The Death of the Blue Book Approach to Writing the Literary Essay

The first half of September usually means students are engaging in essay writing in response to their summer reading assignment. Some teachers gave students a vast array of summer reading choices, so the essay prompts are broader to accommodate this variety. Other teachers assigned one summer read (This is what I do.) and choose to test students’ writing abilities by assigning an in-class writing exam that the students execute either by hand or by some kind of word processor, usually Google Docs.


These essays have been required of students for decades, but summer reading was never meant to be required and certainly not tested. In 2012 the Boston Globe published “How America Learned to Love Summer Reading,” and they unearthed an 1872 quote from the Chicago Tribune

The Chicago Tribune, just before it unveiled its favorite summer reads for 1872, put it this way: The best summer book was one "the idler can take with him into solitude, and read with delightful pauses, when with indolent finger upon the page, his eye wanders up some green vista, or catches some view of the distant sea, and his ear is soothed with the distant murmur of the winds and waves."

But according to Ya-Ling Yu of Rutgers University, it’s only been in the last 40 years or so that summer reading has been utilized to address the perceived “learning loss” that happens in the summer months. This seems to be when a student started being tested on whether or not they did their summer reading.


When I was a high school student in the mid- to late-1980s, few things brought more terror and anxiety than the sight of a neat stack of Blue Books poised for distribution right before the summer reading exam in English class. The only thing more frightening would have been if I also received a Scantron for the test. I surely would have blacked out then.


We can thank a Butler University professor for the Blue Book. According to a short history of the C.P. Lesh Paper Company I found on the Web, 

Because of its capacity to print multicolored lines on a page, a Butler University professor approached the company in the 1920s to print sheets of paper for his students to use for exams, which, he suggested, might be bound together. The booklets were designed with blue covers because Butler’s colors were blue and white. The company marketed the resulting “blue books” across the country, and they became indelibly associated with college-level exams for millions. By the mid-1980s the company was selling more than a million exam books a month.

Tulane University archived a Blue Book written in by John Kennedy Toole, author of A Confederacy of Dunces, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1981, twelve years after the author’s suicide. Toole wrote in the booklet for a philosophy course exam in 1955. He didn’t seem to have an issue with it.


My task when I ever received a Blue Book was to fill the eight pages, twenty-eight lines per page (I never wrote on the backs of pages), with a literary essay that, for the most part, regurgitated theories the instructor expressed the two weeks prior to the exam. 


Teachers encouraged us to plan the essay first with some kind of outline. I don’t remember ever practicing essay writing in class first, but I do remember my father teaching me how to outline because that’s what he wanted to see, along with clearly marked dates, in the notebooks he checked every night for a while. I still make sure everything I write is dated.


I don’t remember the content of the essays at all. I just remember that no matter how long I planned before starting the timed essay exam, I’d always run into problems with how the process of discovering while writing messed with my responses. Most of us wrote our essays spatially: we started at the introduction, wrote the body paragraphs, and if there was room we’d cram a conclusion at the end in words way smaller than anything else we wrote.

Virginia magazine at UVA wrote an article in 2013 on the variations of Blue Book responses, and this one is my favorite because it comes closest to approximating the issues many of us had in writing the essays spatially. No matter how well I seemed to plan at the start of the exam, the actual writing of the essay would reveal things to me that I had forgotten or discovered at that moment, but unless I used erasable pen, which was impossible for me because I was left-handed and would stain the outside of my hand blue from sweeping it across the page as I wrote, there was no way to go back without making a mess of the manuscript. Most of our intentions in turning something in was to make sure we didn’t piss the teacher off, so the more fearful of us wouldn’t feel safe writing extra sentences and drawing arrows to where we wanted them to go. We couldn’t write the whole thing over, either. There just wasn’t enough time.


The smartest students were the ones who’d start their essays with the body paragraphs halfway down the first page so they could insert an introduction at the end. I didn’t realize, though, how necessary this strategy was until about ten or fifteen years into my career as a teacher. 


Despite the fact that an “introduction” is the beginning of a traditional American academic essay, it’s really the conclusion a writer has come to based on a study of the text, so it only makes sense that a student should write it last. And thanks to the word processor, there’s no longer a need to write from beginning to end anymore. Still, students are still conditioned to write this way. Of course the introduction is first. It’s the introduction! The problem is that whatever a student has written in the introduction can change by the time they get to the conclusion of the essay. This is a huge problem, and I still encounter it at the start of every school year from students who are otherwise capable writers. 


Since it’s the natural inclination of the human mind to wander, even in considering one topic, and the impromptu essay is a written recording of this wandering, the student is always at risk of going away from the thesis they’ve written in the introductory paragraph. There’s no possible way to come up with the conclusion (thesis) of the entire essay before you’ve considered, in detail, the body paragraphs of the essay.


I have to take a second here to say that I worked with a teacher pretty recently who told all of us at a department meeting “I don’t teach introductions and conclusions because students don’t know how to write them.”


Let that wash over you for a second. I’ll wait.


In an attempt to persist in encouraging students to break the habit of the linear approach to writing the essay, I offer some advice toward writing a rich, cohesive response to a literary prompt.


Wait, before I do this I have to say that there are a couple of ways you could be presented with this assignment: 

  1. You may be given a series of prompts to choose from. Most likely these prompts will reflect the topics you’ve discussed in class. Annotations are a necessity during these discussions because you’ll be able to mark places in the text where these topics figure prominently. 

  2. You may be able to choose your own topic, which might be a little more difficult since you didn’t necessarily annotate your summer reading text while you read it in July and August. This means you’ll have to return to the text to pinpoint the evidence that can support your thesis.

Let’s say for the sake of simplicity that you’re presented with option number one and we’ll go from there. Option one allows you to basically plan ahead. If you know that you’re probably getting an essay prompt on the effect of forced migration on characters’ lives, for instance, you can plan your essay before you walk into the in-class essay exam

So try these steps if you have the patience for them and have time to plan ahead:

  1. Establish the main topic of the prompt (characters who migrate) and find all passages in the text that deal with this topic. Mark all of them.

  2. Read each passage again. Since this will likely be the third or fourth time you’re reading the passage, things will begin to rise from the text for you.

  3. Cluster the textual evidence into subcategories. Sometimes the subcategories are easy, like one subcategory for each character who has migrated, for example. 

  4. Delete all the textual evidence you won’t be using (or move them somewhere out of sight. You might come back to them later.)

  5. Form a hypothesis based on a pattern that seems to be emerging from the subcategories. This is your “working thesis,” something that might change as you develop your ideas in the body paragraphs. Your hypothesis shouldn’t be an observable fact. It has to be a subjective conclusion that isn’t explicitly stated in the text.

  6. Arrange your clusters of textual examples (future body paragraphs) into an order that shows a progression. The body paragraphs should be arranged in a progressive order and the evidence within the paragraphs should show a progression.

  7. Write the body paragraphs, using the hypothesis as your guide. Try to be cohesive, but allow yourself to wander if you need to. 

  8. Re-examine the hypothesis to see if it still applies. It most likely won’t, so look at the topic sentences of your body paragraphs and make sure you write a thesis that clearly expresses a conclusion you’ve reached through the writing of the body paragraphs. If you don’t do this, your essay won’t be cohesive.

  9. Write an introduction that reflects your revised thesis. 

  10. Write a conclusion that doesn’t rehash everything, but fortifies the thesis, while also moving the overall thesis forward. I call it a kind of baton in a relay race. What you write in the conclusion after fortifying the thesis should be something the next person can take and start a new essay (picked this up from another recent colleague but this colleague is quite brilliant).

Here I am talking about introductions and conclusions to my students about ten months ago. 

The eleventh thing should be to shred the Blue Book.


If you found any of this helpful, I’m glad. I also wouldn’t mind hearing about it. It’s been difficult to leave a place I gave all of my emotion and skill to for over a decade and not hear from many people about not being there anymore. It didn’t bother me so much until I heard one of my sons express his feelings about it. 


My son left the school when I did, and he wanted to know when school started there this year. He anticipated and secretly hoped that a relative stranger, someone maybe from outside the circle of those who knew him well, would reach out to him, not to commiserate with him, necessarily, but simply to react in a way that said “I remember you were here at some point because your human presence mattered to me, but you’re not here anymore and I notice.” I think that’s all any of us want, really: for someone to notice when we’re gone.

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