Seeing the Essay Again for the First Time

Teaching writing, like writing itself, is an arduous journey without any hope of a destination fairly called “finished.” Both require equal parts confidence and humility as well.

Each fall, then, when I wear my writing teacher hat most visibly while teaching two sections of first-year writing, I am as anxious and apprehensive as my students about teaching them to write. This past Friday, I responded to their first essay submissions, and then, I posted on their course blog a brief set of common issues we will explore during the require conferences before they revise essay 1, and prepare to draft essay 2:

I recommend reading these two pieces:

Here are some common issues you should focus on for rewriting Essay 1:

  • Work more diligently and purposefully on your openings and closings. You need to take more care with specifics and details; avoid telling about and show the reader a story instead.
  • Establish your focus (thesis) within the first 4 or so paragraphs and then keep the discussion on that focus throughout the essay.
  • Can you explain briefly to someone what your focus is and what organizational planguides your essay?
  • Reconsider your title and subheads (add subheads if you haven’t used them). Be interesting and vivid with both.
  • While one or two purposeful fragments can be effective even in academic writing, run-on sentences always appear to be “errors.” Edit run-ons and take much greater care with sentence formation and sentence variety.
  • Huge and formless paragraphs are unappealing and ineffective. Form your paragraphs with purpose and prefer shorter, not longer.
  • Integrate quotes with care to both how to punctuate and in connected to the source.
  • Add sources where needed and begin citing properly using APA.
  • Avoid extreme claims of “all,” “none,” “most,” etc.
  • Your word choice (diction) determines the tone of your writing, and also creates your authority. Lazy verbs and informal words should be revised.
  • Verb tense should be appropriate but also should be purposeful and consistent. Verb tense shift (jumping between, among tenses without any clear reason) exposing the writing as careless.

Having taught writing for 34 years—from high school through graduate courses—I have adopted a process I find most effective (although still lacking): I provide students ample models of the whole authentic artifact I want them to attempt (in this case, the essay), and I ask them to make a genuine attempt with some but not full explicit instruction before that attempt; after I have their work in front of me, I then prepare a more explicit plan for direct instruction (the bullets above).

Somewhere long ago, I culled from the work of Howard Gardner that teaching should begin with clearly identifying what students know, what they don’t know, and what they misunderstand. I build on what they know, provide them what they don’t know, and then wrestle like a priest confronted with Regan in The Exorcist to release them from those misunderstandings (a task Gardner admits is nearly impossible).

Over my more than three-decade adventure as both a writer and a teacher of writing, I have rejected writing templates (five-paragraph and otherwise), the tyranny of the thesis sentence, rubrics, and writing to prompts as well as detailed writing assignments that relieve students of any choices as writers and thinkers. However, I remain mostly baffled at what works instead of these traditional approaches—and continue to seek ways to understand better what impedes my students from writing—and thinking—with greater sophistication.

This fall’s experience with essay 1 has revealed to me, I think, a bit of an epiphany.

While I am never really surprised at any of my students’ essay drafts, and I can predict many of the revision needs before I see a set of papers, I do continually read those essays not to uncover my students’ deficits, but to rethink how to teach writing better.

Over the past few days, I have come to recognize something, if not new, that is far more clear to me.

In one of our course texts, Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace, the concept of coherence is central—but I have never thought of the importance of that concept as clearly as I do now. The essays I read demonstrated to me that these very smart and genuinely engaged first-year students, admitted to a selective college, have almost no real conceptual understanding of sentence formation (and variety), paragraphing, and worst of all, just what the hell an essay is as a form.

That itself is not anything new, but what is new, for me, is that I can argue very directly that the root of what my students do not know and often badly misunderstand is the template used to teach students in most K-12 settings. Further, I now believe that teachers using those templates are also misled about their students’ concepts of sentence formation, paragraphs, and essays because the template and prescriptions mask the lack of understanding.

Of course, this may seem obvious, but the path to understanding the essay as a form, and then the academic essay as a discipline-specific form, includes not a linear or sequential but foundational grasp of both sentence formation and paragraphing.

My work as a teacher of writing will now include more aggressively investigating how to address coherence better, how to foster purpose and awareness in my students-as-writers.

Rules and prescriptions, I am convinced, impede the development of conceptual understanding of how and why to form sentences and paragraphs in order to achieve an essay—a non-fiction short form with an opening and closing, with claims supported by evidence and elaborations.

Again, my students have taught me that our traditional urges to start with parts and build to wholes is flawed; students often need to have the whole in mind so that the parts make sense.

As we work toward revising these first essays, I am more convinced than ever that we need to keep our eyes on model essays, asking always: What makes an essay, an essay?

Templates and prescriptions may make the journey seem easier, but ultimately, that trip is hollow because students have mastered mostly compliance.

Writing, however, is an act of composing—building something new out of the craft at the writer’s disposal. There is no way to make that easy, but there are ways to make it purposeful. That is grounded in conceptual awareness of authentic and whole artifacts; the essay always in pursuit of the essay.