professor looking at papers

Whether we are outlining a scholarly book or article, an opinion piece or a personal story, all our writing is pulled out of our guts. That's why writing is hard. Getting started is always painful: the self-confrontation under a single lamp, the possibility of messing up tone or logic, the knowledge somebody's out there judging us.

It took me well into my fifties to learn how to put direct physical perceptions and masked family incidents into my writing. In scholarly articles for journals like Critical Inquiry I usually avoided "I" and used "we"; how many years and attempts before I was able to feel secure with the first person pronoun!

So from my own life I'm able to sense the confusion and reluctance in young adults who must write in order to pass courses. Also I know that because of inertia or boredom or whatever ("callowness" is unfair, but I thought of it), they just don't want to admit that with the skill of writing good sentences and arguments comes control of your own thoughts, power in your community, ease in moving about the adult world where the speakers and writers are the leaders. They need justification to become the kind of writer who attends to the arguments of others, through reading, and who produces arguments of his or her own: arguments sensitive to the likely disposition of an intelligent reader. They need some practical thoughts on how to do the actual work of writing, especially on how to get started. For those young adults and anyone else interested I've set out the following list.

1. Instructors are trying to get people ready to be citizens: fluency in writing and public speaking will help students to contribute to their communities. This is an excellent and generous aim that entirely justifies the teacher's existence.

2. What instructors want to see: knowing how to argue, namely how to give warrants for claims; knowing how to weigh and present evidence; knowing what may be the state of play in the chosen field of the paper's topic, at least in a general way--that is, knowing what may be the worthy hard questions, open questions. Also: ability to move from beginning gestures to middle line of arguments to an ending that adds something new (ending not just a summary); ability to speak impersonally, in pursuit of logic and evidence; also ability to use "I" in a genial, believable way.

3. The first-person pronoun is most useful at beginning and end of an essay. The "I" is a constructional element whose purpose is to achieve an effect that is persuasive: it is not nakedly personal or autobiographical--rather a piece of artificial seeming-spontaneity. Of course, one never lies or exaggerates or veers from what one is comfortable with. Still, college writers don't use "I" enough.

4. Perhaps a reminder on method will be helpful: successful writing is usually the result of behavior that is obsessional, and luckily not all of life gets this intensive, but when working on a paper of an argumentative or evidence-gathering sort you have to live the topic until you release it in paragraphs and pages. That means setting up a mental or actual-paper file immediately, once you have the assignment and decide the topic: no last-minute, night-before production. It means collecting materials during your ordinary life, writing notes on a pad at odd moments, getting ideas from reading the newspaper or visiting a museum, thinking about the paper before going to sleep so your unconscious brain works on it during down-time.

5. Instructors want to see error-free, complex-sentence, energetic use of formal English. However, being logical and giving the effect of being personal are, on balance, more important than correctness.

6. Usually the stages of the work will be:
A. Read.
B. Mark while re-reading: underline, disagree in margins, and so on.
C. Develop a Research Question phrased as a question.
D. Build a file-folder with pilot-analyses, questions to self, summaries of other thinkers' points of view; have a page for references of exact bibliographic information, to prepare for footnotes: do this along the way, to save trouble at the writing stage.
E. Solve everything you can by a-priori conceptual reasoning and commonsense self-questioning, and supplement this with evidence gathered from empirical studies, and by opinions of experts. It is always good to disagree with experts--better than agreeing with them and just repeating what others say: this shows active thought and judgment.
F. Make up an outline. This is what takes the longest time, but once you have the spine of your argument you can write it out relatively quickly and with assurance. Use firm headings and sub-headings. First make up a list of elements that need including; then make up an ordering of these elements. Save the best and deepest points for last: work up to them. In middle-linking strategies, use a logical schema where you work through a point like a wheel with spokes on it, and then catch on to the next point which is the following wheel with spokes, thus:

writting graph 1

G. Devote as many paragraphs as needed to each point or argument. If arguing one side, play fair and concede merit to the other side, and modify your chosen side as seems right and reasonable. In an analytical paper, or a paper where you describe a personal experience, perhaps there are no sides. Nonetheless it always provides energy and scores points to criticize an opponent or a simpler view--if you give reasons for your critique.
H. Type it out days in advance of the due date. Live with it and re-read the draft. Check doubtful issues and passages and phrasings. Be sure the last paragraph (crucial point; worth intensive re-writing) is not a summary but a graceful (or hard-hitting uncompromising) goodbye.
Never say: Thus we see... ; In conclusion...; I have argued that....: we can see this is an ending and you don't need to telegraph that.
I. Avoid the standard 5-paragraph high school conventional essay, and do this by letting it rip in mid-essay, challenging the usual pieties, disagreeing with experts, giving unexpected energy and depth in the analytical middle, ending with force and charm.
J. Submit in exact required format.


Other Ideas on What Helps

-It is better to write a little too much, to give a full account, than to be a page short of what was asked.

-If a topic is given, in exact phrasing, then assess what is the instructor's attitude toward the topic. Does he/she want only that topic addressed, and only in a particular way? Then do what's asked. Usually, however, in college writing the topic is a prompt: a provocation or excuse to get you writing, writing something, showing what you can do and how you think. Usually the instructor will want you to handle it any way you want, within reason, and that can include changing the topic to suit your needs, challenging the premise of the topic. If in doubt, see instructor for advice.

-If you are to invent your own topic, take three likely topics, nicely phrased, to Office Hours and get advice on which one of the three would work best.

-Develop 5 possible Titles for a paper and pick the one most adequate to describe the actual contents, or to hint or suggest the drift of the paper you've actually written. Don't be jokey.

-Write the Research Question in some form--in the paper itself--probably at the end of the first paragraph of the essay.

-Try for wire-tight phrasings of an idea or perception, at least one of these on every page of your essay. These are evidences of maturity in writing and they score points in the reader's mind.

-Never split an infinitive. Often refer to NY TIMES for details, evidences. Often refer to extra reading beyond the assignment. Be general in beginning and ending, and very particular in the middle sections.

-Use the !, the semicolon; and parentheses. Long sentences with dependent clauses are testimonies to mature thought, and they score points. Write long sentences usually, but alternate long complex sentences with short punchy ones. Show style of your own. Pay your intellectual debts to your sources of ideas and phrasings.


Once young adults and others have learned the game, by writing a lot and being corrected, they will become aware that there is always more to understand about the relationship that is writing. Reading about how to think and write never ends, though I admit I have not kept up with current accounts by teacher-scholars of what college writers need to know. The two books by sociologists that I'll recommend here are really old, but I'll set down their titles because they are trustworthy on how to organize one's thinking.

C. Wright Mills has an Appendix, titled "On Intellectual Craftsmanship," in The Sociological Imagination, that's admirable on how to organize your life to live your project, on how to set up a file and reorganize it continually to spark ideas, and especially on solving as many questions as possible by conceptual reasoning before you get to setting up empirical pilot-studies. He also has a valuable test, phrased as Perspective by Incongruity, by which you re-think your thesis by imagining responses to it from unfamiliar angles of vision (from opposing points of view, from minimizing or giant-sizing).

Eugene J. Meehan's Explanation in Social Science: A System Paradigm, accepts that for social scientists hard facts within a deductive paradigm are usually out of reach, and that you can have a powerful explanation even if it marshals tentative evidence: "For the social scientist, the development and use of weak explanations is a matter of great importance since all of his explanations are likely to be weak" (p. 27). That goes for most of the rest of us, too.

Donald Wesling

Donald Wesling

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