How to Teach Writing and Research Skills in Fifty Words

Charles Cohen's picture

The fifty-word sentence is an exercise that can maximize students' opportunities to learn and practice writing and critical skills while minimizing instructors' assessment time.

How to teach writing effectively is a conundrum; the enterprise is labor-intensive, and faculty seldom have time to spare. I would like to share my approach to this challenge, which develops an insight I gained at a workshop led by Brad Hughes, now Director of the Writing Center. Believing that students learn more from assignments that are frequent rather than long, I pose throughout the semester a directive—say, “summarize an author’s argument”—to which students must reply using a single sentence of no more than fifty words.

This exercise maximizes the number of times students have to compose their thoughts and teaches them to Get To The Point. At the same time, it minimizes the instructor’s grading time. In my upper-division courses, where I evaluate all work myself, I can assign two five-page papers (plus optional rewrites) and an essay final examination while still finding time to schedule as many as eight or nine such assessments. Moreover, this format can develop research as well as writing skills; consider what capacities a student must rev up to complete the following task:

Using the census of 1624/25, calculate the ratio of servants to Virginia’s total population and also the ratio of slaves to the total population. In one sentence NOT EXCEEDING 50 words (or else ...) that includes the figures you computed, hypothesize the reason(s) for the magnitude between them.

No other device I know improves students’ writing and critical skills so efficiently…not to mention that it also monitors if they are doing their homework.

For a fuller explanation, see the short article in the Fall 2008 issue of Time to Write, the newsletter of the UW-Madison Writing-Across-the-Curriculum program:
For some outstanding examples, see the link at, and, for examples of assignments, see my syllabi at

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clcohen's picture

an unsolicited testimonial

What greater gift can a teacher receive than thanks from a student for a lesson well-taught. And how much more satisfying can it be when you've just posted that lesson for all to see and receive an unsolicited testimonial such as this (like Dave Barry, I am not making it up):
Hello Professor Cohen,
I was in no way remarkable in the Colonial North America course that I took with you several years ago, but I got a lot out of those damned 50 word, one sentence summaries of entire books. I am still horrible at grammar (there is irony in here somewhere), but I now, in fact, excel at thesis writing. So much so that I am working on MFA in (Creative) Writing. I now get to stare down young English students and push them into following the grammar rules that I constantly flub and force them to write the exercises that I hated. But hopefully they will get as good at it as you encouraged me to be. Thank you. It was horrible at the time, but unendingly useful now. Thank you.
Feel free to show this to current students as proof.
I am currently reading "[title omitted]," by [author’s name omitted]. Sigh. Perhaps Mr. [X] could use a creative writer to help him find his storyline. :)
Thanks for everything, Beth Mattson
San Francisco, CA
[email, February 12, 2009]

shawl's picture

Excellent Solution

I think this is an excellent solution. Providing students frequent opportunities for practice AND feedback is so important to the learning process. Thank you for sharing an efficient way to do this!