My Rules of Three For Teaching Writing

Anyone who’s studied writing knows the rule of three: basically, that things are more satisfying when they arrive in groups of three.

I haven’t found much to contradict this.

But I have found that applying the rule to teaching writing works well, too. I teach both creative writing and composition, and have different elements in my “rule of three” for each discipline. Here they are:

Creative Writing: Plot, Character, Style

I find that this triptych of advice is a pithy and useful way to focus writers at any level. Of course, even the youngest creative writing student knows that plot, character, and style each have loads associated with them. For example, it’s really lousy advice to just tell a student to work on style. What kind of style is the student gunning for? What techniques is the student using well or poorly? What kind of techniques are they not using at all, but could be?

Each of the three parts has hundreds or thousands of things to consider within it. That’s why writing takes so long to master.

But I do find plot, character, and style — with all their various complications — to be the three things a writer should be focusing on.

Notice the absence of theme. Lots of writers want a strong theme in their work, and that’s fine, but I really believe that paying attention to it while writing leads to heavy-handed or shoehorned in themes. If a writer does genuine work with the plot, characters, and style, then a theme will naturally appear.

Then there are other things not explicitly mentioned, a big one being setting. I put that under either plot or style, maybe even character depending how it’s used. Unlike theme, I think it is something writers should pay attention to, but since it’s often ancillary to the big three things I’ve named, we don’t get a rule of four.

Composition: Focus, Language, Structure

Similar to what’s above, each of these elements has plenty of complications that go along with it. But again, for the purposes of guiding a student, I think it’s a good way to get them focused on their work.

You could say that “language” and “style” are kind of the same, but comp. students tend to be at a lower level when I meet them (mostly freshman in college) than do my creative writing students, so the work is more fundamental in language. Similarly, with structure, my students tend to be learning how to put together an essay at all, let alone the nuances of one, so that’s where “structure” comes from.

Focus is the big thing, and the tough one for them. Students tend to think that a ten page essay is a lot bigger than it really is, that one can tackle far more in ten pages than they really can. Getting them to narrow the scope of the idea for the essay is difficult, but once students figure it out their essays leap forward in quality. In fact, a good focus tends to result in good language, which is a result of what Orwell said:

[The English language] becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible.

Once students have focused their thoughts, they’ve almost certainly clarified them, thereby reversing the vicious circle Orwell mentioned. The student’s thoughts are clear, which allows for clear language, which further propagates clear thought, and so on.

By no means are my writing rules of three the only way to teach, or the best way. But since groups of three go with the way our minds work, I have found that starting with them yields good results for many of my students, which is the only important goal when I step in front of the classroom anyway.

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