Writing: The Long and Short of It

Back in the Dark Ages when I was a junior in my public high school, I spent one full six-week grading period in English developing, researching and writing a lengthy term paper, complete with footnotes and bibliography–and this in the days before word processing programs could assist with those laborious nuts and bolts!  We literally spent every English class period for six weeks, plus significant time out of class, working on these papers, and the grade for the paper was the grade for the class for the marking period. It wasn’t a shock to us as students: We knew the junior term paper in English was a longstanding tradition, and we actually looked forward to it. We were allowed to choose any topic at all as a focus, as long as it was possible to develop a reasonable hypothesis which we would then attempt to prove or disprove based on research that we could conduct–and this before Google was even imaginable.

My paper was on the development of musical theater as a distinctly American art form, specifically, on the idea that Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!” in 1943 (which at the time seemed to me to be ancient history…) was the very first production in which all the elements that have come to characterize musicals as we know them today were (gloriously, I thought) pulled together.  Then as now, I was a theater geek, with rehearsals and performances of all kinds filling much of my life both in and out of school.  So to have the opportunity to delve into a topic about which I was passionate was a gift. 

I spent hours in the school and public libraries, finding authoritative texts about drama and music, and poring over original critical reviews and commentary about “Oklahoma!” and other productions of the time.  I developed lists of primary source materials and other references, and we were required to keep files of large index cards by sub-topic to track our research and notes.  Class periods were spent checking in and getting feedback, sharing information with classmates, and developing thesis statements and supporting ideas.  (I recall that one of my classmates, still a good friend who works in media, wrote his paper about the editorial cartoons of the Civil War journalist Thomas Nast.)

I remember sitting for hours at my parents’ dining room table tapping away on an old manual typewriter–carbon and copy paper firmly in the roller, no auto-saves, no spell-checks–and pulling together my research and my thoughts.  I don’t remember exactly how long the paper was–I do recall an over-long, overwrought title, something about “The Consummation of Elements in the American Musical Theater”–or what grade I got.  But the challenge and exhilaration of exploring and developing a topic virtually on my own, and having plenty of time to do so, has stayed with me to this day.  When I got to my freshman year of college two years later, I had absolute confidence in my ability to tackle any research or analytical paper that might be assigned.

So I was very interested in a piece by reporter Matt Richtel that appeared in The New York Times a few months ago, presenting the debate over the utility of long- versus short-form writing in college:


Richtel discusses the contention of a Duke University English professor that research papers are outdated, and that students should instead be using shorter formats, like blogs, to present ideas in writing.

Before I let you know what I think, I’d like to know what you think–and since this is a blog (a form that I also enjoy, by the way) I get to pause my writing right here and invite feedback based on your experiences:  Educators, students, professional, amateur, avid or reluctant writers–please post your thoughts, and I’ll continue mine in my next post.

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