A long, somewhat tedious and mildly chronological
account of a long, somewhat tedious process of
developing a working writing system.
It could use some polishing, when my
website-creation-fried brain gets a little better.
You might read the other stuff first, and then,
If you'd like to know where it all came
come back to this page and settle in for a long read.
The many short paragraphs are intended
to make online reading easier,
not to conform to grammatical niceties.
"You Just Know!"
As a beginning student teacher 42 years ago, I realized that I didn't know how to teach or grade themes, so I went to the toughest English professor at the University of Richmond and
asked him how I could tell the difference between an A theme and a B theme.
I thought that he would give me some profound statement that would jump start my teaching career, but instead he just looked at me, scowled, and replied,
"You just know!" and ended the interview.
From that inauspicious beginning, I went on to teach English, assigning and grading many themes. However, other than teaching the basic "5-paragraph Theme,"
I didn't know how to get the majority of my students to produce excellent compositions with superior analysis - without spending endless hours correcting rough drafts.
Undergraduate Random-Access Theme Writing
To write big papers in college, I grabbed stuff, read stuff, wrote stuff, and then tried to make some sense out of what I had written.
I would begin by going to the library, doing research, taking some undirected notes, checking out a lot of books and reading randomly through them, taking
more notes until something caught my fancy, doing more reading until panic set in, and writing until the early morning hours.
The rough draft was generally a grand and glorious mess, with little organizational quality. When the time came to write my final paper, I had this
disorganized mass of long quotes and observations on the front and the back of many pieces of paper.
A problem often came in actually sorting out what I had written, as part one might be in the middle of the front of page four, and part two might be
on the back of page seventeen.
However, when the pressure was on, I would somehow turn the wild stuff into a fairly decent paper. They weren't too bad, as I love to read and love to
think, but I had no organized method of gathering and presenting information.
As I had no efficient theme-writing method myself, how could I teach students to write?
…like that? …the "panic attack" method of writing?
Grading my own papers:
One of the more tiring exercises as a teacher is to assign papers, take up rough drafts, and then correct all of the problematical things on the rough drafts.
In endless crabbed handwriting in their margins, I would tell them what to do to fix their organizational and grammatical follies, and would give
suggestions as to what they should say in their analyses, as analysis is usually the only creative thing done in most papers. The rest is mechanical.
Then they would take their papers and do what I told them to do, and I would grade them again and give them a good grade.
The problem was that I wasn't grading their thoughts, but my thoughts. I was grading my own papers and giving them a good grade for what I had told them to
Getting the mechanics under control can be done more easily, but getting students to think on their own is a harder enterprise.
Time, Length, and Quality
Not only was I doing their thinking for them, but I was taking
a lot of time grading the longer papers that I wanted them to write.
Short papers tend to look a lot alike, as they only cover the basic elements of good writing and don't always show much depth of thought.
Longer papers give students a real chance to show how deeply they can think, and how well they can analyze.
While longer papers are harder to manage and grade, the teacher's
effort is more than rewarded by the chance to really connect to a student's mind
. As we challenge them to think more deeply, we often find that they have insights into the world and human nature that we had never thought of.
The production of thoughtful, organized papers not only enhances a student's writing skills, but it also provides an excellent
education for teachers, who often learn more than they teach as they challenge their students to do their best.
In addition, short papers don't give enough practice in the writing skills that they might need in the world after high school. Almost anyone
can write a good 3-page paper, but it is more difficult to maintain organization and consistency over 8 or 10 pages or more.
I wanted the papers to be good enough so that I could just read them and give the writers good grades for superior work - instead of
spending hours and hours writing in their margins about every single detail which should be fixed.
If I could teach writing in a way that would result in a majority of good papers the first time, I would save myself a lot of time...
But how could I do that?
I didn't know.
Around 30 years ago, after a number of years of teaching, I vividly remember grading a particular paper written by a very good student. Her
theme was well-organized, had good points, good transitions, good quotes, and a good summary of what was in the quotes. However, it had no
independent analysis that came from her head – which could demonstrate deeper thinking. The paper was mechanically perfect but inspirationally
dead. I had marked almost nothing on it, but it was really flat, as it was lacking insight from her superior mind.
When I gave back her virtually unmarked paper, but mentioned to her that I wanted more analysis, she was rather irritated, and wanted to know
what I meant by analysis. I realized that I didn't know what to tell her.
The Analysis Black Hole
I could look at each of her points and quotes, and tell her individually what she could say, but I had no clear awareness myself of types of
analysis that were possible when writing about some meaningful piece of information.
So I looked at the types of analysis that superior writers produced, trying to see if there were categories of analysis that I could explain to my
students so that they would have some idea as to what good analysis should include.
Over quite a few years, three types of analysis gradually settled out as
being distinct ways to explain examples or quotes: clarification, judgment, and connections. These are explained in great detail at other places on this site.
The Long Road of Themeology
It was a long process. 25 years or more went by from the time that I realized that my standard methods of teaching writing were inadequate until
I had worked out a system that really worked, as evidenced by students coming back from college and enthusiastically endorsing the method.
I continued trying different procedures to see what worked and what didn't. Whenever a number of students made the same mistakes, causing
me to spend too much time writing the same thing on dozens of papers, I would incorporate the problems into my instructions, and so gradually built
up a database of instructions based on practical student problems.
However, instructions are just words, and words often go in one ear and out the other, having little effect on the writing products of many students.
I still had no organized system that would incorporate the things I was gradually and painfully learning into a process which would result in a
higher percentage of independently successful themes from my students.
Who's the Audience?
Another concern was that I was teaching my students to write literary and personal essays, while most of my students would be engineers,
scientists, mathematicians, or businesspeople, who might have to produce much longer and more structured writings in their work environment than
the essays that I was teaching them to write. Scientists often have to hire English teachers to proofread their papers.
I much enjoy the flow of human emotion and the presentation of the many and weird varieties of human nature that can be found in literature. I
also greatly enjoy reading the thoughtful analyses of human nature by my students, who often bring unique perspectives to literature that I have read
many times. That's why I still love teaching English after 37 years.
However, I still felt the need to teach my students the highly structured
writing which would be useful for non-English-paper writing in the future – whether it be two pages or two hundred pages.
Range of Abilities and Interests
I also wanted a system that could be used with the whole range of abilities that I encounter in my teaching, from the brilliant students to those
who can barely read. The latter might not be able to make profound observations about the nature of the universe, but they can often make
significant and interesting observations about their environments. All students have areas where they can express themselves well. It's just up to
their teachers to structure assignments which will bring out the best in the students that are being taught.
Not Only for English Teachers
In addition, I wanted a system which could be used in any subject area. When I first taught this system in our teacher recertification program, I
entitled it, "Not For English Teachers." English teachers often have their own systems for writing, and are often not interested in having another English teacher tell them how to do things differently.
Teachers in other academic areas often hesitate and even fear to give compositions in their fields, as they don't feel qualified to teach or grade
papers with the same thoroughness that English teachers do.
But this system makes giving at least short assignments easy, and as the subject matter will usually be more concrete than English literature, such
papers will be easy to grade as well. Teachers in other fields need not grade papers like English teachers to be able to require their students to prove
that they understand their material by writing about it.
Structured vs. Creative Writing: Different Strokes
Some have objected that too much emphasis on organization stifles creativity. It may be true that too much attention to organization might
affect so-called "creative writing," but in my humble experience, truly creative writers will be creative in any venue, while ordinary writers, as well
as creative writers, need to get their regular writing under control before they start worrying too much about their creativity being stifled.
Structured writing is a different type of writing than creative writing, and so will be taught differently. However, as my system shows, structured
writing can also provide for the expression of creative ideas, albeit in an organized structure.
A light came on in my harried brain as a result of teaching speed reading. As an Evelyn Wood Reading Dynamics instructor, I would get
prospective speed readers to preview stories out of chronological order. We would randomly preview written works from the middle or from the
end, glancing at short sections from the back to the front of the story to quickly determine concepts that might be important before actually reading the story.
When I had to come up with a rationale for this odd behavior, as a chronological approach might seem to be better, I realized that looking at
things backwards or out of order could make a reader more aware of the individual parts than by going through in chronological order.
Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain
And then I came upon a Betty Edwards'book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, which tries to get non-artistic types like me to be able to
draw. I can't even draw a convincing stick figure, and my students are overcome with laughter at my feeble attempts to draw camels or cows or whales.
One of the basic methods of the book is to copy pictures that have been turned upside down. Interestingly enough, when looking at something
in a nonstandard way, we can often see the individual parts and lines much better than we can when we're looking at the whole picture right side up.
Being able to see the parts instead of the whole, we can duplicate simple lines much more easily, and when our own "art" is turned over, it doesn't
look that bad. For non-artists, copying a picture while looking at it right side up it would often have resulted in a big mess.
From the Middle to the Edges
As the the "parts versus the whole" idea stuck in my mind, I decided to apply the "look at it differently" principle to themes. I started to get my
students to write individual examples of ideas in a different order than is usual, as I noticed that the usual order of writing themes often ended up with a mess.
Don't Begin at the Beginning!
Most teachers would have their students write an introduction first, and then proceed with background, a quote, and analysis. In my experience,
beginning by stating an idea often leads to the disorganization that follows. Students should know what they are planning to prove with the example or
quote, but should not start the example with such a statement.
A Typical Example
Students will typically state what they are planning to prove in the example, and then go wandering about, putting in background that is unnecessary or irrelevant.
The focus on the irrelevant background often makes students lose their focus on the idea, leading to quotes that are too broad or imprecise.
Weak quotes may then be followed by analysis which wanders about even more, with discussions of everything but the kitchen sink, from
analysis of biscuit recipes to instructions on how to build a pyramid.
Where's the Quote?
Therefore, I decided that if the quote (or important piece of information) is to be the focus of the discussion, the quote should be
written first, with the writer making sure that it is the best quote possible to prove the idea.
Then I would have my students add the other elements in a way that would ensure that these elements would be properly related to the subject
of the "block," the quote.
Therefore, instead of getting students to write the introduction first, and
then the rest of the point or the paper, I started getting students to write from the middle out instead of from the top down.
As the students are writing one part of an example – what I call a "block" - at a time, in reverse order, they will usually end up with the
important elements of a paper actually being in the paper, in the right order, and properly related to each other.
How to Structure Raw Information
It is important to know where to gather raw information that might be used in a paper. However, to make a paper more manageable, it is equally
important to structure this raw information in a way that will make it easily accessible when the time comes to write the final paper. I didn't want my students to write papers the way I did!
The Insufficiencies of Note Cards
I know that most high school teachers teach their students to use note cards, and some college students actually use them. But most college
students use regular paper, as note cards are too small and are difficult to work with if one doesn't have small handwriting, long fingernails, and a certain degree of manual dexterity.
3 x 5 cards are so small that they are hard to handle and one needs to have need small handwriting to fit much on them.
4x6 cards are better, but are still small and awkward to handle.
"Aha!" said Andrews, who has always cordially hated note cards.
Why not use BIG note cards, like the 8 1/2 by 11 paper that most people use?
Treat the 8 ½" notepage like a note card – with only one piece of information on each "card."
Then the writer would have more space, while still having the advantage of separate pieces of information.
Strangely enough, it is very difficult to get students to limit the amount of information that they put on an 8 ½ x 11 piece of paper to only one
piece of information - as they would if they were using smaller note cards.
If they have room on the page – front or back – they have a
compulsion to fill it up. "Saving trees" would be the argument for filling up every available space on the paper.
However, putting only one piece of information per page makes the parts of the paper much more manageable when the time comes to write the final draft.
Bad Back Writing
Another mechanical problem that students have had is the writing of notes and analysis on the back of their paper. Writing stuff on the back
makes it physically more difficult to get to, and, if the stuff on the back doesn't go with the stuff on the front, it can't be ordered without copying
it over. Writing only on the front makes things much easier to mechanically handle when the final paper is being assembled.
The best way to keep notepages is to put them in stacks of related information and clip or staple each stack together. Those wonderful black
tempered-steel binding clips hold lots of paper very firmly and give students handles to grab them with. With physical control of one's notes,
there is no danger of the "note card sprawl" which happens when your exquisitely organized note cards fall to the floor between classes and
scatter in every direction. They're impossible to pick up fast, and so you and your cards get trampled while you are frantically trying to retrieve them.
Note cards can lead to death, and so should be outlawed!
Why use cards? Paper is cheaper, more flexible, easier to handle, and has more room to write on.
Room to Write:
Notepages into Rough Drafts
More room to write on? Hmmmmm
To review: One piece of information...only on the front....more room....
What can we do with the extra room?
We can, in an organized way, turn the "notepage" into a rough draft of the paper, saving, if the student is writing it by hand, an extra step.
Instead of moving information from note cards to rough drafts to the final draft, why not turn the note card into a final draft so the quote doesn't
have to be written again?
Even if students are composing their rough drafts on their computers, they can still adhere to the "notepage" limitations, putting each quote or
significant piece of information in the middle of a page, and then turning that page into a discreet piece of a very well-organized rough draft.
Then the "notepages" can be printed out and put in the right order as well.
The Structure of the "Notepage"
Question: How must we structure this new type of roomy note card so that we can most efficiently use it to write a good long paper?
By looking at the elements of good analytical papers, and determining which elements would often be in a good analytical paper, one can see that
points and examples (and papers) should have good introductions, background to quotes, transitions into quotes, good quotes, and thorough analysis.
And if the "backwards" method of writing is to be used, the raw material must be put on the page in a way which will facilitate such a writing process.
The Naked Quote
Therefore, the quote should be indented in the middle of the page,
leaving space for background and an introductory statement above it, and for analysis below it. The quote should clearly indented so that both the
writer and the reader can focus on the information which is to be the subject of the discussion.
As each quote or significant piece of information is supposedly proving an idea which is the focus of your paper or your point, it would seem
reasonable that the idea should be put in a prominent place on the notepage.
The best place to write down the idea, so that it is easily seen, not mixed up with bibliographical stuff, or covered with a staple, is the upper
right hand side of the notepage.
If each notepage has an idea listed, it is easy for both the student and the teacher to see if the quote is a good example of the idea. The teacher
need not have read the book at all. Either the idea matches the quote or it does not. If the students can't put down precise ideas, they must not
understand their quotes very well, and so have to modify either the quote or the idea.
Ideas in the upper right corner can then be used to easily sort the quotes that the student has compiled from research, leading to a much easier
construction of the final paper.
Because the finished papers are so highly organized, they are quite easy
to grade if the teacher has made sure that the construction steps have been followed in order.
Is the quote good?
Is the background adequate or too long?
Are there good transitions into the example and into the quote?
Has everything been clarified that needs explaining?
Has the student exercised judgment about the idea presented?
Has the student made a connection to another time or place?
These things are easy to see if the papers are organized, and are therefore much easier to grade.
And because the students have a structure on which to hang their ideas, the papers tend to be much better, as most students are capable of
expressing their opinions if they have something good to have an opinion about.
In addition, over the years I have tried many grading sheets to convey
information to students about the state of their papers, as well as to facilitate efficient grading. Some have been so complex that they took longer to mark than it took to grade the paper.
I finally settled on a simple format which would take up ¼ of a page, which lists all of the required elements in order, with enough space to either
check the elements off as being there, or to write short comments about areas which are deficient. I make up a separate sheet, four to a page, for
each type of theme that I give, and so can easily grade my themes. These will be presented in another area of the site.
OK Andrews. You've gone and designed this seemingly complicated system. How do we know that it will work?
First of all, it's not that complicated. It is a simple series of steps, which, if followed by students and enforced by a teacher, will result in an
organized, interesting, and easy-to-grade theme.
Second of all, I know that it works because every year kids come back and tell me that not only is theme writing easy for them in college, but their
papers in non-English classes are often held up as examples of almost-perfectly structured papers.
The only college teachers that don't seem to like the system are the English teachers, who, as mentioned before, seem to think that it's too
mechanical for the touchy-feely stuff that they want their students to write.
In fact, the students that warm my heart the most are those who struggled in my class, often having to write their papers over until they got
them right. These kids often end up teaching their dorm mates how to do it, after finding success in their own college writing without having an English teacher to oversee every move.
It really works, though not always for college English teachers. But most of my students won't become English teachers, so I think I can
handle a bit of disapprobation.
The above observations have been painfully gathered by grading
thousands and thousands of themes during my 37 years of teaching.
This system is not a finished one, as there are always things to be learned from the intelligent young people that I have the honor to teach, but
it has hopefully reached the point where it is almost suitable for public consumption – and so I've decided to use this site to get more feedback
that will help the system to become even better.