The Essay: How To Help Students Get Better at Writing Essays

A couple of days ago I came across this incredibly interesting observation by Peter Stockwell, which immediately got me thinking about lots of things related to essay writing:

If there is a canon of literary texts that move in and out of preference over time there is also a canon of acceptable critical discussion that usually accompanies it

Having just recently re-read some of FR Leavis’ critical work and then Charles Olson’s fascinating but avant-garde essay on poetry, ‘Projective Verse’, when I read this from Stockwell it instantly seemed to make sense. There does seem to be a pattern of change and preference not only in what we read and study, but how we write about what we read and study.

This then made me think of a fascinating, albeit slightly quirky, essay from the early 90s about the lineages of the essay as a form by Peter Womack, titled ‘What Are Essays For?’ In this essay, Womack very persuasively traces the historical, cultural and social origins of the essay as a form, something we perhaps take for granted as a neutral and self-evident way to write about literature, exactly the preconception that Stockwell is challenging.

In this essay, Womack argues that the essay is a ‘culturally specific form of communication that has not always existed and which depends for its existence on some quite definite institutional contexts’. He goes on to exemplify that these ‘institutional contexts’ relate to various examination systems, and of course still being pursued today. As Womack points out, the essay as a form is highly stylised and dictates a certain way of writing about literature. It is for good reason lots of students struggle to write essays: they are not, although the form may present itself as such, a natural or authentic way to write. The essay carries with it its own very specific and historically bound conventions and expectations, which need to be taught, explicitly so.

In thinking about this, I arrived at two conclusions:

1. The essay is historically bound and culturally specific and so need not be seen by default as the only acceptable way to write about literature.

2. As it is historically bound and culturally specific, we need to teach its formal moves and expectations explicitly, and not to assume it is a natural way in which to write about literature that students can just do.

On the first point, which in this train of thought captured my attention the most, I then read an essay by Andrew McCallum of EMC in NATE’s Teaching English in which he explores the concept of ‘Big Picture Writing’. Here, McCallum defines ‘Big Picture Writing’ as starting ‘from the premise just about all young people, particularly at secondary level, can produce substantial whole texts on their own from scratch’. The point, here, then, is that the essay is a specific form of writing (as Womack delineates) and so when unshackled form this particular mode of writing students may more easily be able to express their ideas and thinking about whatever they’re reading. Students do not need to be restricted to writing about literature in a particular form, at least not at their start, and instead we can divest ourselves of the historical peculiarities of the essay, perhaps helping students to more easily focus on what they think about the texts they are studying. McCallum concludes: ‘The form at this point is less important than the act of writing, a process that in and of itself develops knowledge and understanding’.

A couple of immediate thoughts:

1. I agree very much with the basic point, here: if we work from the assumption the essay is not, even though it may appear to be so, an inherently natural way to write about ideas then we do not need to privilege it as the only way to respond to literature.

2. This said, and as McCallum points out, the essay is clearly a crucial skill for students to master: it is, as Womack says, ‘the medium through which students are able to demonstrate their ability and knowledge’. Clearly , then, we do need to spend considerable time rehearsing and teaching the essay.

3. But, combining (1) and (2), we can and should rehearse and encourage writing about literature that goes far beyond the very specific form of the essay whilst still building in lots of time to rehearse and model the essay itself.

In all of this, I was also reminded of Daisy Christodolou’s observation in Seven Myths that often the intended outcome is not in itself the most effective mode of preparation. Following this logic, and combining it to the above, if the ultimate intended outcome is for students to be able to produce cogent, fluid and crafted analytical essays then there is no need to assume simply rehearsing this form over and over again is the best way to prepares students for this eventuality, a suggestion amplified all the more when we remind ourselves there is nothing inherently valuable about the essay as a form.

This is where, for the moment, my thinking runs out (I am about to go and grab a cup of coffee and read a book, which, as an aside, and by conceding this, means I am no longer adhering to the historically conditioned compositional rules of the essay). But, a couple of quick thoughts:

1. I like the idea of a metaessay: students write in the form of the essay but as they do so narrate in writing the choices and decisions they are making (kind of like my coffee aside above). This could be an interesting exercise both in writing in the mode of an essay, drawing attention to its historically contingent nature, and helping students to reflect on the formal choices they are making and why [I caved, stopped writing, and now continue to type with coffee in hand]. However, this would need to come after they are familiar with the basic ideas of the essay as a form.

2. We can widen the ways of writing about literature in the classroom: it does not need to be in the form of an essay, but can be as simple as ‘just write’ or as a kind of creative-critical fusion. This isn’t, by the way, a gimmick, but a consequence of recognising the essay isn’t innately superior to other ways of writing as well as tapping into the concept of ‘Big Picture Writing’ in order to foreground, first and foremost, the ideas and responses to the studied text.

3. We can be explicit to students about the essay as specific cultural form of writing and so when we teach its conventions and rules, on the understanding students need to know this and become very good at it, we can be even more granular (like we teach the rules of a sonnet) and also frame our rehearsal and practise of this form in a wider context of literary studies and writing rather than suggesting this is just how we write about literature. This can involve, for instance, lots of micro modelling of specific sentence stems and rehearsal of macro lines of argument as well as the Big Picture writing discussed above.

4. I lied. I did not stop typing to get a coffee. That was, and is now, some kind of meta[non]fictional, postmodern-esque affectation to further make the point, knowing I was going to do this, that the essay is itself a persona-driven, constructed, convention-ridden form of writing. One that we cannot extricate from what it means to do English, and nor would be wish to do so. My coffee and book are still forthcoming.

5. One could also think about the ideas within this essay [???] in terms of how we sequence and structure the continuum from KS3 to KS4. If, following Christodolou, we think about the most effective way to prepare for the eventuality of writing essays as not necessarily writing essays, we can perhaps reimagine ways to encourage extended writing at KS3 that places a higher premium on ‘Big Picture Writing’, before then gradually introducing and rehearsing the essay as a specific instantiation of what it means to express one’s thoughts about literature in writing.

As a final twist in this very turn-y piece of writing, and to reassert the form of the essay as a natural and authentic expression of verisimilitude, pinning it to the ‘real world’, and closing the gap between signifier and signified, here is the once promised, no longer deferred cup of coffee:

NB: I may well repost this without the quirkiness, and were I to do so, well, now, that would be an essay.

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