Friday, 28 June 2013

Against Five-Paragraphing

My plea for ideas in my last blog post brought in, not exactly an idea, but an argument:  from a friend who thinks the five-paragraph essay (which I gave a back-handed slap to in passing) is a fine tool for teaching students to write.

Our discussion over this led me to think, Okay, I’ll write a five paragraph essay myself.  Of course, then there’s still the problem of topics and ideas, but it instantly came to me, à la Kramer in Seinfeld: I will write a Five Paragraph Essay about Five Paragraph Essays.

So here goes.

The Five Paragraph Essay

Amidst the wide variety of writing forms, from sonnets to haiku to novels and non-fiction books to newspaper articles and journal writing, one form stands out as a monster of iniquity, as the most artificial of creations, and that is the five paragraph essay, invented by a textbook writer in a moment of Satanic delight, no doubt (just joking, please don’t sue me).  There are three problems with the five paragraph essay: first, it demands that the writer divide his topic into three parts regardless of whether that makes sense; second, it forces the writer to focus on form instead of content; and third it actually infects the content.

Some topics do not lend themselves to tripartite division.  I know there are those who think that three is a magical number and the key to everything, perhaps even to all mythologies, and there is after all the Trinity for Christians to believe in, but not everyone is a Christian, and not all subjects have three parts.  If asked to explain my solution to a textual problem in Thackeray, I may not have three reasons for recommending a particular word; there may only be one reason, but a very good one.  Or there may be two reasons, or four or five.  The same even with boring topics, like how I spent my summer vacation: maybe I did only one interesting thing or six or seven.  Why is three so special?  If you asked a polygamist to write about his wives, he might be forced to leave one out.

Which should bring me to my third point about this structure infecting the content, but first I will discuss point two: that the structure distracts the writer from the content, from the ideas.  As Orwell suggested, good writing comes from good thinking.  The way to write a good article is to focus on the ideas in that article.  If your concern is about structure and putting a thesis sentence at the end of your first paragraph and making sure you have three sub-topics, you are diverting yourself from the natural development of your essay.

And worse that that, and this is point three, you may even be infecting the content of the essay, as in the case of the polygamist with four wives who will have to leave one out to comply with the form.  My friend said, What about sonnet-writing or rhyme?  Those are artificial forms; are you against them?  And no, of course not, though I think only skilled writers (not the beginners who are typically forced to write five paragraph essays) should essay them.  They do, though, create an interesting tension between the ideas and the structure, whereas the five paragraph essay lets the structure conquer the ideas.  A bad poet, I suppose, might let the need for a rhyme dictate the idea he creates, but with the five paragraph essay not only bad writers but good find the structure intruding into the content: Oh, I have to find a third sub-topic.  Why?  Because the structure requires it.  What if that distorts the point of your essay?  So be it.

And thus we see the evils of the five paragraph essay.  It forces writers to come up with three sub-topics when there may only naturally be two in their subject (or four or five, or only one).  It distracts the writer from developing their ideas by forcing them to concentrate on the surface form.  And it can even infect the ideas by forcibly preventing the writer from saying what they want to say.  I see that in some ways this third reason is much like the second, and if I hadn’t had to write a five paragraph essay I might have combined them, but that’s the problem with writing to a structure.

Phew, that was hard, maybe the hardest thing I ever wrote, and I’ve written novels and a PhD dissertation and dozens and dozens of articles, not to mention these blog posts.  And this is what we force our poor children to do, and then we wonder why they are turned off writing.  What criminals we are.

P.S. Something I left out because the form didn’t really let me go down this path was that writing to a strict formula like this means leaving the conscious mind in control and not allowing the creative sub-conscious, the source of delight in writing, to get much of a look-in.  But next time.

Thursday, 27 June 2013

Ideas and Writing

So I’m reading the London Review of Books, and an ad leaps out of me.  This is unusual.  Ads don’t usually leap out at me.  I don’t notice them.  For that matter I don’t notice much in the visual landscape around me.  One time, visiting my mother, who wanted to buy me a bathmat to take home to Vancouver, and who asked me what colour my bathroom was, I was reduced to saying, “Well, I’m pretty sure it has a colour.”

A former hockey buddy once told me that of course I noticed ads, because everyone notices ads.  I was quite bemused by the notion that he could know me as well as he professed to and also that he could pronounce on what everyone does.  He should read Montaigne, but he won’t because he also announced that it’s pointless to read old books: Didn’t I believe in progress?  Every age was an advance on its predecessor, so we know so much more now than people of earlier ages that it’s utterly pointless to read them.

But in this case I really did notice the ad.  It said, “Ideas are easy; writing isn’t,” and was an ad for a writing academy that promised Structure, Feedback, and Support.

Well, I’m all for support and even for feedback, as long as it consists of, “Sheldon, that was great.”  People ask for criticism, as Somerset Maugham says, but all they want is praise.

He also said, “There are three rules for writing the novel …”  I quoted that line to an English 100 class I was teaching years ago, and they all picked up their pens in anticipation.  However, they were most disappointed when I finished the quote by saying, “… but nobody knows what they are.”

Students like rules.  Well, I shouldn’t generalize.  Students who have been trained to write five-paragraph essays like rules.  I made the mistake of trying to unteach that formula and had anguished students approach me to say, “But the five-paragraph essay is the only way I know how to write.”  Or, “I understand that that’s a bad formula, so can you give us a good formula?”

Sigh.  Good writing is not done by formulas or rules, unless you think paint-by-number is a good way to go, and maybe it is.  Who knows?  But I tried to teach my students to think for themselves, to follow their ideas, and forget about structure.  “Grasp the subject, the words will follow,” as Cato said.

(But I did relent in later years and tell them that if they really had to they could stick to the five-paragraph structure they’d been brought up on.  I only cared about results, I said; if they could write a good essay following the formula, what did I care?)

Structure is not what writers need (or students).  Ideas are what’s hard to come by.  The ad has it exactly wrong.  Writing is dead easy (well, for writers); it’s finding something to say that’s the problem.  Thackeray used to envy Dumas for being able to produce so many new plots (though maybe he had his factory doing that for him).  I like stories that are “hot with,” he said, lamenting the fact that he himself could not invent like that.

Jonathan Swift once told a friend that he could write an essay on any subject.  On a broomstick then, said the friend, and so we have an essay by Swift On a Broomstick.  I used to think of that as a piece of bravado, and maybe it was, but maybe it was also a plea of desperation: Give me an idea, a subject, something to write about; anything, it could be anything.  Please.

Andrew Coyne in a recent column talked about improv comedians needing to start off with a suggestion from the audience in order to narrow their options.  It’s impossible to write about anything; you need something to write on (or do improv about).

Some people have chided me for not writing a blog post for a while, but now I’ve decided it’s their fault; they should be giving me something to write about.  Send me some ideas, anything, please.

People used to do that when I was writing my novel.  That’s the other sort of feedback I liked.  I didn’t like people criticizing.  Praising was great.  And even better was people saying things like, “Why don’t you put something about quilting in the novel?” (a suggestion from a co-worker).  Or “Why don’t you write more about tigers and elephants?” (a suggestion from my mother).

So there you go, people, send me your ideas.