Writing Templates

December 04, 2003

I am not a good writer: I have trouble formulating my ideas, I ramble, I get discursive, I describe when I should be arguing. I also write for a living. It is a tricky combination.

I find that I have to struggle with my structure, and one of my more powerful writing tools is to build a set of bullet points laying out my argument. I then break a chapter into running headers with one header per bullet point. Each running header, has its own little introduction, body, and conclusion. If I do it correctly, the 60 page chapter is compelling, tightly argued, and coherent. If I do it poorly, and I often do, then all the running headers want to be second and the chapter bloats and becomes unreadable. So, I tear it down and begin again. It takes me a lot of time to write anything worthwhile.

Via Kevin Drum I see that folks are making fun of the Texas "educational miracle" for lowering its testing standards and then declaring victory. One of the things that folks are snarking is the five paragraph essay, a tightly structured piece with an introduction, three supporting points, and a conclusion. In its strict form, the topic sentences for the body paragraphs form the entire introduction and conclusion, and each body paragraph also has exactly three supporting statements.

This is the first time I have ever seen that particular writing template defined. Oddly, however, I have had students ask me if I was expecting them to use a five paragraph essay. This is because I push the students to: lay out an introduction where they say what they are going to say; write a series of body paragraphs where they make a point, introduce evidence, and explain that evidence; and then build to a conclusion where they take their initial premise and show how they have expanded or improved it. Of course, I also tell them to brainstorm, then write the body, then conclude, and finally write their introduction.

The problem with the five point paragraphs, I think, is that there is mechanical structure and then there is a structured argument. The five point paragraph, or any other mechanical rules for construction, work because they simplify decision making and provide a model. Five structured points is a wonderful improvement over the stream-of-consciousness that many kids write with. To see what I mean, go to new.blogger.com and click on some of the recently updated blogs. At least one will be nongrammatical stream of consciousness; it will be unreadable. And, if the mere fact that there is a structure makes something bad, then all sonnets must be contrived and therefore worthless. In other words, structure often improves our creativity by restraining some excesses and forcing us to think about what we are doing. There are oddities to the five paragraph essay - I was taught to use two pieces of evidence for every point, footnote anything after that, and ALWAYS explain your evidence - but as a writing tool it is no worse than being told to learn to write sonnets.

But, a well crafted essay will also show structure from paragraph to paragraph just as a sonnet will advance an idea through the three rhymed subsections. Some people can take the lead sentences of their paragraphs, copy them down, and have an outline of their entire argument. Others take an outline and turn each bullet into the topic sentence of a paragraph. In both of those cases, the crucial structure is not that there are bits of evidence all proving the main point but that the ideas in the paragraphs build upon one another to lead to a conclusion. On many of the current crop of papers I complained that their paragraphs, while good, could be shuffled without changing their paper in any appreciable way. That is a sign of a poorly structured argument.

So, if the Texas schools, and other schools, are telling their kids that the strict five paragraph essay is the only way to write, then they are doing a terrible disservice to their students - especially if they are grading on form rather than content. However, having a few standard paragraph structures is a perfectly reasonable writing technique, and writing to fit a template is one valid way of breaking students from writing rambling messes.

The challenge for the schools, and for the poor folks in business or education who inherit the students from these Texas schools, is to remind the kids that structure is only one part of effective writing. Once they have the knack of tying a paper together, they need to work on argument, on grammar, on originality, and on ways to throw a curveball. Just because you have learned to write sonnets does not mean that you should only write sonnets from then on. I do think that the problem with a five paragraph essay is not the tool, it is that lazy teachers, distracted administrators, and poorly conceived exams have led the Texas schools to confuse means and goals.

Posted by Red Ted at December 4, 2003 12:21 PM | TrackBack