) to creative nonfiction
  • develop your ideas and narratives in an interesting, original and coherent manner
  • support your arguments with evidence, integrating and citing primary and secondary sources creatively and appropriately
  • express yourself clearly in language that uses the conventions of English grammar, punctuation, word usage and source citation
  • experiment with different narrative styles and structures


Note: This information is relevant to MIT students taking the course on campus. OCW users should look to this as an example of how writing is taught at MIT.

Over the course of the semester, I am available to meet with you in conference to discuss a particular piece or more general strategies for improving your writing. My role is as a writing coach, to offer feedback and suggest options to you as a writer, as you make decisions about how to plan and revise your work. Conferences offer a rich opportunity to extend the conversations of the seminar about strategies for successful writing. You should come well prepared to conferences to discuss your strategies for a particular essay or type of writing. You may find it helpful to see me in conference at the pre-writing stage of brainstorming and idea generation, at the stage between the first version and revision, or at the midterm point to discuss your progress for the course and your goals for the rest of the term. At least one conference with the instructor is required for the semester.

Writing / Communication Advisor: Louise Harrison Lepera

In addition to meeting with me, Louise Harrison Lepera is the writing / communication advisor for this course. Students will be required to meet with her as they (a) prepare for their oral presentations and (b) create research plans for the second major assignment, the personal investigative essay. She is also available to students who may want to consult with her on other aspects of their writing for this class.

Writing and Communication Center; Information on Writing-Related Events and Courses

In addition to meeting with me and with Louise Harrison Lepera, students may want to visit the Writing and Communication Center, which offers free one-on-one professional advice from lecturers who are published writers and experienced college educators. They offer advice about all types of academic, creative, and professional writing and about all aspects of oral presentations. They offer advice also about applications, theses, CVs, etc. The Center hosts many pages of advice about writing and oral presentations.

The CMS / Writing Program website also has information on topics of interest to students: classes, advising, requirements for majors, minors and concentrators, and public events. Annually, the program awards student writing prizes in various genres (e.g., essay, poetry, technical writing).

Academic Integrity: Avoiding Plagiarism

Using someone else's language and / or ideas without proper attribution is academically dishonest. As members of this class and the larger scholarly community, you are expected to abide by the norms of academic honesty. While a good deal of collaboration between students is encouraged in and out of class, failing to acknowledge sources or willfully misrepresenting the work of others as your own will not be tolerated. Plagiarism can result in withdrawal from the course with a grade of F, suspension or expulsion from the Institute.

Everything you submit must be your own work, written specifically to earn credit in this class. You may not "recycle" text written for another course, or before the class started.

Academic Integrity at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology: A Handbook for Students explains these issues in detail; you are responsible for understanding its contents. In class, we will also work on citing sources and discuss ways to acknowledge them properly. When in doubt, consult with the instructor.

Writing Portfolio

Please keep all four major assignments (first versions and revisions) and my comments together in a writing portfolio. Please note: your writing portfolio should be kept separately (in a binder with pockets or ring notebook) from your other material for class.

Publishing Your Work

Students are strongly encouraged to craft their essays with the goal of publication. During the semester, we will discuss strategies for planning for publication. CMS / Writing annually publishes Angles, an online journal of exemplary writing from the introductory courses; students can submit their work for consideration for publication to the Angles editorial committee at the end of the term.

MIT student publications include:

  • Angles
  • The Tech – MIT's daily newspaper
  • Rune – A biannual journal of arts and letters featuring original work by MIT students, staff, faculty and affiliates