Auld Lang Syne

Friday, August 24, 2012

Tricks of the Trade, or just "tricks"

We writers have our favorite strategies, our conventions, our "tricks of the trade" so to speak. For some of us it is a particular way we begin or end our writing. For others, it may be a favorite phrase or word. For still others, it is syntactical techniques that make our writing "ours" and unique.

Out of these strategies was born, at some point, the "five paragraph essay." It was certainly a hallmark for organizations like Toastmasters, who used the format to give its members a safe way to approach a speech. It goes like this: tell them what you're going to tell them, then tell it to them, then tell them what you told them that you said you'd tell them. Ah, my eyes glaze over.

This particular "strategy" gets tricky when it filters down into and pervades school systems.  The typical student-written five paragraph essay follows a toastmasters-style format, the result of which creates an atmosphere in which  students write this way all the way through from 6th grade into high school, mistakenly thinking this is how everyone writes who writes. Gone is the creative impulse, the subtle shifts in approach that make reading so pleasurable. Teachers of English/Language Arts are frustrated (the good ones I mean to say) with the lack of creativity this "formulaic" kind of writing fosters. Many of them, and many school systems are pushing back hard against this mind-numbing writing.

Writing, simply put, would not matter without readers. So many students, and perhaps their parents, have come to see writing as a means to an end: students have to do it (write, learn how to write) to meet a standard or get a grade or get a job. This mistaken idea about writing is putting the civilized world in a precarious position. We live in a post-modern society that exists almost devoid of nuance and metaphor. We revere pundits and sloganeers. We listen for just the right sound byte to support a given position.

I say that the "tricks" of writing to culture, instead of writing from inside culture, damage that culture. We, as poets, essayist, journalists, etc. need to take the long view, not the efficacious view. We need to model for those who would write. We certainly need to engage at the school level and demand that what is taught is NOT the five paragraph essay, but a playful and creative approach filled with imagery, nuance, curiosity. We need to offer ourselves as models, get into classrooms and support those teachers who want their students thinking for themselves, in and out of the box. We need to shine a light on great writing, ours and others'. What kinds of exemplars are used in the schools of your area? I have been asking [as a school board member] to see the writing standards and exemplars for our district. I finally, after months of asking, got these. I took one look (and I did not have to look far) and saw that the exemplars of writing put forth were AWFUL. When one looks at an "essay" that has over a dozen misspellings in the first long paragraph, it is AWFUL writing. To say (as this report did) that this writing "met minimum standards" is dangerously worse. Somewhere, somehow, we have set the bar so low that we accept terrible writing as minimum. It is like saying "well the student arrived at school and stayed all day, so we're good because he/she met the minimum standard." Seriously? It is so with writing. We must set the bar high enough to tantalize student writers. We must let them know that creativity, within guidelines and standards, is key. We have a remarkable facility for language and usage. Let's employ these skills toward a new way of teaching writing. Let's give students in all settings, public or private, the tools they need to be their true creative selves. Being creative is not a means to an end, it is the end itself.

Let us not play tricks on our students, in school or in private workshops. We don't need to give "strokes" for any piece of writing we see. If we can be constructive in our criticisms and offer real strategies that live on the page as vibrant and nuanced and unique, we will foster that kind of critical thinking in all areas. Of course this begs the question of how much and what kind of criticism we give. It is fine to praise the effort, but without a way forward through revision and a tool box of strategies used daily by those of us who write now, it is empty praise and not at all helpful. In large part, it has to do with how we FRAME the message. We know the pitfalls in writing. We circle the edges of those daily. But we have developed ways to monitor our own writing, have learned  to enlist the help of our writing peers, and have come up with methods for revision. We ought to share those strategies with those who will stand on our shoulders in the future. It is largely up to us who live with our writing every day to set the example by doing, and by sharing and mentoring. We have passion for writing. Let that infect all who look to us for how it's done.


  1. Carol,
    I hope you've sent this to all the superintendents of schools in Maine. Better yet, send it to the head of the U.S.Dept.of Education!!! This blog is essential reading for teachers,and parents, everywhere. When David taught in A NYC college, he was horrified at the lack of basic writing skills in graduate as well as undergraduate students.

  2. I too was horrified to see the lack of basic skills. I am cheered here in Rockland because the faculty are well aware and are poised to do something serious about this problem.

  3. Carol, you probably know how I feel about the five paragraph essay. heh What do you think about the method of "norming" on the college campus? That method where comp instructors have to sit in the same room and read the same essays and assign them numerical scores (no comments) based upon a rubric mandated from somewhere above. Then said instructors have to sit in the room until they all compromise and agree on the same grade.

  4. I think this is a false thing, to be protested and rebuked by anyone with a brain and a conscience.