I was taught to write essays using the hamburger method. Introductory paragraph to state your thesis, three more to support your argument, and a concluding paragraph to summarize it all.
It’s a wretched format. It jibed with my understanding that essays should be dry, academic fare. The more large words and fussy phrases like “in conclusion,” the better. I strived for this ideal and boy I wrote some doozies.
Teachers also gave us word counts to hit. I’d bang out my hamburger, check the word count, and frown in dismay when it was 300 words short of the 1,000 minimum. I became skilled at rewriting sentences to say the same thing using double the words. I also became intimately familiar with margins, kerning, and leading when page count was the criteria. It’s remarkable how one page can become two with a few tweaks in WordPerfect.
My notion of what an essay should be changed when I read a classmate’s piece that she submitted to a writing contest. She eschewed the hamburger method completely. The repetitive concluding paragraph was nowhere in sight. Her language was fresh, vibrant, unencumbered by words like “extemporaneous” that littered my own work.1 She won that contest and didn’t even monkey with the page layout.
I’m unsure why it took a classmate’s essay to clue me in that the hamburger method stinks. I suspect schools teach it to get students writing anything at all. A blank page is daunting, and if a framework like the hamburger method helps get words on it, so be it. But I’m not convinced it improved my writing.
In grade 6 our teacher tasked us with writing a daily journal. I had just discovered the word “approximately” and I used it judiciously. Everything got a time estimate. “At approximately 6 we went swimming,” “approximately 10 minutes later,” etc. Dismal stuff. ↩