Writing Myths

Benet Donald Vincent, Formet Instructor at the School of Languages, Sabancı University, Istanbul, Turkey

BenetTeaching, like many other fields, is no stranger to persistent but misleading myths that have sprung from a certain, and at one time justificable reason or source, but have outlived the other conditions and theories that applied at the time of their inception. One that springs to mind is the idea that one must introduce new vocabulary without reference to the learner’s L1, which is strongly emphasized on certain teacher-training courses. This comes from practical considerations – not wanting the class to become dependent on speaking L1 in lessons, as well as certain theories of second language acquisition, but in fact use of L1 translations is unavoidable (Folse, 2004). The area of writing is no different from any other in this respect; there are numerous misconceptions about teaching and learning writing that seem to have emerged either from a now discredited, or at least adapted, theory or perhaps from an intuitive approach to teaching that has no particular theoretical or research grounding, and have stayed with us to this day. This article is an attempt to put one or two myths into perspective.

Myth 1: the formula essay is a good way of introducing students to academic writing

When I first met the formula, or three- to five-paragraph, essay it seemed like some alien form. A lot of the associated terminology – topic sentence, controlling idea, body paragraph and so on were completely foreign to me, the formula essay not having played any part in my educational experiences up to that point. Of course, to a new initiate, such a wealth of terminology seems mysterious and powerful and, as a result, unquestionably true. No doubt it is the same for students who experience this format for the first time as well. However, there is a good reason that I had had no exposure to this form before, despite writing many essays in school and in university; this form does not actually exist in the ‘real’ world of writing. It was in fact invented to help students from less privileged and/or immigrant backgrounds cope with the demands of writing in English in the United States some time in the early twentieth century (Grabe & Kaplan, 1996, p.84) [2].

The formula essay emerged from traditional, form-focused approaches to teaching writing (Grabe & Kaplan, 1996, p.86; Hyland, 2003, p.3) in which texts are presented ‘as empty jars, with predefined configurations into which content is poured’. Learners in this teaching paradigm would be expected to study the form of, for example a ‘compare-contrast essay’ (Johns, 1997, p.8; see also Hyland 2003, p.4) without reference to ‘the functions that these structures serve, writer or reader roles, context, topics or the many other factors that influence the nature of text … production’ (Johns, 1997, p.8). In short, adherence to the form was all important; content was relegated to a necessary inconvenience.

One argument that is used to justify the continued use of the formula essay is that it is a useful way of introducing students new to academic writing to the idea that writing has some kind of structure. However, what tends to be overlooked is that i) students will never have to write another essay again following a four-paragraph pattern and ii) when presented with only one writing format students will tend without evidence to the contrary to believe that this is the only format for academic essays.

Of course, as Johns points out (ibid.), focus on form is important for L2 writers, but this does not need to be at the expense a focus on other arguably equally important factors such as the writer’s purpose and communicative context (Hyland, 2003, pp.25-27; Johns, 1997, pp.51-52; Grabe & Kaplan, 1996, pp.106-111). One example of such an unbalanced focus is an emphasis on the use of ‘hedging’ without an accompanying explanation of why it is usual to hedge claims in academic writing, e.g. to protect oneself from criticism amongst one’s peers. It would be fair to say that it is widely accepted now that any separation of form and content is an artificial one; what you are writing about (and the reasons for writing, as well as the audience) will play a major part in the form that the piece of writing takes.

So, bearing all this in mind, why is the formula essay still apparently so prevalent as a sub-academic [3] form? I cannot speak for other contexts, but I may tentatively suggest that for our particular context, students are kept to a set formula not necessarily because it reflects writing that they will do later in their university careers, but to introduce them to the concept that academic writing often follows relatively set conventions or is at least clearly structured. But perhaps the biggest motivation for keeping to a formula is the belief that formula essays are relatively easy to mark, encouraging more reliable grades. What this effectively means is that the motivation for keeping an outmoded form of writing is based on teachers’ and not students’ needs [4].

Myth 2: there is one process that expert writers use and which holds true for all students in all writing situations [5]

There can be few teachers involved in writing instruction who have not at some stage utilized a process approach to writing. This testifies not only to the intuitive strength of this approach, but also to the research that helped establish it. As we know, the process approach sees writing as a non-linear, goal-directed process which the instructor guides the writing student through (Grabe & Kaplan, 1996, p.91). The cognitive aspects of writing are emphasized; these were largely claimed to have been identified in research that investigated the mental processes of writers through the use of recordings of students talking aloud while writing, or protocols. Some understanding was thus gained of the differences between ‘good’ writers, who utilize a recursive approach involving frequent revisions, taking account of the ‘rhetorical problem’ and the audience knowledge and expectations, and ‘poor’ writers, whose approach is somewhat more simplistic, and who ‘tell’ their knowledge, rather than ‘transform’ it in writing (Flower, in Grabe and Kaplan, op.cit. p…). Moreover, different cognitive styles and their associated practices were also posited, such as Reid’s continuum stretching from ‘radical outliners’ to ‘radical brainstormers’ (Reid, 1984).

What is not often pointed out, however, is that this research was carried out on subjects who were generally writing what one might term non-academic writing; advocates of the process approach tended to want students to express their personal feelings, either with reference to their experiences or in reaction to a text. As Leki & Carson point out, this type of writing is actually very rare in faculty writing, though common in EAP courses (Leki & Carson, 1997). Moreover, process writing research did not identify different processes for different types of writing. While no one will argue that knowledge of writing processes and putting such processes or strategies into practice in one’s own writing is unhelpful, it is not counter-intuitive to suggest that the kinds of processes or strategies that one employs while writing say an email to a friend, answering an examination essay prompt and putting together an MA dissertation will differ, probably to quite a large degree. Horowitz, for one, holds that ‘there are as many different writing processes as there are academic writing tasks’ (Horowitz, 1985, p.142).

A further snag that Johns, amongst others points out is that the process approach ‘rapidly became formalised’ (Johns, 2005, p 103). When an approach that was originally supposed to emphasise the individuality and creativity of students is harnessed to a uniform approach imposed on students without necessarily explaining its purposes or taking into account each student’s cognitive style then we might justifiably feel that it has been subverted (Horowitz, 1985; Hamp-Lyons, 1985).

For these reasons, a more subtle and flexible approach to writing instruction needs to be implemented, still using a process approach where necessary, but also using insights gained from other approaches, e.g. genre approaches to writing, and taking into account the fact that some important types of writing, e.g. examination writing, are not amenable to a draft-redraft approach.

Myth 3: ‘Multi-part’ prompts are too complicated for use on EAP courses.

A recent obsession of mine is the multi-part prompt, that is, a writing prompt that is composed of several different instructions (for example, Describe… Compare… then Evaluate…). Research carried out by School of Languages into the types of academic writing required of students at Sabanci University replicated many earlier such studies (e.g. Horowitz, 1986) in establishing that many of the prompts set in faculty contain several different parts which require students to use different rhetorical functions in their answers.

Many instructors would, indeed do, argue that these types of prompts are too difficult for students on EAP preparation courses to answer, being linguistically complex and cognitively challenging, especially for students at lower levels of language competence. It is felt that students are better off ‘mastering’ a simple prompt (e.g. What are two reasons/effects/advantages/disadvantages of X ?) than attempting and failing a more complex question.

Three immediate arguments against this position immediately spring to mind. The first is that, in presenting students with simple prompts and ignoring the realities of academic life, we are preparing students for potential failure in faculty courses. Multi-part prompts are difficult to answer in a foreign language in any case; if one has not had any practice or guidance in doing so, then this is not likely to make them any easier. It is thus the responsibility of instructors on EAP preparation programmes to provide and guide students through such questions while they are in a relatively supportive environment.

A second argument against the simple approach is that, in fact, in some ways a complex prompt is easier to answer than a simple prompt. This was pointed out some time ago by Hamp-Lyons, who pointed out that while

‘1. Describe the main types of volcano and indicate the varieties of rock that are formed in each case, illustrating your answer with sketches and examples.’ (Hamp-Lyons, 1988, p.38)

is more linguistically complex than

‘2. Technology in modern life’ (ibid.)

it provides the response writer with a lot more guidance in terms of ‘content, organization and treatment’ (ibid.). As a result, though students, when given the choice, generally opt for the latter question, they frequently do poorly (O’Donnell, 1968, cited in Hamp-Lyons, 1988) [6]. In short, there is no particular reason why the well-prepared student who has been given guidance in prompt analysis should have any great difficulty answering multi-part prompts.

A third argument in favour of the use of multi-part prompts is that it gives instructors an opportunity to guide students in the writing of well-formed texts. Discourse and genre analysis have thrown up several different generic and all-pervading text types, such as Winter’s SPRE (Situation-Problem-Response-Evaluation), or the simpler Situation-Evaluation-Basis (Winter, 1994). These ‘text patterns’ are, it is posited, a function of human ways of ordering and organizing their experiences of the world; texts that break these patterns or omit a part of the pattern do not fulfill reader expectations and therefore seem somehow incomplete (Coulthard, 1994). Therefore, it is not counter-intuitive to also hypothesise that prompt writers, such as professors, structure their prompts in such a way as to encourage students to produce such socially-accepted well-formed texts. In any case, multi-part prompts, quite apart from training students in prompt analysis and answering all the parts of a question, could be used to encourage students to include all the components of such text patterns, for example:

Describe traditional views of intelligence. In what ways are they limited? To what extent does Gardner’s concept of multiple intelligences address these issues?

Situation – Problem – Response + Evaluation

The use of such prompts could as a result be a powerful tool in writing instruction.


Hamp-Lyons, L. (1988). The product before: Task-related influences on the writer. In P.C. Robinson (ed.)

Academic Writing: Process and Product (pp. 35–46). ELT Documents 129. Oxford: Modern English Publications (in association with the British Council).


1. the title of the article is a direct homage to Keith Folse’s ‘Vocabulary Myths’ (…) , the fourth of which is also mentioned in the first paragraph.

2. this date is hard to pinpoint because there is little reference to five-paragraph essays in the literature except in disparaging terms, e.g. the ‘McEssay’, as the Director of Admissions at one American university memorably referred to it (. This is probably because by now it has long been discredited by academics as a serious academic pedagogical genre, though interestingly, some teachers have recently come belatedly to its defence, mainly as a reaction against the more radical process approaches (e.g. expressivism) to teaching writing, e.g. Haluska, 2007 or as a form to be used in special circumstances, e.g. Byung-In, 2007

3. I use the term ‘sub-academic’ here since it is not a form seen at all in academia, however frequently it may be encountered in preparation courses.

4. ‘However, it has been proven that with remedial students who have learning disabilities or attention deficit issues, using a formula, like the five-paragraph format, is vital.’ English Journal Nov2007, Vol. 97 Issue 2, p15-16; Byung-In Seo, Defending the 5-Paragraph Essay

5.This article has had by necessity to simplify the complex history of process approach, which even experts seem to describe differently; for a fuller treatment, interested readers are referred to Kaplan and Grabe, 1996, pp. 84-146.

6. In fact, the first prompt above, while it looks like a multi-part prompt, is in fact relatively simple in that it is effectively asking for a classification of volcanoes with supporting evidence, as a student trained in prompt analysis would be able to establish.