(This essay first appeared in the January 18th, 2007 edition of the West Bloomfield Eccentric)

How much have you written in the past week? Of that writing, how much of it was meaningful to you?

The answers for a typical Penn student would be little and very little. Here at Penn, students pick up the metaphorical pen and paper only for the occasional paper in class and to chat with friends via instant messenger or Facebook. Personal writing is on the decline. Fewer people keep diaries and even fewer take the time to write extended letters to friends.

I like the way Anna Quindlen puts it in her recent Newsweek column: “information x polysyllabic words + tortured syntax = aren’t you impressed?” Corporate memos, legal briefs, licenses and legislation are churned out in reams. Is any of this good writing?

Good writing should express ideas clearly, yet so much of this writing seems designed to obfuscate. Good writing should draw a reader in, yet so much of what now passes for writing makes counting dots in the ceiling seem interesting by comparison.

Every little boy and girl is a great writer. A 10-year-old produces simple, powerful, narrative prose. Ideas flow logically and chronologically from one to the next. Children’s writing naturally follows the way the human mind thinks.

This is an excerpt from a story written by a 10-year-old girl named Jaseyla about a trip to Sequoia National Park: “Ashley looked at her map to find the trails she wanted to take. After she hiked for a while, Ashley stopped to munch on some chips from her lunchbox. When she was done eating, Ashley continued hiking up the trail.”

This writing speaks with a clear and concise voice. But come middle school, something happens and that natural voice is lost. The writer tortures and twists his previously free flowing writing to fit the constraints of a five-paragraph essay. Every single five-paragraph essay has the same form: a hook, then a thesis, followed by three structurally identical body paragraphs, then a restatement of the thesis and finally a clincher at the end. It is a fill-in-the-blanks style of writing. Once all the parts are laid out, the writer need only select the appropriate words from a word bank to plug in. Seven years of indoctrination with this form and students can no longer write anything but impeccably organized and impeccably boring essays.

No professional writer uses a five-paragraph form. The form deliberately breaks up ideas that should flow into discrete chunks of ideas. With some essays, the order of the three body paragraphs does not even matter. Students are taught to put their strongest point in the third body paragraph, and the weakest point in the middle paragraph, regardless of how the writer’s ideas logically would progress.

While I’m not sure when the five-paragraph essay rose to such prominence, I suspect that it coincided with the decline of letter writing as a means of communication. When writing stopped being a part of daily life, it became the current stilted and formulaic process taught in high schools and codified in the SAT writing section.

College writing courses are not much better. Most universities, including Penn, require a course in writing. At Penn, the writing form taught is the three-paragraph style, simply stripping away a body paragraph and conclusion from a five-paragraph essay. It is still writing with a formula.

The teaching of writing needs to move beyond the five-paragraph format. The skills necessary to write a compelling narrative or an effective dialogue are just as important as being able to hold forth in five paragraphs on Gatsby’s green light across the lake. For students whose high school diet was all five-paragraph all the time, college writing courses should teach creative writing instead of more of the same. Courses should teach how to write the connections between ideas, not just the ideas, and the connections between paragraphs, not just the paragraphs.

But they don’t.

The Internet offers hope of improving writing skills by making people write more. Blogging is a new fad and a good one. Blogs let writers exercise their voice without the constraints of a prompt, thesis, or deadline. But they also showcase some of the worst writing I have ever read. A quick scan of teen blogs on Myspace shows that many have narrative writing abilities comparable to Jaseyla’s. But writing requires practice, so as long as they don’t quit, they will improve.

I am still not satisfied with my writing, so this year I resolved to write without deadlines. Writing should be a daily personal activity, so for starters a daily journal. Maybe a few long letters to friends I haven’t seen in too long. And the next time I mull over a tough decision, I may break the deadlock with a pair of opposing opinion essays instead of a list of pros and cons.

Next time I ask myself how much I have written in the past week, the answer will be much more. <div class="tags">categories<ul><li></li> <li></li><li></li> </ul></div>