In doing a search of the LA Times, where Crispin Sartwell's piece was
published, I found three letters-to-the-editor responding to it. I
thought folks might be interested in seeing the letters, so I've copied
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR
Writing Formulas in Schools and Grading by Computers
May 24, 2004
Re "The Lobotomized Weasel School of Writing," Commentary, May 20: I
vehemently disagree with Crispin Sartwell's characterization of the
five-paragraph essay as "hoo-ha." While he explains that writing "ought
to nurture and give shape to thought," he fails to understand that this
essay format allows for the organization of thought, thus allowing for
Writing an essay is much like giving a presentation to an audience. The
presenter needs to clearly and simply introduce the subject or argument,
then enumerate and develop subtopics that provide supporting
information. It is important to restate the thesis near the end of an
essay in an original and powerful manner, as this is the last chance the
writer has to convince the reader of the validity of the information
I begin this format with my ninth-graders and push them to expand the
number of paragraphs when the essay's depth calls for it. From 10th
grade on, students are encouraged to shed the "five-paragraph habit"
while continuing to adhere to its basic principles.
Also, Sartwell would have been better served to offer a strong thesis
statement near the beginning of his epithet-filled commentary.
The computer is a truly magnificent thing, with any number of useful
applications. But if Sartwell is correct, it has put us on a slippery
slope. The notion that the computer can grade essays is mind-boggling.
What next, the computer-written essay? One click of the mouse for entire
phrases, sentences, paragraphs? Not to worry; no one will read the
product, just the computer, which will scan the work for the appropriate
words — never mind in what order — and assign a grade: Pass or fail,
pick up your diploma on the way out.
Francis B. Kent
The topic of this topic sentence is the thesis that Sartwell is right
on. The three arguments of this paragraph are that, firstly, out of a
laudable democratic attempt to make writing accessible to all, the
American education system has produced a teachable formula for essay
writing. Secondly, in the struggle to fill in the blanks in the formula,
good writing becomes impossible. And thirdly (no, not allowed to start a
sentence with "and"), there is no longer space for thinking.
My two daughters have found the formula intimidating, stultifying and a
handicap rather than a help. In trying to write this letter according to
the rules, I now appreciate their struggles. To me, there are only two
rules for writing, or rather, two questions to ask oneself. One, what am
I wanting to say? Two, how am I going to say it? Weasels begone!
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