During my drive time musing the other morning I imagined loading a Viking long boat full of five paragraph argumentative essays, setting them ablaze, and casting them off to the Nine Realms of the Norse Afterlife.
You know the essays I’m talking about, they follow THE STRUCTURE: A one paragraph introduction that says what the author is going to say, a three paragraph body that says it, and a one paragraph conclusion that says what’s been said. Each paragraph has a topic sentence, three supporting sentences, and a concluding sentence transitioning to the next paragraph.
But I say that no real writer really writes like that. For evidence I looked to authors who know a thing or two about argumentative writing – like Pulitzer Prize winning columnists – and found pieces by recent winners Kathleen Parker, David Lionhardt, Mary Schmich, Bret Stephens, and Stephen Henderson. Their essays were, respectively, 22, 26, 30, 16, and 22 paragraphs long. They make up for lots of paragraphs by making them short. Two or three sentences were the most common. All have at least one (and most have multiple) one sentence paragraphs, and Schmich even has multiple one word paragraphs.
I’m not kidding.
Now I’ve heard fine teachers say they start out teaching THE STRUCTURE. Then, when students have mastered THE STRUCTURE, they give them more freedom. But there are problems with this line of reasoning.
First, a point everyone agrees on is that authors must be mindful of their audience. But what audience is receptive to THE STRUCTURE? Certainly not anyone in a hurry. Certainly not anyone who reads for pleasure. And most certainly not anyone you’re trying to persuade that the cafeteria should serve your favorite food.
Moreover, it’s backwards to teach the structure, then give the freedom. Architects play with blocks as kids before they design buildings as professionals. A parent once told me she got so frustrated at her kid for always taking appliances apart. But engineers have told me that’s exactly what they did before they built rockets for Raytheon.
So, what would be an equivalent opportunity for a young writer? It matters to me because right now in my engineering classes we’re doing the only focused reading and writing assignments that we do this semester.
I thought I had a good answer last year. In class we read and analyzed The Top 10 Ways To Screw-up Your Engineering Career by Jim Anderson. We discussed how his short paragraphs with bold headings made it easier to quickly write, read, and skim to find what parts you were interested in. I showed other examples to demonstrate that this was a common structure used by real writers. Then students wrote their own essays following this REAL WRITER STRUCTURE.
Results were ok, but my instructions read like a recipe. Whereas, I think the REAL WRITER STRUCTURE is much more authentic than THE STRUCTURE, it’s still too much like telling an architect to build buildings in order to learn how to play with blocks. So this semester as we started working on the same activity, I felt some hypocrisy emerge between the gripes.
Then driving in Thursday morning, I hit on something. I could go even smaller and still maintain an authentic professional writing exercise by having students write a tweet (along with a hashtag) for each of Anderson’s ways to screw-up their careers. (For fun, I’d also have them write six-word stories about ways to sink their futures.)
A digression – Is there a word for having an idea that feels original, but as you develop it, you sense you’ve heard it before? I started feeling that and a Google search for “alternatives to essays” turned up lots of articles, but most are about other types of essays or differently structured argumentative essays. Anyway, I can’t claim that argumentative tweets and six-word stories as argumentative writing assignments are original and would love to hear about any related resources.
Regardless, my classes attempted this Thursday, and it wasn’t as easy for the students as I thought it would be. So Friday I throttled back and had them just write an appropriate hashtag for each of Anderson’s ways to screw-up your career or education. Plus, I let them write their six-word stories about anything at school or work that led to failure or success. Then, time permitting, I encouraged them to complete the tweet.
Results were much more promising. Most their tweets showed they understood Anderson’s content. They revealed plenty of humor in their six-word stories; additionally, it was great fun watching them count their words on their fingers. One student used the same hashtag, something like #careerfail, everytime, showing she got the point of hashtags better than I did.
Now all that was formative – next comes the summative assessment, and I’m open to suggestions.
In the meantime, driving home the other night I waved good-bye to the fading embers of the Viking long boat full of the ashes of five paragraph argumentative essays.