Paul Graham and not being as right as he could be in “The Age of the Essay”

Paul Graham often challenges people who say that he’s wrong to cite a particular sentence that is untrue; see, for example, this: “Can you give an example of something I said that you think is false?” Elsewhere, although I can’t find a link at the moment, he says that most people who say he’s said something wrong aren’t actually referring to something he’s said, but something they think he’s said, or imagines he might say. Hence my italicization of “something I said:” Internet denizens often extrapolate from or simplify his often nuanced positions in an attempt to pin ideas to him that he hasn’t explicitly endorsed. So I’m going to try not to do that, but I will nonetheless look at some of what he’s said about writing and writing education and describe some of my attempts to put his implied criticisms into action.

While I think Graham is right the vast majority of the time, I also think he’s off the mark regarding some of his comments about how writing is taught in schools. I wouldn’t call him wrong, exactly, but I would say that trying some of the things he suggests or implicitly suggests hasn’t worked out nearly as well as I’d hoped, especially when applied to full classrooms of students drawn from a wide spectrum of ability and interest.

I’ve long been bothered by the way writing and related subjects are taught in school. They’re made so boring and lifeless most of the time. Part of the problem, and perhaps the largest part, is the teachers. I’ve spent a lot of time contemplating how to improve the writing class experience. Some of that effort appears to be paying off: a surprisingly large number of students will say, either to me directly or in their evaluations, that they usually hate English classes but really like this one. Yes, I’m sure some are sucking up, but I don’t care about sucking up and suspect students can detect as much. I really care about what happens on their papers. But some of my experiments haven’t worked, and I’ll talk about them here.

In “The Age of the Essay,” Graham starts:

Remember the essays you had to write in high school? Topic sentence, introductory paragraph, supporting paragraphs, conclusion. The conclusion being, say, that Ahab in Moby Dick was a Christ-like figure.

Oy. So I’m going to try to give the other side of the story: what an essay really is, and how you write one. Or at least, how I write one.

Graham doesn’t say so explicitly, but the implication of “the other side of the story” and “what an essay really is” is that essay writing in school should be more like real essay writing. To some extent he’s right, but trying to make school essay writing like real essay writing doesn’t yield the kinds of results I’d hoped for. Graham is right that he hasn’t directly said that school writing should be more like real writing, but it’s an obvious inference from this and other sections of “The Age of the Essay,” which I’ll discuss further below. He also does a lot with the word “Oy:” it expresses skepticism and distaste wrapped in one little word.

The way Graham puts it, writing a school essay sounds pretty bad; concluding “that Ahab in Moby Dick was a Christ-like figure” in a pre-structured essay is tedious, if for no other reason than because a million other students and a much smaller number of teachers and professors have already concluded or been forced to conclude the same thing. I think that a) teaching literature can be a much better experience and still serves some institutional purposes, and b) teaching writing in the context of other subjects might not be any better.

Passion and interest


The most obvious difference between real essays and the things one has to write in school is that real essays are not exclusively about English literature. Certainly schools should teach students how to write. But due to a series of historical accidents the teaching of writing has gotten mixed together with the study of literature. And so all over the country students are writing not about how a baseball team with a small budget might compete with the Yankees, or the role of color in fashion, or what constitutes a good dessert, but about symbolism in Dickens.

I’d love to get well-developed essays on baseball, economics, and fashion. But most students either don’t appear to have the kind of passion that would be necessary to write such essays or don’t appear able to express it. Alternately, they have passion, but not knowledge behind the passion: someone who’d read Moneyball and other baseball research and could put together this kind of essay, but almost no students have. Even those who do have the passion don’t have much knowledge behind their passion. I’ve been implicitly testing this theory for the past three and a half years: on my assignment sheets, I always include a line that tells students something like this: they can write on “a book or subject of your own choosing. If you write on a book or idea of your own, you must clear your selection with me first.” Almost none exercise this choice.

Now, one could argue that students have been brainwashed by 12 years of school by the time I’ve got them, and to some extent that’s probably true. But if a student were really, deeply interested in a subject, I think she’d be willing to say, “Hey, what if I mostly write about the role of imagination among physicists,” and I’d probably say yes. This just doesn’t happen often.

I think it doesn’t happen because students don’t know where to start, and they aren’t skilled enough to closely read a book or even article on their own. They don’t know how to compare and contrast passages well—the very thing I’m doing here. So I could assign a book about baseball and work through the “close reading” practice in class, but most people aren’t that interested in the subject, and then the people interested in fashion or math will be left out (and most students who say they’re “interested in fashion” appear to mean they skim Cosmo and Vogue).

If you’re going to write about a big, somewhat vague idea, like money in baseball, you need a lot more knowledge and many more sources than you do to write about “symbolism in Dickens.” Novels and stories have the advantage of being self-contained. That’s part of what got the New Criticism technique of “close reading” so ingrained in schools: you could give students 1984 and rely on the text itself to argue about the text. This has always been a bit of a joke, of course, because knowing about the lead up to World War II and the beginnings of the Cold War will give a lot of contextual information about 1984, but one can still read the novel and analyze it on its own terms more easily than one can analyze more fact-based material. So a lot of teachers rely on closely reading novels, which I’ll come back to in a bit.

There may be more to the story of why students are writing about 1984 and not “what constitutes a good dessert” beyond “a series of historical accidents.” Those accidents are part of the story, but not all.

Amateurs and experts

What’s appropriate for amateurs may not be appropriate for experts; Daniel Willingham makes this point at length in his book Why Don’t Students Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom; he says that “Cognition early in training is fundamentally different from cognition late in training” and, furthermore, “[. . .] years of practice make a qualitative, not quantitative, difference in the way [scientists, artists, and others] think compared to how a well-informed amateur thinks.” We don’t get there right away: “Experts don’t think in terms of surface features, as novices do; they think in terms of functions, or deep structure.” It takes years of that dedicated practice to become an expert, and ten often appears to be it: “There’s nothing magical about a decade; it just seems to take that long to learn the background knowledge to develop” what one really needs to do the new, interesting, creative work that defines an expert.”

Graham is an expert writer. He, like other expert writers, can write differently than amateurs and still produce excellent work. Novice writes usually can’t write effectively without a main point of some sort in mind. I couldn’t, either, when I was a novice (though I tried). Graham says:

The other big difference between a real essay and the things they make you write in school is that a real essay doesn’t take a position and then defend it. That principle, like the idea that we ought to be writing about literature, turns out to be another intellectual hangover of long forgotten origins.

He’s right in the sense that real essays don’t have to take a position and defend it, but teachers insist on thesis statements for the same reason bikes for three-year olds have training wheels: otherwise the student-writer will fall over. If you don’t get students to take a position, you’ll get—maybe—summarization. If you don’t ask for and emphasize thesis statements, which are basically the position to be defended, you’ll get wishy-washy essay that don’t really say much of anything. And it’s not that they don’t say much of anything because they’re trying to explore a complex problems: they don’t say much of anything because the writer doesn’t have anything to say, or is afraid of saying anything, or doesn’t know how to explore a problem space. If you want an academic-ized version of what essays are, Wolfgang Holdheim says in The Hermeneutic Mode: Essays on Time in Literature and Literary Theory that “[…] works in the essay genre (rather than presenting knowledge as a closed and often deceptively finished system) enact cognition in progress, knowledge as the process of getting to know.” Students don’t have the cognition in progress they need to enact Graham-style essays. They haven’t evolved enough to write without the scaffolding of a thesis statement.

When I started teaching, I didn’t emphasize thesis statements and got a lot of essays that don’t enact cognition or make a point. The better ones instinctively made a point of some kind; the worse ones summarized. After a while I realized that I could avoid a lot of heartache on the part of my students by changing the way I was offering instruction, because students weren’t ready to write essays without taking a position and defending it.

So now I teach thesis statements more or less like every other English instructor. I try to avoid boring theses and encourage deep ones, but it’s nonetheless true that I’ve realized I was wrong and have consequently moved on. I consider the no-thesis-emphasized experiment just that: an experiment that taught me how I should teach. In the future, I might try other experiments that could lead me away from emphasizing thesis statements. But for now, I do teach students to take a perspective and defend it. Many don’t end up doing so—their papers end up more exploratory than disputatious—but the overall effect of telling them to take a point of view and defend it is a positive one.

I’m not the first one to have noticed the problem. In Patrick Allitt’s I’m the Teacher, You’re the Student, he says this of student writing in a history class:

Certain errors are so common as to be almost universal. The first one is that almost no student really knows how to construct an argument and then deploy information to support and substantiate it. Usually student papers describe what happened, more or less, then throw in an indignant moral judgment or two before stopping abruptly.

I know the feeling: students, when they start my class, mostly want to summarize what they’ve read. And, as Allitt notes, they badly want to moralize, or castigate other people, or to valorize their own difference from the weakness of the writer’s. I find the moralizing most puzzling, especially because it makes me think I’m teaching a certain number of people who are a) hypocrites or b) lack the empathy to understand where other writers come from, even if they don’t agree with said writer. They use ad-hominem attacks. When I assign Graham’s essays “What You’ll Wish You’d Known” and “What You Can’t Say,” a surprisingly large number of students say things like, “Who is this guy?”

When I tell them something along the lines of, “He started an early Internet store generator called Viaweb and now writes essays and an early-stage startup investment program,” their follow-up questions are usually a bit incoherent but boils down to a real question: Who gives him the authority to speak to us? They’re used to reading much-lauded if often boring writers in school. When I say something like, “Who cares who he is?” or “Shouldn’t we judge people based on their writing, not on their status?” they eye me suspiciously, like six-year olds might eye an eight-year old who casts aspersions on the Tooth Fairy.

They’ve apparently been trained by school to think status counts for a lot, and status usually means being a) old, b) dead, c) critically acclaimed by some unknown critical body, and d) between hard or soft covers, ideally produced by a major publisher. I’m not again any of those things: many if not most of my favorite writers fit those criteria. But it’d be awfully depressing if every writer had to. More importantly, assuming those are the major criteria for good writing is fairly bogus since most old dead critically acclaimed writers who are chiefly found between hard covers were once young firebrands shaking up a staid literary, social, political, or journalistic establishment with their shockingly fresh prose and often degenerate ideas. If we want to figure out who the important dead people will be in the future, we need some way of assessing living writers right now. We need something like taste, which is incredibly hard to teach. Most schools don’t even bother: they rely on weak fallback criteria that are wrapped up in status. I’d like my students to learn how to do better, no matter how hard.

Some of the “Who is this guy?” questions regarding Graham come from a moralizing perspective: students think or imply that someone who publishes writing through means other than books are automatically somehow lesser writers than those whose work is published primarily between hard covers (Graham published Hackers & Painters, as well as technical books, but the students aren’t introduced to him in that fashion; I actually think it useful not to mention those books, in order to present the idea that writing published online can be valid and useful).

Anyway, trying to get students to write analytically—to be able to understand and explain a subject before they develop emotional or ethical reactions to it—is really, incredibly difficult (Allitt mentions this too). And having them construct and defend thesis statements seems to help this process. Few students understand that providing analysis and interpretation is a better, subtler way of eventually convincing others of whatever emotional or ethical point of view you might hold. They want to skip the analysis and interpretation and go straight to signaling what kind of person they want the reader to imagine them to be.

Not all students have all these problems, and I can think of at least one student who didn’t have any of them, and probably another dozen or so (out of about 350) who had none or very few of these problems when they began class. I’m dealing with generalizations that don’t apply to each individual student. But class requires some level of generalization: 20 to 30 students land in a room with me for two and a half hours per week, and I, like all instructors, have to choose some level of baseline knowledge and expectation and some level of eventual mastery, while at the same time ensuring that writing assignments are hard enough to be a challenge and stretch one’s abilities while not being so hard that they can’t be completed. When I see problems like the ones described throughout this essay, I realize the kinds of things I should focus on—and I also realize why teachers do the things they do the way they do them, instead of doing some of the things Graham implies.

Reading Allitt makes me realize I’m not alone, and he has the same issues in history I have in English. His other problems—like having students who “almost all use unnecessarily complicated language”—also resonate; I talk a lot about some of the best and pithiest writing advice I’ve ever read (“Omit unnecessary words“), but that advice is much easier to state than implement (my preceding sentence began life saying, “much easier to say than to implement,” but I realized I hadn’t followed my own rule).

Graham again:

I’m sometimes accused of meandering. In defend-a-position writing that would be a flaw. There you’re not concerned with truth. You already know where you’re going, and you want to go straight there, blustering through obstacles, and hand-waving your way across swampy ground. But that’s not what you’re trying to do in an essay. An essay is supposed to be a search for truth. It would be suspicious if it didn’t meander.

But defend-a-position essays, if they’re taught and written well, shouldn’t be completely opposed to meandering, and they’re not about “blustering through obstacles.” They’re about considering what might be true, possible objections to it, addressing those questions, building roads over “swamp ground,” changing your mind if necessary, and so on—eventually getting to something like truth. In Graham’s conception of defend-a-position essays, the result is probably going to be lousy. The same is likely to be true of students who are taught the “hand-waving your way” method of writing. They should be taught that, if they discover their thesis is wrong, they should change their thesis and paper via the magic of editing. I think Graham is really upset about the quality of teaching.

Thesis statements also prevent aimless wandering. Graham says that “The Meander (aka Menderes) is a river in Turkey. As you might expect, it winds all over the place. But it doesn’t do this out of frivolity. The path it has discovered is the most economical route to the sea.” Correct. But students do this out of frivolity and tend to get nowhere. Students don’t discover “the most economical route to the sea;” they don’t have a route at all. They’re more like Israelites wandering in the desert. Or a body of water that simply drains into the ground.

Why literature?


It’s no wonder if this [writing essays about literature] seems to the student a pointless exercise, because we’re now three steps removed from real work: the students are imitating English professors, who are imitating classical scholars, who are merely the inheritors of a tradition growing out of what was, 700 years ago, fascinating and urgently needed work.

We may have gotten to teaching students how to write through literature via the means Graham describes, but I don’t think the practice persists solely because of the history. It persists because teaching through literature offers a couple of major conveniences: literature can be studied as a self-contained object via close reading and offers a narrower focus for students than larger subjects that require more background.

The rise of literature in university departments started in the nineteenth century and really took off in the first half of the twentieth. It was helped enormously by the rise of “close reading,” a method that had two major advantages: the trappings of rigor and a relative ease of application.

The “trappings of rigor” part is important because English (and writing) needed to look analytical and scientific; Louis Menand covers this idea extensively in a variety of forums, including The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University, where he says that the argument “that there is such a thing as specifically literary language, and that literary criticism provides an analytical toolbox for examining it—was the basis for the New Criticism’s claim to a place in the structure of the research university.” So students look at literature because teachers and professors believe there is “specifically literary language” that’s different from other kinds of language. I used to not think so. Now I’m not so sure. After having students try to write analyses of various kinds of nonfiction, I can see the attraction in teaching them fiction that doesn’t have a specific message it’s trying to impart, primarily because a lot of students simply don’t have sufficient background knowledge to add anything to most of the nonfiction they read. They don’t read nonfiction very carefully, which means they have trouble making any statements other than bald assertion and frequently saying things that be countered through appeals to the text itself. Getting them to read it carefully through the asking of detailed questions is both hard and tedious.

Enter close reading. It supplies literature with a rationale, as stated above, but it also works pretty well when used in classrooms. As a method, it only requires knowledge of the tool and some text to apply it on. Like literature. To do close reading, you have to know you should pay attention to the text and how its writer or speaker is using the language it does. From there, the text becomes what Umberto Eco calls “a machine conceived for eliciting interpretations” in a way that a lot of nonfiction isn’t.

Paul Graham’s essay “What You’ll Wish You’d Known,” which I teach in my first unit, almost always generates vastly worse papers than James Baldwin’s short story “Sonny’s Blues” because Graham has deliberately covered most of the interesting territory relating to his subject. “Sonny’s Blues,” on the other hand, is just trying to tell a story, and the possible meanings of that story extend incredibly far outward, and they can be generated through close readings and relatively little other knowledge. Students who want to discuss “What You’ll Wish You’d Known” intelligently need a vast amount of life experience and other reading to even approach it cogently.

Students who want to discuss “Sonny’s Blues” intelligently need to pay attention to how the narrator shifts over the course of the story, how sound words recur, what music might mean, and a host of other things that are already mostly contained in the story. Students seem to have much more difficulty discovering this. When I teach Joyce Carol Oates’ short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”, students almost never realize how the story subtly suggests that Connie is actually in a dream that plays out her anxieties regarding puberty, adulthood, and encroaching sexuality. It offers a lot more substance for discussion and decent papers than Graham’s essays and a lot of other nonfiction.

Perhaps the bad papers on Graham are my own fault, but I’ve tried a lot of ways to get students to write better papers on nonfiction, usually without much success. I’ve begun to suspect they’re just not ready. Students can be taught close reading that, in an ideal world, then gets applied to nonfiction. The reading of literature, in other words, is upwind of the reading of other kinds of nonfiction, however useful or interesting those other kinds of nonfiction might be. If you’re dealing with not-very-bright high school teachers and students who know even less than college students, the advantages of close reading literature as a method are magnified.

This is a relatively new affair, too; here’s Louis Menand discussing where English departments came from and how T.S. Eliot influenced them:

The English department is founded on the belief that people need to be taught how to read literature. This is not a self-evident proposition. Before there were English departments, people read stories, poems, and plays without assuming that special training was required. But most English professors think that people don’t intuitively get the way that literary writing works. Readers think that stories and poems are filled with symbols that ‘stand for’ something, or that the beliefs expressed in them are the author’s own, or that there is a hidden meaning they are supposed to find. They are unable to make sense of statements that are not simple assertions of fact. People read literature too literally.

Now, maybe people don’t “need to be taught how to read literature” as literature. But they do need to be taught how to read closely, because most people are really bad at it, and literature offers advantages to doing so.

Most students don’t have very good reading skills. They can’t synthesize information from books and articles effectively. So if you turn them loose on a library without direction, they’ll dutifully look some stuff up, and you’ll get back a lot of papers with citations from pages three to nine. Not very many cite page 221. And the citations they have feel random, rather than cohesive. In a structured class, one can spend a lot of time close reading: what does the author mean here? Why this sentence, why this turn of phrase? How is the piece structured? If it’s a story, who’s speaking? These skills are hard to build—I’m still building mine—and most freshmen simply don’t have them, and they don’t have the energy to engage with writing on its own terms in an unstructured environment.

Giving them a topic and telling them to write is akin to taking a random suburbanite, dropping them in northern Canada, and wishing them luck in finding their way back to civilization. Sure, a few hardy ones will make it. But to make sure most make it, you’ll have to impart a lot of skills first. That’s what good high school and undergrad classes should do. The key word in the preceding sentence, of course, is “good:” lots of humanities classes are bad and don’t teach much of anything, which gives the humanities themselves a bad rap, as people recall horrific English or history teachers. But one bad example doesn’t mean the entire endeavor is rotten, even if the structure of schools isn’t conducive to identifying and rewarding good teachers of the sort who will teach writing well.

Bad Teaching and the Real Problem with Literature

English, like most subjects, is easy to do badly. Most English teachers teach their subjects poorly; that’s been my experience, anyway, and it seems to be the experience of most people in school. I’m not sure broadening the range of subjects will help all that much if the teacher himself is lousy, or uninterested in class, or otherwise mentally absent.

It’s also easy to understand why English teachers eventually come to scorn their students: the students aren’t perfect, have interests of their own, aren’t really willing to grant you the benefit of the doubt, aren’t interested in your subject, and don’t understand your point of view. Notice that last one: students don’t understand the teacher’s point of view, but after a while the teacher stops trying to understand the students’s point of view. “What?” the teacher thinks. “Not everyone finds The Tempest and Middlemarch as fascinating as I do?” Er, no. And that kind of thing bleeds into papers. The world might be a better place if teachers could choose more of their own material; I’ve read most of Middlemarch and find it pretty damn tedious. Perhaps giving teachers more autonomy to construct their own curriculum around works students like better would solve some of the literature problem. But if the median student doesn’t read anything for pleasure, what then?

Too many teachers also don’t have a sense of openness and possibility to various readings. They don’t have the deft touch necessary to apply both rigor and openness to their own readings and students’s readings. Works of art don’t have a single meaning (and if they did, they’d be rather boring). But that doesn’t equate to “anything can mean anything and everything is subjective.” In teaching English, which is often the process of teaching interpretation, one has to balance these two scales. No one balances them perfectly, but too many teachers don’t seem to balance them at all, or acknowledge that they exist, or care that they exist. So you get those essays that find, “say, that Ahab in Moby Dick was a Christ-like figure.” Which is okay and probably true, but I wouldn’t want to read 30 papers that come to that conclusion, and I wouldn’t order my students to come to that conclusion. I’d want them to figure out what’s going on in the novel (then again, in composition classes I teach a lot of stuff outside the realm of “English literature”).

Not being a bogus teacher is really hard. Teachers aren’t incentivized to not be bogus: most public high school teachers effectively can’t be fired after two or three years, thanks to teachers’ unions, except in the case of egregious misconduct. Mediocrity, tedium, torpor, and the like aren’t fireable or punishable offenses. Students merely have to suffer through until they get to college, although some get lucky and find passionate, engaged teachers. But it’s mostly a matter of luck, and teaching seems to actively encourage the best to leave and the worst to stay. Even at college, however, big public schools incentivize professors and graduate students to produce research (or, sometimes “research,” but that’s a topic for another essay), not to teach. So it’s possible to go through 16 years of education without encountering someone who is heavily incentivized to teach well. Some people teach well because they care about teaching well—I’d like to think I’m one—but again, that’s a matter of luck, not a matter of systematic efforts to improve the education experience for the maximum number of students.

Teachers can, and do, however, get in trouble for being interesting. So there’s a systematic incentive to be boring.

In an essay that used to be called “Good Bad Attitude” and now goes by “The Word ‘Hacker,’” Graham says that “Hackers are unruly. That is the essence of hacking. And it is also the essence of American-ness.” Writers are unruly too. At least the good ones are. But many teachers hate unruliness and love conformity. So they teach writing (and reading—you can’t really do one without the other) on the factory model, where a novel or whatever goes in one end and is supposed to emerge on the other like a car, by making sure every step along the way is done precisely the same way. But writing (and, to some extent, reading) doesn’t really work that way, and students can sense as much in some inchoate way. Graham, too, senses that the way we teach writing and reading is busted, and he’s right that we’d be better off encouraging students to explore their own interests more. That’s probably less important than cultivating a sense of openness, explicitly telling students when you’re ordering them to do something for training-wheel purposes, admitting what you don’t know, acknowledging that there’s an inherent level of subjectivity to writing, and working on enumerating principles that can be violated instead of iron-clad rules that are almost certainly wrong.

Most students aren’t interested in English or writing; one can do a lot to make them interested, but it’s necessarily imperfect, and a lot of classrooms are unsatisfying to very bright people (like Graham and, I would guess, a lot of his readers), but that’s in part because classrooms are set up to hit the broad middle. And the broad middle needs thesis statements, wouldn’t know how to start with a wide-open prompt, and aren’t ready for the world of writing that Graham might have in mind.

While a series of historical accidents might’ve inspired the teaching we get now, I don’t think they’re solely responsible for the continuation of teaching literature. Teaching literature and close reading through literature continue to serve pedagogical purposes. So Graham isn’t wrong, but he’s missing a key piece of the story.

Writing this essay

When you’re thinking about a topic, start writing. I began this essay right after breakfast; I started thinking about it while making eggs and thinking about the day’s teaching. I had to interrupt it to go to class and do said teaching, but I got the big paragraph about “status” and a couple notes down. If you’re not somewhere you can write, use a notebook—I like pretentious Rhodia Webbies, but any notebook will do. If you don’t have a notebook, use a cell phone. Don’t have a phone? Use a napkin. Whatever. Good ideas don’t always come to you when you’re at your computer, and they often come while you’re doing something else. Paul Graham gets this: in “The Top Idea in Your Mind,” he wrote:

I realized recently that what one thinks about in the shower in the morning is more important than I’d thought. I knew it was a good time to have ideas. Now I’d go further: now I’d say it’s hard to do a really good job on anything you don’t think about in the shower.

Everyone who’s worked on difficult problems is probably familiar with the phenomenon of working hard to figure something out, failing, and then suddenly seeing the answer a bit later while doing something else. There’s a kind of thinking you do without trying to. I’m increasingly convinced this type of thinking is not merely helpful in solving hard problems, but necessary. The tricky part is, you can only control it indirectly.

Most students don’t do this and don’t think this way. If they did, or could be instructed to, I suspect Graham’s ideas would work better.

Knowing it

Students themselves, if they’re intellectually honest, intuit a lot of the advice in this essay. One recent paper writer said in a reflection that: “My first draft does not have a direction or a point, but my final draft does.” Not all writing needs a point, but if you read student writing, you find that very little of it lacks a point because the author is trying to discover something or explore something about the world. It lacks a point because it’s incoherent or meandering. Again: that’s not me trying to be a jerk, but rather a description of what I see in papers.

Here’s another: “You were correct in telling me that writing a paper by wrapping evidence around big ideas rather than literary analysis would be difficult, and I found that out the hard way.” These writers could be trying to suck up or tell me what I want to hear, but enough have said similar things in a sufficient number of different contexts to make me think their experiences are representative. And I offer warnings, not absolute rules: if students want to write “big idea” papers, I don’t order them not to, though many suffer as a result. Suffering can lead to growth. A few thrive. But such students show why English instructors offer the kinds of guidance and assignments they do. These can be parodied, and we’ve all had lousy English classes taught by the incompetent, inept, and burned out.

If I had given students assignments closer to the real writing that Graham does, most simply wouldn’t be able to do them. But I am pushing students in the direction of real writing—which is part of the reason I tell the ones who want to really write to read “The Age of the Essay.” I love the essay: it’s only some of the reasoning about why schools operate the way they do that bothers me, and even then I only came to discover why things are done the way they are by doing them.

If you think you can teach writing better, I encourage you to go try it, especially in a public school or big college. I thought I could. Turned out to be a lot harder than I thought. Reality has a surprising amount of detail.

EDIT: In A Jane Austen Education, William Deresiewicz writes:

My professor taught novels, and Catherine was mistaught by them, but neither he nor Austen was finally concerned with novels as such. Learning to read, they both knew, means learning to live. Keeping your eyes open when you’re looking at a book is just a way of teaching yourself to keep them open all the time.

Novels are tricky in this way: they’re filled with irony, which, at its most basic, means saying one thing while meaning something else, or saying multiple things and meaning multiple things. That’s part of what “learning to live” consists of, and fiction does a unique job of training people to keep their eyes “open all the time.” Most teachers are probably bad at conveying this, but I do believe that this idea, or something like it, lies underneath novels as tools for teaching students how to live in a way that essays and other nonfiction probably doesn’t do.

A lot of people seem very eager to stop learning how to live as quickly as possible. They might have the hardest time of all.

22 responses

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  2. “I’d love to get well-developed essays on baseball, economics, and fashion. But most students either don’t appear to have the kind of passion that would be necessary to write such essays or don’t appear able to express it.”

    And they have passion for Dickens?

    “I’ve been implicitly testing this theory for the past three and a half years: on my assignment sheets, I always include a line that tells students something like this: they can write on “a book or subject of your own choosing. If you write on a book or idea of your own, you must clear your selection with me first.” Almost none exercise this choice.”

    That’s not testing whether students have knowledge and passion. That’s testing whether students want to challenge their teacher. “Do you want to write about one of these recommended books, or do you want to petition your grader to do something you want to do instead?”


    • Common, he explained pretty well why use of literature. It is not less interesting then other topics to most students, because no topic is interesting to all of them. And mostly it is self contained and does not require external knowledge.

      As for choosing topic, I hated “pick your own topic” assignments, because picking the topic was harder then writing it. I would not be afraid to “petition” teacher, teachers I knew did not took assigned books that personally. I was not experienced enough to guess which topic is easy to write about and which is hard. Which means that I would start topic and find out it is too hard to write about it, rinse and repeat, waste a lot of time.

      I had passions when I was young, but having passion for something and wanting/being able to write about it is not the same. I would not want to write essay on my hobbies, that would be too hard and too personal anyway. Plus, most kids do not have strong hobbies, most kids sorta kinda like many different things or try this and that without committing themselves to one strong passion.

      I did not wanted to write, did not liked it, period, no matter what topic. Of course, it needs to be learned anyway, but do not assume that the problem is just teachers bad topic selection. It is not.


  3. “If you write on a book or idea of your own, you must clear your selection with me first.”

    This is just a signpost that says “Here be dragons.” What purpose does it serve that couldn’t be addressed out of band if a problem occurs?


    • What purpose does it serve that couldn’t be addressed out of band if a problem occurs?

      That’s a fair question. I’m mostly trying to prevent students from picking very obvious stuff (Harry Potter) or plainly badly written stuff (like Dan Brown or Twilight), and I’m trying to make sure they have some kind of focus and direction. Students sometimes want to write about vague, abstract concepts (“love”) and need grounding, direction, or narrowing. One time a student ignored this instruction and wrote what was effectively a summary of some bizarre self-help book; the results weren’t good, and that was the exact sort of thing I try to prevent.

      By the time I’m aware of a problem, the student has usually invested a lot of time in a draft or drafts; I want them to avoid wasting time and, if they do write bad papers because they don’t have any help in structuring or thinking about their work, to at the very least not blame me.


  4. As a lover of writing & thought and also a teacher (of mostly adults), I have one question for you:

    Have you tried non-fiction other than Graham’s? (Say, what about Sarah Vowell, for example? Or Diane Ackerman? Nassim Talib? Or heck, why not Why Don’t Students Like School? It’s a great book and maybe they’d be interested since it’s a topic close to their bored little hearts.)

    Anyway, you’ve probably noticed with close reading that Graham’s essays are almost entirely declarative. He tells, almost never shows.

    With Paul Graham, everything is a statement, even the questions are really statements in disguise. He may talk about meandering, but really he doesn’t meander at all. His writing dictates, it doesn’t explore. And when he accuses thesis-driven essays of “blustering through” and “hand-waving”, it’s rather funny, isn’t it?

    That’s exactly what Paul Graham does, all the time. With all those statements, he doesn’t leave any room in his essays for the reader.

    Added “bonus”: As a narrator, he never changes or grows, which makes it exceedingly boring for the reader unless they have a feeling of personal vindication over what he’s stating. (E.g., the reason you didn’t like school was because you are smart. As a hacker, you are god’s gift to the earth, etc.)

    It’s like going to your boring grandfather’s house and being lectured to.

    (Fun fact: so is listening to Paul Graham speak live. He just reads an essay. I’m not kidding.)

    Meanwhile changing and growing is the raison d’être of fiction, as you described yourself when you compared his essay to Sonny’s Blues.

    Honestly, I’m not surprised that your students don’t like it. Maybe one of the reasons they ask “Who is this guy?” is because that essay doesn’t even bother to establish sympathy or credibility. No “I was once a confused blah blah and learned the hard way blah blah.” No “Gee, isn’t it aggravating when adults tell you what to do with your life? Wellllll…” He presumes that the reader will hang on every word for no other reason than that the writer is Paul Graham.

    The more you analyze Paul Graham, the more obnoxious his writing turns out to be!

    So please don’t throw the non-fiction baby out with the Paul Graham bathwater.


    • > With Paul Graham, everything is a statement, even the questions are really statements in disguise. He may talk about meandering, but really he doesn’t meander at all. His writing dictates, it doesn’t explore. And when he accuses thesis-driven essays of “blustering through” and “hand-waving”, it’s rather funny, isn’t it?

      That’s ‘classic style’ for you (; Graham isn’t Montaigne and his essays aren’t that kind of essay.

      When I was younger, I greatly appreciated things written in the classic style; I had enough to learn without trying to examine or ponder every bit. Now that I’m older and have more of an overview of things and can fit facts into their place without being told, the classic style has begun to bother me more: I wonder what caveats or contradicting pieces of evidence the author decided to not include, or worse, didn’t even think of.


      • That’s a good essay on classic style, thanks.

        A good writer could write in “classic style” and still be engaging. Paul Graham is not a good writer.

        If the goal of “classic style” is clarity and simplicity, that doesn’t mean one can achieve it simply by using simple sentences as statements. Clarity often requires metaphor and examination, and most of all, humanity. The “classic style” as interpreted by Paul Graham is basically machine code for humans. He sets out a set of binary declarations for our compilers to crunch.

        If the goal of an essay is to reach teenagers and help them live better lives, then one has to figure out what makes teenagers listen. Which is, of course, why Paul Graham is not only a bad writer but also a bad public speaker. Alas.


      • Paul Graham is a good writer by many measures. He’s expressive, he has interesting ideas, he’s persuasive, he’s accessible.

        He has shortcomings, as we all do.

        Calling him “not a good writer” adds nothing to the conversation but a contentious tone.


  5. Fantastic essay.

    I really liked the quote “My first draft does not have a direction or a point, but my final draft does.”

    I don’t like to be a grammar nazi, but since this is an essay on writing, and I have an eye for editing, I thought I might suggest a couple changes:

    lie six-year olds might -> like
    don’t have anything background knowledge -> any
    bald assertion and frequently say things -> saying
    more difficulty discover this -> discovering
    kind of thing bleed into papers -> bleeds
    But writing (and, to some extent, reading) don’t really work that way, -> doesn’t
    (This last one is up for grabs, but the sentence should be read without the parenthesis to see how it should go.)

    Loved the topic and the quality of your writing! Excellent work!


  6. I love what you have to say about students writing on their own topics. I’ll have to weigh in on the point in my life where I had actually developed enough momentum to have the gumption to propose my own topic for a paper, and it ended up being the best and most important paper of my formal education. It was this important not because of actually writing it, but how the process of investing myself, soul and body, into writing the paper changed me for the rest of my life.

    I was a senior in college, and the time came to write an undergrad thesis. Most of the topics the other Rhetoric kids were writing bored me to tears. I couldn’t have cared less about the things they were analyzing. The only thing I was interested in exploring the merits of at 22 was the PUA, or Pick-Up Artist movement.

    The problem was shopping this topic around to a lot of academic and feminist leaning professors. I’m not decrying feminism, that’s ignorant, I’m just saying that I was trying to write my thesis on a group of men who were systematically training themselves to get good at getting laid. Assuming that consent was always present in whatever act happened didn’t prevent my professors from kicking me out of their offices one by one. I finally found an advisor willing to advice my topic after many a rejection.

    The institution was not interested in the analysis I wanted to perform. And I wasn’t surprised. Not once in my entire education had I felt like I could go off and have the autonomy to study, understand, and develop expertise in the topics that I was fascinated by, and there were plenty.

    Yes, the structure of repeatedly writing essays that are formulaic is important development the same way that a martial arts practice is. However, at some point we have to examine whether we’re training kids to remember that nobody gives them the permission to learn about what they’re interested in. Only they can do that.

    I can guarantee you that students look at your free form option regularly and are intimidated by past experience past the point of being willing to defend their desire to write the paper they want to, so they are scared into conformity. A bias against “big idea” papers is evident to students who may not produce the best work on the first run, but if given the chance to hone the paper with guidance for an entire semester, as I was able to with my thesis, then the result would be much more satisfying for all involved, teacher and student.

    I mean only to give the other side of the story. I’m recent enough from college, (I’m 25) and I have worked with over 100 startup entrepreneurs, in the tech field, like Graham, since graduating. I understand the frustration that he has with education. It didn’t do much to prep me for the work that I love doing these days, and my professors didn’t have much of a concept of a profession outside academia.

    My final word will be one of thanks. Your willingness to address and defend the work you do means that you’re a better teacher than 95% of the rest of them. I applaud your willingness to honestly examine your life’s work, admirable and necessary, and then offer a solid defense. I only wish all early writers and entrepreneurs would receive the opportunity to be taught by someone similar to you.

    Thank you.



    • Thanks for your comment! This: “It was this important not because of actually writing it, but how the process of investing myself, soul and body, into writing the paper changed me for the rest of my life” is what I’m shooting for in my assignments.

      If you’re interested in problems with academic feminism, see Who Stole Feminism?: How Women Have Betrayed Women by Christina Sommers.

      I only wish all early writers and entrepreneurs would receive the opportunity to be taught by someone similar to you.

      One problem is that very few academics / teachers appear interested in learning about and/or figuring out the problems posed by the “real” world. So a lot of them / us fail to realize that a) what we’re doing might not be that important and b) the kind of writing we’re assignment might do a poor job of preparing students for the kind of writing they’ll eventually be doing. I can fix that on an individual level, but it’s very hard to propagate these ideas from me to any kind of larger body or group.


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  8. After having students try to write analyses of various kinds of nonfiction, I can see the attraction in teaching them fiction that doesn’t have a specific message it’s trying to impart, primarily because a lot of students simply don’t have sufficient background knowledge to add anything to most of the nonfiction they read. They don’t read nonfiction very carefully, which means they have trouble making any statements other than bald assertion and frequently saying things that be countered through appeals to the text itself.

    This could be simply because they haven’t read enough nonfiction. I don’t know what sort of environment you teach in, but I suspect that teachers of lower grades focus almost entirely on fiction, so when you introduce students to nonfiction, it forces them to think in new ways. Even if they don’t have any original ideas other than “bald assertions,” the very act of reading nonfiction should stretch their minds.

    It sounds like you’re saying, “They don’t have much experience with nonfiction, so there’s no point trying to give them experience with nonfiction.” Yes, their responses to writings are non well-formed, but the only way to write better is to practice.

    I may be off base or missing something, as I haven’t ever taught an English class, but those are my thoughts.


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