Jill’s Gems: The Art of Invention: Breaking It Down into Meaningful Steps

Jan 26, 2018 | Posted by the IEW Blog Team


Enjoy Jill’s concrete response to a parent’s recent request in our forums for help regarding the art of invention.

Inventive writing is difficult because it begins with a blank page—what to write? This is why IEW puts inventive writing in Unit 7. The previous six units provide students with the tools to prepare them.

There are things you can do to help your students. In the High School Essay Intensive, Andrew introduces the skills of invention: division, comparison, application, and significance. Use those tools to come up with the content for an essay. To pull it together, practice the TRIAC model.

Let’s take a look at the prompt below, and use the tools Andrew describes to see how this works in real life.

Passage: An actor, when his cue came, was unable to move onto the stage. He said, “I can’t get in, the chair is in the way.” And the producer said, “Use the difficulty. If it’s a drama, pick the chair up and smash it. If it’s comedy, fall over it.” From this experience the actor concluded that in any situation in life that is negative, there is something positive you can do with it. (Adapted from Lawrence Eisenberg, “Caine Scrutiny.”)

Assignment: Can any obstacle or disadvantage be turned into something good?

Don’t get bogged down with the passage. It is there to help get a student thinking. The assignment is the question that must be answered. In this prompt, the passage gives one example showing the an obstacle can be turned into something good: the obstacle of the chair taught the actor something.

The first thing to do is use the tools of inventive writing that Andrew teaches in the HSE: division, comparison, application, and significance. This will aid in deciding on a position and choosing topics for the body paragraphs.

  • Division (seeing into things—finding the aspects or components of the subject): Brainstorm obstacles or disadvantages: blindness, cancer diagnosis, paralysis, loss of job, loss of a game, loss of life, someone dying, poverty, no arms/legs, no phone, literal road blocks, rejection letters, etc.
  • Comparison (what are like or similar things? Unlike?): To what can the obstacles or disadvantages be likened? A dam in a river? A nail in a tree? A fence? A lock on a door? Not having the right tool for a task? Something else?
  • Application (To whom, or in what circumstances, does this have application and value?): In other words, who cares? Overcoming obstacles or disadvantages is important for people starting out in life or who have gotten hit with some trouble. It also applies to students, patients, minorities, immigrants, people with genetic problems or learning disabilities, etc.
  • Significance (What are the causes, effects, consequences?): In other words, so what? Life is not easy. Things get in the way of what we want to do. We have to learn to overcome obstacles and disadvantages to get ahead.
  • Do you see how powerful that step was? After applying these inventive skills, we have a lot more insight into the subject.

Next, choose a position. This one leans just one direction: It is possible for obstacles and disadvantages to be turned into something good.

After that, the next thing to do is prove the position by using logic or giving examples. Examples can come from literature, history, science, or personal experience. This is where a lifetime of reading comes in handy.

Reread the prompt to make sure you are on the right track. Then go back to the inventive exercise and look for any points that you can flesh out with an example.

The ones in the “division” section are usually the easiest to use. Here are the ones for which I have an example:

  • Blindness: Fanny Crosby was a blind woman who wrote over nine thousand uplifting hymns.
  • Deafness: Beethoven was deaf when he wrote many of his greatest works. 
  • Racism: Harriet Tubman escaped and went back to the South to usher scores of slaves to freedom.
  • Lack of education: Nathaniel Bowditch could not afford an education; instead, he was self-taught and became the father of modern navigation.
  • Missing ingredients: A lady was making chocolate cookies but was out of cocoa. She dumped in chocolate bits instead. They didn’t mix in, but who cares? The chocolate chip cookie was born!

The examples in “comparison” might work well, too.

  • Not having the right tool requires invention; “necessity is the mother of invention.” Maybe discuss how things NASA created for the space program are now used by us: small calculators, for example.

I could go on and on, but there is no need! Two or three examples will be enough. Choose ones that you know the most about. The most important thing with this is to write deeply about each example.

Now for the writing. Andrew’s TRIAC model makes it super easy. There is a full discussion by me on how TRIAC works in this forum answer.

I’ll go through one using the protagonist from my favorite book, Carry On, Mr. Bowditch by Jean Lee Latham.

  • Topic: Nathanial Bowditch’s family was too poor to send him to school, but that did not hold him back.
  • Restriction: He did not give up. Instead, he worked hard to succeed.
  • Illustration: When he wanted to read a book that was only available in French, he taught himself French by comparing English and French translations of the Bible. A friend heard what he was doing and taught him to speak French properly. His ability to speak French landed him a job on a merchant ship. On the ship he learned navigation. He used his mastery of numbers to improve navigation of the day.
  • Analysis: Had Bowditch gone to school, he might never have seen the needs of ship captains to improve the navigation books. Instead of ruining his prospects, his lack of education coupled with his hard work made him the father of modern navigation.
  • Clincher: Bowditch’s disadvantaged start to life ended up being the thing to make him famous.

Now, I like using the TRIAC model to guide me in writing my paragraph, but I find some of my students get bogged down in the model, so if your son does not take to it, let it go. A paragraph can be created just by choosing a topic and then using the “brain questions” (who, what, where, when, why, how, what significance, what problems, etc.) to fill in the details. Once the body paragraphs are written, tack on a simple introduction and conclusion. The introduction should show your position and list the topics--basically give a thesis statement.

For example, if I did a paragraph on Bowditch and another on Harriet Tubman, my introduction might look like this:

           Some people might complain that starting life with a disadvantage is impossible to overcome. That is just not true. With hard work and courage, a disadvantage can be turned to good.

The conclusion restates the position and finishes the essay. Adding a call to action may be a good way to finish it. Here is what I would say for my essay on Bowditch and Tubman:

           Disadvantages do not have to ruin a life. It is all up to the person. Instead of focusing on their troubles, Bowditch and Tubman worked hard at what was placed before them. It not only made them famous, but it brought them great joy to help others. Don’t focus on the problem—be the solution.

The key to helping your son is to do a bunch of these. Take a prompt daily and work through the inventive process of division, comparison, application, and significance. Then choose topics and create an outline. Then turn the outlines into oral paragraphs. Do this daily until it is easy.


We hope Jill’s walk-through of the art of invention and illustration of TRIAC will help you as you seek to help your own students. Be patient and practice this approach regularly. It takes time to understand and many repetitions to build this skill, but it’s worth it!

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