Tuesday, 19 October 2010

You Can Improve Your Writing

General Tips

1. Do the reading.  Keeping up with the reading is the first step to doing well on written assignments. You cannot grasp authors' complex arguments if you are trying to read and write at the same time. So do not let yourself get behind in the reading.  Of course, your class participation grade also benefits from your having completed the reading, since you will come to class prepared to discuss the material.

2. Give yourself plenty of time.  This hint is tremendously important.  Resist the temptation we all feel to procrastinate, and give yourself time to write well. If an essay assignment is distributed on Monday and it is not due for a week, do not wait until Sunday or even Saturday to start writing.  Take advantage of the time you have been given to complete an assignment.  There's no need to stress out; if you are feeling anxious, or if you cannot immediately begin writing in earnest, at least jot down your initial thoughts soon after you receive the assignment. You may decide to take your paper in a different direction later, and you are sure to revise those early ideas, but at least you have the feeling that you have begun your work, and that little bit of progress can do a lot for assuaging your anxieties.

3. Empathize!  Think and write with your audience in mind, and take a cue from sociology.  Sociologists approach their research and writing from a Verstehen perspective; they seek to identify and to portray deep, profound, insight into others' worlds.  For the betterment of your paper, ask yourself what your professor's professional world is like.  What does good sociological scholarship read like--what nouns and verbs seem most important?  Take on the role of the sociologist as you prepare your paper--be a sociologist!  Are you thinking and writing like your professor and other sociologists?  To achieve this empathetic end, consider how the readings in your course are written.  Everything matters, even what articles or books literally look like (do authors use subheadings?) and the formatting of citations and references.  Strive to come across in your work as if you were a professional sociologist.

4. Write an initial draft of your paper as soon as possible. The best writers say that the key to good writing is "rewriting, rewriting, rewriting," and this advice follows from the second point. Gather your thoughts or your data promptly. If you get started promptly, then you have plenty of time to write a first draft. If you like to use an outline, let that be your first draft. Get that first draft done, and then sleep on it! Do not even think about the paper for the next day. The time off will actually help you. When Carl Sagan, the physicist, got stuck on a project, "he moved on to the next, letting his subconscious go to work," the Washington Post reported following his death (Tibbits, 1996). Sagan was quoted as saying, "'When you come back, you find to your amazement, nine times out of 10, that you have solved your problem--or your unconscious mind has--without you even knowing it'" (Tibbits, 1996). Let your mind work for you.

After a day off, go back to your paper and revise it.  "Rewriting" sounds like you should completely overhaul of your paper, but do not.  Revisions or rewrites occur every time you alter your paper, although a "draft" represents numerous changes (writing papers is art, and there is no magic line between a revision, a rewrite, or a draft).  Realistically, two drafts--two thorough reworkings of your paper--are about the best you can do when you have only a few days between assignment and due date and when you have other classes to work on. Writing a couple of drafts allows you to catch many of your mistakes and to improve on your ideas. Sure, this approach takes time; but if you think of writing as a way to help you develop better time management skills, you can get some added benefits out of the effort.

5. Let the assignment length guide you...and dive right in!  If your paper's assigned length is less than 1,000 words, it is probably best to omit introductory and concluding paragraphs.  Why?  A couple of reasons.  First, introductions and conclusions eat up words that you will need to develop your thesis (see the next point).  Second, readers of a relatively short paper are likely to remember just about everything in the paper, so conclusions are unlikely to be necessary.  What do you do instead?  Dive right in!  Set up the essay--that is, state your thesis--in a sentence or two that also fits into your first paragraph, and work smoothly toward your conclusion, which can probably be expressed in the final couple of sentences.  That's right: no introductory or concluding paragraph.

6. Include a strong thesis.   Over the years I have noticed that the most common weakness on the content side of students' writing is a weak or nonexistent thesis.  Your thesis--or theme or focus, all three mean the same thing--is important for a couple of reasons.  First, your thesis is the one idea that you want to get across to your audience.  In college writing, it is not enough for you to simply restate what an author has said like you did when you wrote book reports in grammar school.  Rather, you need to bring your own insight to your papers; you need to make an observation of your own about the subject matter.

Second, your thesis glues together your paper.  Instead of a rambling set of disconnected thoughts, a paper with a strong thesis builds around a central point.  The difference between no thesis and a good one is the difference between a pile of bricks and a brick building.  Without mortar, a thesis, a brick building soon becomes a scattered pile of bricks; with it, the pile of bricks can be a solid, lasting structure.

How do you develop a thesis?  Sometimes, your thesis will come to mind quickly--you will know what you want to say almost as soon as you read the assignment.  Other times, the process of developing your thesis will take more time.  As I mentioned above, diving right in is a useful strategy for getting the most out of every word.  In the initial draft or two of your paper, diving in can also help you identify your thesis because, as you think about what you have written, your thesis will emerge.  Pull some quotations together that seem to address the assignment and respond to those quotes--see "Develop a dialog," below.  As you work on creating your dialog, you are likely to find yourself thinking things like: "Well, okay, but what about. . . ?"  "Can't you go even farther and argue that. . . ." "It doesn't have to be that way."  When you have moments like that, you are very close to your thesis.

Make sure to write your thesis clearly; it is usually best to make your thesis a declarative sentence. For example, "Marx was mistaken when he implicitly argued that social class was the basis of all other inequalities."  Your thesis statement does not need to be elaborate or extensive.  A brief, bold, direct thesis statement leaves no doubt where you stand or where you are taking your reader in your paper.

That last bit--where you take the reader--is the next step.  Follow through on your thesis.  Your entire paper needs to be constructed around your thesis.  Tangents are fine, but make sure they support your thesis in some way.  Roughly speaking, you should be able to say how every paragraph contributes to your thesis.  If you cannot do so, consider reworking or deleting the paragraph.

7. Use the strength of your computer.  We commonly hear about how "powerful" computers are.  For writers, a computer's power is found in the software that allows us to easily manipulate our thoughts.  Back in the Dark Ages (the early 1980s) when I was in your shoes, the personal computer literally did not exist.  I wrote papers straight through from start to finish using note cards, an outline, and often my memory to guide me through the paper.  Computers break the typewriter's tyranny by allowing us to write what we want when we want without the anxiety of knowing that we will have to completely re-type our work.

Use your computer's power by first writing those sections of your paper with which you feel most comfortable, thereby giving you a jump start.  In the end that material may not appear until the middle or the end of your paper, but with computers you can easily jump around your paper and add, delete, and move material whenever you want wherever you want.  As you develop your paper, fill in around those first sections, manipulating them--and later parts of your writing--as you see fit.  Just make sure as you fill things in that you have developed a consistent theme throughout your paper.

8. Develop a dialog between authors, concepts, and your own interpretations. By a "dialog," I mean a kind of conversation--an interaction of sorts on paper between you and the readings, guest speakers, films, class discussions, and other intellectual materials from class and outside of class. Students often fail to use material from a range of readings in their papers, and they are anxious about adding their own thoughts and critiques to the ideas that have been presented. However, the best papers do both of these things: integrate and interpret.

How do you create a dialog? First, you need to quote or paraphrase material from the course readings, other sources used in class, and class discussions, as well as material from outside sources like your own reading, films you have seen, and information from other courses. Use the language and ideas from class as a springboard for your own.  You do not have to draw from all of the sources I just mentioned, but always be sure to give a nod to what comes from this course.  That way, you show me that you have completed the readings and that you can do something creative with them.

Include quotes in your paper, but always with a clear purpose in mind. The quotes you choose should demonstrate how your viewpoint contrasts with or supports those of other authors. After a quote, always state the point that you feel the quote is making for you in your own words; tell me what you had in mind when you selected the quote--that idea is your interpretation, and interpretations are every bit as important as the quote (or a paraphrase) itself.

Here's one way to think about creating a dialog:  Let's imagine that you are working with two sources, book chapters by Jane Addams and Karl Marx, and your essay topic is social class.  Make believe that you have a meeting with Addams where you discuss social class with her--you ask her a question, she responds, and then you react to what she says.  Then you go to your second meeting, with Marx, and you go through the same question-response-reaction cycle.  In your paper, the question-response-reaction cycle looks like this: you discuss the issue ("question"), quote Addams or Marx ("response"), and then you interpret the quote (reaction).  That dialog is not the same as the sort you find in a novel--not everyone's words in this "conversation" are inside quote marks.  But the question-response-reaction cycle is similar because it creates interaction on paper.

Avoid presenting your interpretations in the form of simple, unsupported statements like, "I disagree" or "I agree."  To avoid facile assertions like those, you can point out problems with authors' ideas or note the strengths of their ideas.  Alternatively, you can show how their concepts could be further developed and strengthened or how you are using their ideas creatively in a different setting. Perhaps you have identified unspoken assumptions that weaken an argument (see the next item). Maybe an author's words prompt you to expound upon a point by using information from another source.  You may have identified shortcomings in an author's logic. Perhaps you can think of a counter-example where the author's theory or concept does not hold true.  Maybe you have some data that support or refute an author's position. In any case, add your own ideas and/or research to the mix. Doing so is the height of critical thought, and critical thinking is a large part of what my classes are all about.  For an example of an artful interpretation, take a look at this passage by novelist and historian Shelby Foote.

9. What is left out? One of the most effective ways to identify a weakness in an author's argument is to ask yourself what is left out.  In the last example, I mentioned writing about an author's "unspoken assumptions" and providing "counter-examples;" both are ways of exploring gaps in what authors say and how they think.  If you find yourself struggling to think critically, one reason may be that you are not probing for what an author has omitted.  If an author is discussing "people," does s/he seem to have in mind everyone, or only certain people?  If someone is discussing "science," what are the characteristics of that science--how does it get done and whom does it serve?  These and similar questions help you to uncover the things that an author failed to discuss.

10. Take chances! Interpreting information for yourself, as Foote did in the example above, and identifying authors' assumptions are major parts of what scholars do. If you have never done this kind of thing before in a paper, it can be intimidating. After all, who are you to say what someone else's words mean or to identify a shortcoming in a published author's work? When you have those pangs of anxiety, just remember that every scholar does. However, to succeed every scholar has to take chances. Rather than feel anxious about your abilities, why not go at your task with excitement? You have the freedom to inquire deeply, to ask hard questions of others, and to make what you will from data (such as class readings). Embrace that freedom and the responsibility to be fair and thorough that goes with it!

11. Remember the fundamentals.  How many composition classes have you taken over the years?  Lots, no doubt.  Just because you are writing for a social science class does not mean that you should ignore the fundamentals of good writing.  Draw from those basic tools that you have learned through the years; metaphor, and imagery; decide on a particular composition style or template (such as the "persuasive" essay) and write accordingly; and write with style.  Some of what I advise you to do, like avoiding contractions, limits your options.  Really, though, these tips will not constrain you much at all.  Most of what you have learned about writing in lively and engaging ways remains as relevant in social science courses as it is in composition classes.

12. Write your introductory paragraph last.  That's right: for longer papers where you need to include introductory and concluding paragraphs, your first paragraph should be the last thing you write.  I encourage you to take this approach for a couple of reasons.  First, if you start at the beginning you may trap yourself conceptually; this problem is especially likely to emerge if you do not use an outline.  In your first draft it is important to allow yourself plenty of freedom to explore ideas, but an introductory paragraph can control what you write because it will always be on your mind: "I must do this next because my introduction says it comes next."  Second, introductory paragraphs inform your audience of where you are heading; writing the introduction last ensures that you will tell readers about the path down which you will take them because you should write the paragraph while reviewing each of the major points in your essay.

13. What goes into an introductory paragraph? When you are prepared to write your introduction for papers of 1,000 words or longer, there are plenty of ways to proceed. I would like to mention three of them:

    * First, you might open with a story of some sort that subtly outlines your theme. It is usually a good idea to make the theme explicit in the following paragraph.
    * Second, more often than beginning with a story, students who write good papers present their thesis early in the first paragraph (not necessarily in the first or even second sentence, but they place it up there somewhere) and then, in the following sentences, they note what follows step-by-step: "Below, I first xxxx. Next, I discuss xxxx. Also important is xxxx. And I conclude by arguing that xxxx." There are many ways of wording those sentences--my choices were not very creative--but at root they act as road signs, telling the reader where you are taking them in the paper. In addition, this approach is a great check on whether you maintain your thesis throughout; each step should elaborate on your thesis in a meaningful way.
    * Third, you might consider combining the first and second approaches in a sort of creativity-meets-practicality exercise.

14. Defining terms. Within their papers, often in the first paragraph, many students feel the need to define terms that were introduced in the readings or in class. Doing so is a waste of space, since your audience--me--already understands the terms. The real problem is that defining a term is not the same thing as applying it. I want to see how well and creatively you use ideas from the class, and I will find out if you understand the course concepts by whether you use them correctly in your paper, not whether you can recite their definitions.  For example, one student wrote, "Karl Marx envisioned society as two distinct groups, the bourgeoisie (owners) and the proletariat (workers).  He theorized that inequality in society was a result of the struggle between these two groups (Class notes, September 20, 2003)."   This material, grounded in the student's class notes, merely reiterates material I mentioned in class.  Avoid telling me what I already know.  Instead, develop thoughtful insights by combining readings, class notes, and your own ideas to support a provocative thesis.

15. Read your paper several times. Along with reading over your nearly-completed paper several times, read it aloud to yourself as well. This experience will feel strange the first time, and people may whisper that you are talking to the walls! But it is amazing the mistakes you will catch and the nuances you will add that will improve your papers.