An Essay Writing Process

In recent posts I have explored alternatives to the five-paragraph essay.  The five-paragraph essay is a formidable adversary.  It is nearly ubiquitous in educational contexts, and it serves simultaneously as invention strategy, writing process, and pattern of arrangement.  It also appeals to what Holcomb and Killingsworth call “the ritual of three” (Performing Prose).  What I tell you three times is true.  Three points and we are convinced.

So whatever we try to substitute for this ubiquitous form must have at least as many advantages, plus some more.

The biggest disadvantage of the five-paragraph essay is that it does not address an audience.  The rhetorical concerns–audience, purpose, situation–are not built into the format.  Of course, it is possible to write a five-paragraph essay while considering the rhetorical situation, and such an essay will probably be a superior one, but taking such considerations seriously is also likely to result in a product that has more or fewer paragraphs and a somewhat different organization.

Thinking about the above concerns and both the Roman six-part speech and Ken Bruffee’s Short CourseI decided to combine some things together into a process that is potentially as simple as the five-paragraph essay, but allows for audience and some choices about arrangement.  One way of implementing this might be to have students write the paragraphs and other components on 3×5 cards or slips of paper and move them around.  It doesn’t call for multiple drafts, which usually don’t happen anyway, because revision happens as part of the built-in writing process.  I haven’t used this in class yet, but I will in the fall.   It looks like this:


What is your topic? Why is this topic important now? Is it urgent? Are people talking about it? Is it trending on social media? Is it in the news? Write a paragraph about this.


What is your main claim about your topic? Write it down, but save it for later.


What background does your reader need to understand your claim? Write a paragraph about the background.


Should your main claim go after the introduction of the topic or after the background? Which would work better? Try it out both places.

Strongest Support

What is your best support for your claim? Is it an example or an argument? Do you have facts, words from authorities, or other support? Write this paragraph.

Additional Support

Do you have more support? Write another paragraph about it. Keep writing paragraphs for each supporting argument until you run out of ideas.  You might find later that you can combine some of them into one paragraph. Make sure that each example or argument is related to your main claim in some way.


What would people say who disagree with you? How can you refute their arguments?  Write a paragraph about it.


Should your best argument go last, or should you lead with it? Reorder your paragraphs if you think another order would be more effective.


How do you want to conclude? Do you want to remind the reader of something? Do you want to talk about what might happen if he or she doesn’t listen to you? Write your concluding paragraph.


Reread your essay. Are things in the right order? Do you need some transitions to make connections clearer? Did your main claim change a bit as you argued for it? Do you need to restate it?  Make the changes you want to make, proofread for errors, and submit your draft.

Ken Bruffee’s Short Course on Writing

In Reading Rhetorically, Bean et al cite Ken Bruffee’s A Short Course on Writing as their source for the “Descriptive Outlining” activity. The first edition was published in 1972. I started teaching writing around 1979, and I had a copy. I don’t think I ever ordered it for a class, but I may have. It is still in print in a 4th edition, but it is from Pearson now, so it costs $95. I found a copy of the 3rd edition from Amazon for $5. The forward to the 4th edition, by Harvey Kail and John Trimbur, was published separately as an article in Writing Center Journal. It provides a good summary of the history of the book and the influence it has had.


This is a book that has origins similar to Mina Shaughnessy’s Errors and Expectations. Bruffee found himself in the early ’60’s teaching writing with no clue about what to do or how to respond. He had trouble filling the class time productively and was spending inordinate hours marking every error, but seeing no improvement. We have all been there, I think. His solution to filling class time was to organize the course as a writing workshop with students helping students, the collaborative learning for which he is famous. His solution to the response problem was to teach simple forms of organization and insist that the paragraphs accomplish specific rhetorical tasks. He talks about the “Short Course Form” which is a three-paragraph essay, and he has a four-paragraph form, and others. These can be expanded and adapted. He also teaches “propositions” “assumptions” and support. It is pretty Aristotelian, but not overtly so. The theoretical background for the collaboration is the usual collection of social constructionist suspects.

Two things struck me as I started revisiting Bruffee: 1) This is very similar to the approach to writing we are developing in ERWC (I was probably retaining stuff from the 1st edition without remembering it consciously) and 2) Bruffee’s approach is sort of timeless. One of his goals was “to find out what the students are thinking.” That strikes me as an excellent goal for a writing class!

The course starts out with exercises in storytelling, brainstorming, focused freewriting, and generalizing. Then he begins to work on turning generalizations into “propositions” that can be defended. The next exercises and writing assignments work through proposition plus two reasons, “Nestorian” order (putting your best reason last), strawman plus one reason, and then “concession.” You can see that this gently introduces opposing viewpoints. Along the way, he works on transitions and coherence. He does not allow students to write conclusions until later in the course because the students have a tendency toward unnecessary summarizing and saving their main proposition until the end.

Descriptive outlining is introduced as a way for the student writer to “know exactly what is going on” in his or her own essay. They are to create one for every essay they write, and if there is a discrepancy between the essay and the outline, they are supposed to revise the essay to make it do what they want it to do. However, example essays are included with both “basic” and “detailed” descriptive outlines, so the technique also serves as a way to analyze other texts. It is an essential part of the course, something they apply to everything they read and write.

Section Four is about creating a “meaningful ending.” It is about conclusions. Students don’t write conclusions until page 153 of the book. Section Five is about research writing.

In summary:

  • Students write in class about topics of their own choosing.
  • Students help each other improve their writing through questions and structured activities similar to ERWC activities.
  • Students mostly write essays that take a “proposition plus two reasons” three-paragraph form.
  • Opposing arguments are introduced first through a “strawman” paragraph, then later by presenting a more valid argument and conceding its validity.
  • Students write basic descriptive outlines of each essay they read or write. In some cases they write “detailed” descriptive outlines. Descriptive outlines are a normal part of the revision process.
  • The simple formats allow the instructor to respond easily to the ideas in the paper, saving much time and making comments more productive.
  • When students are more fluent, they can begin writing conclusions and otherwise expanding the format.

It seems to me that there is much here that could be adapted to ERWC. The spirit of Bruffee’s approach is quite consistent with our own principle of respecting the student’s intelligence and being interested in what they think. And what we are principally struggling with right now is the form of the essay: five-paragraph essay, Roman six-part speech, or more organic structures. Bruffee solves the formula problem by teaching a reasonable, but incomplete format that builds skills that will be very useful later. He even says that it is good if students strongly feel like writing a concluding sentence because that means they are developing a rhetorical feeling for the essay. They can write that sentence, he says, but they shouldn’t turn it in with the essay. I have often said that if we teach a formula, it should contain the seeds of its own destruction. Bruffee’s certainly does.

Bruffee still seems fresh to me–practical, doable, principled, grounded.  And his question, “What are the students thinking?” asked in a course that helps them communicate their ideas but leaves them pretty much in charge, seems consistent with both the psychoanalytic approaches and the postprocess/postpedagogy anti-theory that is prevalent in composition these days. Definitely worth a look.

ERWC Second Edition: One Year Later

















The Expository Reading and Writing Course (ERWC) has just finished a series of leadership certification events and focus group meetings signaling the end of the first year of teaching the new edition of the course and the end of the second year of the i3 grant.  The first year of the grant was spent revising the curriculum and the professional learning program, the second year was spent teaching the revised course throughout the state, and the third year will be spent analyzing the data gathered by WestEd. Will there be a fourth year of the grant?  Will we apply for a validation grant to follow up on what we learned in the development phase?  Much depends on what we find in the analysis of the current data.

These events allowed for reflection on the past year and a lot of interaction between module writers and teachers. In this post I would like to address some of the issues that came up in these sessions.

Expanded Modules

The new modules contain more activities, more articles, and more writing assignments than the first edition.  Although the course now requires teaching  8-10 modules instead of 12, teachers still had trouble fitting everything in. Our plan was that teachers would use formative assessments, included in the teacher versions of the modules at appropriate places, to make decisions about what students needed and what they did not.  In practice, we found that some teachers were teaching from the student versions without consulting the teacher versions, so they did not use the assessments.  Instead, they tended to select the more familiar types of activities rather than being guided by assessments.  We could provide more guidance on what activities are the most important for teaching the module.  We are also considering eliminating the student versions of the modules entirely in our printed materials to encourage teachers to rely more on the teacher versions.  The student versions would continue to be available in the online community.

Students Often Don’t Read

Even with all of the scaffolding that the modules provide in the “Reading Rhetorically” sections, some teachers had trouble getting students to read the material, especially the novels. I think this is mainly a result of the changes wrought by technology on literacy practices.  We read on screens and videos are always only a click away.  There is evidence that even those of us who used to read print voraciously have less patience with long complex texts now that we are accustomed to reading in bits and pieces on iPads and other devices. (For more on this phenomenon, see “Our Cluttered Minds” in the New York Times.)

Students, of course, have developed high and low tech coping strategies. In “Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction,” high school student Vishal spends hours and hours shooting and editing a music video, but does not read assigned novels. A teacher has her students take turns reading Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried aloud in class because she knows they did not read it at home. Spark notes, movie versions, and reading aloud in class are standard strategies for not reading the book. ERWC modules are specifically designed so that these sorts of alternatives to reading will not suffice, but it is very difficult to change what are now engrained habits.

ERWC teaches traditional literacy habits in the context of a new technological literacy. We found evidence that students and teachers routinely translated our traditional literacy practices into their own new literacy habits. What I am calling “new literacy practices” here involves translating or supplementing literature with videos, images, outlines, PowerPoints, alternative texts, hyperlinks, group reading practices, audio texts, and other practices that often rely on web-based audiovisual technology.  These practices are designed to enhance or facilitate an experience of the work, especially for students who struggle to read a full-length text.

SparkNotes, on the other hand, are designed for one purpose: to get through the assignment without having to read the book or think about the issues. SparkNotes is a distilled product of other people’s reading and thinking, while ERWC is designed to help student use the text to think and to write.  (SparkNotes now has video versions, so students do not even have to read the SparkNotes!)

The fact is, however, that there is usually much more in a serious novel than videos, PowerPoints, and other alternatives can convey.  Something is always lost or left out. So how do we get student practitioners of the new literacy to engage with print novels? How do we combine the best of both literacy practices? I think we are still working on it.

Aristotle versus Toulmin

Another issue that keeps coming up is the distinction made in early Common Core materials between argument and persuasion, a distinction that is sometimes made to look like a battle between Stephen Toulmin and Aristotle. I have posted on this distinction a couple of times already, and I plan to devote another post to Toulmin’s system compared to Aristotle’s. However, for now I would like to quote a textbook that Toulmin published in 1979 with two other authors, An Introduction to Reasoning. They say,

Reasoning involves dealing with claims with an eye to their contexts, to competing claims, and to the people who hold them. It calls for the critical evaluation of these ideas by shared standards; a readiness to modify claims in response to criticism; and a continuing critical scrutiny both of the claims provisionally accepted and of any new ones that may be put forward subsequently. A “reasoned” judgment is thus a judgment in defense of which adequate and appropriate reasons can be produced. (9)

Note that in this definition of reasoning we are not dealing with abstract, ideal, or universal truths because we are to consider context, which means that the reasoning is situated in a particular time and place. We are not dealing with facts, but with “reasons.” When evaluating claims, we are to consider the “people who hold them,” which brings in ethos and pathos. The claims are evaluated according to “shared standards,” which means that there is a social dimension to the criteria. In other words, both Aristotle and Toulmin are dealing with practical, real world, reasoning.

When we first designed ERWC, the rhetorical terms and concepts were based on Aristotle. At the time, few teachers taught rhetoric at all, and we didn’t want to overwhelm the teachers or the students with new concepts, even though one of the reviewers at UC suggested that we include Kenneth Burke, which I would have loved to do. In the second edition, concepts from Stephen Toulmin appear, but we do not invoke his whole system. In retrospect, it may have been time to include more.


The last big issue in our conversations was about grammar. The first semester modules now include integrated grammar activities, based on using grammatical concepts rhetorically in the context of the readings and other activities in the module. Traditional grammar instruction is usually found to be ineffective in improving writing, but grammatical terms and concepts are very useful for discussing style and in revising prose. In ERWC, grammar instruction is simply part of working with the words, sentences, and ideas of the module. It is not abstract or detached. It is integrated with the whole process. Still, many teachers skipped it, blaming lack of time. Other teachers admitted that they did not feel they had the expertise to successfully implement the lessons because this sort of grammatical instruction had never been a part of their backgrounds.  We need to provide more guidance on this.

Overall Positive Responses

The frank and detailed discussions we had with teachers were very interesting and useful. We have a lot to think about. I should also note, in case this post makes it sound like ERWC is rife with problems and issues, that we received many, many positive comments and many thanks for the quality of the materials. It is a joy to work in the ERWC community.