My high school writing instruction began as my grade nine English teacher preached the importance of the PPE approach: point, proof, elaboration; the style that mandates paragraphs must have a central argument, supporting details and a sentence or two that supports the main idea. While I have the greatest respect for formulas and pre-defined essay conventions—I struggled with following this inhibiting structure to explain my insights.
I found this structure of writing and paragraphing to be restrictive, leaving little room to explore bigger ideas, and bigger contradictions that came to light in my work. I often wrote short literary analysis pieces in response to a novel or short story’s form, a structure that I became very accustomed to. The proof that I selected for my analyses I argued, stood on its own, requiring no explanation of how my evidence fits into the work as a whole. However, my teachers tended to disagree. I struggled with being asked to defend my proof’s validity; when it was apparent what point I was trying to illustrate. I found that any supplemental explanation was repetitive, and it called my credibility as an analyst into question. However, to stay within the confines of academic writing, and subsequently, to get a good grade, I haphazardly and arbitrarily threw in unrelated arguments, to meet a word count, and to receive a checkmark on “the rubric” that examined my knowledge of the “formal literary analysis genre.”
As time progressed, and I conformed to the academy’s rigorous demands on presentation and structure, my critical thinking abilities and intellectual independence grayed, into no more than a distant memory. Instead, I became quite adept at understanding the secret thoughts of what my “sage on the stage” saw in a piece of text, and soon enough, my interpretations matched theirs. I maintained this philosophy until I graduated from high-school, and I’m excited to start fresh this fall—looking to my abilities as a writer to frame my ideas.
After I had learned the art of navigating academic waters, I was convinced that to be successful in academic writing, one must use jargony words, and inverted sentence constructions, flipping objects and verbs, and subjects, into no more than a convoluted mess. When I began writing, my English teachers encouraged me to go back to the basics, developing incredible ideas (their ideas, of which I liberally “borrowed”) with simple, and easy to follow analyses, framed in light of fluid transitions. With this approach, I found that my simple, easy to follow sentences were patronizing, and condescending, not the tone that I was looking for. I internalized the notion that I needed to “dumb down” my writing, for the sake of everyone else’s benefit and question my reader’s intellectual capacity for reason. Several discussions later, I realized that my “borrowed” analyses offered something insightful and compelling and that effective writing asks authors to raise the quality of their argument—not the quantity of jargony words and “creatively-complex sentence constructions.
But, jargony sentence conventions and essay structure were the least of my worries, as my writing instruction advanced. I was at the point in my writing career in which I was asked to examine a text’s content, in light of its form—what my teacher and colleagues called “SAYS/DOES” analyses. This point in my writing career asked me to think for myself, using schools of literary criticism, as the basis for my argument. I enjoyed literary criticism, and I liked both the flexibility and the rigour that schools of literary criticism gave me to springboard an effective and cogent argument. Now, the struggle here was making something meaningful out of new-found terminology of “feminist literary criticism” and “Marxist theory.”
With university applications in, and supplementary applications complete—I found myself struggling to meet the challenge of my last English course. This course was organized differently, a course in which one had to hope that their analyses were enough to pass the judgemental gaze of our teacher—a brilliant woman, whose assignments were cryptic and “open-ended”—leaving the world of analysis open to whoever was prepared to enter its fiery world. It was in this course that I struggled the most—seeking for perfection, and never doing enough to attain it. I wrote marvelous analyses, sprinkled with rhetoric—the perfect balance between being formal and being readable. But, I found myself doubting my abilities. I would slave over papers weeks before they were due; and then on deadline day, I furiously reviewed it, ensuring no semicolons were out of place. This process only convinced myself that I missed the essence of the text’s structure. Thus, I feverishly re-wrote in pursuit of perfection. Star Trek Voyager describes “survival as being insufficient,” my papers, I argued were inadequate, and superficial, offering nothing new to what had already been contributed in scholarly endeavours.
As the term ended, and I was accepted to my first choice school, I submitted my final paper with a bittersweet sense of haste. I was thankful to be nearing the end of my high school journey—embarking on an incredible journey that awaited me as university loomed. But, I still felt as though my written work was subpar, so much so that I re-wrote my final essay of grade twelve English, half-an-hour before it was to be turned in. My English teacher was aware that I felt inadequate about my writing, and she advised me to have confidence in my work, as a scholar, and that the purpose of any written assignment I submitted, was to seek something new and offer new insights—of which I did with every assignment. This particular teacher was unique—she didn’t believe that essay writing was a formula, rather, a form of interpretive art, and she suggested that equations only help to provide young writers a strong footing to push the envelope of their own thought process. She was in full support of literary analysis that coloured outside the lines, so long as it was grounded in strong textual evidence. But, she left me with a piece of advice that carries me forward into every writing task I undertake—all writing is a process in which self-doubt is encouraged. If you aren’t self-doubting your argument or capability, is one actually writing? Analysis and communication carried out haphazardly—only insults one’s capacity to think critically and enjoy life as it comes: all analyses must be carefully constructed and thoughtful; they are the foundation upon which one creates a better understanding of themselves and the world around them.
Consequently, it’s only fitting that my writing journey brings me to this moment in time, a time in which I explore new genres of academic writing—a new canvas, of sorts, where the formulas reign as true as that of a church bell chiming. But, I enter university, not in direct defiance of academic conventions and structure, but with an appreciation of how they have developed my writing capabilities. I’ve experienced the world of high school writing, and I’ve created beautiful works of art and offered insights beyond my wildest dreams. Now, as the next four years is positioned before me, I pick up my pen, and put ideas into sentences, sentences into paragraphs, and paragraphs into papers, hoping to make meaning of the content I’m presented with. It is my hope to develop strong writing habits in university, using formulas as a starting point, and then, as I progress throughout my undergrad, take more creative risks—writing outside of the confines of the academy’s structure—colouring, outside of the lines.