How I Teach College-Level Writing: The Essay, The Problem

Me, teaching

This is the fifth post in the series: How I Teach College-Level Writing.

I’m sharing what I do in the writing classroom, the first-year Composition classroom specifically, with the hope of offering something useful to anyone about to design his or her own syllabus.

You can read the previous essays here:

1. The Intro
2. The Theories
3. The Diagnosis
4. Why I Teach Cool

Part Five: The Essay, The Problem

A lot of great things can happen in a Composition class. However, no matter how beneficial the readings and group discussions are, students still have to write essays. In the end, I judge my success in the classroom by the quality of my students’ writing, and if their work is not showing strong signs of improvement, I feel like I’m doing a bad job.

Unfortunately, improving their essays is not as easy as it may seem. In part three of this series, “The Diagnosis,” I argued that many students arrive in college with an inadequate idea of what is required in a college-level or professional-level essay. If they were conscientious students in high school, when they appear in my classes, they tend to write papers in a “five-paragraph” style. In this type of essay, the writer is merely required to make a general statement about a topic and then supply evidence for that statement being correct.

The textbook Critical Passages, by Herndon and Dombek, offers the best explication of this problem that I know of. Herndon and Dombek point out that, as well as being not very interesting to read, this “five-paragraph” approach to essay writing is also poor at engaging with other arguments, with other viewpoints and opinions. The five-paragraph essay essentially presents one take. As a result, students tend to either simplify and belittle other writers’ ideas, or be overwhelmed and awed, losing any capacity to make their own points.

And on the blog Crooked Timber, John Holbo’s post Makessense Stop! discusses a similar version of this problem: Holbo laments students who, as soon as they have arrived at a position that is more or less coherent, feel no need for further thinking. The essay is done, they appear to feel, because its overall argument basically lines up with what the sources seem to say.

The challenge for us teachers is that this isn’t what good academic, literary, or professional essay-writing does. Look at essays by Yasmin Nair, or Ta-Nehisi Coates, or Fredrick Jameson, or Elaine Scarry: their essays are structured in complex ways, posing multiple views, responding to imagined and real critics, building to a moment of clarity through a series of argumentative turns.

It’s like this: many students — hardworking, talented students — struggle to write a good essay because they misunderstand the nature of the task. It’s as though you have asked them to show you a juggling trick with six balls in the air, but they respond by juggling only three balls. No matter how good the three-ball trick is, it isn’t what’s required. Therefore, my goal is not to polish and refine their existing attempt, but to intervene, to show them the difference between what they are doing and what a really good essay is.

And, sadly, it’s not enough to assign them a few essays by Yasmin Nair and expect them to acquire her skills just by reading. I wish that were possible for me! While reading expert writers is, of course, a great way to improve one’s own work, it is too slow a process to make a difference over a single college semester. As teachers, we have to figure out how to break down into smaller, more manageable pieces the mastery we want our students to develop.

That’s why, as described in Why I Teach Cool, I design my syllabus to explicitly teach difference. I try to guide students to see that different conceptions of cool are incompatible with each other. Miles Davis cool and Jennifer Lawrence cool are completely different ideals; in order to talk about cool, you have to explain which “cool” you mean. I try to design a course that teaches students to present their own ideas as one interpretation out of many competing interpretations.

However, even if I design class activities brilliantly, this does not necessarily mean that my students will write better essays. As I argued in part two of this series, expertise is narrower than we tend to think: becoming better at arguing in class may not necessarily make a student a better arguer on paper. It’s possible to spend ten lessons lecturing students about “audience,” say, or “coherence,” or some other worthy ideal of good writing, and go home pleased by what a great job you did, and then see three-quarters of your class hand in essays that do the exact thing you asked them not to do.

If I give my students an assignment sheet that, in their eyes, seems to be asking them to compose the familiar sort of essay they are comfortable with, they will write that familiar essay. They are stressed, hurried, tired, and they are writing with the memory of all their previous essay assignments as their guide.

My essay assignments need to show them that I expect something else.

However, for a long time, I had no idea how to do this.

Outlining a student’s research paper in three sections.

I would have long conversations with students in-class and one to one, and I would explain and explain and explain, but I would continue to see essays that frustrated me. I even banned the use of certain words (for instance, I forbade the word “since” in the first sentence of a paper (“Since the dawn of time, people have cared about families”) because such bland opening sentences invariably produced weak thesis statements), but I still continued to get the sorts of papers I didn’t want. Just telling students what I wanted wasn’t helping.

The first step in the right direction came when I began teaching students that their essays should present a problem.

Think of Orwell’s famous “Politics and the English Language.” That essay doesn’t just give, in blog post fashion, Orwell’s six tips for better writing.

Instead, Orwell explains and details a huge problem in our society: the erosion of precise speech, the substitution of vague cliché for specific honesty, and the political decay that results. Politicians get away with mass-murder because we have lost our respect for language. The six rules of writing which conclude his essay carry such force not because they are, on their own, so awesome, but rather because the reader feels that these six rules are all that will prevent total societal collapse and the victory of totalitarianism.

Or, if you want a more recent example, see this commentary, Want a Better Pitch?, which describes Elon Musk’s introduction of Tesla’s new range of batteries. If Elon Musk were writing a five-paragraph essay, his first slide would probably say “Batteries are very important.” But he doesn’t do that. Instead, Musk starts off by talking about global warming, environmental disaster, and how this is our last chance to act or the entire human race is going to die. At the start of the presentation, he doesn’t even mention batteries. Rather, he introduces a question, a dilemma, an urgent problem. Only after this is done does he introduce his own solution: batteries.

Students generally have no problem seeing the difference between a five-paragraph essay and a “problem-first” essay. They can see that the latter is more appealing to read than the former. But they don’t know to write a problem-first essay, because they haven’t been trained in it. Once I’ve explained how I see the limitations of the five-paragraph essay, the rest of the semester involves me attempting to guide the class to develop new habits, to change their instincts for how they conceive of the essay form.

This isn’t easy. But here’s how I try to do it.


They Say, I Say is one of the best books I know for teaching writing. The book’s premise is simple: if a student’s writing is poor, this is because she lacks familiarity with the language required for competent essay-writing. The book offers a series of sentence templates for students to use, a whole range of essay-ish phrases.

They Say, I Say has sentence templates for introducing a topic, for quoting a source, for announcing your conclusion. Here is a page from the book, showing a list of templates “for disagreeing, with reasons.”

TheySay54-55Although Graff and Birkenstein present their methods modestly, what they propose is revolutionary. It massively simplifies the work of a writing teacher. If Graff and Birkenstein are right, our students’ central problem is that they don’t know how to use the language that is specific to the essay. If we want to improve their essay-making, we can just go in directly and give them the language they need.

I can’t play the piano. If you ask me to play Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, what I produce will be terrible. But that isn’t primarily because I lack a sensitive soul, or my home life is too distracting, or because I don’t know enough about Beethoven’s biography. The primary problem is that I can’t play the piano. And our writing students, according to They Say, I Say, are in a similar position. There’s nothing wrong with them as people: they just don’t have access to the sort of language and argumentative tactics necessary to write a great essay.

Therefore, because I want my students to alter their approach to essay writing, and I want them to learn to produce a “six-balls-in-the-air” essay, I ask them all to write their papers the exact same way. In other words, I give them a template for writing their entire paper.

In the opening weeks of the course, I teach my class a fixed, paragraph-by-paragraph essay plan. I should say here that most of the ideas for those paragraphs come directly from Graff and Birkenstein: my only innovation is to arrange their proposals in a linear formula. This is not because I think there’s only one way to write a good essay. The formula is only there to give students the experience of juggling six balls at once; without that kind of guided experience, they are unlikely to discover the actual complexity of a good essay on their own — or least, not in the short time frame of the single term they spend studying with me.

And there are big pedagogical benefits to having every student structure his or her essay the same way: now I can break down key skills and teach them component by component: now the class and I share a set of common expectations, a common technical language. One-to-one conferences become far more efficient, too.

While it might seem like the result would be 23 identical essays, all of them boring to read, the opposite is in fact the case. The students seem more individual now that they have a clearer way to present their ideas.

A map of ten paragraphs

The essay template goes like this:

First, I tell students to forget about the thesis paragraph and the conclusion paragraph. Leave them until later. Start writing as though the thesis paragraph does not exist.

1. The essay’s first paragraph introduces someone else’s idea. That opening paragraph’s job is to explain what the other writer is trying to say. The student should not express an overt opinion about that argument: the only task is to offer a summary.

Note: the easiest way to teach this template is to give the students another writer’s argument to disagree with. I make up a few particularly crude and outlandish arguments for this purpose. However, some essay genres don’t work this way. In a genre like a restaurant review, for instance, there may not be another argument to respond to. In those cases, the student has to “invent” an opposing view, by imagining a soon-to-be-proven-wrong argument that another person might hold: “On the surface, Jonathan Franzen has written a great novel. It describes the life of…” or “Downtown’s newest restaurant, Beefcake, seems perfect for meat-lovers. Located in the basement of…” This made-up opposing view might even be the opinion the student held before she began her research: “I used to believe no one at the University of Tennessee actually enjoyed wearing orange on Fridays. This is a tradition that dates back to… ”

The student, in this more advanced form of the template, spends paragraph one introducing both the topic and a superficial way of viewing it: she hints that she does not actually agree with it.

“If we judged restaurants by the quality of their furnishings, Beefcake would be a disaster. The uncomfortable chairs appear to be made of…”

(Most of those example sentences come right out of the templates of They Say, I Say.)

2. The second paragraph praises something about the other writer’s essay (or the superficial view the student is imagining). Find something you like in the other essay, I tell students, and spend a paragraph saying good things about it. (Some students struggle to distinguish between this paragraph and the first, which is an interesting teaching moment. For those students, I advise them to pick one single thing and praise just that.) If the “other” argument is one the student has invented, then this paragraph defends that view, explaining its entirely reasonable, sensible basis.

“As we waiting for the food to arrive, I felt embarrassed to have brought my friends to Beefcake. I felt like we were eating in an abandoned factory, and the ceiling seemed to get lower every minute. And even worse…”

3. The third paragraph, however, critiques the other essay. I now ask the student to describe something limited, or wrong, or questionable, or out-dated about the other writer’s view. The easiest way to help students to do this is to instruct them to begin the paragraph with “However, on a deeper level…” This paragraph is not meant to be a total destruction of the other view: it’s merely pointing out a crack in the foundations.

“However, in an interview with Garden and Gun magazine, Beefcake’s owner, a James Beard award-winning chef, explains that the restaurant’s style was deliberately chosen. He says that…”

4. Now, in the fourth paragraph, the student should argue her own viewpoint. The student should transition from talking about the other essay to describing her own take. I advise students that they have three options: to “ally” with the other writer and argue something similar, to “oppose” the other writer and present a disagreement, or, the most difficult option, to “pivot” to a seemingly unexpected position or situation. Regardless, the writer now presents her own idea.

“And Beefcake‘s food, we discovered, speaks for itself…”

5. & 6. Paragraphs five and six develop the student’s own view. This is where all the “sources” that students would use in a five-paragraph essay come into play: the facts and commentary that back up the student’s view.

“The steak! The crab! OMG!”

7. & 8. Paragraph seven and eight shift the focus once more. Now the student’s job is to explain: so what? Here the student describes why the difference between her view and the other writer’s view matters. If you think differently from this other writer — why is that important? These paragraphs explain why it’s meaningful that the other writer thinks one way and the student thinks another. Alternatively, depending on the kind of essay being written, a student might use these two paragraphs not to explain why the difference matters, but instead to form a bridge between them. Maybe there’s a bigger picture, an overall take that is more important that the difference we just discussed. Maybe there’s a third possible viewpoint, one that can reconcile this seemingly intractable disagreement.

Beefcake reminded me of a painful truth. We go to restaurants for one reason: to eat. Has America become so obsessed with…”

Because the student broadens her focus at this stage, the essay has more of a chance to build to an exciting “aha!” moment. An essay with only two ideas, one that says, for instance, “Nate Silver thinks Donald Trump is not electable; I think he is electable,” is not likely to be an interesting read. But an essay that goes: “Nate Silver thinks Donald Trump is not electable; I think he is electable; number-crunching intellectuals don’t understand what is new and different about this Presidential race” is more likely to be fun, engaging, thought-provoking.

The template, therefore, has eight paragraphs. These eight paragraphs lead to an essay with three main sections:

  1. They Say (paragraphs one to three)
  2. I Say (paragraphs four to six)
  3. So What? (paragraphs seven to eight)
Three sections...

Three sections…

In theory, the structure is much simpler to describe as three separate sections; you may be wondering why I didn’t just lead with the sections, and only afterwards describe the paragraphs. I have found that, in practice, it is better to teach the structure paragraph-first, and explain the individual paragraphs one by one, rather than try to start with the seemingly simpler idea of three sections. You may be a better teacher than I am, but my students, at least, seem to find talk of “sections” too abstract.

Then it’s time, once this main section of the paper is written, to go back to the start and compose the thesis paragraph. Such a paragraph is required in the college essay, and it goes at the very start of the paper. That paragraph opens with a “hook” or question, a sentence designed to grab the reader’s interest; it closes with a thesis statement that presents the student’s big idea, her main claim. Two key sentences in one paragraph: a hook and a thesis claim. This makes the thesis paragraph the hardest part of the essay for many students.

However, at this stage, there is good news: I tell the class that they have already written those two sentences. The hook and the thesis statement can be derived from the parts of the essay we’ve already composed.

The first sentence of the thesis paragraph, the hook, poses a question, a puzzle to interest the reader. Students write this sentence by summing up, in one sentence, the difference between section one and section two of their paper. Whatever the disagreement was between you and that other writer, that’s the question with which you introduce your essay.

And the essay’s thesis statement is simply a one-sentence summation of section three. That’s the big idea of the paper, the essay’s point, the essential reason why you wanted to put pen to paper. Write out section three in one sentence — that’s your essay’s thesis statement.

(If you try this structure out yourself, I hope you’ll quickly see that thesis statements produced out of an essay’s third section generally sound like good thesis statements. In contrast, most students struggle with thesis statements because they instead form them out of their essays’ second section. In other words: “I believe in Donald Trump” is not a good thesis statement — it’s merely a summary of the essay’s second section. But “The Republican party will be destroyed because it refuses to accept why Donald Trump is popular” is a very promising thesis. It reads like the answer to the question: “Why is it important that you believe in Donald Trump?”)

I then give students two options for a conclusion, an easy option and a harder one. Either the conclusion can be a paragraph on whatever they like — by this point, if they’ve carried out the template well, they’re already heading for an A — or, alternatively, it can be a “return.”

The “return” is where the writer returns to the praise she gave the other writer in paragraph two, the aspects of the other argument she seemed to love, and she takes that praise back. In fact, she reveals, those apparently good aspects of the other argument only reveal that writer’s deep misunderstanding of the topic. Those seeming virtues were, in reality, merely signs of the other writer’s complete failure. Ouch.

Phew! That’s a lot to explain in one blog post. Are you ready, however, to see a real essay that uses this formula?

It’s The New Yorker essay, “Cool Story, Bro,” in which Emily Nussbaum critiqued season one of Nic Pizzolatto’s True Detective. Now, Nussbaum’s essay doesn’t exactly follow my template, in part because my template is just something I dreamed up, and in part because the college essay genre requires a more fixed approach to paragraph length. In New Yorker style, it’s possible to float the thesis statement in a “paragraph” of its own, underneath the essay’s illustration.

Aside from that, however, Nussbaum’s essay structure is surprisingly close to the one I’m asking my Composition students to execute.

Paragraph one, sentence one, presents the hook: “Judged purely on style, HBO’s “True Detective” is a great show.” We are given, in that opening line, the entire question that will animate Nussbaum’s argument — can a television series be great merely because of its style, or are other qualities ultimately more important?

Paragraph one, from sentence two onwards, introduces the series: “Every week, it offers shiver-inducing…” (a New Yorker essay, lacking the need for a thesis statement, can merge the essay’s hook and its first body paragraph into one).

Paragraph two praises the series: “Like many critics, I was initially charmed by… its witty chronology.”

Paragraph three introduces the critique: “On the other hand, you might take a close look at the show’s opening credits… closeups of female asses… those asses tell the real story.”

Paragraph four is where Nussbaum begins her real argument. She is sick of having to be a “cool girl” where gritty, macho, sexist television is concerned: “I’ve turned prickly…”

Paragraph five and six continue this line of attack: “To state the obvious…” & “Meanwhile, Marty’s wife… is an utter nothing-burger,” developing and providing evidence for Nussbaum’s argument.

Then, in paragraphs seven and eight, Nussbaum broadens her scope. Here she explains why the problems with True Detective matter: “I’m certain that, if you’re a fan of the series, this analysis irritates you.” And in paragraphs nine and ten, she compares True Detective to other recent television, to a series like The Fall, which, she says, does a better and more moral job of presenting violence against women. By comparing True Detective with The Fall, she arrives at her thesis statement: True Detective “reeks of macho nonsense.”

And in the final paragraph, Nussbaum concludes by staging a return. She had, in paragraph two, praised True Detective’s “witty chronology,” its complex and devious methods of telling a story. Now, however, in her final paragraph, she returns to that complexity and ridicules it, predicting that all of True Detective’s pompous mystery will amount to nothing much: “maybe the show will reveal that it was Cthulhu all along, in the library, with the candlestick.”

I don’t believe there’s anything magical about essays with three sections. Nor do I think that any of the terms I’ve introduced are necessary for students to improve as writers. But I do believe that most first-year college students — the lucky ones, the ones who had good high school teachers and who have been fortunate enough to develop good work habits — those students need some kind of pedagogical intervention. They need some form of training in more advanced methods of composition than the ones they know. The purpose of the template is simply to help my students move up to more complex, more rewarding ways of writing an essay: that the structure is followed the same way by every student is important only because I need to be able to teach it to 23 people at once. Once they’ve written two or three essays with that structure, they can, if they choose, leave it behind.

This post was very long. I hope you found it fun to read.

If you’re intrigued by the idea of teaching essay-writing this way, stay tuned. My next post in this series will break down the individual lessons, drills, and exercises I use to help students develop the skills to actually write like Emily Nussbaum.

And I will try hard, for that post, to prepare some better diagrams. There may even be animation.

Thank you to everyone who has given feedback on this series, and thanks to Professor Callahan in particular, who encouraged me to return to these essays and finish them.

Best wishes,


19 thoughts on “How I Teach College-Level Writing: The Essay, The Problem

  1. Excellent post, Daniel! An essay, like a story, can only realize its full potential if the author is working within some form of structural template; that’s become something of a lost art in the era of blogging. I wish more bloggers would study professional-caliber essayists and strive for that level of command of the form. (And I’ll be sure to check out They Say/I Say — I’m glad to know about that now.)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is so so interesting. My college advanced comp class was taught by the sainted Lewis Barnes at Morehead State in Kentucky (in the same town that’s had such notoriety lately because of Kim Davis). He was probably in his early 70s or so, brilliant and eccentric, and he believed in structure.

    He started us off writing three-point-five paragraphs. Sentence 1 introduces; 2, 3, and 4 make individual points; 5 summarizes. From there we expanded the same structure with paragraphs in place of sentences and wrote little self-contained essays. At the same time we were making our way through Junior English Review Exercises and then Senior English Review Exercises, a pair of workbooks that had been put together for some fancy-pants prep school in New England. The exercises consisted of an endless series of random sentences followed by spots to check any errors that were present: tautology, fragment, dangling element, incorrect punctuation, maybe something else, and no error. Then we had to mark up what we would fix. That class, transformational grammar, history of the language, and intro to statistics were my education—the rest of it was fluff. Mostly worthwhile and often fun, but fluff.


    • That’s really interesting, Donna. I like the idea of drilling students on routines… It wasn’t boring?

      PS I honestly find it hard to judge one teaching method against another. If the teacher is passionate, it tends to stick.


  3. Well please read this and give me feedback, if you don’t mind. Am I being too descriptive?

    It was a dark rainy night at Bent Spoke Farm. A shadowy driver, evil personified, with a cold heart, already a practitioner of multiple serial murders was out cruising, thrusting for blood, looking for possible victims and was on the loose in the land. This was farm country, where only a decade before, great grey wolves had been the primary predator, but now there was something far more sinister than that loose in the landscape. It was an early bitter winter cold. Storm clouds from the north hung low in the deep black night sky. As the blood stalker looked out on both sides of the road, the thousand oak and sycamores trees that lined that particular long stretch of deserted highway had long since lost their leaves, and seamed now desolate and frightening. In one’s imagination, they appeared paused and ready to attack. The wooden fences with missing rails lined the road and made the farms look even more abandoned. A thin looking crescent moon peered out between the low hanging clouds, as only a few streetlights lined the long dark road. Hoot owls, their shill eerie voices and the occasional car engine were all that broke the silence. Beside the old country road, sat deep woods along with bubbling brooks, streams, and wide grass pastures and heavily tilled fields of harvested wheat and corn.
    During the day, this strip of land might appear quaint and friendly, but on a dark night like this one, it felt somehow sinister, ominous and even felt haunted by ghosts, and other spirits, both past and present.
    A few miles just down the road around the bend, the death car rounded the curve and blew a tire. Just by chance, the killer stopped to change the tire where the road had no paved edge and was on an embankment. This was no place to stop to have a breakdown, let alone fix it.
    Then, as the death car past the rusted Bent Spoke Dairy Farm sign and iron wagon wheel attached to the rotted wooden fence post, the driver pulled the vehicle into the entrance to the farm and noticing it was quiet as death, he lingered. He looked around carefully and hearing few sounds, not even the cows in the barn, he lingered, listening to rustling leaves in the wind. Then night hunter’s blood warmed at the thought of fresh game. He got out. He paused, and looking up and down the road, he began searching the horizon in all directions. A barn owl penetrated the silence with his low call. Then the unwelcome stranger, in his city attire, began to fix his tire, stopped, slowed his breathing and listened. More silence. Only a slight breeze felt cold against his face. Then hearing nothing, not even the owl, he decided to investigate the old farmhouse before him as well.
    The farmer, Ben Barns, the farmer’s family and even the livestock had long since retired for the night. Even the dogs were asleep in their kennels towards the back of the property. It was bitter cold.
    It was the perfect night for murder.


    • Well, some of this is silly, like the dark and stormy night stuff. But if you are really asking: I don’t think the adjectives are the real problem. Yes some of the prose is florid, but I’m more bothered by the judge-y-ness. I don’t understand why the narrator is telling the reader that the killer is a killer, is evil and so on.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I was wondering if you were going to come back to this series, with some lessons and exercises. I’ve found this a very useful guide while writing next semester’s syllabus.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Casey — I would like to! I’ve been a bit delayed by my inability to animate graphics — I would like to present a few ideas visually, in motion. Regardless, I hope to produce a few more posts before you start next semester. What theme or topic are you using for your course?


  5. Has the sixth post in this series been written? I find the navigation of your blog to be quite frustrating. I wish you had a page dedicated to this series of blog posts.


  6. This is fantastic. Will you post the 6th installment soon? I’m very interested to see how you teach the individual lessons. I’m a former college English instructor now teaching a concurrent enrollment high school English composition 1 and 2 course, and, entering my third year of teaching this course, am trying to continually push my students beyond the five-paragraph essay. I too spend a lot of time with students on structure and using templates for complex essays (particularly the frame-case essay from Rutgers Writing Program), and I also use They Say, I Say with students because it’s so effective. I love how you’ve turned the They Say/I Say/So What? into an essay structure, something I’d not thought of before; but I’ve always stressed to students the “So what?” section of the essay. Your template is much more elegant. So, I would love to know what kind of writing exercises you deploy to help students arrive at this kind of essay writing. Thank you for these excellent posts!

    Liked by 1 person

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