Overstating Nothing: Why Students Often Write their Worst Sentences First (and Last)

I may have just read the worst essay I have ever read submitted by a student—since the beginning of time.

And that occurs in this context: I have been teaching adolescents and young adults to write for 37 years.

Of the tens of thousands of student submissions I have read, of course, this essay cannot really be the worst.* But that sort of dramatic overstatement is exactly what brings me to discussing that essay and many just like it submitted recently as we near the end of the semester.

Again, as context, many of these essays have been submitted after more than two months of first-year writing seminar where I have explicitly focused on vivid and engaging openings and closings.

These essays were submitted by students working on their third essay of the semester. With the first essay of the semester, as well, class instruction and the drafting process heavily focused on writing specific openings that have concrete and vivid narratives to both focus the reader and engage the reader.

Students have had multiple class sessions and several authentic models of writing in order to interrogate their concepts about introductory paragraphs (6-8 sentences with a declarative thesis sentence as the last sentence), and have repeatedly been confronted with this brilliant parody from The Onion: Since The Beginning Of Time, Mankind Has Discussed What It Did On Summer Vacation.

Young Jeremy Ryan offers this peach of an opening (indistinguishable from many I just received from very bright college students):

For as far back as historians can go, summer vacations have been celebrated by people everywhere as a time for rest and relaxation. Many advancements have been made in summer breaks since these early times, but it is also true that many different traditions have lived on and continue to remain with us today. This is why, since the beginning of time, mankind has discussed what it did on its summer vacation.

What students remain trapped within, despite my repeated direct instruction and feedback on their writing, are many years of powerfully misguided writing lessons that have created students who feel compelled in the first sentences of their essays to overstate nothing.

The opening sentences from my students are remarkably paradoxical in that they make grand overstatements that are somehow accurate and completely devoid of any concrete meaning.

Such magically empty writing depends on magically empty diction such as “disparities,” “variety,” “points,” “how,” “many forms,” “effects,” “changed,” “common,” and “standard.”

Students have been taught directly and indirectly to string words into a sentence while also tip-toeing around making mistakes; meeting the word count by forming sentences and paragraphs that seem to say something that is nearly impossible to identify as incorrect (but also impossible to validate) is the Holy Grail of being a student writer.

Writing within a graded system and being taught by teachers not trained as writers have created students who write relentlessly to overstate nothing.

I have been struggling against the five-paragraph essay and template writing for all of my 37 years, but over the last decade and a half, I have been working mainly with first-year students who teach me over and over that my three or so months of writing instruction have little impact on their learned (and well graded) behavior from the previous 12 years of school writing.

And this fall is particularly different in the context of the pandemic and the very real negative consequences of multiple layers of unusual stress on my students—their reduced bandwidth to focus on challenging work, especially if the expectations are different than what they have been successful doing in the past.

But even without the stress of Covid-19 and our brave new world of formal education, my students are reverting to really weak but comfortable ways of writing because this is their first cited essay with all sorts of new and difficult demands. Some of the students simply didn’t have the bandwidth to focus on writing well and citing properly (considering the arcane world of APA for students mistaught MLA throughout high school).

I am convinced that my approaches to helping students write better aren’t the problem here; what students need is the same sort of guidance throughout K-12 education so that writing well (clearly, vividly, concretely, and directly) isn’t a new demand once they head off to the new world of college.

What, then, are better ways to serve our students on their journey to writing well?

  • Remove the writing process as much as possible from grading so that students are allowed to take risks during that process, are encouraged to revise with purpose, and can focus on substantive feedback from their teachers, feedback that is instructional instead of evaluative.
  • Reject fully the five-paragraph essay and template writing; including reimagining the introduction/thesis>body>conclusion structure of the essay by focusing on engaging and focusing the reader in a multi-paragraph opening, acknowledging that the body of an essay (and paragraphing itself) may be many different lengths (but three certainly isn’t adequate at the college level), and urging students to see the ending (also multi-paragraph) as a way to present their best writing and most vivid and concrete details in order to advocate for themselves as writers (and students).
  • Explain to students that vivid and specific are qualities of writing that should be throughout their writing, never suggesting that students start broad and then narrow. Students read “broad” as “vague,” which never serves them or their readers well.
  • Provide students with explicit examples and strategies for writing vividly and specifically in the context of openings, bodies, and endings. As I did above, literally provide students with lists of words that overstate nothing (I also highlight these words when providing feedback for students on their writing).
  • Refrain from demanding that students propose definitive claims (having their introductions and thesis sentences approved before they can write), and shift to encouraging students to write in order to discover as well as address their readers with questions instead of grand pronouncement.
  • Focus on the key concepts that are valid across almost all types of writing, and then work within those concepts while providing more targeted lessons. Coherence and concision are two of those concepts that my students respond well to when reading Style, for example.
  • Acknowledge that ultimately students will receive grades based on the quality of their writing, and therefore, it is in their best interest as students to engage positively their primary reader (their teacher/professor) and to insure that this reader has a positive view of the essay and the writer as they finish reading the essay (students routinely write some of the worst sentences at the ends of their essays, significantly eroding what credibility they have built in their essay).

This is not intended as a “kids today” post or a harsh criticism of students.

My primary concern here is that students have often learned all too well lessons that are not serving them well and that my teaching them for three months has less of a positive impact than I’d like.

Since the beginning of time, students have learned to write badly; isn’t it time to allow them to be the vivid and specific writers and thinkers they are capable of being?

*Note: This post has been edited from its original posting. Regretfully, some have misread this post as a criticism of my students; part of the problem is the satirical opening (although I do note it isn’t intended as a true statement but as a satire of what students often do in their first sentences). I also note late in the post that this is not student bashing. In fact, my criticism is how my students have been taught to write. None the less, good intentions aren’t really worth much when people read something differently than intended. This is not a criticism or public shaming of my students (something I would not do), but I find that in writing about teaching writing, concrete (anonymous) examples are helpful—and a common practice in this sort of writing. I hope the original effectiveness of this post remains, but I think it best to leave the student examples omitted.