So, the other day I was ranting to a friend about how much I’d hated the godsforsaken five paragraph essay torture they put high school and college students through (in the US, at least) over and over again. And then I clicked on some article or other where someone said something like “Oh, see, you have to know the rules in order to break them!” and I banged my head against the desk for ten or fifteen minutes because I hate that, too.
And then it occurred to me that it’s that stupid E-comp class that made me so vehement about the whole “rules of writing” thing. (Spoiler: THERE ARE NONE. Don’t trust anyone who tells you otherwise.) I think it must have been.
So, it’s like this: that five paragraph essay structure? It is never used outside the classroom. (Okay, once, a couple years out of college, I happened to pick up an issue of Student Life that was lying around (I worked at my alma mater’s faculty club for several years, right out of college. In a pinch I could probably still wait tables and tend bar) and saw a movie review that was, I shit you not, in five paragraph form. I actually laughed aloud at it.)
So, aside from undergrads writing for school papers who have taken the form way too seriously, nobody except undergrads writing papers for class writes that sort of essay. It is useless for anything else.
And if it were just a question of specificity, that wouldn’t bother me. There are a number of forms that are only used for one particular sort of thing, in one particular field. Query letters? I had to learn to write a query letter, and it’s a form that I will never use for anything else, ever. No sweat.
No, the problem is, it’s presented as “this is how you write a good essay. This is how you write clearly.” And then you’re given things to read, that are meant to be models of clear writing, or good essays.
That part, actually–the reading models and examples–I am a hundred percent behind. It’s how I learn to write things, to be honest. When I needed to write a query letter, I read the Query Shark archives from beginning to end. Not all of those examples are good ones, but Query Shark comments on every single one of them. Where they work, where they don’t. By the time I was done, I knew what sort of thing I needed to produce.
When I decided to try my hand at short fiction, I went and got the most recent Dozois years best antho out of the library and read it cover to cover. Yes, I even scanned the honorable mentions. Then I went and got the one from the year before. And got some issues of Asimovs and F&SF. And…basically, I read short SF until my eyes bled.
So hooray for giving students models! Except for one thing–those essays handed to us to read, to see how a good essay was written? Not one single one of them was in that ugly-ass five paragraph form. I could not learn to write an ecomp essay by reading them.
Looking back, I’m sure there was nothing stopping me from just following the instructions (first do A, then do B, then C, type your name across the top and hand it in!). But the dissonance produced by the supposed examples that we were told to learn from and what we were actually specifically assigned to produce was distressing to me–I couldn’t resolve it. And I was given no access to my (I realize now) preferred method of learning how to write something–that is, I was not given a sheaf of grade A five paragraph essays to sit down and digest. The instructors all seemed to think they were doing this, though, with the reading assignments they were giving us.
This didn’t matter to most of my classmates. They read and wrote as assigned, with no feelings of contradiction or distress. And I’m not sure why it bothered me in this class, where it didn’t bother me in others–it’s quite common, for instance, for the “rules” presented in elementary and high school grammar instruction to flat out not match actual well-written or well-spoken English, and this was something I’d noticed fairly early on, but had realized quickly that if I just kept my head down, replied as requested in class and on tests, and not worried about it otherwise, I’d be okay. Of course, I had the advantage of already speaking a prestige dialect of American English so the deviation wasn’t as large as it could have been, and I didn’t worry too much whether my English was “proper” or not.
But when I first encountered that five paragraph essay, in high school? The huge mismatch between that and the actual examples of good writing presented to us was almost painful.
I struggled on through, of course. I tried the “keep my head down and follow the instructions” course, but it never quite worked. I couldn’t feel the form in the way I wanted, and could not, as a result, produce very good examples of it. Then again, the occasional “just put some writing on the page” assignments always got high marks and prompted my high school English teachers to sigh sadly at my wasted potential, my obvious lack of application the rest of the time.
I began to notice more and more, where people would say “Things work like X” but, in fact, they didn’t actually work much like X at all. And yet, somehow, no one seemed to notice, people just kept saying “Things work like X” even when it was not working anything like X right in front of their faces. This is really very common, actually.
Anyway. Fast forward to my decision to try short fiction. I had two means by which to learn to write short fic–advice from various sources and the fiction itself. And just like freshman comp, there was a huge mismatch between what the advice said and what I was seeing in the actual fiction–fiction that was allegedly the best of all the short SFF produced in that year.
So, if you’re a writer trying to get published, you already know what those rules are. You’ve heard them over and over again. Maybe you’re trying to follow them. Maybe you’ve got enough verve in your writing to have gotten somewhere by following them, but maybe you haven’t gotten quite as far as you wish you would. I’m going to suggest that you have been doing the equivalent of sending out five paragraph essays, or mild variations thereof.
I have seen these, in slush. These are the subs that, sometimes, an editor or slushreader will say, “No, actually, most of the subs I get aren’t that bad. They’re well-written and all, they just don’t shine, they just aren’t quite there. That’s the majority of my slush.” It is. Yes, it is. It is sub after sub of the exact same form told in the same way with the same techniques following the same “rules” over and over and over again. Oh, there are minor variations. After all, if you know the rules well enough you can break them! And I know from conversations in various places that there’s a lot of concern about whether or how to break such rules. I cannot tell you how often I have privately headdesked after overhearing yet another conversation about whether it’s permissible or advisable to do a whole novel in first person, or how desperately someone is trying to avoid pure exposition, or the difficulty of omniscient POV and the inadvisability of trying it. I’ve seen writers lectured on how novels must be structured in a particular way, or particular things must be present in the first chapter.
And rather like the elementary school “rules” of grammar, quite a few writers never actually follow those rules, but they carefully hand them on to new writers, insisting they’re useful and true, that if you know them well enough you can break them. That when you can’t actually map those rules onto more than maybe one or two (if any) of the stories in the year’s YB anthos, or the stories that you yourself love best, that’s because those writers “knew how to break the rules” and besides “the exception proves the rule.” Except, when most of the year’s best stories break the rule, how much of a rule is it? And “proves” in that proverb doesn’t mean “establish the truth of.” It means “tests.” After so many failed tests, how is it the rule still stands?
I suspect that if I hadn’t been faced with that weird disconnect in high school and college I might not have noticed. I also suspect that if I’d had just a bit more confidence in school, I’d have just written whatever the hell I wanted and turned it in. To be entirely honest, I got much, much better grades on college papers in general than I did in freshman comp–there was no requirement I stick to that stupid form, and suddenly I started getting As on papers. From my vantage point now, I suspect I could have done that for most of freshman comp, too, and done much better. I wonder if the teachers would have even noticed I wasn’t following the template?
I know that five paragraph essay form has a specific historical origin and context, and I don’t necessarily object to teaching the form itself. I just wish teachers were more up front about what its purpose and context is, or were more aware of it, and aware of the ways that to at least some students, that mismatch between examples and what’s being asked for in writing assignments is really difficult to navigate.
And I wonder if being up front about that might not help more students learn the things that course is trying to teach? I suspect it would. I am not a teacher, though, and have no expertise there.
Anyway. Because it was such a pain in the ass to me, I’ve ended up with a severe allergy to similar sorts of writing advice in the world of fiction. Or, that’s the conclusion I’ve come to. So, you can blame all my “there are no rules!” rants on Sister Sheila (God rest her), and my college comp instructors.*
*Instructors, not instructor. I failed my actual first attempt at Freshman Comp, and had to take it again the next year. I’d done it twice in high school and hated it. The second time would allegedly get me college credit–but my college flatly refused to let any student skip e comp. And I’d had more than I could stand already. I managed to pass the second time by the skin of my teeth. Like I said, in hindsight, I realize I probably could have winged it and gotten a decent grade. I didn’t have the confidence to do that, though, and ended up with a long-simmering repressed urge to burn freshman comp to the ground.
**Yes, that means that I, who won multiple awards for my first novel, failed freshman comp in college. And got lackluster grades in high school English, for that matter. If it helps you to know that, I am, as always, happy to be of assistance.