Reverse detail from Kakelbont MS 1, a fifteenth-century French Psalter. This image is in the public domain. Daniel Paul O'Donnell

Forward to Navigation

Soup to nuts: A recent piece of my writing that technology allows you to follow from idea to completion.

Posted: Oct 27, 2016 17:10;
Last Modified: Jun 25, 2017 16:06


I was discussing writing and editing with a student the other day, and somehow the question of how I worked came up. As it turns out, I have a very recent example where you can pretty much follow the entire process from start to finish.

In showing all my work like this, I’m not making any claims about the quality of my own writing or the efficacy of my method. It is just the case that in this case, modern technology allows me to show the entire process I happened to use in writing a specific piece that people can read in its final form. For some students, I suspect that’s useful.

If you are interested, here are the relevant links to my recent Globe and Mail Op-Ed on “preferred pronouns” and the entire history of its drafting (because I wrote it in Google Docs, you can follow the whole history from start to finish). If you want to follow the revision history, you can find it under “File>See revision history” or by using alt-ctl-shift-h.

It looks like it took me a little more than about 12-14 hours to write, though I don’t remember how long I spent on the notes. It came in in its published form at about 800 words. 12-14 hours is a little long for me for writing an op-ed—I usually do them in about 1 day (so say 6 hours or so). But I found this one hard to write.

Tools that I used were the following:

Here are the different versions:


Class 2.0: Digital technology & digital rhetorics in the undergraduate classroom.

Posted: Feb 08, 2014 16:02;
Last Modified: Mar 04, 2015 05:03


I just posted the slides for my lecture to the Department yesterday: Class 2.0: Digital technology & digital rhetorics in the undergraduate classroom.

Abstract: This lecture discusses some preliminary results from an ongoing research project on the use of digital technology and digital rhetorics in the undergraduate classroom. The goal of the project is to explore how these technologies and rhetorics can address common problems in the literature classroom: weak composition skills, lack of engagement, poor preparation. Initial, at this point still largely anecdotal, results suggest that the committed integration Web 2.0 technologies and rhetorics in the classroom can greatly improve outcomes in this area.

The lecture discusses how these techniques are used and some of the results we have seen.


Teaching prescriptive grammar hurts student writing

Posted: Jan 22, 2014 14:01;
Last Modified: Mar 04, 2015 05:03


_Update: Actually, the chart I was really thinking of can be found here.

The other day in my grammar class, I mentioned an article that reviewed years’ worth of controlled studies into methods of composition structure. The article I was thinking about was George Hillocks, Jr., “What Works in Teaching Composition: A Meta-Analysis of Experimental Treatment Studies,” American Journal of Education 93.1 (1984): 133–170.

The table I was thinking of in class is from page 157:

I’d overstated this conclusion a little: while teaching grammar was indeed the only thing people did that made student writing worse, I was wrong when I said it had a greater effect in absolute terms than any other method.

On the more general question of whether teaching grammar is effective, here is Hillock’s conclusion:

Grammar.-The study of traditional school grammer (i.e., the definition of parts of speech, the parsing of sentences, etc.) has no effect on raising the quality of student writing. Every other focus of instruction examined in this review is stronger. Taught in certain ways, grammar and mechanics instruction has a deleterious effect on student writing. In some studies a heavy emphasis on mechanics and usage (e.g., marking every error) results in significant losses in overall quality. School boards, administrators, and teachers who impose the systematic study of traditional school grammar on their students over lengthy periods of time in the name of teaching writing do them a gross disservice that should not be tolerated by anyone concerned with the effective teaching of good writing. Teachers concerned with teaching standard usage and typographical conventions should teach them in the context of real writing problems (160).

Although you need to be careful, because the results are not alway independent, this conclusion has been reached time and time again in different contexts over at least the last forty years. One relatively recent study from an English context is: Dominic Wyse, “Grammar. For Writing? A Critical Review of Empirical Evidence,” British Journal of Educational Studies 49.4 (2001): 411–427.


Well Done, Dan and Michael

Posted: Sep 13, 2013 12:09;
Last Modified: Jun 26, 2016 13:06

An interesting discussion of form is encapsulated by the article “An Apology for Form; Or, Who Took the Form out of the Process?” by Richard M. Coe.

The article’s first premise is that form and content cannot exist without the other, which gives us an interesting consideration for our research. He says that content is created out of form, by to some degree dictating what will be written.  Coe says, “[f]orm in its emptiness, is heuristic, for it guides structured speech. Faced with the emptiness of a form, a human being seeks matter to fill it” (19). Here, he directly addresses the five paragraph essay. He states that the reason students write three body paragraphs – not two or four – is because the form dictates that there are three empty spaces to fill. Therefore, the writer invents until he has three points to discuss. And then he stops.

Luckily, it’s not all cynicism. The author applauds people like Dan and Michael who are creating new forms to fill in the gaps. He says, “as rhetoricians, we should explicitly invent forms to meet new needs” (21). He also suggests that “a new form often must be created in order to express a radically new idea – and that knowing a form with which an idea can be articulated improves the likelihood of thinking that idea” (25).  That is an interesting point to address why students are always coming up with same, rather dull and unoriginal ideas.

He ends by restating the importance of creating new forms in order to invent new ideas. So well done Dan and Michael, in creating an avenue for students to express themselves in previously unknown (or at least long-forgotten) ways. Coe applauds you.

Coe, Richard M. “An Apology for Form; Or, Who Took the Form Out of the Process?” College English 49.1 (1987): 13–28. JSTOR. Web. 12 Sept. 2013.

Timeline of the History of the Five-Paragraph Essay

Posted: Aug 17, 2013 13:08;
Last Modified: Aug 17, 2013 13:08


The Ideas Create Themselves

Posted: Jul 25, 2013 13:07;
Last Modified: Jul 25, 2013 13:07


I began this week’s rather broad search under the blanket of the question “How to we teach students to have good ideas?” This is not a very straightforward question, or answer, for that matter. Upon embarking on my search, I discovered this interesting fact: there is a lot of information on teaching creativity. However, there is almost none on teaching innovation or critical thinking. Is this a distinction, or a synonym? Does it matter? It is a subtle nuance, but I believe it represents the distinctions of our society and what it values.

Teaching innovation to students usually comes packaged in the outfit of the sciences. What does this suggest? That innovation is only valued in the practical and practicable arenas of the science world? But does this type of innovation help students write essays? We need them to be able to disassemble something, and rather than build something new, they need to be able to figure out a way to creatively tell you how it was built.

There seems to be a generally accepted theory that states that every child has within himself the ability to generate good ideas, and these ideas will naturally come forth if given the proper outlet, which, fittingly, is exactly what the Unessay suggests. Strategies for promoting creativity in students generally focuses on an open output formula, where the results are not specified and discussion and assignments are student driven. This would suggest that good ideas are generated from the individual, and it is within every students’ power to come up with them.

But, as most instructors have probably noticed,  just because an idea is creative, that does not mean it is necessarily a good one. Are creativity and critical thinking the same thing? I think probably not.

But the consensus seems to be that if you give students the reins to discuss and question, they will figure out which are the good ideas and which are the bad ones. The simple act of discussion and engaging with the material lets a student know whether a topic is worth exploring or if it will be easily exhausted. But as the Unessay proves, students fare far better when given the chance to question and examine.

The most poignant truth I discovered when researching was simply this: we learn by imitation. We seem to believe that students come up with brilliant ideas from within themselves. But they must have learned what questions to ask and where to go for inspiration somewhere.  As one theorist suggests, “when allowed to do what we want to do, we are most likely to revert to whatever we previously found enjoyable and/or successful”.

So what is the solution here? If we learn by imitation, yet students can also to a certain extent create innovation from within themselves, I think the answer is that we need to give them something good to imitate, that they can run with. The Unessay does that by allowing students to explore the areas that interest them while channelling the results and discussion  into a scholarly format. If instructors could find a way to be more transparent about their own idea-generating process, and put more emphasis on teaching students how to tell good ideas from bad ones, and then let students run with it, I think the seeds of critical thinking would easily be born.

Works Consulted

Gary, William L. “Letting Students Teach Themselves.” Community College Week 15.7 (2002): 4. Web.

McLester, Susan. “Student Gamecraft.” Technology & Learning 26.4 (2005): 20–24. Web.


The History of the Form Revisited

Posted: Jul 06, 2013 13:07;
Last Modified: Jul 06, 2013 13:07


I mentioned in a previous post an article which attributed the origins of the five-paragraph essay to the early 20th century in Germany. Unfortunately, this snippet was the only glimmer of knowledge I could acquire for some time. After searching vainly for weeks for more about the history of the form, I was today finally gratified when I stumbled across an article called “The Five Paragraph Essay: Its Evolution and Roots in Theme-Writing”, by Matthew J. Nunes.

This article traces the commonly perceived origins of the form,  describing its basis in the realm of current-traditionalism, which had its day between 1870-1920. While the article is actually questioning the origins of the form in this period, it does concede the solid placement of the form within the period which I think is worth describing here.

While the sophisticated and intelligent readers of this blog may be familiar with current-traditionalism, I myself was not. Nunes describes the main features of current-traditionalism  “as being an emphasis on product over process” (297), as well as a great emphasis on rules and results. As Nunes says, “[i]nvention, in current-traditionalism, is essentially disregarded in favor of rule-based arrangement” (299).

This certainly seems to describe how we use the five-paragraph essay today; as a formula into which any argument can be implemented and the result satisfactory. But, as Nunes so eloquently puts it, “the fact that the five-paragraph essay is an important current-traditional form does not mean that it originated in current-traditionalism” (297).

While Nunes is actually disputing the claims of origin in current-traditionalism, he agrees with many points that are an interesting insight into the history of the form. He mentions how textbooks from the current-traditional period often contained “how-to” sections for writing paragraphs and longer essays that ended up much like our five-paragraph form today.

What Nunes is really suggesting is that the form came from the development of Theme writing, in the same period as that of the current-traditional. A similarly structured form of writing, it included “detailed directions and assignments” (301).  The title is relatively self-explanatory; it indicates a theme on which students are supposed to write and create an argument. This format is common today in written examinations (301). These themes included directions for an introduction, body paragraphs, and a carefully summarized conclusion. But while Theme writing was popular and widely used in the current-traditional period, it was in use even before the Civil War in America (304). The same standards were in use  in Great Britain, as their educational system continued to “dominate American language instruction long after she had ceased to dominate America politically” (Armstrong 71, qtd. Nunes 305).

Nunes notes the more rigidly structured evolution of theme writing from Montaigne’s original attempt at the essay. Much as they are used today, theme writing was used to teach students the basics of essay writing before they moved on to more complex discussions (306). He goes on to explore theme writing throughout history, noting references to the practice by John Locke, and others in the 17th century ( 308), with much of the strength of the form being created even earlier, in the 16th century.

As a nice sum up, Nunes states that, in reference to the five paragraph essay that pervades and plagues our educational institutions “its history can inform our understanding of why it persists” (309). In this, Nunes also addresses my frustration in the inability to find scholarship addressing the beginnings of the five paragraph form. There is little that tells us how it came to be, and instead of questioning this invisibility, we simply take it as a symbol of its undisputed supremacy.

This article offers a neatly placed glimpse into the possible origins of the form that is so cemented into our educational system. With its history, we are offered the opportunity to place the form in our own context, and make the invisible seen, bringing understanding to our practices and how we may change them.

Work Cited

Nunes, Matthew J. “The Five-Paragraph Essay: Its Evolution and Roots in Theme-Writing.” Rhetoric Review 32.3 (2013): 295–313. Taylor and Francis+NEJM. Web. 4 July 2013.


Unfortunately, Planning and Structure do not Equate to Comprehension and Creativity

Posted: Jun 19, 2013 13:06;
Last Modified: Jun 19, 2013 13:06


In the realm of our Unessay research, researchers cannot seem to agree on a few questions. What is the best way to teach students to write with vibrancy? Is it to give free reins and let them run with anything? Or is what is needed a more central focus on the tools needed to write effectively, like grammar, syntax, and other stylistic concerns? And where does argumentation fit in? Where will students learn to think critically and insightfully about the issues they are presented with, rather than just forming unoriginal, albeit well supported, formulaic essays?

These were my questions as I begin to search for the ways in which other researchers, apart from Dan and our Unessay crew, have approached the issue of teaching essay writing to students. Many approaches mirrored that of Dan and Michael’s, in that they favoured a more analysis-centred approach, leaning more towards giving students the opportunities to think and to question. Form and structure typically take less of a focus, and the emphasis in instruction is placed on critical thinking and questioning.

For students with learning disabilities, planning and a focus on structure seems to be the key to writing a good essay. Sexton et. al.  (1998) conducted a study in which they helped sixth graders with learning disabilitiesmore effectively incorporate the aspect of planning and development into the essays they write. Now this is an interesting notion. These students were writing poorly formed essays based on their mental function that often removed the planning stages from their writing. Could older writers be doing the same thing? It certainly appears as if students without learning disabilities have taken the emphasis on structure and used it as the measuring stick for all of their essays?

Perhaps a lack of planning often contributes to undergraduates’ essays. Many write essays by pulling an all-nighter, and simply getting it done in one twenty-four hour timespan. While adult brains have a significantly larger capability to understand and comprehend things in the long-term, maybe undergraduate essay writers are not utilizing this ability. Papers come out stilted because they have not been planned, simply been stuck in. Originality to some extent comes from thought about a topic and its counter-arguments. When students write essays, they are not thinking about the writing process, and how they are to formulate an essay, Instead, they are thinking about how they can take the form they were already given and plug into it what is needed.

The exercise of planning helps students with learning disabilities get a grasp on the form of the essay as a whole, so it can be tied together and its separate parts joined. University students are missing this step in the process. They see the five-paragraph form not as a way to tie things together, but a way to break them apart, into easily manageable pieces that require no originality and no planning, only the evidential proving of each separate piece in a sequence. As opposed to using these building blocks to build a bridge to bigger and more complex ideas, university students tend to use them to build a wall around themselves, one that keeps them from seeing and understanding the flexibility and possibilities of the essay form.

But why? Is laziness simply the answer? A lack of time, or rather, adequate time management? Or has there been something so engrained in our students that teaches them when it is time to reach down into the very depths of their knowledge and understanding, and to discourse effectively on it, the only thing to do is replicate their model?

This seems like a rather alarming precedent. In a society that professes to value creativity, in terms of students’ essays, there seems to be a disconnect in what we practice and what we preach. More can certainly be researched about how the essay format influences students’ and instructors’ individual perceptions of what is required for a well-written essay, and how these expectations differ.

Works Consulted

Gary, William L. “Letting Students Teach Themselves.” Community College Week 15.7 (2002): 4. Web.

Andrews, Richard et al. “Teaching Argument Writing to 7- to 14-year-olds: An International Review of the Evidence of Successful Practice.” Cambridge Journal of Education 39.3 (2009): 291–310. EBSCOhost. Web.

Fallahi, Carolyn R.Wood. “A Program for Improving Undergraduate Psychology Students’ Basic Writing Skills.” Teaching of Psychology 33.3 (2006): 171–175. EBSCOhost. Web. 13 June 2013.

Prosser, Michaelwebb. “Relating the Process of Undergraduate Essay Writing to the Finished Product.” Studies in Higher Education 19.2 (1994): 125. Web.

Sexton, Melissa, Karen R. Harris, and Steve Graham. “Self-Regulated Strategy Development and the Writing Process: Effects on Essay Writing and Attributions.” Exceptional Children 64.3 (1998): 295–311. Web.

Lavelle and Zuercher, Ellen and Nancy. “The Writing Approaches of University Students.” n. pag. Web.

Young, Beth Rapp. “The Grammar Voyeur: Using Google to Teach English Grammar to Advanced Undergraduates.” American Speech 86.2 (2011): 247–258. EBSCOhost. Web. 13 June 2013.

“Let’s Kill the Term Paper – The Conversation – The Chronicle of Higher Education.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. Web. 31 May 2013.

“In Teaching Composition, ‘Formulaic’ Is Not a 4-Letter Word.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. Web. 31 May 2013.


A Review of “A Machine Learning Approach For Identification of Thesis and Conclusion Statements in Student Essays"

Posted: Jun 06, 2013 13:06;
Last Modified: Jun 06, 2013 13:06


I’ve become quite interested in the idea of machines grading papers ever since I read the New York Times Article Dan posted in the group library: “New test for Computers: Grading Essays at the College level.” For now I am just going to concern myself with the article in my title, but I am working on a much larger piece which combines several scholarly articles as well as a few editorials, on an educational issue that I feel will become increasingly relevant as technology expands: grading machines.

This article is interesting for several reasons, but mostly because it tests the abilities of human-markers against machine-markers, which is after all the most important issue when determining the efficacy and usefulness of these machines. Can these machines pick out those things that produce an effective piece of writing? The article defines what it means by effective writing, which I believe is an adequate but unfinished definition: “The literature in the teaching of writing suggests that invention, arrangement and revision in essay writing must be developed in order to produce effective writing. Stated in practical terms, students at all levels, elementary school through post-secondary education, can benefit from practice applications that give them an opportunity to work on discourse structure in essay writing.” I think we can mostly agree that if a machine can fulfill these requirements, that while imperfect, it is headed in the right direction.

So how well do the machines in this experiment perform these functions? Firstly, it is important to look at what it is the machines are being asked to do. In a broad sense they are being asked to identify the thesis and conclusion statements in a few hundred student essays. But the greater goal is to have them outperform a positional algorithm; this would show evidence that the machines can not only recognize specific examples input into them, but can also apply knowledge based on those examples.

The positional algorithm pertains to how a computer marks an essay based on length and position of words and paragraphs:

Essay length is highly correlated with human or machine scores (i.e., the longer the essay, the higher the score). Similarly, the position of the text in an essay is highly related to particular discourse elements. Therefore, we computed a positional label for the thesis and conclusion discourse categories. The method outlined in Table II was used for computing baselines reported in a later section” (462). The computing baselines for the positional algorithm are as follows, where P=paragraph:

For thesis statements: (1)# of P=3 or more all text in P 1, excluding the first sentence. (2) # of P=2 or more select all text in the first P. (3) # of P=1 Select nothing

For conclusion statements: (1) # of P=3 or more all text in final P (2) # of P=2 or more select all text in final P (3) # of P=1 select nothing.

The Results: “the performance of both discourse-based systems exceeds that of the positional algorithm, with the exceptions of the topic-independent system, PIC, for identification of thesis statements” (465).

“For identification of conclusion statements, the topic-dependent and topic independent systems have overall higher agreement than for thesis statements” (465)

“Thesis statements are more difficult to model as is apparent when we compare system performance for thesis and conclusion statements” (465).

”Overall, the results in this study indicate that it is worth continuing research using machine learning approaches for this task, since they clearly outperform the positional baseline algorithm” (465).

The machines are better at identifying conclusion and thesis statements than the positional baseline algorithm, but they are not as effective as the human markers. However the machines can do this process much faster than the human markers, providing almost instant feedback. What we see here, I think, is that machines are helpful when we want to identify specific discourse elements related to writing: i.e. grammar, thesis and conclusion statements, punctuation etc., Machines handle the mechanical aspects of writing quite well. What I have been finding, however, is that machines are notoriously poor at dealing with the creative aspects of writing, including subversion of writing rules.

My larger blog will focus on a synthesis of the creative and mechanical aspects of writing and the pros and cons of machine grading that goes along with those. Specifically, I will look at how a machine might deal with some of the more unusual writing pieces the unessay is likely to produce. Can a machine ever be relied upon to mark something that bends the rules of writing for a purpose?

Works Cited:

Burstein, Jill, and Daniel Marcu. “A Machine Learning Approach for Identification of Thesis and Conclusion Statements in Student Essays.” Computers and the Humanities 37.4 (2003): 455–467. JSTOR. Web. 31 May 2013


From Reading to Writing: Why the Essay isn’t Working

Posted: Jun 01, 2013 13:06;
Last Modified: Jun 01, 2013 13:06


Academic literature is rife with conflicting reports on the nature of the five paragraph essay. Discourses from composition professors, high school teachers, and disgruntled students cover the pages of journals and blogs, offering up heavy-handed insights about the benefits and tyrannies of the typical five paragraph format. Many praise the formulaic model that allows for expansion and embellishment, while others disparage it as the ultimate indignity in stifling any creative impulses a student may have had. So what then, is to be the consensus?

I wanted to examine the origins of the form, and hopefully tie it to its modern instructional methods. Most associate the origins of the essay with the 16th century author Montaigne, who provided the name for the genre when he described his literary experiments as essai, the French verb meaning loosely “to try” (Atwan 110). Montaigne classified his works by no other category, but simply by their common attempt to engage critical thought and the processes of questioning and answering. Yet, the deviation from this original and idealized model in students’ writing today is startlingly clear. But that is something we already knew, as the whole goal of this project is to try to examine from where this disparity originates.

These days, loose and undefined attempts at critical thought are not what students are asked to write in the classroom. In Atwan’s article, “Notes Towards the Definition of an Essay,” I found a statement that neatly reiterates something I wrote a few weeks ago: “[i]n short, they were asked to read essays but required to write compositions” (113). He is talking about the obvious disconnect between the true and vibrant essays that make up the academic canon and the simply formulaic models students are asked to produce in a poor form of mimicry. The serious disparity between the literature that students read and what they are expected to write is indicative of a much larger problem.

In discussing the exercise of essay writing in schools, G. Kim Blank suggests that:

[t]he practice, hustled from its German origins early in the 20th century, began earnestly enough: It was one way for students to demonstrate that they could absorb what they had read, a form fairly close to what we now call a research paper. The practice exploded in the second half of the century, and it continues today, having also devolved into variations of the now ubiquitous five-paragraph essay.

But here is where the misadventure begins: While the research or term paper and its spinoffs had the good intention to show that a student had assimilated material—that is, that the student could think, not to mention read—today its function revolves around whether the student can write. (1)

If this is really the case, it has massive implications for the teaching paradigm. If this shift is truly exemplified within the education system, it makes perfect sense that students have trouble thinking critically about what they read. What was originally created to determine reading comprehension is now used to measure writing ability. The focus on critical thinking skills that it was meant to teach are now suspiciously absent, and even more disconcertingly, what has taken its place?. In high school, students are taught how to write an essay, not to critically think through its parameters. We teach students to write the five paragraph essay, not the essay in its original form, which was really a “thinking-through”, and an attempt at understanding.

How many high school teachers mark essays based on comprehension of the material? They are marked based on the defensibility of the thesis, and the argument’s execution. This is where the fundamental disparity lies, and what needs to be addressed if students are to approach secondary education more fully prepared for the engagement and critical thinking that is required of them at this level.

Works Cited

Atwan, Robert. “Notes Towards the Definition of an Essay.” River Teeth 14.1 (2012): 109–117. Web.

Blank, G. Kim. “Let’s Kill the Term Paper – The Conversation – The Chronicle of Higher Education.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. Web. 31 May 2013.


What Makes Writing Good?

Posted: May 25, 2013 14:05;
Last Modified: May 25, 2013 14:05


The whole point of the unessay project, as I understand it, is to further develop and understand tools that enhance good writing. The unessay is one such tool. My early research has been dedicated to the dissection of the unessay: what principles underlie its composition? how does it fit into current theories on teaching writing? And how and why is it an effective tool? Much of this research is centered around the theories of meta cognition and scaffolding. The unessay requires that its user consider every aspect of the writing process (metacognition): form, argumentation, style, topic etc., It also attempts to bridge the gap between the formal essay and free-writing, by giving the writer complete control, allowing them to utilise the skills they already have in a form they are comfortable with. The end goal is always the formal essay, but the achievement of that goal is through the slow addition of knowledge to a student’s pre-existing knowledge (scaffolding). It sounds almost painfully obvious that learning is simply the expanding framework of an existing body of knowledge, but the formal essay often disregards this concept. A student is given a framework, and it is assumed she already understands how to utilize it. I think what many teachers find–myself included during my brief stint in the education program–is that many students do not understand the form, nor do they feel particularly inclined to utilise it.

With a decent framework through which to understand the unessay, and its place in the contemporary teaching of writing, I shifted the focus of my research, broadening it slightly, to try and answer what I feel is the most significant question when assessing any writing tool: what makes good writing? If we can compile a series of attributes that constitute good writing then surely we can come up with a tool which fosters those skills.

“What Makes Writing Good? An Essential Question for Teachers” is an article I came across while investigating this very question. The article begins with an interesting question: how do teachers evaluate a student’s writing? There are numerous issues when doing so, subjectivity being the most contentious: “reader-response theorist Louise Rosenblatt, whose transactional theory to reading, famously defined reading as ‘a transaction between the reader and what he senses the words are pointing to.‘” When a teacher marks a student’s paper she is responding to the student’s writing, and making a judgement call about how successful the student is at pointing those words to the topic at hand. Because of the highly subjective nature of this line of inquiry, teachers have attempted to come up with some objective ways of evaluating writing. The 6+1 Traits model of assessment is one of the more popular approaches used in schools. It creates a rubric to define objectively good writing: “In this model, the key traits that define strong writing are ideas, organization, voice, word choice, sentence fluency, conventions, and presentation” (319). Creating objective marking systems is probably the most popular method of teaching writing right now. It allows the marker to appear impartial, and it allows the student practical, tangible guidelines to follow.

The problem with this method, apart from it being impossible to reduce writing to a formula, is that it diminishes the creativity of writing, which according to many writers and teachers is an essential component of any written work. The unessay, while being far more difficult to mark than a paper adhering to the 6+1 traits method, is more realistic and accommodating because it supposes that writing can be successful in many different forms. A study conducted in this article comes to a similar conclusion. The study: “three groups composed of teachers, teaching various age groups, academics, and professional fiction writers were given a series of Q statements about writing (ex: Good writing is clear and easy to understand. Readers don’t have to struggle to get what the author is saying.), and asked to rank these statements from ‘strongly agree’ to ‘strongly disagree.’

The results of the study:

Group 1: emphasized “the connection between writing and thinking” (322). They tended to disregard standard conventions as a necessity of good writing. They valued creativity, surprise, and ideas over rules of convention or form.

Group 2: “emphasized organization and ease of understanding” (323). They thought good writing adhered to predictable forms, making it easier to read, and that the audience was unimportant–good writing will be clear regardless of the audience.

Group 3:  “valued clear purpose, voice, and correct writing mechanics” (324). They thought that good writing ought to follow the mechanical rules of grammar and punctuation, but that writing was not hindered by subverting conventions in argumentation or style.

This study suggests that there is no such thing as a universal standard for good writing. It is conditional, and based on a number of factors. One of the most important factors in determining good writing is fashion. What kind of writing is fashionable or ‘in’ at that particular moment in time? The article cites the influential Elements of Style as one such example. The Elements of Style preaches the hemmingway-esque style of writing: stripped-down, plain and clear language, using adverbs and adjectives sparingly. The article emphasizes that though this may be the dominant style, it wasn’t always, and is unlikely to remain so indefinitely (319-20). Take Nabokov’s Lolita for example: the language is flourish and overdone, soaked with adjectives, adverbs, and very wordy, yet it is considered one of the greatest novels of all time; its language and style being two of the biggest parts of that success. Nabokov uses the language to convey themes and ideas, to suggest that language can disguise the hideousness of an action or individual.

Nabokov demonstrates something that the article touches on in its conclusions, namely, that although there is no ultimate standard or checklist to define good writing, there are some general rules which will help all writers: “within each perspective teachers do need to consider the purpose for a particular piece of writing. For example, a creative personal narrative about a new stepmother does not need to adhere to the five-paragraph structure, nor should an essay written for a standardized test get ‘creative’ with punctuation” (325). As the unessay promotes, the common theme to good writing is an understanding of your purpose for writing, and how that purpose is best relayed to an audience formally. The decisions are yours to make. The success of your work is deterimined by your abilities, not adherence to one kind of writing.Consider the audience, the purpose, and the form when writing. Teachers should be aware of their biases and adjust marking schemes accordingly.

Works Cited:

Nauman, April D., Terry Stirling, and Arlene Borthwick. “What Makes Writing Good? An Essential Question for Teachers.” Reading Teacher 64.5 (2011): 318–328. Print.


The Unessay and Metacognition

Posted: May 16, 2013 14:05;
Last Modified: May 16, 2013 14:05


In order to understand what the unessay attempts to do for writers one must understand the underlying philosophies that govern it. In my preliminary research for this project I attempted to dissect the unessay, revealing its structures, and then relating those structures to the larger theories of teaching writing.

So what is the unessay, and what principals underlie it? Using Dan’s description of the project as well as Ullyot’s blog, I came to several answers to this question: firstly the unessay is concerned with ideas, that is, what does the writer have to say about a particular topic, and just as importantly, how will the writer present these ideas? This asks the writer to be self-aware both of the subject upon which he/she will base her writing, and also with regards to form. The writer must come up with a method appropriate to the content to disseminate her ideas, which forces her to consider her ideas and how the conveyance of those ideas is effected by presentation. Self-aware and self-conscious writing seems to be the most important aspect of the unessay, as adherence to strict form is relegated to the background. In the larger educational literature this is referred to as METACOGNITION (thinking about thinking). This is where I would like to focus the crux of my research on the unessay project. The articles I have combed through so far all stress the importance of understanding why we make the decisions we make when we write. If you can answer these questions you are better able to correct mistakes and reinforce strengths.

The other common theme I found in teaching writing, one related to the unessay project, is the importance of viewing writing as a process. I think the weakness of the formal essay is a result of how it’s taught: students are given a list of rules they ought not to violate, a word count, and a list of topics. These are all useful guidelines, but they relate exclusively to the end-product. The articles I have read, which range from a kindergarten class to a university class, all stress the importance of workshops and the process of writing. What good does a word count do if you don’t know how to construct a proper argument? How does adherence to proper MLA format teach an individual how to edit in a way that higher level concerns are addressed (argument validity, evidence etc)? The unessay does some of these things as it forces the writer to become responsible for every aspect of the design process, instead of relying on the formal essay’s rigid framework. Finally, the articles focusing on younger students stressed the importance of writing without writing. Having students talk out writing, draw writing, or act out writing, gives different types of learners the opportunity to form ideas, which can then be translated into literal writing.

Works Cited:

Cleary, Michelle Navarre. “How Antonio Graduated on Out of Here: Improving the Success of Adult Students with an Individualized Writing Course.” Journal of Basic Writing (CUNY) 30.1 (2011): 34–63. Print.

Cummins, Sunday, and Ruth E. Quiroa. “Teaching for Writing Expository Responses to Narrative Texts.” Reading Teacher 65.6  (2012): 381–386. Print.

Jacobs, Geralyn M. “A Classroom Investigation of the Growth of Metacognitive Awareness in Kindergarten Children Through the Writing Process.” Early Childhood Education Journal 32.1 (2004): 17–23. Print.


Introduction to Unessay Research

Posted: May 15, 2013 13:05;
Last Modified: May 15, 2013 13:05


There appears to be a fundamental discord in the way students are taught to argue and the what professors view as a “good argument”. High school students are taught that a good argument is a point that can be evidentially proven, but professors are searching for a more open-ended approach. Students are taught to answer, while professors want them to question.

Yet, the essay seems to be a loose term in regards to genre and its conventions, with variations being prevalent across disciplines. Does “anything go” when it comes to formulaic standards? Some scholars make a distinction between the “essay” and the “article”. But how many students are taught and become truly aware of this distinction? Students read articles, yet are told to formulate essays. This distinction is one that is not often communicated to students. Upon beginning my research of the subject, I myself had never entertained the distinction.

But of course we must have a thesis. Professors require a melding of the genres, into what Heilker calls “exploratory, essayistic discourse” (Heilker 191), to be mixed with a strong thesis proven in a logical and well-supported manner. Indeed, Heilker continues, “[c]larity and order are virtues, no doubt, but overdone they produce prose that is flat, predictable, and boring” (197). But why does a separation of merely rambling discourse and a logical thesis seem so hard for students to come by, and to produce such stilted writing that it pains professors to read it? Heilker states the plight of professors most clearly when he says that “[t]he ideas of pleasure reading and student writing seem contradictory, but it shouldn’t and doesn’t have to be that way” (Heilker 197). There must be some model of argumentation that is so often ingrained in students that it requires an extensive remodelling to overcome.

There is also often an absence of emotion in traditional student writing. In my own experience, I know this to be true. As a high school student, I was told to take all personality and all traces of emotion out of my writing, and to produce a technically sound and cleverly written piece of prose. This is easier said than done. University professors and the grades they assigned to me seemed to agree as I realized that my best writing was often produced in a state of passion and emotion. It was the overwrought, overdone, and highly manipulated phrases that came out the most critiqued and awkward.

I loved writing the blogs, because there were quite literally no rules, other than they had to get done. For the first time, I felt liberated from the strictures of removing myself from my work; personal opinion, emotion, and cheering enthusiasm were all tolerated. What a novel experience! Upon beginning the blogs, I never imagined that I would be allowed, even encouraged, to write essays in a similar manner. While I never had any major difficulties in formulating some acceptable argument, I often felt frustrated when it came to conclusions. My essays would often be returned with an exhortation to expand and elaborate in my conclusions, to question and answer the question “why is this important”? “But I thought I did,” I would exclaim. I had neatly summed up my points and provided a short abstract about possible implications for my conclusions. But this was not questioning. This was restating the obvious.

So what is different between secondary and college level writing? What is expected, but more saliently, what is taught? I have had instructors tell me that a brilliant idea argued poorly will earn a much lower grade than a mediocre idea presented clearly. While to some extent this premise makes sense, is this the standard that should be strived for? Based on these standards, good grades earned from essays written begin to become a bit more arbitrary. A’s are earned not because of inherent brilliance written into the student’s work, but because there is nothing overtly wrong with it.

In pursuing this strain of research, I would like to continue to examine the literature on the way essays and argumentation are taught at the secondary and undergraduate levels. I think it would be helpful to speak to professors in the Academic Writing department, and possibly in English and Education, to determine how students are emerging from their high school education, and what is specifically lacking in the arguments constructed by undergraduates. Dan’s Unessay research has already determined what differences emerge when writing and argumentation are approached from a different angle, so I would like to provide the context for why students writing efforts are not living up to the expectations presented in a conventional undergraduate classroom.

Works Cited

Heilker, Paul. “Twenty Years In: An Essay in Two Parts.” College Composition and Communication 58.2 (2006): 182–212.


Back to content

Search my site


Current teaching

Recent changes to this site


anglo-saxon studies, caedmon, citation, citation practice, citations, composition, computers, digital humanities, digital pedagogy, exercises, grammar, history, moodle, old english, pedagogy, research, student employees, students, study tips, teaching, tips, tutorials, unessay, universities, university of lethbridge

See all...

Follow me on Twitter

At the dpod blog