Reading for Comprehension: Tips on reading for speed and utility

You cannot separate reading from writing; all good writing grows out of sharp reading comprehension. Often, professors assign more reading than seems possible. But, fear not! You do not need to read every article, chapter, or report with the same degree of focus. You need to be able to identify when to skim and when to dive deeply into a text. We have identified three stages of reading comprehension. Each stage has specific tips that will help you develop a stronger understanding of the text at hand. That said, sometimes approaching essay writing feels like staring down the enemy across battle lines. Reading, outlining, and eventually drafting an essay is akin to coordinating battle plans as a general. Here, new generals, is your strategy for successful combat in the field of reading and writing.

 

Scout the Enemy:

When you are at the outset of the writing process, in which you have several sources that may or may not be integral to your final product, it can be helpful to sift through these texts with a keen eye. Also, this speed-reading can help you prepare for class discussions involving material you do not necessarily need to write about. For both of these tasks, we draw upon specific strategies that will allow you to gain a useful understanding of the main ideas of a text, at an ambitious pace.

  • Save yourself some time by focusing on abstracts, introductions, and conclusions. Authors, especially of published work, are fairly disciplined about providing their main points in predictable places. By attacking these main bodies first, you can gain a strong understanding of what questions the author answers in his or her writing.
  • Next, we suggest looking for useful sign-posts and quotations. You can cut through a lot of the fluff by looking for headers, quotations, and transitional phrases. A signpost is direct phrasing that alerts the reader what the author will talk about in the coming text.
  • Lastly, we borrow the common expression: SQR3. This useful strategy calls for you to ‘survey’, ‘question’, ‘read’, ‘recite’, and ‘review’ the text before you. While SQR3 cuts down reading time, it requires much more engaged reading than simply going line-by-line through a text.

Arm Yourself:

This more intermediate step of reading comprehension requires a little more time and effort on your part, but rewards you with a deeper understanding of the text.

  • Looking up terms. There’s no specific rules about when you should use a dictionary or not. But if a term comes up a lot and you don’t know what it means, you should probably look it up!  The Swarthmore College writing blog warns, “An initial mistake about the meaning of a term can rapidly multiply into a gigantic misreading if you’re not careful.” Do not look up every word though. You will go crazy!
  • Mark up your text. Underline or highlight topic sentences, summary sentences, and sentences containing signposts. Don’t mark everything though, or your markings will lose significance. Be tactful.
  • Note where you are confused. Use a different color or line type to mark what you don’t understand. After reading the rest of the text you may be able to answer your own questions.
  • Use the “Look Away” method. Periodically look away from the text and ask yourself what you’ve read. Your summary should be different than the text. Use your own words or use a visual technique like a drawing that can serve as a quick reminder when you look back at the text.

 

Go to War:

Sometimes you need a very thorough understanding of the text. Perhaps you are presenting the material you read, perhaps you are writing about it, or perhaps you are even using quotes or ideas from it in your own writing. When this is the case you need to take more time with the reading.

  • Outline. Most of us are familiar with basic outline. If the author of your text has been a clear and organized, this can be a helpful technique to grasp the nuances of the author’s argument.
  • Mind Map. Another great way to really solidify the material is to create a mind map. Mind maps are like an outline, but much more visual. First, write down the most important word, short phrase, or symbol for the center or your mind map. Next, post other important concepts outside the circle. Then you can rearrange, color code and draw arrows among these different concepts to deepen your understanding about the author’s argument.
  • Identify counter arguments. For distinct understanding of the reading, challenge it! Identify holes in the author’s arguments and assert your own counterarguments. Criticising the text may be the best fodder for your own writing.

 

Next time you sit down to read, ask yourself: what am I reading for? How deeply do I need to understand the text? How much time do I have to read? Make your battle plan accordingly putting to use the helpful tips we have provided above.

Good luck, writing generals.

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Sentence-level Repetition: When It Works, When It Doesn’t, and Why It Matters

“Rep.” It’s a common marking on graded academic papers, and can refer to the repeated use of ideas, sentence structures, or individual words within a small span of text. In college classes we often refer to repetition as a weakness. While this can be true—much repetition is needless—it can also be a powerful tool for writers. When is repetition effective? When is it ineffective? How can we eliminate needless repetition and cultivate productive repetition? How many times is it acceptable to use the word “repetition” in a paragraph?

Writers can repeat whole ideas; they can also repeat at the sentence level, reusing sentence structures and individual words. In this post, we focus on sentence-level repetition, acknowledging that it often goes hand-in-hand with the repetition of ideas. We choose this focus because the recurrence of words and structures is a sentence-level dynamic with global effects. Repetition tends to show up throughout entire works, not just in a handful of sentences. Learning how to reuse and restate more productively can inform the whole piece of writing.

Here are some examples of sentence-level repetition. How is each author using repetition? Is he/she doing so effectively, or not?

1.) “I write as ritual. I write because I am not employable. I write out of my inconsistencies. I write because then I do not have to speak. I write with the colors of memory. I write as a witness to what I have seen.” –Terry Tempest Williams, “Red”

2.) “The nexus where television and fiction converse…is self-conscious irony. Irony is, of course, a turf fictionists have long worked with zeal. And irony is important for understanding TV because T.V…revolves off just the sorts of absurd contradictions irony’s all about exposing.” –David Foster Wallace, “E Unibus Pluram”

3.) “We do not usually think about hope (as embedded in contexts) and dignity (as signaled through commodities) at the same time.” –Allison Pugh, Longing and Belonging: Parents, Children, and Consumer Culture

4.) “We hold these Truths to be Self-Evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness…” -The Declaration of Independence

USING REPETITION TO YOUR ADVANTAGE

Knowing when and how to use repetition effectively can make your writing clearer, more cohesive, and more powerful. Let’s look at some of the most common uses for word/phrase repetition and structural repetition.

Repetition of words and phrases:

TO EMPHASIZE:  In example #1 above, Williams begins each sentence with the phrase “I write.” This repetition establishes her main focus: it is not “employability” or “memory,” but the personal act of writing. If you want to call your reader’s attention to a critical word or phrase, it can help to repeat it over the course of the passage–especially in concluding sentences.

The key here is moderation: repetition in the name of emphasis is not an excuse to use the same word three times in one sentence. To figure out whether you are creating productive emphasis through repetition, you might ask yourself these questions: 1.) Is the repeated word or phrase one that you want to be emphasizing? If yes, progress to question 2.) Does the repetition bog down the passage and/or make it harder to read (see the next section)? If the answer is no, you are good to go.

TO CREATE TRANSITIONS: In example #2 above, Foster Wallace uses the word “irony” in three successive sentences. In doing so, he links them (and the ideas they contain) while using few formal transition words. We can repeat a word/phrase to build transitions between paragraphs as well as within them: writing a topic sentence, it can help to reuse in a word/phrase from the concluding sentence of the previous paragraph.

TO AVOID AWKWARD PHRASING: Sometimes it’s impossible to remove a repeated word without making the sentence more confusing. If we tried to take out the repetition of “irony” in the second example above, it might read something like this (changes italicized):

“The nexus where television and fiction converse…is self-conscious irony. This self-aware phenomenon is, of course, a turf fictionists have long worked with zeal. And the expression of meaning by saying the opposite is important for understanding TV.”

The new passage is imprecise and hard to read. Better to just repeat the word “irony.”

Repetition of sentence structures:

TO LINK SUCCESSIVE SENTENCES: Terry Tempest Williams’ list (example #1 above) roams far and wide but never feels disorganized. This is in large part because the repeated “I write” serves as an anchor, tethering the sentences to each other and building cohesion.

The reuse of a particular word or phrase at the start of successive sentences–often to link those sentences to each other–is called anaphora. Anaphora is one type of parallel structure.

TO BUILD MOMENTUM: Try reading this one aloud: “We hold these Truths to be Self-Evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness–”

We can feel the pressure building. Repeating a clausal structure (in this case, “that” [+new idea]) heightens the momentum and power of the sentence.

WHEN REPETITION IS INEFFECTIVE

Although repetition can be an effective rhetorical device, it can also obstruct the flow of ideas if used needlessly. Repetition can occur at the level of words, structure, or meaning as illustrated in the following examples.

Problem 1: Repetition at the word level

INEFFECTIVE: When Sally finished reading the newspaper, she gave the newspaper to her brother.

INEFFECTIVE: When Sally finished reading the newspaper, she gave the periodical to her brother.

EFFECTIVE: When Sally finished reading the newspaper, she gave it to her brother.

The first example repeats ‘newspaper’ multiple times and the result sounds clumsy. Replacing the repeated term with a synonym in the second example is an obvious and clunky attempt to avoid repetition. The third sentence best addresses the redundancy by replacing the second term with a pronoun. In general, repetition at the word level can usually be solved by substituting the repeated word with a pronoun or, if possible, removing some of the repeated terms.

Problem 2:  Repetition of structure

INEFFECTIVE: In the park, we played a game. At the time, it was fun. Of the participants, Andy was the winner.

EFFECTIVE: We played a fun game in the park and Andy won.

All of the sentences in this example are short and lead with a preposition. A stronger rewrite condenses the ideas into a single compound sentence that dramatically reduces the word count. While repeating a grammatical structure across multiple sentences can be stylistically effective, it must be done in the right context. The short and informal recollection in this example did not merit special prose. Repetitive structures can usually be fixed by varying sentence types or moving word groups (e.g. prepositions, clauses, etc.) to a different place in the sentence.

Problem 3: Repetition of meaning

INEFFECTIVE: Over and over, we repeatedly bought the pizzas that our favorite athletes ate. The reason we bought these pizzas was because we wanted to imitate them.

EFFECTIVE: We repeatedly bought the pizzas that our favorite athletes ate because we wanted to imitate them.

This example has several layers of problematic repetition. First, the initial sentence uses both ‘repeatedly’ and ‘over and over’ to illustrate frequency when one term would suffice. Second, both sentences include the fact the authors bought the pizza. A good rule of thumb in writing is that every word or phrase should contribute something new to the work. In this case, it is mentioned in both sentences that the pizzas were bought and only the initial mention is necessary. Condensing the sentences is a natural way to eliminate the repeated information and is a good overall strategy to remove repeated content.

HOW TO WORK WITH REPETITION IN TUTORING

1) Read the tutee’s paper aloud: Because repetition often impedes rhythm, the tutee may be better at recognizing repetition aurally rather than visually. This is the most nondirective approach to eliminating repetition but it does require that the tutee have a well developed ear for rhythm.

2) Underline repetitive elements: If a particular word, phrase, or structure is particularly pervasive, the tutor and tutee can work together to highlight all instances of that repetition. This visual representation increases the tutee’s self-awareness of their writing style so they can fix and avoid further redundancy.

3) Model techniques that eliminate repetition: Sometimes it may be difficult for the tutee to identify or eliminate needless repetition. In these cases, the tutor can point out some of the repetitive areas and demonstrate how to fix them using some of the above techniques.

4) Demonstrate effective repetition: Tutors can introduce repetition as a tool for improving transitions or cohesion, two aspects that come up frequently in tutoring sessions.

Contributed by Sabrina and Abby

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Revising for Clarity

by Natalie Pond & Hanne Jensen

Revising for Clarity

Imagine you are reading a paper, and you come across this passage—how would you respond?

Moreover, both Wilder and Murray communicate either incomprehensibly or illogically, further shedding doubt on their abilities to provide Jack with any form of truth at all. Ultimately, Jack discovers Murray’s linguistic dissection of the sublime to be over-generalized and therefore incomplete in comparison to Wilder’s inaccessible embodiment of the sublime, which presents fewer demands on Jack’s thinking and a simpler, safer example to follow.

These sentences are grammatically correct, complete thoughts. Yet they don’t quite do the work of a piece of writing: that is, they don’t make their intended meaning expressly clear for the reader.

“Clarity” is at the core of all writing. Writers put in effort in the hopes that their words will be read and understood, for a grade or otherwise. This blog identifies a few strategies to approach the nebulous task of “revising for clarity,” and to posit some of the pitfalls possible in attempting this revision process.

  1. Remove “non-essential” words.

This in itself is not particularly clear advice. Let’s refine it! Some helpful places to start removing or improving words include:

  • Eliminating “to be” verbs.

Example: Students writing clearly is the professor’s primary concern. The professor wants students to write clearly.

The more active verb “wants” replaces the “to be” verb of the first sentence, which makes the sentence less awkward, and forwards its point more effectively—to describe the relationship between the professor and his or her desire for students to write clearly.

  • Removing the passive voice.

Example: The research paper was affected by unclear writing Unclear writing affected the research paper.

In this example, the sentence should convey that the problem at hand is unclear writing. However, in the first sentence, the passive sentence construction constructs “the research paper” as the recipient of the action and thus the focus of the sentence. The second sentence fixes this problem by turning “unclear writing” into the active agent, which clarifies the concern of the sentence.

  • Taking out words that are synonymous.

Example: The paper was smart and intelligent. The paper was smart.

Although one could debate the interchangeability of smart and intelligent, if these terms are not explicitly defined in the paper, it seems much more logical to select one adjective in order to avoid redundancy.

  • Taking out words that do not contribute to the sentence’s overall argument.

Example: The writer understands the way in which their writing is confusing, and wants to improve it. The writer understands that their writing is confusing, and wants to improve it.

Excess phrases like “the way in which” simply distance the reader from the point of the sentence—cutting these words does nothing to the meaning of the sentence; it only helps the reader by removing the excess.

2.     Use simpler constructions to explain ideas, where possible.

Example: The professor’s advice had the effect of improving the student’s writing The professor’s advice helped the student’s writing.

In tandem with our earlier suggestion to remove words that do not contribute to the sentence’s overall argument, this example shows how removing those words and streamlining the sentence with an active verb creates a sentence construction that simply but clearly makes its point.

3.     Avoid repeating the same idea in similar wording from one sentence to the next.

Redundancy is not just a concern within single sentences—it is easy to restate the same ideas over and over again in slightly different wording. Ask yourself, which sentence describes the idea best? Are their specific words or phrases from multiple sentences I like that could be combined into a single, clearer sentence?

4.     Use the best words, not the most words.

In some ways, this is a reiteration of some of our previous advice, but it is a good mantra to consider. A few choice words can go a long way, and avoid the problem of losing your reader out of confusion or even boredom.

5.     Sympathize with the reader.

What information does a reader have to know? What idea(s) must be contained in this one sentence? Is it possible to separate sentences, cut excess phrases that only detract from the ideas, or try any of the other suggestions mentioned in this blog to help the reader’s understanding? What context might they need to understand your thought? All these are questions to ask in thinking about the reader’s point of view, as someone completely new to your thought process and understanding your idea.

Just for fun, check out how some of these ideas can help that first confusing passage we showed you:

Moreover, both Wilder and Murray communicate either incomprehensibly or illogically, further shedding doubt on their abilities to provide Jack with any form of truth at all. Ultimately, Jack discovers Murray’s linguistic dissection of the sublime to be over-generalized and therefore incomplete in comparison to Wilder’s inaccessible embodiment of the sublime, which presents fewer demands on Jack’s thinking and a simpler, safer example to follow.

TO:

Jack struggles to understand Wilder and Murray, because their modes of communication fail to express ideas clearly. However, he perceives that Murray’s language, which is pretentious and academic, cannot truly grasp any notion of the sublime, while Wilder’s seemingly incomprehensible crying mystically captures the sublime even without words.

This revision attempts to incorporate our suggestion of “use the best words, not the most words.” The verbs are now more active; excess “to be” verbs were slashed and replaced; and vague terminology such as the “inaccessible embodiment of the sublime” has been revisited to get at the same idea with improved, more directed words.

Hopefully these suggestions will help with overall clarity. But, as is the case with most aspects of writing, simply following these instructions won’t guarantee that your writing will be “better.” There are a few more things to consider when “revising for clarity.”

1. Who is your audience?

The purpose of writing varies based on the project. An instruction manual for a chainsaw is, in many ways, quite different from a poem. Differences in writing styles and purposes also has an effect on what “clarity” means for that project. The chainsaw manual should probably be extremely literal, leaving no room for personal interpretation, whereas the poem has more leeway to be purposefully vague or metaphorical. The same is true for a personal essay versus an academic paper versus a lab report. Most of the techniques we propose above are generally good ideas to employ, but you may find yourself needing to tweak them for your purposes.

2. What is getting lost?

Sometimes the only changes in revision are beneficial. Often, however, revising is a balancing act between clarity and style. Many sentences seem flat after revision, bereft of cadence or longer, more complex words. Sometimes the original emphasis disappears with the “non-essential” words. Try to notice what you edit out as you revise– does the sentence still convey the same message when you’re finished?

3. Unpack your ideas!

Many students who struggle with clarity (particularly repetition, long or overwrought clauses, and over-inflated language) are facing word-counts, page limits, or the pressure to write “academically.”

But often, the writing is not the root of the problem. Confused paragraphs that reiterate one idea with slight variations reveal an unexamined problem: the writer does not know precisely what she wants to say. More often than not, unclear writing is a symptom of unclear thinking. This is not to say that the writer doesn’t understand what she means or what she wants to say. Quite the contrary! More complex ideas often take more time to sort out, particularly when they must be formatted into clear, readable prose. Consider the following example:

“In A Masque Presented at Ludlow Castle, Milton emphasizes the role of dialectic discourse in unifying traditional ideals of virtue with the importance of chastity as a means to understand the power of purity and choice in being a virtuous person.”

This thesis statement combines several ideas, but it isn’t necessarily clear how they work together. Is the point that “Milton emphasizes” or that he uses “dialectic discourse”? How does chastity’s “importance” differ from “traditional values” in the first place? These questions need answers before the writer can revise.  While she might know how to revise phrases like “as a means to” or “in being a,” which are somewhat vague and certainly avoidable, the underlying message of the thesis hasn’t been clearly sorted out.

Luckily, revising ideas and revising the writing itself work together to illuminate each other. Choosing certain words over others can help you understand the underlying ideas better. Thinking through what you want to say can help you be appropriately critical with the words you choose.

Ultimately, “revising for clarity” is always a personal and somewhat individuated process. Each paper demands a different kind of clarity, each writer has different goals, and each issue points back to a different problem. However, the techniques and tricks we’ve presented here should be helpful in a variety of situations, and can be adapted to almost any writing project. Just remember to sympathize with your reader, and better yet, as you revise invite another real set of eyes to consider your paper (a tutor in the Writing Center, perhaps?). This will make those confusing parts apparent, if they weren’t already.

Happy clarifying — and check out some of these sources about revising for clarity which also provide specific examples of sentence-level revisions:

https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/981/03/

http://web.ccis.edu/Offices/AcademicResources/WritingCenter/EssayWritingAssistance/ImprovingClarityandAnalysisinWriting.aspx

http://blog.cambridgecoaching.com/blog/bid/291060/Writing-Tutor-Clarity-and-Garden-Path-Sentences

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Grammar: So much more than the wife of Gramper

This blog post aims to explain some common grammar errors and illustrate how improving grammar improves the quality of writing.

Comma rules

When used properly, commas make sentences easier to read. When used improperly commas make sentences choppy, and, sometimes, confusing.

The first sentence is an example of a nicely-used comma which stands for a brief pause. The second sentence needs a comma after “improperly” to mimic the pattern of the previous sentence. Every comma in the second half of the sentence is technically correct. The comma after “choppy” separates two elements in a list, and the commas surrounding “sometimes” serve to make that word parenthetical. Still, even though all of these commas are grammatically correct, this does not mean it is always the right choice to use them. This is where commas become a matter of personal style. Both of the following sentences are improvements on the original:

When used improperly, commas make sentences choppy, and sometimes confusing.

When used improperly, commas make sentences choppy and sometimes confusing.

Surrounding the word “sometimes” with commas does give a clear direction and add emphasis, and there’s not officially anything wrong with that, but it’s simply unnecessary. Personally, I would go with the second version, which uses even fewer commas. Since there are only two adjectives in this list (“choppy” and “confusing”), the comma doesn’t clarify anything that isn’t obvious already.

Rhetorical effects of punctuation

Punctuation may seem to be something that goes on as a last minute correction: however, it is much more essential to the sentence than stray marks.  Punctuation allows for emphasis and clarity.  In the following example from J. R. R. Tolkien’s critical essay “The Monsters and the Critics” is a quotation that contains none of the original punctuation besides the ending period.  As you read, note what seems to be the main point of the sentence.  Was there a way that you could tell?  What parts were the easiest to read? The hardest?

“The author has used an instinctive historical sense a part indeed of the ancient English temper and not unconnected with its reputed melancholy of which Beowulf is a supreme expression but he has used it with a poetical and not an historical object.”

While this quote can be read, its focus is unclear.  The main point is lost in the different clauses that are present.  Here is the original version.

“The author has used an instinctive historical sensea part indeed of the ancient English temper (and not unconnected with its reputed melancholy), of which Beowulf is a supreme expression; but he has used it with a poetical and not an historical object.”

Now it is clear what was being emphasized in the sentence: the author’s use of history was used for poetical effect rather than fact.  The em-dash and the parenthesis make for clear breaks in writing and flow whereas the semi-colon adds additional information that is the main point of the sentence.  The best way to check to see if punctuation is doing what it is supposed to is by reading out loud.  This will help check for where pauses naturally occur and to see if what naturally comes out as more stressed.  An additional reader would also be helpful because s/he would be able to describe what s/he notices as a reader and what doesn’t seem as important.

Parallelism with verbs

Although there are many correct ways to use commas, incorrect usage of verb forms creates sentences that are much more problematic. Parallelism is using the same pattern of words so that all ideas in a sentence are in the same tense.  This is an essential grammatical element that makes any list easy to focus on and to follow.  Below is a modified version of a quote, also from Tolkein’s “Monsters.”  It has been changed so that the list of different Beowulf critiques are following different verb tenses.

“Beowulf is a half-baked native epic the development of which was killed by Latin learning; it is inspired by emulation of Virgil, and became a product of the education that came in with Christianity; feebly and incompetent as a narrative; the rules of narrative are cleverly observed in the manner of the learned epic; confusing product of a committee of muddle-headed and probably beer-bemused Anglo-Saxons. . .”

This sentence is difficult to read because of the various tenses that are present.  This doesn’t necessarily make the main points of what Tolkien is saying hard to understand, they are just more difficult to slog through. Here is the original quotation:

“Beowulf is a half-baked native epic the development of which was killed by Latin learning; it was inspired by emulation of Virgil, and is a product of the education that came in with Christianity; it is feeble and incompetent as a narrative; the rules of narrative are cleverly observed in the manner of the learned epic; it is the confused product of a committee of muddle-headed and probably beer-bemused Anglo-Saxons. . .”

The original quote is easier to read, which makes it so the reader can find the examples in Tolkien’s argument easily.  In the actual essay, the list goes on for quite a long time but the reader does not get bogged down in the information because the writing flows from one item to the next.  The best way to make sure there is parallelism in writing is to reread to make sure that everything matches.

Misplaced modifiers

A modifier is a word (typically a verb or an adjective) that modifies something else (typically a noun.) It is easy to misplace modifiers, which can make it difficult to determine the meaning of a sentence. Here is a sample sentence with some misplaced modifiers:

After the Civil War, Indian peoples continued to be seen as a hindrance to the expansion of American civilization by white people across the continent, but their focus shifted towards problem-solving.

There are many things wrong with this sentence. For example, when I say that “Indian peoples continued to be seen,” I use the passive voice. This choice makes “being seen” an activity done by the Indian peoples. In fact, it is “white people” who are the subject of this sentence, and the ones doing the seeing. But the phrase “white people” is so far away in the sentence that it’s difficult to tell that they are the subject, and that it was they whose focus shifted towards problem-solving. The following rewrite fixes the problem:

After the Civil War, white Americans continued to view Indian people as a hindrance to the expansion of American civilization across the continent, but their focus shifted towards problem-solving.

Not only does rearranging the misplaced modifiers dramatically improve the clarity of this sentence, it also just sounds nicer. As a matter of fact, making your writing grammatical and easy to understand and making your writing sound better are usually the same thing.

Natalie Berg and Jessica Palacios

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“How Do You Feel?” Bringing Elementary Techniques to College.

By: Caitlin and Tyle

The hardest part of writing is often just getting started. Brainstorming, whether for critical essays or creative work, is a crucial first step; but it can often be difficult. While college instills in us a need to focus on organization, clarity, and argument (in prose), it doesn’t give us the tools to come up with ideas in the first place. In fact, the last time many of us were taught how to brainstorm was in elementary school. After that, it’s assumed we do it intuitively. While brainstorming may be intuitive for some of us some of the time, other times we can find ourselves reaching writer’s block. That’s when bringing it back to the elementary can be useful.

Now, you might be skeptical of the usefulness of a method taught to elementary school students. But as college students, we can often get too caught up in trying to decide on a unique, nuanced, and defensible thesis and this can hinder us from reaching new and unique ideas. We could do well to take a hint from the younger grades and focus first on our feelings and our complex thoughts second. This shift in focus can help to ensure our voice comes through in our writing: instead of writing a boring essay about a common idea, we write from our own unique perspective on a text. This method is also less daunting than crating a thesis right away. Unlike a thesis, which may not automatically come to us, we all have some sort of instinctual reaction when we read something, even if it’s just that we find the text stupid or the argument ridiculous. These sorts of emotional responses to a text can help give us a lens through which to look back at the text and craft an argument. Focusing can give us fuel to make an argument, thereby helping us effectively brainstorm and overcome writer’s block.

The overarching idea of first asking, “how do you feel?” before asking, “what’s your argument?” can be put into practice through a few exercises. We focus on three main ways to execute this method – conversation, the popcorn game, and the cranium graph game – but there are surely other possibilities.

In the first method, a tutor (or anyone) has a conversation with the writer, asking him/her a series of questions designed to get at the writer’s emotions and instincts. These can include “what made you angry in this text?” and “is there anything in this text/argument that you’re cynical about?” and “what confused you?” This conversation works particularly well in a peer-tutoring situation. Unlike when we students talk to our professor and feel pressure to only express well-thought out and well-articulated ideas, we can feel more comfortable around fellow students to just express our initial reactions and feelings to a text.

The next two methods, the popcorn and the cranium graph games, we put into practice with our Tutoring Theory class here at Whitman. We presented our class with excerpts from this article about the recent changes made to the SAT. The excerpts we chose indicated the following changes: the essay will now be optional, there will be no penalty for wrong answers, there will be policies to help low-income students with preparing for the SATs and applying to college, students will have to justify their answers on the test, and each test will include a founding document such as the Declaration of Independence. The article also quoted the head of the College Board explaining the changes are part of an effort to align the SAT more with what students learn in high school (Lewin).

After reading this, the class played the popcorn game. This game works well in a large group but it only really requires two participants. Before playing, participants read a text (or a portion of a text). Directly after reading it, so it’s fresh in their mind, everyone is invited to shout out one-word responses to the text. The shout outs should be immediate, gut reactions as opposed to crafted or thought out. There’s no order (everyone chimes in randomly like kernels popping) and no limit to the amount of times each person can speak. Occurring right after reading the text and with a minimal level of structure, this exercise helps writers to focus on their instinctual reactions to a text. This is an especially helpful tool if someone in the group writes down the responses. That way, the writer or writers writing on the text can look back on their instinctual reactions and draw on them to craft an argument that really reflects their view. Even without writing them down, the exercise can loosen you up to think of ideas. Some of the words people in our class shouted out were “well-intentioned, hopeful, unfair, useless, propaganda” and “cynical”. Each person’s response helped to fuel another response, either from that same person or from someone else. Sometimes people disagreed with another response, sometimes they built off of it.

After this, we played the cranium graph game. The title can come across as a bit deceiving as to imagine only a floating head. Rather, the visual (as seen below) incorporates multiple elements: the mind, the heart and sensory details. The mind can be best categorized as thought through ‘I think’ statements, the heart as ‘I feel’ statements and the sensory to include ‘I smell’, ‘I see’, ‘I taste’, ‘I hear’ statements. Now, we know that human emotional/thought processes are much more complicated than this, and the grown up inside of us may first see this as an exercise in reduction or simplification. More correctly, the cranium game is a practice in expansion, with an organizational quality that allows for distinction, differentiation, but also a chance to draw connections by weaving across different domains. Through this brainstorming technique, it can be witnessed how emotions influence thoughts, how thoughts solidify emotions, how sensory details can interweave or spring out of texts, or rather how this trinity of thought, emotion and sensory work to feed, fuel and craft an idea.

To better elucidate this structure, I will utilize examples that were made evident in this class which highlight each category. When students replied with sensorial reactions to the SAT article, they were asked to approach the article in an abstract manner. The image of the olive branch came up, and this image alone is fodder for crafting an idea or even a thesis that navigates issues of justice. To further investigate the olive branch one could bring in an emotional statement such as ‘cynical’. From this a metaphor and an argument is created; like the olive branch the SAT stands strong in its sincerity and just approaches to testing students, but is acutally a money-driven enterprise. Thoughts can be brought in directly from the text, secondary sources or our own opinions to solidify or advance the idea.

cranium game

Now that we’ve seen how this method works in practice, it’s important to note that it doesn’t work in all situations and it doesn’t work for everyone. For people who tend to write about their feelings and opinions and have more difficulty finding evidence and making an academic, well-supported argument, these exercises might be counterproductive. It’s important to remember that a crucial part of using this method is transforming your feelings and sensory reactions into thoughts and arguments. As our class showed with the “olive branch”, it’s possible – and easier than you might think – to transform what seem to be random reactions and metaphors into a thesis or examples to support your thesis.

While it is often easy to blur feelings and thoughts, or mistakes feelings for an argument, the cranium diagram is useful because it clearly distinguishes between thoughts, sensory reactions, and feelings. It can also be helpful to think of thoughts as things the author says/argues and feelings as your reaction to the text. “This author is annoying” is really a personal opinion, which you can put in the form of a feeling (“I find this author annoying”) and then search for a thought, which would focus on why the author is annoying – what did the author do/argue that annoyed you? Even if the distinctions and transitions from feelings to arguments might be difficult to make, especially for some people, the process of focusing on feelings can be useful even if just to break through writer’s block. Even if none of the words you say in the popcorn game directly translate into an argument or evidence for an argument, they loosen you up and may allow you to come up with ideas and an argument later on that you may not have reached if you were still stuck trying to find a perfect argument right away.

Overall, this method can work in college for creative writing and critical writing. You can use it on your own, with a friend or classmate or multiple other people, or with a peer tutor. Really, you just need to put yourself in a situation where you feel comfortable following your instincts and expressing your immediate reactions rather than feeling pressured to think of an argument right off the bat. Most importantly, this method shows that what we can apply what we learned in elementary school to College. Using this method doesn’t lessen your sophistication as a writer. It just serves as a reminder that sometimes – often because you are a good and experienced writer – you should go with your instincts.

Works Cited

Lewin, Tamar. “A New SAT Seeks to Realign with Schoolwork.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company. 5 March 2014. Web. 7 Mar 2014.

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Get with the beat: Sentence Rhythm

by Sam Chapman and Sierra Dickey

This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals–sounds that say listen to this, it is important.”

Gary Provost

                                                The Rhythm of Sentences

Let me start with a disclaimer: I don’t believe sentence rhythm can be taught. Or rather, I don’t believe it can’t be taught, but that any systematic attempt to teach it would necessarily instill a formula on something that ought to develop naturally. Sentence rhythm is one of the thousand choices and considerations that a writer makes per page, most of which she leaves to instinct because if she actually paid attention to them all it would take weeks to write anything. You see where this is going: rhythm is a component of style, and style, as we know, cannot be taught.

While I don’t think rhythm can be taught, I firmly believe that it can be tutored, if a student has a grasp of the concept and an idea of its direction. This is because there are several facts about sentence rhythm that remain more or less true no matter who you are or what you’re doing with it. I’ll lay a few out here. Lastly, I will say that the ideas about sentence rhythm presented in this post are about inter-sentence rhythm. Or, how the long and languid sentences work in conjunction with the short and spicy. (Chapter 6 of Rhetorical Grammar is about within-sentence rhythm.)

 

1. Sentence rhythm is important. No arguing with this. Take a look at the Provost quote above if you need convincing that boring or repetitive rhythm can absolutely murder a paper. Provost gives an extreme example, of course, but falling into a dull cadence has a way of drowning out whatever you’re attempting to convey, and is not as hard to do as it sounds.

2. Extremely complex sentences are fine, but stick to one per paragraph. If you’re reading this, you probably had that phase in your primary or secondary education where you became convinced “good writing” meant “longer sentences.” You abused semicolons and tossed out commas like confetti. There is a use for long compound-complex sentences: they are best for conveying background information, for expounding on a point, or for guiding your reader’s attention towards a point you make in a shorter sentence. However, if the bulk of your content is wrapped up in m-dash paper and semicolon bows, you’ll discover much more of it gets lost in translation.

3. Short sentences focus the reader’s attention. It’s the best way to get a point across. The more a piece of information is distinct from what surrounds it, the more it draws the eye. Also, if you can’t say it in a few words, you don’t know it well enough. Study your topic until you do.

 4. Genre matters. Different genres will require different tricks of sentence rhythm. If you’re writing a science report, all the stuff about lilt and cadence goes out the window. Your audience for this expects their information in a certain format, and has developed one that is high-nutrition, low-taste, like literary lembas bread. In an analytical or argumentative paper, you have more freedom to experiment, but still a few limits. Creative writing is the only genre in which you’re allowed to break the rules of grammar in order to find the perfect rhythm. A sentence that is perfect in one type of paper might be unacceptable in another—know your expectations.

 5. Avoid the cult! As of late, the cult of the sentence fragment has sprung up on the American literary scene. Sentence fragments are the new “thing.” Writers have started using them with abandon, usually to assert a brusk voice or make a punchy statement. In some genres like poetry, creative writing, and most often personal essays, sentence fragments are okay as long as they are worth it. If your sentence fragment isn’t absolutely necessary to your piece… scrap it, your teaching can tell when fragments have real currency, and when they are just superfluous.

Just to be sure: What is a sentence fragment? A sentence fragment is an incomplete sentence, and they are usually short. A sentence fragment is missing one of three things: a subject, a verb, or a complete idea.

6. Some by-the-book examples. Our friend, Rhetorical Grammar provides us with lots of exacting instruction for how to identify and employ the mechanics of rhythm. In Chapter 6, RG talks about how to make the words within one sentence have rhythm. The gist of this is: get the right focus. Your words should arrange themselves according to your ideas, and you should move information around in order to place stress on the right words. In Chapter 5 of RG, we learn about cohesion. Cohesion is what Sam and I lean towards when we think about sentence rhythm.  For RG, cohesion means effective use of the known-new contract and careful attention to reader expectation. It’s almost as if you are playing call-and-response with yourself, setting something down and then returning it with something new, this new thing also acting as a reverberation of what you just said. This is a great way to develop rhythm, as call-and-response chants are always rhythmic.

7. Some rhythmic examples. Here, we provide three examples of passages with rhythm. Each of these passages is from a different genre of writing. Literature, science, and news reportage.

Creative: “Gonzales was easy to find. On the arrest report, he was identified as being an officer from Albuquerque, and he was still with that department in the fall of 2008. When he was reached by phone, he told his side of the story.”

Zeitoun, Dave Eggers

 

Scientific: “As champagne or sparkling wine is poured into a glass, the myriad of ascending bubbles collapse and radiate a multitude of tiny droplets above the free surface into the form of very characteristic and refreshing aerosols.”

–”Unraveling different chemical fingerprints between a champagne wine and its aerosols”, Cornell University

 

Journalistic: “Many of these retirees are living seasonally or year-round on boats, lured by the simplicity of life and lower cost of living. They are also searching for tranquillity, a place away from the fast pace and hectic life increasingly dominated, they say, by time pressures in an age of social media.”

–”Baby Boomers Savor Retirement Living on Boats in Mexico”, Dallas Morning News

 

8. Learn rhythm by practicing. The more you write, the closer you’ll get to that elusive “feel” for sentence rhythm. There’s no other way to get better. Or maybe there is! Reading writers whose rhythm attracts you is also paramount to developing personal rhythm. If you have talented and vetted people’s words running through your head all day, before you know it you will be mimicking them in your own writing.

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Grammar rules and resources

Maggie Eismeier and John Masla

Tutors who speak English as their first language often don’t know how to verbalize English conventions as formal rules. As we hope was demonstrated in the activity at the beginning of our presentation, it is often easy to tell when something is “off” in a sentence and much harder to explain why. Tutees who are native speakers of English tend to be more aware of when things “sound wrong”, since they have more experience with the English language. English language learners, on the other hand, are often more familiar with grammar rules than native speakers, but have less experience reading and writing in English. ELL students, who have likely learned English systematically, in a class, may want to know the rules and systems behind the intuitions a native speaker has, and these can be difficult for a tutor to supply.

Don’t worry about being able to explain every quirk of English, though: it’s not the tutors’s job to know all the rules of English grammar. In fact, it’s often more productive to work with a tutee to find a useful resource than to explain just one rule. We have talked with Lydia and with Jen Mouat (director of the LLC) about sharing resources among Writing Center tutors and ELL Fellows, some of which were mentioned in our presentation. There are also many useful online resources, including the Purdue Online Writing Lab (https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/section/1/5/) and the University of Chicago Writing Program (http://writing-program.uchicago.edu/resources/grammar.htm).  The Purdue OWL has lots of resources particularly for ELL students and tutors, and the Chicago site provides links to many other sites. (This section may be updated after Wednesday’s class to refer specifically to resources discussed in our presentation).

Looking for resources together is also a good way to establish a peer relationship with a tutee. Hearing a native English speaker say that they don’t understand why a certain rule works a certain way, or referring to resources to solve these problems, shows students that they don’t have to know every rule of English in order to be able to write well. Knowing when to refer to resources, and how to find them, is a valuable writing skill, and it’s important for students, whether native speakers or English language learners, to understand this. Working with a student to find and use grammar and language resources is useful not only because of the content learned, but also because it shows the student that it’s perfectly okay to make mistakes and to need help, and that this doesn’t constitute failure as a student or writer.

It’s a useful exercise to try to explain English grammar rules, as we did in the activity at the beginning of our presentation: this helps make us aware of our knowledge of English, as well as of the things we’re less knowledgeable about, and often explaining an idea to other is a very effective way to learn. If you’re working with a client who seems to know a rule that you don’t, you might try asking them to explain it: you’ll learn more about that aspect of usage or grammar, and they’ll solidify their understanding.

The aim of this post and presentation has been to highlight the usefulness of grammar resources in tutoring, and to point out some of those available to students and tutors and Whitman. As a tutor and native English speaker, you yourself are a language resource, but it’s important to understand that the tutor is not supposed to be an absolute authority on English. Working with a client to find resources helps both tutor and client to understand English rules better, and, more importantly, gives both a broader base to work from in the future.

 

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