Of the thousands of articles and books I've read in the last twenty years on the subject of teaching writing, there's little doubt that the most influential piece is W. Ross Winterowd's "Rediscovering the Essay" in the Journal of Advanced Composition (1988). Reading Winterowd's essay provided me with a language for describing texts I was frequently reading but had no idea how to categorize. These were also texts I wanted my students to learn how to produce. I sensed that Winterowd's definitions might help students understand how to distinguish between tasks demanding a clear, focused communication of explicit conclusions and those topics that would benefit from a writer exploring divergent ideas without imposing a premature, thesis-driven closure.
Winterowd asserts that the essay is and should remain
the "central genre in composition instruction." The problem has been
that the essay has been classified into two vague, ill-defined categories:
the informal (identified by its personal, anecdotal style) and the formal
(a less personal, more argumentative style). In his JAC article, Winterowd
suggests a new set of terms for analyzing and classifying two essay
types: the "propositional" and "appositional." Winterowd is not advocating
the superiority of one essay model over the other. The issue is ensuring
that students have opportunities to work with both writing/thinking
The Propositional Essay
Prevalent models or examples of the propositional essay
would include five-paragraph themes, research reports, the traditional
argumentative essay, and most articles in academic journals.
The Appositional Essay
Essayists who provide frequent examples of appositional writing include Joan Didion ("Los Angeles Notebook"), Loren Eiseley (The Unexpected Universe, The Immense Journey), Lewis Thomas (Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler's Ninth Symphony), Gretel Ehrlich, James Thurber, E. B. White, Mark Twain, Henry David Thoreau, Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt, and the first master of the appositional essay: Michel Montaigne.
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E-mail Dr. Bob Marrs with any questions, comments or suggestions.