Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Good Old American Essay?

How do you write an essay?  Did that grab your attention? Was that a good "attention getter?"  I suppose I could have used a quote or a startling statistic, but I went with a question.  I hope it went over well. 

I can remember sitting in my sixth grade English class, red pencil in hand, listening to Mrs. Hill jabber on about how to write an essay.  There was a specific formula we had to follow, and we had to label every last piece of our essay in order to receive full credit.

The first part we had to master was the "attention getter."  Mrs. Hill encouraged us to use questions, but allowed us to branch out into using quotations or statistics that stunned the reader.  I had no experience writing a structured essay, so I had no reason to question the formula being shoved down my throat. 

After we learned to transition to thesis and form a thesis, we learned how to construct a body paragraph.  And, of course, there could only be three body paragraphs in this essay.  The first sentence of a body paragraph was a topic sentence.  These topic sentences normally started with transitions such as "first," "second," "next," or "also."  It had to be perfectly clear that something new was being introduced.

The second sentence in a body paragraph was called a "concrete detail," which was a fact that supported the previously stated thesis.   Two sentences defined as "commentary" followed.  These were meant to expand on the concrete detail and expand upon each other.  Each body paragraph had to have three concrete details along with commentary.  Repeat these steps two more times.

No worries, you're almost done!  We then learned that the basic purpose of a conclusion was to restate your thesis without sounding repetitive.  Easy enough, I suppose?

When we wrote essays, Mrs. Hill passed out papers with each part of the essay labeled.  Next to each label were two blank lines waiting to be filled with details, commentary and attention getters a plenty!

At some point during our sixth grade year, Mrs. Hill finally allowed us to write our essays on blank pieces of notebook paper--paper free of labels and guidelines.  However, when we got to class, essays in hand, Mrs. Hill passed out three different colored highlighters to each person in the class.  Details and commentary had to be distinguished with color-coded highlighting. 

While the structure she provided us with made it fairly easy to write an essay, Mrs. Hill never taught us how to maintain our unique voices within the essays we wrote.

As I continued my education into high school, and eventually college, I learned how to slip voice within the structure of a traditional essay.  Luckily, I no longer adhere to a three-body-paragraph essay when a teacher assigns a 10-page paper.  Can you imagine how long those paragraphs would be?  Each write has his or her own personal style hidden somewhere beneath the format assigned to a paper.  Each person has a unique voice that deserves to be taken seriously.  Although structure is almost always a necessity, regurgitating form and style form the past is not.  I urge everyone to find ways to allow their voice to be recognized, heard, and taken seriously in any writing assignment.    

Natalie Hughes



  1. Awww another cute cat, yay! It is true that elementary schools focus TOO much on using the "formula" and templates. That is NOT writing, it's like a programming code for arduinos (so robotic). Nice post!

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