Guilford College Writing Manual

This is the official Guilford College Writing Manual. A collaboration between the English Department and the Hege Library.

Open Form vs. Fixed Form

Open form vs. fixed forum

Patrick Hartwell, in Open to Language, makes a useful distinction between "open form" and "fixed form." By open form, he refers to writing in which form develops organically. The paper's main idea is "`shaped through writing' rather than appearing, preconceived, before the first draft begins." Such writing is also "shaped by what the writer wants to say," not by the expectations of the readers. The essays of Michel de Montaigne, for example, who founded the modern essay in the 16th century, are "open form." So will be your journal entries, the exploratory essays you may write for English or IDS classes, and, perhaps, even the preliminary drafts of writing assignments that ultimately must become "fixed" in their final form.

Fixed form refers to types of writing in which the organizational plan is pre-established, either by you or by the rhetorical situation. If, for example, you intend to publish in the New England Journal of Medicine an article reporting the results of an experimental study, you will need to fashion your article using the four-part structure that has become standard in the New England Journal as well as in scientific journals generally:

  • Introduction
  • Materials and Methods
  • Results
  • Discussion

Your use of this format and its explicit headings ensures that the readers (many of whom are busy doctors) will be able to find quickly just those article sections in which they are interested. And it assures the readers that you have covered the necessary bases.

Other examples of "fixed form" writing include news articles, lab reports, reseach papers, memos, resumes, even--although not as rigidly or obviously--analytical essays appearing in humanities journals. Most of the writing you do at Guilford and in your professional career will likely be "fixed form" writing.

A concern about fixed-form writing:

Many students worry that tight, pre-established organizational plans will stifle their creativity. That's a valid concern. So how does one balance the writer's need for freedom and the reader's need for structure in a fixed-form situation? One way is to place no form- related restrictions on your preliminary drafts. Another is to rethink the relationship between your paper's scaffolding and its interior furnishings, as the following anecdote suggests.

In recounting the origin of "The Sleeping Beauty" ballet, music critic Frederic Grunfeld writes:

The choreographer was Marius Petipa, the great French-born ballet master of St. Petersburg's Maryinsky Theater. He supplied Tchaikovsky with a detailed outline of the musical requirements, specifying exactly the length, style, and mood of each dance or mime sequence. Far from inhibiting Tchaikovsky, this stimulated his imagination. The result was an evening-long score that established a new standard in ballet music and inspired many subsequent triumphs of Russian ballet on world stages.

How ironic that Grunfeld should describe this pre-mapped work of the great Romantic composer as "the convincing example of Tchaikovsky's great creative power"!

John McPhee, considered by many the greatest contemporary non-fiction writer, always works with a fixed structure that he establishes at the outset. He says, "Because I'm interested in structure, I must sound mechanistic. But it's just the opposite. I want to get the structural problems out of the way first, so that I can get to what matters more." McPhee describes "zones of free play" within the established structure. An energizing thought!