All through middle and high school, English teachers drill in rule after rule regarding the makings of a proper essay.
Essays should be five paragraphs, with an intro, three supporting paragraphs and a conclusion. Essays should have three — and only three — main points. Thesis sentences should clearly state these three points, should be exactly one sentence long and should always be the last sentence of the introduction paragraph. Begin the introduction with a broad, general statement to get readers interested and then narrow down to your specific point. Never start a sentence with “and” or “because.” Start each paragraph with a topic sentence that describes a point from the thesis, and end with a conclusion sentence that reiterates the main point of the paragraph. Never even think about writing essays in first or second person.
And the list of rules goes on.
With so many parameters and restrictions, it’s no wonder writing is a cause of anxiety for many students in grade school. I’ve heard many people groan at the notion of writing essays. They claim, “Writing isn’t really my thing.” And why wouldn’t they groan? Sitting down to write means being overwhelmed with an endless amount of somehow both vague and structured rules. Even before kids begin to contemplate what to write about, they’re stressing about how long the paragraphs are, what the three main points are, where to put the thesis and how to fit everything they want to say into five paragraphs.
The other day, my 12-year-old sister was working on an essay. She asked for help coming up with a first sentence. The catch? The sentence couldn’t have anything to do with her main point, had to be broad and general and had to be moderately interesting to capture the reader’s attention.
Ironically, on the first day of my first-year writing seminar at the University, our GSI told us to never start a paper with a broad generalization that couldn’t be supported. None of that “Since the beginning of time … ” business, I was told. We were also told that the upside-down pyramid approach to writing was ineffective, and instead our essays should be concise and to the point, without fluff and unsupported simplifications.
Five paragraphs? That limit wasn’t binding either. Instead, we were told that we should write as many paragraphs as necessary to structure a sound argument and make our point while providing ample evidence.
Which brings me to the most surprising rule we were told to break: the arguments. Yes, we could have more than the magic number of three. No, we didn’t have to miraculously fit a summary of all our points into one sentence. Yes, our thesis statement could be more than one sentence long. Shocking, I know.
We grow up learning how to write in terms of rules and a fixed structure. While this is beneficial for beginner writers, eventually such an approach to writing becomes too limiting. The worst part is, after spending the first 12-or-so years of life learning to craft essays like this, we get to college and are told that almost everything we’ve learned is incorrect.
In essence, the transition from high school writing to college writing forces us to unlearn all the rules engrained in our heads. It’s no wonder that even self-proclaimed “good writers” struggle with their first couple of papers at the University.
High school writing focuses on a set structure with a ready-made formula for what is considered a “good” essay. In college, however, we are taught that the formula and structure is dependent on what argument you’re trying to make. There is no set, technical, correct way to structure a paper. Instead essays should be written in a way that fully develops and supports the argument in the strongest way possible.
Real life is much closer to the college view of writing. Writing is flexible and should differ based on its purpose and audience. There isn’t one set way to write, and teaching young students otherwise is doing a huge injustice. In the real world, quality writing will be evaluated by its ability to make a clear point in a unique way, not by how many paragraphs are used to make that point. When cover letters for job applications or papers for a class are written, people care about the voice, style and content — not about the placement of the thesis sentence.
Placing restrictions on writing from an early age limits creativity and discourages students from taking risks and exploring style. It also teaches them to focus more on the technicalities of structure and format than on what’s important: actual content. The result is fluff and writing that sidesteps the main point but fulfills the page count or paragraph requirement. Students develop into redundant and wordy writers in a world where brevity is a virtue. If we want better-prepared writers — and good writing is an asset in any field — perhaps it’s time we restructure how students are taught to write from the start.