Can We Teach Writing Formulas Rhetorically?

By Jennifer Fletcher

Mark Twain writes in Tom Sawyer Abroad that a man who carries a cat by the tail gets “knowledge that was always going to be useful to him, and warn’t ever going to grow dim or doubtful.” Holistic scoring has been my cat-by-the-tail experience; I’ve learned things from reading thousands of student essays for district, state, and international writing exams that I could not have learned in any other way. And one of these painfully memorable lessons is that formulas can both help and hinder young writers.

If we chose to teach pre-fabricated structures—for instance, the reason-reason-counterargument essay I’ve repeatedly seen as a response to argument prompts on standardized tests—we can at least teach these structures conditionally. “Use only if appropriate” is the message students need to hear if they are going to be able to repurpose their learning for other situations. What matters is that students make their own strategic choices about structure, even if they occasionally choose a stock formula to organize their ideas. Being mindful of a writer’s options will assist students in the many situations in which the formulas they’ve learned no longer apply.

To do this, however, writers have to be able to go below the surface of a text and its rhetorical situation. They have to know how communication works. They need their own internalized understandings of a writer’s options as options, not just assignment directions. In a session I attended at the 2017 Convention of the National Teachers of English (NCTE), literacy scholar Michael Smith called out the importance of this explicit theoretical knowledge for transfer of learning. “Unless you can name it,” he said, “you can’t move it” (“Preparing Students for Tomorrow by Arguing Today”).

Writers also need to be mindful of the effects of our choices, formulaic or otherwise. If playing to our audience’s preference for a formula helps us achieve our purpose, so be it. One might argue that New York Times writers are sometimes formulaic (or at least predictable) in their organizational choices. I recently counted around a dozen op-ed pieces in which the third or fourth paragraph began with the word “but” or “yet,” signally an abrupt shift in the article’s direction. But even a formula should be deployed as a rhetorical choice, not a default response to a task.

The point is that if we want students to successfully navigate the diverse rhetorical situations they’ll encounter in their lives, they need to be aware of when and why they make particular choices as writers–including the choice to use a formula.

Jennifer Fletcher is a professor of English at California State University, Monterey Bay and a former high school teacher. You can contact her at or on Twitter @JenJFletcher.

Work Cited

Smith, Michael. “Preparing Students for Tomorrow by Arguing Today.” National Council of Teachers of English Annual Convention, 2017.

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