Tuesday, December 31, 2013

On Structure In Writing

When I teach Scholarly Writing, I discuss structure heavily -- much like David Brooks. Brooks says, "I tell college students that by the time they sit down at the keyboard to write their essays, they should be at least 80 percent done. That’s because 'writing' is mostly gathering and structuring ideas."

There are many ways to structure an essay or an article, and no one way is correct, which can be overwhelming for some. However, as an instructor, if you give students a few ideas for structure, they will generally find their way.

For example, here is Brooks's approach:
"For what it’s worth, I structure geographically. I organize my notes into different piles on the rug in my living room. Each pile represents a different paragraph in my column. The piles can stretch on for 10 feet to 16 feet, even for a mere 806-word newspaper piece. When 'writing,' I just pick up a pile, synthesize the notes into a paragraph, set them aside and move on to the next pile. If the piece isn’t working, I don’t try to repair; I start from scratch with the same topic but an entirely new structure."

As part of Brooks's Sidney Awards this year, he praises an article called "Structure" from the longtime New Yorker writer John McPhee. "For one long article, McPhee organized his notecards on a 32-square-foot piece of plywood. [McPhee] also describes the common tension between chronology and theme (Brooks's advice: go with chronology). [McPhee's] structures are brilliant, but they far too complex for most of us. The key thing is he lets you see how a really fine writer thinks about the core problem of writing, which takes place before the actual writing."

For instructors, the takeaway is that you should emphasize to your students that they should take the time to think and organize their papers before beginning to write. This means that procrastination cannot be king. A student cannot fully develop her ideas and write a substantial article in a matter of a few days (like many students wish they could). This may mean that an instructor needs to evaluate progress early and often.

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