The Plight of Wilted Writing

By Bailey Meyers

This is not a five-paragraph essay.

Because there is so much more to writing than that which has been deemed essential by high schools and colleges. 

Writing has become mechanical; writing an essay can feel like piecing together a difficult jigsaw puzzle rather than painting the picture yourself. That is, you have been conditioned to write in a scripted template, filling the blanks: intro, thesis, argument 1, supporting evidence 1, etc. And high school English teachers have no problem saying, “This is how to write a college paper,” cementing the formula into students’ heads. Yes, this formulaic approach can be helpful for pressing a certain argument in an argumentative essay for a class, but the application virtually ends there. Writing in any other context requires a more diverse repertoire of skills—skills all too often seen as unnecessary.

Any high schooler can tell you that the five-paragraph method is overwrought and overtaught; all great authors wholeheartedly disregard these holy guidelines. But why aren’t the minds of students cultivated to produce poetry and prose on par with Proust or Poe? 

I recently read the style and grammar guide, Sin and Syntax, by Constance Hale, and I have been perusing Strunk and White’s, The Elements of Style, a pocket-style usage handbook. In several days of reading, I felt as though I had learned more about writing than I had in all of high school. I was perplexed. Why hadn’t I been taught to use dynamic verbs over actionless ones? Why was “dactyl” reminiscent of flying dinosaurs instead of poetic rhythms? And why the hell did it take me until writing my college application essays to learn how to use the active voice? 

Instead of prescribing specific formulae to prose, these books tell the reader how to effectively break (but not disregard) conventional rules. The end of each chapter is dedicated to providing a counterexample to the lesson just taught—a beautiful case of defying prescription. Why haven’t we been taught the rules—nor how to flout them?

I can only guess this is because our education system does not adequately value writing skills.

We, as students, learn about literary devices early in our education. Metaphors, hyperbole, allusion, alliteration, and the like are presented to young students as a way to add creativity and interest to their writing. This is great. Similes such as “he was sly as a fox,” however, are dull, and there is not enough honing of grammar in the classroom to make them sharp. While students become more nuanced and pointed in their academic writing, their skills with literary devices stagnate. Because of this, using literary devices is seen as corny, especially in academic contexts. Literary devices are not inherently childish, but the unsophisticated use of them can make the reader feel like she is walking barefoot across a sea of Legos. There is a plain disconnect between the elementary school simile, “The burglar was big like a T-Rex,” and David Foster Wallace’s description in Infinite Jest: 

“But he was a gifted burglar, when he burgled—though the size of a young dinosaur, with a massive and almost perfectly square head he used to amuse his friends while drunk by letting them open and close elevator doors on, he was, at his professional zenith, smart, sneaky, quiet, quick, possessed of good taste and reliable transportation—with a kind of ferocious jolliness in his attitude toward his livelihood.”

Both are one sentence. Both compare a burglar to a dinosaur. Case in point.

At UCLA, there is a Writing II class every student is required to pass. This makes sense. Any student leaving the university with a degree should have achieved a certain standard of writing, but many students do not learn enough from these classes to adequately prepare them for future classes and fields that involve writing (hint: it’s nearly every occupation). Keaton, a third-year transfer student, shares his experience: 

“If I went to a four-year right out of high school, my writing would have suffered. One professor I had my first semester [at community college] grilled us every day on the rules of writing. With job security, he did not fear grading hard and giving grueling edits. Talking with some professors in the English department here at UCLA, that same rigor does not occur as much. A TA does a lot of the grading and editing, and will often grade easier because a TA can be assessed using their student evaluations.”

Although UCLA has some of the best professors in the world, students are not able to fully milk this opportunity and learn from their educators’ knowledge. Professors are rarely the ones grading students’ papers and students miss out on fundamental lessons in their writing. 

Two Writing II courses I took show the lack of standardized instruction. In one, I wrote generic book reports to get the A. Writing instruction included a “how to write a thesis statement” worksheet and several squiggles on my Turnitin essays. In the other course, we were encouraged to to write in various styles: reflection, book report, creative nonfiction paper, and short responses to weekly prompts. We were also given readings from Dreyer’s English, another grammar and usage guidebook. The diversity of assignments allowed us to dabble in disparate styles of prose. By changing our vantage point while regarding the sea of all that is writing, we were able to notice things about our own style, voice, and usage that had previously been blocked by the jetties of essayism and rigid rules. 

Unorthodox courses like this teach students skills that our previous educators often assume we already know, leave for the next educator to deal with, or completely ignore and deem unimportant. Educators, especially those who teach writing, are burdened with instructing students whose previous teachers have not adequately prepared them, from kindergarten to university. 

Teaching writing within the cadre of high school and college is rife with regulation. If students must learn how to write five paragraphs for the ACT, high school teachers are expected to teach this method of writing to mastery. Likewise, as Keaton stated above, TAs may not grade their students’ writing as stringently as they should out of a simple fear of poor student evaluations. Straying from prescripted teaching, though it enriches students’ learning, jeopardizes educators’ job security. 

If UCLA truly valued the writing and development of its students, it would not place educators in the position where they must decide whether to effectively teach their students or keep their jobs. 

Writing is hard. It doesn’t have to be arduous. Instead, it can be a wonderful medium for self-expression and the transmission of ideas. This is difficult, however, when the post elementary education system does not value writing to the degree it should. With more focus diverted to writing and grammar in middle and high school, students will be more prepared to explore how they can manipulate, coax, and coddle language to serve them in college. Then, while attending university, students will become masters of the universally-applicable craft of composition without having to be an English or Creative Writing major. If you want to take this endeavor on for yourself, I highly recommend the texts mentioned in this article. Now go write your five-paragraph essay, but make it yours. Throw in a couple metaphors and winding clauses and maybe write an extra paragraph or two if it suits you. 

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