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Writing Process Reflecting on how we learn is just as important as what we learn; this is especially true for writing. It might, in fact, make the difference between a “C” paper and an “A” paper. Have you given much thought to how you approach a writing assignment? During the first week, you will be asked to reflect on how you write, to examine what works for you and what doesn’t. Are you, for example, the type of writer who thinks first before putting ink to paper? Do you draw maps or diagrams to brainstorm ideas first? Or, do you wait until the last minute to write your paper? While some of us need to feel the pressure of waiting until the last minute to write a paper, overall it is not a good practice. Yes, sometimes it works; we all have times when we are visited by the muse, but by not allowing enough time to write, we are denying ourselves the chance to truly explore the inner landscapes of our mind - to reflect, to question, to expand on our ideas or the ideas of others, and to explore other perhaps more interesting lines of thought. We all have what I and others in the field of writing refer to as a writing voice. This voice can be drastically different from our speaking voice. Engaging in the process of writing allows us time to explore this vast frontier. In other words, writing is an act of discovery. The writing process involves five stages; however, the process of writing is recursive. In other words, you might arrive at the editing stage and decide that you need to return to the revising stage or perhaps you arrive at the planning stage and decide that you need to return to the brainstorming stage. Brainstorming – Planning – Revising – Editing – Proofreading A brief explanation of each is in order: 1. Brainstorming – involves utilizing various techniques to explore ideas, writing to discover is key here. 2. Planning – after brainstorming writers need to pay attention to an emerging thesis, the main controlling idea in their paper. Once a thesis is established a rough outline, a sort of road map, can be developed, giving writers much needed direction.
3. Revising - Good writers often produce a series of drafts, revising each as they go along. The word “revise” means to “look again.” Revision involves large scale changes, such as moving around large blocks of text, adding or deleting text, exploring other lines of thought, perhaps, even revising the thesis statement. For example, some writers might establish a thesis statement early in the writing process. However, as they begin drafting their paper, they discover that they have gone off on a tangent, strayed from their original thesis. Consequently, a new perhaps more interesting thesis begins to emerge. Revision is not always this drastic, but it’s okay to follow different lines of thinking early in the writing process. This is why it is important to begin writing assignments early. 4. Editing – In this stage writers make changes on a much smaller scale. They might explore the level of diction; analyze the structure of sentences, flesh out more details, smooth out the transitions within and between paragraphs and correct errors in grammar and punctuation. 5. Proofreading - Have you ever typed the article “the” twice? Well, when writers proofread, they read closely and carefully in order to catch these mistakes. The best method for proofreading is to examine each sentence backwards. When we read in the normal fashion, our eyes often skip right over little annoying mistakes. Reading your paper out loud and/or having someone read it to you are great proofreading methods. Doing a good job of proofreading tells your readers that you take pride in your work. Think about it: If you are an employer and you have two resumes on your desk, both candidates have exactly the same qualifications; however, one resume has been proofread carefully and the other has three or more misspellings or typos, which person would you call for the interview?
Active Reading – Annotating and Summarizing If you want to improve your writing ability, read. That’s right – read. Reading is the single most important thing we can do to improve our writing ability. When we read we pick up on various sentences structures and styles, notice when and where punctuation is used, and increase the size of our vocabulary to name a few of the benefits. There is a reciprocal relationship between reading and writing; one benefits the other, which is why I feel so strongly about learning to become active readers. When we read actively as opposed to passively we engage in a dialogue with the author. Our mind is alert. Perhaps you already highlight certain key points when you read. This is good. However, there are other things you should be doing. Annotating a text is the process of making notations in the margin. 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. Ask Questions Make Comments Draw Connections Outline or Highlight Key Points Paraphrase Key Points Circle Vocabulary to Define Summarize
Because you are engaging in the process of research, incorporating and synthesizing the works of others into your writing, active reading is an imperative skill. Developing the Thesis & Organizing the Essay The Evolving Thesis Some students enjoy being told what to write about; others do not. They like the freedom of choosing their own subject, topic, and question; they enjoy the challenge of creating their own thesis statement. Whatever category you fall into, chances are that throughout the course of your college career, you will have to do both. So where to begin? Subject, Topic, and Question Provided: If a question is already provided, simply brainstorm your response to the question, whether through free writing or any of the other numerous brainstorming techniques. Then turn the question into a statement – a thesis statement. The thesis statement tells your readers what they can expect your essay to be about. It sets the parameters for your essay. Good writers do not try to take on the world in one essay; instead, they limit and define their subject. The body of your essay should unfold according to the design of your thesis statement. Moreover, the thesis indicates the rhetorical pattern of your essay and your primary purpose. There are three mains purposes: Inform, Persuade, Entertain. Writers typically employ more than one purpose, but one tends to dominate. Here’s an example to illustrate these points: Question – What causes some high school students to drop out? Thesis – After brainstorming on this question, turn it into a thesis statement. Here’s the thesis statement: • Lack of parental involvement, peer pressure, and low achievement are some of the main reasons why students drop out of high school.
From reading this thesis statement we can make three determinations: 1. Organization – The first body paragraph, the one that follows the introduction/thesis paragraph, will be about “lack of parental involvement.” This is the writer’s first reason, or cause, as to why high school students drop out. The second body paragraph will be about peer pressure; this is the writer’s second reason why high school students drop out. And, finally, the third body paragraph will develop the final reason, which is low achievement. The final paragraph in the essay will be the conclusion, which summarizes the writer’s thesis and major points of support.
2. Rhetorical Pattern - In English 101 you studied the various rhetorical patterns and purposes for writing, such as comparison/contrast, process, definition, classification, cause/effect, and so on. The key word in both the question and the thesis statement is reason. Reason is a synonym for cause. Therefore, the reader knows that you are examining the probable cause(s) for the high school drop out rate. The amount of students who drop out is the effect, but the body of your essay explores the causes. 3. Purpose: From looking at the thesis, we can determine that the writer’s primary purpose is to persuade. How do we know this? Well, notice that I used the phrase “probable reasons/causes.” The writer examines all the variables and sets forth the best probable causes. However, others might disagree with the writer’s causes, arguing instead that that an inordinate amount of high school students drop out because of poor quality teachers, condition of the schools, and an increase in school violence. Perhaps it helps to think of the courtroom analogy. The defense and prosecution outline their best evidence. They provide their reasons or causes to prove their case. But, if you’ve ever watched Perry Mason or Court TV, you know that each side will do its best to refute the other’s argument. To determine whether a thesis is persuasive, or argumentative, ask yourself this question? Is it possible for two or more people to disagree with my thesis? Subject, Topic, and Question NOT Provided: If the question is not provided, you have some homework to do. Here are the steps you need to follow in order to arrive at a thesis statement. 1. Subject: First, you must decide what subject to write about. Of course the class you are writing the paper in determines your choice of subject to a great extent. For the sake of example, let’s say you’re writing an essay for a college success class. After discussing a possible subject with your friends or family, looking through your classroom lecture notes, and free writing, you decide to write about college. If you’re still having difficulty finding a subject, you can look through the Library of Congress list of official subject headings. This is a reference source that can be found in print and online. 2. Topic: Okay, “college” is a broad subject; you need a focus, a topic. A topic is a smaller part of a subject. Let’s take our subject “College” and brainstorm a list of related ideas. • • • • • • • Expense of College Obtaining Grants and Scholarships Binge Drinking on College Campuses Poor Study Habits Lack of Motivation Failing First Year College Students STD education on College Campuses
Once you have your list, look for groups of related points or points that overlap. For
example, Expense of College and Obtaining Grants and Scholarships seem to have a possible relationship. I might use obtaining grants and scholarships as a means of offsetting the expense of college. Or, Lack of Motivation and Poor Study Habits might be two possible reasons why First Year College Students Fail. 3. Questions: Next, choose the topic that you find the most interesting, one that will lead to a paper that will suit the length and purpose of the assignment. Then, develop several questions for the topic you have chosen. If you are having difficulty thinking of questions use the reporter questions: Who? What? Why? Where? When? How? I have chosen the following topic: “Failing First Year College Students.” So let’s try it: • • • What are some of the main reasons why a high percentage of first year college students fail? What can teachers do to prevent failing first year college students from dropping out? Where can failing first year college students turn for help?
4. Choose Question: Of course, you would brainstorm more questions than this, but you get the idea. You might have several “What?” questions, several “Why?” questions, and so on. Choose the question that would lead to the most promising paper. Select one that’s suitable for the type of assignment and its requirement. For example, if you are not allowed to use outside sources, don’t select a question that would require their use. Also, determine whether the question is too broad or too narrow. Finally, choose one that is suitable for your purpose. If you are asked to write an informational paper then you might want to choose the third question: “Where can failing first year college students turn for help?” 5. Thesis: Once you have selected your question, return to the brainstorming stage. With the question in mind begin to develop the support for your thesis. The question I chose was “What are some of the main reasons why a high percentage of first year college students fail?” Let’s assume I chose this topic because I am in a research class, and I am required to use outside sources. This is definitely a research oriented question. To brainstorm your support, you might want to make a list, draw a map with your question in the middle and the branches indicating your support, or resort to free writing, which is my preference. Okay, let’s assume that I’ve done my free writing and I’ve done my research. After having done my research and free writing, I need to draw my own conclusions. In other word’s I need to formulate my thesis statement. Here’s my thesis statement: • Lack of discipline, poor study habits, and financial stress are three of the main reasons why a high percentage of first year college students fail.
Note: If you are given a subject, you would simply skip down to the next step for narrowing down you subject to a topic with the ultimate goal of creating a thesis.
Questions that Require an Angle: Let’s say that you’re given a question, but you need to develop an angle, your own story. Here’s an example and some suggestions for what you can do. The question asks you to think about the effects of a time in your life when you failed to exercise self-discipline. In this case, creating a list is a good technique for developing an angle. Failed to Exercise Self-Discipline in the Following Areas of My Life: • • • • • • Smoking Diet Exercise Dropped Out of High School Job Friendship or Relationship
Next, choose a specific area in your life in which you failed to exercise self-discipline, but remember there are two parts to the question. Choose the area; then write about the effects. Let’s say you have chosen “Dropped out of High School.” This is the specific area of your life in which you failed to exercise self-discipline. Now ask yourself this question: What were the effects of dropping out of high school? Now we are getting somewhere. With this question in mind do some free writing. Do you have at least three effects? If so, you can now turn the question into a thesis statement. Here is my thesis: Remember the Original Question: Remember a time when you failed to exercise selfdiscipline? What were the effects of your behavior? Thesis: Dropping out of high school had a negative impact on my life. Some of my family members no longer wanted to speak to me; I was forced to take menial jobs for extremely low wages; and, ultimately, I became severely depressed.
Free writing: The whole idea behind free writing is to write without stopping. As this point, you don’t want to worry about spelling, punctuation, or usage. Don’t lift the pen from the page or don’t stop typing. If you should get stuck, in other words, develop writer’s block, simply write or type, “I’m stuck, I’m stuck” as many times as needed until you become unstuck. You want to get as many ideas out as possible. Later on, of course, you will revise and
refine what you have written. Here’s a visual image of brainstorming that might help: You are a sculptor and you are given a large block of clay to work with (ideas). You have no idea what you are going to sculpt, so you start tearing off pieces of clay until something starts to emerge (free writing). The process is a messy one, but as an artist you allow yourself this freedom; after all, it is only clay; it can be shaped and reshaped. Eventually, though, a figure starts emerge; in writing this figure is called the thesis. Let’s take a look at a sample free writing. The subject for this free writing assignment is Television. That’s a broad subject, so let’s see if I can locate any topics within my free writing.
Freewriting on Television Television always gets a bad rap; there’s too much violence; there’s too much sex; but it never gets noticed for the good things it has to offer, such as Public Television, Discovery, and the History channel to name a few. These are just a few of the educational gems on television. Also, television is changing the way we learn. For example, I have taken some college television courses on City Colleges of Chicago channel 20. It is also possible to hear lectures from Harvard University professors and other ivy-league universities on the Satellite University channel. This is great! I’m stuck; I’m stuck. These courses offer busy people a chance to learn at their own convenience. Even radio stations are switching over to satellite television. Now when I want to listen to a certain genre of music I turn on satellite television or Sirius T.V. I wonder what effect satellite television will have on regular network television? I’m stuck; I’m stuck’ I’m stuck. The king of shock radio, Howard Stern, is switching over to Sirius radio, trying to encourage his fans to come along. Will these programs have any regulations? I wonder. Television has also brought us into the courtroom; we have been able to watch some high profile cases. Will executions ever be televised? I wonder; there was talk about it in
the past. I’m stuck; I’m stuck. Television has also changed the nature of war. War is still ugly, but today people can watch the war being fought right on their T.V. screen. It’s surreal. Is this a good thing? At the beginning of the Iraq war I was hooked to the T.V., listening to embedded reporters give the horrific details of the war. However, terrorists have also used television to their advantage.
Looking over my free writing, I notice several different topics emerging, topics that can be used to eventually develop my thesis statement. Take a look at some of the topics I’ve isolated on the subject of Television: 1. The first one is the number of positive programs on television today. 2. The second topic to emerge is taking educational courses on television. 3. The third topic to emerge is the new type of radio programming offered on Satellite television, particularly Sirius radio. I went into more depth, discussing radio personalities moving over to this format and questioning who is going to regulate this type of programming. 4. The fourth topic to emerge is the notion of live televised court cases. 5. The fifth topic to emerge is the idea of having executions televised live, perhaps on pay per view. 6. The sixth topic to emerge is how television has changed the nature of war and the way we view it. 7. The final topic to emerge is how terrorists have used television to their advantage.
As you can see a lot of topics have emerged. Several of them would make rather interesting papers. Ultimately I would choose one that best suits the requirements of the assignment. Then, I can begin to narrow my chosen topic down into a thesis statement. Thesis Statement In sum, the thesis statement is the main controlling idea in your paper; it limits and defines what you are going to write about. You cannot take on the world in one paper; you need a focus. The thesis presents your assertion on an issue of importance. Good thesis statements have an edge and/or offer unique insight into an issue of importance. Just about anything and everything has been written about, but your particular insight is what makes it unique. You don’t want to be a Master of the Obvious. In other words, are you trying to create an argument that most people wouldn’t disagree with
anyways. For example, let’s say you have developed the following thesis statement: Drunk drivers should be punished for their behavior. Okay, very few people would disagree with your thesis – most agree that drunk drivers should face some kind of punishment, which leads to the second problem with your thesis. You failed to define what type(s) of punishment the drunk driver should face. This might have helped put an edge on your thesis. Let’s try it again. Drunk drivers should be jailed for one hundred days for their first offense and lose their driver’s license for a repeat offense. Now your thesis has an edge. Also, it’s important that you avoid vague, neutral words in your thesis, as in the following example: People should not buy sports utility vehicles because they are terrible on the environment. The vague, neutral word in this thesis statement is “terrible.” The writer needs to specify what effects SUVs have on our environment. In addition, do not announce your intentions, as in the following example: I am going to write about why all Chicago Public Schools should require students to wear uniforms. Instead, simply state your thesis directly; cut out phrases such as “I believe” or “I feel” or “I am going to write about.” Take a look: Chicago Public Schools should require students to wear uniforms. Make bold assertions but avoid overgeneralizations; use qualifiers. Your readers will respect you more. For example, don’t write: Students who enter their first year of high school usually succumb to the pressure of drug and alcohol use. Instead write: Many students who enter their first year of high school succumb to the pressure of drug and alcohol abuse. Saying many is not the same as saying all. Finally, state your thesis in the positive rather than negative. For example, instead of arguing why public high school students should not be required to wear uniforms, argue why students should be allowed to wear their own clothing. Types of Thesis Statements: There are two types of thesis statements: explicit and implicit. The explicit thesis statement is directly stated; in other words, we can actually point to it and underline it. On the other hand, the implicit thesis statement is implied, meaning it is up to us, the reader, to infer what the thesis statement is in a particular piece of writing. Usually narrative stories have implied thesis statements. In order to figure out this type of thesis statement, we need to put together all the pieces of the puzzle, the small pieces, and infer the big picture – the thesis statement. Thesis Design: A thesis statement consists of a claim + reasons. Imagine this: the claim is the table, and the reasons are the legs to support the table. Some writers provide an overview of their reasons; others do not. Let’s take a look: Thesis: Lack of discipline, poor study habits, and financial stress are three of the main reasons why a high percentage of first year college students drop out.
The claim is “why a high percentage of first year college students drop out.” The reasons to support the claim are “lack of discipline, poor study habits, and financial stress.” The claim can come first or as in this example it can come second. Sometimes a writer does not overview his or her reasons. Take a look: Three main reasons account for the high percentage of college freshman who drop out. Thesis Placement: Most teachers tell students to place their thesis statement at the end of their introduction paragraph. However, in actuality, a thesis can be located in the middle or even at the end. There are reasons why a writer would want to place his or her thesis statement at the end. Let’s say the writer is writing about a very controversial issue and trying to appeal to a very conservative audience. For this example, let’s say the writer is arguing that our government should support stem cell research. Considering that this writer has a conservative audience to persuade, his job is not going to be an easy task. If the writer places his or her thesis at the beginning, the reading might stop reading. However, perhaps if the writer begins with some good reasoning, solid support, and pathos (emotion), the writer stands a better chance of getting the audience to accept his thesis at the end of the paper. When the thesis comes at the beginning, the last few sentences of the introduction paragraph, this is called the deductive method. In other words, the writer begins with a general proposition and proceeds to deduce specific points to support his thesis. Imagine a funnel; it starts wide and gradually narrows down. The inductive method, however, begins with specific points and gradually moves toward a general proposition, referred to as the thesis statement. Imagine the funnel being inverted. Let’s take a look at an outline of these thesis placements. Deductive Essay: I. II. III. IV. V. Inductive Essay: I. II. Introduction – Captures readers’ attention First Point of Support Introduction – Captures readers’ attention Thesis Statement First Point of Support Second Point of Support Third Point of Support Conclusion
III. IV. V. Organizing the Essay The Outline:
Second Point of Support Third Point of Support Thesis Statement and Conclusion
Some writers like to have an outline before they begin drafting their essay; others do not like being restricted too early. They might draft their paper a few times before developing an outline. There are two types of outlines: rough and detailed, or informal and formal respectively. Rough outlines are just that, rough. They are simple roadmaps with most of the details filled in as the writer goes along. On the other hand, detailed outlines are thoroughly developed. Detailed outlines have complete sentences; they are quite formal, using Roman numerals, capital letters, lowercase letters, and numbers. Whatever type of outline you use, your outline must be developed according to the outline of your thesis statement. Take a look: I. Introduction – Captures readers’ attention Thesis – Chicago public high school students should be required to wear uniforms because it will reduce gang identification, save parents money, and help students focus more on learning. Requiring Chicago public high school students to wear uniforms will reduce problems with gang identification. A. First major reason why a. Provide an example b. Give details or elaborate on previous example B. Second major reason why a. Provide an example b. Give details or elaborate on previous example C. Concluding Sentence for Paragraph Besides reducing gang identification, requiring Chicago public high school students to wear uniforms will save parents money. A. First major reason why a. Provide an example b. Give details or elaborate on previous example B. Second major reason why a. Provide an example b. Give details or elaborate on previous example C. Concluding Sentence – You can lead into the third and final point in your essay. This is called a bridge sentence. Finally, students are more likely to focus on learning if they are wearing
uniforms. A. First major reason why a. Provide an example b. Give details or elaborate on previous example B. Second major reason why a. Provide an example b. Give details or elaborate on previous example C. Concluding Sentence V. Conclusion Paragraph: Reinforce your thesis and summarize main points of support. Perhaps you can refer back to something interesting you wrote in your introduction. If it is an argumentative piece of writing, perhaps you can conclude with a call for action or the need for people to examine the issue more closely.
Note: Using transitions within your paragraphs and between them gives your essay an overall sense of coherence and provides direction cues for your reader. Most grammar handbooks provide a list of transitional words. Do You Have Trouble with Paragraph Development? The topic sentence is the umbrella that covers each paragraph; it indicates that paragraph’s main idea. If you are having difficulty getting enough development for your paragraphs, try turning the topic sentence into a question in your mind. Let’s look at one paragraph and give it a try. The topic sentence of the third body paragraph in the above example is, “Finally, students are more likely to focus on learning if they are wearing uniforms.” Okay, now turn the topic sentence into a question: Why are students more likely to concentrate on learning if they are wearing uniforms? Brainstorm a couple of answers, your A & B; then develop some examples and details for A and some examples and details for B. Finally, conclude your paragraph. In English 101 you looked at the various rhetorical patterns. You can mix these strategies, with some paragraphs developed according to comparison/contrast, others developed according to definition, and others developed according to cause/effect, and so on.
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