How can students make their writing interesting? First year composition classes do not always adequately teach students how to build interest within their writing. Instead, classes tend to be focused around formulating strong thesis statements and creating clarity through organization and sign posts (e.g. The purpose of this essay…, This section will…, In contrast…, In conclusion…, etc.) Certainly, standard techniques of organization lead to understanding, but they often leave the reader feeling bored.
In “The Music of Form: Rethinking Organization in Writing,” Peter Elbow elaborates on five ways of organizing writing in time that create what he calls an itch that must be scratched through the reader’s continued engagement with the text. Narrative, dynamic outlines, perplexity, words that enact, and voice all create interest.
Narrative, though being perhaps the most useful tool when creating interest, is limited in use to genres that fall outside of the typically assigned genres of analytic and expository essays. It is a form of storytelling that is usually thought to be contrary to academic writing.
Dynamic outlines are a form of organization through formulation of sentences that require more detail and create what Elbow calls a “story of thinking” (637). In order to successfully create a dynamic outline, the writer, instead of making a typical bulleted outline with fragments, writes a sentence packed with details for each paragraph. When all of the sentences are combined, the outline should read like a story.
Words that enact include the act of thought in the present – “It is now apparent that” – instead of the record of past thoughts – “It came to my attention that…” The use of present tense creates the feeling of experiencing and learning in unison with the writer. A story of the writer’s thoughts is developed through words that enact.
Voice gives writing an overall cohesion that guides and engages the reader. The reader is given information about the speaker of the essay through the voice that the writer chooses. As an example, the first person perspective of I and distinct vernacular tend to be far more intimate and entertaining than the third person pronoun one and standard English. Still, it should be recognized that the standards of academic writing often require voice to be conformed to particular standards that limits students’ use of it as a tool to create interest.
The use of perplexity is of particular interest and, as such, will be discussed in more detail. In order to combat boredom, students can start their essay with a problem or a perplexity that needs to be solved or clarified rather than beginning their essays with the typical answer or assertion. Doing so will create a curiosity in the reader that will pull the reader along through the text. Out of the problem or complexity can be built a type of story, a narrative that takes the reader along with the writer from problem to solution or from perplexity to clarity. If done correctly, the reader will feel as if they are discovering and learning new information along with the writer.
Beginning an essay with a problem or complexity does not exclude common forms of organization such as the use of a thesis. For instance, a freshman expository essay on the environmental crisis could begin as follows:
How can the environmental crisis of climate change be resolved? Does climate change have to be addressed at the global, national, or personal level? Is there anything that I or you can do as individuals to halt climate change? While there are a plethora of ways to enact change, this essay will address the solutions of using alternative forms of transit, becoming a part time vegetarian, and using cold water for laundry. By making these simple changes, the individual can make a difference in the global climate crisis.
The writer is able to state the topic of their essay and the argument that they are going to make while still leaving the reader wondering how three simple changes could possible have an impact on a global issue. The reader, ideally, wants to know how they can make a difference and will continue to attentively read the essay as a consequence.
As an additional note to my fellow tutors, I encourage you to read Peter Elbow’s article in its entirety. He adeptly conforms his article to his techniques of writing in time so that the article is an example in itself, an example that you can use while tutoring. In addition, there was never a time that that I was bored with the article, and I am sure that you would enjoy it as well.
Elbow, Peter. “The Music of Forum: Rethinking Organization in Writing.” College Composition and Communication 57.4 (2006): 620-66. Print.