By Faith Nyakundi & Jesse Moneyhun
A new writing prompt or thought is always another adventure, and a chance to express myself. This is not always an exciting adventure, especially when it is a class prompt, and I have to make sure that I express my thoughts according to the expectation of the teacher. This is however made easier by the fact that the teacher gives guidance to how she wants the text to be approached and any limitations.
We have heard stories of students told to revise their essays. Reasons that professors give are to increase the length, clarify ideas, or to simplify ideas. Students have no choice other than to do this because they are concerned about their grades. Being one of the students who has been in situations like that, I would say it is simply an uphill task. I revise as I write my essay, therefore, every sentence that I write leads to the next sentence as my ideas flow, and I make sure that each of my paragraphs is comprehensive before I move to the next. I have been taught that when writing that I need to develop thesis with every paragraph. This is one the reasons that makes it difficult to “expand” an essay that I consider complete.
What does “expansion” really entail? And how does this affect the final product? Some students end up just adding new sentences to what they already had, but doesn’t this interrupt the flow of sentences? For class we read a piece of writing from a student who had been asked to expand an introductory paragraph. The final product was a piece was filled with repeated phrases, and it was clear that the student felt that what they had was enough already and all they did was rephrase ideas. This ends up being a worse product than the earlier version because it is redundant. When one is asked to revise or rewrite then it feels as if one is writing a whole new essay, so I would rather get a new prompt to write on and then get guidance on the same. It is clear therefore that whether or not expansion means an increase words, it is easy to lean in that direction.
Various English classes have also taught us that writing is a continual process, and that we should understand that the journey to the idea is just as important as the idea itself. In many ways, the process of writing can be used as a tool for self-discovery. Many writers subscribe to this philosophy, and prefer their writing process to be a sort of self-editing stream-of-consciousness. Therefore any extensive editing or revision to the end product may be seen as disturbing the paper’s flow. However, students are most often graded on their end product, not on their “journey,” and academic writers who prefer to edit as they go rather than revise afterwards may have clarity issues that come about from the “writing as a journey” philosophy. Since academia seems to hold clarity in very high regard, this friction between the stream-of-consciousness writer and the revision process tends to hold these sorts of writers back.
The task is then to find a way to link up these writers to the revision process in such a way that helps them clarify their ideas while also keeping intact what they feel the main ideas of their paper are. For these writers, their thesis or main ideas are usually at the end. Their paper has gradually lead up to it. Some may have done a bit of revision and replaced the intro with the conclusion, but the loose ends of self-discovery are still found throughout the paper. As tutors, it is our job to help them tie their paper together tightly. Here is an exercise that may help these writers (even if you are one yourself).
1. Ask them to map out their papers visually on the back of their essays. If you want, make one yourself and compare the two. What they think they wrote and what they actually wrote might be different.
2. Even if the professor is asking for expansion, the student’s paper still often needs to be condensed before it can be expanded. Comparing maps can help with this.
3. Ask them what their thesis is. If they can’t explain it confidently, you may need to work on their thesis with them before anything else.
4. Go line by line (or paragraph by paragraph if you don’t have time) backwards from end to finish and ask them the function of each sentence. All sentences should in some way help explain the thesis of the paper. Keep the best sentences.
5. Try to reduce the paper to the size of a rough paragraph. Obviously, this does not incorporate much evidence or leave much room for flowery language. They will realize this and want to expand it almost immediately.
6. Once this is completed, ask them to try expanding from this paragraph, slowly adding only what’s necessary. For the sake of time, this step can take the form of expanding to an outline rather than a full-fledged essay.
7. Compare the end product to the map that they made at the beginning of the session. The more times this exercise is completed, the more clear and precise their paper should become.
8. Help them understand that in this case, their ideas are what is important. Their writing should clearly and efficiently represent what’s in their head. If their language gets in the way, different language should be used.
This exercise should be aimed at developing the writer and not the writing. Make sure that the focus is broadly on “elucidating ideas,” not necessarily on making this specific paper more clear. If done earnestly, this exercise may produce greater consciousness of argument construction and encourage revision by blurring the line between correction of language and expression of ideas. Also, any one of these steps could be performed on their own or in conjunction with different exercises. Have fun and tailor the exercise to the writer’s needs.