Monthly Archives: December 2019

Form and Wobble

I want to end the year with a return to woodworking as a metaphor for writing. It helps me to express my puzzlement at critiques of the five-paragraph essay. I recently read David Labaree’s contribution to this debate in Aeon from a couple of years ago. Here’s his description of what he calls “the five-paragraph fetish”.

The form becomes the product. Teachers teach the format as a tool; students use the tool to create five paragraphs that reflect the tool; teachers grade the papers on their degree of alignment with the tool. The form helps students to reproduce the form and get graded on this form. Content, meaning, style, originality and other such values are extraneous – nice but not necessary.

What puzzles me about this criticism is that it is presented as part of an outright rejection of the form rather than a measured critique of its fetishization. (This is a long-standing problem in my attempts to engage with anti-five-paragraph activism.) After all, it’s hard to see what could be wrong with teaching students to use a tool and then testing them on their ability to use it. What seems to be happening — what makes it a “fetish” — is that students are taught to merely invoke the tool, rather than to actually handle it skillfully. The five-paragraph essay becomes a ritual rather than a craft.

Consider the carpenter’s apprentice. When making a table, she will have to join four legs to a tabletop, perhaps by way of a box apron. The final product may contain nine individual pieces of wood, some glue, perhaps some screws or nails. But surely we will not give her a top grade simply for arranging nine pieces of wood in a table-like form? Competence will be revealed in everything from the choice of materials to the care that was taken in joining them together. The master will have many different ways to test the table beyond its mere conformity, i.e., its “reproduction of form”.

And this really is what I don’t understand about the argument against the five-paragraph essay. Surely, we can grade “content, meaning, style, originality,” and form? Surely, we can ask the students to write a formally correct essay and make a genuinely compelling argument? The fact that the apprentice submitted a 90 cm x 90 cm table with four legs should not cause us to overlook its wobble.

Last Week, Yesterday, Today

If you’re reading this blog you’re probably a knowledgeable person. I imagine that you’re a student or a scholar in an academic discipline, and you’re working on your craft, which is to say, you’ve already learned a great deal. You know more about your subject than most people — in fact, out of the billions of people who live on this planet, there are probably only a few thousand, perhaps only a few hundred, who know as much as you do about your subject, and this is especially true when we consider the content of your current project. Indeed, on matters relating to what you’re working on right now, you may only have a few dozen intellectual equals. It’s important that you begin with this awareness when you are working on your writing. Understand that you know a great deal about your subject and proceed on that basis. Write from the center of a formidable strength.

Now, keep in mind that all this knowledge didn’t come to you by some miracle this morning when you awoke. You’ve been accumulating knowledge for months and years and you will be drawing on this in your writing today. Last week, too, you were a very knowledgeable person; last week, too, if relatively speaking, you had very few equals on this planet. If your writing is only as smart as you were last week, it’s still going to be very smart. In fact, you’re not significantly smarter than you were last week — you’re literally only marginally smarter. You are almost as likely to have picked up a new dumb idea over the past few days as you are to have truly learned something new. And you’re almost as likely as that to have made no progress at all. How much will you know tomorrow? The answer is almost always going to be: about as much as you know today. And, since anything you write down today will be published, if ever, months from now, whether you write down what you know today, or what you knew yesterday, or what you knew last week, isn’t really going to make much of a difference from the point of few of the novelty of your published work. You’re always going to be smarter than your publication list.

This is what my first two rules are about. What you are writing about is always in the past; who you are writing for is always in the future. Your reader is always receiving an “outdated” message, a report on your state of mind that is no longer current. But you want the reader to learn something about what you are actually thinking. So you have to find a way to make sure that the things you are writing about will remain relevant going forward. You want to write on a stable foundation of knowledge. And the best way to do that is to choose, today, something you knew last week to write about tomorrow.

Seconds, Minutes, and Hours

It takes seconds to write a sentence. It takes minutes to write a paragraph. And it takes hours to write an essay. Writing never takes days or weeks or months. That is, you don’t spend day in and day out engaged in nothing but writing. At worst (and it’s bad enough) you might spend a whole day engaged in writing, to the exclusion of all else, but even this conspicuous display of your commitment to writing is best measured in hours. If you ask me, serious writing should never occupy more than three hours in a given day, which should be divided into 20- or 30-minute “moments” that have been arranged the day before. In each writing moment, you take 18 or 27 minutes to compose a paragraph out of sentences that you write. After a two or three minute break, you get on with your day, which may be another paragraph. You can write six or nine paragraphs this way in three hours. Writing is what goes on during those hours. It does not go on for weeks and months.

A scholar’s life, of course, goes on for years and years. Knowledge builds up over time as beliefs are entertained and tested, and then retained or replaced with other beliefs. The research experience doesn’t usually benefit from being overly segmented and planned. In order to make discoveries, you have to be open to novel insights; unexpected events must be welcomed as opportunities, not avoided as interruptions. So it makes sense to say that you were “working on a problem” for months before a solution presented itself. “Working on it” might simply have meant waiting patiently, receptively, for the issue to resolve itself. Thinking something new, or even just seeing something you hadn’t seen before, isn’t an event you put into your calendar and then dutifully show up to participate in.

But writing is different. When you are actually doing it, writing is something quite specific. The idea you want to express comes to you and your fingers produce the words, either on the page or on the screen. As I said in a previous post, this happens at something like the “speed of thought”, though we might qualify this by saying that we think a bit more slowly when we are sitting in front the machine than we would if we were going for a walk or, say, engaged in conversation. But it’s still an immediate experience: having a thought and expressing it occurs essentially simultaneously, in the span of few seconds.

Paragraphs, by contrast, take longer to write, with a number of ideas occupying your attention at various times, sometimes recurrently, sometimes simultaneously. Crucially, when you are composing a paragraph you are putting ideas together, which is to say, you are working with several sentences at the same time (in the same moment). It’s not so much the ideas you express in each sentence that matters, but the relationships that you establish between them. One of the sentences, for example, will be your “key sentence” and all the others will be organized around it — supporting, elaborating or defending it. This, in turn, means they have to work together, which is not a simple of matter of making sure they’re all true. Sometimes two true sentences imply opposite conclusions unless they’re each properly contextualized in their own paragraph. That’s why you need significantly more time to write a paragraph than a sentence.

An essay is an arrangement of paragraphs that are composed of sentences. You can work on their arrangement separate from the writing and the composition by making yourself a key-sentence outline and confining yourself to putting them in the right order, perhaps tweaking their scope by changing a word or adding a qualifier. Revisions like this shouldn’t occupy more than a few hours of your time on any given day. Remember that it is possible to overthink the structure of essay, imagining that it does more work than it is reasonable to expect of the reader. After all, the logical structure of an essay must be able to fit into the mind of an ordinary, academic reader, who is reading it paragraph-by-paragraph, minute-by-minute. (It takes about one minute to read a 200-word paragraph.) An essay or research paper occupies about an hour (often less) of your reader’s attention. Your own image of it as a writer should not be more complicated than that.


Nabokov used to tell his students that “a good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader.” By a similar token good writers, serious writers, even if they’re minor and not especially creative writers like us, are rewriters. This raises the interesting question of how “revision” fits into the writing process.

Revision of course plays a major role in writing instruction. (See, for example, the late, great Scott Eric Kaufman.) But this doesn’t mean the same thing for all writers. Anne Lamott famously promotes the idea of writing “shitty first drafts”, with the implication that good and great writing only emerges through revision. Jonathan Mayhew, however, has challenged this idea. “At some point the writer needs to learn how to write,” he argues, “not just revise.” I side with Jonathan on this. Especially for academic writers, I don’t think it’s a good idea to let our ideas tumble out of us inchoately (and often simply incoherently) onto the page, leaving it to our future selves to clean up the mess we’re gleefully making of the present. I think we should sit down and write the best paragraphs about things we know that we’re capable of in the moment. Like Jonathan says, that’s the only way we’ll actually become good writers.

The first drafts will not be perfect, but they will not be shitty either. Revision will still be necessary, but much less. The experienced writer will avoid certain kinds of mistakes on the first draft. After all, if you can’t write, you won’t be able to revise either, because re-writing is still a form of writing. A good writer needs to know the feeling of composing a good sentence, once in a while, on the first try. I’d much rather have a model that emphasizes the development of the writer’s competence.

Too many writers fail to really enjoy this “feeling of composing a good sentence”; they don’t give themselves the time to really experience what writing is. Instead, they write their first draft to a low standard (having deliberately freed themselves of a higher one) and then struggle valiantly to clarify their own confusion in later versions, often leaving them exhausted and uncertain they ever knew anything at all. This is a tragedy because a good writer should feel sane and strong while writing — perhaps the sanest and strongest they can be. Writing a scholarly paper should, for the most part, be an entirely lucid experience — the experience of knowing what you’re talking about. It should not be the experience of roughing something out that you’ll have to polish up later.

So where does that leave revision? Well, if you’re following my rules, your draft (at any stage) will consist of a series of orderly paragraphs, each of which says one thing and supports, elaborates or defends it. You can identify the paragraph by its key sentence and position it in an outline. Already there, you can “revise” (or re-vision) your text simply by imagining the same paragraphs in a different order, the same claims arranged in a different sequence. You can also imagine the claims sharpened a little or broadened a little — giving them a more definite point or a wider scope. And you can make separate, independent judgments about whether the reader will find these claims hard to believe, understand or agree with. Now you’ve got your work cut out for you.

Importantly, this revision of the key-sentence outline has set up a re-writing task. Print out your current draft (perhaps just as a PDF to open in a separate window) and make a separate document with all your (revised) key sentences in the (revised) order you’ve settled on. Beside each sentence there will be a simple marker (“S”, “E”, “D”) telling you whether to support, elaborate or defend it. You’ll probably have around 40 paragraphs if you’re writing a standard paper in the social sciences. That means you’ve got 20 hours of work in front of you. Make a plan to (re)compose each paragraph carefully and deliberately in a 27-minute writing moment, using the material in your original draft (where an earlier version of the paragraph already exists) as your notes — perhaps supplemented with other notes or sources. If 27 minutes seems like too much time (perhaps this is your third or fourth revision?), try 18 or 14 minutes. But in all cases physically re-write the paragraph. Type it in. Don’t copy and paste. Pass your text through your own hands. It will be good for your style.

I don’t just mean that it will be good for the style of the text you’re working on right now. I mean that it will make you a better writer. It’s not that all good writing has been rewritten many times in this way. (Some good writing does in fact emerge from the revision of shitty drafts.) It’s that good writers are the product of continuous, deliberate practice. They have written and rewritten the same ideas many times. They have become good at writing down what they know for the purpose of discussing it with other knowledgeable people. And, as Ezra Pound reminded us long ago, “one definition of beauty is: aptness to purpose.” Don’t just improve your text through revision. Improve your writing through rewriting.