Yesterday a long-time client called from Washington State complaining about the formulaic writing that's taking over her organization. The problem, she allowed, is that there's no originality, no interest, no voice in the writing. Why? Because everyone's focused on that old five-paragraph essay or four-square approach they learned in school.
My personal disdain for the five-paragraph essay is well-documented, like in this op-ed piece I wrote for the Raleigh News & Observer a few years ago. But just because I find the formulas we teach in school disabling, doesn't mean I hate formulas.
Heck, writers use formulas all the time. A story lede is a formula, as is the questions lede. The moral-of-the-story ending is a formula, as is the call to action. Those tips stories that show up in magazines and web sites everywhere: formulas. Ditto those interview Q&As.
So what's the difference? Thinking.
In school, most of the thinking is taken out of the writing process. Kids usually don't have to think about a topic, because the teacher provides one. Nor do they have to think of questions to ask because, again, they're generally provided in the "graphic organizer" (we used to call them worksheets). They don't even have to think about how to organize their stories because that's also prescribed by the organizer.
Journalists don't get that luxury. We have to develop good story ideas, develop a solid questions and then think about the best way to tell it. We deploy our formulas much later in the process, after most of the work has been done.
But enough of my rant. We're going to pay a visit to these folks to help them return to better writing by using formulas for good, not evil.