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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Teaching Writing: Content VS. Form

I’ve mentioned that I’ve been thinking about writing instruction, lately, while I sort through my choices for the new year’s curricula.  David (soon to be in 6th grade) has entered a new phase of consciousness (did I really say that?), and may actually benefit from something more formal.  Maybe. 

Not that I’ve neglected teaching writing.  Over the past 4 years we’ve beta-tested 2 writing programs, have reviewed others, and tried just informal writing exercises.  Last year, David participated in National Novel Writing Month and even went on to write a sequel to the novel he completed.  There’s been plenty of writing going on.

In all that time, I’ve come to a few conclusions about writing programs in general:

  1. I didn’t actually need a formal writing program in the early elementary grades (and neither do you).
  2. I probably still don’t actually need a formal writing program, but I’m going to use one.
  3. Most writing programs for children put too much emphasis on the form of writing and lose sight of the fact that writing is all about communication.

Let me repeat that, because it’s important:  Writing = Communication

Here starts my rant.;0)

I submit to you that the purpose for any writing at all is to communicate, whether it be an emotion, a thought, an idea, or even an explanation for a newly patented process.  The reason we write anything at all is communicate, or, if you prefer, to have a meeting of the minds with other human beings.  We share our very thoughts through words.

So all writing, if it’s worth writing at all, has some kind of content.

Therefore, the purpose of writing instruction is not so much to teach someone how to write, but to teach him how to effectively convey his message, whatever it may be.  You can’t accomplish this by teaching empty forms.

I pray you, do not ever give your 13-year-old child an assignment like:   “Write a business letter to a company requesting an interview for a job.  Be sure to list your job qualifications and previous work experience.  It is not acceptable to state that you have no previous work experience.”

This is an actual writing assignment (not in those words, but that’s it in a nutshell) that I received while in middle school in preparation for the Maryland Writing Exam.  Yes, the Maryland Writing Exam.  I think there still is such a thing.  Oh, and I think it has to be a 5-paragraph letter, too.  Shiver.

Granted, I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with the state trying to ensure that their graduates are able to write.  My quibble is with how they go about it.  But that’s another topic, really.  My point is that there is nothing that will kill your child’s love for writing (or seal their hatred for same) faster than an asinine assignment like this.

Was that too blunt?

The problem with this type of assignment is that it attempts to separate the form of writing from it’s content, as though it’s the form that truly matters.

The message is that it doesn’t matter if the content is true.  It doesn’t even matter if the content makes sense.  We are looking for a well-worded business letter that might convince someone to offer someone an interview.


Putting aside the obvious moral problem of training teenagers to write convincing but bogus letters begging for job interviews…

I’ll just say it right out:  when it comes to writing, content is king.  Period.  Form without true content is a bunch of silly nothingness.

We’ve all read magazine articles or newspaper articles or listened to anchormen that really had nothing of substance to say.  My husband has read plenty of papers written by students who were doing their best to fill the word quota without ever actually coming to a conclusion or even offering a viable premise.  Sure, it’s possible to fill the form with words that don’t say much of anything, but why waste your time like that?

The point of writing anything is to communicate something.  You can’t communicate form.   You use form to help organize your content.

Ahh, so you say, content is important, it organizes the content.

Yes, form is an important tool.  But too many writing programs stop there.

I’ll just mention my arch nemesis here:  the 5-paragraph essay.  Shiver.

Raise your hand:  how many of you were taught how to write a 5-paragraph essay as if it was the crowning achievement of all writing?

Now how many of you have actually read a (good) 5-paragraph essay outside of an English class?  Anybody?

Did Jonathan Swift write 5-paragraph essays?

Now I’m going to say something that will floor you:  Form is determined BY content.   Not the other way around.

What you wish to say will determine how you need to say it in order to get your message across.  And, hey, that may require a 17-paragraph essay.  It might require a 859 word blog post chopped into little 3 sentence paragraphs with little parenthetical comments and occasional exclamation points!

Content should always determine form.  If your writing program is only interested in form, scrap it.

You might also be interested in:

The Reading and Writing Link

On Teaching Writing


  1. Absolutely. This is why I haven't used a formal writing program for my kids yet, either. The main reason is I don't know what they're going to need to communicate. I am/was a scientist. I didn't learn to write until I was in college trying to get published in a peer reviewed journal. Even in grad school and beyond I learned that each scientific journal varied somewhat in its expectations, although the general form was the same.

    For kicks one year I took a creative writing class at a local university. I realized in week one that I didn't have anything to say. I guess I'm not creative. When it came to my research I had lots to say, but not so much when it came to writing a mystery (our first assignment)!

    My oldest son was given all kinds of "creative" writing assignments in Kindergarten, of all places. His teacher thought he was soooooo creative and praised him up and down. It took me about 30 seconds to realize he was regurgitating word for word the story line that flashed down the screen in his gameboy games. All his stories were about Donkey Kong and Mario.

    I'm far more interested at this point in my kids' lives (12 and under) at giving them something in their brains worth communicating. Once they have some knowledge worth sharing, we can focus more on how to do that : ).

    I've enjoyed your series.


  2. Yes. There's this mistaken notion in writing instruction that kiddos are just chock full of ideas and can't wait to get them on paper. They have things like "brainstorming sessions" which really amount to the instructor leading the class to what they are going to write.

    But most kid's ideas are not truly original, they tend to come from movies they've seen, stuff Mom and Dad have talked about (hey, my 11-year-old thinks he has politics ALL figured out), books they've read, things their friends have told them...ideas they are just repeating, but haven't actually synthesized. They are still working on truly understanding the world and making independent judgements. They are kids, after all.

    In terms of formal instruction, I would simply follow your child's lead. I think early elementary is too early. Late elementary will be too early for most. Middle school will be too early for some. At some point in high school they will need some pointers in organizing their writing and so on. But, the content and having a sense of what to do with the content, that's the key. All the writing instruction in the world will not make someone a good writer if they have nothing to write about.

    I'll be doing some formal writing instruction with David this coming year, but only because I have seen his writing really take off the past year and think he can benefit from some pointers here and there. If I find that it's hindering more than helping, I'll back off. I'm doing my best to "nurture" the writer in him.


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