I began my professional writing life working for newspapers then magazines and then the internet. I have published a lot of nonfiction writing over the decades, but I still remember a lesson that I learned as an undergrad: every story needs a slant. In the writing world, slant means crafting your writing for a specific audience. Of course, like rhetoric itself, this has meant that “slant” has been maligned as lying or misrepresenting when in truth it is the best version of rhetoric – writing focused on the rhetorical context.
In every writing class I teach, I focus on fostering writers and that means helping those writers develop the tools, all the tools, they need to share their voice with the world. It has never been my primary focus to teach students a specific form of essay or brand of writing, because that is not how writing works in the real world. Authentic writing has a real purpose and a real audience for the writer’s message, but the form that message takes is just one more tool in the writer’s toolbox. As I have shifted my praxis to project-based writing, I have offered my students more agency and choice and then Emily Dickinson’s poem Tell all the truth but tell it slant reminded me of my own writing origin story.
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blindTell all the truth but tell it slant by Emily Dickinson
As I note in Writing Slant, last fall I challenged my students to craft their This I Believe American Creed‘s in the form that best suited their audience and message. More recently, upon my introduction to the demi-sonnet and the slant rhyme, I fell in love with the idea even more. I love the rhetorical play that I could only call the slant essay because I want the writers in my care to craft their words to suit their purpose and their audience and not some made up fever dream of form. I love the words used to describe a slant rhyme – words like near, approximate, inexact, and sprung (as in flexible, loose, and yielding). Just as a slant rhyme meets the spirit of a perfect rhyme, a slant essay must meet the spirit of the intended writing deliverable. When I ask my students to craft a This I Believe slant essay I ask them to meet the spirit – the essence – of the This I Believe essay but not the law. Similarly, when I teach rhetorical analysis my students are offered a variety of theoretical lenses to study their chosen text and several organizational patterns to make their argument. When I teach the required argument essay I share the traditional formal argument structure as well as other argument forms and allow students to make the choice. During our in-class writing we craft chunks of text that can be organized in many ways and experiment with the forms so students can organically discover which form best fits their message and intended audience.
Slant essays double down on authentic writing by inspiring students to really consider their rhetorical situation and how it informs form. I always want my students to see writing as both an exploration of their thoughts and a conversation with a chosen audience about those ideas. Slant essays are a fun and exciting way to teach writing and rhetoric and they fit well into my passion-based learning classroom.
What Does It Look Like?
The choices I offer my students vary according to the context (in the best slant tradition). Some units and learning goals lend themselves more to the slant format than others. As I noted above, rhetorical analysis and argument essays can still be slanted but should look and read like an essay, but a creed can take many forms. However, it is the final unit of both my Writing I and Writing II classes where the slant essay moves much closer to an unessay. My Writing I classes are built around the theme of Building A More Perfect Union…One Story At A Time and our final “What If” unit offered students the option to craft a multi-genre project after spending weeks experimenting with a variety of artifacts (see below). My Writing II classes use games to explore rhetoric and writing and until this year always ended with a game jam. This year after discovering the joys of the slant essay I offered my Writing II students the option to craft a slant essay or hack/create a game.
After completing their slant essays or unessays focused on the arguments springing from their work that semester, my Writing I and Writing II students are both expected to craft reflections that can range from literacy narratives to arguments. These reflections are focused on their journey as writers especially the lessons learned and tools/skills developed along the way and are an essential component of ungrading and project-based learning practice. These reflection essays are also slant essays as students can approach the work as a literacy narrative, rhetorical analysis, comparison contrast, or from a selection of tools I use to reflect on my practice. I love the choices made for these reflections even more than the final slant essays or projects focused on our theme.
I am not the first writing teacher to use this metaphor for writing instruction. For example, in Tell It Slant, Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola show writers how to move beyond mere facts to make the most of their own “slant” on the world. Nicholas Leither and Barry Horwitz similarly emphasize personal voice in Slant: Writing Essays You Want to Read. I am also sure that there are many teachers in my professional learning network using some version of a slant essay whether they call it that or not. And of course project-based writing and the unessay are also well established practices. After all, choice is the foundation of passion-based learning and writing workshop. I prefer to use “slant essay” simply because my first-year college writers expect to write essays in their required writing classes and many are uncomfortable with so much freedom. However, after a semester or year of letting their truth dazzle brightly many are ready to leave such restraint behind and that is why I plan to encourage my students to write slant until I retire. Emily Dickinson really is the bomb, am I right?