January 5, 2023
Like most students over the past 100 or so years, I learned to write essays by rote repetition of the lifeless five-paragraph formula: introduction leading to a thesis (typically, some version of the teacher’s perspective), three body paragraphs with evidence, and a conclusion that essentially paraphrased what I had done. Now, the world is all atwitter because we have arrived at the logical conclusion of this mechanistic approach to writing: Artificial intelligence can relieve us of this dreary work. If the purpose of learning to write were simply to crank out formulaic essays, this development in AI might be cause for celebration. But the act of writing serves other purposes and offers many more benefits.
Perhaps the most powerful of these is that writing helps writers discover what they think. Unfortunately, although some teachers use the five-paragraph essay approach only briefly as an effective scaffold, its (more common) long-term use has led too many students to believe that writers need to know what they want to say before they begin to write. They must, so pedagogical pathology demands, formulate their thesis and outline the three sub-topics and their evidence. But, actually, although writers typically have some sense of what they want to say before they start working—some ideas and feelings that kindle a desire (or even need) to write—the writing process itself is a constant journey of discovery:
Joan Didion: “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see, and what it means.”
Robert Bolt: “Writing a play is thinking, not thinking about thinking.”
James Baldwin: “You go into a book and you’re in the dark, really . . . You know you will not be the same person when this voyage is over. But you don’t know what’s going to happen to you between getting on the boat and stepping off.”
John Updike: “Writing and rewriting are a constant search for what one is saying.”
Take the most mundane example. At the end of the first paragraph, I originally wrote, “But writing has many more purposes and benefits.” I read that sentence over and over, but it didn’t seem to capture what I felt I meant. “Writing” wasn’t exactly right; I meant the process of writing, the act of writing. And “writing” doesn’t “have” anything; it serves purposes and offers benefits. Good lord, I spent perhaps 10 minutes…