Monday, December 3, 2007

What Is Good Writing? (Episode II)

Straits Times columnist Janadas Devan has written a follow up to his first article on 'good writing.' (Click here for Part 1.)

Allowing thinking through writing
By Janadas Devan

ONE can never predict the effect of any article one writes. Thus I was surprised by the number of e-mail and blog entries that a piece in this space, 'Good writing is not about sticking rigidly to fixed pattern' (Oct 29), elicited.

I had argued in that piece that the thesis-proof-conclusion model of the expository essay is not the only model of good writing. Indeed, one would be hard pressed to find this model informing the writings of the great essayists of the past - from Montaigne and Bacon in the 16th and 17th centuries to Shaw, Wells, Russell, Forster, Woolf, Huxley and Orwell in the 20th. If the chief purpose of the essay form is to 'think through writing', I had suggested, this model may have little relation to how minds actually think.

A few students wrote to express their relief on reading this. 'I knew my creativity was being curbed,' said one. I replied by gently suggesting that she do as her teacher says. After all, The Sunday Times will not be marking her papers.

There were also many thoughtful responses from teachers. Some agreed with me, some didn't.

Among the former, there was this from a committed young university teacher: 'I often give my students more room for creativity than say their JC teachers would allow them. Initially, I thought this would be much appreciated, but I was wrong. They didn't quite know what to do...and repeatedly insisted: 'Can you tell us what the question is?' There was no question per se because the point of the assignment was to encourage them to form their own questions, and explore the implications and possibilities in the process of writing.'

This teacher did favour the thesis-proof-conclusion model for what she called 'critical analysis papers', but found her students unable to 'break' from it to explore questions creatively. In short, they found it hard to 'think through their writing'.

Mr Jeffrey Yen, a secondary school teacher, wrote a thoughtful piece on his blog ( on the difficulties teachers face. 'One has to recognise the usefulness of traditional writing structures; it helps most students formulate their ideas logically,' he wrote. Having a 'template' to follow helps students organise their thoughts, he argued. Though teachers should encourage their students to be creative, the 'template' makes marking examination papers easier, he pointed out.

These are all valid points. Certain realities have to be accepted: There are examinations; examiners do look out for certain things; not all students have the basics right in order to be creative in their writing. A 'template' can indeed be a useful pedagogical tool to help them organise their knowledge.

But in accepting these realities, one should also account for other facts: There is no one set model for the expository essay; there never has been. Indeed, the so-called 'traditional model' is not in the least bit traditional, for no major figure in the 400-year tradition of the essay has followed it faithfully. As one Forum writer, Mr Jason Erik Lundberg, a university teacher of English who took strong exception to my piece, acknowledged, the 'traditional model' is really a 'student' model. By all means, start our children off on bicycles with training wheels: Introductory paragraph - thesis statement; second to penultimate paragraphs - one point each to prove the thesis; concluding paragraph - hip, hip, hurrah, thesis proved! But why pretend that riding a bicycle with training wheels is the same as riding a bicycle?

I taught expository writing for 15 years in the 1980s and 1990s at the college level. I found the thesis-proof-conclusion model encouraged my students to write formulaic reports. They were not encouraged to argue and think for themselves. They were encouraged to set out, display, pre-packaged information: report, not argue; disclose, not discover; regurgitate information, not 'think through their writing'. And I found that this model tended also to produce a good deal of cribbing of the authorities they had read.

So I decided to focus on their arguments: What precisely is the point you are trying to make here? How do you get from this point to that? What's the connection, the logic? What is it that you are driving at? What is at stake? It was certainly harder work than marking according to a formula. But the reward was also greater, for my students wrote more interesting essays. Sometimes they began the 'traditional' way, with a thesis statement in the first paragraph - 'the world is round'. Sometimes they began with a question - 'can the world, by any chance, be square?' And sometimes they began in medias res, in the middle of things - 'standing here, in the plain in Spain in the rain, the world appears flat'. I didn't particularly care how they began, as long as the bicycle they rode got somewhere, the route was instructive and interesting, the cyclists didn't fall off a cliff en route and the entire journey exercised their minds and mine.

Some readers wrote to me wondering if only great essayists - a Bacon, an Orwell - can 'break the rules' profitably. Firstly, there is only one rule: Argue logically. Secondly, there is no need to wait to be admitted to the Tour de France to ride a bicycle without training wheels. Consider Robert H. Frank's The Economic Naturalist: In Search Of Explanations For Everyday Enigmas. I wrote about the book three months ago. A distinguished economist, Prof Frank also teaches writing at Cornell University's Institute of Writing. He had his students find for themselves everyday economic puzzles to solve - 'Why do many bars charge patrons for water but give them peanuts for free?' for example; or 'Why does a new car costing $20,000 rent for $40 a day, while a tuxedo costing only $500 rents for $90?' - and write about them. He collected their essays in this book. Not a single piece in the collection followed the thesis-proof-conclusion formula. And yet they were all models of clarity. None among them a Bacon, the students produced useful pieces because they were allowed to think through their writing.

That is the best way to teach writing: Encourage students to think for themselves; encourage them to use their writing as a tool for thought and expression, a tool that they can use. Why would students want to learn to write well if they see no purpose in it? Insisting on the template for every occasion, for every variety of essay - way beyond the training-wheels stage - is of no aid in giving them a purpose in their writing.

Finally, let me end with a thesis statement: The purpose of 'essays' is contained in the word's etymology. The noun 'essay' derives from the Old French essai, 'trial'. Its original 16th-century meaning in English was 'an attempt, an endeavour'. The verb 'essay', meaning 'to test the quality of', 'is an alteration of assay, by association with Old French essayer: this is based on late Latin exagium 'weighing', from the base of exigere 'ascertain, weigh',' as The Oxford Dictionary Of Word Histories explains.

Essay: to weigh facts; to attempt an argument; to ascertain and probe; to place thought on trial.

The template - thesis-proof-conclusion - tends to squelch the trial phase. It encourages students to jump straight to judgments without trials. It misses the point of this extraordinary invention, the essay - a trial in writing.

2 December, 2007

I haven't explicitly known that there is such a thing as 'thinking through writing', but on hindsight, I reckon I've done that numerous times when writing stuff that is not prescribed homework, i.e., writing that is done online. I'd finish a blog entry or word journal entry, and the results would be hardly what I'd expect when I started the article. Writing then becomes exploratory; a process, as they like to call it. So perhaps it makes sense for us to encourage students to write that way to improve their cognitive and reasoning abilities. Insisting that teachers 'teach to test' might not be the best idea.

Eventually, though, we'll hit the thing that most of us dislike: exams. One needs to quickly find a thesis, stick to it, and complete the essay in one and a half hours. There is not much time for exploring, so the 'template that limits creativity' does help in this regard.

I'm now thinking that this way of writing seems to be a little similar to inter-school debate competitions. In such debates, participants are forced to accept, and argue for, positions that might be totally opposed to what they personally believe in. They are given a position (either for or against, a certain point of view), say, an hour before the start of the debate, and they really have no time to ponder over the subject for an extended period of time.

The objective is to argue for its own sake, not that there's anything wrong with that. Usually that happens too I reckon too in the exam. The student quickly decides on the direction that the essay will go and jot down an outline first. There is not enough time to explore or flip-flopping over alternative positions. (Hmm... maybe for the smart and quick students, there is enough time to do these things, including considering how many words they can churn out to ensure that they have enough to write!)

So how should a student who wants to do well for an exam and yet wants to be able to explore things through writing do? If the student feels that the work done in school is too skewed towards exams, just do as much writing out of the school context as possible such as blogging (in complete sentences please, aNz dun ritee LIkee THEse!). At the same time, it's also important to be comfortable with the exam setting, which, despite it being restrictive somewhat, is itself a sort 'technical training' that has some value. Write on!

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