Writing as a Process
"What," students often ask, "does
this teacher want?" In the discussion of "Product," I explained grades
and the "product" I expect you to give me. Those explanations are an attempt
to tell you what I want, and what grades I will give for the various things
I may get. Now we need to look at the process of writing a good essay:
once you know where you are going, how do you get there?
90% of Your Grade Is Determined
Many things affect your grade. Previous writing experience is one, and that experience, of course occurred before you write the drafts for any of the papers for this course. You cannot control your previous experience, but there are many things that you can control.
1. Time Begin early. If you start late, you will not do as good a job.
2. Attitude The options here are to care, or not to care; to try, or not to try; (in Hamlet's words) "to be, or not to be." Learning is impossible without trying, and trying means giving something your best shot. I can't play chess very well. Although I know the rules of the game, I was never willing to give it enough time and mental energy. Chess, of course, is simply a game; ENL 111 isn't. ENL 111 is a required course for almost every curriculum. That means that a lot of people must think ENL 111 is important. You may not agree, but since you have to hand in the papers, why not give it your best shot? What that means is to take an assignment and make it your own. Instead of writing the paper simply because you have to, do your best at explaining your topic to the audience you choose because you want to tell them something.
3. Brainstorming Brainstorming involves a number of activities, one of which is selecting a topic. Your choice of topic may be the most important factor in your grade. First, if you brainstorm long enough, you should be able to find a topic, even in the assignments on controversial issues (where your choice is more limited), that interests you (See # 2.) Second, if your topic is too broad or too narrow, your grade will suffer, no matter what you do after selecting it.
4. Outlining No homebuilder starts building
a house before having detailed architectural blueprints; no car manufacturer
build cars without first having detailed specifications for each part.
Good essays are built; the process is not identical to homebuilding or
making cars, but you will find the process a lot easier, and the end product
a lot better, if you have a general map (outline) of what you intend to
do before you start.
[Log Code = "B"]
I have often told students that the graders
for papers, in almost any course, are 95% determined before the students
begin to write the first draft. Two things affect that determination. The
first is the students' previous background. There is not much that you
can do about that now. (See "Causes of Grades.")
The second, which you do have control of, is the students' choice of topic
and brainstorming of it. Most students who do poorly simply do not spend
enough time brainstorming -- either for a topic, or about it.
Deciding on a TopicThe most important aspect of deciding on a topic is to find one that can really interest you. That does not mean that you have to already be interested in it, but you should be able, within the parameters of the assignment, to find something specific enough that you can learn something about it and want to tell people what you have learned. If you cannot get yourself involved in your own topic, expect no better than a C on the paper. The choice is often yours. When, for example, I have students write about a controversial topic, I get numerous, dull papers on marijuana laws, abortion, or gun laws. Few of these papers ever show involvement on the part of their writers. In effect, the papers say -- I had to write a paper on a controversial issue. I didn't want to think about it, and so I chose to write about an easy topic that did not require me to think. On the other hand, I have received some very nice papers on controversies specific to the students' own fields. When students choose something that is specific to their own interests, I rarely receive more than one paper on that topic. On the other hand, I often receive seven or eight papers on marijuana laws. If you want to put yourself into competition with six or seven of your classmates, and with the hundreds of students who have written about that same topic in previous years, it is, as a general rule, your choice. But don't expect to get anything better than a C.
As you search for a topic, ask yourself the following questions:
1. How easy would this topic be for me to write about? (If the answer is "very," you may get a mediocre paper -- if it will be very easy, it may easily be superficial, unless you have a lot of experience with the topic that your classmates don't have. If the answer is "very hard," you may want to avoid the topic; if the answer is "would require some work," go for it.)
2. Will I get 500-750 words about it? (If the answer is definitely "yes," don't write about it; "definitely no," don't write about it; "it will be difficult," go for it.)
3. How many of my classmates will choose this topic? (If the answer is "a lot," you are asking for a C; "none," you may be shooting for an A.
4. What audience would be interested in this topic? What publication should I try to write it for?
5. What would be the purpose of my paper?
6. What might make a good tentative thesis?
7. What will be the parts of my paper? (List them. If you can't, you've got a major problem with the topic.)
8. What are some of the details that I could put into this paper? (If you can't list any before you start, the odds are that you will have a major problem with the paper.)
When you finish making notes to the answers to these questions, you should have a fairly full sheet of paper. Study that sheet to decide if you can get a good paper from it. If not, start the process over again. It is much easier, and takes a lot less time, to storm a topic, decide to drop it and begin the storming process over again than it does to write an entire draft only to realize that you make a poor choice of topic.
Brainstorming the TopicOnce you have selected a topic, brainstorming the topic is simply a matter of looking for other possible subdivisions, examples and details that might be relevant to the topic. Because the human mind has difficulty remembering more than five or six ideas at a time, it is a good idea to brainstorm on paper. In effect, what you are doing is going through the closets of your mind, bringing out anything that might be relevant to your paper. As you continue to brainstorm, the items on your brainstorming paper will themselves remind you of other things that would be relevant. As a result, your brainstorming sheet should NOT look like a neat list. Instead, it should have clusters of items (including details and examples), lines connecting items, etc. In the process of storming, you should already begin to see relationships among the examples and details on the paper. These relationships will form the basis of your outline.
Students' logs have given me a picture of what students do and don't do and of what seems to work best for most students. Ideally, you should spend more than one work session storming, and storming sessions should last no less than 15 nor more than 60 minutes. Spending less than fifteen minutes in a storming session does not give your brain enough time to rummage through the closets of your mind. At the other end, brainstorming should be a focused mental activity, and the human brain does not generally work well at it for more than 60 minutes. Students who logged three-hour sessions for brainstorming actually spent much of that time daydreaming or wasting time.
Students who do very well in the course often do a lot of storming that is not recorded on their logs. As soon as they get an assignment, they begin to think about it, between classes, while driving to or from school, while washing dishes or clothes, etc. They sort through various ideas in their heads so that when they do sit down with paper and pencil to brainstorm, they simply start pouring out what they have already considered.
Students' logs have revealed a general misconception about brainstorming. Some students record an hour or more for storming and then report an hour or more (sometimes two or three) for outlining. Your storming really isn't complete until you have in your head a tentative thesis, audience, and outline. You should, in other words, be able to look at your brainstorming notes and say to yourself that
1. you have a good supply of details and examples for your essay, andWhen you can do that, your primary storming sessions are finished. You are now ready to arrange your storming into a tentative outline.
Recursive StormingWriting involves thinking. After you finish your primary brainstorming, you should write out a tentative thesis and outline. When you are satisfied with your outline, you are ready to begin drafting the essay. At that point, each section of the outline becomes a small essay in itself. As I will suggest in class, you should begin by drafting a section from the middle of your outline. But before you begin the draft of each section, it is a good idea to spend five or ten minutes reviewing your ideas for that section. Ask yourself questions such as:
1. What is the purpose of this section of the essay?
2. Do I have in mind the best examples for this section of the essay, or can I think of better ones?
3. Will my audience understand my examples, and do my examples
include various members of my audience?
[Log Code = "RR"]
Unless noted as part of an assignment, you should not do any additional reading for any of the major papers. If you do read something about a topic this semester before you write about it:
2) if we did cover "Works Cited" lists, make one and use in-text citations.
Once again students' logs have revealed misconceptions about how to write a research paper. Consider the following two sequences of log entries:
Student A, on the other hand, has spent some time storming BEFORE beginning the research. As a result, she has a much better idea of what she is looking for and why. And she also probably already has a tentative outline in mind. (See the section on "Brainstorming.") Even if you have NO knowledge of the topic you will be writing about, you DO have a BRAIN. Much of your college education is learning, not answers and facts, but rather what questions to ask. Suppose, for example, that I had to write a research paper on the disposal of nuclear waste material. I know nothing about the topic. But before I began my research, I could easily come up with a list of questions:
2. How many ways of disposal are there?
What are the advantages and disadvantages of each?
3. What dangers are involved?
Who is being endangered (workers? the general population?)
4. What costs are involved?
5. Where is the material produced and where will it be disposed of?
Note that Student A, who is headed for an A essay, recorded "recursive" sessions of storming and research. As I have said before and will say again, "90% of your grade is determined BEFORE you write the first draft." In the case of research papers, the best thing to do is to brainstorm, then check the library for the availability of source material. As you do your initial search, you will not only see what is available, you will also see things that will give you additional ideas. You can, of course, go immediately from looking up sources in the reference section to physically getting your hands on some of them, but a better idea is to take the print-outs of possible sources back to your room and spend a little more time storming. How much material did you find on costs? On dangers? On types? On Pennsylvania? Which of the areas seems of most interest to YOU? (Remember that your paper will be best if it follows your own interests.) What did you find that most surprised you? (You may have typed in "costs," thinking money, and found some things about costs in human suffering. Perhaps that would give you an interesting angle for an essay? It would also give you two major sections for a tentative outline - dollar costs and human costs.)
Make Your Essay YoursAnother misconception about research papers is the belief that they are simply a matter of gathering and reporting other people's ideas and facts. If you want to do a good job, you should make the paper your own by evaluating what you find in your research. Suppose, for example, that you narrowed your focus to nuclear waste in Pennsylvania. You do NOT need to do research to know that there are at least two possible answers to the question "Is nuclear waste a problem in Pennsylvania?" As you do your research, you will find arguments that it is, and arguments that it isn't. Part of your job is to evaluate these arguments and, based on what you found, come to your own conclusion. Writing your essay is then simply a matter of making your conclusion your thesis ("Nuclear waste - is / is not - a major problem in Pennsylvania."), and organizing and explaining what you found that led you to that conclusion.
Recursive ResearchIt is not at all unusual for me to find, late in a good student's log, an entry for reading/research. The entry is most often accompanied with a note such as "Looked for more examples of _____." The blank is usually filled by a SUB-POINT of the student's essay. Life is short, and there are a lot of things to do besides writing research papers. In most cases, especially if the topic is big, you are not expected to find and read everything you possibly can before you start to write. Besides, as noted elsewhere, your paper will take shape as you write your draft. As some parts get bigger, you may decide to drop other parts. But in this process, good students often find themselves going back to the library to find additional specific support for part of their paper.
Using SourcesWhen using sources other than those required for the course, the first thing you should do is to write down the bibliographical information you will need. You will find which information to write down in the Guide to Writing a Research Paper, which is required for this course. (It is my understanding that the Guide is also required in many advanced courses here at Penn College. You may want to keep it after this course is over.) Keep the bibliographical information and the information itself together, so that you know what came from where.
Read different materials differently. If you want to write about the costs of abortions, you will probably need to wade through numerous articles/book which have a lot of other things to say about abortions. Learn to scan, looking for material that is relevant to your topic. Take notes, including the page number of the source. Some people like to use note cards; others prefer paper. It's your choice (but put all your notes into your envelope). Distinguish quoted material, and take it down accurately.
[Log Code = "O"]
The pages on grades for Organization include examples of outlines and even suggestions about when and how to outline. Here I am interested in outlining as part of the writing process and in the outlines I expect you to hand in with your paper.
In the Writing ProcessIf you did the brainstorming, you should already have the basic divisions of your paper. Although you can make a complete outline in advance, it is usually a waste of time. You may simply want to start with the main sections (Roman Numbers). Then, before you write each section, develop that part of the outline. Because you will be adding to the body of the outline, you may have to copy the outline over again when you finished the paper, but you may still find that this is faster than trying to make the whole outline and then dropping parts of it.
Outlines to Hand In: "Paragraph Outlines"You may make several outlines in the course of working on your paper, all of which should be included in your envelope, but I expect you to turn in a formal outline of the paper, with Roman numbers, etc. The paragraphs in your paper should be numbered (You may do this with pen or pencil.), and the outline should include the numbers of the paragraphs for each section. In essence, the outline format should look something like this: (Where I have "xxxxxxx," you should have words or phrases which reflect the idea or topic of that section. If you are relatively new to writing essays, it is even a good idea to include the topic sentence for each paragraph.
This paragraph outline means that the first paragraph is the introduction
(Roman Number I.). The second paragraph of the paper covers Roman Number
II in the outline, including subpoints A and B. The third paragraph includes
the focal sentence for the second major section of
the paper (Roman Number III, plus the first sub-point of that section (III.A).
The fourth paragraph includes the topic sentence for section III.B, plus
the first section in it, i.e., III.B.1. The other section in III B has
its own paragraph, the fifth. And the sixth paragraph is the ending paragraph
of the essay.
Many students don't appear to realize
that the key words in the outline of the paper (i.e., the skeleton of the
paper) should appear in "Focal" or
sentences in the paper. Most college Freshmen understand that topic
sentences, which usually appear as the first sentence in the paragraph,
indicate what the body of a paragraph is about. In a surprising number
of cases, however, these students don't realize that the topic
sentences should basically line up with the items in the outline
of the paper. (This is one reason for my requesting "paragraph outlines.")
The second paragraph of this paper should begin with the
topic sentence such as "People give two main reasons for not voting."
The rest of the paragraph would develop the ideas in II.A. and II.B.
There are several ways to increase voting. One way would be to advertise in newspapers and on TV.Many writers combine the two sentences into one, as in " There are several ways to increase voting, one of which would be to advertise in newspapers and on TV." Either as separate sentences, or as one combined, the focal part introduces a section of the paper, and the topic sentence establishes the subject of the paragraph.
Focal sentences have three important functions. First, they stop the reader from making some objections. As noted above, if the third paragraph began with just the topic sentence, many readers would think that advertising is the only option being offered. As a result, while reading about the advertising, they might be thinking about how personal intervention could also help get people to vote. By indicating that other things will be considered, the focal sentence stops readers from making such objections. Second, the focal sentence prepares readers for the next section, in this example, individual intervention. As I often note in class, good readers create expectations about what is coming in the text. Good writers help good readers by providing focal sentences which serve as guidelines for what is to come.
The third, and perhaps most important function of focal sentences is that they help readers organize, comprehend, and remember what they have read. In discussing syntax, our psycholinguistic model of how the brain processes language will explain (or has already explained) how the human brain can deal with only five to seven "bits" of information at a time. In the same way that our brains "chunk" words to process sentences, we chunk ideas to organize, comprehend, and remember the ideas in what we read. For example, with the simple outline that we have been using as an example, there would be four paragraphs in the body of the essay. Without focal sentences, readers would have four "ideas" to remember. But the focal sentences organize (chunk) the material, enabling the reader to remember two main branches to the paper: 1) why people don't vote, and 2) how to get more of them to vote. Psychologists have shown that, as readers, we can handle ideas organized in such "trees" much better than if the material is simply strung out in a list. We can easily move up the branch (why they don't vote) to remember the reasons (lack of knowledge, doesn't count much). And we can easily slide down to the trunk and up another branch (how to get them to) to reach its branches (advertise, intervene personally). In a simple, six-paragraph essay, focal sentences may not seem important, but the longer and more complex the essay becomes, the more important are the focal sentences.
[Log Code = "D"]
Related to writing, "drafting" means
putting the ideas and words that are in your head and on your brainstorming
page onto a piece of paper (or a computer screen) in sentences. Papers
are normally written in sections, sections of the outline. (In effect,
a big paper becomes a lot of smaller papers.) When you are first putting
your ideas into sentences and paragraphs, you should not be thinking about
spelling or grammar, or even sentence structure. The human eye can only
focus on one thing at a time. If you are looking at a butterfly, the trees
in the background are there, but you don't "see" them. So too, the brain.
(It would be interesting to know if the physical limitation of the eye
lenses accounts for the limitation of the brain.) If your brain is working
well at drafting, it can't simultaneously worry about spelling or grammar.
It should be focussing on your topic sentence and the details that are
going to flesh it out. (Remember, you have several 1000-word pictures that
your brain has to reduce to four or five sentences. That requires a lot
of processing capacity.)
[Log Code = "RV"]
Many students confuse revising and editing.
"Revise" means to "re-see," and the process of revising entails re-seeing
the thesis, organization, and details in your paper in light of the audience
for which you chose to write. Even if you spent a lot of time brainstorming
and started drafting with a good outline, you should still spend time revising.
Most students taking this course do not realize the level of detail that
is expected in college writing. Thus, they often select topics that are
too broad. If, for example, you chose to describe a restaurant, you may
have initially thought that you would describe the decor, the service,
and the food. But once the draft is done, if you look at it with a critical
eye, you may realize that you really haven't said much about any of the
three. Thus, you may want to drop one whole section in order, for example,
to spend more time (and space in your paper) on the decor. Suppose,. for
example, that you had written about the TGIF restaurant in your town, and
had said that it is decorated with, among other things, a lot of old advertising
signs. That really doesn't mean much, and your paper would be a lot better
if you described, in as much detail as you can, one or two of the old signs.
Special Note to Computer Users:Some students, intentionally or unintentionally, have confused revisions with print-outs. One student, for example, included five print-outs of a paper, all marked as "drafts," and each with no handwriting on it. I have no intention of going through such "drafts" to see what changes were made. If you want to do all your revising on computer, then
2. do the revising on the computer,
3. print the final copy,
4. with a pen or pencil, mark the first draft to indicate the major changes that you made. [Doing this should take no more than two minutes.]
[Log Code = "E"]
Many students initially have trouble distinguishing between revising and editing. When you revise, you should be focusing on the CONTENT of your essay: When you edit, you should forget the content and focus on the STYLE and READABILITY of your essay.
Editing involves checking everything from the sentence down: spelling, grammar, etc. If you know that you have a tendency to make certain errors, you should check for them. If you lose points on early papers, you should make a list of what you did wrong (it's/its, apostrophe, etc.) and check subsequent papers for these errors in the process of editing. If you have a lot of problems with spelling, usage, etc., you may want to read your paper several times in the process of editing. For example, read it just to look for "they're/their/there." Then read it again, just checking the apostrophes. After you have done this with several papers, you should start to make fewer errors, and thus be able to shorten this editing process. The last thing you should do is to check for spelling errors. If you note an error after the final version of your paper is printed, it is perfectly permissible to cross out a word with a pen or pencil and make the correction above it.
This border is a reproduction of the right side of
Peter Paul Rubens'
The Four Quarters of the Globe
approx. 1612, oil on canvas; Art History Museum, Vienna
Carol Gerten's Fine Art http://metalab.unc.edu/cgfa/
[for educational use only]
Click here for the directory of my backgrounds based on art.