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December 04, 2003

HOW TO WRITE....Pennywit decides to take me up on my mockery of the five-paragraph format today and gives it a rousing defense. He cheats a bit, actually, by turning it into a defense of the five section essay, but what the hell. He thinks it's "just another structure that a writer can use to organize his thoughts and guide his reader."

Well, maybe. And I'm not exactly a sworn foe of the format since I've only known about it for the past 24 hours. But although I have no problem with mechanical aids to guide young minds, my real problem with the five paragraph format is that it seems so limited: even on its own terms it only applies to a very specific kind of writing. The whole format is geared toward making a persuasive case, and how often does that come up in real life?

Writing a company newsletter? Nope. Technical writing? Nope. A college term paper? Nope. What you did on your summer vacation? Nope. Penning a postcard? Reviewing a book? Writing a status report for your boss? Nope, nope, nope.

On the other hand, if you're writing a newspaper op-ed, a piece of advertising copy, or an argument for a voter pamphlet, I suppose it might come in handy. But how often do any of us do that?

(Or a blog! It would be good for that. Maybe the five paragraph format was just ahead of its time!)

It's a funny thing. People frequently ask me how they can become better writers, and of course there's no easy answer. There just aren't any formulas for it.

But if I had to give one piece of advice — well, I wouldn't. I'd give two pieces of advice. The first is to ignore anyone who tells you to write like you talk. This is possibly the worst writing advice ever to gain wide popularity. Honest.

But the second piece of advice — the real one — is so simple it seems almost silly to even say it: know what you want to say. This doesn't have to take the form of the dreaded outline, it can just be a few words jotted down on a piece of paper. Or it can be entirely in your head. But somewhere, somehow, whether you're persuading, describing, mocking, or whatever, you have to know what you want to say before you try and find the words to say it.

This seems obvious, but it's the source of an awful lot of bad writing. As I learned when I was a technical writer, the reason so many instruction manuals are so hard to follow is that the writer never really understood the material in the first place. Frankly, it's a miracle most tech writing turns out as well as it does.

So: think first, then write. You still have to learn the mechanical skills, of course, but I'd much rather edit someone who knows what he wants to say and just has trouble with grammar and syntax than the other way around. The first you can correct. The second is just hopeless.

Posted by Kevin Drum at December 4, 2003 03:57 PM | TrackBack


Comments

"The whole format is geared toward making a persuasive case, and how often does that come up in real life?"

Well, hell--there's my whole professional life dismissed into irrelavancy in one sentence. :(

Posted by: rea at December 4, 2003 04:06 PM | PERMALINK

"The whole format is geared toward making a persuasive case, and how often does that come up in real life?"

Not often but unfortunately when you need to be persuasive it's generally more important a situation than just writing glib posts on the internet ;o)

Posted by: mark safranski at December 4, 2003 04:06 PM | PERMALINK

"The whole format is geared toward making a persuasive case, and how often does that come up in real life?"

Huh? Book reviews, memos to the boss, college term papers better make arguments or they are worthless.

Making a persuasive case is the art of selling, among other things.

Making a persuasive case is essential in public speaking of any kind (most are written first), selling (pitch materials etc.)

Contractors, consultants anybody who owns their own biz and academics, among others, better be able to make a written argument.

Expository writing isn't the only valuable form of writing. But it is much more common than creative writing/journalism etc.

Posted by: spc67 at December 4, 2003 04:17 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin,
The whole point of most college term papers is to make a persuasive point. As a matter of fact, I'd say the purpose of the vast majority of academic writing is to persuade.

Posted by: Steve at December 4, 2003 04:19 PM | PERMALINK

I agree with spc67. I don't think it's that a five paragraph format is a great idea so much but that that basic structure makes sense--it may take several paragraphs or even chapters to do the job of each of the five in other applications.

One has to start somewhere. When I was teaching my undergrads--and even grad students--to write better papers for me, I talked about the classic "Tell them what you're going to tell them, tell them, and tell them what you told them" structure. I think the five paragraph meme is pretty similar. It forces students to learn to organize their thoughts.

Posted by: James Joyner at December 4, 2003 04:21 PM | PERMALINK

One more point - I agree that this 5 paragraph system will not take talented kids and turn them in to brilliant writers. The purpose here is to take kids on the lower half of the bell curve and make their writing minimally coherent
so they can navigate reasonably well through life.

Posted by: mark safranski at December 4, 2003 04:25 PM | PERMALINK

Careful about manual example. Technical manuals suffer also from what's referred to as a "disposition effect." An example of this comes from Microsoft. Experts often suffer from a "curse of knowledge": they find it hard to imagine how little others know about their areas of expertise. Microsoft found that its software experts were skeptical about reports from help-line employees about how buggy callers found Microsoft software to be.

So they installed a one way mirror in which designers could watch typical users struggle with their software, pitting one bias against another. The designers' curse of knowledge was overcome by the power of vivid, salient information as they watched normal users struggle in front of their eyes. The designers only then realized how difficult their software was for the average user.

This is another reason why instruction manuals are poor. Knowing your subject may help you write, but if it's too difficult to grasp, you gotta bring it down to the people.

Posted by: TOTL at December 4, 2003 04:25 PM | PERMALINK

I learned the 5 paragraph method in 6th grade. It's not really a new thing.

Posted by: Brad at December 4, 2003 04:26 PM | PERMALINK

When do you have to make a persuasive case?

Legal brief-writing, that's where. And no brief is ever *that* short. (Although to be sure lawyers are paid by the hour ...)

Here's the best piece of advice I ever got on legal writing: that it can have but one virtue -- clarity. If it's clear, it's good. End of advice. This "clarity, clarity, clarity" dovetails nicely with your advice "know what you want to say."

I shall only add that the bestselling writer Ken Follett once claimed that when he wrote, he tried to make each sentence as easily comprehensible as possible so that a reader could read each sentence and go on, and not have to backtrack within that sentence to understand it. I have found this to be good practical advice, subtler than it looks. When I proofread my own (professional, not blog) writing I try to reread it sentence by sentence, applying this rule.

Posted by: Diana at December 4, 2003 04:31 PM | PERMALINK

First of all, Kevin, what college did you go to where term papers weren't supposed to be persuasive? I agree with all the other commenters here that you're off base on that.

We had the five paragraph, five-sentence-per-paragraph essay drilled into us as an absolute requirement in English in high school. It really does force you to organize your thoughts and make sure you have a point and a logical structure to them -- easy to say for adults, but the habit of doing so is a useful one for teenagers to acquire. It was particularly a useful exercise in writing about works of literature and poetry.

Of course, we also did history papers in a different format, so we weren't being taught only to do one kind of writing. But the discipline of the 5-5 essay was a good one.

Personally, I'd go with one bit of advice that Peggy Noonan (among others) has stressed: if you want to be a good writer, read a lot of good writing. (I'm not sure I agree with her other key advice, which was that a writer should like people; a lot of misanthropes have been wonderful writers).

Also, on the "like you talk" thing -- political writers and bloggers should always remember not to write an argument they couldn't envision themselves making in person. Just think of the idiocies you can save with that rule.

Posted by: Crank at December 4, 2003 04:32 PM | PERMALINK

I think we might be using "persuasive" in different ways. The 5-paragraph format strikes me as limited to making an argument, and I don't think most ordinary writing falls into this category. It's different from simply making a point.

And of course there are examples in real life of wanting to make a good argument. But it's far from universal, and I have a feeling that this kind of format does more harm than good.

TOTL: Quite true, especially for computer manuals. I saw that a lot.

Posted by: Kevin Drum at December 4, 2003 04:34 PM | PERMALINK

Knowing what you want to write before you write it is overrated. I've sometimes found that my opinion changed while I was writing. So maybe one should just start writing, and then rewrite it (over and over again) until you think you have said what you mean. And you may find that what you meant to say changes in the process.

I could probably link this to how Daniel Dennett claims the mind works, but I won't, because my "write, rewrite" technique doesn't work too well when there is some external viewpoint to be conveyed other than my own, one which I don't know that well. Then Kevin's advice is applicable---you have to know what you're talking about.

Posted by: Donald Johnson at December 4, 2003 04:35 PM | PERMALINK

So: think first, then write.

Good advice. I would only add, and then rewrite.

I have found that writing exposes holes in my thought process. I thought, but as I wrote either conflicting thoughts occurred, or upon seeing my words on paper, or screen, I realized that they weren't what I thought at all. Writing clarified my thought process. I would never, ever, use the first edition of anything I write.

So for me, with the possible exception of blog comments, editing and rewriting are equally as important as the original writing.

Posted by: JimP at December 4, 2003 04:36 PM | PERMALINK

ignore anyone who tells you to write like you talk. This is possibly the worst writing advice ever to gain wide popularity. Honest.

Were you being tongue-in-cheek here? I always thought the practice of one-word sentences derived from writers writing how they talked.

Posted by: fling93 at December 4, 2003 04:40 PM | PERMALINK

Persuasive writing comes up quite often in real life. For example, I've had to write persuasively for multiple purposes:


  • Legal Writing. I'm a third-year law student, and I'm learning legal writing -- the essence of persuasive writing. When I write one of the many hypothetical briefs they assign here, guess what I turn to: The five-paragraph essay. Your average brief or legal memo has all sorts of permutations(IRAC/CREXAC/CRAC, point headers, etc.) but it's just another variation on the good old intro, support, conclusion.
  • Op-eds. Large chunk of my job when I was a writer. I occasionally dipped into persuasive writing, and the five-paragraph essay, modified, was a fallback position whenever I needed to articulate my thoughts.
  • Blogging. When I blog off a thesis, my blog entries are good. When I don't, they're a mess.
  • Gimme a raise. About three years ago, I thought I deserved more money than I was receiving for my job. I assembled my thoughts and sent a letter to my supervisor. My format of choice? The three-paragraph essay. The result? A raise and a promotion.

Persuasive writing comes up in everyday life. From arguments with co-workers to TPS reports, from political pamphleteering to selling a car, the ability to be persuasive is a useful, necessary skill.

And the bedrock of this skill? The good old five-paragraph essay.

Posted by: pennywit at December 4, 2003 04:44 PM | PERMALINK

As a former college writing teacher, I have to agree with those who are sticking up for the rusty ol' five-paragraph model. I used it as the basis for my courses, with a big caveat during the first class that this was just one way to write, that it can be adapted in many ways, that students should master it and then branch off into other forms. Like learning scales and other musical structures when you're learning to play an instrument.

It gave students something to hold onto. It was a simple structure within which they could learn how to form an argument, how to bring evidence to bear, how one thought leads to another, etc. These are the "mechanics" to which Kevin refers in his post. I suspect Kevin is just a naturally good writer and has never had to think about these mechanics much; that's why he's dismissive of the five-paragraph essay.

Posted by: Dan Perreten at December 4, 2003 04:45 PM | PERMALINK

I disagree with the "don't write like you talk" advice--I came across a number of students during high school and college who were perfectly articulate in conversations, but whose papers were loads of unreadable drivel.

The purpose of that advice is to get students to write at their ability, I think: for example, use a contraction once in a while so that your prose isn't too stiff; don't use an overly complex word when a simple and accurate one will do; make your overall point in the most straightforward way possible. The upshot of it all being that writing is meant to communicate, not to obfuscate--which is, unfortunately, what many of us were taught to do throughout high school.

Maybe a better way to put it would be like this: don't put anything on paper that you couldn't imagine yourself saying out loud. (I always try to imagine myself--in my very best public speaking voice--reading my writing to an academic conference that's at least passingly familiar with my subject.)

It seems to me that there's at least some merit to this advice, if it's applied properly. Kevin, I'm not sure what your beef is here. Care to elaborate?

Posted by: Seth at December 4, 2003 04:46 PM | PERMALINK

You know, what's really weird about all this is that I can understand something like the 5-paragraph format being taught to 6th graders. Simple formulas can be pretty helpful at that age.

But that's also the age at which persuasive writing is probably least important. How many 12-year-olds need to make a good argument?

I don't know. Maybe I'm missing the point. So far the examples of this format have all been efforts to persuade, but maybe that's not how it's really taught. Done right, I suppose it might have wider applicability than I'm giving it credit for.

Posted by: Kevin Drum at December 4, 2003 04:46 PM | PERMALINK

The five-paragraph essay is *not* geared toward making a persuasive case; it's geared toward making it easier to grade papers.

No real essayist ever approaches a subject in such a stilted, phony way. Real essayists have a million ways to write essays--for example, they might start with an anecdote and develop an argument from the specific example to a general thesis, or begin with an analogy or metaphor and apply it to the subject under discussion--lots of options. But you never see them tell you in advance what they're going to say, and then say exactly that, and then say what it was they'd said--it would be *tedious*. No one would want to read it.

As someone who was "taught" to "write" with five paragraph essays, I thoroughly disagree with Pennywit. Not because they're useless as a teaching tool--though they are; you couldn't learn to write a persuasive essay by using the five-paragraph format any more than you could learn ballroom dancing by doing the Hokey Pokey--but because they're actually destructive.

It took me *years* to undo the damage my teachers had done by requiring me to write that way. I knew good writing when I saw it, and always enjoyed reading the work of a good essayist... but the requirement that I force my thoughts on every subject into this ridiculous format stripped me of my ability to write anything interesting, in my own voice. The result was always a deadly dull pile of droning tripe. But since my teachers had been telling me for years that that is, quote, The Only Way To Write A Good Essay, I assumed that the fault lay with me. I left high school actually convinced that I was a *bad writer*, afraid of any job or college course that required writing, and promising myself that if I could help it, I would never in my adult life *ever* write anything again. And that's *exactly* the effect you want education to have on a kid, right?

But the things sure are easy to grade, though. You just make sure the format has been followed, verify that paragraphs 2-4 more-or-less match paragraphs 1 and 5, and then you can go to town correcting the punctuation. Attention to the content is entirely optional. So if you're a lazy teacher, well, you can't beat 'em.

The worst of it is that the classes where you're required to produce this garbage are also usually the classes where they give you literature to read, some of it genuinely great. So the dissonance between what other people can do and what *you* can do is all the more profound.

In conclusion: Barf.


Tangential postscript: When you think about it, what are literature teachers doing teaching expository writing in the first place? They're two competely different things! It's like taking an art history class where you learn drafting.

Posted by: Evan at December 4, 2003 04:50 PM | PERMALINK

All writing, on some level, is meant to persuade. I think I read that somewhere. (Can anyone help me here?) But if you don't agree, it's all good. I've certainly been wrong before.

Posted by: Matt at December 4, 2003 04:53 PM | PERMALINK

Know what you want to say. Yes. That does work -- as an initial strategy.

...though you do also have to be willing to modify what you want to say, as you start assembling the evidence. Some people don't begin to realize what they really wanted to say until the sixth draft.

"Write like you talk," on the other hand, is bad advice for some, excellent advice for others. It depends what the problem is.

For instance, I gave that advice to an engineering friend doing an MBA. He could be eloquent presenting an idea over coffee, but when it came time to write a paper, he froze up into this horrible stiff passive-voiced corporatese -- grammatically correct, and wholly unreadable. He would try to maximize the number of buzzwords, and he attached so many qualifications to each sentence that it was nearly impossible to figure out what he was getting at. He knew what he wanted to say, but he was so nervous that it would be judged inadequate, that he felt he had to wrap it up in a thousand layers of obfuscation. So... he was one person who definitely needed to write more like the way he talked.

Posted by: Canadian Reader at December 4, 2003 04:55 PM | PERMALINK

"But that's also the age at which persuasive writing is probably least important. How many 12-year-olds need to make a good argument?"

Kevin, that's how you teach kids to think critically. I'm very thankful I grew up in one of the best school systems in the country -- Fairfax County.

Posted by: Brad at December 4, 2003 05:00 PM | PERMALINK

"The whole format is geared toward making a persuasive case, and how often does that come up in real life?"

Yeah...and who ever changes their minds about the important things anyways?

Ever hear a congressman or a senator or a citizen say: "Golly that's a persuasive argument you got there...looks like I am going to have to change my mind."

Probably not.

In essense: we are trying to persuade ourselves of postions we seem to hold almost innately.

It is an adventure in self-discovery.

"The pen is the tongue of the mind."

Posted by: -pea- at December 4, 2003 05:02 PM | PERMALINK
All writing, on some level, is meant to persuade. I think I read that somewhere.

Well, yeah. Even expository writing is designed to persuade the reader to believe the presented facts, in a sense.

Posted by: cmdicely at December 4, 2003 05:05 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin, you missed the most obvious advice to give someone looking to be a better writer. Your two points are good, but this one is more important:

PRACTICE!

If a person has picked up a violin twice in his or her life, and made it create some horrible noise, said person does not consider themselves a violin player. Yet that is precisely the attitude many people take with their writing. Because they were forced by a college or High School class to write a few times, and they cranked out some horrible piece of drivel, they assume that they are writers. But no! To be a good writer, one must practice the craft, like anything else. If one is a mediocre writer, the only way to overcome it is to try and write better stuff. The first few attempts are still going to be bad, but that should not dissuade. And one is not going to get better by wishing it so, but rather by learning what needs to be done through practice.

The five paragraph essay is not going to serve one forever, but it is a decent place for youngsters to start. That blank piece of paper, or empty CRT with flashing cursor, are very intimidating. A little guidance in the beginning is good. Sadly, some teachers don't seem to emphasize that the five paragraph essay is just a crutch, to be discarded when one's wobbly first years of writing are behind them.

Posted by: Timothy Klein at December 4, 2003 05:07 PM | PERMALINK
The five-paragraph essay is *not* geared toward making a persuasive case; it's geared toward making it easier to grade papers.

I disagree. Its geared toward providing a tool for students to organize their thoughts to present a persuasive case. Yes, some teachers grade to the model too much -- far from all who present the model do so, though.

Real essayists have a million ways to write essays

Which is why the 5P organization shouldn't be the only tool that is taught, sure.

When you think about it, what are literature teachers doing teaching expository writing in the first place?

Probably the same thing they are doing, IME, teaching public speaking and oral presentation -- being "language arts" teachers in a system which doesn't divide things up any more specifically than that.

Posted by: cmdicely at December 4, 2003 05:09 PM | PERMALINK
think first

The 5P format, and most other "models" of writing, are really part of the mechanics of the "think" step, of what you do to organize the thoughts after you've done brainstorming or whatnot to get a bunch of ideas, and how to take them and turn them into a written work.

Posted by: cmdicely at December 4, 2003 05:12 PM | PERMALINK
Reviewing a book? Writing a status report for your boss? Nope, nope, nope.

Reviewing a book is pretty clearly an example of a persuasive case, and probably one of the places where, applied flexibly, a 5P essay would be most appropriate, of your examples. A status report for you boss may not be persuasive, particularly (or it may), but an action memo for your boss, OTOH.

Posted by: cmdicely at December 4, 2003 05:13 PM | PERMALINK

First off, to be better writer:

Read better. More. Widely. Across fields, genres. Stimulate your mind, and see different ways of expressing oneself. Find whatever you consider "better" to be and figure out why it is so. Work, basically.

The format of what you write can say just as much as the content sometimes. Instead of the five-paragraph format we teach our kids/adults, the French have a "dialectic" model which is loosely a four-paragraph format, composed of:

1. Introduction
2. Thesis
3. Antithesis
3. Synthesis

Simply put, 2 or 3 is "the other side" and which ever one is left is "your side". "Synthesis" is supposed to take both of these sides into account. An example:

1. Should we write in the traditional 5 paragraph manner? This is a hot topic because....

2. Some say it's terrible, because....

3. But it's really not, because....

4. Therefore, we should teach kids/adults how to do it, but also teach them other forms of writing, or some other such conclusion.

The format forces you to look at opposing arguments, and come to conlusions that in some way incorporates other valid concerns. It's reflective of the general French awareness of the Other, unlike our stand alone individualism (which the 5-paragraph format expresses).

Other formats, reflecting other philosophies, exist as well....

Posted by: Simply Sparkling at December 4, 2003 05:19 PM | PERMALINK

You know what the most helpful advice I could give on the topic of writing?

Shoot to have whatever you are writing done a day before it's due. Then put it down and forget about it for a day. Then pick it back up and do some severe editing. You will be shocked at (1) how incoherent/repetitive the original draft is, and (2) how polished the revised writing is. The process of trying to figure out what you were saying, and saying it is a way that doesn't require you to reread any sentences or paragraphs, is invaluable to in the writing process.

I just finished a 30 page client memo that had to be done on the fly (3 days, which is difficult given the heavy research involved). I had to send it to one partner yesterday, after the first draft was finished, but before I could give it a rest and pick it back up. I cannot overestimate how much more polished and readable the second draft is. It is probably the difference between the "how did we hire him with writing skills like that?" and the "he'll get far with writing skills like that" reactions I expect I'll get from the partners reviewing the first and second drafts, respectively.

Posted by: Joe at December 4, 2003 05:21 PM | PERMALINK

I'd agree that brief-writing (which is how I spend most of my day, as well as editing other people's writing) owes a lot to the 5-5 essay. I'd add that too many lawyers seem to be worse writers after law school than before . . . and actually, the core of that is losing the ability to write as you talk, and instead winding up with a style that either avoids getting to the point, or beats the point to a bloody pulp.

Posted by: Crank at December 4, 2003 05:21 PM | PERMALINK

Sounds like the five-paragraph essay is good for beginners, but puts a horrendous crimp in the style of those who can go beyond it at the time.

Here's real difference between good writing and taught essay-style writing:

"For in Calormen, story-telling (whether the stories are true or made up) is a thing you're taught, just as English boys and girls are taught essay-writing. The difference is that people want to hear the stories, whereas I never heard of anyone what wanted to read the essays."-- C.S. Lewis, The Horse and His Boy .

Isn't that just so true?

Posted by: Diana at December 4, 2003 05:26 PM | PERMALINK

I know TOTL's "curse of knowledge" concept very well. In my last professional life I worked as an editor for advanced-level medical and research journals, newsletters, and books. I never took a biology course beyond high school, yet I was pretty good at it: the most difficult articles landed on my desk. (By the way, that last serial comma comes directly from my background.)

Authors for whom English was second language, of course, could be excused: English is quirky, even for the natives. For the others, the "curse of knowledge" also became the curse of jargon: "right heart" was one of my favorites: odd, most folks have only one. If I couldn't figure things out from the context, I sent it back with a note: "Right atrium or right ventricle? Please specify."

Those closest to the subject often write the least clearly: the authors make too many assumptions of knowledge. I've seen too many "manuals" that have left me bewildered, enraged, or laughing out loud. That includes the "manual" for my latest phone.

A long-past employer once sold a poster that said, "The most revolutionary thing any writer can write is PLAIN ENGLISH."

Posted by: Glen at December 4, 2003 05:30 PM | PERMALINK

There is one truism in learning to write: In order to write, you must write, and the more you write, the more likely you are to improve.

What works for me:

* I spend about 2-3x as much time editing as when I write.

* I don't love my writing, so I'm open to editing. I've done my share of copywriting, and reviewing ad and flyer text, and I can't tell you the number of people who think that they are God's gift to ink, and react to an edit like a personal offense.


This is not blog comment writing though, this is the stuff that I do for my annual news letter (see the url above).

Posted by: Matthew Saroff at December 4, 2003 05:30 PM | PERMALINK

"How many 12-year-olds need to make a good argument?"

Ideally, all of them. Realistically, most can learn if we teach them.

Posted by: mark safranski at December 4, 2003 05:31 PM | PERMALINK

Never heard of the five-paragraph thing before today.

Early in my writing career, the best advice I heard was 'you can't write clearly if you're not thinking clearly'.

The second best advice was to read Elements of Style.

Posted by: Bird Dog at December 4, 2003 05:37 PM | PERMALINK

the classic "Tell them what you're going to tell them, tell them, and tell them what you told them" structure

I cal this "what I tell you three times is true," which is very popular in legal writing (partly because you want the executive-summary version somewhere easily-spotted).

I disagree with the "don't write like you talk" advice--I came across a number of students during high school and college who were perfectly articulate in conversations, but whose papers were loads of unreadable drivel.

Whereas I've seen college student papers with sentence fragments, slang, incredibly bad rhythm, etc.--they were unreadable, but that's how they talk. What works out loud doesn't necessarily work on paper. (The reverse is true, of course; I've never understood academic disciplines that think that reading an academic paper out loud is a good way to present at a conference.)

Posted by: Kate Nepveu at December 4, 2003 05:42 PM | PERMALINK

The first is to ignore anyone who tells you to write like you talk.

Although that doesn't necessarily apply the other way: the Oxford tutorial tradition of making you read your essays aloud is a good way to ensure that you don't end up with overlong sentences, tortuous clause structures, or writing that just doesn't make any sense. So: don't write how you talk, but read 'aloud' what you write. That is, read it in your head as if you were saying it aloud. (Or: what Seth said.)

And we were taught a six-section method, with an introduction and conclusion. This actually scales well to thesis-writing, as long as you think of it in fractal terms: a chapter as a series of essays, an essay as a section of grafs, a graf as an essay in miniature, with its opening assertions, examples, qualifications and conclusions.

When you think about it, what are literature teachers doing teaching expository writing in the first place? They're two competely different things!

Literature teachers teach the craft of writing literary criticism. That's expository writing.

As for tips on writing, once you're past school level? Read Samuel Johnson's essays, and read his comments on writing in the Life of Johnson. I'm currently editing my thesis for publication, and his guidance makes perfect sense: 'where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.'

Posted by: nick sweeney at December 4, 2003 05:47 PM | PERMALINK

On writing like you talk: just read a transcript. They are mostly terrible as samples of the written word. When you talk you can backtrack, you can use tone of voice, you can use dramatic pauses, etc. etc. None of this stuff translates to writing unless you take a lot of care.

On the other hand, I agree that developing a conversational style can be very beneficial. The problem is that in my experience conversational writing ends up not being all that similar to conversational talking.

Posted by: Kevin Drum at December 4, 2003 05:53 PM | PERMALINK

Uhh, giving good writing advice to aspiring writers is one thing. Teaching basic writing skills to young people who hate the very idea of writing is something else again.

The five-paragraph essay is liable to abuse, sure. So are quadratic equations. If a student is told why the five paragraph form is a decent and very basic method of organizing an essay, then it's good. If a student is told why understanding quadratic equations can help them in future math classes, terrific. If the point is doing either for the sake of simply doing something, anything, then they are hell on wheels. But it doesn't have to be this way.

Kevin, students don't usually know what they want to say before they write. You do; you write voluntarily (I assume, or your life is much darker than I imagine it to be). Students don't; they're forced into it. They will write on any number of topics of which they know little beforehand throughout their academic careers. How could it be otherwise? If every 19-year old had a decent, mature understanding of say, American history, why teach it in college at all?

The 5-paragraph essay, for all of its obvious drawbacks, does at least provide a way for the students who are and probably will always be marginal writers to present their thoughts in a way which allows these thoughts--trite as they may seem--to be comprehensible to someone else. Better students will quickly transcend the limitations of the form and move on, with of course a bit of judicious prompting. Mediocre students will do better by it than they would if they had nothing else to lean on.

I myself teach the 5-paragraph form as a coping mechanism for marginal students. And even better students sometimes like it because it seems more concrete advice than the more airy advice they sometimes get like "be true to your inner voice." (Yes, an actual quote.)

Posted by: Thersites at December 4, 2003 06:28 PM | PERMALINK

From Apostrophe Wars: "The meaning of a word is never unclear because an apostrophe has been misused, a fact that ought to be self evident since spoken language seems to get along just fine even though it has never evolved a verbal cue to indicate an apostrophe. " and "The meaning of a word is never unclear because an apostrophe has been misused,a fact that ought to be self evident since spoken language seems to get along just fine even though it has never evolved a verbal cue to indicate an apostrophe"

From How to Write: But if I had to give one piece of advice — well, I wouldn't. I'd give two pieces of advice. The first is to ignore anyone who tells you to write like you talk. This is possibly the worst writing advice ever to gain wide popularity. Honest.

Kevin: Aren't your two concepts in direct conflict here? Apostrophes don't exist in spoken language at all, but does that preclude their usefulness in the other medium: written language? I think your distinction about written versus oral speech is spot on and I think it applies to those damn apostrophes you scorn as well.

Posted by: fastback at December 4, 2003 06:39 PM | PERMALINK

Writing like you talk doesn't mean that you should literally transcribe a conversation. It means that your reader should feel like he is in an interesting conversation, not wading through a policy statement. It means your writing should flow and be clear. It means your writing shouldn't sound like a typical corporate memo or academic paper.

Calpundit, like most good bloggers, does this well.

A great quote on this topic from an advertising copywriter:

Write like you talk.
Write with a smooth, easy rhythm that sounds natural. Obey the rules of grammar and go easy on the adjectives. Short sentences are best. One-word sentences? Fine. End with a preposition if you want to. And if it feels right, begin a sentence with "and." Just be clear.

Posted by: Jeremy at December 4, 2003 06:58 PM | PERMALINK

"The five-paragraph essay is liable to abuse, sure. So are quadratic equations."

Say it again bro. I've seen many an abused quadratic equation. I'm proud to say I've helped some discover their real roots. Others are crestfallen to learn both are imaginary. For others, the issues are more complex. It is one of the great frustrations of my life that I've never been able to help a quadratic recover from the effects of a negative discriminant.

sorry . . .

Posted by: Matt at December 4, 2003 06:58 PM | PERMALINK

"Tell them what you're going to tell them, tell them, and tell them what you told them"

Reminds me of what an instructor in college once told the class: "Quit telling them what you're going to tell them and tell them." (He wanted us to try other formats than the 5 paragraph one we had been doing since 6th grade.)

Posted by: scott h. at December 4, 2003 07:16 PM | PERMALINK

Can the 5P theme (because, alas, it is not an essay) be a useful organizing tool? Yes. I recommend my students consider it when faced with a timed writing assignment (like on a standardized test). Beyond that, I tend to think it's a dull, bloated old monstrosity.

So many of my writing students talk at length about the difficulty of moving beyond the 5PT when they hit college. The problem is not that the form has 5 paragraphs, or that it can be traced back through the French to the Greeks. The problem is that it's been turned into a Procrustean Bed: instead of using the form to organize, the form has taken on a life of its own and given a kind of life of its own as a priviliged genre. It's not, of course, a genre, any more than "the paragraph" is a genre.

It's a ridiculous and stultifying practice, and I've seen far more students hamstrung by it than helped. I have yet to encounter a writing assignment at the college level that can be managed in 5 measly paragraphs.

Posted by: Chris at December 4, 2003 07:36 PM | PERMALINK

"On writing like you talk: just read a transcript. They are mostly terrible as samples of the written word. When you talk you can backtrack, you can use tone of voice, you can use dramatic pauses, etc. etc. None of this stuff translates to writing unless you take a lot of care."

Generally, I would agree. A notable exception would be Winston Churchill who used dictation to "write" his brilliant speeches and prize-winning books over a very long career.

Few of us have Churchill's eloquence but then again if we were were to engage in *decades* of almost *daily* dictation I would think we would end up more facile with language than when we started.

Posted by: mark safranski at December 4, 2003 07:46 PM | PERMALINK

I don't think you should write the way you talk in a conversational manner. But I've found that writing an essay as if you were going to give a speech on the matter helps somewhat. Of course, there are a number of rhetorical tricks that only work orally, but you should know how to spot those.

Posted by: cheem at December 4, 2003 08:02 PM | PERMALINK

Chris:

Where do you teach? What kind of an institution?

Posted by: Thersites at December 4, 2003 08:04 PM | PERMALINK

Part of the reason for the five para format is the tests are mechanically graded.

If you allow the kids total liberty as to format, the freeping machine can't grade them. To illustrate just how asinine some of the rules are, consider the comma before a conjunction: foo, bar, and baz. By most style manuals, the comma is optional - me, I refuse to use it. TAAS mandates it - I would be downgraded for writing
perfectly proper English.

By my count, I've made four TAAS errors in the above text.

Posted by: Charles M at December 4, 2003 08:31 PM | PERMALINK

"There are no great writers, only great readers."
-Vladimir Nabokov

The reason the educational system is producing kids who can't write is because they're producing kids that can't read. It's the same in every artform, i.e. painters learn to paint by studying other great painters' works. I call this the "aliteracy problem," the kids CAN read but they don't because it's been taught in a way that makes it tedious, formulaic, and boring.

"People never read. But if the DO read, they don't understand. And if they do understand, they forget."
-Stanislav Lem

Posted by: Charles at December 4, 2003 08:37 PM | PERMALINK

Jeremy:

Great pointer to Luke's book. (We've both worked at the same agency.) It is well worth a read for anyone interested in persuasion--in any format. And, it seems, that's the knock to Kevin's theory. The point is always persuasion. Otherwise, what is the point?

Structuring any plausible argument or premise requires some kind of framework and that's all the 5-point essay is. It keeps you honest and coherent. Once you've got your concept knocked, then focus on finding the whiplash element that comes out of nowhere to cement the deal: Unconventional proof.

Why? Skepticism. No shortage of words out there, very little worth reading. (This post included, probably.) If feature-advantage-benefit is all you've got, ad copy to State of the Union Address, you're screwed.

Just remember, unconventional proof usually requires unconventional delivery to be authentic.That's where teachers get caught in their process knickers when teaching and end up shortchanging kids: rules are to be taught, then folded, spindled and mutilated to wring every bit of power out of them.

Kids. Breaking rules. Writing. Avocation ensues.

***

Okay, there endeth my 5-pointer. I've been hesitant to dive in on this one because, well, I'm a copywriter before being a creative director and we, uh, don't do "real" writing. Good luck with the Art Direction.

Posted by: fouro at December 4, 2003 10:58 PM | PERMALINK

Hah! See, not a real writer. Clipped my last para.

Kids. Breaking rules. Writing. Avocation ensues. Go figure.

Posted by: fouro at December 4, 2003 11:11 PM | PERMALINK

I'm all but illiterate after 6+ years of a mathematics education, but the cardinal rule that was drilled into my head by my father (a history professor) was: writing is rewriting. I'm getting sloppy nowadays, but any blog post I make is usually edited multiple times. Real essays or other serious writing will be edited anywhere from five to a dozen times; my dissertation, assuming I ever start (let alone finish) the damn thing, will probably be edited at least 50 times.

[OT: spc67, that's why I wasn't able to respond to you in the Liberal Values thread. After losing two days to a student crisis, I simply didn't have enough time to polish my ideas to a level that warranted posting before it slipped into blog oblivion.]

I also second the advice about putting the essay away for a day and coming back to it. You need to be able to approach the essay with the eyes of your readers, not the eyes of someone who's been living and breathing the material for the last few weeks. And then you have to eviscerate your terrible prose -- and, for me, it's always terrible -- again and again until, like a Frankensteinesque Galatea, a structure of incredible beauty will be constructed from the carnage.

Or something like that. Clearly, my illiteracy is more advanced than I'd thought.

Posted by: Anarch at December 5, 2003 01:13 AM | PERMALINK

Or it can be entirely in your head.

It doesn't work that way, at least for me. Many times, I have come up with good narrative in my head, that, very soon, I either forget entirely or remember imperfectly unless I make the effort to write it down.

I look at the "five paragraph" method as a teaching tool to get students started with writing. Later, it gets set aside for more mature and sophisticated methods of written expression. In a way, it's like a number line in math. What do you use a number line for? But the number line is a step towards understanding Cartesian coordinates, graphing, and analytical geometry; math concepts that have more practical value.

Posted by: JLowe at December 5, 2003 04:37 AM | PERMALINK

Kevin,

As one of your respondents has already pointed out: the five paragraph essay is merely a teaching tool. Any writing teacher worth a salt will explain to his or her students that the format is only "entry level" and represents a simple formula for conveying one's thoughts in a logical manner. He or she will also explain that it is not a realistic format for serious academic or professional expository writing. In other words: you have to learn to walk before you can learn to run.

Posted by: Brian at December 5, 2003 04:50 AM | PERMALINK

I think I must have learned that four paragraph French model in 7th grade. I don’t recall being taught essay structure prior to that. And I think that the 5 para model is not necessarily bad in and of itself -- basically, it’s only as good as the teacher who teaches it. If the *teacher* gets that it’s a tool to teach kids how to set up a thesis and write paras to support it, then great. But if the teacher looks at is as a way to simplify their grading, well, it’s gonna be a complete and abject failure.

That said, I agree with Joe, who said:

Shoot to have whatever you are writing done a day before it's due. Then put it down and forget about it for a day. Then pick it back up and do some severe editing. You will be shocked at (1) how incoherent/repetitive the original draft is, and (2) how polished the revised writing is. The process of trying to figure out what you were saying, and saying it is a way that doesn't require you to reread any sentences or paragraphs, is invaluable to in the writing process.

Definitely. As someone who edits/proofreads for a living, there’s a LOT to be said for letting yourself “forget” what you wrote for a day or two (or more, if you’re not the procrastinating type). You’ll be amazed what a fresh set of eyes can do, not just in terms of the overall argument, but in terms of typos and other egregious spelling and grammatical errors.

and Simply Sparkling, who said:

Read better. More. Widely. Across fields, genres. Stimulate your mind, and see different ways of expressing oneself. Find whatever you consider "better" to be and figure out why it is so. Work, basically.

I’m firmly convinced that those who read widely make better writers because they intuitively understand that different “voices” are used to address different audiences, etc. I’d disagree that reading widely is necessarily “work.” (Reading is FUNdamental!) The figuring out what works and why, I agree, can be.

Lastly, one of my own essay writing discoveries: In my sophomore year of college, I would write my essay straight out. Then I would take the pages and cut it up so that all the paragraphs were on separate strips of paper. Then I would rearrange the slips so that the argument fell in a logical order, and so that my points supported one another.

Then I would rewrite the whole damn thing. Or type it, as need be.

This, obviously, is easier with these new-fangled computer things.

Other people swore by writing the concluding paragraph *first* and then figuring out what points they would need to make to get themselves there. That never worked for me, in part because my argument would develop as I wrote things down. And also because my 7th grade “learn to write an essay” experience left we with two scars:

1. a fear of not knowing what my topic sentence was. I think it was a form of stage fright: before we turned our essays in, we were supposed to underline our topic sentences and I would always panic and think I didn’t have one.
2. a deep-seated desire to begin my concluding paragraph with the phrase “in conclusion we can say.” That was drummed into my head so hard that now, more than twenty years later, it’s still my first instinct. And it’s bad, bad, bad, not to mention dull, dull, dull.

Posted by: renska at December 5, 2003 05:26 AM | PERMALINK
Writing like you talk doesn't mean that you should literally transcribe a conversation. It means that your reader should feel like he is in an interesting conversation, not wading through a policy statement.

Which can be bad writing if, say, you are writing a policy statement.

The first rule of good writing, I think, is not "use X format" or "write like you talk", but, as Kevin says, "think before you write" -- and in particular, think not only about what you want to say, but think about the audience and the purpose of the writing.

What is good writing in a legal brief and good writing in a technical manual and good writing in a blog posting on writing style aren't going to be, necessarily, very similar in terms of format, tone, or style. And its quite likely that only the latter will be "good" if it is very conversational.

Posted by: cmdicely at December 5, 2003 07:02 AM | PERMALINK

I can't tell you the number of people who think that they are God's gift to ink, and react to an edit like a personal offense--Posted by Matthew Saroff

As Howard Roark is to his finished blueprint, so a writer should be to every included sentence.

...and read his (Samuel Johnson) comments on writing in the Life of Johnson....his guidance makes perfect sense: 'where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out--Posted by nick sweeney.

And surrender one's judgement to a formula? Where is the punch line nick? (I hope you didn't strike it out.)

Posted by: -pea- at December 5, 2003 07:08 AM | PERMALINK
By most style manuals, the comma is optional - me, I refuse to use it.

Most organizations I've worked in had that had style manuals had house style manuals that absolutely forbade it; I, on the other hand, will (ideally -- sometimes I miss it) use it.

Its not a big deal in sentences like "I had a a burger, fries, and a coke" -- if you leave it off, its not at all unclear. But when you're are using lists of items that have long descriptions and may include internal conjunctions, it is essential for clarity.

This really has nothing to do with grading rubrics, but the rule itself.

Posted by: cmdicely at December 5, 2003 07:09 AM | PERMALINK

Starting in 2005 the SAT will include an essay component requiring a persuasive argument. HISD is ramping up to give their students an important tool in beating this part of the new SAT. Given that thousands of essays will need to be scored, the College Board will employ some standard grading method (thesis statement present, check, length OK, check, etc...) so that the essays will be uniformly scored. So HISD is doing what all School Districts will need to do in this age of "No Child Left Behind" - teaching to the test. At the best high schools in HISD, for example, Bellaire where my son attends(ranked in the top 100 by national news magazines, mean SAT 1159)they teach to the test and also have students with enough resources at home that there is time for more in-depth teaching. At an HISD high school like Jeff Davis (mean SAT 836)teaching to the test takes up the entire day. What is really missing in this story is that the metrics that are used to measure school performance are very coarse and seemingly arbitrary. Bellaire HS, which had 41 National Merit Scholars last year in a 600+ Senior class and a mean SAT well above the national average, was rated as only "acceptable" by the TEA. Austin HS with a mean SAT of 793(you get 400 on the SAT just for getting your name right) was given the highest rating of "exemplary" by the TEA. It is this weirdness in the unfunded rating requirements that lead some school administrators to attempt to game the system.

Posted by: quanex98@aol.com at December 5, 2003 07:35 AM | PERMALINK

You must of course ignore advice to write like you talk. However, the converse should be obeyed: never write anything that wouldn't work if spoken.

Posted by: SKR at December 5, 2003 08:08 AM | PERMALINK

The five-paragraph format (or the four-paragraph dialectic) are like I*R*A*C in law schools -- instinctively and aesthetically hideous, but useful.

After reading hundreds of essays and articles written by law professors, I've learned that if there are a million different ways to write an essay, there are at least a billion different ways to screw one up.

To put it another way: most people don't write (or maybe think) well enough to abandon even simple structures like the five-paragraph essay.

Posted by: Simon at December 5, 2003 08:21 AM | PERMALINK

To add more anecdotal information to the pile, I was initially taught to write essays in something akin to the five-paragraph format...but by the time I reached junior high school they expanded on the concept and taught us to write from 'outlines'.

The format of the 'outline' model was essentially the same...posit your thesis, present supporting arguments organized in coherent paragraphs, then write a conclusion that asserts your thesis has been proven true. But it added dimensions of complexity in that every supporting declaration could be considered a thesis that required further supporting declarations...I. A. i. a.

That level of analysis is as sophisticated as most college students are ever expected to get.

Posted by: theperegrine_project at December 5, 2003 09:02 AM | PERMALINK

That was fun -- there was a lot of good writing advice buried in those comments, along with the some witty humor.

Posted by: Out4Blood at December 5, 2003 09:23 AM | PERMALINK

More about writing the way you talk....

I don't count as a real journalist, but for five years I ran and edited a small computer newspaper. You know, the kind of paper that's full of local computer store ads and new-product press releases, and you can get it free from a stand outside your grocery store. It was my job to ensure there was enough interesting stuff in each issue that people would be willing to go three steps out of their way to pick it up. About 50,000 words each month, and I was responsible for every syllable.

I didn't write it all myself, of course. About half of the wordage came from a two-foot high stack of faxed press releases -- I selected ones that sounded like they were actually about something new, and then hacked out the corporate hype, which usually reduced the word count to half or a third of the original.

Then there were submitted articles. Since we didn't pay our writers, articles came from people who wanted the publicity: consultants, wanna-be consultants, and PR firms who commissioned articles on behalf of their clients. All of the articles required editing, some only a little (the PR firms often employed competent writers, and other times would tap into real technical experts from their client company -- who could also write!), but most of them needed major surgery. I would send the edited copy back, saying that it had had to be edited "for length" and would the writer please check it "for accuracy". Nearly always, the reaction translated as "Yeah, wow, that's what I meant to say!"

But anyway. The point of this is that we also did feature articles, which I would write. Many of these were interviews with company presidents and other VIPs. I would tape the interview, transcribe it word for word, then pick out and rearrange quotes until I had an article that fairly represented the substance of the interview as I would have remembered it if it hadn't been taped: the highlights, the interesting points, the memorable stuff.

I learned this: The easiest way to make most people look like idiots is to write down exactly what they say, word for word. These were strong, energetic, articulate speakers, successful executives, with no trouble at all in communicating. But strip out intonation, gesture, and facial expressions from their speech, and what you were left with invariably sounded stupid.

It was not my job to make these people sound like idiots, so I always fixed up grammar, mended broken sentences, glued thoughts together that had been connected in speech only by a gesture or a tone of voice. Then, as a courtesy, I'd send the article back to them to be reviewed "for accuracy".

Guess what? Not one of them objected. I had captured what they remembered saying.

So, no -- don't write the way you talk.

Write the way you think you talk.

Posted by: Canadian Reader at December 5, 2003 09:45 AM | PERMALINK

Write the way you think you talk.

Preznit giv me turkee.

Posted by: fouro at December 5, 2003 10:20 AM | PERMALINK

Here's an old canard that I'm surprised people haven't mentioned yet: consider your audience. Persuasive writing can benefit especially from this, but the form of any kind of writing will be affected not only by what you have to say, but by whom you are saying it to.

I think the commenters above have made a good case that persuasion is the core of writing. Aristotle thought so, too, which is why he devoted the Rhetoric to it. This is the kind of thing we need to be teaching our children more of.

Posted by: JoXn Costello at December 5, 2003 02:42 PM | PERMALINK

Consider your audience. Very good advice, too.

(From context I'm pretty sure you don't want the word canard, which means a deliberately false rumor. From context, I suppose you to have meant something oft-repeated but true: cliché, bromide, commonplace, platitude, truism.)

Posted by: Canadian Reader at December 5, 2003 09:07 PM | PERMALINK

Re thinking what you're going to write: As you're considering your source material, keep a keen eye for the one thing -- a sentence, a scene, an observation -- that sums up what you want to say. Make this your first sentence go from there.

Posted by: tom mangan at December 5, 2003 10:42 PM | PERMALINK

But the top rule is to know your audience. A writer for Maxim, for example, should sound far different from a writer for The Wall Street Journal.

--|PW|--

Posted by: Pennywit at December 6, 2003 12:33 PM | PERMALINK

By now this topic has been pretty well beaten into submission, but I'll react to the thread from the perspective of someone who has been teaching college writing since 1960. I'm pretty sure I can claim to have read more student writing than anyone who has posted here. So let me reinforce several points:

1. Reading is critical for good writing. The written word is input for the writer. If you don't have a lot of it to draw on, you are usually sucking air.

2. Writing a lot, in a lot of contexts for varying audiences, is the second critical element of developing as a writer. Language develops from use. That's the way babies learn to talk: they get input and then they keep trying it out until they get it down. No parent teaches a child the rules of language. Writing is not a perfect analogy to language acquisition, but all writing is grounded in the language acquired as a child. [That's true for deaf children as well.]

3. Having something to say is a prerequisite to figuring out how to say it. Most writing teachers don't give enough attention to invention, to finding your meanings.

4. Several posters noted that discussions of rhetorical structures go back to the Greeks. The beginning/middle/end, tell 'em-tell 'em-tell 'em, and five paragraph structures are all simplifications of classical structures of argumentation. The problem lies not in the simplification, but in the fact that students are rarely made aware of that (witness many of the comments here).

5. The walk before you run analogy doesn't really fit the 5-Paragraph essay. The first steps of writing are discovery: reading, note-taking, listing, clustering, nutshelling, freewriting. You have to find stuff. Then you can figure out what form you want to stuff your stuff into.

6. Once you have material, purpose and audience will define which material you select--or edit out--and how you will revise and rewrite. Again, most teachers who rely on the 5-paragraph essay never really get students engaged in rhetorical analysis of purpose and audience. Lots of good writers who didn't have that formal training figured it out from reading a whole lot of stuff and writing a lot. I end where I began.

Posted by: John at December 6, 2003 04:17 PM | PERMALINK

Rule zero: Have something to say.

What's scary about the 'persuasive essay' is that you not only pick the subject, you pick the point of view you want to persuade for at the beginning and then start looking for reasons for it.

This is exactly the way the Bush administration ran its Iraq policy. Pick an end result, war; start looking for things that support it; ignore anything that doesn't. Introduction. Second paragraph: WMD. Third paragraph: Saddam evil. Fourth paragraph: Democracy good. Conclusion.

I'd much rather children learnt how to discover the weakness in an argument. But the word 'however' seems not to be a part of the 'persuasive essay'. The 'persuasive essay' is an exercise in reinforcing one's own prejudices.

However, writing *two* persuasive essays arguing diametrically opposed sides would be an *excellent* exercise.

Posted by: TomD at December 7, 2003 10:52 AM | PERMALINK

You are right, TomD. The second assignment in my first-year composition course asks students to present a situation in which they have been in conflict with some authority (parents, teachers, coaches, law enforcement, bureaucrat, or the like). The task requires that they present the situation from both view points, giving equal weight to their position and to the other person's. Most of them struggle with the assignment, but later, when they have to mount a more conventional argument, they appreciate why they should take account of other conflicting views.

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