In an otherwise excellent essay, Cathy Birkenstein and Gerald Graff (“In Teaching Composition, ‘Formulaic’ Is Not a 4-Letter Word” [April 4, 2008]) take issue with my comment that the SAT’s “formulaic approach will reverse decades of progress in literacy instruction and ultimately turn students into intellectual automatons” (“The College Board’s New Essay Reverses Decades of Progress Toward Literacy” [May 6, 2005]). To illustrate our dependence on formula, they suggest, “Try writing a sonnet, doing the cha-cha, saying ‘Hi, how are you?’ . . . without relying on established forms that you didn’t invent.”
Fair enough, but I stand by my statements.
I haven’t done the cha-cha since 6th grade, which was not long after the dance was invented by someone else. Maybe the sonnet kept Petrarch in florins, but there hasn’t been much work lately for sonneteers, not even in the greeting card game. However, I do say, “Hi, how are you?” from time to time and so, in the interest of teaching the conflicts, I’d like to comment on the role of formula in language use as well as its place in writing instruction and assessment.
Language, like many human activities, including dance, depends on convention. Convention establishes a framework and set of expectations but permits, even expects, that practitioners will vary, innovate, and improvise as they go. That’s not the same as formula, which relies on repetition and imitation to make its point. Most language use isn’t formulaic.
The linguistic formulas that we do use carry very little semantic information. That’s because formulas are phrases that get repeated a lot, and the more we say something, the less it means, which is a plain language translation of the information-theory formula that information content varies inversely with frequency of occurrence.
“Hi, how are you?” is one of the formulas we use to greet someone. While this common greeting would seem on the surface to be a question, a request for information about a person’s physical or emotional well being, in most situations this greeting has no literal meaning at all.
It’s easy to test this claim. A common response to “Hi, how are you?” is “Good, how are you?” which we say even if we’re not “good” at all. Sometimes we just answer the question with another question – “Hi, how are you?” prompts, “How are you?” – because no real answer is expected. The greeting’s meaning is functional rather than semantic: one person recognizes the other as a blip on the radar screen, and some conversation may ensue, though it doesn’t have to.
Here’s another test of the greeting formula: if you ask someone, “Hi, how are you?” and they actually start telling you – “My arm hurts; my computer crashed; my cat got run over” – there’s a good chance you’ll start looking around nervously for an exit strategy. On the other hand, if your doctor asks, “Hi, how are you?” you may find yourself torn between the polite formulaic response, “I’m fine, how are you?” – which suggests that you’re not sick but just dropped by the office for a chat – and launching into a litany of your symptoms that might seem, well, a tad rude.
Writing has its conventions and formulas too. Conventionally, we don’t expect novels to be full of charts and graphs, but a postmodern writer might use such devices to play with the reader’s generic expectations. In contrast, financial reports are full of charts and graphs, but if a firm’s quarterly statement lacked these important economic indicators, readers wouldn’t call that company edgy or creative, they’d call their broker and sell off stock.
Observing generic conventions is one way that writers convince readers of their authority. Virgil Starkwell (1969) demonstrated that readers expect stick-up notes to look like stick-up notes, and Fielding Mellish (1971) took that revolutionary idea and ran with it when he observed that academic prose should look like academic prose, complete with internal citations and a works-cited page.
Virgil Starkwell learns that readers expect a stick-up note to look like a stick-up note in Woody Allen’s “Take the Money and Run” (1969)
Fielding Mellish interrogates the formulaic image of a revolutionary, in Woody Allen’s “Bananas” (1971)
The problem with the five-paragraph theme or similar reductive recipes for writing is that they’re never useful outside the walls of the writing classroom or on standardized tests. These narrowly-focused genres divert writers from the goal of mastering the kinds of writing they will need to do in school and on the job, not to mention the writing tasks that all writers assign themselves for entertainment, self-fulfillment, or just to stay in touch
Birkenstein and Graff offer students specific rhetorical formulas, or templates, for example, “Although it is often said that _____, I claim ____.” These can certainly help novice writers learn to talk the talk when it comes to academic writing, and they offer a clear framework for novice writing teachers to hang a lesson on.
Unfortunately, all too often writers and instructors rely on such formulas as a quick fix for a deeper problem, and in such cases the results are likely to be unsatisfactory. A well-spelled and punctuated essay may be necessary for a good grade, but it’s hardly sufficient. Hewing to a prefabricated rhetorical strategy may be necessary as well – a legal brief should use the formulas that make briefs credible, and paper money should have the textual features we’ve come to expect if it's to be recognized as legal tender for all debts public and private.
But no amount of one-two, cha-cha-cha will compensate a dancer who can’t transition from the Arthur Murray footprints on the living room floor to dancing at a bar mitzvah (did I mention that I gave up the cha-cha?). Just as the legal brief will ultimately be judged on its merits, not simply its formulas, and the $20 bill in my wallet buys me something only if the seller agrees to accept it, no amount of conventionality can save a writer who has nothing to say.
Fortunately, most writers do have something to say – their increasing presence on the internet proves that. But it’s just too easy for formula-based instruction and assessment to lull writers into thinking they can get away with little more than just-add-water instant prose. Yes, writers rely on formulas, but that’s only a small part of the job.
What writers really need to learn is not some sentence patterns and bits of terminological cant, but a few lessons about what writers do and how writing works that they may already suspect to be the case:
- that writing’s a tricky business;
- that no matter how hard writers try to know their audience, some readers will like their work and others won’t;
- that practice helps but writing improvement is never linear (Harry Potter VII; the Star Wars prequels);
- that no matter how much writing experience a writer has, writing on a new subject or in a new genre is a little like learning to write all over again;
- and that once they’ve finally finished writing that report, term paper, or great American novel, most writers are probably already behind schedule on their next assignment.
At the risk of creating yet another mantra about how to teach writing, it seems to me that student writers could actually wind up writing better and having more control over their own destiny, not to mention a greater sense of community with the rest of the writing world, by engaging with these complex writing realities, even the depressing ones, instead of rehearsing cookbook formulas and taking standardized tests on the mastery of formulaic prose.