I’ve been teaching university courses and grading student essays for twenty years. A lot of students need help with their writing, and I really enjoy working with students on their essays. But I’ve noticed that there’s a curious mismatch between the kind of advice I usually find myself giving, when I start working with students, and what students are commonly taught in writing classes.
In a writing class, the curriculum usually starts with grammar, sentence structure, elements of style, and moves up to paragraphs and paragraph structure, and then toward the end of the course, gets to essays and different essay types. So they start from the smallest units of writing and scale up to the larger units.
For me, from the standpoint of a teacher trying to help students write better essays, this gets things entirely backward.
In this video I’m going to explain exactly what I mean by this, and why the most efficient way to improve your essay writing is to fix the problems with the the largest unit first — the problems with essay structure.
The 80-20 Rule
There’s a rule known as the 80-20 rule that originated in economics but is commonly taught in management and business. It states that, in many different situations, roughly 80 percent of the effects arise from 20 percent of the causes.
In business, it might imply that 80 percent of your sales come from 20 percent of your customers. Or, 80 percent of your company’s profits come from 20 percent of the time your staff spend. 80 percent of customer complaints come from 20 percent of your customers.
The exact percentages aren’t important, the point is that certain inputs have a disproportionate influence on outputs, and knowing what those inputs are can be very important if you’re looking to diagnosis problems in your organization or optimize performance.
An 80-20 Rule for Essay Writing
I want you to consider what an 80-20 analysis would look like when applied to essay writing.
When I get an essay from a student that has problems, I’ve got some choice when it comes to deciding what sort of feedback would be most helpful.
Most essays have a mixture of problems — there are problems with spelling, word choice, grammar, sentence structure, paragraph structure, and so on, all the way up to overall essay structure and organization. I could start anywhere. I could fill up the pages with red marks just focusing on grammar and style issues alone.
But that’s not what I do, and it’s not what any good instructor or editor should do. I want to make the most efficient use of my time and the student’s time. So I’ll focus on fixing the problems that have the greatest impact on the overall success of the essay.
And that’s not spelling and grammar.
What I need to focus on is essay STRUCTURE, essay ORGANIZATION. Fixing problems with structure will fix the majority of the problems with your essay, and make the greatest contribution to improving the grade on your essay.
Let me say that again. Fixing problems with overall essay structure will fix 80% or more of the problems with your essay.
In an 80-20 analysis, this would be the input that makes the greatest contribution to the overall success of the essay. Again, don’t take the exact percentages seriously, they’re just to illustrate a point, which is that structural issues have a disproportionate impact on the the success of an essay.
Why Fixing Problems with Structure Fixes Most of Your Essay Writing Problems
Why is this?
We have to remember that the primary goal of an essay assignment isn’t to write beautiful sentences or even beautiful paragraphs.
The goal is to communicate a main idea, a thesis, and to use the essay format to organize ideas in the most effective way to successfully communicate that main idea.
An essay’s success or failure is primarily a function of the organization and flow of ideas, at the highest level of organization, at the level of the essay taken as a whole, not at the level of individual sentences or individual paragraphs.
The priority of structure in essay writing is familiar to anyone who has graded papers. I’lll repeat what I said before — when a student hands in a draft of a paper that is poorly written, it almost always has a mix of spelling, grammar, sentence structure and organizational problems. If I wanted to I could start identifying every grammar and stylistic problem, and I could write a long document with editorial tips on grammar and style issues alone.
But I don’t do any of that.
What I do is make a few comments about the overall organization of the paper and invite the student in to talk about them. Often I don’t even bother commenting on the spelling and grammar and style issues.
Why? Because that’s not the priority. That’s not the part that is most important to the success of the paper. Even if all the spelling and vocabulary and grammar and sentence structure problems are fixed, if the organizational parts aren’t fixed, I’ll never give this paper a top grade. No instructor would.
So we, as instructors and editors and graders, focus on the most important feedback first, which is structural. Once that’s fixed it would make sense to look closer at style issues, on a second or third draft.
But even on second or third drafts, most of the constructive feedback your teachers give you will still be feedback about structure, because (a) it can take several tries to fix the structural problems, and (b) it’s only at the structural level where you can move a paper from being merely good to excellent.
So, the take-away is that not all the skill sets that are important for good writing are equally important.
In essay writing in particular, there is a HUGE asymmetry — structural and organizational factors are far more important in determining whether an essay is successful or not, than spelling and vocabulary and grammar.
It follows, then, that a program of instruction that aims to improve people’s essay writing should focus on principles of structure and organization at the essay level.
And that’s I’m trying to do in this course — I have relatively little to say about grammar and style and usage, except when it relates to structural and organizational features at the essay level.
Now, maybe some of you watching this will think that none of this is surprising.
But the principle that I’ve tried to articulate here, about the priority of structure in essay writing, is for the most part, completely unfamiliar to students entering college.
I can’t speak for the way that essay writing is taught in high school (when it’s taught at all), but the fact is that in my 20 years of experience working with students on their writing, I have yet to encounter a student who recognized this principle, prior to receiving some formal instruction specifically about it.
Let me say this again. What I would regard as the single most important principle of essay writing — the one that is most important for successful essay writing — is unfamiliar to most of the students entering college.
This is disturbing to me, as a teacher.
Now, this isn’t to say that there aren’t good writers among the students who enter college, because there are.
But I’m convinced that in most cases these students became good writers in spite of their formal training in essay writing, rather than because of it. They’ve picked up their skills through extensive reading and assimilation and modeling, rather than through formal instruction.
And that’s great, that’s wonderful, but the fact is that it’s something you only see in a fraction of students. There are many more students who could benefit from some formal instruction in structural principles for successful essay writing, but who have never been exposed to them.
So, in the next video we’ll get started doing just that.