I really enjoy the work of Hugh MacLeod, whose great cartoons you can see at http://gapingvoid.com/. His work is a wonderful mix of skepticism and inspiration. He began his career by drawing his cartoons on the back of business cards while sitting at a bar. He built his business through his blog, and now he sells his work for high prices and produces best-selling business books. In his latest book, Freedom is Blogging in Your Underwear, he talks about his absolute love of blogging. Hugh's tale is one of those anyone-can-make-it stories, provided you have some talent, follow your passion, work really hard, and take advantages of the tools and opportunities available.
Reading the book—and it takes just about half an hour—make me reflect upon my own blogging. I certainly feel a higher degree of freedom than I do in other writing, and that freedom has grown the more I post. I write a bit more informally; I don’t pay that much attention to structure; I don’t do much pre-writing; I certainly don’t do much editing or polishing. (I’ve looked back at some pieces and cringed at certain bits and pieces of prose.) In fact, while I often have done some reflecting before I begin a post, I often don’t know exactly where it’s going to go. The process becomes a bit more exploratory than, say, an academic paper. It also feels more personal, as if I really am leaving some clues about myself. I also know that blogging has helped me tremendously as a professional. So in many ways I understand exactly what Hugh is saying.
But I can’t say that I feel total freedom in my blogging. While the blog is mine, it’s also the blog of the head of St. John’s Episcopal School. Whenever I write for an audience, I cannot forget that awesome responsibility. It comes with certain expectations, and people may parse things particularly carefully. To some extent, I feel as if each reader may give every piece a grade.
And that gnawing feeling leads me to wonder about student writing. As a former English teacher, I’ve thought about a great deal about the process of writing instruction, particularly some time-honored practices. I’m not sure that many of them move students to the ultimate goal of written communication.
As an example, let’s take the five-paragraph essay. I haven’t seen many, if any quality pieces from published writers that follow this formula. After all, not many ideas lend themselves to such a simplistic formula. And while writers want to engage the audience, this structure almost insults the reader. It’s as if the writer is saying at the end, “I know I already told you what I was going to tell you, and then I actually told, but now I’m telling you again, just in case you’re too stupid to have gotten it.”
Writing teacher have argued with me that the five-paragraph method is necessary as a pace to begin. Maybe…but here’s the problem with that. If a developing writer follows the recipe and receives positive feedback—the high grade—then he or she grows unwilling to deviate. It leads to other pedantic questions such as “How long does this need to be?” Overly rigid rubrics have the same effect. Students can end up focusing far too much on following the guidelines and rules and point values that they end up forgetting to focus on saying something worthwhile. Teachers can fall into the same trap as they assess the student writing. Similarly, I’m not sure why teachers feel they must always assign topics. I liked to allow students to come up with their own topics, as I learned more in the process.
That brings me back to that ultimate goal, what I see as the virtuous cycle powered by the relationship between writer and reader. A cartoon by Hugh MacLeod, the one I have as my desktop background, captures it perfectly: