George Lucas Educational Foundation
Literacy

Getting Out of the Essay Rut

Alternative writing assignments can be just as rigorous as the traditional essay and can spark young writers’ creativity.

August 27, 2018
A high school student writing in a journal in class
©iStock/skynesher

Think about all the forms of writing that exist—letters, news articles, video scripts, infographics, press releases, etc. Why are we so hung up on using essays as the primary structure for students to demonstrate writing prowess? There can be little doubt, it seems to me, that we overuse essay writing in schools.

And one result for our student writers is burnout. When the first-year teachers who I support explain to me that their kids are sick of writing essays—by February usually, if not sooner—we brainstorm together about alternatives they might consider.

These teachers will often report back that when they defected from the essay and assigned an alternative writing project for a particular lesson or unit, their students got excited and became inspired in ways the teachers hadn’t seen before.

Before I highlight a few essay alternatives, I want to say that I do believe the ability to write an essay is a critical skill all students need to acquire. Teaching the five-paragraph structure provides kids with the necessary “training wheels” to begin figuring out how to outline their thoughts and information. Once most of them have pretty much got that, it’s worthwhile for teachers to occasionally offer alternatives.

The alternatives can be just as rigorous and demanding as the traditional essay, building the same skills and applications while also aligning to standards.

Get the best of Edutopia in your inbox each week.

Alternatives to the Traditional Essay

Craft a convincing letter (argumentative writing): After discussing and researching a hot button issue or a problem of concern in their school or community, students write a letter to an editor, to the principal of the school, or to a community member. They should utilize ethos, pathos, logos, counterclaim, and a call to action—just as they would in an argumentative essay.

Design a pamphlet (informational writing): This alternative gives students a break from writing a research essay while still requiring them to engage in research. The format allows for some creativity in the layout and the messaging. Students should be required to include important information and facts, with sources.

Change the ending of a book or short story (narrative writing): Narrative writing techniques will need to be deployed—dialogue, figurative language, and use of imagery. If a student’s book or story ended on a tragic note, they might choose to create a happier ending, or have a character make a different choice that pivots the ending. Whatever they decide to change, they should stay true to the characters, the setting—all aspects of the story, including the author’s tone and style.

Rewrite an article (informational writing): Using the facts and information presented in an article, students write a new article on the same topic. By rearranging how facts are presented, using a different title, and even bringing in additional facts and quotations from further research, they’ll see how this reworking can significantly change the tone and give readers a different perspective on the same topic.

Script a TV or radio commercial (informational and argumentative writing): I’ve seen this assignment awaken the most dormant of young writers in a classroom as they try to sell a product to each other. First, watch and listen to a few highly effective commercials or ad campaigns together as a class and then discuss what makes them good. This works best if you provide students with some writing guidelines and requirements (length of text and use of rhetorical devices they’ve learned, for example).

After any writing assignment—an essay or an alternative—it’s important that students engage in a bit of reflective writing and discussion about why they chose a specific topic, approach, and tone, or why they chose to organize their work the way that they did.

Literacy

Alternatives to the 5 Paragraph Essay

While the standard essay format is a useful scaffold, it’s important to teach students other, more authentic kinds of writing as well.

The Benefits of Essay Alternatives

Having students write in a format other than the essay can provide a real context, one that opens up an audience beyond just the teacher. Other benefits of detouring from essay writing? Doing so allows young writers to:

  • Be more creative and take more chances—and how else can a writer develop a writing style and voice?
  • Practice a larger range of the types of writing the real world demands.
  • Have more choice in what they write, how they write it, and the message it conveys—a huge motivator for students who are struggling or reluctant, or who are feeling burned out.

Variety is the spice of life, as the saying goes, so taking a break from the essay and offering alternatives can add zest for young writers. And doing so gives more of an opportunity to experiment with writing style and voice. Since style and voice play key roles in determining if a piece of writing is effective, convincing, moving, or entertaining, it’s worthwhile to give students a chance to experiment with them.