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.

15 thoughts on “Rules

  1. Oh man, I’m sorry you had to suffer through that in *college*. I suffered through it in high school, but on the first day of English 101 the professor said: “Many if not all of you will have learned to write essays in the following format: First paragraph, state the thesis. Summarize your argument. Restate the thesis. And so forth. DO NOT DO THIS. Do NOT hand me essays that follow this template.” I wanted to stand up and cheer.

    1. Ann says:

      God bless your English 101 professor!

  2. Fade Manley says:

    This is fascinating to me, partly because when I was taught the five-paragraph structure with a lot of explicit commentary about how it was learning a very basic structure that we’d then move on from rapidly later. The analogy used was practicing scales on a musical instrument: it bears very little resemblance to how music is played in a performance piece, but it helped develop the skills (what is my thesis? have I given evidence in support of it? have I actually expanded on these points of evidence with proof and explanation? have I concluded my argument?) that more complicated essays were built around.

    Conversely, I’ve spent a lot of time backing away from a lot of writing advice, making warding signs, because so much of the writing advice hamstrung me when I took it too seriously. (Avoid all adverbs and the passive voice! Write every single day, at the same time! Just keep writing past your block, you can fix it in the edit!) So it’s interesting to me to see someone else having that same damn frustration at a place where I got the helpful “training wheels version, of course you won’t use this later like this!” explanation from the start.

  3. Ann says:

    So, I was actually given the “scales” analogy a few times, mostly by my parents, who were big fans of the “know how to break the rules” thing, and who were also frustrated by my repeated inability to get particularly good grades in English. (They were convinced of my talent from very early on, which is something that has often made me wonder how much “talent” is a matter of the people around you telling you from early on–like, toddler or early grade school early on–that you have it, and providing you with support and the resources you need to develop your ability. But that’s a whole other subject.)

    So, I had two thoughts on it. First, when you’re studying music they don’t give you endless scales plus some recordings of Perlman and Bell and whoever else to listen to and the admonition to be like them. You get music to play and scales along with it. If you’re enough of a beginner (say, my small daughter taking violin) you get Train Song and Twinkle in all its rhythmic variations and Lightly Row and so on (and recordings of those specific songs to listen to), and the scales come later.

    It’s true that those early songs are chosen specifically because they’re built out of patterns that, once you have them under your fingers, will let you eventually play Vivaldi. And to be entirely honest, chances are you won’t practice the scale exercises that much because they’re boring as fuck, but you’ll still get to the Vivaldi if you practice the actual music.

    The thing is, freshman comp is (or was for me) like Train Song and the four gazillion Twinkles, plus some listening to pros play Bach and Mozart and Paganini and whoever else with the idea that between the two you would be able to come out with some Schubert or Boccherini–but structured exactly like Twinkle if you please. And I knew the teacher wanted the Schubert, and I wanted to produce it! It just wasn’t possible under those conditions.

    My other thought–I was pondering an analogy where it would be similar to, say, a class in building chairs. Imagining that building chairs is some basic skill everyone needs for some reason. Freshman comp is like saying “Okay, chairs have four legs and a seat and a back, and that’s how you build a chair okay? Now, lets go to the museum and look at chairs. You see how fabulous they are? That should help you make your own chairs better.” Except those chairs have two or three legs or even one, and some of them have all kinds of mortise and tenon stuff and some of them are nailed together and some of them carved out of one piece of wood but you’ve been told the right way to make a chair is to glue the legs into sockets in the (square) seat. And you go back and try to build a chair for class, with the museum chairs in mind, but the things you’ve been told your chair needs to have aren’t a lot like the wonderful chairs you saw in the museum, and how the fuck are you gonna use that the way the teacher told you to?

    We did do some looking at what the assigned work was doing, writing-wise, but it was never clear how we were supposed to use that in the assigned essay form. Because, you know, you mostly couldn’t. Maybe it would help more to say, “here are these essays, now write a parody of one of them. What are the things your imitation needs to include?”

    I don’t know. Like I said above, it’s mostly my own problem–most of my classmates didn’t end up quite so traumatized by freshman comp.

    1. Fade Manley says:

      Huh! And conversely, in the classes where I was taught the five-paragraph construction method, we didn’t actually read any higher-level essays. We did read examples of good five-paragraph essays that we might want to emulate. Then later in college, we were shown more advanced essays, and got some instruction on how to move away from the five-paragraph form. I think the way I was taught essay writing was just so different than yours that it makes for a very different effect.

      But I also in general find ‘Here is a structure, learn it, now try variations’ a lot more useful as a teaching technique than ‘Here are a lot of examples of the final product.’ Which I think is just a personal style difference? I’m more likely to be intimidated by an example of mastery, and stop trying, if I’m introduced to it as something to emulate before I feel I can get anywhere near.

      1. Ann says:

        Oh, yes, that is very different. I am hoping that you are a good deal younger than I am and the difference is a sign of general improvement!

        Also, yes to being intimidated when presented with an example that’s obviously beyond my ability! Though over the years I’ve become more confident and more able to stop and see if I can’t maybe do a little of the something, or find some way through it. But that’s, like, more than twenty years past college.

        1. Fade Manley says:

          Early thirties, so rather younger than you! It may just have been the programs I was in, but I think they’ve gotten better about that since then, as it was reasonably consistent between two high schools and a college.

          These days, I can read amazingly good books and be impressed, and only have a brief moment of despairing “Oh god how would I ever write that well?” When I was in high school, I was so over-confident about my own abilities that I didn’t think to compare in that way. Between these two points, there was a lot of despair. It’s always rough when one’s skill at critiquing work increases so much faster than the skill at producing it.

  4. C
    Chris Gerrib says:

    “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.

    Like, for thousands of years, physicians bleeding patients.

  5. Minki says:

    Ha! Yes, thanks, this HAS actually been of great assistance…and in the nick of time, too! Just last night I made the rookie mistake of reading a few “So-and-So’s Ten Rules of Writing” articles. Of course I am guilty of a lot of the crimes mentioned in these, but I also noticed that, for every one of those rules, I know of at least one favourite author who has broken it to brilliant effect.

    Episode of crushing self-doubt averted. Thanks!

    1. Ann says:

      You’re very welcome! As I said above–more than happy to help!

  6. Rules for Writing are like the Pirates Code; more like guidelines.

    Enjoyed reading the piece and Susan was even reading it over my shoulder, something I normally can’t abide, but too absorbed in reading I guess to be bothered by it. Plus we’re married now, which has got to make a world of difference – not. 🙂

    1. Ann says:

      Oh CONGRATULATIONS!!!! That is so awesome, I am so happy to hear it.:D

  7. D
    Dave says:

    It’s such a relief to hear a great writer like yourself expressing the exact same frustrations I had in school. Looking back, it’s clear that the arbitrary rigidity of those essays turned me off of writing, and instead I focused much more on expressing myself through visual art and design since the art program in school actually made sense. It worked out well for me in the end, but I wonder how many potentially great writers are discouraged and held back by this system.

  8. A
    Alyssa says:

    It’s always good to hear an author point this stuff out. (I just started a sentence with “it” and used the word “stuff”, two things expressly forbidden by my creative writing teacher on second day The Rules of Writing lecture. She wrote The Rules of Writing on the white board and everything. The first day of class was devoted to her life story. I dropped the class before day three.) The dissonance you described truly upset me throughout my school career.

    I never could write anything that adhered to a form. Nothing shuts my brain down faster than a prompt (particularly the same prompts over and over again). We did a lot of timed tests and writing assignments and I would get so desperate that I would just turn in essays (or short stories) written in loose format with subjects that I cared about. I failed every English class I ever took (with the exception of my high school elective “Gothic Tales” which had no writing assignments, just required me to reread Stephen King and create a board game). The trouble was I would fail the assignments but I tested so well that my grades were never as low as my English teachers wanted them to be. They hated me. My freshman year of high school my English teacher (who was the head of the department and the head of the honors program) gave me a zero on every thing I turned in (including tests). By mid-term I had an 8 out of 100 in English. The 8 points were for attendance. She cut a deal with me, I got an automatic pass for English on the condition that I drop her class and never speak to her again. took it. Later, when she found out that I was still editing my former classmates work (and I do mean proper editing, I never did an assignment for another student) she tried to get my friends kicked out of the honors program too and the principal had to get involved to tell her to stop.

    Worse, teachers recited about 10 or so rules over and over again, with no explanation, and berated kids to do multiple drafts of their assignments without ever explaining how to rewrite. I had classmates tell me they learned more from watching me edit their papers than they ever had in class. We were never given examples to reread outside a handful of assigned novels and a few fragments of works in our textbooks.

    If you’re “brave” they just smack you down. Hard.

    PS: I just read Ancillary Justice and I thought the multi-segmented nature of Breq/One Esk/Justice of Toren came across clearly. I don’t think the focus on One Esk diminished the sense of connection to the entirety of the ship. The back and forth narrative and the way it skips through multiple story threads creates the sense of a whole born from many small parts, a harmony. I came to this website looking for a place to say that. I suppose it might as well be here at the end of an already overlong comment.

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