In high school a close friend told me about a lesson her father had received when he was learning to write in English. Any essay could be improved by the addition of one specific phrase: “in a world tormented by the spectre of thermonuclear holocaust”. We thought it would be hilarious to surprise our own teachers with this gem, but nothing came of it. Twenty years later, as I looked through the files on an old computer, I discovered my high school compositions. There, at the end of an essay on Hugo Grotius and just war theory I must have written for this purpose alone, was that irresistible rhetorical flourish.
As much as we might admire what is fresh and innovative, we all learn by imitating patterns. Babies learning to speak do not immediately acquire the full grammar of their mother tongue and a vocabulary to slot into it, but inch slowly into the language by repeating basic phrases, then varying them. Adults learning a foreign language are wise to do the same. Pianists run through exercises to train their dexterity, basketball players run through their plays, dancers rehearse combos they can later slip into longer choreographies. To be called “formulaic” is no compliment, but whenever people express themselves or take action in the world, they rely on familiar formulas.
Writing advice is caught in this paradox. Mavens of clear communication know that simple rules are memorable and easy to follow. Use a verb instead of a noun. Change passive to active. Cut unnecessary words. Avoid jargon. No aspiring author will make the language dance by following these dictates, but they will be understood, and that is something. The same holds for structure. In school, pupils are drilled in the basic shapes of arguments, such as the “rule of three”, the “five-paragraph essay” or, à l’américaine, the Hamburger Essay (the main argument being the meat). Would-be novelists weigh their Fichtean Curves against their Hero’s Journeys, and screenwriters can buy software that will ensure their movie script hits every beat prescribed by Blake Snyder in his bestselling book Save the Cat! (2005). And why not? Shakespeare patterned his comedies on Terence’s Latin romps, and Terence stole his plots from the Greek Menander. Milton copied Virgil, who plagiarized Homer. The history of literature is a catwalk on which the same old skeletons keep coming out in new clothes.
Style unsettles this pedagogy of models and moulds. As the novelist Elizabeth McCracken once told Ben Yagoda in an interview, “A writer’s voice lives in his or her bad habits … the trick is to make them charming bad habits”. Readers longing for something beyond mere information – verbal fireworks, the tremor of an authentic connection, a touch of quiet magic – will do well to find the rule-breakers on the bookshop shelf. Idiosyncrasies (even mistakes) account for the specific charm of a given author, and they slyly open the door to decisions of taste. Think of David Foster Wallace’s endless sentences, George R. R. Martin’s neologisms, the faux-naivety of Gertrude Stein. In his book on literary voice, The Sound on the Page (2004), Yagoda argues that style reveals “something essential” and impossible to conceal about an author’s character. The notion that the way a person arranges words is inextricably tied to their moral core has a long history, but its implication for teaching writing is what interests me here: convince or compel writers to cleave too closely to a set of prescribed rules, and you chip away at who they are.
This explains why John Warner’s book about writing, Why They Can’t Write: Killing the five-paragraph essay and other necessities, contains almost no advice on how to write. A long-time college instructor, Warner hints at his argument in his subtitle: his is a polemical take on American standardized testing practices, socioeconomic conditions, and institutions of learning that destroy any love or motivation young people might have for expressing themselves in writing. Against the perennial assumption that today’s students are too lazy and precious to work hard, Warner holds firm: “Students are not entitled or coddled. They are defeated”. The symbol of the US’s misguided approach to education is the argumentative structure drilled into each teenager as a shortcut for thinking and reflection. “If writing is like exercise,” he quips, “the five-paragraph essay is like one of those ab belt doohickeys that claim to electroshock your core into a six-pack.”
Link to the rest at TLS