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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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:


Academic Suicide

Posted: Mar 12, 2014 16:03;
Last Modified: Mar 04, 2015 06:03


The so-called “college paper” has been a debated topic practically since its initial inception. A recent class statement brought the debate to the forefront of my mind. Professor O’Donnell stated, in a tone of bemusement, that his students tend to perform better on the blog assignments than on their actual papers. It does seem odd that a discrepancy exists between two writing exercises. However, the answer formed almost immediately within my thoughts and has expanded through the discussion of prescriptive rules versus descriptive. The reason students are so terrible at writing the “college paper” boils down to differences between prescriptive rules and descriptive rules. With that I commit myself to academic suicide by breaking the general guidelines and prescriptive rules of academic writing and adhering only to grammatical prescriptive rules and a more formal dialect to explain the phenomenon of why students are incapable of writing the traditional North American college paper.

In terms of grammar, students are already limited in the way that they can communicate their ideas in a paper by having to adopt a more prescriptive based, formal dialect. I am NOT arguing that students can get by in the world, and more specifically their university career, without an academic and more formal dialect. Just like the young student with only a formal, prescriptive dialect who is beaten up on the schoolyard for not having a more descriptive based dialect that allows him or her to fit in (Wallace 51), the university student will be figuratively beaten up in the classroom if they do not possess a formal, more prescriptive based dialect. It is necessary for university students (and anyone who wants to be successful in the English-speaking world) to adopt a second (or third or fourth) dialect that allows them to fit into their surroundings. There are various situations in which prescriptive rules should be relied on more heavily than descriptive rules and vice versa.

Professors, however, ignorant of the fact that students are already restricted by a dialect that may not be second nature, impede the ability for students to effectively communicate their ideas further by creating their own set of stylistic prescriptive rules. In the Humanities (and Sciences) it is a major faux pas to use first person pronouns. The only time ‘I’ may be acceptable in a paper is when it is used to clarify the student’s argument from a secondary source. ‘Helpful’ topic ideas only serve as an agent of restriction, tightening the figurative noose around students’ ideas. There are few things more disheartening in the post-secondary experience than completing an essay that has veered so far from the original topic that it almost seems pointless to hand it in. Whether well-written or not, whether ideas have been communicated appropriately and interestingly in an academic dialogue does not matter to professors who set guidelines. The paper that succeeds in communicating ideas may receive a lower grade if it does not meet the guidelines. Professors need to realize that the more prescriptive rules they place on their papers, the worse students’ papers will be. The more rules, the more confining the box that students need to fit their ideas into. This is why students perform so much better on blogs. A blog has no rules aside from one: it must be “within shouting distance of the course” (O’Donnell). Students are therefore free to express themselves and communicate the ideas that they find interesting in compelling and captivating ways. After reading several blogs, despite the lack of rules, it becomes evident that there is a second, unwritten rule that comes naturally to almost all university students: they use a more prescriptive based, formal dialect than what their typical descriptive dialect would permit.

Another guideline or prescriptive rule set out by professors is the limitation of secondary sources to scholarly articles. Although it is understandable that the use of websites like ‘Wikipedia’ should be maintained to a minimum, it is another guideline that prevents the development of strong, relevant ideas that support the argument. With social media permeating our everyday lives, professors need to accept changing times. Why should a student be restricted from using blog posts of highly educated people in respectable positions? Why does a professor’s journal article garner more merit than a post on their blog site? It shouldn’t; and even one of the ‘scholarly articles’ cited for this paper (Steven Pinker’s “Grammar Puss”) can be found in a blog. Clearly this prescriptive rule of how research material for papers ought to be gathered is about as outdated as the grammatical prescriptive rules that, as Steven Pinker points out, are based on Latin and 18th-Century fads (20).

The problem, however, is the fact that prescriptive rules are extremely difficult to abolish. They have become so engrained into our minds that we don’t challenge them. This fear of driving change is also perpetuated by “the worry that readers will think [the author] is ignorant of the rules” (Pinker 20). As a result we limit our thoughts and ideas and force them into tiny, prescriptive boxes. We avoid engaging in a dangerous game of Russian Roulette with our grades by playing it safe and coughing up redundant, highly repetitive, excruciatingly painful to read, and bluntly put, shit. The failure of the college paper is not due to the students, as Rebecca Shuman so strongly states in her blog post “The End of the College Essay”, but that of the professors who are not willing to wake up to the 21st Century and rethink their own set of restrictive, prescriptive rules.

I personally used to love writing. I enjoyed it. I didn’t even mind writing essays. And I wrote good ones. Over 50% of my class failed the first essay in my English 1900 course. I received a grade over 90% and embarrassingly had to tell the girl beside me who had received an abysmal 4% that I had done very well and leave it at that. Somewhere along the way, however, something changed. Professors implemented more guidelines and maybe even my own standards rose. Whatever the cause, the outcome is the same, I no longer feel capable of writing essays. How can I when students are repeatedly informed that they do not know how to write essays and are incapable of producing good ones? I am now so replete with anxiety concerning whether or not my essay will be long enough (or too long), if it will sound academic enough, and whether it will actually relate to the topic, that I have become immobilized. I do half-assed, last minute essay writing to avoid the stress of completing something that I may be simultaneously proud and doubtful of because it is well-written but does not fit into a professor’s prescriptive rules. I would rather accept a lower grade on something that I slapped together the night before it was due than have hard work torn apart by a “SNOOT” professor (Wallace “Tense Present”).

The reason students are incapable of writing college papers is not because of some kind of innate inability nor is it because students do not possess an academic dialect. The students are not to blame for their poor attempts at the “college paper”; it is the professors who need to realize the defeating, restricting effects of their prescriptive rules who are to blame. Just like the machine that is capable of duplicating human language in Pinker’s “Grammar Puss”, students are given a number of prescriptive rules to follow and just like the machine, we sit there, immobilized, unable to communicate our ideas (19). Prescriptive rules should be relied on more heavily when it comes to the college paper and academic writing, but without descriptive rules students, like the machine, don’t know how to say what they want to say. Perhaps if allowed to break the rules, students could actually write the infamous “college paper”.

Works Consulted

O’Donnell, Dan. English 2810. 8 Jan. 2014
Pinker, Steven. “GRAMMAR PUSS. (Cover Story).” New Republic 210.5 (1994): 19-26. Business Source Complete. Web. 14 Jan. 2014.
Schuman, Rebecca. “The End of the College Essay.” Web log post. Slate. 13 Dec. 2013. Web. 16 Jan. 2014
Wallace, David Foster. “Tense Present: Democracy, English, and the Wars Over Usage.” Harper’s Magazine 04 2001: 39-58. ProQuest. Web. 14 Jan. 2014


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.


The unessay

Posted: Sep 04, 2012 15:09;
Last Modified: Sep 04, 2012 16:09


The essay is a wonderful and flexible tool for engaging with a topic intellectually. It is a very free format that can be turned to discuss any topic—works of literature, of course, but also autobiography, science, entertainment, history, and government, politics, and so on. There is often something provisional about the essay (its name comes from French essai, meaning a trial), and almost always something personal.


Unfortunately, however, as the Wikipedia notes,

In some countries (e.g., the United States and Canada), essays have become a major part of formal education. Secondary students are taught structured essay formats to improve their writing skills, and admission essays are often used by universities in selecting applicants and, in the humanities and social sciences, as a way of assessing the performance of students during final exams.

One result of this is that the essay form, which should be extremely free and flexible, is instead often presented as a static and rule-bound monster that students must master in order not to lose marks (for a vigorous defence of the flexible essay, see software developer Paul Graham’s blog). Far from an opportunity to explore intellectual passions and interests in a personal style, the essay is transformed into a formulaic method for discussing set topics in five paragraphs: the compulsory figures of academia.

The unessay

The unessay is an assignment that attempts to undo the damage done by this approach to teaching writing. It works by throwing out all the rules you have learned about essay writing in the course of your primary, secondary, and post secondary education and asks you to focus instead solely on your intellectual interests and passions. In an unessay you choose your own topic, present it any way you please, and are evaluated on how compelling and effective you are.

Choose your own topic

The unessay allows you to write about anything you want provided you are able to associate your topic with the subject matter of the course and unit we are working on. You can take any approach; you can use as few or as many resources as you wish; you can cite the Wikipedia. The only requirements are that your treatment of the topic be compelling: that is to say presented in a way that leaves the reader thinking that you are being accurate, interesting, and as complete and/or convincing as your subject allows.

Present it any way you please

There are also no formal requirements. Your essay can be written in five paragraphs, or three, or twenty-six. If you decide you need to cite something, you can do that anyway you want. If you want to use lists, use lists. If you want to write in the first person, write in the first person. If you prefer to present the whole thing as a video, present it as a video. Use slang. Or don’t. Write in sentence fragments if you think that would be effective. In other words, in an unessay you have complete freedom of form: you can use whatever style of writing, presentation, citation,… even media you want. What is important is that the format and presentation you do use helps rather than hinders your explanation of the topic.

Be evaluated on how compelling and effective you are

If unessays can be about anything and there are no restrictions on format and presentation, how are they graded?

The main criteria is how well it all fits together. That is to say, how compelling and effective your work is.

An unessay is compelling when it shows some combination of the following:

In terms of presentation, an unessay is effective when it shows some combination of these attributes:

Why unessays are not a waste of your time

The unessay may be quite different from what you are used to doing in English class. If so, a reasonable question might be whether I am wasting your time by assigning them. If you can write whatever you want and present it any way you wish, is this not going to be a lot easier to do than an actual essay? And is it not leaving you unprepared for subsequent instructors who want you to right the real kind of essays?

The answer to both these questions is no. Unessays are not going to be easier than “real” essays. There have fewer rules to remember and worry about violating (actually there are none). But unessays are more challenging in that you need to make your own decisions about what you are going to discuss and how you are going to discuss it.

And you are not going to be left unprepared for instructors who assign “real” essays. Questions like how to format your page or prepare a works-cited list are actually quite trivial and easily learned. You can look them up when you need to know them and, increasingly, can get your software to handle these things for you anyway. In our class, moreover, I will be giving you separate instruction on what English professors normally expect to see in the essays you submit to them.

But even more importantly, the things you will be doing in an unessay will help improve your “real” ones: excellent “real” essays also match form to topic and are about things you are interested in; if you learn how to write compelling and effective unessays, you’ll find it a lot easier to do well in your “real” essays as well.


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