Saturday, November 17, 2007

What Is Good Writing?

From time to time, the newspapers publish articles by parents who seem to be a little upset about how their kids are doing in school, particularly due to how teachers mark their homework and assignments. The following is from Straits Times columnist Janadas Devan.

Good writing is not about sticking rigidly to fixed pattern
Teachers' favourite formula of 'thesis, proof, conclusion' jumps to wrong conclusion that all essays must be written this way without exception

By Janadas Devan

MY SON returned from school the other day, distraught. An essay he had written, one which his parents had assured him was well done, had received a poor grade from his English teacher.

It lacked an introduction and a conclusion, the teacher had told him. 'You must have an introduction that sets forth your thesis,' the teacher had said. 'And you must have a conclusion that summarises how you have proven your thesis.'

Where do such theories of good writing come from? I remember some of my own school teachers, more than 40 years ago, telling me similar tales:

Introduction - tell your readers what you are going to say. Body of essay - proceed to tell your readers what you had said in your introduction you were going to tell them. Conclusion - remind your readers of all that you had said you would say and did say.

For 40 years - and for all I know, perhaps for 400 years - this model of the expository essay has been circulating in the English-speaking world, and I haven't the faintest idea where it came from.

Sir Francis Bacon? His essays often do start with a clear thesis statement: 'Studies serve for delight, for ornament, and for ability', begins one. But they don't end by returning to the beginning: 'So every defect of mind may have a special receipt,' ends the same essay, a conclusion that is not foreshadowed by the beginning.

Bacon's 'thesis statements' are just points of departure, the first steps in the argument, not advance summaries of what is yet to unfold. He proceeds by examining that initial point - probing it, undressing it, turning it inside out - to reveal its unsuspected dimensions. As a result, by the time we get to the end, the conclusion is a total surprise. Bacon's essays are, in essence, contraptions for discovery.

But perhaps our thesis-proof-conclusion model derives from a more modern source. Bacon, after all, is 17th century. Perhaps a 20th century essayist like George Orwell is the origin of this model.

He isn't. One would be hard pressed to find a conventional 'thesis statement' in any of Orwell's pieces. Instead, he usually starts in medias res, in the middle of things, with an arresting incident, observation or fact.

'Soon after I arrived at Crossgates ... I began wetting my bed,' is how a delightful account of his boarding-school days begins.

'In Moulmein, in Lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people - the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me,' is the first sentence of one of his most famous pieces, Shooting An Elephant, an account of his stint in the Imperial Police in Burma.

My favourite is the beginning of an essay on Marrakech: 'As the corpse went past the flies left the restaurant table in a cloud and rushed after it, but they came back a few minutes later.'

What would I not give - what would any writer not give - for that sort of beginning? Unfortunately, one cannot give anything in particular to get that sort of thing; one has to be sensitive, observant, receptive - in a word, talented - to be gifted with something like that.

Orwell's essays usually unfold naturally from such striking observations or incidences. His pieces do not have that thesis-proof-conclusion structure that many teachers seem to think is the only possible model of expository writing. They have an argument, but the argument is in the telling. They conclude, but the conclusion is not foreshadowed in the introduction.

There are occasions, of course, when the thesis-proof-conclusion model is appropriate. If one is writing a massive report on the Singapore economy, say, it would be useful to provide what nowadays is called an 'Executive Summary' at the beginning. If one is writing a study of how Workfare is working in Singapore, say, it would indeed be useful to provide a conclusion summarising one's findings. And if one is writing up a lab report on an experiment, well, the thesis-proof-conclusion model would be perfect.

But reports and studies and lab reports are not the only kinds of writing our children may find themselves doing when they grow up.

Some may become novelists. I can't be certain about this, but I don't think a novel that begins with a thesis statement, followed by proof and concluding with a QED, has ever been written.

Some may become journalists. The best reporting always begins in medias res, for that is the nature of the news. Reporters have to learn to organise their facts, but they do not organise their facts by forcing them into the thesis-proof-conclusion model.

The point is writing is various. There is no one model of organisation to fit all its varieties. That teacher who told my son that his essay must have an introduction and a conclusion - and that these must always follow a prescribed form - did him a disservice. He was not teaching my son to think through his writing; he was telling him to merely disclose his findings, as in a lab report.

'What is writing? Simply, writing is how minds think,' writes Susan R. Horton in Thinking Through Writing, one of the most useful textbooks on expository writing that I have seen.

How does one get ideas? How does one develop them? How does one organise them? How does one think through one's writings so that one's readers can follow one's thinking? These are the skills that writing courses should try to impart to students, Horton suggests.

My son's essay, the one that got a poor grade, did have a 'thesis statement' - only, it came at the end, when he finally arrived at the point he had been working to get to from the beginning. The piece did have a conclusion - only, my son had aimed for it from the start. They were all there - thesis, proof and conclusion - but as an entirety, the essay as a whole. That is as it should be.

The teacher did not see this because he was in the grip of a model that bore little relation to how minds actually think through writing.

Straits Times/28 Oct, 2007

Here's another from the Today newspaper about an expatriate Noelle de Jesus who sends her kids to a local school:

...I also found the rather quantitative methods used in my kids' English classes highly suspect. If my daughter tried her hand at a complex sentence with modifying phrases and she made a mistake, the entire sentence was marked incorrect and points were taken off. This made her decide to stick with easy noun-verb sentences.

As for my son's compositions, they were edited subjectively. His quirky, still grammatical sentences were red-penned and in many cases, falsely labelled incorrect...

School Experiment That Failed/Today/Weekend/17 November, 2007/(Full article)
Here's another extract from one of my favourite books on writing.

As children, we learn new words at an astonishing clip. Words give us leverage: "Me go with Mommy!" Or, "Mommy stay." Children are specific and direct. They don't beat around the bush... They are filled with passion and purpose. Children trust the power of words.

If words give us power, when do we start to lose our power over words?... My guess is that for most of us school is where this sorting starts to happen. School is where we are told, "You're good with words..." The neat teacherly scrawl, diagonally written across the top right hand corner of the top page of , say, a geography report on Scandinavia, "Well written."

Well written-what does that mean? In school it usually means clear, orderly thinking. Neat enough grammar. Lots of orderly facts... Very often it does not mean words that sing off the page, innovative word combinations, paragraphs of great free associations and digressions-all the gifts a young poet or novelist might have and want to use but not find useful under the scholarly discipline of an academic paper.

What happens when writing of that kind shows up in school papers? Too frequently, it's another margin quote, this time negative: "You stray from the topic a bit here" or "Stick to the point." It is a rare teacher who takes the time and care to praise the kind of writing that doesn't fit into an academic paradigm.
It's as though scholastically we're on a pretty strict diet: "Not so much pepper here."

Not so much pepper. Not so much spunk. Not so much humanity, please. Academically we are inclined to a rather pedestrian prose denuded of personality and passion, perhaps even a bit elevated in tone as if writing is something to be done only from the loftiest of motives, a kind of distillate of rationalism trickled onto the page...

~The Right To Write, Cameron, J.
This all seems very depressing! As an English teacher and a fan of quotes supposedly by Mark Twain, I may need to change my motto to...

"Never let me get in the way of your education!"

Now this may not be all that far fetched. If my students look at the red stuff that is liberally administered on their homework and become so discouraged that they don't feel like continue learning English for the rest of their lives, it just may be reasonable for them to just stop being so affected by the teacher and stop 'letting skool get in the way of their education.'

Devan's problem is something that has interested me for a while now. He does not agree with the 'rules' of writing and the way argumentative essays are marked. I don't have access to his son's scripts so I do not know if the low scores are justified or not. We do know that he has tried to break away from the 'traditional' way of writing such essays. However, it's not clear whether the rest of the essay is bad despite, or in spite of, this.

Assuming that this person writes well, has few grammatical and collocation issues, and that his only transgression is this 'stylistic' issue of not following the usual presentation of an argumentative essay, how do teachers mark this? I guess usually I would look at it 'holistically'. If the person writes as well as Bacon, I reckon most teachers would recognise that.

I want to write a bit more about the bigger picture. It's not that simple. I think one has to recognise the usefulness for traditional writing structures; it helps most students formulate their ideas more logically, since, well, to argue about something, it helps to be a little logical. (I do recognise that Devan believes the 'wrong' way of presentation is actually the more logical way of writing. Still...) This usefulness is somewhat amplified in the examination setting which requires students to engage in very unnatural forms of writing. (Yes, to sit in a room writing an essay with no friends to speak to and no Internet or dictionary to refer and consult is quite unnatural to me. We never do this anywhere else except in school!) This can be helped by a 'template' that students follow so that they don't go out of point or incoherent within the time limit.

Besides the strange conditions placed on students, the work for teachers is also quite surreal. Hundred of scripts, and in the case of the Cambridge exams, marked by teachers who might not be aware of the local 'styles' and context of writing. The reality is that it is hard work marking so many scripts in such a short period of time. Anything that annoys the marker should be avoided as far as possible. If the person marks a hundred scripts that more or less follow the traditional 'logical' presentation, and then on occasion finds a script that does not seem at first sight to be very coherent and logical, especially if there are other issues such as grammar errors and so on, guess who the disadvantaged person is?

Now, does this mean that students should 'sell out' in exams and write the most conventional and uninspiring essays of their lives? I don't necessarily think so. However, I think that it is important to realise that getting good marks does not just involve the writing per se. It involves cultural issues, the realities and psychology of marking, the beauty of the person's handwriting and so on. If one wants to 'trailblaze', one needs to be smart going about it and to consider the practical consequences. Perhaps this 'structure' of presentation is not a big deal per se, especially if the rest of the student's work is really good. So it is up to the student to decide whether 'breaking the rules' is worth the effort. (It takes talent to be able to break the rules and get away with it at the same time!)

OK, I shall end here. This entry doesn't follow the prescribed structure of an argumentative writing because it doesn't need to. Good bye! :)

Update(!): This entry is referenced by Mr Devan in a follow-up column. Click here for more.


Anonymous said...

Every student has had an occasion like the little boy. That is what we learn from, our mistakes, and makes us better writers. The model of essay writing has probably come from all of the ideas that these people have come up with over the many years. All of the models they wrote may have been correct when they were alive but has changed over years. The different forms that deal with the other nations are just a difference in cultures and what is accepted by the cultures. The different types of writing (newspaper, essays, etc.) all have different forms of writing that are needed for the piece. When kids write papers they need a basis to go off of. If they never learn the essentials then they will never get the point of writing. If every kid had his own style of writing then there would be no point in having an English class to help you with writing.
--Alex Smith--

Anonymous said...

I agree with both of the authors on this subject. Jonadas Devan discussed the differences in writing expectations depending on a person’s occupation. I agree that not every person is entitled to follow a set pattern of writing. The writing structure varies from that of a lawyer versus that of a journalist. The question seems to be whether or not a general structure should apply to all forms of writing. Jeff Yen discussed the necessity for a basic structure. As children we learn a writing structure to keep our ideas in a set order. Over the years, the constant mistakes in a person’s writing are what increases his or her ability to write better papers. This also helps to avoid confusion on how to formulate the ideas and appropriate wording into a person’s writing. Without a proper structure there is greater confusion for a writer to know how to write. As a writer, it is important to let the reader know when our papers begin, change ideas, and end. These aspects included in the paper are what make it an exceptional form of writing. Also, without a guideline to follow, a teacher does not have a basis in which to grade the paper. A teacher should be able to pick out the introduction, thesis, and conclusion sentences as well as the transition sentences. A superior paper requires the use of proper punctuation, literary techniques, and how well the writer is able to follow the structure required. A writer that can master these skills is on task with the requirements of a proper paper.
-Elisa Huebert-

Anonymous said...

I have to say, Jeff Yen's explanation really makes sense.It's not so much that students have to write in a uniform manner with an introduction and conclusion properly labeled, its more about the convenience of the paper's structure.Many teachers in today's public schools don't have the time to adapt to every student's writing style.The point of the uniform structure is for grading purposes and possibly to teach the basic fundamentals of "good" writing.In grade school one does not tell a six-year-old to go home and write a three page essay on their favorite stuffed animal, the child is asked to write a sentence or maybe even a paragraph that describes the animal.Their are few people out there whom did not learn the basic rules of writing before they perfected their own style.I believe even F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby numerous times before he considered his work good writing.So, even though this uniformed writing seems like a creative block for children, it may actually help them become better writers by teaching them to format their ideas logically and possibly find their own writing style.Furthermore,I believe Jonadas Devan is being a little bias.She blames the teacher and the oh so wrong rules of essay writing instead of seeing any of her child's faults in writing. Though, I do understand that her child had a well written paper formated differently than assigned, if the assignment is to write a paper with a introduction and conclusion in their "proper" places, the child seemingly didn't follow directions.I too tend to write things differently, I hope to mean unique, but as Jeff Yen said, if the teacher is used to 30 papers written one way and a different format comes up, the student is penalized. I believe we all know what our good work is, the key is to show it to others in a way that they can understand, even if that means tweaking our style to fit another's.
-Kimmie Fox-

Anonymous said...

This is a strong argument for english teachers especially. I agree the most with Elisa Hubert and the fact that styles do very and if every student was to write with whatever structure they felt was right for them, then a teacher would wind up with way to many things to grade like what Hubert mentioned. I do agree that everyone needs to learn from their mistakes, but one may also wonder whether or not the teacher was in fact too harsh, or whether the mother refused to see the mistakes in her son's perfect paper. I believe that there should be a basic structure to follow, but how strictly it is followed should be based on the age of the writer, the audience, the purpose of the paper (whether it is an essay or not), and who the writer is (a second grader, a high schooler, a journalist, a grad-student). A basic guideline to follow helps to keep the writer's mind from wandering to completely different topics, and staying on task, but yet once again, I believe it all depends on what kind of paper it is. Some papers are written to please others, while some are just written out of a formulated opinion, which if it's an opinion paper, it should be respected and regarded less harshly due to the fact that it is a person's opinion. I'm not saying that all papers are opinion papers, but some are. Writing not only comes from the head, but from the heart as well. As for the little boy, I feel bad for him, but he shouldn't give up just because one teacher was harsh about a paper. He needs to keep writing, and "improve" to somewhat please the teacher. - Charity Green - English 151, Rhetoric As Argument

Anonymous said...

This article gave me a new insight on how English teachers might feel while grading a student's paper. On the other hand, I am currently a student, and at times it frustrates me when teachers give me a bad grade on a paper when I feel I should have got a better grade. I agree with Janadas Devan when he talks about his son receiving a bad grade. I am not big on writing papers the "correct" way. There are times, as the teacher said in the article when you need to write in a logical form. For example, when writing an informational piece, or a lab report. I feel those need a straight forward introduction, body, and conclusion. But if you are writing a novel, or an article for a magazine you are writing what you feel. Writing is for expressing one's self and in doing that you have to have your own writing style. I feel like English teachers have such an important role in molding a child’s mind. They have the power and tools to let them experiment their writing skills. Though in doing that teachers have to give them a set form to learn from. There is always a time and a place for writing the "right" way and there are times when you can write your own way. There is a fine line between those two. It is an issue that may only be solved by "arguing." All in all I have to agree with both sides of the argument. Both Janadas Devan and the English teacher make valid points.
-Savannah Haskell-English 151

Anonymous said...

What i think about these people points of views are so true. The reason for this is because there are many forms of writing that people use. For example like it said in the wrighting there are teachers that expect to have a certain kind of writing but they don't think by doing this they are reducing the idea of expresion that the student should give to the paper to make it exciting. I also understand that teachers have certain rules in writing papers and that good also for when they have to wright a formal kind of paper but, they should think of letting student to write on topics that they find intersting and that they can write there paper any way. By tell kids in younger education that they did a poor job in their paper and that they need lots of improvement really makes them feel really dumb after they spent a while on the paper trying to make it sound great and by having a teacher tell them that they need help really destroys the effort on childs abilty to try even better because they already think that there not good enough in writing papers. But the authors in these paper make really good examples of both issues but i still think that some teachers should find a way how to explain to student should make there paper even better and not to tell them that they did a poor job on their paper that they probley did a hard job doing it.
-Paz Monroy

Anonymous said...

I feel that papers reflect the author by the way they are constructed and organized. Confining writers to the specific thesis, proof, conclusion format that Devan was rightfully complaining about doesn't allow people to express themselves the way they want to. When I right papers, I usually begin with the body first. I find that I can get my point across clearly with just this simple set of paragraphs and when I try to add an introduction and conclusion that I'm merely adding unnecessary, repetitive information. Yet my English teachers for the past 6 or so years have drilled into my brain the importance of "slam dunk" introductions and endings. It's frustrating to me when I feel that this over-complicates my essays. On the flip side of the coin, I also agree with Jeff Yen that sometimes you have to just cooperate with teachers who are used to a certain structure. The format teachers require also happens to be the standard for state writing tests, ACTs, and AP exams. So in the long run the sometimes cramping format of thesis-proof-conclusion has helped me get better scores on all three tests. I can still experiment with style despite teachers' requirements so I really have no problem writing either way. Ultimately I agree the most with Yen that sometimes you have to bend to certain rules in order to succeed in other areas. This concept is practiced not only in schools and with writing, but also in the business world with workplace rules. You may not agree, but the standard applies to everyone.
-Lisa Oberlander, English 151 UNL

Anonymous said...

The question "what is good writing" has many answers with the reader being the judge of what kind of writing is good to them. So in my opinion both of the writers are correct about what is good writing.Janadas Devan says that good writing is not only dependent on perfect structure, but it is also dependent on the quality of the content. The quality of the content is very important because, if a writer has perfect structure but the writing is dull it turns the reader off to the writing. Many great minds in the history of mankind were not good with structure but, had brilliant ideas. So, who are we to say that the writing is terrible just because the grammar is not perfect? One of the problems with the education system in the United States is the it is too standardized and that creativity is not awarded
like it should be. Because creativity and trying something new and not with the norm is helps with progress in our society.
On the opinion of Jeff Yen,I can also see his point with using good structure in order to have good writing. I understand this because with out being organized the reader will get lost and confused with the writing. Without good sentence structure a sentence can be in absolute shambles. So all in all, both of the opinions were correct and I believe that writing need both to be considered good.

Adam Rollman
English 151
10:30- 11:20

Anonymous said...

I agree with Kimmie Fox when she states, “public school teacher’s do not have time to adapt to everyone’s writing,” to me that sums up the entire article. However sad this may be, teacher’s do not (or choose not to) have time to reward creativity or spend extra time looking pass the missing period or wrong capitalization. Teacher’s in high schools are preparing students for the ACT and SAT so no longer can students focus on what may be beautiful writing or on the next Shakespeare they must focus on a score. On the other spectrum, when children are younger they need to learn the basics. While medias res is an interesting way to start I do not believe George Orwell started his writing so eloquently. In order for a writer to improve their skill and make such interesting beginnings or ends they must first understand the basics of beginning-middle-end so they are able to manipulate it later. I do not believe that thesis-proof-conclusion is as important as beginning-middle-end, because a writer can write beautifully without a thesis or conclusion statement but without a middle or end per say then the story is incomplete. Also, although some teachers may be sticklers about grammar in the beginning stages of a child’s writing it is only because when they allow that child to skip the fundamentals it affects an audience when reading the child’s piece. I do not agree that a student’s piece should be marked with misspellings and missing commas, although sometimes without correct spelling and commas the point is not so easily understood. I believe that Janadas Devan’s child’s teacher probably like many other teachers struggle with the idea of younger children thinking or writing so advanced. When students express complex ideas through writing and even if they struggle with some grammar or completing whole ideas that’s when I believe it should be considered “well-written”. While I agree with Janadas that originality and imagination are important and teachers should be more respectful and encourage this sort of writing it is also important for students to know the fundamentals of writing.
Alana Scroggins, 151

Suzanne said...

Happened upon your blog while looking for a Julia Cameron quote ... and just read your entry. I thought you might find the following article from Newsweek interesting:

Anonymous said...

In this blog about writing I believe that when you are told to write a paper, the theory of thesis, proof, conclusion is not always the best way to go. An example of this is when you’re just free writing or just putting your thoughts down on paper. But there are some instances in which this is the best way to go. For example, when are you giving a speech it is probably a good thing to tell your audience the thesis at the end to refresh their minds of your main point.