The Pre-Flight Checklist (A Step Beyond Proofreading)

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When you finish writing a paper, what are the last things you do with it before turning it in? Say it’s late in the library, and you’ve been working on the same long paper for several days, maybe weeks. Perhaps the paper has been through several drafts and you’re already sick of revising your thesis, refining your main points and re-wording the same sentences over and over again. Maybe at this point all you want to do is check for typos, hit print and be done with the paper forever.

Proofreading, spellcheck and the like are certainly common (and necessary) parts of the “pre-flight checklist” most writers run through before releasing their paper into the wilds of publication (or a professor’s inbox). But if you only focus on checking off these “lower-order” concerns as you prepare to turn in your completed paper, you risk overlooking deeper flaws that may have escaped notice during the writing and editing process.

The longer the time spent with a single piece, the more difficult it is to identify and correct flaws in the writing and argumentation. This fatigue might make it difficult to take a fresh approach to your paper and locate “gaps” or holes in logic that may have already evaded notice through multiple revisions. Luckily there are strategies you can employ to help gain some new perspective on your final draft and catch those persistent errors before they catch you.

  • Read your paper out loud in its entirety. If a friend or tutor is available, read it to them, or have them read it to you. This is also a common strategy while drafting a paper, but it can be especially helpful for catching errors and inconsistencies when the paper is in its final state. Hearing your writing read aloud, especially in another’s voice, may help you spot weaknesses in your argument or prose that weren’t apparent to you while writing.

What can I learn from hearing my paper spoken aloud?

  • Explain your basic argument without referencing your paper. Again, this works well if you have another person to explain to, but even summarizing your main points to yourself verbally can help you get a better sense of your paper’s coherence at this stage. See if your blind explanation matches the structure and content of your argument as it appears in the paper. If points or details emerge in your explanation that aren’t made clear enough in the paper, you may want to check those out before turning it in.

Have I convinced myself of my argument?

  • Map your paper out conceptually on a blank sheet of paper. Creating a visual representation of your paper can help you see any gaps that might still be present. Notice how long it takes you to map out your ideas and how you feel when doing so. If it’s easy for you and your map is clear and logical, you are probably just about ready to submit your paper.

Does my map point to any conceptual hole that needs “filling”?

  • Circle each use of a special term, if using any. Check to see that the term is used consistently and clearly every time. Depending on the subject, you may or may not have to define certain academic terms in your paper. You might find yourself defining your own term and subsequently using it throughout your paper. In either case, you’ll want to be sure that your use of a term indicates a clear understanding of its meaning.

Is it clear that I understand the terms I’m using? Are they used correctly each time?

  • Summarize each paragraph in a short sentence. Piece together those sentences in order.
    • Compare each summary sentence with your thesis.

Is my “flow” of ideas clear? Does each summary sentence directly support the thesis? Does anything not belong in the paper or need to be placed elsewhere?

    • Check your conclusion against the summary.

Does my conclusion reflect the content, organization, and structure of the paper as a whole? Have I convinced myself of my argument?

Writing a paper can be a trying experience, and ideally your grade should reflect the time and effort you have put into it. It sometimes comes as a surprise when you receive a grade that is a few notches lower than what you expected. You have a solid foundation, your professor says, but your execution is a bit choppy. Perhaps his or her comments point to unclear sentences, problems with structure, and confusion about your flow of ideas. You’re frustrated because you thought you had submitted a polished paper and you don’t know how you could have caught these errors on your own.

We hope that using our strategies above will prevent this situation. We encourage you to try them out and see what works for you next time you are close to submitting a paper. Leave a day or two before its due date and experiment. You might find that this is exactly the final touch you’ve been looking for.

by Emily Lin-Jones and Kuba Jeffers

When the Devil’s Not in the Details: Addressing Lower Order Concerns in Tutoring Sessions

By Henry Allen

Note to readers: This piece is for writing tutors, though writers are welcome to read it for a peek inside the tutoring workshop.

In every tutoring session, certain concerns need to be prioritized above others. Writing pedagogies have traditionally distinguished between two rough levels of priority: higher order concerns (HOCs) and lower order concerns (LOCs). HOCs are things like the organization of a paper, whether it has an arguable thesis, and how well it uses evidence. These are the concerns that will make or break a paper. LOCs, on the other hand, are errors in, for example, sentence structure, grammar, and spelling. They will reduce the clarity of a paper but, unless they are especially egregious, won’t significantly obscure the paper’s argument. In grading, professors will usually weigh lower order concerns less than higher order concerns. Consequently, unless a writer asks to work on LOCs in a tutoring session, HOCs should be prioritized.

However, there will often still be time to deal with lower order concerns. When there is time, it can be hard to know when to address them, how to address them, and how long to spend doing so. In this post, I will lay out a method for dealing with LOCs that involves saving them for the end of the tutoring session, dealing with one type of error at a time, and ensuring that the writer understands the error at hand before moving on.

First off, when should LOCs be addressed? When I tutor, I am often tempted to correct LOCs in passing as I read through a paper, with a quick remark of explanation. But this can easily turn into glorified editing. Often, I feel like my explanation just goes in one ear and out the other. The writer will leave with a corrected paper but without having learned anything, just as liable to make the same mistake in the future.

Consequently, it’s better to save lower order concerns for the end of the session and only deal with them when you can devote some time to them. As you read through, mark all their LOCs but don’t stop to discuss or fix them until you are done with their HOCs. Yes, this will mean that in some tutoring sessions LOCs will be completely ignored. But that’s the cost of setting priorities. If you fix their LOCs and they learn nothing, you have merely helped the writer’s grade in the short term and set yourself up for a plagiarism proceeding.

Note, however, that this only applies (A) for when the writer has not explicitly asked you to focus on LOCs and (B) to truly minor LOCs. Some LOCS are serious enough that they critically obscure the meaning of a sentence and prevent you from understanding what the paper is trying to say. These LOCs will need to be addressed before HOCs—you can’t fix an writer’s argument if you don’t know what the writer is trying to say. However, most LOCs are not this serious and should be saved for the end of a session.

So, when you do have a chunk of time to devote to LOCs, how should you go about addressing them? First, make sure to prioritize here as well. Pick a mistake they made repeatedly, or one that has the highest risk of obscuring the meaning of a sentence. Then, in determining how to deal with it, keep the goal of the tutoring session firmly in mind: the improvement of the writer, not the paper. As noted above, the writer of course won’t improve if the tutor simply fixes their paper. But neither will they improve if the tutor, using a strict non-directive approach, forces them to guess their way to the right answer. This is because many of our grammar rules are arbitrary. A writer will never figure out such rules by making educated guesses from common sense. Rather, they need to be told what the rules are and then be given the chance to practice applying them.

Thus, for the first instance of the given error, fix it for them and then clearly explain why you did so and what the operative grammar rule is. Make sure to translate any grammatical terms you used that the writer is unfamiliar with into plain English. Most writers who haven’t studied a foreign language and for whom English is a first language will be unfamiliar with the most basic terms. If they give you a blank expression at the first mention of “independent clause,” assume they know nothing and translate every term you use.

Next, check whether they understood your explanation. Ask, “Did that make sense?” However, don’t rely on a simple “yes.” Many writers will say that they understood when they didn’t just to keep the session moving. Instead, if they made the same mistake elsewhere, ask them to fix the other instances of their error and then explain to you how they did so. If they really understand, they should be able to justify their correction.

If they only made the given error once, ask them to paraphrase your explanation of the error and the grammar rule. Say, “Why don’t you explain that back to me.” So as not to seem like you’re just giving them a hard time, be clear about why you’re doing this. Tell them, “this will help you understand better.”

Now, what happens if they’re not getting it? Maybe they can’t give you a clear explanation, or maybe they’re unable to fix the other instances of their error. First, don’t assume that they’re “slow” or stupid. Unless you can tell by their body language that they’re disengaged and not willing to learn, they probably aren’t getting it because you’re not explaining it clearly. So try again. Alter your explanation. Maybe invent some examples, or find some online, to help you. But don’t move on to their other errors until they get this one. It’s better that they truly understand one of their mistakes than none at all.

A significant part of this method depends on you being able to provide a grammatical explanation of their error. But this kind of knowledge of English grammar goes beyond what many tutors are expected to know. So what do you do when you know they made a mistake but are unable to explain why? As Maggie Eismeier and John Masla explain in “Grammar rules and resources,” this is a great opportunity for you to look together online for an explanation, using a resource like the Purdue OWL. As Maggie and John say, this not only solves your immediate problem but shows the writer where to find grammar resources for the future. Further, it tells them that it’s okay to not know everything, to need to seek help, and that being able to write well doesn’t demand knowing every arcane rule of English grammar. Turn your own grammatical ignorance into a learning opportunity!

In sum, tutoring a writer on lower order concerns rather than simply correcting their mistakes demands a significant amount of time in a session. So, unless LOCs seriously obstruct meaning, save them for the end. Then, pick one to focus on, fix it, and explain why in plain English. Next, have them practice on other instances of the error and ask them to justify their corrections. Or, if they only made the mistake once, check for understanding by having them paraphrase your explanation. No matter what, don’t move on until they get it.

Hopefully, this method will slowly give writers a rudimentary understanding of something that most college classes don’t have the luxury of covering: the principles of English grammar and the basic rules that ensure clear writing.

Strong Titles and Hooks: Getting Your Audience Interested From the Get-Go

Ideally, of course, every component of a paper is perfect. The introduction, body paragraphs, and conclusion weave together faultlessly, the grammar is impeccable, and the argument is bulletproof. In reality, though, slaves to deadlines as we are, writers often must prioritize certain aspects of a paper over others. Titles and the first few sentences of introductions (“hooks”) tend to fall to the wayside in the rush to complete the assignment on time. Well, I’m here to say that it is well worth your while to give your paper’s title and introduction some serious thought. In this post, I revisit three truisms we all learned to varying degrees in middle school, but which are no less applicable in the college writing setting.

1) A wimpy title is a wasted opportunity! Most people in the English-speaking world read from the top of the page down, which means your title will be the first part of your paper that readers see. A good first impression can make a big difference, particularly for graded assignments. So, what constitutes a “good” title? Such titles are usually…

  • Informative. Give the reader a sense for what texts you’ll be discussing. Name the theories you’ll be contrasting. Whatever your key source of evidence may be, identify it in your title, and include a brief indication of how you will go about analyzing it.
  • Concise. While hinting at your paper’s thesis is a generally effective strategy, your title is not the place for laying out your argument point by point.
  • If at all possible, punny. Alliteration, puns, and other wordplay can and should be used in titles whenever the fancy strikes you. Go wild with this; it’s a great opportunity to make nerdy jokes about your subject matter. If the joke falls flat, no harm done – it’s just a title. More often than not, though, your professor (or other readers) will appreciate the unexpected humor, and be more engaged by the paper as a whole.

Your titles and hooks should aim to engage the reader – through humor and the element of surprise

2) Regardless of your paper’s context or intended audience, your title and hook matter. These first few words are perhaps the most important in shaping your reader’s expectations for the paper. They also play a key role in capturing your audience’s attention. Yes, it’s true that most of what you write will only ever be read by a professor, who has to read it, no matter how dull and un-engaging it may be. Nevertheless, it is still an important exercise to be able to compose a powerful title and hook, because it should be your aim to engage your professor. The paper that stands out in the professor’s mind in a positive way is often the paper that earns a high grade.

3) An intelligible introduction lays the groundwork for an intelligible paper. In addition to signaling to the reader the direction your paper will take, an introduction can serve as a good indicator to you, the writer, of how effective and coherent your argument is. If you can’t think of an engaging way to hook your audience, your topic may lack relevance or be uninteresting. If you have trouble introducing and articulating your claim in a single paragraph, that may mean you need to revisit and clarify your argument.

In the end, it pays to have a well-articulated title and introduction to your paper. By no means should these pieces necessarily be written first – in fact, it’s often easiest to write them after the rest of the paper is already complete. However, this doesn’t mean that your title and intro should be an afterthought! Setting aside some time to formulate a strong title and introduction can make a big difference to your paper’s overall effectiveness.

Getting Started

By Delaney Hanon

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The initial spark of motivation to begin a project is always hard to come by. The first step seems huge and ominous and way too difficult to tackle in just a half an hour, right? It’s also scary to start out on a new endeavor, as how our work begins can dictate how the final product turns out. This is precisely why getting started is the most important part of any piece of writing. Okay, yes, of course starting something is necessary in order to finish it. But the manner with which we begin our work—and the time we allow ourselves to complete it—has an important connection to our relationship with the writing itself.

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This first step can take form in a number of different ways. Each writer is different, and it’s important to realize that just because rigid outlining is the only way one person can go about an essay does not mean that it is the only correct way. Getting started on an essay doesn’t have to be intimidating. It doesn’t even have to take a long time! One of the best ways to get ideas flowing is to give yourself a set period of time to just get ideas out of your head. Take ten minutes before going on Facebook to freewrite. Getting ideas down on the page makes them real. It also helps you realize what you understand and what you still need clarified. This is especially beneficial to do when you still have a bit of time before your essay is due. It’s an easy way to get past the daunting step of starting. It’s much easier to keep working than to get started.

AprilNoteGifMy personal favorite method of brainstorming/outlining/what have you uses sticky notes. They are beneficial for a number of reasons. They visually break ideas into samples of evidence, quotes, connecting thoughts, and random details. They are really easy to move around, which allows you freedom from getting stuck in a particular train of thought that may not be going anywhere. Most beneficially, it is really hard for sticky notes to be intimidating. The process of beginning becomes a lot less scary when the task is writing various ideas on pink squares of paper. The method begins in the text (or whatever the topic is). I go through all my reading and remind myself of quotes and ideas that struck me. Each goes on an individual sticky note, along with questions or main ideas I may have. My favorite part of this method is that it doesn’t require a thesis to start. Even if I have no idea what I’m writing about, I can start to formulate what I understand and think about my topic. As the sticky notes pile up, concepts start to connect, and an overarching theme or argument usually starts to form. The notes can be organized into categories and piles that then can easily turn into paragraphs. Essentially, you can write the entire paper out on sticky notes before you even have to think about putting ideas into coherent, flowing sentences, which does take a load off the mind.

Again, every writer is different. Sticky notes aren’t your thing? Try:

  1. Writing for 10 minutes straight about your topic, including “ums,” “I’m not sure what to put heres,” and vague references to something that might have been in the text.
  2. Write down all the quotes you liked from the book and think about how they connect.HydeGif
  3. Just write a single body paragraph. A little bit at a time!
  4. List all the evidence you have and see where you need more.
  5. Verbally brainstorm with a friend from the class, or even your professor in office hours. Get ideas flowing!

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In the end, what is really important is just doing SOMETHING. Each time you write down an idea, it becomes easier to go back and add another. Every writer is different, so find what works for you. But do something! That paper really won’t write itself.

Time – the main ingredient

Time is undoubtedly the main ingredient that goes into writing. Yes, ideas are important, but we all have ideas. Ideas are easy. It’s spending the time that’s difficult. It takes time to write those ideas down, tinker with them, rework and reword them until they flow like a clear mountain spring.

Where do you find time? Time, unlike thyme, does not grow on shrubs. We are all busy people. It seems to be a symptom of the human condition. So when you find little chunks and nuggets and flakes of time, it’s important to grab them, for they are precious.

Fifteen minutes until your next meeting? There’s some time right there. Twelve minutes to spare in the morning while you eat your eggs? There’s some more. You can also borrow time from other activities. Half an hour you’d otherwise spend on Facebook? Sounds like time to me.

It’s important not to treat ten minutes as a worthless window simply because it’s so short. Yes, it’s hard to get into anything deep in ten minutes, but surely you can accomplish something. Is half an hour too short a time to work on something? Certainly not! So why should ten minutes be, if all it takes is three of these windows to equal that half-hour?

One thing we do at the Center for Writing and Speaking is provide a place for you to use your time. If you bring some of your time to our place, we are confident that productivity will happen. One faculty member recently had an article accepted for publication which she wrote almost entirely during our faculty/staff writing hours. Sounds like she used her time wisely.

We host open writing hours for students every Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday from 2 to 4 in the afternoon. We have hours for staff and faculty Wednesday morning 9 to 12 and Friday afternoon 1 to 3. We have coffee, tea, candy, pens, notepads, citation guides, books on writing and tutoring writing, a whiteboard, computers, a printer, word games, comfy chairs, a lovely view of Ankeny Field…

All that is to say that our place is a great place for you to spend your time. And if you spend enough time, really good time, over time, a little time here and there, behold: you’ll have written something. And then it’s time to celebrate.

Exciting Developments!

Loyal readers, who are no doubt staggering in number: you may have noticed something! We’re no longer the Whitman College Writing Center! We’re now the Center fOr Writing and Speaking (COWS) at Whitman! Even more exciting than our name change: we’ve MOOved! Our beautiful, festive new location is in Olin East, room E132. Stop by and check it out! Friday September 12th from 3-5 is our Grand Opening party, and you won’t want to miss it.

What else? Our tutors are better trained than ever before. Many of them took the first iteration of Professor McDermott’s GenS 310, “The Theory and Practice of Tutoring Writing,” last spring. Our tutors are well versed in myriad methods and techniques for peer-tutoring. Oh, and you may be wondering about the “Speaking” part. Well, starting in fall 2015, we will offer help with speaking (think presentations, oral exams, etc.) as well as writing!

Clearly, there is a lot to be excited about when it comes to writing at Whitman! Stop by the COWS, or email us at cows@whitman.edu, to find out more!

Revising with Non-Revisors

By Faith Nyakundi & Jesse Moneyhun

A new writing prompt or thought is always another adventure, and a chance to express myself. This is not always an exciting adventure, especially when it is a class prompt, and I have to make sure that I express my thoughts according to the expectation of the teacher. This is however made easier by the fact that the teacher gives guidance to how she wants the text to be approached and any limitations.

We have heard stories of students told to revise their essays. Reasons that professors give are to increase the length, clarify ideas, or to simplify ideas. Students have no choice other than to do this because they are concerned about their grades. Being one of the students who has been in situations like that, I would say it is simply an uphill task. I revise as I write my essay, therefore, every sentence that I write leads to the next sentence as my ideas flow, and I make sure that each of my paragraphs is comprehensive before I move to the next. I have been taught that when writing that I need to develop thesis with every paragraph. This is one the reasons that makes it difficult to “expand” an essay that I consider complete.

What does “expansion” really entail? And how does this affect the final product? Some students end up just adding new sentences to what they already had, but doesn’t this interrupt the flow of sentences? For class we read a piece of writing from a student who had been asked to expand an introductory paragraph. The final product was a piece was filled with repeated phrases, and it was clear that the student felt that what they had was enough already and all they did was rephrase ideas. This ends up being a worse product than the earlier version because it is redundant. When one is asked to revise or rewrite then it feels as if one is writing a whole new essay, so I would rather get a new prompt to write on and then get guidance on the same. It is clear therefore that whether or not expansion means an increase words, it is easy to lean in that direction.

Various English classes have also taught us that writing is a continual process, and that we should understand that the journey to the idea is just as important as the idea itself. In many ways, the process of writing can be used as a tool for self-discovery. Many writers subscribe to this philosophy, and prefer their writing process to be a sort of self-editing stream-of-consciousness. Therefore any extensive editing or revision to the end product may be seen as disturbing the paper’s flow. However, students are most often graded on their end product, not on their “journey,” and academic writers who prefer to edit as they go rather than revise afterwards may have clarity issues that come about from the “writing as a journey” philosophy. Since academia seems to hold clarity in very high regard, this friction between the stream-of-consciousness writer and the revision process tends to hold these sorts of writers back.

The task is then to find a way to link up these writers to the revision process in such a way that helps them clarify their ideas while also keeping intact what they feel the main ideas of their paper are. For these writers, their thesis or main ideas are usually at the end. Their paper has gradually lead up to it. Some may have done a bit of revision and replaced the intro with the conclusion, but the loose ends of self-discovery are still found throughout the paper. As tutors, it is our job to help them tie their paper together tightly. Here is an exercise that may help these writers (even if you are one yourself).

 

1. Ask them to map out their papers visually on the back of their essays. If you want, make one yourself and compare the two. What they think they wrote and what they actually wrote might be different.

2. Even if the professor is asking for expansion, the student’s paper still often needs to be condensed before it can be expanded. Comparing maps can help with this.

3. Ask them what their thesis is. If they can’t explain it confidently, you may need to work on their thesis with them before anything else.

4. Go line by line (or paragraph by paragraph if you don’t have time) backwards from end to finish and ask them the function of each sentence. All sentences should in some way help explain the thesis of the paper. Keep the best sentences.

5. Try to reduce the paper to the size of a rough paragraph. Obviously, this does not incorporate much evidence or leave much room for flowery language. They will realize this and want to expand it almost immediately.

6. Once this is completed, ask them to try expanding from this paragraph, slowly adding only what’s necessary. For the sake of time, this step can take the form of expanding to an outline rather than a full-fledged essay.

7. Compare the end product to the map that they made at the beginning of the session. The more times this exercise is completed, the more clear and precise their paper should become.

8. Help them understand that in this case, their ideas are what is important. Their writing should clearly and efficiently represent what’s in their head. If their language gets in the way, different language should be used.

 

This exercise should be aimed at developing the writer and not the writing. Make sure that the focus is broadly on “elucidating ideas,” not necessarily on making this specific paper more clear. If done earnestly, this exercise may produce greater consciousness of argument construction and encourage revision by blurring the line between correction of language and expression of ideas. Also, any one of these steps could be performed on their own or in conjunction with different exercises. Have fun and tailor the exercise to the writer’s needs.