When teaching young children, understandably teachers might well choose to simplify concepts. That’s fine. However, simplifications are also distortions, even to the point of error, and if those children never grow past those temporary, instructionally helpful constructs, what’s left is misinformation. Such is often the case in college students and adult writers, still using techniques that are, well, wrong—in sentences, in paragraphs, and in compositions overall.
The most glaring of these is the universal comma rule: put a comma where you want a pause. Um, no. Commas aren’t moods—they show structure. Moving commas around carelessly changes the sentence structure.
Consider this sentence: Swords flashing, our heroes dashed into action. A tale of epic adventure—very different from: Swords, flashing our heroes, dashed into action—a tale of erotic surrealism.
How about these two: People, who frequently attend these auctions, spend a lot of money, vs. People who frequently attend these auctions spend a lot of money. Both sentences are correct, but their meaning differs significantly, particularly if you’ve an economic interest in those auctions. The first sentence promises that all comers at these well-attended events will be dumping cash, while the second restricts the big spenders to only the few folks who frequent the auction circuit.
Even more astounding is the oft repeated assertion that grammar isn’t important, that students will just learn eventually by doing. This is as ridiculous as “Prof.” Harold Hill in “The Music Man” promoting his “think” system for learning music. Further, what are employers going to do with those cover letters and resumes full of grammatical errors? And bosses? Clients? Fair or not, such grammar-challenged people will be judged as less intelligent and less competent. It IS 7th grade English, after all.
Now to “de-mythify” the paragraph: “a paragraph is a group of 5-8 sentences.” What, like a street gang hangin’ on the corner? Just time for a line break? What happened to a unit of developed thought? How about a topic sentence—and development leading to a meaningful conclusion. You know—content!
But two commonly promoted points completely baffle me. The first purports to connect paragraphs by abruptly changing the subject in the last sentence of a paragraph to the topic of the next paragraph—then reiterating the point in the first sentence of that next paragraph. Good grief. This is duct tape, not coherence, combining rambling off topic with redundancy. What happened to a logical progression of ideas? Yet student after student maintains someone taught this “technique.”
The second is a legitimate technique run amok, the “funnel” technique—start with a general statement, narrow it, narrow it further, and so forth, then lead back to some general observation. Yeah, granted, the specific details should come after the initial claims, but instead, students write almost bizarrely vague sentences, eventually find a hint of a point, then back off into vague obscurity, thus taking a paragraph to make a point that could have been made in one poor sentence:
--There are many great writers, some living, some in history. Many of these writers have come from America. Several of these writers became famous in the twentieth century. While many women were among this group, many men were also recognized as good writers. One of these men was Ernest Hemingway. He wrote a lot. Some of this writing was journalism, others were not. Those that were not including novels and short stories. His short stories are excellent. One of these excellent short stories is “Hills Like White Elephants.” In this short story, Hemingway shows many of the elements that made him a famous writer in America in the twentieth century. Symbolism is one of the elements that he used, and he does an excellent job of using it. Symbolism can be defined as something that represents something else. Hemingway uses a lot of symbols in his short story “Hills Like White Elephants.”
That paragraph may be an exaggeration, but not by much.
Worse, students then apply this technique to the entire essay. Sometimes, even in the middle of page two, I still can’t find a thesis—or even tell what poem or story or play the paper addresses, let alone what points it might make. “But that’s what you’re supposed to do!” students protest, ready to defend such work vigorously. “It draws the reader in!” Draws the reader in? Who would still be reading? Could you imagine, for example, picking up Sports Illustrated and reading:
--There are many sports in the world today. Some of these sports are played individually, while other sports are team sports. Different countries tend to prefer some sports over other sports. Soccer is one sport popular in many countries. Americans like football. Other Americans like baseball, while some like basketball. Many people like more than one sport. Soccer is called football in other countries. Some Americans like soccer, though.
Are you “drawn in?” Would you keep reading in case it gets better?
And the poor readers who struggle through such essays all the way to the conclusion meet yet another silly but commonly practiced point—the “conclusion”:
--In conclusion, here I write a meaningless paragraph that does nothing except repeat the thesis you’ve already read and repeated the vague points I’ve already stated, thus making no final point whatsoever, concluding absolutely nothing, indicating the entire essay has no purpose beyond reaching a word count or minimum number of pages.
And again, students insist they’ve been taught to do this. So much time is spent swimming upstream against all this misinformation from the past, with little time left for emphasis, economy, style, effective argument and much more. After all, why should students bother with all that? They’ve earned top grades for years babbling along as such, believing they are therefore “creative.”
Unfortunately, I have heard a number of teachers maintain that writing is an art, and therefore it can’t really be taught. Some people just have a gift, and some people just aren’t good writers.
Any writing teacher who believes that has no business teaching writing. Let writers do it.
After all, why? If it’s all just a scam, lots of scams pay far better than teaching writing.