Text Based Prewriting: Approaches to College Level Analysis

By Drew Edmonds and Ben Caldwell

In the shift from high school to college many writers find themselves wrong footed, confused, and often woefully unprepared for the rigor and complexity that professors expect in to see in essays. The word ‘rigor’ may be misleading, because this is not just a matter of college courses being ‘harder’ than high school classes in the vague sense that many prospective students hear about during their college search. The change is not just some indefinite increase in workload or the harshness with which professors assess grammatical errors. College is harder and more rigorous than most high schools, it’s true, but there are specific differences in the approach to critical analysis that are never explained to most students when they first arrive on campus.

A prime example that some professors make a point of addressing right away in first year courses, but most take for granted as common knowledge, is the myth of the five paragraph essay. In the vast majority of American high schools, English and composition courses have moved farther and farther down the road toward being essentially ‘test-prep’ classes. Teachers focus on the kind of critical writing that their students will be expected to produce on standardized tests like the SAT and the various AP exams, because that is the kind of writing that will have the most immediate impact on their academic success. As a result, students learn to churn out stiff, stilted, simplistic essays by pouring their ideas into the same formulaic 5-paragraph mold again and again and again. There are rigid prescriptions for every step of the process that not only stifle creativity but also limit complexity.

Unfortunately, the formulas that high schoolers learn and practice in the hopes of increasing their chances at getting into college embody an approach to writing that is almost antithetical to the philosophy of analysis that they will asked to employ once they get there. Structures like the 5-paragraph model create an illusion of universality and scientific perfection that is not attainable in an essay, due to the inherent subjectivity and creativity of writing. They also privilege form over content, without ever questioning how that form serves the content or considering how variations in form might better display different topics. Why not three paragraphs? Why not nine?

Finally and most importantly, these formulas condition writers to approach a text or topic with preformed thesis in mind. High school students become afraid to look too closely at the evidence in the text, because it might contradict their preconceived claims; so they end up skipping over evidence that doesn’t fit perfectly with the larger trend or theme they want to focus on. Rather than wondering why the author included bumps in the road and analyzing how they may serve the work as a whole, many high school students learn to drive right over irregularities and steamroll most nuances in the process.

One alternative to this approach that many professors value as more critical and productive revolves around the phrase liberal arts students often to hear repeated ad nauseum with almost sacred reverence, like a mantra: “take the text on its own terms.” Few professors seem to realize how mysterious this maxim seems to most first semester college students, so it deserves some explanation. Taking the text on its own terms means acknowledging textual evidence that doesn’t fit or even contradicts your argument and using them to complicate your understanding of the text and generate a more nuanced claim. Real critical writing does not attempt to fit evidence inside a preconceived argument; it instead seeks evidence of tension within the text, challenging the student to find new ways of looking at the text.

This approach is focused on exploring the texts, issues, or events that your are analyzing, rather than conquering them. This approach requires reading the text with an open mind, setting aside presuppositions, and allowing yourself to form more than one idea while you read, not before. The more ideas the better, in fact, because they will all be examined together for consideration after you finish reading. Finding connections and contradictions between ideas that seem totally unrelated at first often produces the most innovative and interesting interpretations of texts. This approach lends itself naturally to close-readings of specific passages, which you choose because they jump out at you personally as significant and relevant to other significant passages and therefore worth exploring further. This approach is diving off point, an ignition spark, a primer pump, a trail of breadcrumbs to follow. And this approach, it turns out, is not an approach. It is many approaches. There are dozens of prewriting exercises that professors uses to shake their students out of old habits and obsolete formulas, many of which can also be found on the internet. We have compiled a few of them here for your perusal.

The “10-on-1” Exercise

  • Choose a single paragraph, sentence, or line from the text.
  • It could be one that is particularly confusing, frustrating, fascinating, weird, or cool.
  • Brainstorm ten sentences of your own about that one piece. Ten separate ideas.
  • This activity forces you to say more about less, rather than less about more. Instead of analyzing a general idea like an entire ‘theme’ within a text, the 10-on-1 makes you analyze a specific fragment in depth, after which you can draw connections to the text as a whole more effectively.
  • When you think you have run out of things to say about the text, challenge yourself to go out on a limb. The most unique ideas can emerge out of discomfort and uncertainty.

Subverting the Obvious: It seems _____, but actually ______

  • Form an initial observation or obvious assertion based on a particular issue from the text.
  • Use that initial claim to brainstorm a list of ideas about that issue that contradict, complicate, subvert, re-frame, or change that claim somehow.
  • Filling in the blanks of the “Seems to be about ____ but is really about ____” can be a very productive place to start. Also try “Seems to be just about ____ but is really ALSO about ____” to see if that gets you to a different place.
  • Pick one that seems the most surprising to you. Write a sentence or two which highlight the pivotal seeming or appearance which you want to complicate, then launch into your own deeper or more complex interpretation.
  • Pay close attention to maintaining the subtlety of your analysis as you continue, rather than portraying your new interpretation as the only possible reading.

Idea-Triggering and Freewriting

  • Set a timer and write about a particularly interesting passage for twenty minutes. Allow your thoughts to take unexpected turns and run with them.
  • Don’t stop writing until the timer goes off–if you run out of ideas write one word over and over until something new comes into your head.
  • After you finish, take a quick break, re-read your freewrite and ask yourself what your subject or key point is.
  • Underline that idea and then formulate it as a question, statement, or series of words. Put that at the top of a fresh page.
  • Set the timer again, and generate a second twenty-minute timed write from your subject, this time following a more open-ended approach.
  • Reviewing your work, consider what your best ideas are and how you would go about translating them into an analytical paragraph.

Paraphrase x 3

  • Settle on two passages that seem to be going in the same direction and suggest a pattern within the text.
  • Write each passage at the top of a page then, below it, write at least three different paraphrases of that passage, using the following instructions as a guide:
    • Paraphrase #1: Understanding. Restate in your own words exactly what the passage is saying but dont be overly general. Try to engage with a range of possible meanings in the passage.
    • Paraphrase #2: Deepening. Having arrived at a new point of understanding, now paraphrase your quotation, following each sentence with a second sentence in which you continue with the statement, “And the reason this is important (or the way this connects) is…”.
    • Paraphrase #3: Implications. Now that you’ve worked to understand the significance and context of the text, paraphrase your quotation a third time, using the formulation, “What in the end this quotation is really about is…[X]. The reason that is important/interesting is because…[Y]. And the still further implications of that are…[Z].”
  • The progression of paraphrases here is intended to deepen your interpretation and allow you to make more exciting claims by understanding the implications of your interpretation. Making claims rooted in your perspective on the evidence is much different than generalizing about the text and finding evidence to support that generalization.

Oral Timed Write

  • Arrange to meet with another student in your class for a half an hour.
  • Think out loud about the text to your partner for ten minutes straight.
    • It may feel like a long time, but keep going. Dont be afraid. Be ridiculous and amaze your partner. Your partner should listen as attentively as possible, but not try not to distract your partner by taking notes.
  • At the end of your ten minutes, you and your partner should pause for each of you to write down a few sentences about what you said that was most surprising and/or interesting, and what each of you thinks your best idea was and why.
  • This exercise allows you to imagine an audience. It forces you to be attentive to another perspective besides your own. Ask yourself what excited your partner while you were talking to them and how that could be translated to your writing.

Implications in Tutoring

If a student is struggling to get below the surface, is not explicating their evidence thoroughly, is summarizing, or not revolving their ideas around strong central claim consider introducing them to these exercises. Try to ask them questions that force them to dig deeper and root their claims in the text. These exercises are designed to support a variety of thinking and learning styles. For students who tend to process more externally they may be able to arrive at new ideas more readily by talking to another student while students who need to let their thoughts flow onto the page in a freewriting session may prefer the Ideas Triggering exercise.

Citation: Exercises and ideas adapted from Encounters with professor Jen Mouat and the textbook Writing Analytically

 

 

Incorporating Quotes Into Text: A Process That May or May Not Involve Sandwiches

Undoubtedly, we all use quotes in our papers quite frequently. But it’s easy to forget that inserting a quote is not as simple as tossing it into a paragraph and being done with it. It’s easy to overlook all the nit-picky aspects that must be considered when incorporating quotes.

Here is a rundown of some foundational steps to remember in the quoting process:

Determine which type of quote is best: full-length or fragment

The first thing you should decide when incorporating a quote is whether you want to include it in full-length–a sentence or more–or just a fragment. This question pretty much solves itself; if you feel like you need the full-length quote, use the full-length quote. If you feel like you only need a few specific words, or a fragment of a passage, just use that fragment.

Inserting a fragment

Inserting a fragmented quote is pretty simple and, most often, intuitive. Because you’re only using a phrase, all you need to do is place it in your sentence so that it makes grammatical sense. For example, “Joe Bob claims that Billy Joe’s ‘increased self-esteem’ greatly influenced her decision to move to the city.’” Done.

Inserting a full-length quote: making a quote sandwich

sandwich

Hopefully, we have all learned to some degree how to incorporate full-length quotes. Most of us were probably told that quotes need to be prefaced by a “lead-in” and followed by our own reflection. I like to think of this process as padding the quote, or making a kind of sandwich:

*forewarning: completely made-up, potentially nonsensical examples are included in the following section

  • 1st slice of bread: the lead-in. You want to include some phrase of your own that introduces the quote.
    If it’s a quote from someone’s article or book, it can be as simple as: “In his/her article [insert title of article], [insert name of author] writes, [insert quote].” If you want to convey a little more in your quote introduction, you can substitute “writes” with another verb like “discusses,” followed by what you want to say and then a colon before the quote. For example, “In [article title], [author name] discusses the complex politics of gummy bear assimilation: [insert quote].”
    If it’s a quote from a literary passage, you’ll want to provide the context and section of the work from which the quote comes. I like to follow this with a colon, as described above, so that I can insert the quote directly afterwards without having to worry about writing, “[author’s name writes . . .” or, “The narrator writes . . .” This could look something like: “Just after Bob begins his harrowing journey to Neverland, he begins to experience intense emotional turmoil: [insert quote].” Or, “As Bill sees Henrietta walk away, his sorrow is described in a series of intricate metaphors: [insert quote].”
    If you’re writing a history paper and quoting a historical figure, you could write, “[name] once said, [insert quote].” Or, if you’re quoting an anonymous person from a newspaper article or some such source, you could write, “According to one woman, [insert quote].” There are so many different ways to introduce a quote; it just depends on the type of source from which you are quoting and the type of quote itself. The bottom line is, every full-length quote needs something in front of it that explains where and/or who it is coming from.
  • The middle, a.k.a. the good stuff: the quote itself. This does not require much explanation: simply insert the quote you are wanting to use.
  • 2nd slice of bread: the follow-up. After the quote, you want to follow up with a sentence or two of your own analysis and explanation of how the quote supports the argument you’re making in that particular paragraph. You could use phrases like, “Clearly . . .” or “[name of speaker in quote] sheds light on . . .” Basically, you just need to follow up with any sort of statement that summarizes the implications of the quote or that elaborates/provides your own spin on the content of the quote. Now, if it is a quote from a literary passage, you should have a more detailed follow-up; it is important that you analyze every aspect of the quote, including the word choice, devices used, etc. Sometimes I will even have three sentences of analysis after a quote, but it is better to go more in depth and ensure that you have sufficiently analyzed the quote rather than to provide a surface-level, too-brief follow-up.

Ask yourself: do I really, absolutely need this quote?

student in thought

This is an important question, because you want to make sure that when you include a quote, you include it because it furthers your argument in some way. Make sure that your quote is not there for the sole reason that you need to include a quote in that paragraph, and make sure that it does not simply summarize what you just articulated. It should include a new perspective or piece of information or evidence–even just a different way of saying something that provides insight on your argument or what you’re trying to say.

These guidelines do not by any means cover all situations of quoting. (I have not even touched on the use of ellipses in quotes, but that’s a post for another day). There is a plethora of different types of quotes and ways in which you can incorporate them, and different genres also have different standards. These are just tips that I have gleaned from experience. It is probably clear that I am most familiar with literary analysis essays; much of my advice is specific to that genre, because that is what I know. However, I believe that these suggestions are still good basic, foundational things to remember when using quotes in an academic paper. Hopefully, they will remind you of the framework through which you should be thinking when it comes to inserting quotes into your next paper.

“Breaking Up” Your Work

Large projects are always daunting. Many of us understand the stress of reading a long-winded and complicated prompt and turning to a blinking cursor on an empty Word document. Many feel that stress helps them start working, but a lot of those same people will admit to putting off work to avoid that stress. This is what we call avoidance.

While it may seem counter-intuitive, a lot of people see stress as a demotivator. The fear of negative evaluation from your professor and peers can be quite daunting. I personally feel that this is what motivates most of my procrastination. I fear the pressure of a bad grade, so I put an assignment off till a “better” time arrives. Waiting almost never works in your favor; time is too valuable a resource. The best way to get started and to keep working is to make a big project less daunting.

The simplest way to make a big task manageable is to divvy it up into smaller tasks. A paper can be divided up into brainstorming, outlining, drafting and editing. Studying for a big test can be split into rereading, highlighting and practice problems. The point is to divide up a large task so that you can have regular breaks in between periods of work and so that you can approach the same material in a variety of ways.

Why would we want to do this? Approaching the same material in a different number of ways can stave off the boredom of monotony and it can help your memory. When studying for a test you can

  • Read the material out loud.
  • Rewrite your lecture notes.
  • Write a summary of each chapter or topic.
  • Discuss the subject with others, be they a classmate, a friend, or the professor.

Regular breaks are great to keep up motivation and avoid exhaustion. The human mind needs regular rest to work effectively and sleep is essential to our memory. For breaks you should

  • Work for blocks of 40-50 minutes and break for 10-20 minutes.
  • Reward yourself during your breaks: get a bite to eat or call up your friends and family.
  • Make sure to get up and move during your breaks, the human body is not designed to sit for hours at a time!

There are many resources out there available that can help with divvying up you work. It is completely within your means to find strategies that work for you. I highly recommend trying to do so, as any one tool isn’t perfect, but here are some of the tools that I’ve become acquainted with.

Post – its and Google Keep

IMG_20141030_044512Post – it notes are wildly helpful. They can be used for quick notes, bookmarks, reminders and many other things. They are great for writing down short ideas or summaries that can be later organized into a larger narrative. They’re also very portable and can be taken anywhere.

Screenshot_2014-10-30-04-46-05Google Keep is an online alternative for Post – it notes. Google is used extensively by the current generation and this trend does not seem to be waning in any way. Google offers a suite of options and deserves as much mention for its price tag (free!) as its utility. I should also mention that Google’s entire “utility suite” is available and set up as soon as you activate your Google account. The benefits of electronic “sticky notes” are that you can later edit the color of your notes and set reminders by email or by phone (if you have Google Now installed). Visual learners may readily benefit from this as they can color code ideas after the fact, without having to categorize ideas before they even write anything. Reminders are invaluable for me, as they allow me to play both the role of a reluctant student and that of a nagging parental figure.

Notebooks and Evernote

Notebooks are the staple of any student. Every student owns at least two or more. They make perfect calendars and task books, but they are mostly used for note taking. There are many ways to “more effectively” use a notebook, but one strategy has caught my eye and seems simple enough to actually use. It’s called Bullet Journal. This link will take you to a page that details the process and offers a quick video tutorial. Basically at the start of each month you create an index for your tasks, a calendar that gives a quick summary for each day and then a more detailed day to day list of the assignments or tasks to be done. This method is especially handy for students as they are bound to have an extra journal lying around, or they have a journal with a few extra pages, which is all this method really needs.

Screenshot_2014-10-30-05-38-40Evernote is an online not taking suite. You can create a free account that allows you to sync between a web client, a PC application and a mobile app. Each note you create is searchable and you can divide your entries into “Notebooks” and further categorize each entry with a searchable “Tag”. Like Google Keep, you can set reminders for your different notes so that you will receive messages at a later date.

Calendars and Google Tasks and Calendar

If you opt to purchase a dedicated calendar or planner, there are many options out there. The only criteria for a purchase is that you know you will at least try to use it. Also if you decide to spring for a monthly calendar, make sure that it is large enough for you to write down what you need to! Monthly calendars are great for writing a quick summary of the tasks you need to get done and to see which weeks will be your busiest. However, even if you do choose a large calendar, it will not have room enough for a detailed daily task list. A planner would be necessary for detailed lists, and is encouraged if you do not already have a system in place and you have difficulty remembering the fine details (Who am I meeting? Was it room 306 or 360? Did I need to bring anything with me?). Also planners are quite helpful because of their portability, you usually can’t fit a whole calendar in a small book bag.

Google Calendar and Google Tasks are two great services that can be accessed from your Google Mail Page. To access Google Calendar simply click on the square icon in the top-right corner and then click on “Calendar”.

Capture1Capture2Having done this you will be greeted by a blank weekly calendar page. This page can be used for classes and studying times and whatever else you could think of. Like Google Keep, you can set reminders for events, by email or phone pop-up, and you can color code events.

CaptureOn the right of the above image you will notice the Google Tasks panel. To access Google Tasks, navigate back to the Google Mail page and click “Mail” in the top-left corner and then click “Tasks” and a small window will pop up on your Mail page and Calendar page.

Capture3Capture4Google Tasks is a great way to keep track of assignments and their details. You can also organize your tasks by date or completely customize their ordering yourself.


These are some of the tools I’ve come to become familiar with but this list is by no means exhaustive. As a college student, the main reasons these technological services found there way onto my list were because they were free and easy to set up! Also each technological service is paired with a more “dated” form, because I found both to be helpful. Technology is only as beneficial as it is useful, if one of these services has too much bloat then drop it immediately! (In favor of a paper strategy.)

Hopefully one of these ideas encourages you to better organize your work, good luck!

Works Cited

“Study Tip of the Week: Approach Your Material in Different Ways.” Web log post. ICM Blog RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Oct. 2014. <http://blog.icm.education/study-tip/study-tip-of-the-week-approach-your-materials-in-different-ways/&gt;.

“Tooling and Studying: Effective Breaks.” MIT Center for Academic Excellence: Tooling and Studying. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Oct. 2014. <http://web.mit.edu/uaap/learning/study/breaks.html&gt;.

When “Writing for the Professor” Becomes Problematic

The phrase “writing for the professor” gets thrown around a lot among students on college campuses – but what does this really entail? As students, we are concerned with our grades, and rightly so.  However, does this constant pursuit of a good grade have to compromise our own individual writing styles when we try to adhere to the particularities of what different professors “want”?

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In High School I was taught, as many of my peers were, that writing was both formulaic and standardized.  There was a particular way to write different papers, and in those papers the paragraphs were broken down into a set number of examples and pieces of evidence.  Although I was excited to find more freedom in college in terms of the writing curriculum, parameters still exist within the various departments about what is deemed an appropriate paper.  These parameters are there for a reason; they are meant as a framework through which students can analyze and interpret the texts appropriately.  However, I am not so much concerned with the differences in style, as I am in the tendency for students to alter a large part of their writing process for the sole purpose of achieving a desired grade.  I am definitely not guiltless in this; there have been numerous occasions when I wrote a paper that was geared toward my Professor, and consequently I had to sacrifice some aspects of my own style to achieve the end result.  But I think that the frequency that this occurs is problematic to students as well as to the institution of the college as a whole.  When students sacrifice their individuality and creativity supposedly to please the professor, both their academic and personal development as a writer is stymied.  In addition, this problem is exacerbated by professors who are unchanging in their approach to students’ writing abilities and various needs.  It becomes a cyclical process, and both the student and the professor emerge slightly disappointed.

Therefore, what I am proposing in this blog post are various tactics that students can use throughout the writing process that will hopefully allow them to find a happy medium between what the professor is looking for, and what the student feels is most important.  In order to start this process, a student can try a number of different things in order to make a paper seem more appealing – thus making the writing process as a whole a lot more likely to produce a paper that is not solely catered to the Professor’s expectations.

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  • Find an aspect of the prompt that you are really passionate about. This may seem obvious, but if you are able to find an aspect of the prompt or question that really interests you, writing the paper will not seem like an impossible task.  The best papers that I’ve wrote have been those that I found most interesting, and the Professor will certainly notice this passion and insight in your analysis.
  • Do more prep work. By doing a lot of prep work, whether that means gathering quotes or doing free writing, it will not only help you develop a better idea of what you want your paper to be, but it will also raise questions that you can then ask your professor.  If you are more prepared for a paper you will also feel less intimidated by the task ahead, thus allowing you to fully explore your ideas without feeling the time crunch.
  • Talk to the Professor. Having a running dialogue with your Professor is one of the most important things to do when you are confused or frustrated with a paper.  Although it may be intimidating or awkward to talk to certain professors at first, by going into their office hours and expressing your concerns the Professor more often than not will be understanding and try to meet you halfway.  In addition, the only way the Professor will know what you are struggling with is if you go in and talk to them – remember that they’re human too!                                                                                   tumblr_mhy7ovRyq51s4xdz1o1_500
  • Keep in mind the overall goal of your paper. If you establish an overarching goal for your paper at the beginning of the process, such as convincing your audience or illustrating a particular concept, it will be harder for you to stray from that goal when writing the paper.  Even though the style of the paper is different for each Professor, by articulating your ideas at the outset you are more likely to come back to that central idea if you become bogged down in the details.

These tactics, while they may not address the small order concerns of the Professor, will hopefully provide you with a few ways to get back on track when the paper seems to be getting the best of you.  Writing for the Professor can be tempting, but a continuation of this process only results in compromising your own process and development as a writer.  Even though it can be intimidating to trust in your own process, it will result in a learning experience that is invaluable in the long run.

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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.