Forget Formulas--Context Is Everything

by Tina Blue
January 20, 2002

          A lot of people think writing is rule-driven.  Usually such people are not very good writers.  Unfortunately, a lot of them are English teachers, and the students they train ("browbeat" might be a better word) often end up fetishizing rules as their teachers do, believing that they must not violate fixed "rules" or deviate in any way from a rigid formula.  (I addressed one such formula in my article on "The Five Paragraph Theme.")

          At the sentence level, an effective writer must of course attend to the rules that govern correct usage, but correct usage is never a sufficient condition for good writing, though sloppy grammar and usage will inevitably mar a writer's work.

          Almost every writing instructor has heard students lament, "Why did I only get a C on this paper?  It doesn't have a single error!"  It should be obvious that not doing anything wrong is not the same as doing anything right, but such subtleties are beyond those who believe that all good writing requires is attention to "correctness," as defined by rules memorized during their years in soporific English classes.

          As it happens, even at the sentence level many so-called rules are not really rules at all,* and some that are rules are nevertheless not universally applicable. 

          And once we get beyond the sentence level, the applicability of "rules" becomes even more problematic.  What most students think of as rules at the paragraph and essay level are actually textual conventions defined by the rhetorical situation one is writing into.  Different rhetorical situations have different textual conventions, and an effective writer learns to adjust his writing to accommodate context.

          For example, in an English 101 course students are often required to write personal opinion essays about controversial issues or in response to readings about such issues.  They are asked to draw on their own knowledge and experience to develop and support their assertions.  In such essays, an attempt to follow the "rule" about not using "I" will produce such awkward, pompous constructions as "In this writer's opinion," or "The author's experience has shown that. . . ."

          Certainly there are times when using "I" would be entirely inappropriate.  Although I allow "I" in English 101 essays, I forbid it in essays written for my literature classes, because when they are analyzing a work of literature, students should focus their reader's attention on the literature, not on themselves as they write about the work.  On the other hand, I have no objection to the judicious use of the editorial "we" in essays on literature.  Using "I" (or "we") is not "right" or "wrong," but merely appropriate or inappropriate to the rhetorical situation.

          A lab report is an example of a written form that is governed by very strict textual conventions.  The use of "I," or even "we," is considered unacceptable, and a student who turned in a lab report written in the first person would see his grade lowered for it.  A practicing scientist who submitted such a first-person report to a professional journal would never get his research published, and he would probably lose the respect of his peers. 

          Lab reports also have a very rigid structure.  Leaving out or inappropriately arranging the hypothesis, the list of materials, the description of experimental procedure and results, or the analysis of the data would mark the report as the work of an ignorant amateur.

          By the time they get to college, most students understand the textual conventions they must adhere to when writing lab reports.  In fact, many of them began writing to those conventions in grade school when preparing their Science Fair projects.

          But in English classes--especially AP English classes!--they have been taught a rigid formulaic sort of writing that substitutes "rules" for good sense, and they have been taught to apply that formula to virtually all writing situations.  The worst of it is that this formula bears little resemblance to the sort of writing they will be required to do in most of their college courses, or to any sort of writing they are likely to encounter in the real world.  As readers they would never willingly read an essay or an article written thus, and as writers they must ignore every rhetorical instinct in order to follow the formula.**

          Take, for example, the "roadmap" introduction so assiduously taught in English classes: "In this essay I will show this, this, and this."  You can see where this sort of introduction comes from.  Most readers would like to know up front what they are getting into, and most writers think and write more clearly when they can articulate exactly what they are attempting to accomplish in an essay.  Forcing a novice writer to establish his focus and direction before trying to do anything else will prevent him from getting off on a tangent or from losing track of his main ideas.

          But that doesn't mean he should make such an awkward and self-conscious announcement in his introduction.  After all, an introduction needs to engage the reader, to hook his interest.  Who would want to read the rest of an essay that begins like this:

          In this paper I will discuss the influence of grades on student learning.  First I will consider whether grades enhance a student's learning.  Then I will discuss ways in which grades may undermine a student's education.  Finally, I will explain why grades are necessary, even though they have some disadvantages.

          One reason why such introductions are often taught to students is that they make the teacher's job easier (not interesting, mind you, just easier).  If a student announces up front that he's going to do three or four specific things, the teacher can decide right there at the first paragraph whether the student's topic and thesis constitute a suitable response to the assignment.  Such an easily accessible list of main ideas also gives the teacher a ready checklist, to make sure the student has done what he promised he would do.

          But if we think of real readers, not teachers who are reading essays only to grade them, then we can see how uninteresting and ineffective such an introduction is.  And let's face it, most readers are not teachers looking to grade what they read.  Besides, even most teachers would rather read interesting, well-written essays.

          Another problem with such formulaic approaches to writing is that they bore the students who must do that sort of writing.  Even if the student lucks out and gets a topic he genuinely likes and wants to write about, having to force his ideas into a mind-numbing formula will soon drain away his enthusiasm for the project.  And if the student is not interested in what he is writing, his writing will not be interesting to read.

          I am not suggesting that students should unlearn the formulas they were taught in middle school and high school English classes.  Some teachers are bound to insist that they follow such formulas, and responding to that sort of requirement is an important aspect of rhetorical sensitivity--i.e., of writing to context.  A writer who is aware of context will adjust his approach to the demands of the rhetorical situation.  If he is writing a lab report, he must observe the textual conventions that govern lab reports.  If he is writing a book review, then he must follow the conventions of that genre.  If he is writing literary criticism, then he needs to know what is considered appropriate and inappropriate in that genre.  And if he is writing for a teacher who requires that all essays follow a set pattern, then he must adhere to the pattern she requires.

          But students must not assume that just because their high school teacher told them to do this, or never to do that, they can always do things exactly the same way when they write. 

          Instead, they should think of their writing as an attempt at
, and as in other forms of communication, they will have to figure out what the rhetorical situation calls for.  There is no "one-size-fits-all" formula for doing this.  We wouldn't expect to find such a formula to cover all speaking situations, and we shouldn't expect to find one for all writing situations.

*See "It's Not Usually Wrong to End a Sentence with A Preposition" and "Prepositions at the Ends of Sentences: Further Explanation of Why the 'Rule' Is Wrong." (Clicking on this link will take you to my "Grammar and Usage for the Non-Expert" website.)

**See "AP English Blather."
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