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Newness is Number One in Published Essays

In every published essay, you will find that they all have one thing in common: They all tell the reader something new. But when reviewers and teachers talk about essays, they almost always overlook or ignore this fact. (I know, it seems hard to believe, but it’s true.) In fact, we can see a pattern in all published essays of first acknowledging the old view—the known, accepted view—of something, and then almost immediately specifying a new point of view, which is always in opposition or reversal of the old point of view. Then the thesis of the new view is always followed by support. (Incidentally, you can Google the titles of each of the essays I’ll list here if you put them in quotation marks. Google will provide you with a link to at least one online presence of each essay, in full.) For example, the first paragraph of the widely published essay by George Orwell, Politics and English Language, talks about the degradation of the English language and the ugly politics of the British Empire, how they interact and seem inextricably linked. In the second paragraph, Orwell points out that “the process is reversible” and that improving the use of the English language can improve English politics and thereby help save the British Empire. This is a clear pattern from old to new, a new view of reversal. And followed by support. Another good example is Carl Sagan’s popular published essay, The removal of beasts. The first sentence of the essay clearly states the old view:

“Beasts are not abstract,” declared John Locke, expressing the dominant view of humanity throughout recorded history.

In the second paragraph, Sagan presents his inverse new view of this old view by asking whether animals might be capable of abstract thought, although possibly less deeply or more rarely than humans. The rest of the essay provides facts, reasoning, and conjecture to support Sagan’s new view about animals actually thinking or abstracting. A third good example is Isaac Asimov’s rather amusing (at least at first) essay The Eureka Effect. It is true that the fullness of the relationship of Asimov’s old view and new view comes in three stages. But he clearly talks first about his old problem of getting writer’s block, and then explains how he learned to solve it by watching an action movie, which is his new take. (Interestingly, the old view isn’t actually stated at that point. Since Asimov is a thinker and a writer, he knows a lot of people who suffer from Writer’s Block, so he assumes that most people have some sort of mental block long- from time to time in their thinking and would be interested in a good solution to this recurring problem.) He then compares voluntary and involuntary thinking with voluntary and involuntary breathing. And in paragraphs ten and eleven he makes a formal statement of his new thesis. To support this, he immediately starts telling the famous story of Archimedes solving the king’s problem and running naked through the streets shouting that he found the solution. What most of us usually do no remember, after reading this essay, Asimov then provides further support by going through many boring stories and incidents involving scientists who use the involuntary method of thinking to arrive at important discoveries in science. And finally, he makes a third version of his original new theory, which includes what he sees as a continuing pattern of scientists not giving due credit to the involuntary thinking they actually use to make scientific discoveries. The pattern of the three analyzes I just gave you—old point of view, then new point of view thesis, then support—of three popular published essays is typical of published essays. Try the pattern in any published essay and you’ll see how true this is. So how do we, as writers and as teachers of writing, achieve innovation in our own writing and the writing of our students, especially in their essays? Are you ready for it? Here’s the big secret…

We bring innovation to our own essays and to our students’ essays by becoming sensitive to the everyday patterns of innovation that exist in our culture and learning to use them in our thinking, writing, and everyday communications.

For example, there is the Dark Cloud, Silver Lining cultural model of innovation. Normally, when something really unpleasant or bad happens in our lives, we get depressed, and then one of our friends will say something like, “Don’t worry, Carmen—even though things look really bleak right now, something good will come out of it.” , just wait and see.” The new aspect of this pattern is that we don’t expect something good to come out of something bad – but it does! The old view, the negative expectations are reversed, thus creating a new view. Here are some examples of the Dark Cloud, Silver Lining pattern that students can easily relate to:

  • I cried when I bombed the final exam – but was so happy when I found out that my grades for all the quizzes, reports, and other in-class exams pulled me through.
  • Our basketball team had a bad and unfortunately disappointing season, but in the playoffs we were absolutely ecstatic when our team won every game and won the state championship!
  • Me and my circle of friends are poor, but we’ve found that the real fun is in sharing, not in shiny, shiny, expensive activities.
  • My family’s house is very cheap and in a poor neighborhood, but we really pride ourselves on having the cleanest, neatest house in the whole damn town.
  • My part-time job is so horribly boring and pays so little that I wonder why I keep working there—until I look around and notice that a lot of kids don’t have jobs at all.

Then there’s the David vs. Goliath cultural model of innovation. Here’s how it works: We all know the big guys bully and overwhelm the little guys – that’s just the way it is, what everyone expects and accepts because we see it happen all the time. For example, some large health insurance companies take advantage of powerless policyholders. Movies are made about such situations, such as the sensational 1997 film The Rainmaker, starring Matt Damon and Danny DeVito, in which a huge insurance company is defeated by a small woman and her wet, fresh-out-of-school lawyer. So when the little one overcomes the big one, as David did to Goliath in the biblical story, everyone is a little surprised and kind of happy about it. It’s a lot like “Good Conquers Evil” since big guys or groups almost always throw their power and abuse good guys like you and me. The new aspect of this pattern is that experience has taught us all that big, powerful bad guys regularly make mincemeat of good guys – so when that old view, the negative expectation is reversed, we have a new view. Here are examples of the David Versus Goliath cultural pattern of innovation:

  • My poor little aunt took the IRS to court to stop them from taking her car to pay her taxes. I just knew he was going to lose. But my meek little aunt beat the IRS to court by standing them up, passionately pointing out facts that the IRS tried to cover up.
  • Larry was a bright student, but he was really very small and very meek and mean. So when he got into an extended, stimulating argument in our politics class with the big-mouthed, six-foot-tall debating group leader and embarrassed him, everyone cheered!
  • My little sister, Jenny (7 years younger), and I often compete for time with Daddy and I always win, of course. But I must admire how lately he has learned to so cleverly charm him and his purse away from me—the little boy!
  • My friend Emily has a little sister (4 years younger) who always wants to go with our girls’ circle, but Emily never lets her come. Last Friday, however, little sister told the rest of us girls to take her with us—and leave Emily at home!
  • I’m really stupid with computers, and my brother Stan is a computer genius. So when his computer broke one Saturday and I was the one who figured out how to fix it, I promised him I would never let him forget it.

Many cultural patterns of innovation are “out there” for us to use, both for generating new ideas and as pre-existing forms for transmitting our new ideas. Can you think of others from your own experiences? Let me suggest a few more that I’m sure you’ll recognize, just by their names:

  • Glitters, Not Gold (“All that glitters is not gold.”)
  • Lion Roars, No Teeth (“Strong someone or something does nothing or fails.”)
  • Which came first, the chicken or the egg? (“Cause and effect are reversed/changed.”)

I’m sure you can provide the examples for these three cultural patterns of innovation without any help from me. The big idea here, of course, is that the new is all around us, particularly in published works such as essays. And if we’re going to write an essay or whatever, we better focus on the #1 focus in all communications, published or not…What’s new for the reader.

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