Thursday, December 17, 2009

Name Your Paper Well: Titles

When you skim through the contents page of your favorite magazine, you look for a good title and then flip to that page. A boring title won’t grab your attention and you probably won’t even read the article.

You should get into the habit of naming your papers well, just as you would an article for mass publication. The title is usually the first piece that a potential reader notices. Your goal is not create something not only catchy, but also informative.

I recommend looking closely at your thesis. Can you use the main idea or even words from your thesis in the title? This is probably the best way to craft a succinct title that captures your entire paper.

A poor title will repeat the essay question or simple name the text you analyze in your paper. Remember that your professor is reading a stack of papers on the same subject. How can you make yours stand out from the beginning? Write a title that the other students don’t have on their papers.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Holiday Reading

What do you read over the holidays? This is usually a time when we have more reading time partly because we aren’t studying or working, but mostly because we are spending hours waiting (airports, planes, etc.) It is a great time to catch up and try something new, too.

As the holidays approach and I get busier and busier, my New Yorker Magazines pile up. I like to bring magazines on trips because I can lighten my load as I finish them and throw them out.

My husband and I are going to Greece next summer on our honeymoon. To prepare, I am reading Greece: A Traveler’s Literary Companion. We are also starting to learn some travel Greek and I am packing a helpful book of phrases. We hope that if we learn a word or two a day, we’ll have enough to easily get by in the small towns. This has turned out to be a bigger task than I’d imagined (I forgot about the different alphabet!), but the new grammar and sounds stretches my mind. I look forward to seeing how it influences my poetry writing. Italian grammar has crept in continually, so I expect Greek grammar will do the same.

So, what’s in your bag this holiday?

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Choose A Topic That Interests You

When we are little, we don’t think that our teachers have first names or homes outside of the classroom. They seem to appear and then disappear.

Later in college, our professors seem have full lives that we want to Google and use to our advantage when choosing paper topics.

This is not a good approach.

I’ve had students ask wildly personal questions. They seem to be trying to guess my interests so they can choose an essay topic that will get them an A.

Of course, that isn’t how it works.

I don’t grade based on my interests, political persuasion or lack of a pet. In fact, I am often more interested in a paper on a topic I’m less familiar with because it is a chance to learn more. If you write what you think I want to read, you will quickly get bored with the topic and write a dull paper. If you are bored as the writer, I will be bored as the reader.

Your goal is to write about something that you want to investigate. Something you are curious about. Choose your paper topic wisely and work hard. Edit and revise your paper carefully.

We learn by researching and writing. As you write, your ideas will clarify in your mind and then in turn, on the paper. If you aren’t clear about the subject, you can’t write clear sentences.

In composition writing classes, students often are given the possibility to choose their own angle, if not paper topic. The resulting papers must argue a main point, the thesis, and then support it with appropriate research.

An “A” paper is a carefully constructed and well-supported argument.

That’s what is graded: not your values or mine.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Self-Evaluation: What have you learned this semester?

Whether your professors require it or not, I highly recommend writing self-evaluations. I require my students to write them twice during the semester: in the middle and at the end. Self-evaluations are a good tool to help keep your writing and goals on track.

The questions are straight-forward:
1. How has your writing improved since the semester began?
2. What do you think could be improved about your writing during the second half of the semester (or next semester)?
3. What are your goals for your writing overall?

These questions keep you on a solid path of improvement. It is easy to get swept up in the semester’s assignments and forget about your goals.

In a recent blog post on editing and revising, I suggest that you keep track of the aspects of writing that you do well and those that you need to improve upon. This list will help you as you write, edit and revise each paper.

By stepping back and looking at your writing overall in a self-evaluation, you will have an even better sense of your skills and your writing goals.

When I read my students’ self-evaluations, I am looking for precise and introspective writing. I don’t need to read about your darkest secret, but I do want to read something specific enough that shows you thought about your writing. For example, I prefer to read how a student conquered the proper use of semi-colons or learned how to do a successful database search. I do not want to read a general statement like, “my grades improved, so I reached my goal.”

Sometimes students will say that they don’t want to sound like they are bragging or they don’t want to disclose their weaknesses and end up with a bad grade. When I read the self-evaluations, I don’t grade them based on what they’ve learned. In fact, I don’t usually grade them at all. (I give a check for completing the assignment.) I am looking for honesty and concrete facts. Tell me what you do well and what you need to improve upon. I’ve been reading (and grading) your papers and have a good sense of where you are. By writing down your thoughts, we can see if we are on the same proverbial page and I can offer you readings or exercises to help you reach your goals.

Sometimes these three self-evaluation questions are harder than they seem. In my more advanced writing classes, where the goals are more likely to involve less obvious issues of voice, audience or tone, I sometimes assign interviews in the place of self-evaluations. I find that it can be easier to take yourself seriously when you face another person. Therefore, the interviewer, who has already read some of the interviewee’s work, asks questions similar to those above. The interviewer writes the answer in essay form and the interviewee inevitably learns something new about her writing based on her own words. This is most successful when the interviewer asks strong follow-up questions to the interviewee’s answers.

If self-evaluations are not required, you might want to jot down a few notes for yourself. You don’t need to show anyone else, but you should look at the notes periodically.

Friday, December 11, 2009

What Questions to Ask Your Professor

It is that crunch time of the semester. You are finishing your final papers and preparing for the final exams. You aren’t entirely sure that you understand the material or what you are supposed to do.

It is very important that you ask the right questions, especially if you are taking online courses. When I teach in person, I often rely on students’ expressions to let me know if they are confused. Not everyone is brave enough to ask a question to help clarify an assignment or lecture point. Online, though, it is hard to gauge what students have questions about if they don’t ask.

No question is stupid. If you are confused and have a question, chances are that someone else does, too. So ask it. Take a deep breath and raise your hand, visit the professor during office hours or send a clearly worded email. If one person asks me a question privately, I will usually share the answer with the class (without saying who the student was, of course) because I assume that they will benefit from the answer.

Before asking the question, review your materials and refer to them in your question. Re-read the syllabus and assignment sheets. Look over your notes. Then, when you formulate your question, be very precise. Refer back to the assignment sheet and ask about a particular point. Or name a text that confuses you and state where you become lost. If you are meeting with the professor, bring your class texts, assignment sheets and a printed draft of your paper.

I can’t tell you how many emails I’ve received that say things like, “I don’t get it” or “What do you want me to do?” In those cases, I don’t know what the student is referring to or where to begin to help him or her. I have to write back, ask for more clarity and then the student has to wait for my second response. The student could return to working on the paper more quickly if the original question was more specific.

I am happy to help students work through tangles in their papers. I can be most helpful when the students send me copies of the entire paper as well as the paragraph or point that baffles them. For example, instead of sending an email with a general question about MLA citations, why not send the line you are citing and your Works Cited page? This information allows me to more helpful.

Your professors are a resource for you, just like the library, internet and your classmates. Take advantage of every opportunity to grow as a writer.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Editing Vs. Revising Your Paper

Most writing classes call for you to hand in a rough draft and then a revised final draft. A professor will usually use a general rubric and add some personal comments at the end. Before you hand in the final draft, you are expected to both edit and revise your paper.

What does that mean?

To edit your paper is to make the more obvious corrections. Perhaps you have a few typos: words misspelled or the spacing in a paragraph is unclear. When you edit, you can mostly rely on your word processor’s spellcheck or grammarcheck. If there are squiggly lines under some of the words, then they deserve a second check by you. Remember that the lines were put there by a computer and aren’t always to be trusted. They are, however, a good start.

To revise your paper is to make deeper changes to the structure and meaning of the piece. Look closely at your thesis and the organization of the paper. Perhaps something big is missing or is misplaced in your paper. This is a good time to dust off the outline, update it and use it as a means to check the overall organization of your paper.

So, how do you go about editing and revising your papers?

I find that a good trick is to read through your paper a couple of times through different lenses. If you know that you often have subject/verb agreement problems in your sentences, read through your entire paper checking just for that issue. If you think that the body paragraphs don’t fully support the topic sentences, read through your entire paper checking just for that. Does that make sense?

Don’t forget that the professor can’t comment on everything in the paper. She makes the decision to comment upon the largest issues in the paper. It is your job to look through the rest of the paper before you edit and revise it. Often, a professor will give general feedback to the class on the papers. Pay careful attention. Even though she didn’t make a specific comment on your paper about an issue, the general issues may pertain to your paper, too.

You might notice that professors are often making comments about similar issues across your papers. I recommend keeping a private list of the issues you need to work on. Perhaps you often have a strong introduction and a weak conclusion. Or maybe you switch into the first person when you were assigned to write in the third person. Whatever it is, you know where your difficulties lie. Keep this list by your side and refer to it before you hand in a draft, rough or final. Read through your paper just for those issues (separately, as I wrote above) and check for them.

Similarly, keep a list of the things you’ve done well. If you wrote a stellar thesis statement and get stuck on a future thesis statement, look back at the A paper and remember what worked well for you. This will help you to continue making progress and remember what you’ve learned.

The final trick is to edit and revise your rough draft before handing it in. The stronger your rough draft is, the better feedback your professor can give you. Don’t hand in an outline or a very short rough draft and expect to get an “A” on your final draft.

The more time you have between writing a draft, editing and revising it, the better you’ll do. If you write a draft and let it sit overnight or at least a few hours, you’ll be able to edit and revise it with fresh eyes. If you try to do everything in one sitting then you’ll probably miss some errors that could have been easily caught.

What other editing and revising tips can you share?

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Someone Else Said It First: Quotes in your essay

Your academic papers should be written primarily by you, not someone else. Therefore, I recommend limiting your use of quotations in your papers. You should only quote another author when you can’t write the same sentence any better than the original author. If you are so taken by the manner in which it was written, then yes, quote the original author.

Your paper has a thesis and organization that is different from every paper before it. It is likely that you can rework the idea from the quote in order to best integrate it into your paper. In this case, you should summarize or paraphrase the line/information.

Generally, quotes do not make strong topic sentences. A topic sentence has important work to do: it must present that body paragraph’s argument and support the paper’s thesis. With this in mind, how can someone else’s words, written for a different paper, do the work that your topic sentence is assigned to do?

Do not forget to give credit to your sources when you quote, summarize and paraphrase. If not, your work is in danger of being considered plagiarized.

For more information on this subject, I recommend The Owl at Purdue’s helpful website.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Why Math/Science Students Might Have an Easier Time Writing an Essay

I’ve had students tell me, “I can’t write essays because I’m a math person” or “I can’t write essays because I’m a science person.”

I share a secret with these students: They have an advantage over the more humanities-orientated student. Writing an essay starts with a very clear order: an argument (thesis) supported throughout your paper. That support is clearly stated in each body paragraph’s topic sentence. The rest of the paragraphs provide the details that analyze the smaller (topic sentences) and large claim (thesis.)

Imagining myself a free-thinking poet from a very early age, I often wrote disorganized essays. I started on one topic and then got distracted by an idea that might have been loosely connected. Suddenly, my essays were dealing with too many issues and by the end, nothing had been proven.

Students who enjoy math and science classes tend to approach things in a very logical fashion. This logic translates quite well into essay writing. You can imagine your essay supports the central “If/Then” statement. Your topic statements contain the supportive “if” statements. Your main argument contains a summary of the "if" statements and the final "then" statement. This is your thesis. Does this language remind you of math or science classes?

A good way to understand the internal order of your essay is to craft an outline. It is crucial to not only write an outline, but *use* it as you write your paper. Refer back to it. If you do more research and slightly alter your argument, go back and revise your outline. Here is a great sample outline with the related paper from Diana Hacker.

Yes, good writing has a creative element. It might seem as though the more creative students in the class will shine above the science/math oriented students. Again, I think this is faulty thinking. Scientists and mathematicians make discoveries. Those discoveries are based on facts, but first scientists and mathematicians had to draw new conclusions in order to make those discoveries. What could be more creative than that?

Monday, December 7, 2009

What's Your Point? (Thesis statements)

When you write, you need a point. That point should be clearly stated in your thesis statement in your introductory paragraph. In one stunning sentence, you should be able to state what you are arguing and why.

You might have started with a strong thesis statement and then found that your body paragraphs are straying from the original argument. If you keep an outline next to you (or open in another screen) as you write, you can make sure that you stay on target. I like to call the outline a “cheat sheet.” If your thesis is written on the top – maybe even in bold – then you can’t forget what you are trying to prove.

Composition writing students always ask me why need to have a thesis if they are writing a research paper. My answer is that you’ve gathered research on a subject for a reason. It is the support for your claim. Your claim is your thesis. Therefore, you are proving something and need to make it clear to your readers.

If you’ve written body paragraphs that don’t quite connect to your thesis, you could prompt yourself by asking, “so what?” Sure, this might sound slightly rude at first, but it is helpful. If a fact/line/piece of research isn’t relevant and you can’t answer the question, “so what?,” then you probably don’t need the information.

I would argue that any piece of writing – poem to a screenplay – needs to have a thesis statement, but that’s for another post.

For more information about thesis statements, here is a great link from UNC.