The Art of the Freshman Essay: Still Boring From Within?

Wayne Booth's Three Cures for the "Batches of Boredom"

A student props her head up while trying to write an essay
Formulaic writing is a burden for students and teachers alike. (TerryJ/Getty Images)

In a speech delivered half a century ago, English professor Wayne C. Booth described the characteristics of a formulaic essay assignment:

I know of a high school English class in Indiana in which the students are explicitly told that their paper grades will not be affected by anything they say; required to write a paper a week, they are graded simply on the number of spelling and grammatical errors. What is more, they are given a standard form for their papers: each paper is to have three paragraphs, a beginning, a middle, and an endor is it an introduction, a body, and a conclusion? The theory seems to be that if the student is not troubled about having to say anything, or about discovering a good way of saying it, he can then concentrate on the truly important matter of avoiding mistakes.
(Wayne C. Booth, "Boring From Within: The Art of the Freshman Essay." Speech to the Illinois Council of College Teachers of English, 1963)

The inevitable result of such an assignment, he said, is "a bag of wind or a bundle of received opinions." And the "victim" of the assignment is not only the class of students but "the poor teacher" who imposes it on them:

I am haunted by the picture of that poor woman in Indiana, week after week reading batches of papers written by students who have been told that nothing they say can possibly affect her opinion of those papers. Could any hell imagined by Dante or Jean-Paul Sartre match this self-inflicted futility?

Booth was quite aware that the hell he described was not confined to a single English class in Indiana. By 1963, formulaic writing (also called theme writing and the five-paragraph essay) was well established as the norm in high school English classes and college composition programs throughout the U.S.

Booth went on to propose three cures for those "batches of boredom":

  • efforts to give the students a sharper sense of writing to an audience,
  • efforts to give them some substance to express,
  • and efforts to improve their habits of observation and of approach to their taskwhat might be called improving their mental personalities.

So, how far have we come over the past half century?

Let's see. The formula now calls for five paragraphs rather than three, and most students are allowed to compose on computers. The concept of a three-pronged thesis statement - one in which each "prong" will then be further explored in one of the three body paragraphs - requires a slightly more sophisticated expression of "substance." More significantly, research in composition has become a major academic industry, and the majority of instructors receive at least some training in the teaching of writing.

But with larger classes, the inexorable rise of standardized testing, and the increasing reliance on part-time faculty, don't most of today's English instructors still feel compelled to privilege formulaic writing?

While the basics of essay structure is, of course, a foundational skill that students must learn before expanding into larger essays, the hemming in of students to such formulas means that they fail to develop critical and creative thinking skills. Instead, students are taught to value form over function, or not to understand the link between form and function.

There is a difference between teaching structure and teaching to a formula. Teaching structure in writing means teaching students how to craft a thesis statement and supporting arguments, why a topic sentence matters, and what a strong conclusion looks like. Teaching formula means teaching students that they must have a specific type of sentence or number of citations in a specific section, more of a paint-by-numbers approach. The former gives a foundation; the latter is something that has to be un-taught later on.

Teaching to a formula may be easier in the short run, but it fails to educate students on how to truly write effectively, especially once they are asked to write a longer, more sophisticated essay than a five-paragraph high school essay question. The form of an essay is intended to serve the content. It makes arguments clear and concise, highlights the logical progression, and focuses the reader on what the main points are. Form is not formula, but it is often taught as such.

The way out of this impasse, Booth said in 1963, would be for "legislatures and school boards and college presidents to recognize the teaching of English for what it is: the most demanding of all teaching jobs, justifying the smallest sections and the lightest course loads."

We're still waiting.

More About Formulaic Writing