On English Papers, Intention, and Right Answers

I was frustrated. REALLY upset. It was 4th grade, and I was working on my very first book report. When I got the assignment, I'd been pretty excited: Write three pages summarizing a book you have read. This sounded awesome for two reasons: 1. I would have been reading a book anyway, so it wasn't even extra work, and 2. There was no possible way to mess it up. There was no WRONG answer. I liked math, but I had a tendency to do things quickly and end up with the wrong answer at least once or twice on a test. This bothered me because I did, actually, know how to do the problem. I'd just gotten careless. But this? There was no way I could get it wrong. I'd read the book, after all. The only thing left was to summarize the story. So I sat myself in front of our brand new Apple IIe and got to work. That's when things got dicey. I wrote one page, and then another, and another. How could three pages be enough for anyone to explain what had happened in an ENTIRE book? And how could I explain one scene without the one that preceded it? My book report grew. And grew. And grew. I don't remember how many pages it was when I finished. Let's say more than ten and fewer than twenty. Either way, I'd learned my lesson (though I'm not sure this was the particular lesson my 4th grade teacher had intended): there are so many moving parts, so many pieces of a story that go into making it work, that to leave out anything--even the tiniest detail--made a difference.

I also learned the correct definition of the word 'summary,' but summaries weren't what my teachers wanted by the time I got to middle school (that would be 6th through 8th grade in my Jersey suburb). By then, the teachers expected more. They wanted an argument. An opinion. A point of view. In short, they wanted An Actual English Paper. So I set about trying to write one. It was fun. After all, I liked to write. And it's not like I was given that many chances to write what I wanted. Sometimes we were assigned poems and one time we even did a whole unit on the haiku, but the majority of our writing assignments were papers. So I made them creative. I used extended metaphors and similes at will. Of course I threw in some quotes and an opinion along the way, but for me, the fun was in the language. That, I thought, was why I got good grades. That was why I smiled and other people groaned when they saw the words "paper" or "essay" on the blackboard. Because they didn't like to write. And good writing was what made a good English paper. Right?


Pretty words wouldn't get me a good grade with Mr. Keane. Bow-tied and blazered, broad-shouldered and white-haired, with a habit of adjusting his glasses with his middle finger, Mr. Keane was my freshman English teacher. He was also the first person to introduce me to the Five Paragraph Essay. It was in Mr. Keane's class that I read A Separate Peace and Catcher in the Rye. It was in Mr. Keane's class that I learned creative writing is fine, but structure, coherence, and--most of all--logic, make a good English paper; an introduction in which the argument is presented; three paragraphs containing three distinct points that support the argument, with quotes, of course; a conclusion, in which the argument is restated, the points summarized, and the final opinion clarified. I still snuck in extended metaphors where I could, especially in the introductions and conclusions, but Mr. Keane called me on them if they weren't crystal clear, or in service of the argument.

Mr. Keane taught me how to write An Actual English Paper.

I used his technique throughout high school and into college, with pretty excellent results. By the time I was a senior, I'd even gotten cocky. I thought that with a bunch of quotes and a bunch of pages, I could prove anything, about any book. Sometimes it even worked. Sometimes I decided what I was going to write about on the first page of the book: I saw one scene with a window, then circled every scene with a window throughout the rest of the book. At the end, I put them all together: I saw the character outside of the window at first, through the window next, and breaking the window at the end. I could make an argument out of that, of course I could! But sometimes it didn't work. Sometimes I forced it. Especially on my thesis (which is basically the longest English paper you could possibly imagine). And it showed. I didn't do poorly, but I didn't get the glowing reception I thought I would.

For a while I was angry about how I did on my thesis. I blamed my advisor. I blamed my subject. I blamed the faculty who had graded it. After all, I had used the technique! I had been logical! And I'd even made it sound pretty! (Even then, I couldn't let the pretty go.) But then I graduated, got a job, and moved to New York City. I forgot all about my thesis. Until I started writing a book myself. After months hunched over my computer, it came back to me--that very simple thing I'd realized way back in fourth grade: each scene, each action, each sentence is there for a reason. The author has painstakingly put each element in its place with purpose, and intention. Nothing is superfluous. Nothing is a mistake. Not after years of writing and revising and editing and copyediting. The author is saying something very specific in each paragraph, page, and phrase of a book.

It took me until very recently to put it all together: There are no wrong answers on English papers, but there ARE weak arguments. There are weak arguments because there are not enough quotes from the book to support an opinion. And there aren't enough quotes from the book to support an opinion, because it isn't a point the author was trying to make. It wasn't the author's intention.

Why am I telling you this, you ask? Because maybe you're one of those people who groan when you see the word "paper" on the blackboard. Maybe you think you're not a good writer, and that English papers were put on this earth to torture you until you tumble under the weight of a pile of words that will crush you and everything you ever felt. But it doesn't have to be that way. Writing an English paper is about clarity and logic. It's about being attentive and aware of what's happening in a book. Each detail, each scene, each piece of dialogue is there for a reason. The author is talking to you. Are you listening? Are you paying attention? Because if you do, I promise you'll find patterns and sequences (sound familiar math people?)--patterns and sequences, put together by logic, that will tell you something. And when you hear what it is, you won't groan, you'll smile.


p.s. If this helped you, I'd love to know about it! Leave a comment below!