Does Formula Writing Have a Bad Rap?
Do you know the definition of “formula writing?” No? Neither did I. I’d heard of the term and held a vaguely uneasy prejudice against it. Still, it surprised me when an Essay I student’s mother accused me of teaching it.
So I Googled the topic. I found a 2005 New York Times article quoting a high school English teacher: “Good writing is good thinking. That’s why formulas don’t work. Formulas don’t let kids think; they kill a lot of creativity in writing.”
Really? Especially in nonfiction writing, such as essays? Don’t most writers start with an outline? And ministers, preparing their sermons? And politicians, giving speeches? Or do we all need to “wing it” in the hallowed name of creativity?
Perhaps we should define the term “formula writing.” I like the perspective given by Toni Walker, Elena Carrillo, and Kira Lerner in an article called Formula Writing: Understanding the Pros and Cons:
[Formula writing] can mean merely copying a storyline and grafting it onto your own work. That’s a far too limited definition, however. At its most simple, the term describes the use of an established story pattern or structure as the basis for a plot.
Most creative types like to think of their ideas as unique; if a writer admits the use of formula, wouldn’t this imply a reliance on cookie-cutter story lines? Not necessarily. In fact, so-called formula writing may be getting an undeserved bad rap.
Agreed. I’d even go further, and say that it frees writers to think more creatively. In essay writing, for example, most students and novice writers struggle with connecting to their thesis. They keep forgetting their three supporting points. They meander mindlessly around the topic sentences within the middle paragraphs.
Formula writing– that is, establishing a solid structure before beginning to fill in the essay — helps derail these problems before they begin. Students can anchor to their outline. It helps them stay on-track, so they can spend more time focusing on how to develop ideas. It saves
them needless time editing.
Or to illustrate, from our anonymous writer:
An apprentice tailor plans to sew a shirt for himself. While developing his skills, the apprentice was taught to use a tissue-paper pattern for his work: through this template, he learned how to cut the cloth to its proper size, where to attach the sleeves, how to space buttonholes evenly, how to add a collar, and where to place the breast pocket.
Does this mean every shirt will look alike? Certainly not! Once he understands how the pattern works, our young tailor friend can use it as a guide while crafting a garment all his own. That’s the goal of formula writing, to provide a pattern. Once it’s in place, students can pile on creativity and original thinking.
I stand guilty as charged: I consistently use formulas in my own professional writing. I encourage it in my students’ writing. Why? Because it works.
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