Good Writing Is More than Organization (why I hate formula writing curriculum)

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I’m always terribly sad to see a child’s writing ruined by formula writing curriculums. Because let’s be honest, good writing IS NOT a formula.

Never in quality, published writing will you ever, ever, ever read formula writing. )Although, in this age of blogging and self-publishing, you might read it but it won’t be good writing.)

Formula Paragraphs

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, let me share.

On my birthday, I did three things. First, ________________. Next, ______________. Last, ______________. As you can see, I did three things on my birthday.

You might see cueing systems like green, yellow, red or step 1, 2, 3 to help kids know if it’s a topic sentence or detail sentence.

Most of us learned to write 5-paragraph essays using a similar formula. Same thing. (And I have yet to see a 5-paragraph essay in a magazine or book of essays. How about you?)

Doesn’t It Help Organization

The argument in favor of formula writing is that it helps kids organize their thinking.

Yes, it does. And organization is essential for clear communication.


Writing is so much more than good organization.

What worries me about formula writing is that the curriculum begins and ends with the formula — it doesn’t teaching going beyond. It doesn’t teach voice, tone, word choice, sentence length, or sensory imagery.

Beyond the Formula

Recently I attended an amazing conference on becoming a better speaker, SCORRE. The gist of the SCORRE method is that a well-organized speech follows a formula — very similar in concept to the formula I shared above. But here’s what I LOVED . . . Once you get the thesis statement written out, it’s called the “Ugly Sentence” and is only a starting point for the more beautiful, creatively designed sentence.

Ugly sentence: On my 13th birthday I did three things.

SCORRE sentence: I fondly remember three highlights from that crisp fall day of my 13th birthday, a day I’ll never forget.

I loved the concept for speaking — because our listeners need cues like “highlights” or “benefits” or “processes”.

In writing, it’s still bit to clunky so I might just remove the cueing word completely. But what I like about the idea of “Ugly Sentence” is that it’s a starting point. Not something for a polished piece. Not where you end.

Common Core Writing Standards

Despite having written standards for my own district, I’ve never been a fan of the Common Core State Standards for many reasons which I’ve written about here and here.

Look with me at the CC standards for writing. Guess what the CC emphasizes? Organization!

1st and 2nd grade standards want the kids to write opinion pieces supported by reasons with linking words, informative texts with facts and development, and narratives (story) sequenced and with details. Organization, organization, organization. What about description? What about voice? Any juicy words?

So writing curriculums will focus on organization because as you can see, the Common Core requires it.

By 3rd grade the standards are about the same but add text features such as dialogue. Finally in  4th and 5th grades, the standards require writing with description and sensory details in. So it’s not until kids are 9-years old that they’re expected to describe the taste, feel, and smell of an orange?

Of course, the tests will eventually match the Common Core so is there any hope that our kids will ever get a writing curriculum that goes beyond formulas for organization?

Only if YOU want it.

Do we want our kids to test well or to write well? I believe that these are two different things. (Unfortunately.)

If we want our kids to be good writers, then me, you, we need to do something about it. Ask to review the curriculum. Ask for changes. Write at home. Be proactive in getting curriculum change — and gather a group of supporters to help you. Advocating always works better with numbers.

Writing Curriculums

AVOID: The Write Tools

USE: Writer’s Workshop -not a curriculum but an approach (the best approach) to learning to write

USE: 6 + 1 Traits of Writing

USE: Writing Alive

There are so many other writing curriculums. Which does your school use?

Which curriculums do you recommend to use or to avoid?

 good writing is more than organization

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  1. To be fair, the Language standards and various other writing standards do focus on figurative language in the CCSS. I understand that there are those opposed to all or some of the CCSS, but it is not a fair representative to say that it only focuses on organization. I enjoyed your article here, and I agree with many of your points. Thanks.

  2. You’re so right! Formula writing in and of itself is stifling and restrictive, but when the curriculum (or the teacher) also introduces elements of voice, imagery, sensory detail, strong word choice, and sentence variation, organization can take wing.

    Our company’s curriculum, WriteShop, primarily targets homeschoolers. I’m biased, I know–but I think it’s the best of both worlds!

  3. Yes, yes, yes- turning writing into formulas makes me sad :(. I think there is a place for knowing the formula- but especially in the early grades, we should be kindling fires. Ignite the love of sharing stories and ideas. I do a lot of Writer’s Workshops using a drawing as a story launch pad- draw a castle or a pirate ship or a dragon. Then the children dictate the story to me. What’s happening? How do they feel? It creates a sense of ownership and delight in their own process. And when their writing skills are stronger, it won’t be so much work to write those stories for themselves :). I hope we can find a place to keep celebrating how kids see the world…

  4. I could not agree more about you comments in regards to over organizing the writing process. I was always told that the definition of essay was ‘your say’. That means your opinion, your way.
    In addition to this, I only ever think that using scripted structures works as a starting point. However, it never is. So often students write using the predetermined structure and is it little wonder that students take little care in the banal essays they write.

    1. they’re as bored with their horrid writing as we are . . . I agree with you — writing needs their voice, that pizazz that makes it sound like them. ~ Melissa

  5. I LOVE THIS POST! Becky at This Reading Mama and I really worked hard to think outside the writing prompt box when writing our Simple Writing Lessons. It’s so hard to find something different, and I’m sad to hear (but not surprised) that the Common Core emphasizes formula writing too. I hope you reach a lot of people with this!