Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Good Old American Essay?

How do you write an essay?  Did that grab your attention? Was that a good "attention getter?"  I suppose I could have used a quote or a startling statistic, but I went with a question.  I hope it went over well. 

I can remember sitting in my sixth grade English class, red pencil in hand, listening to Mrs. Hill jabber on about how to write an essay.  There was a specific formula we had to follow, and we had to label every last piece of our essay in order to receive full credit.

The first part we had to master was the "attention getter."  Mrs. Hill encouraged us to use questions, but allowed us to branch out into using quotations or statistics that stunned the reader.  I had no experience writing a structured essay, so I had no reason to question the formula being shoved down my throat. 

After we learned to transition to thesis and form a thesis, we learned how to construct a body paragraph.  And, of course, there could only be three body paragraphs in this essay.  The first sentence of a body paragraph was a topic sentence.  These topic sentences normally started with transitions such as "first," "second," "next," or "also."  It had to be perfectly clear that something new was being introduced.

The second sentence in a body paragraph was called a "concrete detail," which was a fact that supported the previously stated thesis.   Two sentences defined as "commentary" followed.  These were meant to expand on the concrete detail and expand upon each other.  Each body paragraph had to have three concrete details along with commentary.  Repeat these steps two more times.

No worries, you're almost done!  We then learned that the basic purpose of a conclusion was to restate your thesis without sounding repetitive.  Easy enough, I suppose?

When we wrote essays, Mrs. Hill passed out papers with each part of the essay labeled.  Next to each label were two blank lines waiting to be filled with details, commentary and attention getters a plenty!

At some point during our sixth grade year, Mrs. Hill finally allowed us to write our essays on blank pieces of notebook paper--paper free of labels and guidelines.  However, when we got to class, essays in hand, Mrs. Hill passed out three different colored highlighters to each person in the class.  Details and commentary had to be distinguished with color-coded highlighting. 

While the structure she provided us with made it fairly easy to write an essay, Mrs. Hill never taught us how to maintain our unique voices within the essays we wrote.

As I continued my education into high school, and eventually college, I learned how to slip voice within the structure of a traditional essay.  Luckily, I no longer adhere to a three-body-paragraph essay when a teacher assigns a 10-page paper.  Can you imagine how long those paragraphs would be?  Each write has his or her own personal style hidden somewhere beneath the format assigned to a paper.  Each person has a unique voice that deserves to be taken seriously.  Although structure is almost always a necessity, regurgitating form and style form the past is not.  I urge everyone to find ways to allow their voice to be recognized, heard, and taken seriously in any writing assignment.    

Natalie Hughes


Saturday, February 5, 2011

Using Quotes From Sources: Time Management and Piecing Together The Puzzle

When writing research papers, I always find that the most time consuming task is typing out all of the quotes from my sources. Like most people I have talked to, I don’t want to be bogged down with my sources when I’m trying to state all of the arguments on my topic. How do I take the stress away from trying to fit all of the appropriate quotes into the related arguments in my paper?

I think of it as a huge jigsaw puzzle. First I figure out what I want to talk about. Then I take each of my outside sources and circle, bracket, and underline potential quotes that I feel will support my discussion. Just like putting together a larger than average-sized jigsaw puzzle, I don’t try to put all the pieces together in one sitting. Otherwise the task becomes tedious. Instead, I give myself at least a two week window.

Like a jigsaw puzzle, I’m going to put together all of the edges first to form my foundation. The foundation in this case involves the potential quotes I’m looking to integrate. I’ll spend one day going through my sources and marking quotes (if they are printed sources rather than online sources). Then I type them out into a word document the next day. If I don’t separate my time into small chunks, then again the process becomes tedious. If my sources are online, I am immediately cutting and pasting the potential quotes into a word document.

Next, I categorize my quotes. I separate them into subtopics, and then I cut and paste each quote into its accompanying subtopic that I created. Now I have some sense of structure. (Sigh of relief!) I take a look at how I categorized my quotes and then I figure out an order to use for my paper. Now I just allowed the pieces of the puzzle to start coming together. I call this the step in which my paper starts to write itself. Then after the aforementioned sigh of relief, I take a break from the paper and return to it either later that day or I may just wait until the next day.

Now I look at my categories of quotes. I go through each category to find that multiple quotes are basically saying the exact same thing. So now I can start to narrow down my quotes before a 5 page paper becomes an 8-9 page paper. Next, I look at the order of my categories. I view it as a group of puzzle pieces that need to be placed together. Do I like the order I put them in, or should I start with the bottom right corner of the puzzle instead of the upper left corner? In other words, does my order make sense to me?

It all made complete sense at the time I assembled it, but it may not make sense today when I  have a fresh perspective on things. This is why it is essential to separate the process into several days instead of trying to throw it all together in a short amount of time. When I am pressed for time, it is inevitable that I am going to make mistakes. My quotes will be forced into a paragraph like two pieces of a puzzle that simply aren’t meant to fit together. That’s when the process of writing a research paper gets frustrating.

How do I place a quote into my paper so it doesn’t seem forced? Here's how I go about this: (Remember that everyone has a different approach. This is only a suggestion. Try it and see if it works for you. If not, then try a system that makes you more comfortable).
My sentence before a quote should be an introduction into that quote. When I talk my way out of the quote, I am basically summing up the argument the author stated, but I write it into my own words to move forward and to help transition to the next segment of my discussion. For example:

Chicago has seen several blizzards in the past four decades, but the one that set the precedent was the blizzard of 1967. Andrew L. Wang writes, “All major storms are compared to the record blizzard that paralyzed the area 44 years ago. Over 35 hours on Jan. 26 and 27, 1967, 23 inches of snow fell on Chicago, collapsing roofs, closing businesses and shutting down the city for days” (Wang 4). It is clear that the 1967 storm was detrimental to Chicago commerce, and therefore it is understandable how business owners feared the worst this week.

Next, I would write a sentence that would transition my last statement to my next quote. The direction I am planning to take is to provide evidence about the 55-60 million dollars Chicago businesses lost this week as a result of the blizzard. From that transition, I would use the same pattern as above:

1) Write statement in my own words that introduces an argument I am making about the blizzard.

2) Use a quote from my sources that backs up my statement.

3) Write a sentence in my own words that sums up what my source said while helping me to either continue discussing the topic from the quote OR helping me to transition to the next idea.

Hopefully these suggestions will help you to piece together the puzzle involved in writing a research paper. When using this step-by-step approach, I have more time to shape my discussion around my quotes, and it helps me to make better transitions both into and out of quotes. If you have any questions, please feel free to make an appointment with any staff tutor at the RU Writing Center. We are here to answer your questions, give you suggestions, and to help make the process of writing papers less tedious for you.


Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Writing and Language

I know the title brings up the word writing first, but let us not get too ahead of ourselves. The topic here is ESL students and their writing. But in order to begin to understand what this means and why it matters, we must consider language.

Language, like writing, is a form of discourse and communication. There are many types and many ways in which one can express themselves. It gives us a sense of commune and understanding because it is learned from a young age and it feels natural. We imitate sounds, and as time progresses speech patterns and their application become clearer. 

But when it comes time to attend a university, learning a second language can be quite difficult. A multitude of questions and concerns arise. The unfamiliarity of the many conventions, and grammar can make it very troublesome to start writing papers; this can also make it a bit discouraging to ask a professor what is wrong with the way the paper was written. When students receive a paper marked up with ink, it causes them to make things like grammar become a top priority. Grammar is very fixable and it not being perfect should never be a reason for someone to be discredited. 

A classroom setting often cannot provide the individualized attention that ESL students can benefit from. These are students that have unique and diverse voices and ideas. To tackle a new language is very daring and noble because it is a whole new process aside from writing. The best things to do, is to acknowledge the hard work they put into their work, and their dedication to improve! 

So now comes the writing part. When a student walks into the writing center the first thing they must know is that we are not there to discourage their grammar, but to establish an understanding. To the writer, their main concern may as well be the spelling and grammar aspects, but ,again, this is not the major part we want them to leave with. We want them to know that it is okay to make mistakes sometimes, and to encourage them to keep working at it. Much more so because at times, we as native English speakers do not know every grammatical rule there is. We must always be open, considerate and patient (especially if it is your first session with an ESL writer). They are very motivated writers and their effort should always be appreciated.