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

 — Michael Carter       

How Far Will the Rules Carry Us?

April 24th, 2017 by

And swiftly, another school year draws to a close.

When I am teaching mostly writing, I tend to lose track of where the time is going. I find myself working with my students as individual writers, at least, those who will allow for that. Those who have given up on themselves already–and there are many like that, unfortunately–will not care or allow much in terms of interacting over their writing. But at least a few do every semester, and it is to those that I dedicate the semester, the year.

One of the patterns that I noticed more this year than in previous years was something that other teachers of writing have noticed, something that actually was first observed by Cicero. It is this. Writing is a complicated craft. Writing ability comes with much living and trial and error, and much effort. But it is also true that many textbooks sell the craft of writing as a simple matter of rules. This seems like a much better sell, of course, for it makes the craft seem like it can be shrunk to size.

I have been talking with my first-year students all semester about the importance of process. I have engaged them in conferences about their own drafts and how to keep working on them. But that hasn’t stuck. Sometimes, teaching writing is a little too much like parenting–I understand that I am not being listened to. But a few weeks ago, I was startled into noticing that a few of my students had been listening to one point that I made–weeks ago, perhaps as early as week four, when the fatigue was less pervasive.

One student pointed it out again. It was a simple rule of thumb I’d given them about citing from other authors in an academic context. “Never,” I told them, “use an author’s first name only, as if you have known them personally. Do not write that ‘Flannery wrote many short stories.’ The rule is this: The first time you mention her name, give her full name, Flannery O’Connor. Every instance after that, refer to her as O’Connor.”

Again, I said this to them weeks ago, when many of them were doing just that, using the first names of the authors they were citing. This past week, in the middle of another point I was trying to make, one of my less involved students cited this rule again.

I was impressed, of course, until I remembered what this student was doing. He was mentioning a rule. He was comfortable talking about writing in terms of a rule than makes sense of one small point in the middle of a larger context that is otherwise chaotic.

But this is the way that we first think about everything, I suppose. Give me the rules for good hitting or swimming, we might say. Only after we’ve been to enough batting practices or swimming lessons do we become more accepting of the idea that these abilities are not the result of rules.

The same is true of writing. But that is not something that we like to hear at the start.

Posted in Uncategorized| 4 Comments


Comment by Tim Riter on April 25, 2017 at 9:35 am

Tom, I appreciate your article quite a bit, and would echo two points. First, developing as a writer often does take life experience. I tried getting published in my mid 20s, only to realize I had very little worthwhile to say. Second, we begin to grow as an author when we know the rules, know why they exist, and then know when to break them for effect. The delightful movie Finding Forrester has a scene where the two characters “argue” about starting a sentence with a preposition!

Comment by Tom on April 25, 2017 at 10:00 am

Tim, Finding Forrester is a great movie about writers and writing. I agree with you about finding something to say. I would echo your comment about being in your twenties. The same goes for me as well. It seems that writing, like anything worthwhile, takes time and commitment to learn. It isn’t only a matter of rules, any more than being a good chess player is a matter of just learning the rules. There are also other moves we learn. Thanks for your comments.

Comment by Eliot Reasoner on April 26, 2017 at 1:54 pm

Dr. Allbaugh, thank you, again, for sharing this blog post with me. Your points drive especially hard as coming from someone who lives the craft of writing. I had a teacher in high school who said with regard to writing, “You can’t break the rules until you know them.” He may have been emphasizing something a tad different, but your post sheds great light on that statement.

Comment by Tom on April 27, 2017 at 5:01 pm

Eliot, that comment from your teacher is an interesting one and I can see how it would influence your reading. I think that writing is both about rules and about something more–which I am calling craft. It is also rhetoric. But you know about that. Thank you for reading.

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