The Real Truth About Formulaic Essay Writing

by Jimmie Lanley on April 25, 2012

The real truth about formulaic writing

I admit that my approach to teaching essay writing is formulaic. I see nothing at all wrong with that.

A Writing Analogy

I learned to cook with a combination of recipes from cookbooks and my mother’s instruction in the principles of cooking.  When I cook something new, I still refer to a cookbook rather than make it up. But after some experience with a new dish, I feel confident to experiment with ingredients and methods.

Writing is the same.

We can offer our children recipes of essay structures. They may seem predictable. But they work. And those writing successes bring our children great confidence. Alongside the recipes, we teach them the principles of good writing such as word choice, sentence patterns, and generating specific details.

Moving Past the Formulas — or Not

As young writers gain confidence, they can leave the confines of the formulas and venture out into more sophisticated styles of writing. And if they never mature past the formulas, at least they can write a decent essay. Some people never mature past grandma’s meatloaf recipe, and it is still a satisfying meal forty years later!

Easing the Cognitive Load

Here is another reason to offer students writing structures, hints, and formulas:  Writing is hard work, cognitively speaking. It is a task that requires layers of multi-tasking thought— ideas, grammar, spelling, punctuation, transitions, order, logic, word choice, and sentence structure. It is almost impossible to be able to consider all of those facets at once.

Formulas make some facets foolproof so that they don’t require a lot of thought. Then that brain power can be focused on something else.

The hope is that those formulas will become ingrained to the degree that they are natural and then the writer can move on to concentrate on another element in his writing.

The Real Truth

The real truth is that professional writers have formulas, too. And although they take risks and break rules, they know how to revert back to those classic structures that work every single time.

Essay Formula Diagram

Speaking of formulas, here is an essay formula for the introduction paragraph and the conclusion paragraph. The triangles show the transition from general to specific and then specific back to general. This is part of the Essay Tune Up ebook.

My Essay Formula

It is a classic formula that always works. Think of it as the “little black dress” of composition.


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