What Makes a Good Piece of Writing?

Dear Reader,

I don’t know about you, but I was taught to write in five-paragraph essays. The first paragraph is introduction, the middle three present supporting arguments, and the last is conclusion. Not only that but each paragraph itself has a similar structure–introduction, 3 or so supporting sentences, and conclusion which restates the introduction. Part of the reason I have been so hesitant to introduce my children to a standard writing curriculum is that this is how I perceive it, and I find it dull, dull, dull. I never understood how to write such an essay without it sounding incredibly dry and repetitive. I never could figure out how to restate my points so often without sounding inane. Of course, I don’t remember my teachers ever complaining about too much repetition either. That is how the essay was supposed to be after all.

But I was struck by something that a visiting preacher said in the sermon yesterday. He was preaching from Peter’s sermon in the second chapter of Acts, and he pointed out how the section he was working on has a chiastic structure. That is, there is an initial element A then another element B followed by something that parallels or corresponds to B and then something that corresponds to A so that you get ABB’A’. This is a structure I am familiar with from poetry and I am well aware of the structures used in Hebrew poetry. But I hadn’t thought much about such things in the context of prose, at least not in a while. And what I thought was how beautifully Peter managed to put together this sermon,. The structure (as the preacher pointed out) serves to highlight the important points in his (Peter’s) sermon. And the whole thing is much more lovely and meaningful than how I was taught to write.

So why aren’t we taught to write that way? It need not always be chiasms but there are many rhetorical devices which can be used to structure a work. We tend to think of such things in the context of oral compositions; there is an art to speech-writing. And classically educated students at least are expected to study rhetoric. But such things have been lost to most of us. Now Peter’s sermon was, of course, originally oral though we have it preserved in written form. The techniques of rhetoric and speech-writing are designed for oral presentation, but as we saw in Acts 2 they can be appreciated even more fully when they are written down, when one has time to really notice how the words and thoughts are being put together and how that affects the meaning of the work.

I am pleased to say that the approach we have taken to writing this year does rely upon looking at works of writing and trying to imitate them. I think of it as something akin to a struggling artist copying the masters. We learn through imitation in the hopes of developing our own style one day. But I am also convicted that I should think a little more seriously about presenting my children with different kinds of writing that use different techniques. I would like them to come out of their education being able to write well-constructed, interesting, persuasive papers that are more than just the 5-paragraph essays I learned. Of course, then I run into the problem of how to teach things I never really learned . . . So clearly I have  a lot more thinking to do about the hows of this. Suggestions are welcome.



4 responses to this post.

  1. […] and find resources online to help with various subjects including writing. Nebby asks, “What makes a good piece of writing? Maybe Nebby will find these writing tips, from Denise, to be […]


  2. […] have posted about how we are doing writing this year and some thoughts on the traditional 5-paragraph essay. In an effort to apply my new ideas, I had my oldest two (12 and 10 years old) try a big of […]


  3. I remember how I was taught to write and I do believe I was short-changed. I too thought it was dry and boring and it certainly doesn’t have to be that way at all!

    One thing I do to encourage writing with my daughter is by having her keep an online blog. She writes and then we co-edit it so she learns from something she has ownership over. Since her peers are reading it, she wants it to be correct. It’s a win-win for me…she does something she enjoys and I work school into it.

    I have considered having her take a writing course at Time4Writing because they use real teachers. I just need to convince her it’s a fantastic idea! 🙂



  4. […] to write. (And how many times have I addressed this issue already! Here are posts one, two, three, four, five and […]


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