Definition and Examples of Theme-Writing

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

English professor Richard VanDeWeghe reports that "the formulaic essay . . . has become the unfortunate standard for good writing beginning in middle schools and extending to higher education" (Engaged Learning, 2009). (RuslanDashinsky/Getty Images)

Theme-writing refers to the conventional writing assignments (including five-paragraph essays) required in many composition classes since the late-19th century. Also called school writing.

In his book The Plural I: The Teaching of Writing (1978), William E. Coles, Jr., used the term themewriting (one word) to characterize empty, formulaic writing that is "not meant to be read but corrected." Textbook authors, he said, present writing "as a trick that can be played, a device that can be put into operation . . . just as one can be taught or learn to run an adding machine, or pour concrete."

Examples and Observations:

  • "The use of themes has been maligned and vilified in the history of writing instruction. They have come to represent what was bad about the Harvard model, including an obsession with 'correcting' the themes in red ink, but the women's colleges typically used themes to get students writing regular essays based on common topics. . . . Theme writing, as David Russell notes in Writing in the Academic Disciplines, 1870-1990, continued to be a model for required composition courses at small liberal arts colleges much longer than it did in the larger universities, in large part because the universities could no longer keep up with the labor-intensive practice of having students write multiple essays over the course of a semester or year."
    (Lisa Mastrangelo and Barbara L'Eplattenier, "'Is It the Pleasure of This Conference to Have Another?': Women's Colleges Meeting and Talking About Writing in the Progressive Era." Historical Studies of Writing Program Administration, ed. by B. L'Eplattenier and L. Mastrangelo. Parlor Press, 2004)
  • Camille Paglia on Essay Writing as a Form of Repression
    "[T]he present concentration on essay writing at the heart of the humanities curriculum is actually discriminatory against people of other cultures and classes. I think it's a game. It's very, very obvious to me, having been teaching for so many years as a part-timer, teaching factory workers and teaching auto mechanics and so on, the folly of this approach. You teach them how to write an essay. It's a game. It's a structure. Speak of social constructionism! It's a form of repression. I do not regard the essay as it's presently constituted as in any way something that came down from Mount Sinai brought by Moses."
    (Camille Paglia, "The M.I.T. Lecture." Sex, Art, and American Culture. Vintage, 1992)
  • English A at Harvard
    "Harvard's standard, required composition course was English A, first given in sophomore year and then, after 1885, moved to the first year. . . . In 1900-01 writing assignments included a mix of daily themes, which were brief two- or three-paragraph sketches, and more extended fortnightly themes; topics were up to the student and thus varied widely, but the dailies usually asked for personal experience while the longer ones covered a mix of general knowledge."
    (John C. Brereton, "Introduction." The Origins of Composition Studies in the American College, 1875-1925. Univ. of Pittsburgh Press, 1995)
  • Theme Writing at Harvard (Late 19th Century)
    "When I was an undergraduate at Harvard our instructors in English composition endeavored to cultivate in us a something they termed 'The daily theme eye.' . . .
    "Daily themes in my day had to be short, not over a page of handwriting. They had to be deposited in a box at the professor's door not later than ten-five in the morning. . . . And because of this brevity, and the necessity of writing one every day whether the mood was on you or not, it was not always easy--to be quite modest--to make these themes literature, which, we were told by our instructors, is the transmission through the written word, from writer to reader, of a mood, an emotion, a picture, an idea."
    (Walter Prichard Eaton, "Daily Theme Eye." The Atlantic Monthly, March 1907)
  • The Chief Benefit of Theme-Writing (1909)
    "The chief benefit derived from theme-writing lies probably in the instructor's indication of errors in the themes and his showing how these errors are to be corrected; for by these means the student may learn the rules that he is inclined to violate, and thus may be helped to eliminate the defects from his writing. Hence it is important that the errors and the way to correct them be shown to the student as completely and clearly as possible. For instance, suppose that a theme contains the sentence 'I have always chosen for my companions people whom I thought had high ideals.' Suppose the instructor points out the grammatical fault and gives the student information to this effect: 'An expression such as he says, he thinks, or he hears interpolated in a relative clause does not affect the case of the subject of the clause. For example, "The man who I thought was my friend deceived me" is correct; "who" is the subject of "was my friend"; "I thought" is a parenthesis which does not affect the case of "who." In your sentence, "whom" is not the object of "thought," but the subject of "had high ideals"; it should therefore be in the nominative case.' From this information the student is likely to get more than the mere knowledge that the 'whom' in this particular case should be changed to 'who'; he is likely to learn a principle, the knowledge of which--if he will remember it--will keep him from committing similar errors in future.
    "But the theme from which one sentence is quoted above contains fourteen other errors; and the forty-nine other themes which the instructor is to hand back to-morrow morning contain among them about seven hundred and eighty-five more. How shall the instructor, as he indicates these eight hundred errors, furnish the information called for by each one? Obviously he must use some kind of shorthand."
    (Edwin Campbell Woolley, The Mechanics of Writing. D.C. Heath, 1909)
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Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Theme-Writing." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 26). Definition and Examples of Theme-Writing. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Theme-Writing." ThoughtCo. (accessed November 26, 2022).