Formulaic Writing: A Cup of Clarity and a Pinch of Pedagogy

Dear Dr. D’,

What do I say to people who say that the Jane Schaffer® methodology is formulaic.


Dear Elizabeth:

Wouldn’t the world be wonderful if all students felt comfortable and fluid in writing academic essays? The simple truth is that most students struggle with writing, especially academic non-fiction, scholarly prose. They sit and look at that awful blank page; and when their teacher walks by their desks, the students look up with hopeless, helpless, hapless little faces. And those little faces range from kindergarten to senior advanced placement.
The state of students’ writing abilities in public schools, private schools, charter schools, and homeschools is complex:
  • Some children come from homes where their parents are English teachers, educators, college educated, and/or are good writers themselves, able to edit their children’s essays and provide advice; most children do not have this support.
  • Some children love to write (e.g., future English teachers, screenwriters, playwrights, and novelists); most children do not have this love yet.
  • Some children have a natural ability to write; most children do not have this natural ability.
  • Some children come from homes with two parents who are willing and able to divvy up their time to help their children with homework; many children do not have this support.

So what do you say?
First, ask those people to whom you are referring if they have been trained by an “official” Jane Schaffer Writing Program coach. We have eight national trainers.

  • If they say, “Why, yes,” then ask them if they are “WEAVING” in their classes. If they have not presented weaving to students who are ready for it, then they are missing an important scaffolding step and possibly stagnating their students’ style and creativity.
  • If they say, “No,” then explain to them that we start with a formula, a frame, a foundation, a format to frame students’ organization of their thinking and to move them beyond those blank stares and blank pages. 
You might also provide a metaphor: When we want to create a new meal for our family, some of us just whip it up in our heads and voila!, the dinner is magnificent. These types of people have an innate sense of combining different foods, spices, textures, and colors to create gastronomic sensations. They simply have a knack for it. 
Others, myself included, need a recipe: we take it to the grocery store and buy exactly what is on the list; we measure every ingredient; we follow the instructions precisely; we even get a little frustrated with phrases like “a pinch.”  We’re pleased when it turns out looking like the photograph on the internet. But afterward, we might think, “Hmm, next time, I’m going to spice it up: maybe I’ll add some pepper, maybe chili powder, maybe cumin. Or, I might want to replace the broccoli in the recipe with red and yellow bell peppers. Or, I’m going to use brown rice instead of white rice next time.”  When I have these ideas, I’m making it my own, suiting my own taste (style), or pleasing future guests (audience). I needed, however, a place to start; and the recipe gave me that starting place. Our writing program helps students to begin, to develop, and to master academic writing. But we have to start somewhere.
Even gourmet chefs with innate sensibilities return to recipes when they are experimenting with new ways to create new tastes. They also learn from teachers like Gordon Ramsay, Bobby Flay, Julia Child, Wolfgang Puck, Emeril Lagasse, and Jacque Pepin what NOT to do — For example, when making a souffle, the bowl in which you beat your egg whites must be clean. The smallest streak of grease will ruin any chance your eggs have of whipping up properly. These are rules. There are guidelines that help us. That’s what we try to do with our writing program. Just like gourmet chefs, even advanced placement® students return to the frame sometimes, especially when they are dealing with a timed situation and a dense, complex piece, such as Dickinson or Donne.
We could extend the metaphor to include musicians, olympic athletes, home builders, doctors, and car manufacturers,  They all must have a frame for learning. Then, they become specialists and creators with their own styles.
Encourage those naysayers to attend a workshop or a webinar by one of our national presenters who not only have successfully applied the method in their classroom, but also have had two intensive years of “Train the Trainers” before they may present. Please tell them to give me a call at 214.946.3385. I’m always happy to answer questions about the foundational approach to Jane’s writing program. Please advise them to be careful what they pull from the internet; much of what is found there is incorrect or taken out of context. If friends have provided them with materials, please make sure those materials are official materials; a lot of what you see on the internet about JSWP is just wrong. Nothing, however, replaces a workshop or webinar to understand the philosophy, the methodology, and the application. 
And now, let me finish up by giving you some pedagogical talking points from one of many experts in the field who believes in the program and has witnessed its positive impact on students:

I have [. . .] been using the materials originated by Jane Schaffer for at least 23 years.  I have 26 years teaching experience with English, PAP English I, PAP English II, English III, and AP English III.  I am a College Board® Consultant and an AP® Reader for the English Language and Composition Test. 

These methods allow students to best develop necessary writing skills for high school and college level essays.  The methods first give students a solid format on which to write an essay.  Students, especially ninth graders, need structure.  Most students at the ninth grad
e level have creative writing experience and possibly some limited analysis writing.  However, most ninth graders think a paragraph is five sentences.  These methods allow students to understand what is expected in a fully developed paragraph.  It also introduces them to the idea of evidence to support a thesis and the development of opinion or commentary to then drive the point home and back to the larger picture.  Once students understand the structure and the fact that all writing is made up of concrete details or evidence and commentary or opinion, then students can learn to manipulate the structure for their needs.  Students can begin to determine what is needed for an informative research essay versus an analysis research essay.  With practice students also learn to include all the necessary pieces, but maybe not in the exact order in which they first were introduced to the structure. 

These methods allow students with a mathematical brain to see that writing can have structure like a math problem does.  Students learn to expand and connect their ideas to larger or more thematic ideas.  It helps young writers or inexperienced writers to understand the basic approach to good writing, then it goes on to help students develop college level essays.  As an AP reader, I have seen how the structure is present in a high scoring essay.  As an Advanced Placement Consultant for the College Board, I share these ideas and show students and teachers how it breaks down in successful AP essays.  — Yvonne Kaatz, English Department Chair

Thank you for asking this important question.
We are here to help all children and to meet them where they are. We are here to remove the mystique that surrounds writing, the mystique which, I believe, is the cause for many dropouts in high school. We are here to create a foundation and then to build on that foundation.
For Jane’s own words on “The Formula Issue,” click here and scroll to the second page. 
Keep writing and reading,
Dr. D’
P.S. Thank you to Ms. Ann Peek of Cottonwood, Arizona, who gave me some epicurean ideas for my above metaphor and Dr. Jo Patton for proofreading my blog. See, even after 57 years and a Ph.D., I’m still looking to the experts for help in cooking up food for thought!


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