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Writing Outside the Box
by Brad

The looks on my Writing 12 students’ faces said it all. My essay, written in 1999 and on the web for years, might not be worth saving. I knew it was “fat” (wordier than necessary) and had removed a good 20% of the total word count, taking it from 735 down to 556 words.

But an edit can only save what is worth saving. Was my essay worth the trouble and the time? I had written it with good intentions—using metaphor and a three-part structure, trying to explain the “mystery” of the writing process.

Was the three-part structure the problem? With my Writing 12 students I talk about the “tyranny of the essay,” and how it turns everything we write into a cloned version of the standard. That would be fine if it were fun and interesting to read a standard essay.

Most of the time, it’s not. We write essays, dutifully of course, to enter college, to satisfy our teachers, to be predictable. Such essays do teach a certain discipline, yes, but they are often dull exercises in responding to dry (and often repeated) “topics.”

How dry I found out the other day when I subjected my students to a reading of the original and, though improved, still badly flawed edit. I’ve learned through them that to explain writing is a bit more difficult and multi-varied a process than can be captured in three body paragraphs—no matter how much cutting I do!

Lately, I’ve begun to use published essays taken from The Globe and Mail Life section as models for student writing in English 11 and 12. These essays are written on personal topics, ones that are much more likely to resonate deeply with my students. This term I used three essays that described a person important to the writers’ lives.

Starting with an oral reading of the essays so my students could hear the beauty of each writer’s words, I then assigned them to choose a favourite. Their choices reflected the great diversity I find in my classroom: some chose the familiar (a wise but reticent uncle who influenced a young man to return to school); others the funny (a tongue in cheek account of a young single father’s experience with his new baby); still more the serious (a sister writing about a fragile but beautiful sister who was damaged at birth).

Using the essays as a guide, the students are now assigned to write about a person who has had a special influence on their own lives. The sample essays provide them with a rich trove of ideas, approaches and structures that they can use to express a story well.

It’s taken me a long time to learn how to teach effective writing and, although my students do know how to write a standard essay, I firmly believe that they learn more that is truly useful by writing outside the box (with firm guidelines and models along the way).

(May 9, 2011)

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