"Writing itself becomes the subject of the writing course..."

 — Michael Carter       


The Book on Dating and Writing, part 1

July 25th, 2012 by

General writing advice is probably as useful as general dating advice, though to be honest, I didn’t do much dating in high school. So I really can’t say much about it.

What I remember about dating in high school looks today like a series of rather dumb stereotypes. Given the rigid concerns about how I should have behaved on the big prom date, with the expensive dinner and romantic candlelight, it’s no wonder that it didn’t happen for me. I liked girls. I thought I loved a few. But I didn’t really know how to get to know them through the rules of dating. After all, they were rules about looking and sounding good. I didn’t really know how to have fun with them.

I suppose the same thing could be said about those school book reports and research papers, which were all probably necessary on some level. But while all teachers taught against using the first person pronoun “I,” none explained invention or incubation—what creative people really engage in to get good ideas. While all my teachers taught about paragraphs, none taught anything about genre.

As old people often say, if I had known then what I know now–that dating is not about behaving according to some previously agreed upon code–I might have been happier in high school.

And not to be dull, but if I knew then that writing was more interesting than rules, I really might have done it more.

Prescriptive Dating Rules

The romance with rules begins in junior high school with the five paragraph theme. It continues in high school as we are taught to write research that at least “sounds” objective, though we are not taught then to look at more than one position on an issue.

Teachers seem to care most about structure and correctness, even when they claim to understand process. So we are taught to write final drafts before we know what we might care to say about something. As long as we do not use the first person pronoun “I,” they let us get by.

We are told that each paragraph has one idea, and that idea should be expressed in seven sentences (some handbooks say eight, some say six).

And students in most public schools, if they learn to write anything, learn the five paragraph theme, which they practice over and over again. Then they graduate and find out no one reads five paragraph themes except test specialists.

Mark Twain never wrote a five paragraph essay.

Instead, high school students should spend time in high school learning a few of the important genres of essays and even short fiction, and they should practice them.

Situational Dating

Though Strunk & White’s Elements of Style is a famous and even very good book on style, most of it traffics in advice of a general sort. “Omit needless words,” for example, is one famous bit. But to get to the place where I can follow this advice, I need to have written a lot of words to find out which are needless. Before I start, I can’t subtract from zero. Style isn’t the starting point of good writing.

The best, most general writing advice is probably this: Write everyday; don’t worry about writing badly, but try to learn to improve; find subjects you care about, and write to convince others, through your writing, that your subjects matter.

As much as some like to reduce good writing (and dating) to rules, following rules isn’t going to solve all our writing problems. They will lead to neither art nor falling in love. If rules did the trick, wouldn’t there be more lovers and more art in the world?

 

(Coming next: Part 2)

Posted in Composition, five paragraph theme, genres, Invention, rules for writing, Strunk and White, style advice| 2 Comments


Replies:

Comment by socalteacher on July 26, 2012 at 7:28 am

Tom,

I like the connection you make between dating and writing (both seem awkward at first, but produce results with practice).

While I would echo just about everything you said, I will have to admit, however, that I have found use for the 5-paragraph essay outside of high school. I used a very sophisticated very of this structure on my comprehensive exams in grad school and passed for flying colors. Then again, they were so focused on content, they might not have cared about the structure, which is, of course, the opposite of what happens most often in secondary education.

Comment by Sue Tornai on July 26, 2012 at 4:11 pm

Following the rules was important to me in high school, but in the 60s I was a minority. That’s when people broke the rules for whatever reason. When it came to dating, we just had fun. We dressed up for the movies and dinner. We even dressed up for school.

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