Course Syllabus

Writing for Change: The Study and Craft of Environmental Writing

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Complete Syllabus

In our age of accelerated climate change, extreme weather events, and increased risks to food/water security, it is crucial to communicate environmental issues with urgency, clarity, and skill.

Whether you are writing about climate change impacts or the forests you knew from childhood, this course will help you focus on the details and techniques that can help ground your writing in a specific place, while leaving room for all scales, from the molecular and elemental to the global. You’ll learn to use the tools of creative nonfiction, the observation of a naturalist, and the precision of a scientist to further develop your written work. You will learn to utilize factual research, emotional appeal, and reflection to build a persuasive and compelling narrative.

This course is suited for science writers, journalists, memoirists, novelists, and short-story writers— or anyone looking to add elements of environmental writing to their repertoire.

How it works:

Each week provides:

  • written lectures and a selection of readings
  • discussions of assigned readings and other general writing topics with peers and the instructor

Some weeks also include:

  • writing exercises and prompts
  • opportunities to submit a full-length essay for instructor and/or peer review (up to 3,500 words and typically in weeks 3, 6, and 9)
  • optional video conferences that are open to all students in Week 2 (and which will be available afterwards as a recording for those who cannot participate)

Aside from the live conference, there is no need to be online at any particular time of day.
To create a better classroom experience for all, you are required to participate weekly in class discussions to receive instructor feedback on your work.

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Week 1: Environmental Writing: The Classics
What is meant by environmental writing? By nature writing? This first week will introduce you to writing grounded in landscape. We begin with the classics. This week, we will learn about the foundational works of environmental literature, from Henry David Thoreau to Rachel Carson. This takes us from the writing of the 1850s through the environmental movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Analyzing examples from different types of environmental writing, we will focus on imagery, the richness of detail, and the use of alternate senses.

Week 2: Environmental Writing: Newer Work Grounded in Place
The field of environmental writing includes nonfiction, fiction, and poetry. Its subject matter is diverse, and its traditions are varied. It is international in scope. This week we will explore newer perspectives and writing styles of important, environmentally-focused works. This lesson will sample environmental writing from the 1980s to the present day.

Week 3: Pacing and Scale
As we write, we can choose to slow down or speed up the pacing depending on the level of detail we use. This is often linked to scale. This week you’ll consider environmental subjects with very different lifespans, and you’ll look at them from different scales. To practice, you will compare ways of writing about the lifespan of, say, a mosquito versus the lifespan of a rock. Your draft 2,000-word essay is due this week. You will receive instructor feedback on your work, and those who wish to participate in partner peer-critique will also receive peer feedback.

Week 4: Crafting the Creative
This week’s lesson will examine the art of “finding the story” amidst all the details and facts. We will discuss narrative arc, and you will clearly identify a beginning, middle, and ending to your story or essay. We will review techniques such as narrative voice, use of dialogue, character development, writing in scene, and writing from different perspectives.

Week 5: Polishing Your Work
The time we spend in revision determines the quality of our polished products. This week, we’ll review the difference between revising and editing a manuscript, and we’ll practice some fun and effective techniques for both. This lesson will help you approach your earlier draft with an eye for improvement. Recognizing that significant improvements can accompany revision allows us to better appreciate our own works-in-progress and to offer more valuable peer-critique.

Week 6: Integrating Research
This week’s lesson will include a review of research methods and techniques. We will discuss subject-specific search engines, review the hierarchy of peer-reviewed research material, and examine repositories of documents and files available with and without subscriptions. This week will also cover the basics of interview techniques. You will learn the process of requesting public information at the state and federal levels. Your revised 3,500-word essay or story is due this week.

Week 7: The Art of Persuasion
In this lesson, we will take what we learned through our research and think about how to select and synthesize this data into forming a streamlined, logical argument. We will then discuss ethos and pathos and examine why these are critical to constructing a compelling argument, essay, or story.

Week 8: Transboundary Topics and Manufactured Items
This week you will practice environmental writing that moves beyond a single landscape or single scene. Examples of transboundary subjects include weather and climate patterns, dust storms that cross continents, pandemics, food and energy production, the Nile River from its headwaters to its delta. Writing about the built environment is another skill sometimes employed by environmental writers. Examples of the built environment include indoor landscapes, synthetic compounds, copper wiring, and lithium batteries. We will examine writing that effectively bridges manufactured items to their natural origins. This week’s writing prompt will help you consider your topics from alternative perspectives.

Week 9: Power of the Precise Word
Sometimes, utilizing the right word from a scientific discipline or from a foreign language offers an uncommon level of precision. In this final week, you are encouraged to deepen your understanding of place and fine-tune your descriptions by using precise language from the environmental sciences. Consider terms used in chemistry, hydrology, geology, and other fields. Similarly, it may be the case that a phrase or word developed in another language more precisely defines your subject. When used sparingly, this technique can bring your descriptions to life. Your polished 3,500-word essay is now due. You will receive instructor feedback on your written work, and, where appropriate, suggestions for revision.

Week 10: The Future of Environmental Writing
The field of environmental writing has evolved significantly since the 1850s. As our concepts of wildness, nature, and environment have shifted, along with our scientific and cultural discourse and values, so too has environmental writing changed. This final lesson presents some of the new and emerging thoughts on this subject from across the globe and considers the future of environmental writing. During this final week, we will focus on offering each other supportive peer critique in small groups and will discuss how to get our work published.

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Questions? Check out our FAQ page or contact our Director of Education, Sharla Yates, at yates[at]