Teaching Writing and Breaking Rules

AP Photo/Lynne Sladky

“As much as we might admire what is fresh and innovative, we all learn by imitating patterns,” writes Irina Dumitrescu in The Times Literary Supplement. “To be called ‘formulaic’ is no compliment, but whenever people express themselves or take action in the world, they rely on familiar formulas.” It’s true. For her review-essay, Dumitrescu reads five books about writing and explores how writing advice is caught in a paradox: to get people to communicate clearly, logically, and find their own voices, instruction must first teach them rules and provide enough room to learn by copying. This is why most of us writers begin by imitating established writers. We find someone whose style or subject reflects our own – someone in whom we hear our ideal selves, someone who sounds like we want to sound one day – and we mimic them. This could start with a parent, move to a cool friend, then end with a famous novelist or memoirst, before we emerge from the pupae of literary infancy. In other words, to facilitate originality, we must teach formula, encourage imitation, and push for eventual independence. She explores the value of craft, structure, exploration, and formula, and the way sticking to rules erodes a writer’s style, their character, even the essence of the art. She contrasts John Warner’s book Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities with the book Writing to Persuade, by The New York Times‘ previous op-ed editor, Trish Hall.

It is easy for a lover of good writing to share Warner’s anger at the shallow and mechanistic culture of public education in the United States, easy to smile knowingly when he notes that standardized tests prize students’ ability to produce “pseudo-academic BS,” meaningless convoluted sentences cobbled together out of sophisticated-sounding words. Warner’s argument against teaching grammar is harder to swallow. Seeing in grammar yet another case of rules and correctness being put ahead of thoughtful engagement, Warner claims, “the sentence is not the basic skill or fundamental unit of writing. The idea is.” Instead of assignments, he gives his students “writing experiences,” interlocked prompts designed to hone their ability to observe, analyse and communicate. His position on grammatical teaching is a step too far: it can be a tool as much as a shackle. Still, writers may recognize the truth of Warner’s reflection that “what looks like a problem with basic sentence construction may instead be a struggle to find an idea for the page.”

Then she looks at a book like Jane Alison’s Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative, which provides further contrasts and insight:

Shapes appear in Alison’s mind as clusters of images, so what begins as literary analysis condenses into a small poem. For “meander,” Alison asks us to “picture a river curving and kinking, a snake in motion, a snail’s silver trail, or the path left by a goat”. She speaks of the use of colour in narrative “as a unifying wash, a secret code, or a stealthy constellation.” The point is not ornamentation, though Alison can write a sentence lush enough to drown in, but tempting fiction writers to render life more closely. Against the grand tragedy of the narrative arc, she proposes small undulations: “Dispersed patterning, a sense of ripple or oscillation, little ups and downs, might be more true to human experience than a single crashing wave.” These are the shifting moods of a single day, the temporary loss of the house keys, the sky a sunnier hue than expected.

The Roman educator Quintilian once insisted that an orator must be a good man. It was a commonplace of his time. The rigorous study of eloquence, he thought, required a mind undistracted by vice. The books discussed here inherit this ancient conviction that the attempt to write well is a bettering one. Composing a crisp sentence demands attention to fine detail and a craftsmanlike dedication to perfection. Deciding what to set to paper requires the ability to imagine where a reader might struggle or yawn. In a world tormented by spectres too reckless to name, care and empathy are welcome strangers.

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