Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Writing as discovery

For my sins, I read David Brooks's column as many times a week as it appears (and for Cosimo's sins, I often read them aloud). Usually they're not worth the energy of mocking publicly, but today is an exception, because today's column opens with Brooks telling us how to write. Worse, he's telling us how he tells his students to write:

I tell college students that by the time they sit down at the keyboard to write their essays, they should be at least 80 percent done. That's because "writing" is mostly gathering and structuring ideas.

Obscured within this idiotic and irresponsible statement are two important ideas. The first is the useful reminder that "writing" involves an awful lot of thinking (and reading and researching) that goes on apart from the time spent at the computer or with pen in hand. The second is that the structure of a piece of writing is as important as the ideas it expresses.

But for most people, writing, developing ideas, and deciding on structure are mutually constitutive and not easily separable into distinct stages. Brooks seems to believe he's giving his students the same advice as John McPhee, whose elaborate and idiosyncratic approach to structure is the subject of a long New Yorker essay from last winter. But even a casual read reveals that McPhee does a tremendous amount of writing even as he's still figuring out an article's structure. Personally, I know writers who do extensive preliminary outlining and who spend days or weeks ordering their ideas in their heads and on notecards (or dry-erase boards, or whatever), but only a small number then find the subsequent writing an efficient and straightforward process. If this is true of Brooks, then that's terrific--but it isn't really what McPhee describes and it certainly isn't true of most writers. Indeed, I've found that for less-experienced writers, a preliminary outline often winds up foreclosing possibilities: students are anxious when their ideas start to go in directions that don't fit the script, and so they decline to pursue those ideas--or they keep them, but in a structure that no longer makes any sense.

Because I actually teach students writing semester in and semester out, and because I know how inclined they are to cling for dear life to whatever pronouncements previous instructors have made or whatever frameworks they've provided (DIE, FIVE-PARAGRAPH ESSAY, DIE), I don't say stupid shit like, "80 percent of your writing happens before you write" or "writing is just structuring ideas." Writing is how most of us have ideas, not simply the end result of them.

For my part, I teach students that structure is vitally important, but that the right structure isn't always apparent until later. It might make sense to start with an outline, but whether or not they start with one, they should take a hard look at the structure of their essay once it seems done and see what might need rearranging or reconsidering. (I tell them that I often outline my own essays only after I've written a good, coherent draft, in order to better see what the component parts are and to understand the larger logic at work; it's a way of stepping back to see the big picture.)

Writing is hard. Teaching writing is harder. But everyone who does both knows that there isn't a single right way to write--the right way is the way that works for you. We benefit from hearing about other people's processes and strategies and trying them on to see which might be helpful, but no method should be presented as definitive. John McPhee doesn't do that in his essay, and I'd thank David Brooks not to do it either.

And with that rant, I close out 2013. Catch ya on the flip side.


Contingent Cassandra said...

Amen, and Happy New Year/happy (or at least productive) writing.

Doctor Cleveland said...

God, Brooks is giving the worst possible writing advice for college students.

It's especially pernicious because the longer the genre, and the newer it is to the writer, the less possible it becomes to have it "done before you sit down."

No one can sit down to write a full-length book with 80% of the work already done. Unless, of course, the book is really just a cosmetic rewrite of another book.

But it's worse than that. Students typically struggle when moving to longer writing assignments than they're used to, and try to stick with a structure that's worked before at shorter lengths. They try to write a 20-page paper on the 5-paragraph plan. They try to write a doctoral dissertation like a seminar paper on steroids. Pre-planning in that situation becomes a major hindrance.

Anonymous said...

There's nothing wrong with learning simple structures, whether 5 paragraph essay or seminar paper, on the way to executing successively longer and more complex pieces of writing. But the idea that writing is the final stage is seriously problematic. We teach the 5 paragraph essay at my school and it has a function--to show support for a simple thesis. You really can plan the thing and then sit down and just write it, which is why 5 paragraph essays are always in class writing assignments for us. Ultimately it helps isolate paragraph structure for them. It really isn't about the thesis beyond there being a simple thesis.

As the argument becomes more complex in a longer assignment, there is more writing to be done on the way to the argument/thesis and then lots more writing and revising on the way to a final draft. They use the skills honed in the 5 paragraph essay to revise their paragraphs and use support appropriately. So long as they understand that the structure is a different animal, the 5PE can serve a very useful purpose.


Anonymous said...

All of which is to say you might be 80% done if you're prepared for your five paragraph essay but that is flat horrible advice for anything longer or more complex!

Flavia said...

Dr. C:

Yes, that's exactly the problem; it doesn't take the way students learn into account. Brooks is focused on what what works for him, in the genres he writes in, but doesn't seem to recognize that he's learned, over time, probably with trial and error, how he writes most effectively, or how he came to learn what worked for him. There's no reflective pedagogy here.


Oh, agreed! I'm not beating up on the five-paragraph essay as a stage of learning. I understand its purpose (and will explain that point to college students who remain too attached to the form) as giving students an early template that emphasizes several crucial ideas that remain crucial later: 1) an essay should have a clear introduction and conclusion; 2) an essay should have a governing thesis, expressed in the intro; 3) each paragraph should deal with just one topic or subargument.

The problem is that I teach mostly college-level English majors, and sometimes even in a junior-level class I'll get a six-page essay where each paragraph is more than a page long. . . and when I count, sure enough: exactly five paragraphs. Those students clearly haven't understood the larger point of the 5PE, or how a paragraph really functions.

That's not the fault of the 5PE itself or (in most cases) those students' HS instructors; students often want to cling to what's worked in the past. But as a result, I'm mindful of making sweeping pronouncements or giving students the impression that there's any one-size-fits-all approach or template.

(Also, hi! Miss your blog.)

Withywindle said...

To speak nothing of style.

Historiann said...

Ditto to Cleveland's point about this being very destructive advice for our college students. I teach my students instead that putting the butt in the seat and $h!tty first drafts are much more effective for college essay or research paper writing.

The points that Anastasia and Flavia make about genre and what it takes to write a 5-para essay or a 700-word column are also right on. When I sit down to write a blog post, for example, or a short essay for a professional publication, I might *think* that I've got my ideas all worked out, but as you say Flavia, the process of thought and written expression is mutually constituitive.

But maybe that's a confession that David Brooks doesn't change his mind or refine his argument after he starts writing? Anyway, happy new year to you & Cosimo.

Flavia said...


Not sure what your comment refers to. The difficulty of teaching style? The additional time needed to polish one's style after the content & structure are done?


Heh. I had that thought too, but refrained from that particular piece of snark.

Miss Self-Important said...

I don't know; this is pretty much how I wrote in college. Most of the work was thinking through the text and my argument, then 2-3 days of paper writing to get it down, maybe a week of writing for a 20-pager. Some new insights appeared in the process of writing, but usually bits of evidence I overlooked and not major revisions to the argument I had in mind. Clearly, this method will not get you through a book or a dissertation or even a poem, but it worked for college term papers. I'm also not sure that you can *teach* this method, but where it comes naturally, I don't see the problem with it. I also don't know who has time for producing and reviewing multiple drafts of a paper in college, but I certainly did not.

Withywindle said...

Brooks doesn't even consider style--that two different people might arrange the same facts in different ways, or use different words to articulate the same concept, that the use of style is a non-trivial component of argumentation and of understanding, that style is an essential goal of writing well, an essential means of fashioning the individual self, of recognizing and cultivating the individual self in other people. In effect, his emphasis on structure recapitulates Ramus' subordination of rhetoric to a narrow conception of self-sufficient logic and method, and leads by a straight road to the twin contempt for the word and the human being that characterizes our techne-besotted age.

This is not to deny the need to teach our beloved larvae how to structure an essay. But to teach that as an end goal, rather than a preliminary, is pedagogical malpractice--and particularly egregious malpractice from Brooks, who is himself a quite competent stylist.

Flavia said...


As I said, I know (a few) people who write this way, or who wrote like this for shorter-length projects. But it isn't universal. It was never how I wrote even 5-6pp. papers. And my point is that even if it's possible for some people to write this way, it's irresponsible to present it as the only or necessary way.

(And the discipline in which one writes may matter, too.)


Okay, thanks. Though to me the possibility "that two different people might arrange the same facts in different ways" is as much about structure as it is style. As the McPhee essay details, structure isn't an obvious or purely logical matter, but an expression of an individual intelligence. Put another way, I think some aspects of structure--though of course not all of them--are exactly matters of style.

Withywindle said...