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.