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

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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.


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.


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