Format writing has become popular in the last 5-10 years among some home educators. However, it has not been embraced by many serious Christian or secular educators. In fact, I have never heard of an orthodox day school, of any size, that has exclusively implemented format writing. In point of fact, some of us home school educators reject format writing too. Why?
The Argument: Aristotle, in his Rhetoric argues that communication, or writing and rhetoric, concerns the character (ethos) of the speaker, the emotional state (pathos) of the listener, and the argument (logos) itself. In fact, the success of the writing enterprise depends on the emotional disposition of the audience. To Aristotle this is the topoi or topic written for an audience. To ignore the audience, removes the very heart of the writing piece. Format writing invites the writer to sacrifice ethos, pathos, and logos on the altar of convenience.
Another casualty of format writing is creativity. Creativity is discouragedâ€”afterall, the wriiter only has to implement certain neutral skills that are completely voic of context, purpose, and audience. There is no encouragement to build on past strategies; no need to consider new audiences. One merely implements a form for each new literary challenge. One size fits all!
I have been a part of the home school movement for 23 years and I must tell you that creative thinking and problem solving is at the heart of our movement. We neglect its development, practice, and implementation at our own, and our worldâ€™s peril. I will explain this more later.
Educators avoid format writing for one very good reason: it does not work. In the short run young writers produce all sorts of stock outcomes. But to what end? The purpose of great writing is to influence an audience, to communicate content, to persuade an audience to embrace truth. If the writer knows no or very little content this will be reflected in his writing. This is the reason great writers are great readersâ€”classical reading is at the heart of great writting. One reads the masters, discovers writing strategies, and pushes further.
As a result SAT graders (including myself) are warned to score format writing SAT I essays lower. Why? Because format writing is facile and predictable. It devoid of audience, content, and tone. In other words, it is inferior writing.
While orthodox educators would tolerate some format instruction at the grammar stage, to advance format writing into the dialectic and especially rhetoric stages is disasterous. At the heart of classical education is the notion that there are legitimate classics. Classics have timeless application, survive multiple readings, and concern world view issues. It is impossible to teach people how to write about classical literature unless the teacher himself has read and studied the classics! Format writing pragmatism purports to do exactly that.
To pretend to do so is the height of hypocrisy. It is what Plato called sophism. Sophism, an argument apparently correct in form but actually invalid, emphasizes form and function before content, purpose, and audience. Sophists teach anything for a price. Their teaching was practical instead of et hical and they emphasized rhetoric rather than virtue. Equally reprehensible, sophists were unwilling to pay the dues that serious rhetoric demandedâ€”the discipline of study and of education. They were in a sense the marketing agents of their age. Their product was an inch thin and a mile long but it was appealing to the consumer. It was readily available at an exorbitant price, true, but the most unethical politician could hire a sophist to write a speech, or to write an essay on any subject to any audience. Neither really mattered. Since sophists believed one could communicate regardless of audience, or purpose, or content, it really did not matter. Sophists were mercenary pragmatists who wrote and spoke well but produced no lasting culture.
In summary, in format writing, reality begins and ends with the writer. It discourages the discovery of metaphor and discourages the discipline of writing to an audience. True writing, true rhetoric demands that we reclaim the use of metaphor. I t demands, too that, we consider our audience. Central to metaphor is comparison between two ostensibly dissimilar phenomena and this is absolutely critical to creative problem solving. After all, how does one describe love? Hope? Faith? These are metaphors that Christian believers use to describe the character of God and His people. Format writing invites participants to write coldly with no content, with no audienceâ€”with no metaphors.. Without creative metaphors Christianity is forced to abandon all hope of advancing fresh metaphors for the timeless truth of the Gospels. After all, all we need to do is write five paragraphs with transitions and 3 ly words. Would 1 Corinthians 13 fit a format? It was birthed by the Holy Spirit and it is full of creative, fresh metaphors that would have remained undiscovered in most format writing programs. In fact, the entire book of Revelation is iconoclastic. Metaphors, figurative and creative images of reality, are not necessary and will be lost in cold format writing.