Essay Writing – Newness Not Taught in Textbooks Or By Teachers

Let me tell you, up front, the most important thing in writing:

………………………………………………………..What’s new to the reader.

“Big deal!” you may say. “My English teacher tells me that kind of stuff all the time! She’s constantly saying, ‘Tell me something NEW and INTERESTING! Show me that you’re thinking for yourself!’

“Oh, yeah—–she also says, ‘And remember Thoreau and Walden Pond! Simplify! But for pity’s sake, above all, be sure you say something NEW!‘”

Oh—–so “What’s new to the reader” doesn’t sound especially new to you, is that it?

All righty, then—–Let me ask you just six questions to clarify why what your teacher said about writing something new has always frustrated you (right?) and to demonstrate why that advice (from the best textbooks out there) never really helped you:

  • Does she show you a process for getting “what’s new?”
  • Does she define newness in terms of what’s old?
  • Does she teach the five major kinds of OLD that NEW can’t exist without?
  • Does she tell you the five major different kinds of NEW?
  • Does she show you how everything in writing relates directly to What’s new to the reader?
  • Does she point out how and where What’s new to the reader is used all the time by writers of published essays, short stories, and novels?

See what I mean? But let’s not blame the teacher—–that’s the way she was trained.

Teachers aren’t the only ones who are vague about newness in writing. Several supposed writing scholars have told me that newness in writing is taught in many modern composition textbooks. Funny thing, though—–these supposedly knowledgeable scholars all recommend books and assure me that the principle of newness is already taught in those books, but when I dutifully read the books they recommend, I can’t find what they say should be there.

For instance, one of those recommended books that didn’t deliver on teaching newness is They Say, I Say (2006) by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein. These authors actually deny that they provide anything but forms or templates, leaving content and newness up to the writer to generate. Here’s what they say on page 11 of their book:

Furthermore, these templates do not dictate the content of what you say, which can be as original as you can make it, but only suggest a way of formatting how you say it.

As you can clearly see from this quote, the authors straightforwardly admit that the templates they teach are only for “suggest[ing] a way of formatting” (form) and have nothing to do with generating content and newness.

The strangest referral I’ve had from a writing scholar was to the entire work of Professor John Swales, a noted linguist who has worked mainly with genre analysis in applied linguistics. After I made some unsuccessful research attempts to find a process of newness taught in his works, I found his address and emailed Professor Swales directly.

Professor Swales graciously replied that my informant was “misinformed,” although he admitted that the informant might be referring to his studies on introductions,

and how they try to establish a gap in previous knowledge in order to pave the way for saying that the upcoming contribution offers something new.

Professor Swales referred me specifically to his book, Genre Analysis (1990), Chapter 7, Research articles in English, Introductions, pages 137-166. In Chapter 7, he does indeed spend about thirty pages to refer to newness, but only in terms relating to creating contexts to introduce significant, relevant newness. There you have it—–“establish a gap” to “pave the way for saying that the upcoming contribution offers something new,” very similar to They Say, I Say—–form, not generating newness of content.

Another book I’ve been referred to incessantly is The Allyn & Bacon Guide to Writing. That is a fine book, and it does refer to newness. But, also like so many other writing textbooks, it still does not provide a process for generating newness, nor does it acknowledge the fundamental centrality of newness to every thesis and to all the support for it in every essay. In short, newness gets less attention than topic sentences or paragraph development.

You see, it doesn’t matter how rhetorically correct an essay is, or even whether it is impeccably organized and grammatically perfect—if the thesis and the support for it are not new to the reader, then that essay is a failure.

Teachers of writing should focus students on the single most important principle in writing essays and everything else—–

………………………………………………………..What’s new to the reader.

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