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From the Front Lines: Can a formula produce great writing?

Thoughts on writing to order.

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I’m taking a class about the essay.

The instructor of this class has had a great many personal essays published in consumer magazines and newspapers. It’s the genre of publication I used to appear in and edit for somewhat regularly, and I am trying to break my way back in, so here I am. I’m not sure what I expected, but I didn’t expect the instructor to show us a formula for all the personal essays she’s ever written and loved:

Lead with this.

Then follow up with this.

Now go here.

And she-bang! End this way.

Voila! An essay fit for the New York Times’ “Modern Love” column, which is, fair play, the pinnacle for a good many writers I know.

OK, I’m over-simplifying. But I remember seeing the outline laid out and every single fiber of my writerly self rebelling. There was a horrible shrieking sensation in my brain, and before I knew it, I’d popped an irrational amount of popcorn and eaten it all, by myself, sitting in the dark.


But why? What is it about an outline that makes this particular writer feel like slamming the front door in its face? Why not embrace a thing that can answer the question that pops up whenever I read something wonderful? You know the one: “How does she do it?” You might wail it to yourself, reading it line by line, marveling over how an essayist turns you inside out.

“How did that happen?” you might say, wiping away some tears at your desk or laughing uncontrollably at something in McSweeney’s.

Here was my instructor, pulling back the curtain. And here was me, angrily twitching it shut again.



Sometimes you only want to marvel at a thing in its gloriousness, its mystery, and feel the effect of its afterglow.


This is not the first time this has happened to me. It is, after all, where the expression “how the sausage gets made” comes from. No one wants to visit the slaughterhouse. Everyone just wants to bite into a nice, juicy bratwurst, say, or eat a hot slice of pizza with some crispy pepperoni on it. Sometimes you only want to marvel at a thing in its gloriousness, its mystery, and feel the effect of its afterglow. No one needs to look too closely at the sausage.

But if you are going to teach someone else how to admire writing, you will have to do the thing where you dissect a beautiful piece to look at each individual component and see how they work together. And in fact, I am guilty of this myself: I teach, in some classes, Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat, in which he breaks down glorious movies like Miss Congeniality and Cocoon to shows us just how these works of art function. In short, he tells us how all those hours we lose to great films to are built to formula, to appeal to our basest human desires for story. Lisa Cron’s wonderful Story Genius falls into this category, and I teach that work, too. So does Elizabeth George’s Mastering the Process. In short, millions have been made of this pulling back of the curtain, and I devour these books both as an instructor and a creator.

I think this is in part because I am still very much a beginner at the long form of fiction. I’ve only had one novel published, and so I am still fascinated by the myriad ways there are to build and craft a thing. This forever learning feels good.


A one-day workshop I took on writing op-eds also presented a scaffolding. Do this, then provide this element, then close this way. I didn’t balk then – an op-ed is serviceable, a piece of functional literature; it made total sense that the most effective ones would follow a kind of formula. And I was happy to learn how the instructors viewed this form, which I’ve only ever stumbled into writing and publishing by accident (some essays I’ve written have been tagged and published as op-eds).

But in creative nonfiction, in the personal essay, I am better versed. I’ve published a great many more essays than I have long fiction or op-ed, felt that curious sensation of being in the flow so many more times, and lost so many hours to the gleeful joy, crushing brain cramp, and eventual elation of solving the mystery an essay presents to me. Ironically, because I am more skilled at this particular craft, I am reluctant to see it broken down into such predictable steps.

I like to believe an essay noodles along in your brain, making inroads in your gray matter not unlike a busy mole or gopher, until it plops, nearly fully formed, onto the page. In fact, this is the way I’ve written all of my essays, ever, from the very first one I penned for publication over 20 years ago now to the one I’m penning right now.


But my instructor was telling me that there’s a better way about it, and I’m not sure I can handle that just yet.


I’m still uneasy over the idea that each work is the same, that it has the same skeleton beneath its frills and crenellations.


I went to another seminar the other day, one about how to be a great essayist. The presenters suggested five “steps,” too, although they bantered a bit about why they’d chosen “steps” for their system, when what they were giving us were more like components to generating essays.


First, they said, you should notice things. Second, start with a question. Third, tell a story. And so on.

I think this methodology resonated more with me – it’s more like a checklist and less like a step-by-step. More freeform Play-Doh, less complicated model airplane building. I imagined that the essays that are built to order using a step-by-step method would all turn out looking the same.

Clearly this is untrue: Every “Modern Love” essay feels different, and not just because of the individuals and their stories represented in them. There’s voice and personal style and the details we as writers and as people choose to include and the ones we choose to omit. No matter how much scaffolding we can give a work, little tendrils will pop out; decorative details that make a work your own, like the electrical fittings you choose, the skin (glass or steel? brick or stucco?) that eventually goes on.

But I’m still uneasy over the idea that each work is the same, that it has the same skeleton beneath its frills and crenellations.



The things we write about, the particular ways in which we tackle them, are as unique as our fingerprints.


And yet – why should I let this bother me so much? Perhaps what the instructor is telling me is that there a better way to do what I’ve been doing. Maybe all she’s saying is that I don’t have to flail around in the muck of my brain looking for a beginning and a big meaty middle and a nice ending. Maybe, if I just follow the building plan, I’ll get even more essays written, like those developers who build a ton of condos all together in a lump and then paint them all different colors.

But no. I think I’m ignoring the basic human element of this. We all do carry the same basic skeleton inside, don’t we? And yet, I’d be hard-pressed to say I regularly mistake one friend for another, and I rarely mistake one essayist for another. The things we write about, the particular ways in which we tackle them, are as unique as our fingerprints.

Which, if I over-extend the metaphor, are a kind of decorative crenellation.



I have an essay due this week for the class with the scaffolding. I’ve had a whole week to work on it, and I’ve been really dragging my feet, since I know the thing will be judged by how well I’ve ticked off each necessary step that we’ve had outlined to us.

I know when I write for myself that I already follow a certain kind of map in my head. I can see what the reader might want to read about in the next paragraph or section: I know where I need to go at each curious turn. When I was editing essays regularly, I loved the essays that took me someplace unexpected right around three-quarters of the way through, for instance.

So, yeah. I know there’s a kind of scaffolding involved. I think I’ve just never thought about it that way before.


But this is the way we learn, right? We get good at doing a thing one way, maybe even reach expert level at it, until one day, someone shows us a new method. We try it. Maybe we like it, maybe we don’t. What matters is that we learned something new that we didn’t have in our tool belts before.

See you next month. I have to go try something new.



—Yi Shun Lai is the author of Pin Ups, a memoir. She teaches in the MFA programs at Bay Path and Southern New Hampshire universities and is a founding editor of Undomesticated Magazine. Visit at