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  Tips for Writers by Brad Hyde (April 6, 2008)

The Limits of the Standard Essay

Often, I use short personal essays taken from The Globe and Mail newspaper to stimulate discussion and writing in my English 11 and 12 classrooms. The essays are on topics of interest to Canadians and are well edited and interesting.

But, they are not in any way "classic" in their design. Teachers of English tend to teach (and use for evaluation) a standard form, the five-paragraph essay. I am no exception. Lately, however, I have found that student writing is much improved if I encourage my students to use the style and technique found in the published essays.

These essays will often use dialogue, one or two sentence transitional paragraphs, fragments and the like. I will assign an essay that requires students to use some of the techniques found in the sample we study.

The results have been excellent. In fact, students will chafe at our (seemingly inevitable) return to that five-paragraph standard. I often think back to Strunk and White's advice on paragraphs: "make the paragraph the unit of composition." Forcing students to really think about what a paragraph should contain results in better and, oftentimes, more interesting work.

Standard essays make it easier for we teachers, I agree. But I would also argue that such forms, when taught in isolation, may limit students in ways that make it difficult for their individual creativity to come through.


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