Relearning to Write

Curtis Ehrich, Writing Consultant

My experience with writing prior to entering my undergraduate degree was much like any other contemporary American student’s: learn to write in a 3.5 paragraph format (better known in pedagogical circles as the 5 paragraph format), and it’ll carry me all the way through college. Turns out, college professors are not fans of the 3.5 paragraph format. Having such a hard shift from a highly organized, structured form of writing, to whatever it is that I use now was a hard lesson to learn.

My experience with the 3.5 paragraph format begins in eighth grade, when the Language Arts teacher’s favorite student took a day off high school (don’t ask me how) to visit her old stomping ground. With her she brought the Good News of 3.5 paragraph format, and from then on, every paper had to be written with one intro paragraph, three body paragraphs, and one concluding paragraph. To be honest, finally having “instructions” to follow when writing was a huge boon for me. Now instead of waiting until the last minute to try to figure out how to write an essay, I could just wait until the last minute to actually write the essay.

I went to a “college-preparatory” high school, and that’s when 3.5 format really started to be drilled into me by the school’s curriculum. This is when I started to get frustrated with the format. As the length requirements got longer, five paragraphs were no longer enough to fill 10 pages worth of writing, at least not in any way that offered substance. I was also finding that 3.5 format didn’t always allow me to conform to the conventions of whatever genre I was trying to write in.

Once I got to college, after taking the required college composition courses, I decided to ditch 3.5 format entirely. In its place, I tried to model my writing after the kind of academic writing I was encountering in my course work. I wasn’t the most successful at it, as instead of trying to do what academics were doing in their writing, I simply stopped doing the things they weren’t, but it was as though suddenly a shackle had just been released, and suddenly I was able say the things I wanted to say, exactly the way I wanted to say them. Learning how to do this on my own was a struggle, and my grades reflected that, but once I learned how to write what I wanted to write instead of what I thought my professors wanted to see, there was an immediate boost in my grades.

In my final semester of undergrad (just before the “Dark Times”), I took a course called “Teaching of Writing,” where I learned that 3.5 Paragraph format wasn’t created to teach students to write at the collegiate level, it was intended to game the standardized testing system. My high school wasn’t so much “college preparatory” it was “SAT preparatory.” When funding for public schools became (partly) tied to standardized test scores, the schools needed a way to ensure that students’ writing could trigger all of the things that the scoring algorithm looked for in writing, regardless of how well written the content of the paper actually was. Of course, to remain competitive and maintain their reputation as “superior” alternatives to public education, private schools also started teaching 3.5 format. 

So how do we relearn to write? That answer is a little bit different for everyone. There’s an axiom among pedagogical circles that to be good writers, we have to be good readers. While this isn’t necessarily an idea that I personally subscribe to (It leads to a chicken and egg scenario if you think about it long enough), I do think that a good place to start to learn how to write is to model your writing on the things you read. The larger variety of things that you read the better, because that gives you options when you write. One of the ways that I make writing interesting for myself is to play with genre. I might write the introduction of a paper for one of my courses as a narrative, or I might reconceptualize a research project as a scientific study. Part of the benefit of understanding how a variety of writing works is you can take it apart and Frankenstein it back together.

None of this is to say that 3.5 format isn’t useful. I still use 3.5 all the time for smaller papers in the 3-5 page range. But, again, five paragraphs are not enough to fill out a full-length paper at the college level. And when you have writers who have been taught to construct a paper, rather than communicate their ideas, of course they are going to begin to flounder when they enter higher education, because most high schoolers come to college with the idea that it is simply more school where they come to be taught, rather than explore ideas on their own. Realistically, there is very little that we can do to change the way that writing is being taught in primary and secondary educations, so relearning how to write is a frustrating, but crucial, and also personal part of that transition into higher education.

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