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April 18, 2006

I still remember how Mrs. Weldon would always tell us, “This year, you learn the rules for writing an essay.  Next year, you learn how to break them.”  I went into Mrs. Hillesland’s class expecting to finally be able to find my creative spirit, but I was quite disappointed on that count.  Not that I didn’t learn how to write some good essays.  I do believe that Mrs. Hillesland played a large role in getting me that 5 on the AP test.  In fact, now that I think back on it, the problem seemed to be that she played too large a role.  Almost all of the essays she assigned us were in preparation for that test, which means, of course, we had to be able to write an essay in 40 minutes, tops.  And the opportunity for creativity in that time period is much too small.  Better to be able to write a formulaic essay, one that will never fail you, no matter what kind of piece you’re faced with.  We did learn how to break the rules a little, but this was essentially in the form of more rules for breaking rules.  Remember ice cream?  Prime example of a rule-breaking rule.  I recently proofread the essays of some of my junior friends in that class; the introductions of these essays were strong enough, interesting enough, and yet the ice cream formula was utterly unmistakable.  The creative spirit is hardly channeled, more blocked off completely.


Now, in Carroll’s class, we have a lot more leeway in writing our essays.  The prompts for this class generally require the writer not only to analyze and identify the central meaning of the piece, but to respond to it.  But we still haven’t really learned how to break the rules.  We’ve actually received comparatively sparse instruction in writing essays, and we’ve only written about five or six of them, and that’s if you include both the in-class ones and the 100 point essay assignments.  Everything that we’ve learned has been in terms of content; that is, we’ve learned what kinds of things to talk about in our essays, but not how to present them.  Is breaking the rules something that awaits us in college?  Will we ever really learn how to break them?  Is it something that can even be taught?  If it can be taught, will we even be able to learn it after so many years of being trapped inside these rules?  Is it something that’s even worth teaching, if you can go through your entire high school career without having to break the rules even once?


It got me thinking about exactly how much these rules have limited us all our lives.  The structure is always the same, no matter what: introduction, thesis, assertion, supporting evidence, another assertion, more evidence, counterpoint, refutation of counterpoint, and so on, until you arrive at the conclusion, which reiterates your thesis.  Mrs. Hillesland was always saying how it’s difficult to write a good conclusion, and it’s usually best to just wrap it up as neatly as you can.  No fancy stuff, just get out of there.  And how can a conclusion be good, anyway, when all it does is restate in different terms the thesis you outlined at the very beginning?  It’s impossible.  But shouldn’t the conclusion be an important, and quite arguably the most powerful, part of any well-written essay, so that you end on a strong note?


There are several other problems I see that arise with the rigid format we have come to know so well.  For one thing, your thesis can’t really be anything truly outlandish or intriguing.  If it is, then your audience becomes confused or skeptical about the assertion and has to wade through a good portion of the essay before finally coming to terms with the author’s intent.  It’s not the audience’s fault—if you’ve said something truly fresh and original, it should be difficult for anyone to grasp the concept you’ve outlined in detail throughout your essay as soon as you mention it, and yet the introductory paragraph alienates readers from the offset.


See, the reader can’t follow the structure because it’s not even the path the writer followed when developing these ideas.  No one with anything important to say decides what it is they want to say first and backs it up later.  That’s the mark of someone who’s made an irrational decision and is trying to rationalize it away so that they feel justified in jumping to the conclusion.  No, the thought process people follow is quite the opposite of the way our traditional essay is laid out.  It goes more like this: gather evidence, make possible assertion, gather more evidence, confirm or refute assertion, gather still more evidence, link it with previous evidence, maybe even enter a long digression or two that seems unnecessary and long-winded, until you’ve arrived at a clear and cohesive concept of the topic you wish to present, and finally, you decide on your thesis.


This is not just how people think, either.  Some of the world’s best thinkers have used this format in their writing.  Perfect example: the Allegory of the Cave.  Socrates doesn’t tell his listener his main point right away.  He has to walk him through his own thought process, laying out in full detail the characteristics of his metaphor, in a way that the listener slowly comes to realization and understanding through its gradual development.  Then, finally, the conclusion, the thesis, is specified, and no more need be said after that to further qualify the point he has made.  And it’s like that all the time.  Descartes sure as heck didn’t say, “I am, and I know this because I think.”


I think the problem our classes have had with this is that such an approach generally seems speculative.  When you go through such a long, convoluted process to arrive at your conclusion, one must question whether even you know exactly what your opinion is on the matter.  The thesis-first format simplifies everything, makes it all cut-and-paste, so that you can show that this is what you believe, beyond a shadow of a doubt.  Great for persuasive essays, I suppose, to have your point be so clear, but then, a good persuasive essay largely ignores the subtler nuances of the opposing opinion in the struggle to make the writer look right, no matter what.  And perhaps it also works for most students, who aren’t yet truly developed writers.  Providing their essays with a solid focus saves the essays from chaos, or worse, gridlock, so that their essays can be consistent, if consistently average.  But none of that works for any self-respecting writer who deals in actually considering the wider spectrum.  For them, speculation is the only reasonable approach.  Because you can bet that anyone who thinks they know exactly what the answer is has absolutely no idea what the answer is.  Sound familiar?


So I guess what I’m really trying to say is, I like to write with my thesis at the end.  It may be the ultimate rule-breaker, but that’s the way I believe works best.  It doesn’t give me a great essay every time, but that’s okay.  At least I took a chance.  That’s how my creative spirit bursts through.  And my advice to all of you is, do not limit your essay writing to the essays you are assigned.  You just might someday find yourself locked deep within the rules of high school essays, never to escape.


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  1. mmmmm enjoy that work out today??  All by yourself, with no gregson motivation?????
    and to think you (we) get to do it all over again tomorrow!!  with a surprise twist halfway through!

  2. Definitely agree with you on all of that. Especially about the thought process versus essay, because I always like the essays much better that move from some open-minded statement through examples and new findings to a biting opinion. Those are fun, and they leave you wanting to agree with them, because you understand them. When we read a thesis that sounds bogus, the whole reading process becomes an inner-brain battle to prove the writer wrong on every point because we don’t like the conclusion. I suppose if we don’t know the conclusion until we get there we’re more open to the intermediate assertions. As for being taught to break the rules of writing, I don’t think we can be taught, because by definition anything we’re taught to do in a certain way becomes a rule of its own. I think breaking the rules is a skill we develop on our own as we become completely comfortable with what we have to say, and so at ease with our content that saying it becomes a matter of letting our own more complex thought hit the paper. When you put your thesis at the end of your essay, that’s you expressing your message as you see it needing to be expressed. When someone follows the formula, they’re using a fall-back method to voice things that are probably not actually clear to them. As for the ice cream thing, it makes a person sound clever when they link their beginning and end, and if the audience thinks the author is clever they might be more likely to consider the arguments of that author. Anyway, you personally certainly write well enough and with enough profundity in your blog that I don’t think you have any problems. Let that spirit show.

  3. Anonymous permalink

    clever how you placed your thesis at the end

  4. Anonymous permalink

    I agree with Marina above that you really can’t teach students to break the rules, because they’ll just end up doing something else over and over again, at which point that becomes a rule too. But a thesis at the end of an essay makes a lot of sense both because the reader understands by that point what you are talking about (at least understands to as much of an extent as they ever will) and also because it follows a more logical process. In fact, in the paper I was just writing a few minutes ago, I’m having an issue with keeping the thesis close to the beginning of the essay but also having enough background information before it for it to mean anything to the reader, and the best I can reasonably do is the beginning of the third page. Then again, a thesis at the beginning allows the writer to more easily organize their thoughts on paper without having to jump back and forth; if the writer just starts writing and finishes an essay without going back to add things in the middle, it would most likely be disjointed if the piece that put everything else together was at the end (and with students it’s quite likely it won’t make sense at all, so I can see why they teach it the way they do). Once again agreeing with Marina, essays that start from nothing and build their way up to a logical conclusion are not only easier to follow but they succeed in locking you into the author’s point of view a little bit at a time, which is often the desired result.I don’t think anyone will ever teach us how to “break the rules” in our writing, nor would we really be able to learn it without specific strategies, which of course are then rules that we are following. Creativity isn’t really something we can learn anyway, it’s all based on trying things out and seeing how they go. I suggest you do just that; I don’t think you’ll get a teacher who would give you a lower grade for not conforming to the strict standards at this stage in your education. You’re definitely past the point where if you wrote a six-paragraph essay you would be scored lower. I suppose the point of education, though, is to give us the writing skills we need to be able to make creative decisions like that, but for now we are held on a leash.And I completely agree with you about conclusions. I always have trouble with my conclusions, because I want to say something I haven’t said before or it feels like a perfectly good part of an essay wasted. Usually what I end up doing is restating the thesis, but then taking it a little further (not a lot, because then I have to explain even more) and discuss the implications of what I’ve just said. I have yet to receive a complaint about it, so I guess it’s working better than the standard conclusion of “here’s what I said, but I’m saying it again because it’s bad to end on a body paragraph.”Go with what works. If you read your essay and it works better for you with the thesis at the end, put it there. You’re not showing defiance, you’re showing that you know your own writing well enough to judge it and decide how to make it work effectively.

  5. Essays are like a prison, a prison with no walls.Oooh deep.I personnnaly think that at this point in our careers we have written so many essays that really there is nothing more for them necicarily to teach us, because anything they teach us as a group will become a form even if it isn’t already, because everyone who is taught it will use it. I mean, we all obviously know how to white already, or we wouldn’t be in AP, and so much of writing is simply developing your own personal style, which is essentially making your own method. Writing is more of an art than a science, and thus it is the kind of thing that can only be learnt to a certain degree before one must forge their own path. I think the writing that we do in our AP classes essentially just forces us to practice. Even if AP graders want a specific structure, who cares? In the end the point is to learn and develop your skills, not to get a 5 on the AP test.

  6. It all depends I guess. We can’t actually say ‘writing is a science’ or ‘writing is an art’.That’s like saying ‘Kung fu is an art/science’. It depends; do you want to express the human body through a series of specific movements the kind of which you would never see in everyday life? Or do you want to snap someone’s neck? Break a knee? Bust open a solar plexus?What they’ve taught you is not how to write – they taught you how to write without getting too confusing, or they taught you how to write without forgetting your focus, or they taught you how to write in a way that sounds convincing in the ear of the beholder. All of these are a function: To walk the reader through your piece (holding their hand every step of the way), To focus, To convince.Now form is different entirely – form is what sets propaganda apart from the art. And they can’t teach you form. The “voice” they speak of, how you “have to develop your own”, that is the form, isn’t it? They begin to compliment you when you ‘make strong, well-structured points’ that also exhibit ‘a strong voice (your voice)’.When we make form compliment function (or more elusively – create something of pure form), only then are we artists. Only then do writers feel somekind of satisfaction.So maybe all pressure is on you: As for the thesis at the end, or the beginning, isn’t that just a box? If you really want to break the rules, don’t you have to explore more difficult possibilities? What if the thesis appears in the middle, like a flash of clarity, then fades away without explanation – just like the sudden realizations of real life. Or even more likely (as one might find in journalism), what if there is no thesis at all?College is the place for such things, or it is as good as it gets, such as it is (for it is not the bastion of free thought it once was, more so now than ever it is a cog in the great mechanism of society). I for one enjoy shocking the reader from time to time. You want to give something flavor? Use hell of fuck sometime… Have an opinion, question an establishment. Question an anti-establishment. Break formality and use a sarcastic tone. Are these things high school really allows? Or at the least tolerates? Hardly. I think we all know it certainly does not appreciate.And yeah I agree the ice cream thing is bullshit.

  7. Ha, true, true.  In fact, it often seems that no matter how much you think you’re free, you later find you’re still in a box, and it seems just as small as the one you were always in.  Hard to tell if you really broke free of anything sometimes.  That’s what I wrote about for my poem a couple weeks ago, but it wound up sounding more like an LSD trip than anything… perhaps I’ll post it and let you be the judge.

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