Screen Shot 2014-02-06 at 10.17.21 PMThey looked at me. “How long’s this gotta be?” It was the midterm essay.

“As long as it takes to be informative. And interesting–don’t put me to sleep…I only write zeroes when I’m asleep.” Actually, it’s a puddle of drool.

“How many paragraphs?” We train them to write paragraphs and fill in circle tests. I hate the five-paragraph essay. What if I need six? Or forty-two? Or one? I have a piece of Russian literature that has a twelve-paged paragraph, so no one better ask the followup “How long’s a paragraph?”

Yet someone does. I walk over to some boxes and open one. It contains a five-foot blank scroll. I hold up the scroll. “About this long. Want to read?”

One kid comes up. “Miss, it’s empty!”

“It is. There is no secret ingredient.” When Lao Tsu’s busy, I quote Kung Fu Panda.

“Here’s the thing. I write a lot. I know a lot of big words. If I use all my big words in a paragraph will you read it?”

“No,” said one engaged listener, “It’ll suck.”

“Great feedback.” Never ask kids. They’ll tell you. “Well, I used to research academic material…things only five people in the world cared about. When we met, we’d high-five each other and have a good old time…But nobody read my stuff. Ever. Now, I write differently. From the heart. No showing off. No big words without a reason. No extra paragraphs. I even use…sentence fragments. And you know what? People read it. What’s that tell you?”

“Writers suck?”

“No. It tells you that if you want people to read your stuff, you have to write for them in a way they want to read. Who goes online and reads five-paragraph essays?” No hands. “Then why are you writing them?”  I assure them there will be consequences if they say I said never to write five-paragraph essays.

“The point is, write for your audience. I learned the hard way. I took a beating learning this. Just do it. Write what you love in a way you’d want to read.” Everyone decides that the prompts are, in fact, halfway decent, and they get started. I put away the scroll.

I hear a kid mumble how he hates f-ing five-paragraph essays. I tell him to find some better f-words for his piece before I find a hundred or two for him to incorporate.

They write. And they don’t look that miserable after all.

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