Writing efficiency

Imagine a place where all roads are numbers. Imagine a school where all the kids sit in order of their heights and all kids greet each other in alphabetical order. Imagine a neighbourhood where kids no longer play but only have play dates. Imagine a country where all tunnels are the same height and all bridges are the same width, where all buses are numbered and all  underground trains are tagged with alphabets. Imagine a river with clearly cut banks in straight lines and trees that bend on cue with the wind.

We all know at least some such places. It’s super easy to navigate your way in these spaces. But once you have navigated well, what do you find?

I don’t know but when I read some well-made prose I come across nowadays, I feel like I’m inhabiting such a place.

There are some patterns I have come to know.

The five paragraph essay. The thesis statement. The argument. They all come and bombard you at the very beginning of articles. All  begin with introductions and end with conclusions. The anecdotes bite, the great quotes stand like rich cousins awkwardly at a poor wedding, the questions that start the piece meant to pique our curiosity fail to wake the dormant reader’s spirit.

They always say what they want to say quite directly at the beginning without much ado. More points to them if they manage to sell their point of view and clinch the argument at the end.

The good. The efficient. The correct. They help to navigate. They minimize the possibility of mistakes. But have we learnt to become too efficient living and writing in such ordered systems?

Students learn writing through their question prompts. Sometimes the prompts read longer than the essays themselves. The path is clearly charted out for the least deviation  of the essayist’s spirit. There are repeated drafts. Revising and revising the same piece over weeks and weeks keeps kids busy. They don’t have time to look around and absorb and create disorder.

There are alternate systems in our world but few of these work well. Like narrow lanes with no names or numbers and no maps where kids run freely all day and people throng the streets at all times not having their  nine to five jobs to confine them. In these systems, the enthusiastic ones learn writing through imitation from reading others or by learning essays by heart in answer to question papers with less than one line of prompts. Only the best produce coherent pieces by charting their own way. The rest are lost.

One system encourages efficiency and mediocrity while the other only produces a few token creative spirits obliterating possibilities in much of the rest.

Perhaps there are other ways to learn writing well. We just need to find them.

53 thoughts on “Writing efficiency”

  1. I’m a firm believer in providing students with format/building blocks for writing a well formatted thesis/paper; however, I also belive that once a writer establishes the basic building blocks of a successful piece, that they don’t allow format to drive the creation of the paper. I think an important part of being a truly “good” writer is the ability to experiment with the traditional formats in a successful way.

    A piece of writing can have all the essential parts of the acceptable template and still fail. Why? Because simply going through the motions of checking off your checklist doesn’t create a cohesive document.

    So while it is important to teach writing at the beginning through structure, once the general idea of structure is established, writers should be encouraged to incorporate the important aspects of a piece in creative formats.


  2. As a kid, I was always imagining stories, characters and having grand adventures, whether it was with my action figures, using role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons, or just acting out the stories in my backyard. I didn’t realize that writing was a viable outlet for this creativity until I was an adult. Up to that point, t was all about getting a career, finding a girl, getting married, having kids and all that nonsense.

    Once I discovered my true desire, to write and create, I realized I didn’t really have the skills for it. That didn’t stop me, of course. But one thing I didn’t learn to much later was that if you only think of writing/ creating as this etherial thing that one must tap into to create true, inspired works of art, then I’m sure half of the people writing today would still be sitting in front of their computers or pieces of papers waiting for that inspiration.

    Gene Simmons of KISS said it, and I tried to seek out the exact quote but couldn’t find it. But essentially he says writing is work. You have to sit there and do it. Inspiration is great, but if it doesn’t come, you still need to write and create. For me, that kind of mentality also requires structure, schedules, and direction.

    Some of these places that only teach one thing (structure) or the other (creation), are only treaching half of what it takes to become whatever it is they want to become (in this case, a writer). To be the best, you need both.

    lol, not sure if that’s relevant, but that’s what I think.


  3. I loved this post. I hated all the structure in school. I especially disliked speech class for all the reasons described here. I love to write, but after I have finished something I really like I find myself wondering if I should change it to fit those rules I have learned. If I don’t change it before I post it or share it I worry whether it will be accepted as is because it doesn’t seem to follow the norm. I guess I worry that someone will critique it and tear it apart and tell me I don’t know how to write and beauty I found in it will be gone.


  4. I think that I take a very different approach than you do.

    The structure of writing and the techniques we use provide a framework on which to be creative. The keyhole essay is a page upon which our words draw pictures. The Hero’s Journey is the canvass our words color into art.

    Sure, you can paint on the side of a rough building, but that art is not going to be as generally appreciated and be as commercially viable as the easily transportable framed painting. (May be stretching the metaphor a wee bit here.)

    If your goal is to create art, go ahead, but you’re going to lose potential readers by virtue of noncomformity. If you want to be widely read, you have to follow the structure.

    You choose, but understand the consequences. If you choose art, don’t whine about not being appreciated.


  5. This post hit me on too many levels to even make a coherent comment! With a doctorate in education and 30 years of teaching behind me, I’ve had much experience with the formula. Please do not blame teachers for anything like that going on in classrooms. All of the edicts that make no sense come from the administrators, etc.
    Got to stop thinking and get my blood pressure back down. Fight on, friend. Someone has to make a difference somewhere!


  6. As a GCSE student I constantly find this and it’s quite sad. We are told exactly what each paragraph should contain, how to link them etc, and it seems as though doing otherwise would result in less marks. The worst part is that this process has led to a loss in creativity, and my peers and constantly asking ‘how do I start this?’ ‘what should I put in my conclusion?’, as if it has to be done a certain way.


  7. I am simply a fan of your thought process. I’ve been reading your articles for sometime now.

    It’s a good thing that you write long-ish blogs and have not compromised personal style for web writing norms.

    Without digressing any further, I would like to say that there are as many ways to learning writing,or for that matter, learning anything, as there are people in the world. It’s just about breaking the norm and blazing a trail. Not many will do it. Ones who do, shall be remembered by posterity.


  8. Whoa. I typed a long comment and it evaporated.
    Maybe it went to your Spam folder! Sometimes WordPress thinks I’m spam.


  9. Hmmm…that place you describe? With all the order? Organization? ::shivers::
    Not for me. But not for long, anyway. Order’s dandy! But so is chaos. They need to dance together, I think. They can take turns leading but they both need to be present. And even then the result can end up to be less-than-ideal.
    I have no answers.
    But I’m profoundly grateful for being taught “the rules” VERY early and to have had the encouragement to abandon them as soon as I was ready. Now we play nicely together. We even dance!

    OK, now that I’ve shaken and stirred several metaphors…LOL…I’ll just say that this is a fascinating and thought-provoking post. Thank you for sharing it here!


      1. Haa!! Sorry about that! I expected the comment to end up at the bottom of the comment list, didn’t look up here.
        Thank you!


  10. The writing exercises seem to fit in with the way our society wants us to be: all following the same pattern with no changes. Once we have learned the pattern I think we then have to learn that it is okay to break it. The same with writing – children need to learn that it is okay not to follow the pattern – and their grades should reflect this.


  11. Oddly I understand this. I have an academic background in archaeology and yet had never been ‘allowed’ to write as a child due to the misconception I was sub-normal. So when I finally found I wasn’t – just a bad case of dyslexia – I turned not to the arts, but to the academic. I think mainly this was just to show I could. Now I’m studying my masters in creative writing I don’t worry about contruction, just creativity. But no one has taught me how to write creativily so I just plunge in feet first. Sometimes I can get into a pickle but most of the time it’s not too bad. I don’t know what my writing would have been like if I had been ‘taught’ how to.
    The academic side has given me a good grounding in structure, so much so that I love to break to rules. I wrote my first diary entry as a short story the other day and loved the fact I could use – between sentances and ! without getting yelled at my lecturer. Creative writing for me is fun, but I’m not sure it would have been without the academic begining.


  12. All children can draw and make up stories. Most adults can’t. They lose the creativity somewhere along those numbered streets and straightened rivers, a structure that exists solely for the benefit of the teachers to make it easy to test their own ability to teach.

    It makes me sad that only the children who learn how to exist within the structure, who learn to discard their innate creativity, are the ones who get the passing marks, are the ones who ‘succeed.’

    But you are right – a free-for-all does not work for all either. The only solution is individualized education: computer-based, not teacher-based, learning that caters to every individual child’s interests and abilities. A system that molds itself to a child, whether that child likes straight roads or curvy rivers, and not the other way around.


  13. Omilaca said it well. I believe writing talent is inate; either you have it or you don’t. Of course, one must be taught how to write properly, as far as spelling, grammar, structure, etc. are concerned.


  14. It may be naiive to say so, but I believe writers are born. Some get snuffed out early in the game, and others excel against all odds. We need to discover the true “talents” in the early going, and encourage their craftsmanship and then set them free to create what MUST be created.


  15. Hi, bottledworder!
    I survived nursery, primary, secondary, university… 😀 They were not good places for creative people! I was sort of convinced I was not very intelligent! so I do feel like a very lucky survivor.
    I survived precisely because my imagination was vital for me, helped me get through life. This is like sexual orientation — if you do not have a strong need of being this or that, you are what most people are: what the social system (patriarchy in our case) demands from us, heterosexual!
    Anyway, as I work in public education (the place where we teachers have more freedom, as opposed to private education), I’m always confronted with the kind of problems you mention. I feel I have to survive the system by working double — help them pass the fucking exam, and then help them learn. And it does feel both of these are incompatible! But here you are — I’m always exercising my imagination! 😀


      1. 😀 Though I am not sure we grow because of difficulties, if that were the thought. I do think that’s the explanation at times, but I’m not totally sure. Sometimes I wonder where we could be if instead of wasting time overcoming obstacles we could use that time to grow! To do things that allow us to become more intelligent and empathetic! 😀


  16. I hear you! I have watched my kids learn the basics which is as it should be but as they get older any creativity is sucked out of them by rigid outlines and needing to memorise key points. What a boring old world it is going to be if we don’t encourage creativity in our young people.


  17. Read some text messages from teenagers and young adults and you’ll see plenty of writing run amok! I vote for teaching basic skills and a working understanding of basic structures so most people can communicate with each other. People with a burning desire to read and write will go beyond the canon, and go beyond formulaic writing, to create art. But most of us are not artists, and that’s okay! I am appalled at the basic lack of understanding of sentence structure and grammar I see in many people’s writing….maybe it’s because the internet exposes non-professional writers’ writing. Not that I’m a Writer with a capital W myself, but it would be a relief to see more mediocre writing as opposed to the unintelligible, rambling, incoherent, misspelled, crimes against grammar that I see on Facebook, emails, and so many websites and blogs.


  18. As always, deeply thought provoking – thank you. I’m all for fewer straight lines and less structure, more spirals and spontaneity are welcome…in ALL aspects of life, not just writing. it’s usually the rule breakers who make a difference – and we need something different.


  19. Every house needs a floor the sleep on, walls to stand with, and a roof to contain. Inside, anything can happen.

    Philosophical, or proverbial? Hah. Ah, anyway. I think a foundation first is best. Then branch from there to whatever we pursue. I think reading comprehension is necessary for effective writing. The creative imagination should be let loose from there. Refinement thereafter (call that one editing).

    I practice this with fiction. Build the basic story, add the scenes and transitions, and then let my imagination run with it, while staying tamed in the arena. Inevitably, things change and entire scenes take on new meanings and motives. I’ve written several drafts that told different tales from the previous, but each is more creative than the last.


  20. Great post. You are right. We do teach formulas, and they are needed to get started. I notice that after years of writing and teaching writing, that the formulas I was teaching the kids helped me to focus my own writing when I tend to wander. I’m not sure that my meandering writing is any more creative than my ordered writing, however. Writing is thinking. My thinking is limited by my perspective on the world, and how I process it. I am always impressed when I see the same assignment (challenge) approached by others who think differently than I. I’m going to unbottle your words, and reblog them. 🙂


      1. I agree, so keep searching. If you find it, you’ll be rich. Writing is one of the most important things that humans can do, and one of the most difficult. I really enjoy your blog. 🙂


  21. Agreed! The true art comes from inside, not by rote. We need a change. When I was in the schools, the literature was a laughing topic. How the people write, what the methods are called, etc etc etc. Even when I found I love those and “understand” them more easily than by rote, the others were offended!
    Why do we make it so complicated when there can be an easier and better approach?! At least more realistic at that.

    Good thought.


  22. Oh – yes – the rote should have variety!! From the beginning, the student has to be expressing his or her own passion. As a mom (and grandmother), I am surprised when teachers use the same materials over and over for kids’ arts and crafts or other projects. How about some variety? Hey, maybe they should inject some variety for the teacher’s sake!!! 🙂 So he/she doesn’t get bored! Who wants a bored teacher anyway?


  23. This is quite intriguing. I have not really considered the way that it tends to be either all mediocre efficiency or just a couple of great creative people. How interesting.
    I wonder if this works on the level of each person as well. Like how in some areas of our lives, we can be mediocre and rather efficient, while in other areas we make it up as we go and are sometimes able to excel while other times we don’t. It’s interesting, for sure. I try to be aware of ways to be creative and to not be too attached to my routines, which are often times efficient…it’s always good to have reminders to see that issue in new ways, thanks for that!


  24. I agree with you. If I understand you correctly, you are advocating for more creativity. Not such formulaic learning, learning by the book, goody-goody type of learning – rule oriented etc. However, I think that in general with any kind of art, (and writing is an art), one must learn the science of it first. The rote. Then once we hopefully become skilled at that, then we can “break” the rules so to speak. It’s like in music – (I’m a music therapist by profession) — we are usually classically trained in the beginning of our careers, and then we branch off into the weird chord progressions – the jazz, the strange rhythms etc. But in the beginning it is more structured. We all need structure to start off with – and then we can break the rules. Same with writing. Am I misunderstanding you? Maybe – I admit I did skim your post so quickly because I love reading your posts quickly and get the gist that way. Anyway, that’s my opinion and megillah for all it is worth. 🙂 Keep up your thought provoking posts! They are amazing…


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