Four Square (Not)

Have you ever thought about how you write an essay?  When my daughter was in fourth grade she came home to show me how she was taught to do so.  The process was called Four Square.  After watching her divide her wide-ruled notebook paper into four squares by drawing a large cross, she wrote a topic sentence in the center and then went from one block to the next, adding her supporting ideas.  I had never witnessed anything like this.  Four Square reminded me of geometry and the very unfortunate event when I raised my hand in class, stumped on the very first “clue” which turned out to be “given” (one of my more embarrassing moments).  The point being this — if I had been taught to write an essay by the Four Square method, I probably wouldn’t have been a writer for a long, long time (if at all), as I’m no visual learner.  Want to give me directions?  Write them out.  Do not draw a map.  I want words (and I prefer right and left to north and south… ;.).  However, I realize that for every person like me, the opposite is out there and a visual map, whether for directions or an essay, is like a gift. 

The entire idea of how to write an essay has been written about by many and I’m not even going to touch that.  But what I do find interesting, having recently completed an MFA program where I wrote critical essays on a regular basis for two years (and now do it for pleasure’s sake), is how does one come to her own recipe for writing an essay?  One of my peers from Spalding started his graduation lecture with a delightful remark – he thanked his faculty mentor for introducing the right side of his brain to his left.  Many creative writers have a challenge when it comes to critical writing.  To do both well, one must have discipline, must practice, and must read.  As I reflect on what works for me, I’ve realized I’m still battling with the way I was taught – it wasn’t the Four Square method, but it was a very linear method that is so ingrained in me that I find it stifling.  It is usually better for me to start again from scratch with an essay as opposed to editing it in its existing form.  It is almost as if the ideas are tied up into knots, and the knots are so convoluted that I cannot undo them. 

What works best about my own process is this:  letting it simmer.  In fact, I’ve begun to apply some of my creative process to my critical essay process.  When I get a line (or lines) for a poem, I scribble it down and let it sit for a bit.  It’s like a treat – something I can “chew” on, revisiting throughout the day or week, giving it life and feeling quite euphoric in the creation process.  So, for the essay I’m currently writing, I scribbled down my thoughts and let them sit in my notebook for a couple of weeks.  Then (deadline approaching but still a comfortable week and a half away), I began the essay, only glancing at my notes occasionally.  For some reason, everything began to flow a lot better.  Damn the outline, I thought, recalling those awful roman numerals and alphabetized points.  However, I do have to admit that for me to have arrived where I am now, I probably owe that arduous process a bit of begrudging credit.  As I kiss it goodbye, I feel no remorse, probably the same way my daughter will feel as she takes her pen to paper and finds no need to draw a Four Square to put her thoughts in order.


3 thoughts on “Four Square (Not)

  1. Rosemary, I know exactly what you are saying. As a teacher, one who worked with students before the State Writing Test, also one who scored the State Writing Test (with fixed formula) , it was frustrating for me. Using one’s imagination is not allowed. I saw gifted students fail the writing test and saw Learning Disabled students who had been taught the method get a passing score. I know. I know. My advice for the young is – if you want to pass the State writing test, follow the method. As an instructor of creative writing with an MFA, I say ( Praise God) for ultimately, “The mighty imagination triumphs.”


  2. Hi Rosemary,
    Maybe the outline and the four-square method are for those who wouldn’t otherwise think of writing. We’ve got to start somewhere.
    For me, you know what I do. I still have a ways to go.
    I like the idea of challenging the left brain to the dominant right brain.
    I love that you praised God for imagination…
    After all, the words passion and enthusiasm have God-given roots.


  3. As a partner for more than two decades, I appreciate your recognition of ‘visual’ people (comforting to know). As for Geometry and the ‘Four-Square’ method, I love it! Hell, I love Geometry. This breaking away from methods used to learn how to do something is important because this is an indication of how we grow and contribute to life.

    I feel that it is the orderly structure of our lives, work, and educational system (just for example – bell rings: move to next indoctrination; bell rings: now you can eat; bell rings: now you must endure the P.E. coach who symbolizes ‘Jock-dom’) that tries to put order in our lives, not the subject shared. Paraphrasing from the Breakfast Club: “Without Calculus, there would be no engineering – without lamps, there would be no light.” But lamp bulbs and the use and spread of electricity (using Calculus, of course) came from a thousand mistakes before it was discovered by Edison and mistakes are not allowed by our orderly training system of life.

    The creative portion of each human brain must be allowed to make mistakes while focusing on the goal and damn the ringing bell of order. Otherwise….we would have no light! Geometry came from the creative right side (I lean to the right in more than one way) and a million mistaken proofs as did writing. Thanks, Aristotle!

    P.S. I loved to play Four-Square in P.E.

    Your Visual Spouse.


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