College Writing: A Personal Approach to Academic Writing, Third

College Writing: A Personal Approach to Academic Writing, Third
A Personal Approach
to Academic Writing
Third Edition
Toby Fulwiler
Boynton/Cook Publishers, Inc.
Portsmouth, NH
Boynton/Cook Publishers, Inc.
A subsidiary of Reed Elsevier Inc.
361 Hanover Street
Portsmouth, NH 03801–3912
Offices and agents throughout the world
© 1988, 1991, 1997, 2002 by Toby Fulwiler
1988 edition first published by Scott, Foresman and Company under the title College
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by
electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems,
without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer, who may
quote brief passages in a review.
The author and publisher thank those who generously gave permission to reprint
borrowed material:
“Buffalo Bill’s.” Copyright 1923, 1951, © 1991 by the Trustees for the E. E. Cummings
Trust. Copyright © 1976 by George James Firmage, from Complete Poems: 1904–
1962 by E. E. Cummings, edited by George J. Firmage. Used by permission of
Liveright Publishing Corporation.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Fulwiler, Toby, 1942–
College writing : a personal approach to academic writing / Toby
Fulwiler.—3rd ed.
p. cm.
Includes index.
ISBN 0-86709-523-7 (acid-free paper)
1. English language—Rhetoric. 2. Academic writing—Problems,
exercises, etc. I. Title.
PE1408 .F8 2002
Acquisitions editor: Lisa Luedeke
Production editor: Elizabeth Valway
Typesetter: TNT
Cover designer: Linda Knowles
Manufacturing: Louise Richardson
Printed in the United States of America on acid-free paper
06 05 04 03 02 VP 1 2 3 4 5
Section I
The Writer
A Writer’s Choices
The Composing Process
Thinking with Writing
Keeping a Journal
Section II College Writing
in the Academic Community
to Remember and Reflect
to Explain and Report
to Argue and Interpret
Section III College Research
9 Researching People and Places
10 Researching Texts:
Libraries and Web Sites
11 Writing with Sources
12 Documenting Research Sources
Section IV
Writing Well
13 Options for Revision
14 Options for Editing
15 Writing Alternate Style
16 Finding Your Voice
Postscript One: Guidelines for Writing
Postscript Two: Guidelines for Writing
Postscript Three: Guidelines for Publishing
Class Books and Web Pages
Postscript Four: Guidelines for Writing Essay
Postscript Five: Guidelines for
Section I
Chapter One
The reason, I think, I wait until the night before the paper
is due, is that then I don’t have any choice and the problem goes away. I mean, I stop thinking about all the
choices I could make, about where to start and what to
say, and I just start writing. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
The number of choices writers must make in composing even short
papers is sometimes daunting—no wonder Sarah wants to write and not
choose. But in truth, I think she’s fooling herself: All writing, whether
started early or late, teacher-assigned or self-assigned, involves making
choices—an infinite number of choices—about topics, approaches,
stances, claims, evidence, order, words, sentences, paragraphs, tone, voice,
style, titles, beginnings, middles, endings, what to include, what to omit,
and the list goes on.
There are, however, some things you can do to simplify this choicemaking process and make it less daunting, more approachable. Whenever
you sit down to write, ask yourself three basic questions: Why am I writing? Under what conditions and constraints? To whom? In other words,
your purpose, situation, and audience determine the tone, style, and form
of your writing.
If you’re ever stuck for how to approach a writing assignment, or if
you’re blocked about what next to do, stop and reconsider which condition seems to be the sticking point:
A Writer’s Choices
Is your purpose for doing the writing clear? Can you explain it in a
sentence or two?
What are the circumstances in which this writing is taking place?
Can you identify the social or cultural milieu in which the writing
takes place?
Do you know and understand your audience? Can you articulate
what your audience wants or expects?
The remainder of this chapter will examine each of these questions in
more detail.
Your explicit or stated reason for writing is your purpose: Why are you
writing in the first place? What do you hope your words will accomplish?
In college, the general purpose is usually specified by the assignment: to
explain, report, analyze, argue, interpret, reflect, and so on. Most papers
will include secondary purposes as well; for example, an effective argument paper may also need explaining, defining, describing, and narrating
to help advance the argument. If you know why you are writing, your writing is bound to be clearer than if you don’t. This doesn’t mean you need to
know exactly what your paper will say, how it will be shaped, or how it
will conclude, but it does mean that when you sit down to write it helps to
know why you are doing so.
The rhetorical purpose of most writing is persuasive: you want to
make your reader believe that what you say is true. However, different
kinds of writing convey truth in different ways. If your purpose is to explain, report, define, or describe, then your language is most effective
when it is clear, direct, unbiased, and neutral in tone. However, if your intention is to argue or interpret, then your language may need to be different. If you know your purpose but are not sure which form, style, or tone
best suits it, study the published writing of professionals and examine
how they choose language to create one or another effect.
College writing is usually done in response to specific instructor assignments—which implies that your instructor has a purpose in asking
you to write. If you want your writing to be strong and effective, you need
to find a valid purpose of your own for writing. In other words, you need
to make it worth your while to invest a portion of your life in thinking
about, researching, and writing this particular paper. So, within the limits
of the assignment, select the aspect which most genuinely interests you,
the aspect that will make you grow and change in directions you want to
change in. For example, if you are asked to select an author to review or
critique, select one you care about; if asked to research an issue, select
one about which you have concerns, not necessarily the first that comes
to mind. If neither author nor research issue comes to mind, do enough
preliminary reading and research to allow you to choose well, or to allow
your interest to kick in and let the topic choose you. Go with your interest
and curiosity. Avoid selecting a topic just because it’s easy, handy, or comfortable. Once you purposefully select a topic, you begin to take over and
own the assignment and increase your chances of writing well about it.
As I’ve just implied, part of the purpose includes the subject and
topic. The subject is the general area that you’re interested in learning
more about. For example, all of these would be considered subjects: American literature, American literature in the 1920s, New York City authors,
the Harlem Renaissance, Jean Toomer, Cane. Even though the subject
Cane (the title of a collection of short stories by Jean Toomer) is far more
specific than the subject American literature, it’s still only a subject until
you decide what about Cane you want to explore and write about—until
you decide upon your topic in relation to Cane: perhaps a difficulty in one
particular story in the collection, a theme running through several stories,
or its relationship to other Harlem Renaissance works.
The general subject of a college paper could be a concept, event,
text, experiment, period, place, or person that you need to identify, define,
explain, illustrate, and perhaps reference—in a logical order, conventionally and correctly (see Chapter Fifteen, “Writing Alternate Style,”for exceptions). Many college papers ask that you treat the assigned subject as thoroughly as possible, privileging facts, citing sources, and downplaying your
writer’s presence.
Learn your subject well before you write about it; if you can’t, learn
it while you write. In either case, learn it. To my own students I say: plan
to become the most knowledgeable person in class on this subject; know
it backward and forward. Above all else, know it well beyond common
knowledge, hearsay, and cliché. If it’s a concept like postmodern, know
the definition, the explanations, the rationales, the antecedents, and the
references, so you can explain and use the term correctly. If it’s an event
such as the Crimean War, know the causes, outcomes, dates, geography,
and the major players. If it’s a text, know author(s), title, date of publication, genre, table of contents, themes, and perhaps the historical, cultural,
social, and political contexts surrounding its publication. Then write
about a specific topic within this subject area that you are now somewhat
of an expert on. The following suggestions will help you think about your
purpose for writing:
• Attend closely to the subject words of your assignments. If limited
to the Harlem Renaissance, make sure you know what that literary
period is, who belonged to it, and the titles of their books.
• Attend closely to the direction words of all your assignments. Be
A Writer’s Choices
aware that being asked to argue or interpret is different from being asked to define or explain—though, to argue or interpret well
may also require some defining or explaining along the way.
• Notice the subjects to which your mind turns when jogging, driving, biking, working out, walking, or just relaxing. Will any of your
assignments let you explore one of them further?
The subjects of college papers don’t exist in isolation. The environment,
setting, or circumstance in which you write influences your approach to
each writing task. The general setting that dictates college writing is educational and academic, though more particular circumstances will surround each specific assignment. For example, each assignment will be affected to some extent by the specific disciplinary expectations of a given
college, course, and grade level, so that if you want to write a given paper
successfully, it’s your job to identify these. Are the expectations at a college of Arts and Sciences any different from those at the colleges of Business, Engineering, Agriculture, or Education? What conventions govern
the writing in English courses and how are they different from those that
govern sociology, art, or nursing? What assumptions can you make if enrolled in an advanced class versus an introductory class?
You already know that writing in college, like writing in secondary
school, will be evaluated, which puts additional constraints on every act
of writing you perform. Consequently, your writing, while displaying disciplinary knowledge, must be clear, correct, typed, and completed on time.
Be aware that in your physical absence, your writing speaks for you, allowing others to judge not only your knowledge, but other intellectual habits,
such as your general level of literacy (how critically you read, how articulately you make an argument), your personal discipline (the level of precision with which the paper meets all requirements), your reasoning ability (does your approach demonstrate intelligence, thoughtfulness?), and
possibly your creativity (is your approach original, imaginative?). In other
words, every piece of writing conveys tacit, between-the-lines information
about the writer, as well as the explicit information the assignment calls
for. (For more information on the academic community, see Chapter Five.)
Therefore, as you are writing consider the following:
• Know who you are. Be aware that your writing may reflect your
gender, race, ethnic identity, political or religious affiliation, social
class, educational background, and regional upbringing. Read your
writing and notice where these personal biases emerge; noticing
them gives you more control, and allows you to change, delete, or
strengthen them—depending upon your purpose.
• Know where you are. Be aware of the ideas and expectations that
characterize your college, discipline, department, course, instructor, and grade level. If you know this context, you can better shape
your writing to meet or question it.
• Negotiate. In each act of writing, attempt to figure out how much
of you and your beliefs to present versus how many institutional
constraints to consider. Know that every time you write you must
mediate between the world you bring to the writing and the
world in which the writing will be read.
Most of us would agree that talking is easier than writing. For one thing,
most of us talk more often than we write—usually many times in the
course of a single day—and so get more practice. For another, we get more
help from people to whom we speak face to face than from those to
whom we write. We see by their facial expressions whether or not listeners understand us, need more or less information, or are pleased with our
words. Our own facial and body expressions help us communicate as well.
Finally, our listening audiences tend to be more tolerant of the way we
talk than our reading audiences are of the way we write: nobody sees my
spelling or punctuation when I talk, and nobody calls me on the carpet
when, in casual conversation, I miss an occasional noun-verb agreement
or utter fragment sentences.
However, writing does certain things better than speaking. If you
miswrite, you can always rewrite and catch your mistake before someone
else notices it. If you need to develop a complex argument, writing affords
you the time and space to do so. If you want your words to have the force
of law, writing makes a permanent record to be reread and studied in your
absence. And if you want to maintain a certain tone or coolness of demeanor, this can be accomplished more easily in writing than in face-toface confrontations.
Perhaps the greatest problem for writers, at least on the conscious
level, concerns the audience who will read their writing: What do they already know? What will they be looking for? What are their biases, values,
and assumptions? How can I make sure they understand me as I intend for
them to? College instructors are the most common audience for college
writing; they make the assignments and read and evaluate the results. Instructors make especially difficult audiences because they are experts in
their subject and commonly know more about it than you do. Though you
may also write for other audiences such as yourself or classmates, your primary college audience remains the instructor who made the assignment.
The remainder of this chapter will examine the nature of the audiences
for whom you most commonly write in academic settings.
A Writer’s Choices
Writing for Teachers
When you are a student in high school, college, or graduate school, your
most common audiences are the instructors who have requested written
assignments and who will read and grade what you produce, an especially tough audience for most students.
First, teachers often make writing assignments with the specific intention to measure and grade you on the basis of what you write. Second,
teachers often think it their civic duty to correct every language mistake
you make, no matter how small. Third, teachers often ask you to write
about subjects you have no particular interest in—or worse, to write
about their favorite topics! Finally, teachers usually know more about
the subject of your paper than you do because they are the experts in the
field, which puts you in a difficult spot: You end up writing to prove how
much you know more than to share something new with them.
You can’t do much about the fact that teachers will use your writing to evaluate you in one way or another—they view it as part of their
job, just as they do when making assignments for your own good (but not
necessarily interest). However, as an individual writer, you can make
choices that will influence this difficult audience positively—especially if
you understand that most of your instructors are fundamentally caring
In the best circumstances, teachers will make writing assignments
that give you a good start. They do this when they make clear their expectations for each assignment, when they provide sufficient time for
you to accomplish the assignment, when they give you positive and
pointed feedback while you are writing, and when they evaluate your papers according to criteria you both understand and agree with.
But regardless of how helpful you find your teacher, at some point
you have to plan and write the paper using the best resources you can
muster. Even before you begin to write—or as you think about the assignment—you can make some important mental decisions that will make
your actual drafting of most assignments easier:
1. Read the assignment directions carefully before you begin to
write. Pay particular attention to instruction words such as explain, define, or evaluate—terms that mean something quite different from one another. (See Chapter Eight for more information
on instruction words.) Most of the time when teachers develop
their assignments, they are looking to see not only that you can
demonstrate what you know, think logically, and write clearly,
they also want to see if you can follow directions.
2. Convince yourself that you are interested in writing this assignment. It’s better, of course, if you really are interested in writing
about Moby-Dick, the War of 1812, or photosynthesis, but sometimes this isn’t the case. If not, you’ve got to practice some
psychology on yourself because it’s difficult to write well when
you are bored. Use whatever strategies usually work for you,
but if those fail, try this: Locate the most popular treatment of
the subject you can find, perhaps in a current newsstand, the
Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature, or the World Wide Web.
Find out what has made this subject newsworthy. Tell a friend
about it (Did you know that . . . ?). Write in your journal about
it, and see what kind of questions you can generate. There is a
good chance that this forced engagement will lead to the real
Make the assignment your own: Recast the paper topic in your
own words; reduce the size/scope of the topic to something manageable; or relate it to an issue with which you are already familiar. Modifying a writing task into something both interesting and
manageable dramatically increases your chances of making the
writing less superficial because you’re not biting off more than
you can chew and because the reader will read caring and commitment between the lines.
Try to teach your readers something. At the least, try to communicate with them. Seeing your task as instructional puts you in the
driver’s seat and gets you out of the passive mode of writing to
fulfill somebody else’s expectations. In truth, teachers are delighted when a student paper teaches them something they
didn’t already know; it breaks the boredom of reading papers that
are simple regurgitations of course information.
Look for a different slant. Teachers get tired of the same approach
to every assignment, so, if you are able, approach your topic from
an unpredictable angle. Be sure you cover all the necessary territory that you would if you wrote a more predictable paper, but
hold your reader’s attention by viewing the terrain somehow differently: locating the thesis in Moby-Dick from the whale’s point
of view; explaining the War of 1812 through a series of dispatches to the London Times from a British war correspondent;
describing photosynthesis through a series of simulated field
notebooks. (I provide these examples only to allude to what may
be possible; teacher, subject, and context will give you safer
Consider your paper as a problem in need of a solution, or a question in need of an answer. The best way to start may be to try to
write out in one sentence what the problem or question actually is, and to continue with this method as more information
begins to reshape your initial formulation. For example, the
A Writer’s Choices
question behind this section is: What is the role of audience in
writing? The section itself is an attempt to answer this. (The advice my high school math teacher gave to help solve equations
may be helpful here: What am I given? What do I need to know?)
Approaching it this way may help you limit the topic, keep your
focus as you both research and write, and find both a thesis and a
7. View the paper topic from your teacher’s perspective. Ask yourself how completing this paper helps further course goals. Is it
strictly an extra-credit project in which anything goes? Or does
the paper’s completion also complete your understanding of the
Each of these ideas suggests that you can do certain things psychologically to set up and gain control of your writing from the outset. Sometimes none of these suggestions will work, and the whole process will simply be a struggle; it happens to me in my writing more often than I care to
recount. But often one or two of these ideas will help you get started in
the right direction. In addition, it helps to consult the teacher with some
of your emerging ideas. Because the teacher made the assignment, he or
she can best comment on the appropriateness of your choices.
Writing for Classmates
Next to the teacher, your most probable school audience is your peers.
More and more teachers are finding value in asking students to read each
other’s writing, both in draft stages and in final form. You will most likely
be asked to share your writing with other students in a writing class,
where both composing and critiquing papers are everybody’s business.
Don’t be surprised if your history or biology teacher asks you to do the
same thing. But you could initiate such sharing yourself, regardless of
whether your teacher suggests it. The benefits will be worth it.
Writing to other students and reading their work is distinctly different from simply talking to each other; written communication demands
a precision and clarity that oral communication does not. When you share
your writing with a peer, you will be most aware of where your language
is pretentious or your argument stretched too thin. If you ask for feedback, an honest classmate will give it to you—before your teacher has to.
I think that students see pomp and padding as readily as teachers do and
are equally put off by it. What’s the point in writing pretentiously to a
The following are some of the possible ways to make sharing drafts
1. Choose people you trust and respect to read your draft. Offer to
read theirs in return. Set aside enough time (over coffee in the
snack bar?) to return drafts and explain your responses thoroughly to each other.
2. When possible, you decide when your draft is ready to share. I
don’t want someone to see a draft too early because I already
know how I am going to continue to fix it; other times, when I
am far along in the process, I don’t want a response that suggests that I start all over. There’s a balance here: it’s better that I
seek help on the draft before I become too fond of it, when I tend
to get defensive and to resist good ideas that might otherwise
help me.
3. Ask for specific responses on early drafts. Do you want an overall
reaction? Do you have a question about a specific section of your
paper? Do you want help with a particularly intricate argument?
Do you want simple editing or proofreading help? When you
share a draft and specify the help you want, you stay in control
of the process and lessen the risk that your readers will say something about your text that could make you defensive. (I’m very
thin-skinned about my writing—I could lose confidence fast if I
shared my writing with nonsupportive people who said anything
they felt like about my work.)
4. When you comment on someone else’s paper, use a pencil and be
gentle. Remember how you feel about red ink (bad associations
offset the advantages of the contrasting color), and remember
that ink is permanent. Most writers can’t help but see their writing as an extension of themselves. Writing in erasable pencil suggests rather than commands that changes might rather than
must be made. The choice to do so remains where it should, with
the writer rather than the reader.
5. Ask a friend with good language skills to proofread your paper before submission. Most readers can identify problems in
correctness, clarity, and meaning more easily in another person’s
work than in their own. When students read and respond to (or
critique) each other’s writing, they learn to identify problems in
style, punctuation, and evidence that also may occur in their own
Writing for Publication
Writing for publication is something you may not have to do while you’re
still in school. Conversely, you may have already done so in letters to
the newspaper editor or articles for a school paper. However, you may
A Writer’s Choices
have a teacher who wants you to experience writing for an audience that
doesn’t know who you are, as when class papers are posted on the Web.
When you write for an absent audience, there are a few things to keep in
1. Assume ignorance unless you know otherwise. If you assume
your audience knows little or nothing about what you are writing, you will be more likely to give full explanations of terms, concepts, and acronyms. Because you will never know exactly into
whose hands your published piece will fall, it’s always better to
over- than to under-explain. (This suggestion, of course, is also a
good one to use for known academic audiences. The cost of elaborating is your time. The cost of assuming too much will be a
lower grade.)
2. Provide a full context that makes it clear why you are writing. This is true in books, articles, reviews, and letters to the editor. You can often do this in a few sentences early in your piece,
or you can provide a footnote or endnote. Again, no harm is done
if you provide a little extra information, but there is a real loss to
your reader if you provide too little information.
3. Examine the tone, style, and format of the publisher before you
send your manuscript. You can learn a lot about the voice to
assume—or avoid—by looking at the nature of other pieces
printed in a publication.
4. Use the clearest and simplest language you can. I would not try
overly hard to sound erudite, urbane, or worldly; too often the result is pretension, pomposity, or confusion. Instead, let your most
comfortable voice work for you, and you’ll increase your chances
of genuinely communicating with your reader.
5. If you are worried about having your manuscript accepted by a
publisher, send a letter of inquiry to see what kind of encouragement the editor gives you. This gives you a better indication of
what the editor wants; it also familiarizes him or her with your
name, increasing your chances of a good reading.
Writing for Yourself
When you write strictly for yourself, your focus is primarily on your own
thoughts and emotions—you don’t need to follow any guidelines or rules
at all, except those that you choose to impose. In shopping lists, journals,
diaries, appointment books, class notebooks, text margin notes, and so on,
you are your own audience, and you don’t need to be especially careful,
organized, neat, or correct so long as you understand it yourself.
However, keep in mind your own intended purpose here: a shopping list only needs to be clear until the groceries are in, probably the
same day; however, many of these other personal forms may have future
uses that warrant a certain amount of clarity when your memory no longer serves. When checking your appointment book, it helps if planning
notes include names, times, and places you can clearly find six days later.
When reviewing class notebooks, it’s nice to be able to make sense of class
notes taken six weeks ago; when reading a diary or journal written six
years ago, you will be glad you included clarifying details.
Even when writing for the other audiences described in this chapter,
audiences carefully hypothesized or imagined in your head, you will write
better if you are pleased with your text. Your first audience, at least for important writing, must always be yourself. If the tone strikes you as just the
right blend of serious and comic, if the rhythms please your ear when read
aloud, and if the arguments strike you as elegant and the title as clever,
then your audience will more than likely feel the same.
1. Think about the last paper you wrote. Describe any problems you
remember having to solve about purpose, situation, and audience.
2. For whom do you write most often, a friend? a parent? a teacher?
yourself? How do you write differently to this person than to somebody else?
3. Who was the toughest audience for whom you have ever had to
write? What made him or her so difficult? Would that still be true
1. Write a short paper or letter that you shape to three distinctly different audiences. (Make these real so that you actually keep an individual in mind as you write.) Sandwich these three papers in between an introduction and a conclusion in which you explain
something interesting that you notice about writing to these different people.
2. Choose one assignment that you have already completed in one of
your classes. Reshape it as a short article for your school newspaper.
Before you do this, make observations in your journal about what
changes you intended to make and, after completing it, what
changes you actually did make.
A Writer’s Choices
1. INDIVIDUAL: Interview an instructor or other published writer in
your community and ask questions about how he or she solves composing problems. Transcribe this interview and share with classmates.
2. COLLABORATIVE: As a class, select a topic about which you would
like to know something more. Locate one or two sources of information (from the library or other people) and take good notes. As a
class, identify as many different possible audiences as you can think
of until the number of audiences equals the number of students in
class. Write one per slip of paper and place in a hat and let each
student draw an audience out of a hat. Each now write a paragraph
to the audience drawn making the information relevant to that particular audience. (Results could be read and evaluated by playing the
same game in reverse, with different students role-playing these different audiences for each other.)
Chapter Two
I start by writing down anything that comes to mind. I
write the paper as one big mass, kind of like freewriting.
Then I rewrite it into sentences. I keep rewriting it until it
finally takes some form.
If I have the time before I begin to write (which I usually
don’t) I make an outline so I have something to follow. An
outline kind of gives me a guide to fall back on in case I
get stuck.
Then I start in the middle because it’s easier than trying to
figure out where to start. The ending is easy because all
you do is repeat what you just said. After the middle and
the end, I try to write the beginning.
Everybody writes a little differently from everybody else. Brady starts fast,
Jennifer outlines (when she has time), and Pat starts in the middle because
the beginning needs to be written last. Whose way is best? Trick question.
Whatever works best for you is the best way. However, experienced writers can teach us all a few tricks and perhaps make our best ways even
better. The next few pages outline a composing process that roughly describes the way many writers complete a piece of writing. This process
The Composing Process
includes several distinct phases, from exploring and researching ideas to
drafting, revising, and editing them—and perhaps publishing them to the
While writing is never effortless, if you understand this messy, unpredictable, and amazing process, you will be a little less hard on yourself
when it doesn’t come out just right the first time. After more than thirty
years of trying to help people write better, I am convinced that some ways
of writing work for more people on more occasions than do others. Yes,
writing is a complex, variable, multifaceted process that refuses foolproof
formulations. Still, people have been writing since the dawn of recorded
history (the invention of writing IS the dawn of recorded history!), some
3,000 years, and during that time some habits and strategies have proved
more helpful than others. Learning what these are may save some time,
grief, energy, or perhaps all three.
The earliest phases of writing are often explorations. In fact, writing is the
thinker’s way of exploring the world, inside and out. If you want to write
something—an assigned paper, a story for yourself—and you turn on your
computer or pick up a pen, you really can have it both ways, since writing
starts from ideas, and ideas start from writing. When you write, you explore your memory, texts, neighborhoods, the news, the Internet, and the
library. We could call this first phase of the composing process by many
different names, such as planning, inventing, discovering, or trying out, but
for our purposes here, exploring will work: you’ll know what I mean.
Writers explore topics and approaches to topics when they make
notes, start lists, generate outlines, write journal entries, and compose
rough drafts. They also discuss, E-mail, telephone, visit, and consult with
others. And they also explore less deliberately when they walk, jog, eat,
read, and wake up in the middle of the night thinking. The following sections treat, in detail, different ideas about exploring.
Write to Yourself
Forget about publishing your ideas to the world; publish them first to
yourself. Tell yourself what you’re thinking. Write out what’s on your
mind. Write it down and you’ll identify it, understand it, and leave behind a
memory of what it was. Any writing task can be accomplished in more
than one way, but the greatest gain will occur if you articulate in writing
these possibilities. Exploring also involves limiting your options, locating the best strategy for the occasion at hand, and focusing energy in the
most productive direction. It doesn’t matter if you make outlines or lists,
freewrite or draw maps, or do these activities freehand or with a computer. What does seem to matter is getting the ideas out of your head in a
tangible way so you can look at them, see what they are and where else
they could go. My own most common way of finding and exploring an
idea is writing in my journal (see Chapter Four).
Plan to Plan
If you plan to explore a little before you actually start writing, the odds
are that in the long run, your writing will go better, be more directed,
purposeful, and efficient. Finding ideas is a back-and-forth process—it
starts in one place, ends up in another, and goes on all the time—so long
as you keep writing. This whole messy process can be both wonderful
and exhausting. Remember that when you are in the planning stages of
any writing task, finding and exploring ideas counts more than making
them neat or correct. Most commonly, I plan to plan by writing in my journal or on my computer for some small period of time almost every day.
I make planning a habit.
Move Back and Forth
While exploration comes first, it also comes second, third, and so on, for
as long as you keep working. No matter how carefully considered your
first ideas, the act of writing usually generates even better ones, all the
way through the writing process, as you think about why you are writing,
about what, and for whom. For example, when the purpose for writing is
vague, as it may be when someone else makes an assignment, you may
write to discover or clarify your purpose. (What is this assignment really
about, anyway?) When you want to communicate to someone else, but
aren’t sure how you’ll be received, try several different versions and figure
out for yourself which works best. When I return to revise a chapter draft,
I always explore and test the whole draft all over again, no matter how
finished I thought it was the last time I wrote.
When I draft, I try to establish direction, the main form of the argument or
story, and some sense of beginning, middle, and end. When I revise, I pay
attention to getting the whole paper just right: organizing the material,
supporting my statements, getting down essentially what I want to say.
When I edit, I pay attention to the smaller details of writing, to getting the
particular sentences and words just right, working on matters of style, precision, diction, and correct documentation.
The Composing Process
Start Writing to Start Writing
Write your way to motivation, knowledge, and thesis. No matter what your
subject, use language to find out more about it. What do you already know
about it? What do you believe? Why do you care? (Or why don’t you?)
Where could you find more information? This writing will help in two
ways: First, it will cause you to think connected thoughts about the subject
for a sustained period of time, a far more powerful, positive, and predictable process than staring at the ceiling or falling asleep worrying about
it. Second, it will create a written record from which to conduct further
digs into your subject and to prompt your memory and help you continue
a thought. (I keep such records in my journal, others keep them on index
cards or in pocket notebooks. It doesn’t matter where; what matters is
keeping them.)
Make an Outline and Promise Yourself Not to Stick to It
Outlines are helpful as starters and prompters, but they are harmful if they
prevent further growth or new directions in your draft. I don’t always use
outlines when I write, especially on short projects, trusting instead that I
can hold my focus by a combination of private incubation and constant rereading of the text before me. When I do outline, what proves most helpful is the very process of generating the outline in the first place. If it’s a
good outline, I quickly internalize its main features and go from there. I seldom stick religiously to the formal method of outlining taught me in seventh grade, but like many writers before me, I find an outline useful to fall
back on when I get stuck. When I do make a detailed outline, I find it easier to see coordinate and subordinate relationships in my project, although I usually discover these after I’ve been writing a while and not in
my initial outline. The alternation of writing/outlining/writing/outlining
often works well because both the outlining and the writing are acts of
discovery for me.
Plan to Throw Your First Page Away
Once you actually begin to compose a draft, don’t lock yourself into keeping the first words you produce. In fact, it may be helpful to deliberately
view each first paragraph or page as a throwaway. The absolutely worst
part of writing for me is starting, staring at a blank page or monitor. If I can
just get some words down, the task looks started, and I relax a bit. Once I
start, my words come a lot easier. I shift from the slow first gear into progressively higher gears as my thoughts begin to accelerate. When this happens, my writing not only comes more easily, it’s better writing. In this
sense, I agree with Brady (above), who started out fast to create an initial
mess to refine later.
Learn to Write with a Word Processor
Word processors make writing easier, primarily by allowing you to write
words electronically on a screen before you print them out in ink on
paper. The advantage is that you can move language around as you see fit,
until it is just right. Because I rewrite virtually everything (except notes
and journal entries), word processors allow my writing to be more careful,
organized, and precise than on lined pads of paper. If you use a word processor, try to get in the habit of composing first drafts on the screen; that
will save you a lot of time in the long run and help you to see your first
draft as primarily experimental.
When you write, you need content as well as direction. Unless you are
writing completely from memory, you need to locate ideas and information from which to start and, later on, with which to support and convince. Remember, you essentially do research whenever you pose questions and then go looking for answers. It’s virtually impossible to write a
decent critical, analytical, or argumentative paper without doing some
research and reporting it accurately. Even personal and reflective essays
can benefit by finding additional factual information (journal entries,
photographs, interviews) to substantiate and intensify what you remember. In other words, research is a natural part of most people’s writing process—and like exploration it happens at all stages of the process, from first
to last.
Newspaper and television reporters conduct research when they
investigate background sources for a story on political, economic, or social
issues. Historians, philosophers, and lawyers research in texts to locate
past records, data, and precedents. Scientists, engineers, physicians, and
psychologists research in laboratories to find new answers to puzzling
questions. Sociologists, anthropologists, political scientists, educators, and
social workers research in communities, neighborhoods, and schools to
find practical answers to difficult questions. In every case, these researchers report their findings in writing. It may be time for you to begin to think
this way, too.
Research Texts
You do a form of research every time you write analyses or interpretations
of texts—reading and rereading is the research. You also research when
The Composing Process
you compare one text to another or track down the dates of this or that
historical event in encyclopedias, dictionaries, and reference works. And
you do text-based research when you scan a CD-ROM disk or log onto the
Internet—your textual and graphical printouts become useful, hard data.
When you use text-based research carefully (and here I don’t mean stringing together a bunch of quotes because they’re handy) you add a whole
extra dimension of credibility to whatever you are writing about. When
you add strong quotations from named sources, you also add life and energy to your writing.
Research Sites
You can do observational and experimental research in chemistry and
physics laboratories, and on geology and biology field trips. Any place that
you visit is a potential research site, capable of providing information and
evidence to use in your writing: museums, galleries, concert halls, stadiums, college offices, professional buildings, corporate headquarters, industrial plants, lakefront developments, junkyards, local malls—the list is endless. In writing a paper on lake pollution, go to the lake, describe the water,
the shoreline, the activities you see there; in writing about your summer
experience working at Dunkin’ Donuts, go to the nearest store and take
notes on details you may have forgotten. (For more information on research techniques, see Chapters Nine–Twelve.)
Plan to rewrite everything, more than once. Good writing is rewriting,
reseeing your first words and determining whether or not they do the job
you want them to do. The more drafts you are able to manage, the better
your final piece is likely to be. If you’ve got a week to do a given assignment, start something in writing the first night and see where it goes; plan
to reread and return to it as often as time allows. If you compose in longhand, write in pencil, double space, on only one side of lined paper—this
lets you add and subtract from your initial draft with a minimum of recopying, and allows you to cut out and move around whole portions of
your text.
Attend First to the Larger Problems
Thesis, organization, and support should be rethought first. It’s simply
more efficient to spend time getting your whole paper in order before
you turn your attention to the somewhat smaller matters of style. It’s
more efficient because you don’t want to perfect sentences and paragraphs that will be deleted in a later revision.
Write Your Introduction Last
Here I agree with Pat (above), who plans to start in the middle. Of course,
if you are able to introduce your piece before you write it, do so. But if
you have been finding new ideas and combinations of ideas as you’ve
been going along, it’s unlikely that any introduction written first will still
do the job. I often try to write introductions first, to point me in a certain
direction, but by the time I’m finished, I always need to write new ones.
Seek a Response to Your Writing
Once you have written a passable draft, one you feel is on the right track
but not finished, ask a classmate or friend to read and respond to it. Specify the kind of feedback that would be most helpful. Does the argument
hold up throughout the whole paper? Do I use too many examples?
Which ones should I cut? Does my conclusion make sense? Sometimes,
when I am quite pleased with my draft, I simply ask a friend to proofread it
for me, not wanting at that point to be told about holes in my argument or
redundancy in my text.
To finish well, you edit. You edit in the later stages of writing to recheck
your whole text, to make sure it reads as you intend it to read. You want
to see that everything works, from the clarity of ideas to the logic of the
paragraphs, the vitality of sentences, the precision of words, and the correctness and accuracy of everything, from facts and references to spelling
and punctuation. Whether you have written three, five, or ten drafts, it’s
the last one you want to be perfect—or as near perfect as possible. Many
writers edit first to please themselves; at the same time, they always edit
for readers—for some imagined but distant audience—hoping to please
them as well.
While it makes more rational sense to edit after you have composed
and revised and dealt with larger conceptual issues, in my own composing
I often violate that step and edit as I go, working a sentence or paragraph
over and over until I get it just right, sometimes feeling as if I can’t move
on until I articulate a thought a certain way. I think computers, especially,
allow that easy blurring of the composing, revising, and editing processes.
Though I treat editing here as a later stage in writing, it matters less when
you do it than that you do it.
The Composing Process
Edit for Yourself
Make sure the voice, the beliefs, and the language are yours. Make sure,
first, that you sound right to you, so that you represent yourself honestly
and accurately. Then think about your intended readers, those that you
imagine will ask questions, frown, smile, read carefully, and understand.
When I write well, I can tell it before my audience lets me know.
Read Aloud
Ask of your phrases, sentences, and paragraphs, does this sound right,
natural, conversational? Does it sound like my voice? When I read aloud
this sentence or passage, is the rhythm pleasing to my ear? If not, what
word or words are out of tune? More than anything, I edit for rhythm so
my language sounds good to my ear.
Attend to Sentences
Ask of your sentence, is this the best way to state this idea or ask this question? Would another term or phrase be more appropriate or powerful or
accurate? Have I said what I mean as directly as I want to? Do my sentences end emphatically, with the strongest point at the end? Do I want
them to? Can I replace abstract nouns with concrete nouns? Can I replace
passive verbs with action verbs? Do all my words contribute toward my
meaning? Answering these questions is editing.
Write with Titles and Subtitles
Good titles help you view your writing as a whole, and good titles catch
readers’ attention, pique their curiosity, and describe what your writing is
about. Subtitles (subordinate titles, or subheadings) are words or phrases
that stand for a set of ideas or a section of a paper; write them in the
margins and let them help you structure your paper for both you and the
reader. Subtitles do two things at once: they serve as categorizers for concepts, and they operate as transitions from one concept to the next. I try
to do this as early as I can, but I find both the main title and the smaller
subsections most clearly when I revise. (You see that I use many subtitles
in this book. Are they helpful to you?)
At the very end, just before your manuscript is handed in or mailed,
proofread the revised and edited pages to make sure there are no errors in spelling, punctuation (especially commas), noun/verb agreement,
paragraphing, typing, formatting, and the like. Use your computer spellchecker, read each line using a ruler, and share the writing with a trusted
friend. In addition, check to see that the writing is laid out well on the
page, has a title, author, and a date. Make the small changes in pencil. Reprint if the changes make your text look messy.
Keep in mind at all times that the goal of editing is to improve the communication, to make it as sharp and pointed and persuasive as possible,
to share your ideas so that both the ideas and you, the writer, are well
received. It would be a shame for good ideas to be dismissed by the reader
because the whole of the writing does not seem careful or serious—
which can happen for a variety of reasons, including vague, undefined or
inappropriate terminology, misspellings, and typos.
1. How do you compose? See if you can reconstruct the process by
which you wrote your last paper: What did you do first? second? In
what ways does your composing process resemble that described in
this chapter? In what ways does it differ?
2. Select any paragraph from this chapter and see if some editing
could improve it. (I’ve come to believe almost any text—certainly
my own—can be made tighter, stronger, more effective by careful
3. Keep your journal on a word processor for a week. Do you think it
makes any difference in the thoughts you write? In the way you put
your thoughts?
1. Write an essay on writing an essay. Use yourself as a model and see
if you can explain some of the process of writing that, for most of
us, remains a constant mystery.
2. Attach to the next essay you write a record of how it was written:
Where did the idea come from? How many drafts did you write? at
what time of day? Would you identify discrete stages in the process of its composition? (You could do this best if you kept a log
documenting each time you did anything related to completing this
The Composing Process
1. INDIVIDUAL: Investigate the composing process of one of your favorite writers. Check the library to find out whether he or she has
ever been interviewed or written an essay or letters on how he or
she writes. (See, for example, the Paris Review anthologies, in
which writers talk about their writing.) Then look closely at some
of this writer’s work and see if you can find any examples of this
process in action. Write a Composing Profile of this writer, supporting your findings with examples from the writer’s publications.
2. COLLABORATIVE: Locate instructors in your school who are serious
writers and interview them. Do they write only after they have all
of their data? Do they keep journals or logs of the process? How
would they identify the steps or stages or phases of their own processes? Share interview data and write, individually or as small-group
teams, a Resource Guide to Composing documented with the interview data collected.
Chapter Three
Writing feels very personal to me. I usually write when
I’m under pressure or really bothered by something. Writing down these thoughts takes them out of my mind and
puts them in a concrete form that I can look at. Once on
paper, most of my thoughts make more sense & I can be
more objective about them. Puts things into their true perspective.
Recently, I asked my first-year college students to write about their attitudes toward writing. Did they write often? Did they like to write? When
did they do it? Why did they do it? For whom? When I read their responses, I was a bit disappointed because all of my students except one
said something to the effect that writing was hard for them, that they
didn’t do it very well, that they didn’t like to do it, and that they only wrote
in school when they had to for teachers, who graded them. (This last statement seemed to explain a lot about the earlier ones.)
The only exception to this discouraging testimony was Joan, who
had stayed out of school for two years and entered my class a little older
than her classmates. Joan wrote the paragraph that opens this chapter
and, as you can see, valued writing in a different way than the other firstyear students. She did not write only to please her teachers. Writing
helped her to reflect, to figure things out, and to gain some perspective on thoughts and feelings.
Thinking with Writing
We use language all the time for many reasons. We use it to meet, greet,
and persuade people; to ask and answer questions; to pose and solve problems; to argue, explain, explore, and discover; to assert, proclaim, profess, and defend; to express anger, frustration, doubt, and uncertainty;
and to find friendship and declare love. In other words, we use language to
conduct much of the business and pleasure of daily life.
When we think of the uses of language, we think primarily of speaking, not writing. We think about speaking first because we do it more often and because it is somehow easier, more available, less studied, more
natural. Without being taught, and long before we went to school, we
learned to speak. By the time we completed first or second grade, we had
also learned both to read and to write. It was in school that we memorized
spelling lists, learned to tell nouns from verbs, and diagrammed sentences—none of which we did when we learned to talk. It was in school
that we also wrote stories, poems, themes, reports, and examinations, with
varying degrees of success. In fact, many of our early associations with
writing include school in one way or another.
The farther we advanced in school, the more we were required to
write, and the more our writing was likely to be criticized and corrected.
We probably wrote more often for grades than for sharing our ideas, for
the fun of it, or just for ourselves. For many of us, writing became associated almost exclusively with what we did in school, which was quite different from what we did on weekends, on vacations, for ourselves, or
to have a good time. But the degree to which you understand how writing works for you may be the degree to which you succeed in college.
To be more specific, let me describe three generally distinctive uses
to which you can put your writing: to communicate, to imagine, and to
It is easiest to describe writing as communication because this is the use
to which school writing is most obviously put. For years, teachers in
elementary, middle, and high school classes admonished you to write
clearly, correctly, concisely, and objectively about topics they hoped would
interest you. In school they put most of their emphasis on writing clear,
correct, concise, objective prose. They taught you to use thesis statements,
topic sentences, outlines, footnotes, transitions, and titles, but to avoid
clichés, digressions, redundancy, and split infinitives. Later, they said, the
same principles would be emphasized in your workplace.
In writing to communicate, you probably produced, at one time or
another, essays, book reports, lab reports, term papers, five-paragraph
Writing to Imagine
themes, and essay answers. You most likely spent many hours in school
practicing how to use written language to communicate effectively with
other people. Of course, much communicative writing is also imaginative
and exploratory, for writing’s functions frequently overlap.
You also spent some time studying, usually in English class, another kind
of highly structured language often called imaginative or creative. Poetry,
fiction, drama, essay, and song are the genres usually associated with
imaginative language. This kind of language tries to do something different
from strictly communicative language—something to do with art, beauty,
play, emotion, and personal expression—something difficult to define or
measure, but often easy to recognize. We sometimes know something is a
poem or a play simply by the way it looks on a page, while with a story
or essay, we may not.
For example, I could write some language here that you’ll read as
poetry, largely because of how I make it look:
Writing to imagine
Is different from
Imagining to write
Isn’t it?
But if I simply wrote the sentence, “Writing to imagine is different from
imagining to write, isn’t it?” you would pay it less attention. Ultimately, it
is difficult to describe exactly what makes some writing quite imaginative
(a poem by e.e. cummings) and some less so (my lines above).
Poems, novels, and plays are often governed by alternative conventions of language use. Some poets use rhyme (Robert Frost) and some
don’t (also Robert Frost); some fiction writers use conventional sentences
and paragraphs (Ernest Hemingway), while others run single sentences
through several pages (William Faulkner); most authors capitalize and
punctuate conventionally, but some don’t (e.e. cummings). One glance at
this untitled poem by cummings demonstrates an imaginative writer’s
freedom to violate certain language conventions:
Buffalo Bill’s
who used to
ride a watersmooth-silver
and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat
Thinking with Writing
he was a handsome man
and what i want to know is
how do you like your blueeyed boy
Mister Death
In other words, imaginative uses of language often gain effect not only
from the ideas about which the authors are writing, but also from the form
and style in which those ideas are expressed. In fact, some of the most
important elements of imaginative writing may be formal and stylistic; if
the author wanted simply to convey an idea clearly and logically, he or
she would probably resort to more conventional prose.
A third kind of writing is that which you do for yourself, which is not
directed at any distant audience, and which may not be meant to make any
particular impression at all, neither sharply clear nor cleverly aesthetic.
This kind of writing might be called personal, expressive, or exploratory.
It helps you think and express yourself on paper. You’ve written this way
if you have kept a diary or journal, jotted notes to yourself or letters to a
close friend, or begun a paper with rough drafts that you want to show nobody else. Here is an example of such personal/exploratory writing from
one of my composition classes, in which Missy reflects on her experience
writing high school papers:
I was never convinced that it wasn’t somehow possibly a
fluke—like I got lucky & produced a few good papers—that
it wasn’t consistent and that it wasn’t a true reflection of
my writing skills. I felt like this because I didn’t know how
I wrote those damn papers. I had no preset method or formula like you are required to have in science. That is why
I wasn’t convinced. I just sat down and wrote those papers
and w/ a little rework they worked! Presto—now that really baffled me & that is why I thought it was pure chance
I turned them out.
This piece of writing is remarkable only in its apparent honesty, but that,
of course, is the key feature of writing to yourself—there is no point in
pretending. Missy writes in a voice with which she is completely comfortable. In fact, the rhythms of her writing sound as if she is talking to herself on paper: she uses frequent contractions, first-person pronouns (I),
shortcuts for words (& and w/), and colloquial language (damn and
Presto) as if talking to a good friend.
Writing to Explore
The key feature of this kind of language, spoken or written, is the
focus on subject matter as opposed to style or form. When you write to
yourself, you concentrate on thoughts, feelings, problems, whatever—and
not on an audience. When you write to yourself to figure things out, you
use your most available, most comfortable language, which is talky, casual,
fragmented, and honest.
This doesn’t mean that journals like Missy’s need be entirely private,
like personal diaries. Actually, Missy wrote this entry in a journal that I
asked my students to keep, so she wrote it knowing I might look at it, but
knowing also that the journal would not be graded. (Class journals will be
discussed more specifically in Chapter Four.)
As an example of a piece of writing written strictly for the writer,
I’ll share with you a passage from my personal journal in which I wrote
about my daughter, when she was twelve:
11/6 Annie is running for student council in her 7th grade
class—she’s written a speech, a good one, with a platform
and all (more options for lunch, etc.). She’s rehearsed it
over and over—has planned to talk slow and look at just
one or two people in her audience to avoid laughing. I’m
proud of her—I don’t know where she got the idea or guts
to do this—but I’m proud of her! She takes it quite seriously—and seems to trust my observations on what she
has planned.
I wrote this entry some time ago. As I reread it now, I remember that Annie
did not get elected and my heart went out to her. It had been brave of
her to run for student council in the first place, and to lose didn’t help
her fragile twelve-year-old self-confidence. I also remember thinking at the
time that it was a harder loss for me, her father, because I realized so
clearly the limits of my help and protection: she was really on her own.
So what is the value of having this personal recollection from my
journal? At the time I wrote it, while I wrote it, I gave my undivided
attention to thinking about my daughter’s growing up. Now, later, that single recorded thought triggers still more Annie memories. Quite simply,
personal writing such as this increases your awareness of whatever it is
you write about.
Another form of personal writing occurs in letters to close friends
or people you trust. Such letters reveal your candid, sometimes uncertain,
reactions to things; your errant thoughts; and your casual speculations,
dreams, and plans. In other words, there are people emotionally close
enough to you that writing to them is very much like writing to yourself.
In fact, teachers might even turn up in this trusted category. A sixth-grade
teacher (Mr. K.) shared with me the following letter written by one of his
Thinking with Writing
students after he had talked with his class about alcoholism. He had also
given her a magazine article to read.
Dear Mr. K,
Thank you for the discussion [of drinking] in class. I
needed it. I have had a lot of it [alcohol abuse] in my lifetime. The article you gave me “When your child Drinks” I
think should be read in front of the class. But it is up to
Your friend,
P.S. Your a lifesaver.
You will notice that neither you nor I was ever intended to read this letter:
I had to explain the context of this letter to you (as it was explained to
me) so that you would understand the references in it. This is another
characteristic of exploratory writing: it isn’t intended to go very far away
from the writer and thus includes few introductory remarks. The writer
(Marianne, an eleven-year-old student) doesn’t bother to explain context
or elaborate on details to her audience, Mr. K.: They were in class together
the previous day and both knew exactly what “the discussion” was about
and what “it” refers to.
We have just looked at some samples of exploratory writing in
different forms—a class journal, a personal journal, a private letter—and
noticed that such writing has common characteristics: it is centered on
ideas important to the writer, honest in judgment, tentative in nature,
informal in tone, loose in structure, and not entirely clear to an audience outside the context in which the writing took place. We might note
that this writing is bound by few rules. Perhaps it should be legible to
the writer, but even that is not important in all cases. It simply does not
matter what exploratory writing looks like, because its primary audience
is the writer (or someone very close to the writer who shares his or her
Each of these three uses of language has a distinct function: to communicate, to create, and to explore reality, of course, any single piece of
writing may have features of the other modes: for example, a piece of writing may be primarily informative but also have aesthetic and personal features. Of the three forms, the most consistently useful for you as a student
and learner is the exploratory writing you do to think with. In fact, we
could say it is the very matrix from which the communicative and
imaginative modes of writing emerge, as we work through possible meanings we would be willing to share with others.
If, for example, you are assigned a term paper, a good way to begin
would be to write to yourself about what you could write about. Do some
writing to help you think about doing more writing; but the kind you do
first, for yourself, need not be shown to anybody else or graded. In the following example from one of my American Literature classes, Robin works
out her impressions and questions about the Edgar Allan Poe story “Descent into the Maelstrom” in her journal before she begins the first draft of
a critical review paper:
9/13 I have to admit, after reading this story over for the second time, I am still not sure what Poe is trying to tell us.
The only thing that even crossed my mind about the whirlpool was, what a fool Poe’s companion was not to try
some means of escape. Certainly by hanging on continuously to the “ring bolt” he was headed for inevitable death.
Maybe that was one part of what Poe was trying to
say, that as life goes on day after day, you can sink into
the same routine causing your life to become stagnant
and boring. . . . In the story, for example, Poe took the
chance of jumping off the boat and hanging onto the barrel—so what could trying something else hurt? Perhaps
Poe is also trying to show how fear of death can paralyze
a person.
I reproduce Robin’s journal entry here because it shows so clearly how
a writer must start wherever he or she can to make sense of new information—in this case a story—before being able to write about it for someone else. By admitting her initial confusion, and then going on to speculate about possible interpretations, Robin begins to make sense of the
story. The informal writing helps the thinking, which, in turn, helps the
formal writing.
What all this means in practical terms is simply this: thinking takes
place in language, sometimes language that is mathematical, visual, musical, and so on, but most often in everyday words of our native tongue. The
degree to which we become fluent, efficient, and comfortable with language as a mode of thinking is, to a large extent, the degree to which we
advance as learners.
By writing to ourselves in our own casual voices, we let the writing help us think and even lead our thinking to places we would not
have gone had we merely mulled things over in our heads. When you
write out your thought, it becomes language with which you can interact,
Thinking with Writing
manipulate, extend, critique, or edit. Above all, the discipline of actually
writing guarantees that you will push your thought systematically in one
direction or another.
Writing helps us figure things out in at least two ways. On the one hand
it makes our thoughts visible, allowing us to expand, contract, modify, or
discard them. We can hold only so many thoughts in our heads at one
time; when we talk out loud and have dialogues with friends, or with ourselves, we lose much of what we say because it isn’t written down. More
importantly, we can’t extend, expand, or develop our ideas fully because
we can’t see them. When we can witness our thoughts, we can do something with them.
On the other hand, the act of writing itself generates entirely new
thoughts that we can then further manipulate. Writing one word, one sentence, or one paragraph suggests still other words, sentences, and paragraphs. Writing progresses as an act of discovery; no other thinking process helps us so completely develop a line of inquiry or a mode of thought.
Scientists, artists, mathematicians, lawyers, and engineers all think with
pen to paper, chalk to blackboard, hands on terminal keys. Extended
thought about complex matters is seldom possible, for most of us, any
other way.
Asking and Answering Questions
A colleague of mine teaches chemistry to classes of two hundred students.
Because this large class doesn’t easily allow students to raise their hands
to ask questions, the instructor has asked the students to write out their
questions during the lecture and deposit them in a cardboard box labeled
QUESTIONS that sits just inside the doorway to the classroom. At the
beginning of the next class period, the instructor answers selected questions before moving on to new material. A few of the questions from the
chemistry question box are reproduced here exactly as they were found,
demonstrating how sometimes writing out the question can actually lead
to the answer.
A fairly typical question from a fairly confused student is given in
Figure 3-1. In this example, there is no evidence that in writing out this
question the student is one whit closer to finding an answer than when
he or she started, which, of course, will often be the case. But consider
the next question, Figure 3-2. In this example, the student writes out a
question that he or she takes a stab at answering at the same time: “Is
sulfur an exception?” The instructor read this question to the class and
Thinking with Writing
Figure 3-1
simply answered yes as the student was actually ahead of the lectures at
this point.
Now look at the next example, Figure 3-3. Here the student began
to ask a question during lecture, and in the process of writing out the
question, figured out the answer. (We have this sample only because other
unanswered questions were written on the same scrap of paper.)
In the last example, Figure 3-4, a similar process is at work. This
student not only realizes that “the peptide bond” is the answer to the
question, but decides to share the discovery with the instructor to thank
him, apparently, for the opportunity of asking questions in the questions
box in the first place.
The principle at work in the last two examples is a powerful one:
the act of saying how and where one is stuck or confused is itself a liberating process. It is unclear exactly why this happens or how to guarantee
that it will continue to occur, but I suspect that we’ve all had similar experiences, both in speech and in writing.
The next time you are confused about a math problem or the lines
of a difficult poem, try to write out the precise nature of the confusion.
It is possible that in articulating your question you will find your answer,
but if not, at least you will have a clear statement of the question from
which to begin a more methodical quest for an answer.
Thinking with Writing
Figure 3-2
Figure 3-3
Thinking with Writing
Figure 3-4
Freewriting is fast writing—likethis—about anything that
comes to mind—as fast as you can do it & without worrying about what it looks like at all—just trying desperately
to write as fast as you can think—as I am now—not worrying at all about what the words look like, trying rather to
catch the flow of thought on my mind—which right now IS
freewriting & so I write here as fast as I can for a fixed period of time (for me I usually write from 5 to 10 minutes
at a crack, then back off & look at what I’ve wrought—
writ—whatever). I don’t freewrite well on the computer
because I make so many typing mistakes—wihch distravct
me—and so I usually freewrite by hand either in my journal or on a scratch pad. In this sample I’ve gone back and
fixed most of the typing mistakes—otherwise you’d spend
more time deciphering it than I did writing it.
Freewriting is a powerful problem-solving tool. Ignore it at your peril!
Writing fast helps you in two distinct ways. First, freewriting is a good way
to start any piece of writing; the technique forces you to write on, instead
Thinking with Writing
of stare at, a blank piece of paper (or a blank computer screen). You stop
trying to decide how to start; when you freewrite, you just start and don’t
worry about where it’s going or what, exactly, the words look like at this
particular time. If it turns out that what you’ve written is important, you’ll
go back later and make it look nice; if it has been a stimulus to one or
two good ideas, you’ll copy those and go on from there; if nothing interesting happened, you’ll just throw it away and maybe try another one.
Freewriting also helps because it turns off your internal editor and
insists that you write out the very first word/thought that occurs to you,
much like the exercise of free association, where in response to a prompt
(black, for example) you say the first word that comes to mind (white?).
The benefits to a thinker, problem solver, or writer—at least during initial
stages of writing—are substantial, because if you can avoid editing your
thought before it comes out, you have more to look at, play with, modify,
and expand. During these initial phases of problem solving, it’s more
important to see variety and quantity than development and quality. Freewriting helps spread out the problem for examination.
It doesn’t matter whether you use freewriting as a technique to find
out what’s on your mind, to address a specific issue that puzzles you, or
to start composing a formal paper. It’s an all-purpose generative activity
and, as such, is transportable to many different situations.
The directions for freewriting are quite simple: write fast; keep your
pen moving; use whatever shortcuts you like (&); don’t worry about spelling, punctuation, and the like; let the words chart your thinking path
(which means digressing is just fine); write for a fixed period of time (ten
minutes works well); if you can’t think of anything to write, write “I can’t
think of anything to write” until you do.
Techniques such as freewriting do not work for everyone. One of
my students, Sean, wrote the following passage in his journal:
I’m not sure that this rapid fire methodology helps me. I
need to look over my work. Scratch it out. Curse at it.
Scream. Cry. And all those other things that make me a
I tried to convince Sean that he could write fast sometimes and go back
and do the more careful stuff later, but he was never comfortable with
freewriting, and I didn’t push it. Different techniques work for different
Thinking with Writing
Conceptual Mapping
Writing doesn’t always look like writing, as the examples from chemistry
class demonstrate. I find that many times when I’m trying to figure
something out, I’ll write single words or short phrases on a sheet of paper,
circle or put boxes around them, then connect these to one another with
lines or arrows. In fact, I use this shorthand visual writing more than any
other kind when I’m trying to delimit a problem or think about a freewriting topic. Sometimes I do this on empty journal pages, other times on
restaurant place mats—whatever is handy.
Here is one concrete example: If for any reason you need to break a
problem or question down into manageable size—say to make a presentation about the Vietnam War or locate the best marketing strategy for
a hypothetical business venture—consider making a quick visual map to
see what the problem territory looks like. Start by writing out your general
topic area (for example, the Vietnam War) in the center of a sheet of paper
and put a circle around it. Then you see how many possibilities you can
think of and cluster them around your central idea in smaller circles, as
in Figure 3-5.
At this point you may have already found the issue you want to investigate, in which case you can continue using this technique to refine
your topic, your next circled word being Causes of the Vietnam War, and
so forth.
Figure 3-5
Thinking with Writing
If you want to discuss a number of the issues you have just diagrammed, you might put priority numbers next to the various circled
terms. In the Vietnam War example, we might enumerate these subtopics
to explore further: (1) history, (2) politics, (3) reaction at home. This list
then becomes the beginning of an outline into which to add still more
detail, or it becomes an order of investigation on your part. The point is
that the visual spread of ideas helps you both to see relationships and
to discover new possibilities, and it does so even more rapidly than
List Making
People make lists every day to remind them of projects to do, things to
buy, errands to run. Most obviously, when you make a list of grocery items,
you have a record to consult in the store. Equally important, however, in
starting the list is the power of the list itself to generate useful associations
and new thoughts: you write eggs and think also about bacon; you write
milk and remind yourself of other products in the dairy case. The same
thing works with the lists I make in my journal or appointment book to remind myself of what I need to do today, this week, before vacation, etc. By
writing the list I remind, remember, and create a visual display of ideas to
mull over and modify.
I make lists all the time both to jog my memory and to suggest new
possibilities. I make lists when I have a problem to think about, a project
to develop, an article to write, or a lecture to prepare. Moreover, I often revise those lists to see what else is possible. For instance, to create a class
syllabus, I often start with a list of authors—Twain, James, Crane, Frost,
Eliot, Dickinson, Melville—then add, subtract, and rearrange until I like the
logic of the course before me. To write this book, I started with a list of
three chapters, then later expanded it to twenty, and finally cut it to the
sixteen you are now reading.
After I have an idea I like, I often start with another list to see
where else that idea could go, what its dimensions are, the pro arguments I can think of, the con, and how many organizational sections the
paper might have. Even this list is not exhaustive. I arbitrarily decided to
find five examples—the list could just as easily have numbered four or
Writers and thinkers of all kinds use lists to initiate and continue to
develop a piece of writing. Instead of settling for the first idea that pops
into mind for that narrative English paper or history research report, write
it down and see what other possibilities exist. In this sense, list making is
like an abbreviated freewriting exercise or a conceptual map; the same
principles are at work.
Thinking with Writing
Outlines are organized lists. After you have decided what to write about
(what problem to solve), an outline can give you a clear direction, a goal
toward which to write. To make an outline, you list ideas according to
their relative weight: some ideas are equal to others (coordinate), and
other ideas are supportive of larger ideas (subordinate). In formal outlines,
broad coordinate ideas are designated with Roman numerals, and related
supportive ideas are clustered beneath larger ideas, with progressive indenting from there. Here, for example, is an outline of part of this chapter:
III. Asking and Answering Questions
A. Chemistry Example #1
B. Chem #2
C. Chem #3
D. Chem #4
III. Freewriting
A. Directions for Doing
B. How It Helps
1. Starting
2. Continuing
a. free association
b. focusing
III. Conceptual Mapping (etc.)
For me, outlines are generative; that is, I use them in the formative stages of
determining what to write and where to direct my writing. And while I do
use Roman numerals and capital letters on occasion, on other occasions
my outline is a series of words or phrases arranged and rearranged to
show relationship and direction. Outlines are important in that they let me
think through a project roughly before actually beginning it, but I never
hold a writing project to the outline that helped originate it because I see
outlines—like freewrites, maps, and lists—as planning, not governing, activities.
Where outlines prove especially useful is in bigger projects such as
long papers, books, and grant proposals, in which it is important that readers receive a map, or a table of contents, to help them through the long
written document; in essence, a table of contents is an outline of the work,
allowing both writer and reader to find their way.
Writing to Learn
What all this means in practical terms is simply this: When we write to
ourselves in our own easy, talky voices, we let the writing help us think
Thinking with Writing
and even lead our thinking to places we would not have gone had we
never written, but only mulled things over in our heads. Thought written
out becomes language you can interact with; your own thought objectified on paper or computer screen becomes thought you can manipulate,
extend, critique, or edit. Above all, the discipline of doing the writing in
the first place guarantees that you will push your thought systematically in
one direction or another.
1. Describe one time when you were stuck trying to figure something
out and you had that “Ahah!” experience like the chemistry student
in this chapter. What circumstances helped create this insight?
2. Think about one problem, personal or academic, you are currently
trying to solve, and explore it using at least two of the modes—freewriting, mapping, listing, etc.—discussed in this chapter.
1. Describe the greatest problem in life or school that you remember
solving. Explain the role language played in identifying or solving
the problem. (To begin this assignment, use one or more of the
problem-solving strategies described in this chapter; append a sample of this to your completed paper.)
2. Think about one thing you are especially good at (sports, hobbies,
etc.). Describe the kind of problems you face, and explain how you
go about solving those problems. (Begin this assignment as an exploratory journal entry and append this entry to your finished essay
to show how you helped solve this writing problem.)
1. INDIVIDUAL: Conduct a library search on the literature of problem
solving and create a bibliography of what you found. Write a report
in which you describe the use of problem solving strategies in a
field that especially interests you.
2. COLLABORATIVE: In addition to (or instead of) searching the library, conduct interviews with people who work in a particular
field or discipline and ask them about how they identify and solve
problems. Divide up the interview tasks, but share the results and
write (or orally report) about the problem solving strategies in the
field you investigated.
Chapter Four
9/7 Perhaps this journal will teach me as much about myself
as it will about English. You know, I’ve never kept a journal or such before. I never knew what a pleasure it is to
write. It is a type of cleansing—almost a washing of the
mind . . . a concrete look at the workings of my own
head. That is the idea I like most. The journal allows me
to watch my thoughts develop yet, at the same time, it
allows me a certain degree of hindsight.
In this passage, Peter calls journals places “to watch [his] thoughts develop” and to allow him a “certain degree of hindsight.” I agree. Journals are collections of thoughts, impressions, musings, meditations, notes,
doubts, plans, and intentions caught chronologically on paper. You write
them in your most comfortable language for yourself.
The informal notebooks that collect your personal thoughts have a long
and respected history. Documents like journals, diaries, or notebooks have
existed ever since people discovered that writing things down helped
people remember them better. For travelers and explorers, the journal was
the place to document where they had been and what they had seen.
Some of these journals, such as those by William Byrd and William Bradford in the seventeenth century, are especially useful for modern
Keeping a Journal
historians in reconstructing a portrait of the settlement of colonial America—as are The Journals of Lewis and Clark about the settlement of the
west in the early nineteenth century.
Some writers, like James Boswell, wrote journals full of information
about other famous people—in Boswell’s case, Samuel Johnson. Other
writers, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Virginia Woolf, kept journals
that contained nearly all the germinal ideas and language for their later
published manuscripts. And the notebooks of Dostoyevsky and Kafka provide crucial insights into the troubled personalities of these disturbing
Many famous literary figures, of course, kept journals; some became
more widely read than anything else they wrote. For example, Samuel
Pepys’ Diary remains one of the liveliest accounts of everyday life in seventeenth-century London, and Anaïs Nin’s Diaries (all four volumes),
which describe life in mid-twentieth-century Paris, have contributed more
to her fame than have any of her more imaginative works.
Other creative people have depended on journals to locate, explore, and capture their ideas. In the journal of Leonardo da Vinci, we find
a wonderful mix of artistic and scientific explorations, including both
sketches and words. Painter Edgar Degas’ notebooks of visual thoughts
acted as his journal. Photographer Edward Weston’s “daybooks” explored
all manner of his personal and aesthetic life in Carmel, California, in the
1920s and 1930s. Le Corbusier’s Sketchbooks document in detail the
emergence of his architectural ideas.
We gain numerous insights through the published journals of noteworthy people. In Charles Darwin’s diaries, written aboard the HMS
Beagle, we witness the evolution of the theory of evolution. In B.F. Skinner’s journals, we locate the rational mind of the father of behaviorism.
And in the diaries of Arthur Bremer and Lee Harvey Oswald, we witness
the twisted minds of political assassins.
If you want to explore the many possibilities of journal writing, you
might investigate one of these published journals in an area that interests
you. It would certainly give you some ideas about keeping one yourself.
Academic Journals
When you keep a journal for a college or university class, avoid the extremes of either the personal diary or the impersonal notebook. At the
one extreme you find diaries, which are private accounts of a writer’s
thoughts and feelings and which may include more writing about emotion
than intellect. At the other extreme are documents such as class notebooks, which are recordings of other people’s ideas. I diagram the differences this way:
Journals, Logs, Notebooks, and Diaries
Class Notebook
For academic purposes, I suggest a judicious blend of both diary and class
notebook, taking from the diary the crucial first-person pronoun I (as in
I think and I wonder) and taking from the notebook the focus on a given
subject matter (English, history, political science).
In a small loose-leaf notebook, Mary describes the ideas she finds in reading the essay “The American Scholar” by Ralph Waldo Emerson:
9/25 In the first few paragraphs of this address, Emerson seems
discouraged at the way society is run, that there are no
“whole men” left. . . . He seems to feel that scholars
should learn from books, but he says beware that you
don’t become a “bookworm.” Use the books to inspire your
own thoughts, not to copy the thoughts of others.
Mary is a first-year student enrolled in a literature class, using her journal
to observe more carefully what she reads by writing about it. Notice that
she copies direct quotations from what she reads, key phrases that she
will remember better because she has written them out. These observations become particularly useful to her the next day when these essays are
discussed in class; they are also useful later when she studies for her final
In a spiral notebook, Alice, a biology major, describes what she sees
happening in the petri dishes containing fern spores:
Well, first day of checking the spores. From random observation it seems that the Christmas Fern is much less dense
than the Braun’s Holly Fern.
Alice makes the following notations amidst other data describing what
she sees in each of the twenty petri dishes she is monitoring as part of her
senior thesis project:
an alive creature swimming around a pile of junk
looks like one spore has a rhizoid
one spore has a large protrusion (rhizoid beginning?)
Keeping a Journal
In a science class, students commonly keep something like a lab or field
notebook in which they both collect and speculate about data. This, too,
is a kind of journal—a daily record of observations, speculations, questions, and doubts. Whether you are observing the words in books or the
spores in petri dishes, the journal helps you look, remember, and understand.
Journals are good places to ask yourself questions about what you are doing with specific assignments, in specific courses, and in your major. In the
following entries, we see students in different disciplines trying to define
or explain to themselves what, exactly, their fields of study are really
5/2 Sociologists study groups for various reasons. They teach
us to recognize how a group functions, how to seek out
and influence the leaders, how to direct and control the
masses. There are questions of ethics raised. It is taught
as a process. The process is all-important. . . . Taking
apart a jigsaw puzzle, sociologists learn to unravel and
identify distinct parts of the process.
3/7 Unlike math, where you must learn how to add and subtract before you can multiply and divide, philosophy is a
smattering of different things with no exact and precise
starting place. In philosophy we could start anywhere and
end up anywhere without ever having gone anywhere, but
we would have uncovered many rocks along the way. Ah
Hah! This is our task: uncovering rocks along the way.
On one level, it simply helps to put any concept or term into your own
words to try to make sense of it in language you understand. Each of the
writers here writes his own definition and so increases the chances of
truly understanding the concept.
In addition, as we become immersed in our own disciplines, we
begin to take too much for granted. Sometimes your instructors stop questioning, at least in public, the basic assumptions around which their disciplines are actually built—assumptions that need periodic reexamining
Journals, Logs, Notebooks, and Diaries
if the disciplines are to remain healthy. Journals are good places in which
to ask yourself why you are studying what.
One of the best uses for a journal is speculating on the meaning of what
you are studying and thinking about. Speculating is essentially making attempts at answers that you are not yet sure of. Speculating on exams or
papers is dangerous; doing it in journals is natural. In the following entry,
one of my literature students speculates on the meaning of a well-known
passage in Henry David Thoreau’s Walden:
10/24 What really caught my attention was the specific description of the fight between the black and red ants. In this
chapter is Thoreau trying to put his friends (the wild animals) on the same line as those people in the village?
Bill’s question, which poses an answer, is a good one. The more he speculates on the meaning of the various passages in Walden, or any other book
in any other subject, the more ideas he will have to discuss in class and
the more material about which to write further papers or exams. The
speculation in his journal could lead to further investigation into other
places where Thoreau makes similar comparisons.
When Missy was working on a report for my composition class the
semester before she was to graduate, she wrote this passage:
3/12 (after class) Look, we botanists don’t ask “Does that plant
exist?” and we don’t ask about the aesthetic value of a
flower. We ask “What is the economic value of this plant?”
But that is not the primary interest of a true botanist.
We want to know why it grows there (ecologists),
why a plant has the structure it does (evolutionist), how it
does its stuff (physiologist), etc. The discipline of botany
has excluded lots of other questions and that is why I’m
having some problems with it. . . . Yikes! I think it’s all
coming together!
Missy doesn’t explain for us exactly what she sees coming together, but
then she isn’t writing for us either. She is using the journal to think
through some important issues that concern her now that she’s about to
become a professional botanist; in fact, she was using a lot of her composition journal to wrestle with matters closer to botany than English. This
is exactly what a journal is for: talking with yourself about the issues that
concern you most deeply. Sometimes it even seems to answer back.
Keeping a Journal
Use your journal to find connections deliberately. Make as many as you
can in any direction that works. Connect to your personal life, connect to
other courses, and connect one part of your course to another. In the
following entries Kevin works on connections in a course on macroeconomics:
2/16 One of the things about this course seems to be the fact
that many theories can be proved algebraically. For example, the teacher said that a possible exam question might
be to trace through a Keynesian model. In order to trace it
one has to use a lot of algebra, substituting variables inside certain functions to prove equations . . . by explaining
it this way you get a better grasp of things . . . economics
becomes less ambiguous. Theories backed up by mathematical, algebraic, or statistical evidence always seem much
more concrete.
2/26 It [economics] is beginning to pull together. After reading
the chapters for the second time, I’m beginning to see a sequence or passage of ideas from chapter to chapter.
If you read the material twice, review your notes, and keep a journal,
connections are bound to happen. In Kevin’s case, he is pulling it together,
and the journal is a helpful part of this process.
A colleague of mine who teaches the History of Science asks his students
questions about their reading that are to be answered in their journals. He
enjoys it when students write entries such as the following:
#17 What did Darwin find on the Galapagos Islands? Lions & tigers & bears? Oh no. Turtles & lizards & seals! That’s
what he found. Different from species found anywhere else
in the world. Tame and unafraid of humans. Adapted to a
harsh isolated environment. The birds, such as the woodpecker thrush, had learned to use tools. No other species,
except man and baboons, I think, had learned to use tools.
Some birds had no more use for flight so their wings atrophied.
Responses to Reading
When I teach my literature classes, I tell students “Write about everything
you read in here, even if just for five minutes. Whenever you complete a
chapter, a poem, an essay, write something, anything, about it in your
journal. Date your entry and try to identify something specific in what
you are reacting to.” If you write about what you read, you increase your
chances of remembering it, understanding it, and asking intelligent, specific questions about it. A first-year literature student wrote the following
entries while reading Moby-Dick.
11/30 The thought of running into that squid makes me sick.
Don’t these men get scared of these strange creatures?
Nobody can be that strong all the time.
12/1 What I thought was funny is that Stubbs calls the ship
they meet the Rosebud and it is giving off a gross odor
because of all the sick and dying whales it carries. What’s
even more humorous is that the ambergris (yellow substance) is used in perfume—it comes from the bowels of
dying whales!
The more personal Sarah’s reaction, the more I believe that she is engaged
in the book; the more she finds funny or notable, the more likely she could
use that entry as a seed from which to start an analytic essay or research
Journals are not the place for class notes, which are frequently mere copies of teacher’s thoughts, but they are good places in which to examine
what took place in class, to record your opinion of the worth of the lecture or points made by classmates during a discussion. In the following entry, Caroline, a senior English major, comments on her Shakespeare class:
2/9 In Shakespeare class today I was aware of my fellow students and wondered what each one of us was thinking—
about the class in general, about the professor, about each
other’s comments, about Shakespeare. I could sense and
see that some students were there only in body. Some of
them obviously hadn’t read Hamlet, many hadn’t even
brought their books to class. I felt they had closed themselves to literature—What, in contrast, makes me care
about these plays?
Keeping a Journal
Caroline’s candid reaction to class will inevitably help her remember both
the form and substance of that particular class meeting better than if she
had not written about it. Repeated entries such as this would be likely to
sharpen her powers of observation and depth of understanding as well.
After a few weeks of keeping a journal in his first-year writing class,
Kurt wrote:
9/28 I am really amazed at myself! I don’t ever recall writing
this much in my life—especially in a journal. I write down
a lot of ideas I get, I write in it when a class is boring
(usually chemistry lecture) and I write in it because I
want to. It helps me get things off my chest that are bothering me.
Kurt’s reaction is fairly typical of students who are starting to get serious
about some elements of college (not necessarily chemistry) and are finding the journal a useful companion in advancing their thought—sometimes to their own surprise.
Starting a Dialogue
If your teacher asks to collect and read your journal, then you have a good
chance to initiate some dialogue in writing about things that concern
you both. Journals used this way take on many of the qualities of letters,
with correspondents keeping in touch through the writing. As a writing
teacher, I have learned a great deal about my own teaching from written
conversations with my students.
Remember Alice, the biology major studying the fern spores in the
petri dishes? Her professor responded to nearly every one of her observations, briefly, to let her know if she was on the right track. At midpoint
in her project, her professor wrote the following:
10/15 Here are some questions designed to organize your
thoughts in groups: (1) What interspecific interactions
are promoted? (2) What intraspecific interactions are
promoted? (3) What about the experimental design casts
doubt on your inferences about interactions?
I don’t understand these questions, and you probably don’t either, but in
the context of Alice’s project journal, they made complete sense. In journals you can carry on virtually private, closed, tutorial-like conversations
with your instructor, even if he or she never asked you to keep one.
From Journal Writing to Drafting
Sharing journal entries is more like sharing letters than any other kind of
writing you are likely to do in college.
Your journal may also prove to be a good place in which to reflect on the
value of journals themselves. I no longer believe journals work for everyone—some people just don’t like to be reflective in language—but as
course assignments go, they are fairly painless. Let me conclude with some
of Jim’s observations. He started keeping a journal in my first-year writing
class with some reluctance; later he wrote the following on page 192 of
his journal:
11/11 As I scan through my journal, I found a lot of memories. I
wrote consistently on my classes and found grades to be
one of my big hang-ups. . . . The entries which helped me
the most were those about myself and my immediate surroundings. They helped me to realize who I am. Maybe I
should say what I am. I have a little bit of everyone inside of me. . . .
I really enjoyed looking back to see what I wrote.
Some entries were stupid. . . . Many times I wrote what I
really felt. A journal wouldn’t be worth keeping if it
didn’t. Who wants to read about what others think?
Never once did I feel it a burden to write. If you would
have told us to write in it everyday, I would have told
you where to go. My roommate says I write too much,
but I think I write too little.
Journal writing is an essential part of my own composing process. In fact,
most of the articles, chapters, and books that I write in my publish-orperish life as a college professor start out as ideas discovered and explored
in my journal. I even keep a separate journal when, during summers, I
travel around the country on my motorcycle, and even this journal has led
me to writing articles. Here, for instance, is a note from my nonacademic travel journal kept while attending a one-day motorcycle riding
school in New Hampshire:
3:40 last riding session just over—I came in two laps early—very much
afraid of my own tiredness at this time of day—several people had just
passed me, the FZR and a K75—tempting me to overreach and pass them
Keeping a Journal
back. But I’ve I really learned to trust my tires, maybe more than myself—
especially coming out of the hairpin (turn 3) and entering the bowl (turn 4).
This entry is typical of my fast road writing, with little attention to the formalities of language, but much to the details and insights that I can record
in a few minutes. Remember, it’s seldom the journal, as it is written at the
time, that will be published, but more likely the careful thoughts it inspires.
I so enjoyed my day at the New Hampshire track that I wrote an article about it for a motorcycle magazine that published rider stories. In
“Trusting My Tires, Trusting Myself” (BMW Owners News, April, 1994)
here’s a passage that reveals what became of the hasty journal entry:
Twice in the afternoon I leave the track a few minutes early, so tired I scare
myself, aware now among Stirling Moss fantasies, the draining concentration
it takes to drive for even thirty minutes with total, absolute, one hundred
percent attention—anything less and you’re off the track, into the barricades, into the grandstand wall, embarrassed or maybe dead.
The only things left from the original journal entry are the time of day,
the references to leaving the track early, and the seed of my final title.
These details helped make my story, but when I recorded them in the
journal, I didn’t know that.
This entry also helped in another, more abstract way, by reminding
me of what I knew but had not recorded. In other words, long after the
event, the journal prompts your long-term memory to produce further
thoughts and insights.
I usually do my journal writing with pen and ink in lined paper notebooks.
In fact, I keep several different journals, each in a different notebook:
my personal/professional journal in a small (7 ⫻ 10) leather loose leaf;
my teaching journal in an equally small cardboard loose leaf; my travel
journal in an even smaller (5 ⫻ 7) spiral bound (carried in a tank bag on
cross-country motorcycle trips). I always have the personal journal with
me, in my book bag, to catch thoughts related to my everyday life or to
think about professional projects now under way or in need of doing.
It’s the ease and portability I enjoy, always having with me a favorite fountain pen, preferring to do my journal writing in especially comfortable
places—on a couch, under an apple tree, on my front porch.
However, I also do journal writing with my portable and desk top
computers for more specific research projects that lead to writing projects. In these instances, I keep related files in a single folder/directory on
Guidelines for Keeping a Journal
my hard drive along with other notes about that project (and a backup
copy on disk). By using the computer for deliberate acts of journal writing,
I already have typed copy started that sometimes I import into documents
I’m writing.
My own habits may serve as a preface to the following suggestions
for keeping a journal. It really doesn’t matter whether you use pen and
paper or a computer, so long as you are able to write when you need to.
The only real limitation of keeping a journal on a computer is that you
may not have it when you need it—journal writing in class, for instance.
What remains important is that you write as a way to reason. The following suggestions may help you keep your journal active:
1. If required to keep a journal for class, buy a loose-leaf notebook.
Removable paper is an advantage if teachers want to see selected
entries: you can hand some in without surrendering your whole
notebook, or you can delete sensitive or trashy entries if the
whole notebook is collected.
2. Divide your notebook into sections: one for class, another for
more personal thoughts, and maybe another for a specific research project or even another class.
3. Date each entry. The dates of journal entries allow you (or instructors) to witness the evolution of your thoughts over time. I
also add day of week, time of day, and weather—just to complete
my record keeping. With a computer, if you open a new file for
each entry, date and time are automatic.
4. Start each entry on a fresh page. Blank pages ask to be filled, and
the more you write, the more you think. (The inevitable white
spaces on half-filled pages also invite the taping in of clippings,
notes, news items, and photos—making your journal something
of a scrapbook as well.)
5. Write in your natural voice. Use the voice that’s most comfortable; first person, contractions, and other easy language shortcuts.
A journal is a place for capturing ideas in their rough and ready
stages; worry about more careful language when you write to audiences other than yourself.
6. Experiment with writing at different times of day; notice how
early-morning thought differs from late-evening thought.
7. Experiment with writing in different places; notice how in-class
writing differs from library writing, and how both differ from
writing at home or on the beach.
8. If asked to hand in your journal at the end of a semester, prepare
it for public reading: delete unimportant entries; add titles for
each entry; add page numbers; make a table of contents; star important entries; and write an introduction alerting a stranger to
Keeping a Journal
themes or ideas to look for. Preparing your journal in this way
not only helps an instructor read it, it helps you remember what
you wrote when.
1. For one week, focus on one dimension of journal writing that you
normally ignore (e.g., observation of evaluations) and write as many
entries that do this as you can. (And, of course, write a journal entry
about the results.)
2. Keep a research log (separate from your normal class journal in
some way) for three or four weeks about whatever subject interests
you. Note there all of your preconceptions, hunches, theories, tentative conclusions, good leads, and false starts.
1. Keep a reading journal about one book you are currently reading.
When you have finished, examine the pros and cons of writing
while reading, including in your essay any passages from your actual
journal that may support your case. (Append a sample of your journal to the end of this paper.)
2. Keep a journal for the duration of one research project or paper
you are doing in another class. When the project or paper is
finished, edit and write an introduction to this journal in which you
explain its role in finishing the product. (Append the finished paper
to the journal for reference.)
1. INDIVIDUAL: Locate in the library the published journal of somebody who interests you or was mentioned in this chapter. Write a
report in which you explain how this person used the journal and
speculate how it might have related to his or her work.
2. COLLABORATIVE: Interview some of your teachers or other working people in your community who keep a record or something
like a journal. Find out why they keep it, how they use it, and how
often they write in it. Put together a report for this class on the current use of this informal mode of writing in your community. Write
about one suggestion here that strikes you as new and why you
think it will be useful to you.
Section II
Chapter Five
I hate to write. My writing never says what I mean. I can
see the idea in my head, but I can’t seem to express it in a
way that others understand, so I don’t get good grades. Is
there some secret I don’t know about?
With great clarity, David expresses his frustration as a writer. In fact, his
expression is so clear that I’m tempted not to believe him: How could it
be that his writing never says what he means? However, as a writer myself,
I know David’s problem. He is honest, and what he says is true.
Do you ever find yourself thinking that everyone else finds writing
easier than you do? The truth is, everyone doesn’t, and there is no secret.
In fact, most writers, experienced and inexperienced alike, find writing
difficult, demanding, ornery, often frustrating work. Experienced writers,
however, have learned that difficulty comes with the territory, that with
patience, persistence, and grit, even the most difficult writing task will
work itself out. And experienced writers will also tell you that, while there
is no secret, there is often excitement, great satisfaction, even joy from
writing well.
There are, of course, conditions: To write well, you need a good reason to be doing it, a reason you believe in. When you’ve elected to write
on your own, good reasons are no problem—you have something you
want or need to say, and the writing is the saying. But sometimes, in both
school and work settings, the reasons are given to you. They’re not yours
at the outset, and that’s trouble. In school, instructors assign writing tasks
Writing in the Academic Community
to fulfill their teaching agendas. In the workplace, employers commission
reports, clients seek answers, newspaper editors assign stories. Regardless
of the initial motivation, once committed or assigned, it’s your job to figure
out the why, what, where, when, and how of the writing task, and to ask:
What do I need to do? Where am I in relation to this assignment? What are
the conditions that shape and determine my writing?
This book assumes that you are a college student, that the general
conditions that determine your writing are academic, and that the better
you understand these general conditions, the better you’ll write. This
chapter sketches some of those conditions and suggests strategies for coping with them. Knowing what academic communities expect will simplify
and clarify your writing tasks, but it won’t guarantee speedy and successful results. Even for the patient and persistent, there are no guarantees, just
better odds. Each time you put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard the
whole mystifying process of composing begins anew.
As for the specific conditions that determine your writing—which
college, which major, which year, which course, which instructor, which
assignment, not to mention which student (you and what you bring to
the writing)—well, those I won’t know about, but the last part of this
chapter provides some guidelines for you to examine them more carefully
If you are reading this book while enrolled in college, you are already
a member of an academic community. What, you may ask, is the big
deal? I’m in school, I’m studying, taking tests, writing papers, and getting
grades—as I’ve done since first grade. What’s the difference? Well, this
time there may be a difference that could influence everything you write.
Let’s look at the nature of a college academic community.
College and university communities were established to study something called the truth. Each discipline pursues, investigates, and teaches
some small part of it: the sciences investigate what is true about the natural world, the social sciences the social world, the humanities the individual world, the arts the aesthetic world, and so on. Of course, truth is seldom packaged in tight disciplinary units, so understanding something
fully often requires the crossing of disciplinary lines. The most extreme
case may be the study of literature, in which to understand what is true
about a single novel by Charles Dickens or Virginia Woolf you may need to
know some history, philosophy, psychology, anthropology, economics,
and/or politics. In some cases, new hybrid disciplines have been created at
the juncture where one pursuit of truth meets another—for example, biochemistry, psycholinguistics, and social anthropology.
The Ground Rules
To establish truth about the physical world, scientists have developed a particular way of asking questions and looking for answers which
is called “the scientific method.” Finding out biological or chemical truth
requires similar methods but different tools. Those who investigate the
social world—sociologists, economists, political scientists, psychologists,
geographers, and anthropologists—have, in many instances, adopted the
scientist’s methodologies. They often find that the social world is even
harder to pin down for examination than even the most distant star or
complex microorganism.
To establish truth in the so-called humanistic world, humanists—philosophers, literary scholars, and historians—have developed a potpourri
of investigative methods, ranging from the scientific to the imaginative
and intuitive. In contrast, practitioners of the arts—musicians, composers, poets, novelists, playwrights, directors, actors, painters, sculptors,
and dancers—do their best to escape classification of any kind. Neat disciplinary categories become increasingly messy when you realize that
historians study social behavior but are usually called humanists, and
that psychologists, who study individual behavior, are usually called social
scientists, as are the geographers who study the physical space of the
Furthermore, the professional schools of business, law, education, agriculture, health, natural resources, and engineering have put together
their own specialized programs to train people to do certain highly specialized work in the larger community. As part of the process of training,
these schools require at least an introductory-level knowledge of the different disciplines.
Despite these differences, many fields of study make assumptions
about teaching, learning, and knowledge that have more in common than
not—which is why we can even talk about the academic community as an
entity. In fact, if you look at the modes of establishing truth in disciplines as different as history and physics, you may be more surprised by
the assumptions on which they agree than those on which they differ. For
example, both historians and physicists depend heavily on close observation for the accumulation of facts on which to make generalizations,
which they then try to disprove. Biologists and English teachers, too, may
have more in common than meets the casual eye.
Certain beliefs operate as glue to hold together the otherwise disparate
community of teachers, students, researchers, and scholars that compose
the academic community: You cannot write successful college-level papers without understanding these things.
Writing in the Academic Community
As both student and writer, it helps to remember that establishing belief
is the job of (1) the entire university community, (2) each general field of
study within the university, and (3) each individual student writer in each
particular course in that community. There is a necessary relationship
among these three elements which is relevant to every single act of communication or expression you do while a member of this community. You
want those who read your laboratory reports, term papers, and essay tests
to believe that what you say is essentially true. Your job as a college writer
is to persuade your readers that what you say is true, which introduces
the next element.
Every serious act of writing is essentially an exercise in persuasion: If you
describe an experiment, you want your description to persuade your
chemistry teacher that this is what actually happened; if you analyze the
major causes of the Civil War, you want to convince your history teacher
that, yes, these were the causes; if you evaluate the merits of a Robert Frost
poem, you want your English teacher to believe your evaluation. While
this may seem obvious, you must remember that persuasion is also the
goal of most advertisements and political propaganda; however, something rather important sets persuasion in the academic world apart from
persuasion in the world of profit and politics: the use of evidence.
How writers create belief is largely a matter of how they marshal their
evidence to support what they say. In the first place, there must be evidence to back up any assertions; otherwise, they are unsupported generalizations. In the academic world, there is often a premium on evidence derived from books written by experts with credentials that can be checked.
Depending on your discipline, other sources of evidence might be observation, experimentation, statistics, interviews, or personal experience—
each documented in some verifiable way.
To make an assertion in the academic community as convincing as possible, you should always provide your audience with a complete account
of where you got your information, ideas, or evidence (more on this in
Chapters Nine–Twelve); hence, the importance of footnotes, endnotes,
The Ground Rules
references, bibliographies, and literature searches. Essentially, your readers
want to know who said what, where, and when. When you provide this
information, readers believe that your student ideas are buttressed by
expert ideas and are more likely to believe them. In college writing you
ignore documentation at your peril.
In many disciplines, your personal opinion may not be worth very much;
in others it will be. In the more interpretive disciplines, such as history,
philosophy, and literature, you will generally find more room for personal
interpretation than in the more quantitative disciplines, such as chemistry, physics, and mathematics. (The social sciences fall somewhere in between.) To be safe, whenever you make an academic assertion in any discipline, use the best evidence you can find and document it. But in all
disciplines, your own reasoned, and necessarily subjective judgment will
at some times be necessary; if it is, just be sure to state it as such (“In my
opinion. . . .”or, “It seems to me. . . .”) and give the best reasons you can.
In the academic community, the way in which you search for truth is supposed to be impartial and objective, with some very clear exceptions
within the humanities and fine arts. For many disciplines, however, when
you perform experiments and do research, you attempt to remove yourself from the situation as much as possible and attempt to demonstrate
that the results of your work are objectively true; that is, that the results
you are reporting are not a figment of your imagination and personal bias
and that anybody else doing this work would find the same results. In science, the best experiments are replicable (repeatable) by other scientists;
the social sciences generally try to follow suit. This point is important to
you as a writer because it means that it’s advisable, whenever possible, to
mention how you got your results (by objective methods, of course). If
you want to persuade members of these more or less objective communities to believe you, it’s even preferable to use a deliberately objective tone
(passive constructions, no first-person pronouns) and quantitative detail
(statistics, graphs) in your writing.
Students of even the most scientific disciplines make absolute statements
at their peril. In the twenty-first century, especially since Einstein, relativity is the watchword: there is no such thing as certainty in the physical
Writing in the Academic Community
universe, and that concept has filtered, in one way or another, into every
field of study. We now believe that there is more than one possible explanation, more than one possible interpretation, more than one version of
nearly everything that happens. How does this apply to your writing?
Quite simply, every statement you make within the academic community
will be subject to question, objection, interpretation, and cross-examination; the farther you progress in your studies, the more likely it is that your
ideas will be challenged. As a result, when you make academic assertions,
pay attention to the qualifying words (perhaps, maybe, possibly) and tentative phrases (“Have you considered . . . ?” “It is likely. . . . ” “In my judgment. . . . ” and “In all probability. . . .”). These phrases signify that you recognize the tentative nature of the truth. So, though you try to be objective
in your work or writing, you also need to acknowledge that it is ultimately
Because there are multiple interpretations for so much that happens in
the natural and social worlds—multiple versions of right and wrong, good
and bad, correct and incorrect—it becomes useful for writers to represent
these possibilities in their discourse through assertions that give fair (honest, nonemotional) treatment even to positions with which the writer disagrees. Important here are balance phrases (“On one hand/on the other
hand. . . .”) and the recognition of multiple causes (“in the first place/in
the second place,” “in addition”). When you use these phrases in your spoken and written language, they suggest that you know the rules of the academic community.
Unfortunately, the foregoing generalizations are just that, generalizations that we don’t have time to explore fully. In fact, the only thorough
elaboration takes place semester by semester as you are progressively
initiated into membership in the world of college or university studies.
But no discussion of writing formal academic papers is useful unless you
understand generally the nature and context of your academic audience.
Every suggestion in this book is predicated on your understanding of this
community and its ground rules and expectations. Once understood and
agreed to, the many seemingly arbitrary assignments you will receive may
begin to make better sense to you, and, in turn, your handling of them as
a writer will make better sense to your teachers.
The need for knowledge is the rule I didn’t mention directly, yet this need
is an imperative behind every college paper you write. And the primary
Asking Questions
way of coming to knowledge in the academic community is through research—conducting your own investigations of the world and reading the
results of what others have found in their investigations. Research papers
and papers based on research will be among your most common academic assignments.
Authentic research begins with yourself, when you ask questions
and look for answers. In looking, you pose more questions, talk to people,
dig in libraries, and scan the Web. It’s not easy, but it’s sometimes fun. And
always you are present, the guiding curiosity and controlling intelligence,
trying to find something out.
Let’s look more closely at the reasons why research papers—or term
papers, or formal reports—are a major staple in the academic diet. At their
best, such assignments ask you to think seriously about what interests
you, to formulate questions you care about, to begin poking around in
places (both familiar and arcane) for answers or solutions, to master some
method for taking and organizing notes, to integrate fragments of knowledge into a meaningful conceptual framework, and to compose the whole
business into a coherent report that answers the questions you originally
posed—which task, itself, brings to bear all of your accumulated rhetorical
Any assignment that asks you to perform the variety of activities
outlined here might justly be considered central to what learning is all
about. As you perform these activities for the first time, you may find them
difficult. However, as you become better at them—better at investigating, conceptualizing, criticizing, and writing—research will get easier and
you’ll have a good time. In short, good, open-ended research assignments
taken seriously make you a more agile, careful, and tough thinker, as well
as give you practice communicating that agility, care, and toughness to
Research implies finding an answer to a question or solution to a problem
that puzzles you. It also implies that you care what the answer or solution
is. Finally, research implies a process or method of looking that varies from
field to field. In science research we call this method scientific and employ
microscopes, computers, telescopes, and test tubes to help us find answers; in the humanities, we might call it criticism and usually confine
Writing in the Academic Community
ourselves to the study of texts. The point is that along with having a question, we also need a method for answering, one that we trust to yield useful language or numbers.
Research implies a searcher, someone to pose questions, formulate hypotheses (hunches), look for and test solutions—a person who, in many
science experiments, is supposed to be out of sight, but who in the
humanities might well be center stage in the experiment, like Sherlock
Holmes injecting his analytical intelligence into a muddle of disparate
clues. In all cases, however, whether covertly or overtly, the intelligence
of the researcher is the controlling force that guides the search for
solution. This understanding, that the researcher must be in control as a
master interrogator or detective, is crucial to giving the research project
integrity, dignity, and worth.
Where and How
Research answers are found by knowing how to search and where to look.
The college library is one obvious source of knowledge; so too are Web
sites, textbooks, laboratories, and your local community. To write effective
college papers, learn where to locate diverse sources of information, how
to assess their value, and how to include it in your writing.
1. Describe the differences you already perceive between your high
school and college learning environments. Explain in what ways you
are treated differently by your professors than you were by your
high school teachers. Are your reading or writing assignments
noticeably different? How so?
2. Which of this chapter’s so-called ground rules (for example, that
your job as a writer is to create belief) are new to you? On which
ones could you elaborate further, with examples from your own experience? Can you add other rules to this list?
1. Describe your evolution as a writer from one or another fixed
points in time (e.g., third grade or summer camp). Explain how you
developed, and identify any milestones along the way.
Asking Questions
2. Agree or disagree with one of the ground rules described in this
chapter. Support your assertion with as many examples as you can.
1. INDIVIDUAL: Locate two or more successful (A or B) papers you
wrote for one of your high school courses. (If you’re not living at
home, you may need to send home for samples.) Examine these papers and ask: Is the writing believable? Does the paper have a serious persuasive intent? Are my assertions supported by evidence?
Have I documented all claims? Is my voice relatively subjective or
objective (or is it sometimes one, then another)? Do I make any
claims that something is absolutely true? Would I call this paper’s
treatment of the subject balanced?
See if you can point out words, sentences, or paragraphs where
your writing specifically acknowledges or violates these different
academic conventions. Write a short paper in which you analyze
your own past writing in terms of whether or not it subscribes to
the premises of the academic community described in this chapter,
being sure to append a photocopy of your original paper(s) to the
end of your paper.
2. COLLABORATIVE: Think of a discipline that you and some of your
classmates are considering for a college major. Examine it as an academic community. Which ground rules seem to apply most? To find
out more information, some of you look this up in the library while
others interview professors in the field. Options: (a) write a collaborative paper or (b) share research but write an individual paper that
describes the special ground rules of your possible major. Include
full interviews and library sources as appendix material.
Chapter Six
10/19 When I write a paper, I inevitably make it personal. I put
myself into it and I write well. I’m paranoid when people
criticize it because they tell me to make it more impersonal—to take me out of it. I’m afraid I can’t write unless
I am in the paper somehow. . . . I guess I feel defensive
because this paper has so much of me in it that I’m just
laying myself open to all kinds of attacks, and I’m scared
to read it to someone. I want to take it to [my teacher] tomorrow and ask him what he thinks. . . . What I want
badly is for him to say it is a really good paper—but I
won’t believe him. I think it’s good. But if he’s looking
for an analytical paper I may as well forget it. . . . If
someone says I should rewrite it, make it less informal,
I’d die inside and give up.
Essays of both personal experience and reflection draw more on a writer’s
inner reserves than on outer resources. When you write from memory,
your problem is not so much locating material in a library or laboratory
as in retrieving what you already know and presenting it clearly to someone else.
Writing about your personal experience is risky. You invite readers in,
show them your life, and hope that they’ll like what they find. Or, if they
Writing to Remember
don’t, that they’ll at least tell you so gently. In the journal entry here,
Jody describes this fear quite well. Later she came to talk to me about
her paper. I hope she went away from our talk feeling relieved, not to mention alive.
Figuratively, at least, writers find ideas to write about in one of two
places: inside or outside. The inside ideas come from people’s own memories, imaginations, and insights, aspects of the self uniquely one’s own. The
outside ideas come from texts, people, objects, and events. (Never mind
that what’s inside was once out or that what’s outside has to, at some
point, come in.) To write about personal experience, writers go inside,
retrieving impressions, images, and words buried somewhere in their
memories; from these resources writers create personal narratives, informal essays, autobiographies, and a variety of personal manifestoes.
To write about something unfamiliar, where memory has no stock of
stored information, writers must go elsewhere—to additional reading,
fresh observation, or new research. From these resources stem much of
the writing we call academic—term papers, critical essays, and the like—
as well as most of the writing in the working world. Of course, categorizing all writing as either inside or outside is too simplistic. Many serious
writers mix and match sources of information—some with greater abandon than others—so that few pieces of writing are strictly one category or
the other.
Writers fill the gaps in their memories by reading newspapers, talking to other people, inventing dialogue, fabricating description, and revisiting places in which experiences occurred. Likewise, in writing research
reports, authors may draw on remembered ideas, associations, events, current insights, as well as texts, interviews, and observations.
To further complicate the matter, some writers also search their
minds to imagine and create what never happened or existed; we call this
kind of writing imaginative, creative, fictive, or poetic. Poets and novelists,
of course, are the greatest mixers and matchers of all, having poetic license to move freely from memory to library to imagination in a single
page, paragraph, or sentence. The reader should note that while strictly
imaginary writing is outside the scope of this book, the lines between the
imagined and the remembered are often blurred.
A good example of the mix of inside/outside sources in a single essay can be found in one of Annie Dillard’s short personal narratives, “Living Like Weasels,”* which is based on her encounter with a weasel in the
woods. Look at the mix of sources she draws on in these six short samples
taken within a few pages of one another:
*Teaching a Stone to Talk (New York: Harper & Row, 1982)
Writing to Remember and Reflect
1. She leads with a statement and a question:
A weasel is wild. Who knows what he thinks?
2. She explains the context of the essay:
I have been reading about weasels because I saw one last week. I
startled a weasel who startled me, and we exchanged a long glance.
3. She describes the weasel both literally and figuratively:
Weasel! I’d never seen one wild before. He was ten inches long,
thin as a curve, a muscled ribbon, brown as fruitwood, soft-furred,
4. She retells a story from a text about weasels.
And once, says Ernest Thompson Seton, once a man shot an eagle out
of the sky. He examined the eagle and found the dry skull of a weasel
fixed by the jaws to his throat. The supposition is that the eagle had
pounced on the weasel and the weasel had swiveled and bit as instinct taught him, tooth to neck, and nearly won.
5. She questions and imagines on the basis of her reading:
I would like to have seen that eagle from the air a few weeks or
months before he was shot: was the whole weasel still attached to
his feathered throat, a fur pendant? Or did the eagle eat what he could
reach, gutting the living weasel with his talons before his breast,
bending his beak, cleaning the beautiful airborne bones?
6. She speculates about the meaning of life:
I think it would be well, and proper, and obedient, and pure, to grasp
your one necessity and not let it go, to dangle from it limp wherever
it takes you. . . . Seize it and let it seize you up aloft even, till your
eyes burn out and drop; let your musky flesh fall off in shreds, and
let your very bones unhinge and scatter, loosened over fields . . . from
any height at all, from as high as eagles.
In rapid succession, the essay writer has wondered, explained, described,
researched, questioned, imagined, and reflected about a single personal
experience. In so doing, she has made that experience rich, multidimensional, and full of potential meaning about herself, the weasel, and the
narrative: n. the general term for a story long or short; of the past,
present, or future; factual or imagined; told for any purpose; and with
or without much detail.
Personal Narratives
You are most likely to write personal narratives—that is, writing based on
more truth than fiction—in writing courses where your awareness of
yourself is often central to your further development as a writer. However,
you may sometimes write personal narratives in another discipline that
emphasizes self-knowledge, such as psychology, philosophy, religion, education, art, or nursing. Writing a personal narrative implies that you tell
some story about yourself, about something that happened in your life or
that you witnessed. This experience should be one that has meaning for
you, or something you would be willing to explore to find meaning.
In the process of such self-exploration, writers often search their
memories and reconstruct believable stories with beginnings, middles,
and ends. Some personal narrative writing assumes the first-person point
of view (“I”), uses simple past tense (“Last summer I worked at McDonald’s”), and is organized chronologically. Other narratives may be told from
an objective point of view (“Last summer he worked at McDonald’s”) or
mix chronology (starting in the present and working backward). And, of
course, still other narratives include much of the writing in novels and
short stories, an enormously rich, complex category beyond the scope of
this book.
Narrative writing includes other elements long familiar to all of us:
Description fills in concrete detail, sets scenes, and allows readers to see
the events narrated. Dialogue provides a sense of the dramatic, the present moment realized, and allows readers to witness people and situations
crucial to the narrative. Exposition explains what’s going on and helps
readers keep abreast of the narrative action. In other words, writing from
and about personal experience asks you to draw on many of the same
strategies useful in writing critical essays and research papers.
Inexperienced writers sometimes assume that they have to write about
something dramatic or sensational to interest readers: the afternoon I
scored the winning touchdown, the night I danced as the Sugar Plum Fairy
in The Nutcracker Suite, or the morning I nearly died drag racing my
father’s Porsche. However, some of the strongest narratives often result
from taking something less significant—even disappointing—that happened to you and making it come to life for your reader. Instead of the big
touchdown, how about the game you sat out on the bench? Instead of
the dance performance, how about a dance rehearsal? Instead of near
death in the Porsche, how about your near death, one day, from boredom?
In other words, take something common and make out of it something uncommon.
Recently, I asked the twenty-two freshmen in my writing class to
write narratives about topics of their choice. As you might guess, their
Writing to Remember and Reflect
topics varied widely: high school sports, the first day at college, the death
of a grandfather, the divorce of parents, childhood games, record collecting, a mother-daughter relationship, and quite a few work experiences.
For the moment, let’s look at the openings of six of these papers.
Five dealt with jobs, the sixth with a judo class the writer attended. Most
of these students didn’t write about the drama of their experience, but
about the everyday nature of it. Here are their lead paragraphs:
joan: I was a Dunkin’ Donuts girl. Just another face behind a
pink hat and a grease-stained uniform. The job could have
been degrading if I ever let it get under my skin. To get the
job I had to be able to count out a dollar’s worth of change
and read . . .
jeff: The heat from the huge multiple amplifiers drains every
bit of energy out of me. The sweat from my body soaks my
uniform right through, like I fell into water. It’s dripping
into my eyes, burning them because it’s mixed with sulfuric
oxide. My safety glasses are constantly slipping to the end
of my nose . . . None of these precautions do any good
because I’m wet with sweat in 150-degree heat, waiting like
a target to be shocked . . .
sue: Every morning when I woke up, the dull throbbing of my
lower back reminded me that I worked the night before. The
odor of stale cigarettes, French onion soup, and grease from
the grill lingered in my room, coming from my uniform
crumpled on the floor . . .
frank: I never really minded running around, it was just so
monotonous. The life of a gopher could be summed up in a
few short commands: “Hand me that! Pick up these! Help me
with this!”
stephany: T.G.I.T. Thank God It’s Tuesday. I always look for-
ward to Tuesdays. They mean two things: Tomorrow is my
day off and today is my boss’s day off, so I won’t be asked
to pick eggs. I really hate picking eggs—I get all covered
with dust, eggs, and grain. By the end of the day I’m so
tired I just want to sack out. When I was hired my boss
told me I’d only have to pick eggs once in a while, but this
week I had to pick three times. It really gets me, because
my real job is candling eggs . . .
Personal Narratives
kate: “Ten pushups? You’ve got to be kidding!” I don’t think
I’ve ever done more than two in my life. I strain my arms
trying to touch the mat . . .
It’s not the subject, of course, but the treatment that draws us in or turns
us away. In these examples, Joan’s bouncy opening reminds us more of a
cheerleader than a coffee shop waitress, and we wonder what else lies
ahead. Jeff starts fast, giving us little context, except to see him drenched
in sweat on the battery assembly line waiting to be electrocuted (do we
read on, in part, to see how he survives?). Sue describes her job from the
morning after; Frank describes his with the words of his many bosses as he
helps lay underground cables; Stephany’s colloquial, talky voice carries us
into her piece; Kate’s present tense puts us with her on the mat doing
Some of these writers, such as Kate and Jeff, wrote their opening paragraph on the first draft and let it stand through successive revisions; others, such as Stephany, found this opening only in the last draft.
And one, Joan, scrapped the strong opening printed here for a different approach in subsequent draft. In short, each writer had to work
through his or her own process to find the writing that was most satisfying.
One of the most difficult problems of writing personal narratives is deciding how much time to spend on what. A common mistake is trying to
cover some great expanse of time, often resulting in diluted generalizations: my summer job at McDonald’s, all seventy-four days of it; or how I
learned karate, starting with my life as a ninety-pound weakling. Instead of
trying to cover such vast periods in a few pages, writers benefit when they
focus sharply in time and space: Instead of trying to generalize about all
summer at McDonald’s, how about one hot day behind the hamburger
grill? Or one afternoon? Or one hour?
Ironically, the tighter the focus in time, the more you find to say.
You really can’t say much about a generic day or generic hamburger
grill, but you can say something substantial about that hot, humid Thursday in August when you worked the sizzling grill on your own for the first
Look again at the paragraphs describing the students’ jobs, and you
will notice how several begin quickly by putting you right there, at a
specific spot on a specific day: in the battery factory, at the egg farm,
on the judo mat. We reexperience these particular places with the writers
and feel as if we’re present, on the spot, glimpsing into a real and private
Writing to Remember and Reflect
world—that’s what makes us read on. Strong narrative makes us relive an
experience with a writer and adds to our own store of vicarious experiences. For most writers most of the time, specificity is the key to creating
The narrative writing that works best for me portrays a chunk of experience and makes me believe that this really happened, this is true.However,
being honest as a writer and creating belief for the reader may be slightly
different. Many writers of personal narrative believe that they must stick
only to precisely remembered, detailed fact. (“I can’t include that detail because I’m not sure of exactly what I said, and I don’t remember what I was
wearing.”) Keep in mind, however, that writing a nonfiction narrative
about something that happened in your life will not result in an exact report of what really happened; you will omit some details, select only certain facts, forget some emotions, and misremember more than you realize.
No matter how hard you try to get it right, you will distort, modify, and,
in effect, lie. It is unavoidable. Writing can represent reality; it can never
replicate it.
The trick is to remember as best you can and be willing to recreate
to fill gaps. If you don’t remember exactly what you said, you might recreate dialogue that is approximate, typical of you, close to what you might
have said; if you don’t remember the exact shoes you wore on that hot
Thursday, you might remember shoes you could have worn, and what they
looked like and how they felt. If this sounds devious, consider that we do
it all the time when we tell oral stories.
As a writer, you can make your narrative believable in several ways. In the
following examples, our student writers convince us that they are telling the truth by providing concrete detail, precise action, appropriate language, honest emotion, and documentable facts.
• Inside knowledge—Readers like to be let into worlds that they
have seen only from the outside. Often the small details let them
in. In the following passage, Sue shows us what she knows as an
experienced filler of salad bars:
I could fill three crocks in one trip, unless it was something messy like beets or applesauce. It took time to refill
those because they splashed.
Personal Narratives
In the next passage, Stephany, who worked summers on an egg
farm, teaches us about a job few of us knew existed, candling
Candling is easy. All you have to do is take four flats of
somebody’s eggs and spin a hundred of them in front of
a bright light to look for cracks. Then I count the number
of cracked eggs and write it down on my candling sheet
next to the egg picker’s name.
• Action—Narrative writing includes action that convinces us the
writer has been where he or she claims to have been. Here, Kate
describes her judo instructor’s demonstration of a hold in class:
He grabs the student around the neck, holding the head
tight with the elbow and shoulder. The extended arm is
pulled in and the instructor also holds it in position. As the
student struggles to get free of the hold, it only tightens.
• Authentic language—Convincing narrative shows people talking
in rhythms of speech that sound believable. In the following passage, Kathy recreates her first day working at a supermarket, and
we can hear her talking:
I can’t believe it, I actually started work at Wilson’s today—my first job! They hired me as a cashier, but now
they tell me I’ll be bagging and keeping the strawberry
bin full, at least for a while. I guess they want me to
become familiar with their system and working with people before they train me to run a register.
• Emotion—Feelings are part of remembered experience. In the fol-
lowing passage, Bobby describes both his own and his father’s
emotion in a tension-filled automobile:
“I can hardly see the road, it’s raining so hard!” my
father yelled. . . . Sensing the nervous frustration in my
father’s voice, I felt a chill that came from knowing that
my cool, calm, collected father was in a state of panic.
• Facts and figures—Narrative often gains in credibility the same
way that more objective writing does, with believable data. Jeff
has conducted research about the battery factory in which he
has worked and, at one point, tells us the following:
With sixteen manufacturing plants and 5,800 employees,
Johnson Controls is the largest of five major competitors
in the country.
Writing to Remember and Reflect
• Figurative language—Narrative is often strengthened when the
writer makes a telling analogy, simile, or metaphor that makes us
see the story more vividly (remember Annie Dillard’s weasel “thin
as a curve, a muscled ribbon”?). In the following example, Paul,
working on a farm, describes the first time he was shown how to
butcher lambs:
I looked up when I heard a PLOP. The warm hide had
fallen to the floor like a wet towel. The lamb now glistened
as the gelatinous fatty tissue reflected the bright shop
These examples convince me that the writers knew what they were talking (writing) about; in each case, I’m ready to hear more.
Personal narratives are often structured by chronology: first this happened, then this, which led to that. However, narratives can be told
through flashbacks, mixed chronology, and even multiple points of view.
Of all the short writing forms, the narrative may have the simplest organizational scheme. This probably accounts for its reputation as an easier form than essays organized by other argumentative and explanatory
schemes. But don’t be fooled: narrative that seems direct and straightforward may have gone through dozens of drafts for the story to seem natural.
Consider also that new forms and formats can bring new life to
narratives. In fact, they are generative, creating new insights even if you
only intended to alter the form. In the example mentioned before, Joan
began to tell her story of life in the donut shop by looking backward,
reflecting in the past tense, “I was a Dunkin’ Donuts girl.” Later, however,
she abandoned that perspective for the present tense created by the
journal format: “October 23. I’ve driven into Durham daily, but no one’s
hiring.” One is not necessarily better than the other; each simply makes
both writer and reader experience the event from a different perspective.
In looking for your final point of view, focus, or theme, consider playing with the form: What would happen if I told this as an exchange of letters? Could the reader experience it differently if it resembled a drama,
with lots of recreated dialogue? Could it be tailored for a column in a magazine, such as “My Turn” in Newsweek?
When you include descriptions of actual events and places in your story,
the accumulation of detail begins to tell your story for you. Let it. In early
Readers at Work
drafts of narrative writing, authors want to explain to the readers everything that happened, why those things were important, and exactly what
the reader should get from reading this. In later drafts let your skillful recreation of details show your story.
Showing works better than summarizing because concrete detail
allows readers to see your experience and then make their own summary
statements. When Kate writes, “He grabs the student around the neck,
holding the head tight with the elbow and shoulder,” we see the mode
of control; had she instead written, “He holds the student so she cannot
move,” the writer would deprive us of visualizing it—and in visualizing
it, we become more engaged and, in turn, provide our own summary
or judgment: “she cannot move.” Specific detail actually makes a reader
work harder in a positive way. When, instead, the writer does all the
work, providing the summaries, judgments, and editorials, readers become passive or even withdraw: “I am about to tell you about the hardest job I ever had. . . .” The judgment has been rendered and there’s
less to do. Instead, let readers enter into the interpretation of your story
and actually find out what it means themselves. Recall how Jeff put us
in the battery factory, Kate put us on the mat, and Stephany had us picking
So What?
While a narrative is based on something that actually happened, keep in
mind that the reason you write about a subject or event is to portray something that makes a point. Narratives, just like reports, critical essays, and research papers, must have a reason for having been told. As a reader, the
question I ask is “So what?” What difference has it made that I read this?
Why did the author choose to tell me this? As a writer, I try to keep the
same question in mind at all times: Why am I bothering to tell this particular story and not some other? What do I intend my reader to take away
from this reading?
However, seldom are our lives broken up into neat modules or stories with clear beginnings, middles, or ends. As writers our task will be to
fashion convincing lives for our readers, as if such starting and stopping
points existed. In that sense, whatever you write as truth will have some
element of fabrication about it. Sometimes a narrative will start with a directly stated point (in the first set of student samples, Frank’s “monotony”). However, it is more likely that a narrative lead will imply, but not
state, the actual thesis (Sue’s “dull throbbing of my lower back” or Jeff’s
“target waiting to be shocked”). Many narratives make their point through
the accumulation of detail, asking the reader to make meaning from a revealed slice of life.
Writing to Remember and Reflect
Writing from Experience Checklist
1. What story have I told? Is it primarily about me? an event?
somebody else?
2. When I finish reading the story and ask “So what?” does my story
provide an answer?
3. Have I shown rather than summarized the action and details of
this story? Can you see where it takes place? Can you hear my
characters speak?
4. Do I make my readers do some interpretive work? Or do I
provide all the judgments and explanations for them?
5. Does my form work? What effect would other forms (journal,
letter, essay, drama) have on the story I want to tell?
autobiography: n. the art or practice of writing the story of one’s
own life; the biography of a person written by him- or herself.
memoir: n. an account of the personal experiences of an author; a
report of happenings based on the writer’s personal observations or
Much of what I have written about personal narratives is also true of
autobiography. You usually write in the first-person mode (“I”), from remembered experience, in more or less chronological order. As in personal
narrative writing, you remember as best you can, and invent what you
need to make it more credible. However, in autobiography you may have
an even greater need to be selective and inventive, depending on how far
back you attempt to go to make sense of your life.
What separates autobiography and memoir from other narratives is scope
and focus. The scope is some substantial portion of your life, and so the
advice about taking one small chunk of time and elaborating in great detail
is less helpful. With a lifetime of experience—be it eighteen years or fiftyeight—to account for, it’s unlikely that an autobiographer would choose
to focus on the smaller moments of his or her life. However, when small
moments generate life-changing insight, they hardly classify as small moments, do they? Keep in mind that no matter how large the scope, it’s the
particulars that persuade.
Autobiographies and Memoirs
Two obvious strategies for writing life stories present themselves, one inductive, the other deductive. The inductive method would involve the following activities: Make a list of what you would call the important events
in your life: confirmation, high school graduation, reading a particular
book, making a new friend, etc. Tinker with the list until it seems a reasonable representation of your life and then start writing—anywhere about
any incident—and keep writing to see what themes or patterns emerge
that you didn’t predict. Take one of these themes or patterns and make
that your theme.
If you want your life story to be strong and meaningful, you will
need to discover, fabricate, or invent a theme that shapes the story and
somehow gives insight into who you are today and what you stand for:
your passion for order or for art, your inability or your readiness to commit, etc. In short, when writing an autobiography, you deliberately select a
focus and supporting detail from among the many possibilities to give an
external shape and meaning to your life. Remember, your writing will
never be your life, but only one of many representations, which explains
who you are and how you got there.
To write deductively about your life, you reverse the process and
begin as if you had something to prove: you start with a theme that seems
to characterize your life: your competitiveness or insecurity; your need to
be in control or believe in something; your decision to become a teacher
or an astronaut; your fascination with words or insects. Your writing then
begins to explore this theme, as you deliberately bring to mind all those elements that seem to support this pattern, ignoring incidents that don’t
help develop your point about yourself. Again, your aim is to fashion a version of your life both believable to your readers and reasonably true to
your own conception of things.
Every time I’ve begun to write about a piece of my life the inductive
and deductive have gotten mixed up: I begin to write deductively, believing there is a pattern, and find many elements that are important but don’t
fit. Then I end up writing inductively to discover what the new pattern
may be. But I accept that as one valid way to go about this difficult writing
task, perhaps more realistic than either of the one-dimensional modes.
While it is unlikely that college students will be asked to write fullfledged autobiographies, they may be asked to write more sharply focused
memoirs or self-portraits to learn more about limited dimensions of their
lives. Consider, for example, assignments I call language autobiographies
and self-profiles.
Writing to Remember and Reflect
A Language Autobiography
A language autobiography tells the story of how you came to be the language user you are today; it focuses on those influences you perceive as
most important, the ones that shape how you read, write, speak, and think.
The following list offers some suggestions for constructing a language autobiography.
Write about family, friends, and teachers who taught you things
about language—first words, code words, critical words. When possible,
locate artifacts such as letters, diaries, and stories you wrote or letters and
report cards others wrote about you.
Write about favorite books and authors, especially those that live
most actively in your mind. Be specific and name titles and characters
while examining why these particular stories stayed with you.
Write about the way your use of language was influenced by your
neighborhood, hobbies, sports, clubs, politics, religion, and special interests of any kind. At first, it may not be obvious that these influenced your
language use, but odds are they did.
Write about schools—the grades, classes, subjects, teachers, assignments, and activities that revolved around or stretched your literacy skills.
Write about your writing—remembered, retrieved, or current. What
do you like to write about? How often do you write when you don’t have
to? What are you writing now?
Pair with a classmate and interview each other to push out ideas that
you, on your own, may not recall. Practice asking each other follow-up
questions: When did you read that? Why did you like it? How often were
you read to? And so on.
Unlike language autobiographies, a self-profile focuses on the present:
who you are now. These are among the most interesting and frustrating assignments imaginable: How do you decide who you really are? And how
much do you want to share with an instructor or classmate? As an instructor, however, I find self-profiles especially rich because they are so challenging—both for first-year writers and graduating seniors, since both
groups are at pivotal places in their lives, looking backward and forward at
the same time. The following list offers some suggestions for profiling
Write from memory. Write fast and impressionistically, and try to
capture important or defining moments that contribute to who you are
today—playing high school basketball or field hockey; acting in middle
school plays; moving to a new state as a child; your relationship with a
Reflective Essays
brother, sister, mom, or dad, and so on. What happened in our past sometimes determines who we are in the present.
Write about artifacts. Examine your most valued possessions: posters
on your wall; saved letters or journals; your favorite hat, cap, or T-shirt;
what you carry in your pockets. Describe this thing as carefully as you can
and explore possible dimensions it reveals about you.
Write what people say about you. Interview friends and family members, recall old and recent conversations, find teacher comments on papers and report cards, make stuff up. Adding other voices spices things up,
adds other perspectives, and complicates your identity.
Write about how you spend your time now: describe a typical day
or week. Describe current activities, sports, hobbies, passions, and places
you seek out or hang out. Examine why you do these things, what they
mean to you.
Write standing in front of a mirror. Describe the person you see
before you—hair, height, clothes, nose, eyes, mouth, expression. What does
your physical self say about your psychological self?
Write I am. . . . Compose a series of sentences, each starting with
the words “I am” and continue on from there:
I am shy and quiet on the outside, more bold and noisy inside. I am Irish, German, and Polish—a mongrel, an American. I am Peter Pan, Huckleberry Finn, and Michael Jordan
(or Wendy, Anne of Green Gables, and Madonna)—at least
sometimes and in my dreams.
Keep writing, trying out different characters, and see who else you
might be.
reflect: v. 1: to bend or fold back; to make manifest or apparent; 2:
to think quietly or calmly; to express a thought or opinion resulting
from reflection.
Reflective writing is thoughtful writing. Reflective essays take a topic—
any topic—and turn it around, up and down, forward and backward, asking us to think about it in uncommon ways. Reflective writing allows both
writer and reader to consider—but especially reconsider things thoughtfully, seriously, meditatively—but demands neither resolution nor definitive answers.
When you reflect, you figure out something for yourself, in addition
to sharing your reflections with somebody else. Such writing is commonly
Writing to Remember and Reflect
characterized by a slight sense of indirection, as if the writer were in the
actual process of examining a subject closely for the first time.
Purpose, more than subject, distinguishes reflective writing from
other types of writing. In reflective essays, writers ask why? Why do people live and behave the way they do? Why does society develop this way
rather than that? Why does one thing happen rather than another? In asking these questions—and offering possible answers—writers try to make
sense of some small portion of their world.
Reflective essays are as varied as the thought processes of the people who write them, but one especially common pattern is worth extra
attention. Many reflective essays describe a concrete subject or actual
situation, pause for a moment, focus on a larger topic stimulated by the
subject or situation, make a point, and then conclude by coming back to
the subject that prompted the reflection. The subject that causes the
reflection in the first place is not the actual topic of the essay.
For example, you could write a reflective essay on a subject such as
electric light bulbs, in which your topic became the influence of artificial
light on twentieth-century American culture. Here the topic is a clear
subcategory of the subject. However, a reflective essay that started with
the subject of electric light bulbs could just as easily move to personal
memories of summer camp—the cabin illuminated by the light of a
single electric bulb—and end up a meditation on the value of summer
camp for American adolescents. In this case, the light bulb is a catalyst to
deeper, more reflective thoughts about youth. In other words, in reflective
essays the nominal subject may or may not be closely connected to the actual topic of the essay.
Like personal narratives, reflective essays invite your opinion. Assignments that contain direction words such as imagine, speculate, or explore
invite a kind of writing that features your ability to see a given subject
from several sides and to offer tentative answers to profound questions.
These assignments are common in the more speculative disciplines such
as history, philosophy, and religion, as well as in writing classes. In these
assignments, it may be important to include factual information; however,
such information is background, not foreground material.
Reflection may also be asked for in assignments that are not literally
called reflective. For example, in an English class you might be asked to
summarize and then discuss Yeats’ poem “Leda and the Swan.” In a political science class you may be asked to summarize the results of an election,
then discuss its implications. Likewise, in a biology class you might be
asked to analyze the causes of fruit fly reproduction and then discuss the
Reflective essays are about something that’s on your mind, perhaps
something that’s especially intriguing, even distracting, that raises questions worth speculating upon. No matter where or with what object or
Reflective Essays
idea you start, your job as a writer is to bring that object or idea into
sharper focus for your readers, perhaps helping them to see it differently
than they have before.
Strategies for Starting Reflective Essays
Select any or all of the following strategies for starting a reflection paper:
• Remember—Recall a person, place, experience, or thing that has
always interested you. Close your eyes, ransack your memory,
freewrite to bring it closer for more speculative examination:
My paper route wound up 68th street north of State,
fourteen houses on one side, a deep fenced-in gravel
pit on the other—which meant fourteen fewer customers on that stretch of the route. When I returned
home from college last year, the gravel pit had been
transformed into a supermarket with acres of parking
all around.
A reflection on growing up, change, progress, modern supermarkets?
It’s up to the writer.
• Seek out—Look for something or someone specific about which
you’ve already had questions or strong opinions. Examine this
person, place, or thing carefully. Look at it from many sides. Take
good notes so that you could reproduce it accurately in your essay.
Whenever I visit the Church Street Mall, the first
thing I look and listen for is the clarinet man, settled
in a corner by the fountain, case open, bobbing and
weaving and playing his horn with closed eyes. When
he’s not there, the mall seems smaller, the shopping
less interesting.
A reflection on music, malls, shopping, street people?
• Notice—Observe the commonplace that catches your attention.
The advantage of common, over spectacular, subjects is everyone
has some experience with them and is automatically curious to
see what you make of them. At the same time, you need to make
sure your reflection itself goes beyond the commonplace and
introduces readers to new dimensions or perspectives.
Have you ever seen the man—or maybe it’s a woman—
who empties the coins out of the parking meters?
Neither have I. Makes you wonder, doesn’t it, when
and how they do it? Or are all the meters connected
to this central pipeline, sort of like a sewer pipe, that
drains the money every day?
A reflection on the city, unusual occupations, machines, money?
Writing to Remember and Reflect
• Ask why—Write out as many questions as you can think of, maybe
a whole journal page about whatever it is you’ve remembered,
visited, or noticed. Circle those with local or physical manifestations. See which ones you would like to try to answer.
Why do cockroaches live only in cities? Do they live
only in cities? Is there such a thing as a country cockroach? What makes these huge bugs so indestructable?
And why do people hate them so?
A reflection on bugs, people, relationships, evolution?
Strategies for Writing Reflective Essays
• Experiment—Take chances in writing. Your subject alone will
carry interest just so far: the rest is up to your originality, creativity,
and skill as you present the topic of your essay, along with the
deeper and more speculative meaning you have found.
Pause—Include pauses in your writing and make your reader
pause with you. Once you’ve established your nominal subject, say
to the reader, in effect, Wait a minute, there’s something else going on here—stop and consider. The pause is a key moment, signalling the writer that it’s time to work a little harder, dig a little
deeper, find connections that heretofore you’ve not found. It signals the reader that the essay is about to move into a new and less
predictable direction.
Shift—Change your voice or tone or style for emphasis. Often the
pause is accompanied by a slight shift in point of view, tone, or
style. Suddenly the writer is either a little more personal or a little
more formal, slightly more biased or slightly more objective. The
writer may step back and use the third-person point of view for a
moment or use the first-person point of view for the first time. The
exact nature of the shift will, of course, be determined by the
point the writer wants to make.
Make a point—Be sure to answer directly or indirectly, the
reader’s question, What did I learn from reading this? The point
made in reflective writing nearly always emerges near the end,
rather than the beginning of the essay. That way, readers are drawn
into the act of reflecting themselves and become progressively
more curious to find where the author stands. In other words,
reflective writers are musing rather than arguing. In fact, reflective
essays are most persuasive when least obviously instructive or assertive.
Leave an opening for further speculation—Reflective essays
raise issues but seldom resolve them. The tradition of essay writing
is the tradition of trying and attempting rather than resolving or
Reflective Essays
concluding. Ending by acknowledging that you see still other
questions invites your reader to join in the search for answers.
• Read examples of good reflective writing—Michele de Montaigne,
Henry David Thoreau, George Orwell, E.B. White, Virginia Woolf,
Richard Wright, Joan Didion, Alice Walker, Lewis Thomas, Annie
Dillard, Richard Rodriguez, Margaret Atwood, or bell hooks. Read
the reflective newspaper columnists, such as Ellen Goodman and
Russell Baker. Browse among the New York Times best-selling
nonfiction in your bookstore, or subscribe to The New Yorker or
Atlantic Monthly.
1. List five significant experiences that happened to you during the
past year. Write a paragraph on the three that seem most interesting,
memorable, or in need of further examination.
2. List five commonplace, ordinary, or daily events and consider
whether or not there may be a story here of interest to somebody
else. Write a paragraph about three that hold the possibility of a story.
3. Draw a line diagonally down a sheet of journal paper, putting your
date of birth at one end, the current date at the other. On one side
of the line, in chronological order, list all out-of-school events, books,
or people that influenced your language development. On the other
side of the line, list all in-school events that influenced that development. Use this time line to structure your language autobiography.
1. Write an essay based on personal experience that begins with or
uses information from your journal entries. Write your first draft
as you naturally would, in the past tense; when you write your second draft, switch to the present tense and notice the difference.
Finish the essay using the tense that best conveys the story you
want to tell.
2. Write a reflective essay that begins by noticing a common object in
your neighborhood or a recent local occurrence of some interest.
Use this beginning to speculate or explore a larger or more abstract
train of thought. In the first draft, present the object or occurrence
carefully and with great detail. In the second and third drafts, focus
on possible meanings or implications that go beyond the object or
3. Write a language autobiography as a series of prose snapshots,
Writing to Remember and Reflect
drawing on items from your journal time line for the content of
each snapshot. Separate each verbal picture by white space and
don’t worry about providing transitions. (See Chapter Fifteen for
more information on snapshot writing.)
1. Write a portion or chapter of your autobiography. Collect from
home as many things (notes, report cards, baseball cards, old magazines or records, memorabilia, wall posters, journals or diaries, letters, school papers, hobby remnants, etc.) as you or your parents
can unearth that say something about your own development as a
person. Find a way to weave this story of yourself at one point in
time, using some of these documents of personal research to help
2. Write a profile of a classmate in which you make him or her come
alive. Place everyone’s name in a hat, and draw out two at a time.
Names drawn together are to interview each other, spend time together, maybe share a meal, visit each other’s living quarters, and in
general keep talking to and making notes about each other. Write
these up after the fashion of “Profiles” printed in People Magazine,
The New Yorker, your daily paper, or as Studs Terkel did when he
edited the tape transcripts for Working (Random House, 1973).
Along the way, share drafts; when all have been completed collect
them and publish in a class book (see Postscript Three).
3. Search the library periodical holdings or your own living room for
magazines well known for printing interesting nonfiction (e.g., The
New Yorker, Rolling Stone, Esquire, The Atlantic, The Village Voice,
Sports Illustrated, Time, Newsweek, Reader’s Digest, The New Republic, Redbook). Browse through these magazines and make notes
about whatever interests you in the narrative writing you find there.
Report—orally or in writing—what you found and how it relates to
your own writing.
Chapter Seven
Above all else, I want to write so clearly and accurately
that others see things exactly the way I do.
Explaining is the task of working writers everywhere. To explain is to
make some concept, event, or process clear to your reader, to expose or reveal it. (Another name for explanatory writing is expository writing.) In
college, you may be asked to explain chemical processes by writing a laboratory report, literary events by writing a book report, political, sociological, or historical events in papers for those disciplines.
One of the distinguishing characteristics of much—but certainly not
all—explanatory writing is objectivity. While it’s virtually impossible for
writers to achieve complete objectivity—to separate themselves from the
ways they’ve learned to see the world—in explanatory writing, it’s useful
to try. Most of the time, to explain clearly requires writers to put themselves, along with their biases, in the background and their subject in the
foreground, so that readers may see and understand it, as much as possible,
for what it is.
Explanatory writing is defined not so much by its subject (which
can be almost anything) as by the way the subject is treated. When you
write to explain, you are answering one or more of these questions:
What is it?
What happened?
What does it look like?
Where is it?
Writing to Explain and Report
How is it related to other things?
How does it work?
Why did it happen?
How is it held together?
In college classes, explanation often takes the form of research essays and
reports that inform rather than remember, reflect, argue, or interpret. The
assignment may ask you to describe how something works or to explain
the causes and effects of a particular phenomenon. To explain anything
successfully, you need a limited and defined topic, a clear sense of who
you are writing to, information about your topic that goes beyond common knowledge, and organized explanatory strategies. And you need to focus on the thing being explained rather than on your feelings and opinions about it.
When I teach first-year writing classes, I commonly ask students to
join together in small groups to investigate a local issue and, together,
write a report to the rest of us explaining its significance. In the following
example, a group of six students wrote a collaborative paper investigating the water-treatment plant in the city of Burlington, Vermont. Here,
they explain the nature of the pollution that periodically closes the
beaches on Lake Champlain:
The sewage overflow usually takes place after heavy rains.
The sewage and storm waters are handled by the same
pipe, and the pipe can’t handle both the sewage and the
rain water. Then the overflow goes to the lake instead of
the treatment plant. The real bummer is that the beaches
are closed two to three days after.
This example is simple, clear, quite general, and effective for its intended
audience. (By the way, the colloquial term bummer in the last line is a
good indicator of the audience for whom the group is writing—other college students.)
Later in the same essay, the water-treatment group provides a more
detailed explanation of the lake pollution:
Vermont has always been a casual, back to nature, “no worries” state. During the last few years the Burlington Sewage Treatment Plant has had problems containing large
quantities of effluent that are deposited during and after a
rain storm. Its effluent is rich in nitrates, phosphorus and
bacteria and the introduction of unnatural levels of substances by the sewage plant is one of the lake’s major
sources of pollution (Miller 130).
Here, they start off casually, calling Vermont a “no worries state,” but
quickly get down to business, buttressing their own explanation with a
reference (Miller 130) in case the reader wants to check sources. Notice that in both of these examples the writers mix informal with formal language to explain most clearly. In fact, the very best explanations usually use the writer’s simplest, most direct, comfortable language.
Notice, too, how explaining relies on defining and describing to achieve
When you write to explain, keep these three guidelines in mind:
First, explanatory writing emphasizes the thing explained rather than the
writer’s beliefs and feelings. Second, explanatory writing focuses on the
reader’s need for information rather than the writer’s desire for selfexpression. Third, explanatory writing has a stated thesis, clear explanatory strategies, and a logical organizational structure.
To explain material delivered in lectures or found in textbooks, it’s a
good idea to do so in your own words—which shows you have digested
and understood the ideas—but also to quote selectively from your sources
for further support. In any case, when explaining material for specific
courses, be sure to use the language and conventions of the discipline to
which the course belongs.
Let’s look more closely at the basic strategies of explanatory (expository) discourse, including the operations of defining, describing, comparing/contrasting, analyzing, and synthesizing, as well as the basic formats
of reports, summaries, and abstracts.
to define: v. to state the precise meaning of something; to describe
the nature or basic qualities of; to specify distinctly; to serve to
Defining is simply a more specialized mode of explaining, in which you
must be especially precise because defining something means separating
it from other similar concepts.
You will seldom be asked to write a whole paper defining something. More commonly, you will be expected to act on your definition. For
example, in math you may have to define differential equations and be
able to solve problems based on your definition; in psychology you may
need to define Freud’s theories and apply your definition to a case study;
in business you may need to define a cost/benefit equation and make a
case for this practice.
At one point in the water-treatment essay, the writers provide us
with a technical definition of pollution that is both more inclusive and
more precise than their description of Lake Champlain pollution so far:
Writing to Explain and Report
In order to talk about pollution, one must define the terms
involved. According to the dictionary “to pollute,” means,
“to defile, to soil, or to make unclean.” This definition is a
bit too general for our needs so we incorporate another:
“Pollution is the introduction of material or effects at a
harmful level” (C. R. Curds and H. A. Hawkes 20).
The two external sources are pretty basic—a dictionary and a text on
the subject of pollution (Curds and Hawkes’ Ecological Aspects of Used
Water Treatment, 1975); however, they get the job done. When writing,
in the academic world and elsewhere, make your definitions clear and
Sometimes it will be necessary to do your own defining, as in the following case, where Susan defines the various strands of contemporary music in order to classify and compare them:
“Rock Classics” can be loud, raucous, and even noisy at
times, but then the band will slow down with gentle ballads. The bands which play this type of music include the
following: Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Jethro Tull, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, Neil Young, and even the Beatles.
Susan then provides a definition of several more categories: Heavy Metal,
Glitter Rock, and One Hit Wonders. Here, for example, is her definition of
Glitter Rock:
This style of music is very extravagant, peculiar, and bizarre. It is hard to describe, being sometimes screechy,
other times quiet. This type of music got its start in the
early seventies with performers such as David Bowie, Alice
Cooper, Lou Reed, and Frank Zappa.
Susan’s task is a difficult one, since music—especially contemporary music—is forever changing and does not succumb easily to definition. However, notice that she uses examples of well-known rock performers to
help her clarify what she means. The use of examples typically clarifies
and strengthens definitions.
When writing essays that depend heavily on defining something,
keep the following principles in mind: (1) in defining a word, use synonyms and not the word itself to make your definition clear (for example,
“Fish are cold-blooded animals living in water and having backbones, gills,
and fins.”); (2) illustrate with concrete examples (as Susan did above or
as we could do about fish by describing several different species of them);
(3) go back to the basics; don’t assume your reader knows even the
simplest terms; don’t be afraid to state what to you is obvious (that, for
example, all fish “live in water”); (4) sometimes it’s helpful to point out
what your definition does not include (the term fish, for example, does
not normally include whales, lobsters, or scallops).
to describe: v. to give a verbal account; to transmit a mental image
or impression with words.
To describe a person, place, or thing is to create a verbal image so that
readers can see what you see, hear what you hear, and taste, smell, and
feel what you taste, smell, and feel. Your goal is to make it real enough for
readers to experience it for themselves. Above all, descriptive details need
to be purposeful. Heed the advice of Russian writer Anton Chekhov: “If a
gun is hanging on the wall in the first chapter, it must, without fail, fire in
the second or third chapter. If it doesn’t fire, it mustn’t hang either.”
The ability to describe something that you witnessed or experienced so that your reader can witness or experience it is useful in all kinds
of writing from expository to argumentative, narrative to interpretative. In
the following example, Becky describes the setting of a ballet rehearsal,
explaining at the same time, the difference between amateur and professional dancers:
The backstage studio is alive with energy. . . . Dancers are
scattered around the room, stretching, chatting, adjusting
shoes and tights. Company members, the professionals who
are joining us for this performance, wear tattered leg warmers, sweatpants which have lost their elastic, and old Tshirts over tights and leotards. Their hair is knotted into
buns or, in the case of male dancers, held tight with sweatbands. You can tell the students by the runless pink tights,
dress-code leotards, and immaculate hair.
To describe how processes work is more complicated than giving a simple physical description, for in addition to showing objects at rest, you
need to show them in sequence and motion. To describe a process, it’s
usually best to divide the process into discrete steps and present the steps
in a logical order. For some processes this is easy (making chili, giving
highway directions). For others it is more difficult, either because many
steps are all happening at once or because people really don’t know
which steps necessarily come before others (manufacturing a car, writing
a research paper).
Whatever the case, your job is to show the steps in a logical
Writing to Explain and Report
sequence that will be easy for readers to understand. To orient readers,
you may also want to number the steps, using transition words such as
first, second, and third. In the following example, a team of students visited Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream company to write a paper explaining its
origin and operation; they included the following process description in
their paper:
We learned that their ice cream begins in the Blend Tank,
a two hundred forty lb. stainless steel tank that combines
Vermont milk, sweet cream, egg yolks, unrefined sugar, and
the flavor of the day.
From there, the mix is sent in big stainless vats to
the thirty-six degree (cold!) Tank Room, where it sits for
four to eight hours before it receives further flavoring.
From the Tank Room, the mix moves into four, three
hundred gallon Flavor Vats, so they can put in the greenish
liquid peppermint extract for the Mint Oreo and the brown
pungent smelling coffee extract for the Coffee Heath Bar
Finally, it moves to the Flavor Vat, where they mix in
big chunks of broken Oreos or Heath Bar they need for the
ice cream they are producing on that day.
The ice cream making process is clear because the writers use a four-part
sequence with the cue words, begins, from there, from the, and finally, so
there is no question of what is happening when.
To describe well, use nouns that conjure up concrete and specific
images, such as the stainless steel vats and Heath Bars in the Ben and
Jerry’s piece. Also use action verbs wherever you can, such as scattered
and knotted in the ballet paper. And use modifiers that appeal to the
senses—tattered leg warmers, greenish liquid peppermint extract—all
of which help readers visualize what you are talking about.
to compare: v. to examine (two or more things, ideas, people, etc.)
for the purpose of noting similarities and differences; to consider or
describe as similar.
We compare things all the time: this college, city, or state to that; one
movie, book, or CD to another; and so on. As we compare, we usually
also contrast, noting the differences as well as the similarities in our comparison; thus, the act of comparing includes the act of contrasting as well.
In my nonacademic life, I read the magazine Consumer Reports regularly
Comparing or Contrasting
to help me choose one product over another; in my academic life, I read
College English to help me choose one theory or interpretation over
Throughout your college studies you will be asked to compare and
contrast in order to interpret and evaluate; you will do this as often in
business, math, and engineering as in history, philosophy, and literature.
However, actual comparative essays are more common in the latter, more
interpretive disciplines than in the former, more quantitative ones. For
purposes of essay writing, you should be aware of particular types of
comparison as well as good methods for doing it.
Apples and Apples
At a basic level, we compare like things to like things: one apple to another
for taste, color, size, etc. We usually compare similar kinds of things to answer questions of worth or suitability: is this the best pen (of several
kinds) to write with? Is this the best stereo system (of several brands) for
me to buy? Is this the best interpretation (among competing ones) of this
poem? In these instances, the elements being compared are similar and do
similar things, and thus can be compared point by point.
Apples and Oranges
Most often people use these terms—apples and oranges—to describe a
false comparison: you can’t ask which fruit tastes better because the two
are different. You might prefer an apple to an orange, but it makes no
sense to say that one is better than the other.
Writers deliberately compare one concept or item to another to make
clearer an aspect of one: learning to write may be compared to learning
to ride a bike—an analogy that stresses the part of writing that is difficult to teach but, once learned, is difficult to forget. In like manner, it is
hard to explain how the human mind works, but making an analogy to the
electronic on/off switches of a computer circuit board may help explain
it—at least to some people. Writers use analogies to make clear that which
is not.
Figurative Language
You are probably familiar with figurative language such as metaphor, simile, and personification from discussions of poetry, fiction, or drama, but
here, notice the powerful effect they have on writing that is not fiction,
Writing to Explain and Report
that attempts to show the world as the writer actually sees it, that
makes comparisons stick in the mind of the reader. Writers use metaphor
to compare something abstract to something concrete or something unknown to something known. For example, in the previous chapter Annie
Dillard describes a weasel as “a muscled ribbon.” Writers achieve similarly
vivid results when they use similes—a type of metaphor that states the
comparison directly by using the words like or as. Here, for example, is
Dillard’s whole sentence about the weasel:
He was ten inches long, thin as a curve, a muscled ribbon, brown as
fruitwood, soft-furred, alert.
To make you see this weasel in no uncertain terms—as she saw it—she includes in her definition several literal descriptions (“ten inches,” “softfurred,” “alert”), one metaphor (“a muscled ribbon”), and two similes
(“thin as a curve,” “brown as fruitwood”).
Personification is the metaphorical comparison of inanimate to
animate objects—especially to human beings. Notice in the following passage from The Immense Journey* how Loren Eiseley uses this technique
to make us see a landscape as he saw it:
Some lands are flat and grass-covered, and smile so evenly up at the sun that
they seem forever youthful, untouched by man or time. Some are torn,
ravaged and convulsed like the features of profane old age.
In this passage, some land is said to “smile,” a comparison to a happy human state, and some land is “convulsed like the features of profane old
age,” a sad human state.
to analyze: v. to separate into parts or basic principles in order to
determine the nature of the whole; examine methodically.
All academic disciplines teach analysis in one form or another. When you
analyze something, you must find a logic that holds it together and use
that logic to take it apart. Essentially, analysis requires that you identify
what parts make up a whole and that you then look closely at what parts
make up each part. Depending on your discipline, of course, you may be
asked to analyze a story, an argument, a social group, the circulation system, or the universe. All require a similar mental operation.
A simple example of an analytic task could be found in something
*(New York: Vintage Books/Random House, 1957)
as common as a table. Depending on your purpose, a table might be analyzed according to structure (legs, braces, top); type (drop leaf, trestle,
end); shape (round, oval, square); purpose (dining, coffee, work); or materials (wood, metal, plastic). Each component can be broken down further:
the category of wood into oak, cherry, pine, walnut, etc.
For an example of analysis, look again at the water-treatment essay
composed for my writing class. The group handed out a survey to citizens
of Burlington to find out how much they knew about pollution on Lake
Champlain. In order to report the results, they had to collect, tabulate, and
make sense of the responses. Here is how they reported the results of
their analysis:
Eighty-five percent of the people realized there is a serious
sewage problem in Burlington. Sixty-five percent realized
Burlington’s drinking water comes from Lake Champlain.
Seventy percent knew that the beaches closed because of
the sewage problem. Forty percent blamed the sewage problem on the city, forty percent blamed it on the treatment
plant, ten percent did not think there was a problem, and
ten percent did not answer. Only thirty percent of the people bought water because of the problem. . . . A surprising
sixty-five percent said it is worth the estimated fifty-two
million dollars to fix the problem.
This survey further proves that most of the people in
Burlington are aware of the serious nature of the sewage
problem in Lake Champlain. However, they were not fully
aware of the toxic materials being dumped in the water.
Notice that the analysis here depends upon a simple methodical tabulation of quantifiable survey answers and the consequent drawing of conclusions based on the counting.
to synthesize: v. to combine parts to form a new whole; arranging
and combining elements or pieces to make a pattern or structure
not there before.
The most sophisticated way to report or explain is to synthesize. All
academic disciplines teach synthesis. To perform this operation, you put
ideas or elements or parts together—sometimes things that don’t seem
to belong together—to form a new whole. Synthesizing may involve different operations, depending on the discipline, but in all it means putting elements together to form new wholes. In chemistry, when you
Writing to Explain and Report
combine chemicals, you produce a chemical synthesis—a new synthetic
material may result. In history, a synthesis may involve combining one
historian’s theory of historical development with that of another, and
so on.
The ability to synthesize is prized in both the academic and the
nonacademic world, because it implies that you know not only how to
take things apart but also how to put them back together, which is the
work of builders, engineers, scientists, doctors, lawyers, artists, literary
critics, and teachers, among others. It might be argued, however, that the
ability to synthesize is a survival skill necessary to all of us in an increasingly complex world.
An example from my discipline would be the following question,
commonly asked in essay examinations: “You have read three different
American writers—Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman. Identify and explain
one theme common to all three.” You may need to begin by analyzing
each work, making notes or an outline of the major points in Emerson’s essays, Thoreau’s Walden, and Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. You find that Emerson looked to the natural world for ethical lessons, that Thoreau made a
spiritual symbol of Walden Pond, and that Whitman revered the smallest
as well as the greatest creature in the universe. You’ve now got evidence
for the theme of respect for nature that connects all three.
In the following student example, notice how the writers of the
waste-treatment essay referred to in this chapter arrive at a synthesis at
the end of their paper by making recommendations based on their research discoveries:
The first and most important thing to do is reduce the
amount of your buying. If you don’t absolutely need the
product then don’t buy it. You don’t need a chemistry degree from U.V.M. to reduce hazardous chemicals in your
home. You can do the following:
1) When you’re buying a product make sure that if
it’s hazardous there are directions on how to dispose of it.
If you buy something you’re responsible for disposing of it.
2) Don’t buy it unless you really need it.
3) Don’t buy more than you need. Getting rid of the
extra can be annoying.
4) Use the safest and simplest substances that you
can find.
5) Recycle whatever you can: Used motor oil, paint
thinners, battery acid (and batteries), automatic transmission fluid, diesel fluid, fuel oil, gasoline, kerosene, motor
oil, and even dry cleaning solvents can be refined and used
again just like aluminum cans. (See Appendix C.) If you’re
not sure what to do see the “Household Hazardous Waste
Chart.” It was adapted from the Water Pollution Control
Federation pamphlet, 1987.
In this case the synthesis becomes, in the end, an argument for water
conservation. Finally, the writers also attempt to persuade their readers to
act as a result of reading this essay.
As you have probably figured out by now, people don’t set out to
write pieces called synthesis essays. Most often they have been explaining
or analyzing something and find the need to make suggestions or draw
inferences based on that work.
to report: v. to relate or tell about; to provide an account for
publication or broadcast; to submit results for consideration.
A report describes an event or tells a story about something. You may have
written a book report (a description of what the book is about) or a laboratory report (the story of what happened during an experiment). If you
are assigned to write reports in a particular class, your instructor will specify what kind of report and give you guidelines for what it should look like.
Reports require information to be conveyed to an audience clearly,
directly, and succinctly: a progress report on a project or research paper, a
report on a lecture or film that you attended, or a report on available resources to proceed with a project. You may often relate such information
in any order that makes sense to you (and, you hope, to your audience).
However, in some disciplines the forms for reporting information may be
highly specific, as in the sciences and social sciences, where reports generally follow a predictable form.
Reporting News and Events
Journalists train themselves to explain events by asking what we might
call “reporter’s questions”: Who? What? Where? When? Why? and How?
The advantage of remembering a set of routine questions is obvious: writing reports for daily papers requires fast writing with little time for revision. Reporters actually call these reports “stories” and commonly write
them in one draft, composing in their heads while driving back from the
scene of the accident, fire, speech, or whatever they have been assigned to
write about that day. (At least one reporter has told me that he sometimes
begins composing the story on the way to the event.)
For rapid composing, nothing beats a set of second-nature questions
that help sort out new information by putting it into preset categories:
Writing to Explain and Report
Who is this story about? What is the issue here? Where did it occur?
When—what time of day? Why did it happen—what caused the situation
to develop as it did? And how did it happen—how did the events unfold?
These questions are variations of those a lab scientist or a novelist might
ask, as they attempt to provide a framework for talking about the world
and what happens in it—be that piece of the world one’s laboratory, one’s
news beat, or one’s Oz or Wonderland.
On those occasions when you are asked to report something that
happened in a meeting, concert, or public event, using the journalists’
questions will quickly organize your information.
Reporting Research
I found the following format recommended in both biology and psychology for reporting the results of experiments; forms similar to it will be
used in other social science and hard science areas as well:
1. Title: a literal description of the topic of your report.
2. Abstract: a summary in two hundred fifty words or fewer of the
why, how, and what of your report.
3. Introduction: a statement of your hypothesis and a review of the
relevant literature.
4. Methods and materials: information about how you set up your
experiment that would allow another experimenter to replicate
your work.
5. Results: charts, tables, and figures accompanied by a prose narrative to explain what happened.
6. Discussion: a review of your results, a comparison to other studies, and a discussion of implications.
7. References: a list of all sources actually cited in your report, using
appropriate documentation format (see Chapters Eleven and
8. Appendices: work pertinent to your report, but not essential to
understanding it.
In the event that you are asked to write a technical report, I would consult
one of the many report-writing handbooks used in technical writing or
business writing courses.
A summary reduces a long text to a shorter one by condensing the main
ideas and skipping the details. For example, an executive summary may
be a one- or two-page document that condenses a much longer report into
a form readable in a few minutes. The following are a few guidelines for
writing summaries.
1. Keep your primary objective in mind: to reproduce faithfully the
main ideas of a longer document, skipping the details.
2. Be accurate and brief: Condense paragraphs to sentences, sentences to phrases, and skip sections that you judge redundant or
unnecessary. (Don’t, however, reduce the piece to an outline that
only you can understand.)
3. Write in your own clearest style. A summary is about information:
It is more important to be clear than to be true to the style of
the original document.
4. Follow the organizational pattern of the original: If the original
has subheadings or numbered points, use them as guides for
writing your condensation.
5. Maintain the tone of the original as best you can. If the source is
witty, be witty; if the source is formal, be formal.
An abstract is a condensed summary. Like a summary, an abstract reduces
a text to an outline of its most important points. But, whereas a summary
of an article’s essential points may be several pages long, an abstract will
be less than a page, more likely one paragraph. Here, for example, is an
abstract of the advice for writing summaries (above):
To write a summary, 1) keep your objective in mind, 2) be accurate and
brief, 3) use a clear style, 4) use the organizational pattern and 5) tone of
the original document.
Abstracts may be routine, but they’re not easy to write. They are difficult
because you must thoroughly understand the piece you are abstracting
and because you have so little freedom to use your own language. To write
them, follow the general advice for writing summaries, only more rigorously. Of course, the one necessary preparation for writing abstracts is to
be thoroughly familiar with the piece you are abstracting. You might consider writing a paragraph-by-paragraph topical outline first, including just
the topic sentence of each paragraph. Then see if you can cluster these under more condensed headings, and so on. (It helps if the piece itself follows a predictable pattern, including thesis statement, topic sentences and
the like.)
Writing to Explain and Report
An informational or argumentative thesis states the theme or central idea
of your paper, usually in the first paragraph or page, alerting the reader to
both the subject of your paper and what you intend to say about that
subject. In explanatory and informational papers, a thesis stated early
makes good sense because it tells the reader the nature of the explanation
to follow. In this chapter the subject is defined and explained in the first
In argumentative and interpretative papers, a good thesis statement
asserts the writer’s position, telling readers that what follows will support
that position. In fact, a good thesis helps the writer as well as the reader
by articulating a clear position to defend. For example, consider these
three possible theses meant to explain a history paper:
1. The Battle of Gettysburg was one of the most interesting battles
of the Civil War.
2. Geography played an important role in the Battle of Gettysburg.
3. The North got to the high ground first, and the North won the
Battle of Gettysburg.
In my judgment, the first sentence is a weak thesis. To call something “interesting” may be polite, but is not in itself interesting. The second sentence, however, announces one of the specifically interesting aspects of
the battle, geography, and so invites the reader to learn more about that.
It makes a decent, though unexciting, thesis. The third sentence appeals
to me even more. This writer suggests that he or she knows exactly where
the essay is going right from the start and promises to do so in a lively
prose style.
Sometimes, however, writers of argumentative papers deliberately
delay revealing their thesis—their own position on an issue—until they
have laid out both sides for the reader to ponder. I will say more about this
delayed thesis in the next chapter, but again the business of stating a thesis is a matter of writer judgment, depending on what effect he or she
wants to create.
In narrative and reflective essays, such as discussed in the last chapter, an embedded thesis often emerges by the end of the essay, but is never
actually stated in so many words. Often in such papers the writer’s intention is speculative or exploratory, so that providing a clear statement of
purpose actually works against the writer’s intention.
Finally, keep in mind that most college instructors expect to find
thesis statements in the papers they assign, so check the stated expectations of assignments carefully. If you choose to ignore this expectation, it’s
A Reflection on the Necessity of Thesis Statements
a good idea to make sure your central point emerges in some other unmistakable manner.
1. What kinds of explanatory papers do you most commonly write
now? What kinds have you written in the past? In your own words,
explain the procedure for writing one of these forms.
2. Composition books such as this may be considered examples of explanatory writing, trying to give certain advice to writers on all the
necessary points of writing the author can think of. Examine this
book by comparing it to other composition books you have had in
the past. What about it strikes you as different? What’s the same?
1. Select a paper you have already written for this or another course
and write a summary or an abstract of it. Exchange with another
student and help make each other’s papers even tighter, shorter, and
more precise. Conclude with a note about the difficulty of doing
this type of writing.
2. Write a book report of this or another book you are currently using
for this course. As a class, compare your results with the brief suggestions you find in this book. Would you modify or expand any of
them? Would you add any new ones?
This can be done with any size group—the more the merrier. Agree on
a local institution (pizza parlor, drug store, student center, library—the
smaller the better). Each of you write individually about this place, focusing on something small and concrete (conversations overheard in a
booth, action at the checkout counter, etc.); share your drafts, noting
the different approaches each reporter took; finally, select editors and
bind the results together as a class book to share with those who own
or work in this place (see Postscript Three).
Chapter Eight
My teacher last year would always write in the margins of
my papers What’s your thesis? Where’s your evidence?
How can you prove that? So, now when I argue something,
I Make readers believe me. I give them good reasons and
lots of examples and they Do believe me—or at least I get
better grades.
In the academic world, arguments are a means of creating belief, changing minds, and altering perceptions. Faculty and students alike spend a
great amount of time and energy arguing for one interpretation, position,
or point of view, and against another. In fact, people making, questioning, attacking, and defending claims throughout the arts and sciences is
one of the sure guarantees that human knowledge will continue to advance.
Arguments in the sense considered here—rational disagreements
rather than quarrels, fights, and contests—most commonly occur in areas
of genuine uncertainty about what is right, best, or most reasonable. In disciplines leading to careers in engineering, business, journalism, environmental studies, and the social sciences, written arguments commonly
take the forms of position papers, policy statements, and editorials. In disciplines such as English, art, history, and philosophy, argument is commonly called interpretation, and takes place in scholarly articles, critical
reviews, and interpretative essays where the meaning or significance of an
idea is open to friendly debate.
Arguing a Position
to argue: v. to give reasons for or against something; to consider
the pros and cons; to persuade by giving reasons.
Argumentative and interpretative writing closely mirror the academic
discourse of your professors as they engage in scholarly debates about
research and method in their disciplines. They participate in professional
conversations by asserting and supporting this thesis or theory while
attacking competing ones. Therefore, of all the essays described in this
text—personal, reflective, explanatory, reportorial—argumentative ones
demand from you the tightest logic and most convincing evidence. The
most common form of argumentative paper in disciplines outside the
humanities may be the position paper.
A position paper takes a stand for or against an issue about which
there is some reasonable debate. To write a successful position paper on
an issue, you need to answer these basic questions:
How will I present the issue?
What stand will I take on this issue?
What claims will support my stand?
What evidence will support my claims?
An issue is essentially a problem that needs solving. For an issue or idea to
be arguable, it has to be debatable, with two or more arguable sides. If
there is no debate, disagreement, or difference in opinion, then no argument exists.
Furthermore, each side of an arguable issue needs credible supporters. In other words, to be worth bothering with, the debate needs to be
real, and the resolution in doubt. For example, to write a position paper
today for or against slavery, women’s suffrage, or nuclear war makes little
sense, since no reasonable person would argue for the other side. However, in other times, say the pre-Civil War south, the early twentieth century, or World War II, serious opposition demanded serious argument.
As I write this chapter, I hear real debate about major national issues
such as pollution, drug abuse, crime, violence, racism, poverty, overpopulation, and an energy crisis. I hear serious debate, daily, about specific solutions to some of these problems: legislation to cut taxes, limit automobile
emissions, drill for more oil in Alaska, institute (or ban) capital punishment, control handgun ownership, ban abortion, curtail affirmative action,
and reduce spending for everything from education to defense. And I
witness local debates on everything from urban sprawl and shopping
Writing to Argue and Interpret
malls to alcohol in the dormitory and salad bars in the cafeteria. In other
words, if you’re looking for real issues about which to have real debates,
you’ll find them.
Keep in mind that the larger or more significant the issue, the more
difficult to solve and the more difficult to resolve in a short college paper.
To my own students I suggest investigating an issue with a clear, tangible,
and accessible local presence. Instead of investigating abortion, gun control, or affirmative action as general national issues, investigate a range of
attitudes about one of these in your local community. The smaller the issue, the more chance for your own voice to be heard; in other words,
when you investigate issues that are matters of local campus debate, your
position on the matter may be heard and contribute toward a solution.
An Argumentative Thesis
As noted in the last chapter, a good thesis helps both writer and reader.
Your thesis is the stand you take on an issue, the proposition you believe,
and what you want your readers to believe too. To make the idea of a thesis less intimidating, think of it as an answer to a yes/no question: Should
farming be banned on the shores of Lake Champlain? Should the city rescind the tenants bill of rights? Should the college fund a women’s center
on campus? Phrasing a thesis in yes/no terms helps in two ways: first,
it shows the nature of the claims and evidence needed to support it; second, it highlights the other side of the debate, the no to your yes, and the
counterclaims and evidence that support them.
A claim is an assertion that supports a thesis. To support the thesis that a
women’s center should be funded by your college, you may claim that:
1. All groups that qualify for affirmative action funds should be
entitled to a center.
2. Women need a place to call their own.
3. Strong support already exists for such a center on campus.
Each of these claims supports your thesis, and now needs good evidence
to back it up.
Counterclaims are simply the arguments opponents make to refute
your claims. If your position is indeed debatable, you can bet the other
side will also have good arguments. For example, opponents to the women’s center may claim that:
Arguing a Position
1. Women are not a minority group.
2. Limited campus funds already support a women’s studies program.
3. There are other more pressing needs for scarce college funds.
Each counterclaim, in turn, needs strong support from relevant evidence.
Evidence is the information that supports a claim and persuades others
to believe you. Just as a prosecuting attorney needs evidence to convince
juries to convict a person accused of a crime—against the counterclaims
of defense attorneys—you need evidence to convince audiences to believe you. Consider these four classes of evidence, each of which persuades in a different way:
1. Facts are things upon which everyone, regardless of personal experience or values, agrees. It is a fact that water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit at sea level, that Herman Melville published
Moby-Dick in 1852, and that the college budget for new programs last year was $50,000. Facts are often, though not necessarily, numerical or statistical—things that can be measured and
verified by standards we all accept.
2. Inferences are the generalizations or meaning we make from an
accumulation of facts. Take, for example, the following three
1. Phosphorous is a fertilizer.
2. Farmers use phosphorous to fertilize fields on the shores of
Lake Champlain.
3. Studies of Lake Champlain indicate high phosphorous levels.
Each fact taken alone means little; taken together, because each
fact is related to the next, they support the inference that farms
near Lake Champlain contribute to excessive algae growth in
the lake.
3. Informed opinion is the viewpoint of experts in a particular field.
Their testimony is good evidence because the rest of us trust
their knowledge: We trust a lawyer to know more about the law,
a doctor about medicine, a football coach about football, and a
marine biologist about lake pollution. A good example of an
informed opinion would be that of Professor Don Meals, of the
College of Natural Resources, who recommends that the best
way to reduce phosphorous contamination in Lake Champlain
Writing to Argue and Interpret
is to create a one-hundred-foot phosphorous-free buffer zone
around the lake (1992).
4. Personal testimony is good evidence because it comes from a
person with direct experience of an event or situation. The
knowledge of the astronaut differs from the physicist’s, the tenant’s from the architect’s, the fisherman’s from the marine biologist’s, the female’s from the male’s. Their testimony is experiential
rather than expert, but has its own authority nevertheless.
Strategies for Writing Position Papers
There are no set formulas for writing position papers, but there are accepted strategies that work especially well. Think about both thesis-first
and delayed-thesis strategies, and decide which is most advantageous for
your particular case.
Thesis-First Pattern The following is an effective way to organize a
thesis-first paper, but keep in mind these are guidelines, not rules:
1. Introduce the issue by providing a brief background that defines,
describes, and explains it, for example: Excessive growth of
water plants are clogging Lake Champlain, causing fish to
die, and ruining the lake for recreational purposes.
2. State the issue as a yes/no question so that the two sides are clear,
for example: Should a phosphorous-free buffer zone be created along the shores of Lake Champlain to prevent excess
nutrients from entering the lake?
3. Assert your thesis as the position your paper will support, for
example: To reduce pollution in Lake Champlain, a phos-
phorus-free buffer zone should be implemented along the
lakeshore. Introducing the issue, stating it as a yes/no question,
and articulating your thesis commonly take place in the first paragraph of a thesis-first position paper.
4. Summarize the counterclaims against your position, for example:
A phosphorous-free zone is not a cost-effective way to reduce pollution since it will hurt many farmers and be
difficult to enforce. Do this briefly and before you state your
own claims, so that your claims refute the opposition and conclude your paper. The most powerful position in a paper is at the
end because it’s the last thing a reader sees and is most likely to
be remembered. You want to save this for your own claims.
5. State claims that support your thesis and refute the counterclaims, for example: A recent study of the sources of pollution
Arguing a Position
in Lake Champlain indicate that seventy-five percent is the
result of farm fertilizer runoff. Stating your claims and sup-
porting each with evidence will constitute the major part of your
6. Provide evidence for each claim your paper makes, for example:
According to the Lake Champlain Action Community, “748
metric tons of phosphorous are deposited in the lake annually” (Tropus Status and Phosphorous Loadings of Lake Cham-
plain, EPA, 1970). The stronger the evidence, the more convincing your paper. Strong evidence will only result from serious
research on your part, both in the field (interviewing experts, visiting sites) and in the library (locating periodicals, local documents, books). Any argumentative paper you write will be many
times stronger with substantial and varied research information
to support your claims.
7. Conclude by restating your thesis, now synthesizing your claims
into a brief summary of your case, for example:
All the recent studies of pollution in Lake Champlain point to
the same conclusion: that farm fertilizer runoff must be reduced if
algae growth is to be curtailed. Only by legislating a phosphorousfree zone will the problem be solved and the lake become clean
The advantages of leading with your thesis are that:
1. Your audience knows from the start where you stand.
2. Your thesis occupies the strongest parts of your paper: first and
3. It is the most common and conventional form of academic argument, hence the one most expected by your instructors.
Delayed-Thesis Pattern To use the delayed-thesis strategy, reorganize
your paper so that it presents and explains both sides to the reader before
you reveal the side you support. Your organization would look roughly
like this:
Introduce the issue.
State the issue as a yes/no question.
Summarize the claims of the opposition.
State your counterclaims.
Provide evidence to support your counterclaims.
Conclude by stating your thesis based on your counterclaims.
Writing to Argue and Interpret
The advantages of delaying your thesis are that:
1. Your readers are allowed to weigh the evidence for and against,
and are invited to make their own decisions before hearing
2. The audience is kept in suspense, thereby increasing engagement.
3. The audience empathizes with the writer over the difficulty in
making a decision.
I write with a delayed approach when both sides of an issue seem almost equally persuasive; I want my audience to reason with me and see
that this has been a difficult conclusion to reach. I use the thesis-first
approach when I see the issue as more clear cut; I want my audience
persuaded from the start that there’s really only one reasonable choice
to make.
to interpret: v. to explain the meaning of; to expound the significance of; to represent or render the meaning of.
The term interpretative essay covers a wide range of argumentative
assignments that may also be called critical, analytical, or simply argumentative. For discussion purposes, this section will focus on writing aimed at
interpreting texts of one kind or another.
Interpretative essays argue that a story, poem, essay, or other created
work means one thing rather than another. At the same time, writers who
interpret understand that other interpretations or meanings can be found
by other readers of the same material. Certain areas of study such as
literature, philosophy, and religion seem to lend themselves more obviously to interpretive writing than others, such as mathematics, chemistry,
and physics. This seems so in part because literary, philosophical, and
religious questions seldom have agreed-upon answers, while the more
scientific disciplines do. But at the frontiers of every scientific discipline,
things are still up for grabs—that is, open to interpretation. And as soon as
one asks social or political questions of scientific knowledge, one is again
involved in matters of interpretation.
Interpretation implies that there may be more than one explanation
with merit; your job is to point out why a particular meaning is the best
possible or the most probable. As I suggested at the beginning of this
section, interpretation is especially important in so-called humanistic disciplines such as history, literature, philosophy, where almost all concepts
Interpreting Texts
are a matter of one interpretation versus another: What was the chief
historical cause of the war in Vietnam? Was it ideologic, economic, or geographic? Kant believed one thing, Hegel another: With which philosophy do you most agree? What did poet Robert Frost mean in the poem
“Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”? These questions should be regarded as matters of interpretation rather than as having right or wrong
Don’t think, however, that interpretation applies only to the arts and
humanities. When political scientists conduct an opinion survey, different
political scientists will interpret the results to mean different things. When
the economic indicators point to inflation or recession, liberal economists
will explain things one way, conservative economists another—all a matter of interpretation. Some biologists believe dinosaurs became extinct because the climate changed gradually, others because it changed rapidly
when a large meteor collided with the earth; physicists differ in their explanations of the origin of the universe as chemists still argue about
proper definitions of the atom—still more matters of interpretation. In
each of these examples, experts make a guess (called a hypothesis) that
such or such is the case, but cannot prove, beyond a doubt, that they are
In the following example, Mary interprets the meaning of a painting,
Inner Energies, by artist Tracy Leavitt, in this way:
The artist is trying to point out that technology is running
away from us.
Jason, however, interprets the same painting this way:
Thus this portrait is the expression of the woman’s drive
to identify with man’s accomplishments.
While Ron suggests:
With this idea Leavitt suggests that we are not following
God as we should be.
In other words, interpreting a work, an event, an idea may lead different writers to different conclusions. Just be sure that your interpretive
statement is supported by data, analysis, and/or expert opinion. The best
interpretations are those that convince others to believe you.
Another kind of more personal—and more general—interpretation
occurs at the end of Steve’s critique of Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road
Not Taken,” when he sums up the poem’s meaning as a lesson in life:
Writing to Argue and Interpret
There comes a time in life when people have to make a decision, and people often wonder what it would be like had
they made the other choice. That is what “The Road Not
Taken” is about. If you take life too seriously, you are going to miss it. You have to take it one step at a time. If
something does not go your way, you must learn not to
dwell on it.
In this instance, Steve says the poem means this to “you.” Yet I actually
see his statement as a very personal one. (Were he to work further on this
interpretation, I’d suggest he change the pronouns from “you” to “I” and
The most common interpretive acts in college may center around
poetry and fiction. In most cases, your teacher will want you to be more
precise, to stick closer to the text than Steve has above. An especially
important part of interpreting is demonstrating where you got this or that
idea, which often means bringing into your text a passage from the text
you are interpreting. In the following example, Katherine quotes a line
from the poem “Elegy for Jane,” by Theodore Roethke:
The poet leans over her grave and speaks his last words to
her, “I with no rights in this matter/Neither father nor
lover.” He can do nothing now, and feels remorse that he
never expressed to her his love. Love, Roethke seems to
argue, must be shared when it happens or it will be lost
Here, of course, we see just how much an act of interpretation depends
on careful analysis in the first place.
Look at a final example of interpretive writing as William investigates the meaning in Charlotte Perkins Gillman’s short story “The Yellow
We begin to question [the narrator’s] emotional state when
she envisions the wallpaper lady creeping, by daylight,
through the estate grounds. At night, the narrator struggles to set her imaginary friend free. At the climax of the
narrator’s breakdown, she falls to the level of a child’s
mentality. We cannot help but pity her when she begins to
gnaw at the wooden bedframe out of frustration. She becomes a child in her own world—at last, secure. The story
ends with her claiming, “Here I can creep smoothly on the
floor, and my shoulder just fits in that long smooch around
the wall, so I cannot lose my way.”
Interpreting Texts
John was ludicrous in claiming that his wife was suffering
from only “temporary depression.” She was a full-time
mother, wife, and writer. She was also a victim of a fulltime mental illness which required attention if ever to escape from it. Since the woman never received the necessary help, she eventually disintegrated to the level of a
In this example we see the documentation of the problem in the first
paragraph, then the writer’s conclusion, based on it, in the essay’s last
paragraph. This is a good job of interpretation.
When you write interpretively, keep in mind that your interpretation is one of several that may have merit: you must support assertions
with evidence—direct quotations are especially useful for interpreting the
meaning of texts; you must separate fact from opinion; qualifying words
(perhaps, maybe, might) show that you are still open to other possibilities; and you must define, explain, analyze, and evaluate carefully as you
work out your interpretation.
to evaluate: v. to ascertain or fix the value or worth of; to examine
or judge carefully.
Evaluation is often a part of interpretation. To evaluate implies judgment,
finding the merits and faults of something. Like the other operations described here, evaluation should be based on some analysis or interpretation already performed in the same essay. Evaluation is crucial, at some
level or other, to every academic discipline: you evaluate one theory
against another; one set of facts against another; one piece of art or music
against another; or you evaluate against criteria.
In other words, you can evaluate in several ways, just as your teachers do when they must arrive at student grades. In one case, evaluation is
against an absolute standard—each student in a class could theoretically
get an A or an F. In another case, you evaluate by comparison/contrast—
the best students get high marks, the weakest fail, regardless of absolute
standards. Some evaluation is carefully quantitative—points for everything are totaled; other evaluation is highly subjective—impressions determine all.
Evaluation necessarily draws on many other activities such as analysis, definition, explanation, etc. In writing evaluations of colleagues,
schools, proposals, book manuscripts, and students, I usually lead off with
the most objective statements first, both pro and con, and work up to an
overall evaluation that makes a recommendation in one direction or
Writing to Argue and Interpret
another. This procedure allows those reading my evaluations to see the
criteria on which I made my recommendation and answers in advance
many possible questions—a good suggestion for student writers.
It should be obvious by now that categories described here often
overlap: William’s interpretation of “The Yellow Wallpaper” is also a tacit
evaluation about the profundity of the story he has read. Let’s look at
other occasions where deliberate acts of evaluation are called for.
Here are two concluding paragraphs from essays my students wrote
reviewing a collection of essays entitled Models for Writers by Eschholz
and Rosa. Kyle writes:
If you pick up this book and read just one story you will
see for yourself why this collection of essays is so good. It
may be used for pleasure or as a text. This not only makes
for enjoyable reading, but also provides a learning experience for the reader. By combining these two types of reading in one book, the editors produced a book that can be enjoyed by all.
Kyle’s statement comes at the end of an essay where he has looked at
specific contents of the book in some detail. Nevertheless, he takes greater
liberties than I’d recommend with his closing generalization that “the
editors produced a book that can be enjoyed by all.” Obviously enough,
few experiences can be enjoyed by all. Here is a useful suggestion for
college writers: Avoid ending with a meaningless little flourish. Quit a line
early instead.
Betsy writes a summary evaluation of the same book this way:
I feel the editors have put this book together well by picking authors and essays that will appeal to college students.
Who would ever think that Steve Martin would have an essay in an English book as a model of good writing? I think
by having such authors the student will be more willing
to turn to this book for help. I find this book has many
enjoyable essays and would recommend it to anyone who
has to write papers.
I prefer Betsy’s conclusion because she works in at least one concrete reference (Steve Martin) and also raises an amusing question. There’s a liveliness here. She too, however, tacks on an unlikely last line, recommending
the anthology “to anyone who has to write papers.”
Evaluation is often in order when you find these direction words:
compare, contrast, choose, evaluate, rank, measure, judge, justify, agree,
disagree, argue, prove, or make a case for in the assignment. In writing
Interpreting Texts
an evaluative essay, it’s a good idea to establish what exactly you are
evaluating, describe it thoroughly, assess its strengths and its weaknesses,
and be fair in the language of your final recommendation, avoiding obviously emotional or biased terms as much as possible.
Book Reviews
Book reviews are a likely academic assignment in a variety of subjects. In
writing a review, there are some things to keep in mind:
1. Provide all necessary factual information about the subject being
reviewed, for example, book title, author, date, publisher, and
price. Do this early in your review, in your first paragraph or as
an inset before your first paragraph.
2. Provide background information, if you can, about the writer and
his or her previously published books.
3. Follow a clear organizational logic (comparison/contrast, general
to specific, etc.).
4. Support all assertions and generalizations with illustrative, specific examples from the book being reviewed.
5. Evaluate fairly, keeping your obvious personal biases in the background.
6. Write to the knowledge and ability of your particular audience.
Modify your language according to the degree of familiarity your
audience has with the subject (reviews imply that you are doing a
service for someone).
There are no fixed rules about length or format when writing reviews.
However, if you’re in doubt, here are some safe guidelines to follow if no
others are provided: allocate approximately one-fifth of your review to
factual information and background, one-fifth to explaining the book’s
subject matter, two-fifths to an evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses
of the book, and one-fifth to a recommendation of the overall worth of
the book.
Better than an arbitrary formula would be to look at published book
reviews. The best place to find examples of critical reviews of books (and
movies, plays, records, and products) would be in popular periodicals
such as The New York Times Book Review, The Atlantic, Harper’s,
Esquire, Rolling Stone, Time, Newsweek, and Consumer Reports. Refer
also to the professional journals in your field of study—in my case I’d look
at reviews of English books, specifically in College English and Modern
Fiction Studies, and more generally in The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Writing to Argue and Interpret
The Critical Voice
When you write interpretive or argumentative essays, use a comfortable
and careful voice, not so relaxed as in a journal, not so objective as in a laboratory report—unless you have a good reason to diverge from this middle point. For more formal situations, avoid contractions, first-person pronouns, colloquial diction, split infinitives, and the like—but don’t use
language you are uncomfortable with or try through pretentious words to
impress. For informal situations, use conversational language, keeping in
mind that readers look especially closely at your organizational scheme
and use of evidence in analytic essays. If your essay is solid in these respects, you have some license with your voice.
1. Describe your experience writing interpretive and argumentative essays. What do you consider the most difficult aspect of interpretative or argumentative assignments?
2. List three local and three national issues about which you might
write a position paper. About which are you most concerned right
now? Write a paragraph on the topic of most current interest.
1. Select a text from this or another course you are currently taking
and locate within it something that interests or puzzles you, or that
you disagree with. Write an interpretive or evaluative essay about
the text using your specific interest as a point of departure. Plan to
end this essay with still another question that your readers themselves might pursue or puzzle over. In other words, end with an admission that more needs to be looked at; the writer herself or himself still has uncertainties.
2. Attend a play, concert, lecture, or other public event and write an interpretive or evaluative essay about your experience. Contact your
local or school newspaper and see if they’ll publish it.
1. INDIVIDUAL: Select any topic about which you are curious or have
an opinion (informed or otherwise). Visit the library or a local museum and locate information which both supports and rejects your
own ideas, or arguments about this topic. Take good notes and write
an essay that synthesizes, interprets, or evaluates the information
Interpreting Texts
you found there. (You might reflect on whether this additional information in any way changed your mind or if it simply made you find
more evidence to back up your initial opinion; write this reflection
in your journal.)
2. COLLABORATIVE: Agree to disagree. In a small group, identify an issue, idea, or place about which you each have only a little information. Divide yourselves into research teams, go get some information,
write it up, and share it with the group. Then, each of you take a deliberately different approach or slant on the topic and write a series
of essays meant to be read in a colloquium, together, to air all sides
of the issue. In class, present a series of such colloquia to entertain
each other. Publish the results in a class book (see Postscript Three).
Section III
Chapter Nine
In 9th grade we had to write research papers to learn
them for 10th grade, and in 10th we had to write them for
11th, and then in 12th, again, to learn them for college. So
what I keep learning, over and over, is to sit in the library
and copy quotes out of books and into my paper and connect them up. What’s the deal?
The hallmark of college writing is learning to write with research. Sometimes you’ll be asked to write a research paper or report; other times you’ll
simply be asked to write persuasively or critically. In either case, your papers will profit from using expert testimony and documentable information. Sometimes assignments requesting outside sources need to be written objectively, in the third person, with a minimum of writer value
judgments; other times outside sources may be integrated with firstperson pronouns and experience to create a more personal researchbased paper—be sure to ask your instructors which approach they prefer.
This chapter provides some suggestions for writing with a variety of
research sources.
Start with people. When you need to find something out, start asking
around and see who knows what. People are living, current resources
that talk back, smile, and surprise you. People can tell you who else to
see, where to go, what books to read (and why); people can offer you
Researching People and Places
shortcuts. They can also ask you questions: Why do you want to do this?
What do you expect to find? Have you talked to Professor Smith yet? How
far back do you want to go? Where do you plan to start?
Wherever you live, there are people who know more than you do
about all kinds of things. It’s your job as a researcher to discover these people and find out what they know. When you talk to people, you are in
much the same situation as a newspaper reporter interviewing people to
complete a story. In fact, you can learn a lot about interviewing people
from investigative reporters. Here are some ideas that might help you
collect information directly from people.
Expect Something
Good interviewers aren’t blank slates. They talk to people to find out more
about something about which they already have some ideas and hunches.
In other words, they start with preconceptions, and then go on to prove
or disprove them. When they talk to people, they are actively looking for
answers, and they have some idea of the shape those answers will take.
Acknowledging this, being aware of what you expect and why, will help
you to form pointed questions and to change, modify, or adapt your
expectations when something unexpected comes along.
Hang Around
I can’t improve on the advice of Bill Blundel, columnist for the Wall Street
Journal, who said, “To my way of thinking there’s no such thing as a
cowboy expert. The only cowboy expert is the cowboy. And the only way
you can find out and appreciate what his life is like is to work with him,
and to go out with him and to be there, just hanging around. I am a
tremendous believer in just hanging around.”
Know Something
Before you talk to knowledgeable people, become knowledgeable yourself. Even before you “start with people,” check in a dictionary, encyclopedia, or the Internet to learn the terms that will help you ask good questions. Sometimes this means asking people about other people to talk to.
For those other people, of whom you expect something particular, it may
mean familiarizing yourself with their writing, their achievements, and
their expertise in general. Keep in mind that you’ll get one kind of information if you present yourself as a novice and another kind when you appear already knowledgeable. The second kind will be deeper and more
Plan Questions
Prepare a few key questions in advance. This doesn’t mean you should
interview from a study sheet, although some people do. Writing out the
questions helps you both find and remember them. Think about the nature and sequence of questions you ask. One approach is to start with a
general question: “How did you get involved with the problem of homeless people in the first place?” Then ask a narrowing question: “What services do you currently provide for the homeless?” And follow up with
questions as the occasion provides: “How long have you been doing that?”
Sometimes a provocative leading question will provide interesting information: “According to the Mayor, your homeless shelter is not providing
the services promised.” And sometimes an imaginative approach will help:
“If you were the Mayor, what’s the first thing you’d do to deal with the
problem of the homeless?” In other words, I try to rehearse in my head
what will happen if I lead with one question rather than another, try to
predict what I’ll get for an answer, and then see if that’s the direction I
want to go. I do all of this on paper, to myself, imagining, before I go into
the actual interview.
Ad Lib Questions
No matter what my plans, in my best interviews, I never follow them
completely. Good interviews move around considerably, include digressions (often loaded with information that circles back and becomes useful), and are refreshingly predictable. So I also plan for both new and
follow-up questions as part of my interview. By planning to ad lib I’m not
tied to my script and can follow a new lead wherever it seems most fruitful: “What exactly do you mean by that?” “Could you expand on that just a
bit more?” “What else should I know?” Remember, it’s the prepared questions that help you identify when it’s time for the other kind!
Ask Leading Questions
If you have expectations, theories, and ideas, sometimes you might lead
off with them and see what your interviewee thinks. It depends on who
you are talking to. For example, if you are investigating overcrowded
conditions at your local airport, the parking lot attendant will have a
different stake in the matter than a cab driver, and the airport manager
will have a view quite different from the resident across the street. To
whom do you ask what leading question? With whom do you wait to see
if the subject of overcrowding comes up? Play your hunches and see what
Researching People and Places
Use Silence
This may be difficult, but it’s profitable. Silence is awkward, and many of us
have a natural tendency to fill it. But silence means different things at different times: sometimes ignorance, confusion, or hostility; other times
thinking, feeling, or remembering. Wherever you can, allow the person being interviewed some silence and see what happens. If it’s hostile silence,
you’ll soon know it. But it is more likely that the person is doing some
mental collecting and will fill the silences directly. Often, such silence can
draw out rich information you never expected.
Repeat Assertions
In scanning your notes at the end of an interview, it’s a good idea to repeat
some of the points you find most useful and plan to use in your paper. Repeating what you believe to have heard can save you later embarrassment.
You can both double-check your notes for accuracy, which is crucial if
you’re asking someone about a sensitive issue, and often get additional insights that have been incubating as you talked.
Tape Recording
Sometimes you want to record exactly what someone says to you, so you
ask if you can tape the conversation. Sounds easy. But the trade-off for accuracy is sometimes extra nervousness for both of you and a lot of time
spent playing and transcribing what you’ve recorded. Many good reporters, even when they have a tape recorder as backup, take quick but careful
notes in a steno-pad (small, flips fast, easy to write on your lap). It helps to
devise a few shorthand tricks—abbreviations for common terms, initials
where clear, and standard symbols like “w/” and “&.” The notes taken right
there also serve to remind you about what was said both during the interview and later; having the pen in your hand helps you jot out further questions as your subject is speaking. Even if you tape, make your pen and paper work for you.
Physical settings may play an important part in your research project.
When you visit actual places where events happen or information is located, you experience your information in a way that’s different than if
you only read about it. Interviews, for instance, are often enhanced by reporting on the physical place where it takes place: What does the person’s
office look like? What’s on the walls? What books are on the shelves?
Go to places and observe what is there. Investigate local issues and institutions to find out what investigative research is like. Stop and look inside
the church, sit in the pews, and note what you feel. Go stand on the Brooklyn Bridge, a hundred feet above the cold, black water of the East River, and
look at the city skyline, the ocean horizon. Visit the neighborhood in
which the most welfare mothers are said to live and cross its streets and sit
in a diner booth and drink a cup of coffee. Stop, pause, get a sense of what
this place is like. Sociological reports won’t generate that kind of thick information.
In the following example, Ken, a student in my first-year college
class, describes his visit to a local dentist to investigate preventive dentistry:
On entering his office I did not find the long wait, the
screaming kids, and the general coldness of so many dentists’ offices. Instead I found a small warm waiting room
with carpeted floors, soft chairs, and classical music, with
copies of Atlantic Monthly along with Sports Illustrated on
the coffee table.
Careful description is part of good research. The writer who is able to observe people, events, and places, and to convey that observation accurately contributes factual information to the research process. Such careful
description of place establishes living, colorful, memorable contexts for all
sorts of other inquiries. Look closely at the obvious and see what else is
there. Go for the size, scale, color, light, texture, angle, order, disorder, smell,
and taste of the place. Use your senses to find out what’s there, and use
your language to convey it to others. Go to the places close at hand, the library, bookstore, or student union; practice recording what you find there.
Try first to record in neutral language, suppressing as much as possible
your own bias; next add—or delete—your bias and give what you see as
some personal color. Which seems more effective? Why?
When you interview people—on the street, in a coffee shop, in their
home or office—look for clues that tell you something about the individuals. In what office, what company, what neighborhood does each one
work? Researchers train themselves to look closely and take good notes so
they have a context for their information. Looking and recording are the
essence of research.
In the following example, Susan describes her visit to the student
newspaper office:
Researching People and Places
My eyes wander around the room as we talk. . . . One
thing arouses my curiosity: on the pegboards between the
large desks hang rolls of tape. All kinds, shapes and sizes
of tape: big rolls, small rolls, thick rolls, thin rolls, full
rolls, nearly empty rolls. Rows of electrical tape, duct tape,
masking tape, and Scotch tape.
What does the tape say about a newspaper office? That a lot of patching
goes on? Does the tape symbolize the endless need to connect and put together that is the essence of newspaper production? Making the note enables her later to use it or not, depending on the slant of her story. If she
didn’t have the note, neither would she have the option of using it. Take
copious notes.
Wherever you go as an observer, you are also a listener: keep your ears
open when drinking that cup of coffee; listen to the small talk in the airport lobby; record what you hear whenever you can. A writer sometimes
finds the lead vignette for a story in some overheard snatch of conversation. Remember that research papers are essentially stories.
One of my students started her report on Evangel Baptist Church by
visiting the church, which was located across the street from the university. The following is her lead paragraph:
The people around me were wearing everything from three
piece suits to flannel shirts, jeans, and tennis shoes. I was
surprised how loud everyone was talking, laughing, and joking before the sermon. “What happened last night?” “Nothing I can tell you here.”
Design situations that will help you discover new information. Some of my
students have conducted simple experiments that provide them with
original data and firsthand knowledge. For example, in an early draft, one
of my students stated that all biology majors are really “pre-med students”
because her two roommates happened to be biology majors with such a
focus. I challenged her on this point, so she conducted a formal survey of a
large introductory biology class—and found out that many students were
premed, but thirty-nine percent were not! She then had information to
back up whatever point she wanted to make in her paper.
In a similar vein, instead of saying that automobiles never stop at the
stop sign at the foot of Beacon Street, sit there for a morning and record
full stops, rolling stops, and no stops for a period of two hours; then you
can say something based on direct knowledge.
Even simple experiments can yield useful data when you determine
that such data might make you more of an authority once you understand
how to collect it. There is a vast literature on designing surveys and questionnaires, but a professor in the social or educational sciences might be
able to show you some shortcuts or information aimed at lay researchers.
Don’t spend too long visiting, interviewing, describing, and collecting
without writing. Your collected information will make little sense until
you force it to do so, and writing does that. Try not to spend forever making still more notes on 3 ⫻ 5 cards, shuffling and reshuffling to find the
best order. All that stuff is useful, but remember that one of the best ways
to see how your material is or isn’t fitting together is to start writing about
it. All your book notes, recordings, site descriptions, statistics, quotations,
and theories only begin to make sense when you can see them in some
kind of relationship with one another and watch the pattern they take.
Finally, whatever the subject of your investigation, the actual report
you write can take many possible shapes, depending on how you formulate your questions about it. Consider, for example, the following lead
paragraphs of three different writers who jointly investigated the minimum security Chittenden Community Correctional Center in Burlington,
Vermont. Although they shared information throughout the project and
visited the jail together, each wrote a distinctly different report.
Walking up to the door of the Chittenden Community Correctional Center made me feel a bit on edge. The inmates were
staring at us; I just wanted to leave. As Debbie put it, “Six
girls in a Correctional Center at 8:00 p.m., I must be nuts.”
Do you ever wonder what goes on behind the doors of a correctional center? What does it offer its inmates to improve
their lives? Have you wondered what types of programs the
centers provide?
The Chittenden Community Correctional Center is found on
Farrell Street, just off Swift Street, not five minutes from
the University of Vermont campus. Within its boundaries
Researching People and Places
criminals are serving time for drunk driving, petty theft,
and assault and battery.
Each student investigated the same institution and each had a different
idea for a lead and, ultimately, a different story to tell. At the same time,
each lead proves interesting and invites further reading.
This chapter has examined the possibilities of college-level research
to include places and issues in the local community. The next chapter investigates the research possibilities of the central institution of all colleges
and universities, the library, as well as sources available on the Internet.
1. Make a list of ten local places that it would be interesting to visit.
Which one is most interesting to you? Why?
2. Make a list of ten social issues that have (or could have) local consequences. Which one is most consequential to you? Why?
3. Make a list of local people to whom you could talk about the issues
listed in number two.
1. INDIVIDUAL: Select a site listed in your journal and visit it. Describe
it, interview somebody there, and find out if there is an issue to pursue further. If there is, pursue it, keeping a research log to document
your way. (Possible places to investigate: public transportation centers, local businesses, government facilities, campus institutions, social agencies, parks, concert halls, malls, museums, schools, and prisons.)
2. COLLABORATIVE: Select a community of people (e.g., sports team,
business associates, academic department, agency workers and clients) and develop a collective profile.
3. OPEN: Do one of the projects above and invent an interesting form
in which to report your results: a TV script, a feature newspaper
story, an exchange of letters, a short book with chapters, a drama, a
technical report, a magazine article, or a multimedia event.
Chapter Ten
My instructor wants me to use at least ten citations from at
least five different sources, including books, periodicals, and
the Internet. On top of that, she wants me to make the paper interesting.
The best writing teaches readers things they didn’t already know, conveying knowledge that isn’t everyday and commonplace. You are bound to do
this when you write from personal experience, as nobody else anywhere
has lived your life. However, when you write about topics outside yourself,
out there in the world of institutions, issues, and ideas, you almost always
need more information than you carry around loosely in your head. Which
is where research comes into play.
The modern library itself is less a fixed geographical entity than an
intersection of information channels. Some routes lead to paperbound
books and periodicals, others to billion bit CD-ROMs, and others to virtual
information in cyberspace. To the local, physically present library is added
the global, ethereal Internet and its vast and current resources available
through any networked computer. The campus library and the global
Internet are twin tickets to writing knowledgeable papers worth reading.
This chapter outlines the basic routes through these powerful resources.
In the modern university library you have access to most of the thoughts
generated by humans since the invention of the printing press. Libraries
Researching Texts: Libraries and Web Sites
provide access to human ideas, knowledge, and culture. Books, while more
comprehensive than periodicals, will be at least a year or two out of date
when you read them because of the time it takes from complete manuscript to final, edited, bound copy. So when you think of the library for research purposes, think of both books and periodicals. In addition, your
university may have special collections of documents stored on tape or
film: movies, audio and video tapes, photographs, paintings, and the like.
The following is an overview of what the library has in store for you.
Book Catalogues
Computerized cataloguing systems identify library holdings four different
ways: by author, title, subject, and keyword. In addition, many of these integrated computer systems also allow you to search the contents of periodical holdings at the same time. Check at the circulation or reference desk if
you are uncertain how your library catalogues its holdings.
Catalogue systems may vary slightly from library to library, though all
systems follow the same general principles. Specific instructions for conducting a search in your own library will be posted next to its computer
terminals. If you know the author’s name or the title of the book you are
looking for, follow the on-screen directions for searching by author or title.
In either subject or keyword searches, the words you select to look for
make the difference between success and failure. Be prepared to experiment with different words to see what gets you closest to what you want;
sometimes the computer will suggest an alternate term to look under. You
may gain additional help for both searches by consulting the Library of
Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) guide which lists the exact words
used to catalogue resources.
Bibliographies and Book Indexes
A bibliography is a list of works pertinent to a particular subject area.
Many books include a bibliography of the various works consulted by the
author in researching and writing the book. You may often find such bibliographies more helpful than a catalogue search, particularly if the book focuses on the area of your research. Check for bibliographies in any books
you find through your catalogue search. In addition, you may find it useful
to consult the Bibliographic Index: A Cumulative Bibliography of Bibliographies (New York: Wilson, 1938–date), which lists the bibliographies
in books that cover a wide variety of subjects and will provide readers
with lists of related sources already compiled by other authors on subjects
similar to their own.
The following comprehensive book indexes list every title currently
in print (still being published). These can help you discover, for example,
Books in the Library
whether a particular author has published other books that you might
want to look at.
1. Books in Print The latest edition of this index provides a list of
authors and titles currently in print and thus available at libraries,
bookstores, or by direct order from a publisher. Dated volumes
are useful for author, title, and edition information.
2. Paperbound Books in Print The latest edition of this index lists
paperback books currently in print; these are most likely to be
available at local bookstores. Dated volumes are useful for author,
title, and edition information.
Keep in mind that you will have to consult the catalogue to determine whether or not your library owns any of the books discovered
through bibliographic and book index searches. If it does not, you may
be able to order the book through interlibrary loan (from another library, usually at a nominal fee) or purchase the book yourself from the
Call Numbers
Once you have determined through the catalogue that your library owns
a book you want to consult, you will use that book’s call number to locate
it in the stacks. For example, the book Learning the Library by A.K.
Beaubueb, S.A. Hogan, and M.W. George, published in New York by Bowker
Press in 1982, is catalogued this way:
Z Letters ⫽ general subject area
710 Numbers ⫽ specific division within subject
B37 Letter/number preceded by decimal point ⫽
placement within the division
1982 Date indicates a later edition or multiple volumes
Among the most current and specific research resources in any library are
the magazines, newspapers, and bulletins that are published periodically—daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly. Periodicals are focused on particular areas of interest and, since they are published at regular intervals
throughout the year, their information is usually more current than that
found in books, which take a longer time to be published. So many periodicals are published in each academic field, that few libraries are able to
subscribe to them all. To use periodicals effectively, you need to first find
the articles that interest you, then find out if your library subscribes to
Researching Texts: Libraries and Web Sites
those periodicals. Periodicals do not circulate; plan to read them and take
notes in the library or to photocopy relevant articles to read at home.
Periodical Indexes
Periodical indexes allow you to find articles in specific journals and magazines, listing them by author and within subject categories. These indexes,
like the catalogue system, can be either in book form or computerized, depending upon your library. Most libraries now carry these indexes on
compact discs (CD-ROMs) that will automatically conduct and print out
keyword searches, generally at a nominal charge to the user (see Databases below).
The most familiar, general, and popular of the indexes is The Readers
Guide to Periodical Literature (1900–date). This guide lists articles of
general interest in over two hundred popular magazines, including Time,
Newsweek, Business Week, Consumer Reports, Sports Illustrated, Science
Digest, Popular Science, The New Yorker, Esquire, Health, People, and
Rolling Stone. Entries are arranged by author and subject, and crossreferenced. (Now available on CD-ROM from 1983.)
For the more specialized and in-depth research required for most academic assignments, the library contains specialized indexes. Listed below
are some of the most useful for undergraduates:
Art Index (1929–date). Lists periodicals focusing on visual arts, including painting, sculpture, and multimedia (CD-ROM, On-line).
Applied Science and Technology Index (1958–date). Lists periodicals in chemistry, engineering, computer science, electronics, geology, mathematics, photography, physics, and related fields (CD-ROM,
Business Periodicals Index (1958–date). Lists the contents of both
popular and specialized journals devoted to the study of business.
Prior to 1957 it was combined with the Applied Science and Technology Index (CD-ROM, On-line).
Education Index (1929–date). Lists all journals from the fields of education and physical education, and related fields (CD-ROM, Online).
General Science Index (1978–date). Lists articles in the fields of astronomy, botany, genetics, mathematics, physics, and oceanography
(CD-ROM, On-line).
Humanities Index (1974–date). Catalogues over two hundred sixty
periodicals in the fields of archaeology, classics, language and
Books in the Library
literature, area studies, folklore, history, performing arts, philosophy,
religion, and theology. For sources prior to 1974 see International
Index (1907–1965) or Social Sciences and Humanities Index
(1965–1974) (CD-ROM, On-line).
Social Sciences Index (1974–date). This index catalogues over two
hundred sixty periodicals in the fields of anthropology, economics,
environmental science, geography, law, medicine, political science,
psychology, and sociology. For sources prior to 1974, see the International Index (1907–1965) and Social Sciences and Humanities
Index (1965–1974) (CD-ROM, On-line).
Newspaper Indexes
Newspaper indexes list articles and stories published in newspapers. Most
libraries include indexes for the two newspapers that are considered to be
sources of national news, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. In addition, many libraries now contain the integrated newspaper/periodical index, Infotrac.Finally, your library may have an index of the major
local paper in your area. Listed below are descriptions of these indexes.
The New York Times Index (1913–date). The index to this major paper is usually stored on microfilm and would provide a record of
daily news coverage for virtually all important national events since
1913 (NEXUS, 1980–date).
Wall Street Journal Index.This is another national newspaper which
specializes in business and economic information (NEXUS, 1980–
Infotrac. This integrated computer index, updated monthly, integrates three separate indexes: the Academic Index, which lists
nearly one thousand commonly used scholarly publications; the
General Periodical Index, including The New York Times and Wall
Street Journal; and the National Newspaper Index, which adds additional large circulation newspapers to the data collection. Many
entries include summaries; short articles are often included in full.
Infotrac is one of several comprehensive databases which now make
integrated library research both simpler and more powerful at the
same time.
In most college libraries you also have access to the services of computerconducted searches through specialized databases on CD-ROM (Compact
Researching Texts: Libraries and Web Sites
Disc—Read Only Memory, which means they convey information but cannot be added to) that are read by lasers like CDs on your home stereo system; as many as two hundred thousand pages of text can be stored on a
single CD-ROM disc. This electronically-stored information is read on a
computer monitor and refers you to documents, both unpublished and
published. Infotrac, described above, is such an electronic database common to public as well as academic libraries.
The other giant database most commonly found in college libraries
is called DIALOGUE, which keeps track of more than a million sources of
information. DIALOGUE is divided into smaller, more specialized databases, some nine hundred eighty-seven of which are listed in the current
manual, DIALOGUE Blue Sheets, which is available at the reference desk.
Several of the commonly used DIALOGUE files include the following:
Arts and Humanities Search (1980–date). A listing of over one
thousand journals and abstracts of their contents.
ERIC (Educational Resources Information Center) (1965–date). An
index of published and unpublished papers in the field of education,
including abstracts of their contents.
PsychINFO (1967–date). An index of over one thousand journals in
the field of psychology, including abstracts of their contents.
Scisearch (1974–date). An index of a variety of journals in scientific
and technological areas, including abstracts of their contents.
Social Scisearch (1972–date). An index of over fifteen hundred journals, including abstracts of their contents.
To use a specialized database usually requires the assistance of a librarian,
who will ask you to fill out a form listing the keywords or descriptors that
you will need for your search. Keywords are usually by subject, but sometimes include authors and titles. In most cases, the descriptors will be the
same ones used in the Library of Congress Subject Heading catalogue;
however, in some cases they will differ, so consult the thesaurus of
keywords that is usually located near the particular database you are using.
In many libraries there is a time limitation and a charge for conducting
these searches.
Once you have found useful information from any source, develop a working bibliography of all the possible ones you might use in writing your paper. There are tried-and-true methods for doing this—which you may have
used in the past and which still make good sense to follow:
A Strategy for Starting
First, make an alphabetical list of all the works consulted (or planned
to consult) on 3 ⫻ 5 index cards or a computer file (especially if you use a
database manager)—both allow for easy alphabetizing, which is useful to
create a “Works Cited”or “References”page if your paper requires one. For
each source, record the following information:
1. Call number or other
location information
2. Full name(s) of author(s)
3. Full title and subtitle
Editor or translator
Place of publication
Date of publication
1. Full name(s) of author(s)
2. Full title and subtitle of
3. Periodical title
4. Periodical volume and
issue number
5. Periodical date
6. Page numbers
7. Location
Next, take notes from the texts you locate on cards or in files to use
in the actual writing of your paper—notes that are separate from your bibliography cards, putting one bit of information or one idea on a card—a
strategy that will help you locate, shuffle, and rearrange ideas as you shape
your paper. The advantage of placing notes directly in computer files is
that you can copy and paste them right into your paper without retyping
each one. The advantage of good old paper note cards is that they are easier to shuffle and move around. Regardless of how you take notes, each
one should contain the following information:
Author, title, and date of the source
Exact page numbers
Information quoted, paraphrased, or summarized
Notes (in brackets or parentheses) on how you might use or
cross-reference to other material
Finally, organize your note cards in the approximate way you intend
to write them into your paper. If you’ve not made an outline yet of your paper’s movement, now is a good time to try. To make such a working outline, look first at the main question your paper addresses, next at the main
points that will answer that question, then at the evidence to support each
point, and finally at the most logical progression of those points in the
Researching Texts: Libraries and Web Sites
The most current sources of information are likely found on the Internet.
Once you have an E-mail account, your personal on-line service or campus
network will allow you to search, download, and use sources in writing research essays. The Internet mailing list is a two-way street: you can retrieve
information from knowledgeable people on particular topics; they, in turn,
can receive information from you. Learning your way around the Internet
will take time and a good degree of trial and error. The easiest way to begin finding Internet resources is for someone already experienced to get
you started; however, if you’re on your own, the following introduction
will be a good first step.
A Strategy for Starting
If unfamiliar with Web searching for an academic paper, follow this procedure:
Log on to Home Page From off campus, log on to the Internet via your
local service provider. If your computer logs first to a university home
page, find the Internet link. Click.
Select a Search Engine From your home page, select a specific engine (see the selections below, all of which are excellent for academic
• AltaVista ⬍⬎—a powerful and
very comprehensive site; allows restricted searches; full texts often available.
Excite ⬍⬎—good for first and general
searches, ranks sites by frequency of keywords; suggests related
Hotbot ⬍⬎—powerful; good for customized searches by date, media, specific domains. Includes newsgroups, classified ads, Yellow Pages, E-mail directories.
Infoseek ⬍⬎—identifies sites by frequency
of keywords. Allows searching by title, URL, directory, and newsgroup databases.
Lycos ⬍⬎—allows advanced and previoussearch searches; directory covers 90 percent of Web; includes
newsgroups, Reuters news service.
Net Search ⬍⬎—located on the Netscape
task bar; powerful, easy to use, and connected to other Web search
Searching On-Line
• Yahoo! ⬍⬎—the most comprehensive
subject directory; good for browsing; allows restricted searches; includes full-text downloads.
In addition, check out search engines that search the search
engines: All in One ⬍⬎, Dogpile
⬍⬎, Meta-Crawler ⬍⬎,
and ⬍⬎. These collective search engines sometimes provide too many sites with too few restrictions, making it difficult
to limit your search to relevant information.
Limit Your Search First searches often provide too much information—sometimes several thousand (or million!) sites—making it hard to
locate those you can use. For example, a broad search term such as Vietnam may locate everything from travel information to news articles to geography and language—thousands of sites, too many to explore. To limit
your search to, say, the Vietnam War, follow this procedure:
• Use double quotation marks to limit a specific phrase, title, or
name by putting quotation marks around the whole phrase, “Vietnam War,” or book title, “The Best and the Brightest,” or author,
“David Halberstam.” This limits the site selection to only those
that include both words.
Use and between words to limit the search to sources that include
both terms (not already combined in a phrase). Typing crime and
punishment will return any documents that include both the
words crime and punishment, while using quotation marks will
get you Crime and Punishment, the novel by Dostoevsky. (Some
sites, such as Excite and AltaVista, use ⫹ instead of and—try both
to be sure.)
Use or between words to retrieve documents that include any,
rather than most, of the search words. Type puma or mountain
lion or cougar or painter or panther—all different names for the
same animal.
Use not after a term to exclude a word that must not appear in the
documents. Example: dolphins not mammal or NFL.
Use an asterisk (*) to substitute for letters or word endings that
might vary: undergrad*.
Use parentheses( ) to group and combine search expressions:
(treaty or armistice) and Korean War.
There is no limit to the level of nesting which you can use in a query:
“(treaty or armistice) and Korean (war or police action) and Joseph
Researching Texts: Libraries and Web Sites
Start Searching Type words that describe or name your topic, click the
search button (“search now,” “go”), and wait for results to tell you how
many possible sites exist, as well as a site list to examine, one-by-one.
Try searching several different ways, using related terms in combination or alone. Narrow your search by using other, more specific terms; for
example, instead of Vietnam and war and infantry, try Tet Offensive or
Ho Chi Minh Trail. These may return shorter, more useful lists.
Try several different search engines and directories. No search engine or directory catalogues the entire Web, and no two engines search exactly the same way. Depending on your topic, you may find one search engine much more useful than the others. The law of the Web is “trial and
If you are still not getting what you expect, click on the help or advanced search option included on every site, read it, and try again. Research profits from exploration, from writers curious about a subject, looking to see what specific information is out there. No place on earth takes
you faster to more information than the Internet. To explore it, log on and
type one of the following addresses—called URLs for universal resource
locator—into the command line of your browser, and hit the enter key,
and see what you find. ⬍⬎—lists books in print
along with out-of-print titles. Useful to locate or buy books; includes
all relevant publishing data and reviews.
Argus Clearinghouse ⬍⬎—selects,
describes, and evaluates Internet resources; a good site to begin any
research project.
Biographical Dictionary ⬍⬎—
searchable by name, birth and death year, profession, works, and
other terms.
E.span ⬍⬎—Job Hunting
and the Occupational Outlook Handbook.
Encyclopedia Britannica ⬍⬎—information on any subject under the sun.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) About the Web ⬍http://⬎
Information Please ⬍⬎—a searchable on-line almanac; topics from architecture to biography to historical statistics to weather.
Searching On-Line
Learn the Net Inc. ⬍
.html⬎—Web tours and training.
Peterson’s Education Center
8080/⬎—Information on colleges.
Research-It ⬍⬎
—a reference toolkit of online dictionaries, and thesaurus.
Document Your Search It can be difficult to retrace your steps to a
valuable Internet resource. Use a notebook to keep track of which search
engines and which search terms you use so that you can reproduce a
search easily. When you find a useful Web page, print a copy for your records. If your browser doesn’t automatically do so, write the URL of the
page on your printout along with the date and time you accessed the page
to freeze the contents of a site that changes between visits. If you plan to
use a source more than once, make a “bookmark” or on-line reference
to easily find it again.
When incorporating any on-line information in your papers, plan to
cite it as you do field and library sources so that others who want to read
further can easily find it; keep the standard documentation needs in mind
and you won’t be too far off: Who said what, where and when? (See Chapter Eleven, “Writing with Sources,” and Chapter Twelve, “Documenting
Research Sources,” for instructions and examples on how to do this using
specific documentation systems.)
Chapter Eleven
Documenting research papers is easier than sometimes
made out. You just answer the question who said what,
where, and when. But don’t be surprised if English teachers
want you to answer it one way and history teachers
another—but the information you need is exactly the
Research writing can be only as convincing as the authority which
informs it. Remember that every paper you write is an attempt to create
belief, to convince your readers that you know what you are talking about,
and that what you say is true. Though good personal writing often uses researched information (journal entries, letters, on-site descriptions), its primary means of persuasion derives from recreating the images, impressions, and language of your own experience and speculation. In research
and report writing, however, persuasive authority is based on information
outside the writer’s self, by citing other people’s ideas, knowledge, demonstrations, and proofs.
Good sources make your papers believable. For a source to be “good”
it needs to answer “yes” to two questions: (1) Is the source itself credible? (2) Does it help my paper? The following guidelines will help you assess the credibility of sources found in the field, in the library, and on the
Evaluating Research Sources
Evaluating Field Sources
The reliability of field sources is often problematic because it is difficult
for readers to track down people and, sometimes, places after they were
first visited by the researcher. An interview is a one-time event, so a subject
available one day may not be the next. A location providing information
one day may change or become off-limits the next. To critically examine
field sources, you need to freeze them and make them hold still. Here’s
what to do:
Interviews To freeze an interview, use a tape recorder and transcribe
the whole session. Once an interview is taped, apply to it the critical questions you would a written source (see above). If you cannot tape-record,
take careful notes, review main points with your subject before the interview ends, and apply to your notes these same critical questions.
Identifying Perspective Assuming you have identified an interviewee
because he or she has some special expertise that would be useful in advancing your paper, you still need to assess, for yourself, the person’s credibility. Keep the following questions in mind as you talk, listen, and take
• What, specifically, is the source of your interviewee’s expertise?
(Can you see credentials? A résumé? Any authored position statements?)
Can you classify your interviewee’s point of view (liberal, conservative, religious, commercial, etc.) and differentiate it from other
points of view?
What does he or she assume about the subject or about the audience? (Note here the level of unexplained jargon.)
How persuasive are your source’s facts, inferences, and judgments? (See Chapter Eight.)
Are there relevant points you are aware of that the speaker doesn’t
mention? (Can you ask about these?)
Site Observations To freeze a site, make photographic or video records of what it looked like and what you found, in addition to taking copious notes about time; include details about the location, size, shape, color,
number, and so forth. If you cannot make photo records, sketch, draw, or
diagram what you find. Pictures and careful verbal descriptions add credibility to papers by providing specific details that would be difficult to invent had the writer not been present. Even if you don’t use them directly
in your paper, visual notes will jog your memory of other important site
Writing with Sources
Personal Bias Evaluating in-person observations is complicated since
you are both the creator and the evaluator of the material at the same time.
First, you shape interview material by the questions you ask, the manner in
which you conduct the interview, and the language of your notes. Second,
you shape on-site material by where you look, what you notice, and the
language of your notes. In other words, in field research, the manner in
which you collect and record information is most likely to introduce the
most difficult bias to control—your own.
Evaluating Library Sources
Unlike most field sources, library sources are generally credible because
experts have already screened them. The books, periodicals, documents,
special collections, and electronic sources have been recommended for library acquisition by scholars, researchers, and librarians with special expertise in the subject areas the library catalogues. Consequently, library resources have been prejudged credible, at some level, before you locate
them. However, just because some authorities judged a source to be credible at one time does not necessarily mean it still is, nor that it’s the best
available, nor that it’s not contested, nor that it’s especially useful to the
paper you are writing. Two of the main reasons for distrusting a source
found in the library have to do with time (when was it judged true?) and
perspective (who said it was true and for what reason?).
Identifying Dated Sources Most library documents include their date
of publication inside the cover of the document itself, and in most cases
this will be a fact that you can rely on. In some cases, such as articles first
published one place and now reprinted in an anthology, you may have to
dig harder for the original date, but it’s usually there (check the permissions page).
One of the main reasons any source may become unreliable—and incredible—is the passage of time. For example, any geographical, political,
or statistical information true for 1950 or even 1999 will be more or less
inaccurate by the time you examine it—in many cases, radically so. (See atlas or encyclopedia entries for Africa or Asia from 1950!) Yet at one time
this source was judged to be accurate.
Check the critical reception of books when published by reading reviews in The Book Review Digest (also on-line); often you can tell if the
critical argument over the book twenty years ago is still relevant or has
been bypassed by other events and publications.
At the same time, dated information has all sorts of uses. In spite of
being “dated,” works such as the Bible, the I Ching, the novels of Virginia
Woolf, and the writings of Malcolm X are invaluable for many reasons. In
Evaluating Research Sources
studying change over time, old statistical information is crucial. Knowing
the source date lets you decide whether to use it.
Identifying Perspective Who created the source and with what purpose or agenda? Why has someone or some organization written, constructed, compiled, recorded, or otherwise created this source in the first
place? This second critical question is difficult to answer by reviewing the
source itself. While most library texts include the dates they were published, few accurately advertise their purpose or the author’s point of
view—and when they do, this information cannot always be believed.
To evaluate the usefulness of a text, ask questions about (1) the assumptions it makes, (2) the evidence it presents, and (3) the reasoning that
holds it together. Finding answers to these critical questions reveals an author’s bias.
• What is this writer’s purpose—scholarly analysis, political advo-
cacy, entertainment, or something else?
• Can you classify the author’s point of view (liberal, conservative,
religious, commercial) and differentiate it from other points of
What does the writer assume about the subject or about his or her
audience? (What does unexplained jargon tell you?)
How persuasive is the evidence? Which statements are facts,
which inferences drawn from facts, which matters of opinion?
(See Chapter Eight.)
Are there relevant points you are aware of that the writer doesn’t
mention? What does this tell you?
How compelling is the logic? Are there places where it doesn’t
make sense? How often?
Cross-Referencing Sources While at first it may seem daunting to answer all these questions, have patience and give the research process the
time it needs. On a relatively new subject, you won’t know many answers;
however, the more you learn the more you know! As you read further, you
begin to compare one source to another and to notice differences, especially if you read carefully and take notes to keep track of each source’s
timeliness and perspective. The more differences you note, the more answers to the above questions you find, and the more you know if a source
might be useful.
Evaluating Electronic Sources
You need to apply the same critical scrutiny to Internet sources as to both
field and library sources, only more so! Like field sources, Intenet sources
Writing with Sources
change without warning, so you need to capture as much as you can when
you find a source. Like library sources, Web sites are texts that can be held
still and examined critically. However, unlike library sources, many Web
sites are not screened by editors, librarians, or review boards for accuracy,
reliability, or integrity, as anyone with a computer can publish personal
opinions, commercial pitches, bogus claims, bomb-making instructions, or
smut on the World Wide Web. While the Internet is a marvelous source of
research information, it’s also a trap for unwary researchers. So, in addition
to timeliness and perspective, what do you need to look out for?
First, look at the electronic address (URL) to identify the type of organization sponsoring the site:
.biz ⫽ businesses
.com ⫽ commercial
.coop ⫽ credit unions and rural co-ops
.edu ⫽ educational
.gov ⫽ government institutions
.info ⫽ information, open to public
.museum ⫽ accredited museums worldwide
.mil ⫽ military
.name ⫽ second-level names
.net ⫽ news and other networks
.org ⫽ nonprofit agency
.pro ⫽ professionals
⬃ ⫽ personal home page
Each abbreviation suggests the potential bias in sites: .com and .biz sites
are usually selling something; .coop and .pro may be selling something,
but may have a stronger interest in promoting the public welfare; .mil and
.org are nonprofit, but each has an agenda to promote and defend; .edu,
.gov, .museum, and .net should be most neutral and unbiased, but still need
careful checking; and .info, .name and ⬃ could be anyone with any idea.
Second, ask as many critical questions as you would of a library
source (see above). An additional way to do this is to ask reporter’s questions (Who? What? Where? When? Why? and How?) and see what the answers tell you. Ask:
Who is the site author?
• Look for individual name: Check beginning or end.
• Look for expert credentials: Scholar, scientist, doctor, college de-
grees, experience?
• Look for author’s connection to organization or agency: University,
government, NRA, Sierra Club?
Evaluating Research Sources
• If no individual name, look for sponsoring organization: what does
it stand for?
• Look for links to the author’s/agency’s home page.
• Look for a way to contact the author or agency by E-mail, phone,
mail to ask further questions.
• If you cannot tell who created the site or contact its sponsors, site
credibility is low. Don’t rely on this site’s information.
What ideas or information does the site present?
• Look for concepts and terminology you know.
• Summarize the claim or central idea in your own language: How
does it match your research needs?
• Look for facts versus inferences versus opinions versus specula-
tions—be wary of opinion and speculation.
• Look for balanced versus biased points of view—what tips you
off? Which would you trust more?
• Look for missing information: Why is it not there?
• Look for advertising: Is it openly identified and separated from fac-
tual material?
• Look for a “hit count” to suggest the popularity of the site—a sign
that others have found it useful.
How is the information presented?
• Look at the care with which the site is constructed, an indication
of the education level of the author: If it contains spelling and
grammatical errors or is loaded with unexplained jargon, do you
trust it? Will your readers?
• Look at the clarity of the graphics and/or sound features: Do they
contribute to the content of the site?
• Look for links to other sites that suggest a connected, comprehensive knowledge base.
Where does the information come from?
• Identify the source of the site: .edu, .gov, .com, etc. (see above).
• Identify the source of site facts: Do you trust it?
• Look for prior appearance as a print source: Are you familiar with
it? Is it reputable?
• Look for evidence that the information has been referred: If so,
from where? By whom?
Writing with Sources
When was the site created?
• Look for creation date; a date more than a year old suggests a site
not regularly updated.
• Look for absence of a creation date: Would lack of a date affect the
reliability of the information?
• Look at whether or not the site is complete or still under construc-
tion. If incomplete, note that.
Why is the information presented?
• Look for clues to agenda of the site: Is it to inform? persuade? en-
tertain? sell? Are you buying?
• Does getting information from the site cost money? (You should
not have to pay for reference material for a college paper.)
As you prepare to draft, you need to assess all the credible, reliable information you’ve found and integrate it skillfully into your paper. In other
words, you need to combine unorganized raw material written in somebody else’s voice into your own writing plan and make it compatible with
your voice.
To synthesize notes in preparation for writing, (1) look for connections among similar statements made by several sources; (2) look for contradictions between and among sources; (3) marshal the evidence that furthers your paper’s goal and set aside that which doesn’t—everything
you’ve collected cannot possibly fit, and shouldn’t.
Be careful not to construct a source-driven paper, one whose direction is dictated by what you’ve found rather than what you are curious
about and want to explore and examine. Above all, don’t quit pursuing an
interesting question because your first few sources don’t answer it: If you
need more evidence, go get it rather than settling for answers to a question you haven’t asked or faking it. Source-driven papers are obvious and
odious to practiced instructors in every discipline.
Citing authority includes paraphrasing, summarizing, and directly quoting other sources, and working these intelligently, logically, smoothly, and
grammatically into your text. Regardless of which method you use, you
will need to cite the sources in which you found the information using the
Citing Sources
documentation conventions appropriate to the discipline for which the
paper is being written.
Paraphrase and Summary
When you repeat another author’s ideas in your own words to simplify or
clarify it, you are paraphrasing. When you condense an author’s idea, you
are summarizing it. Notice in the following example how a direct quotation is changed first to a paraphrase, then to a summary:
Henry David Thoreau writes in Walden, “Most of the luxuries, and many of
the so called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive
hindrances to the elevation of mankind” (115).
A paraphrase of this same passage might go something like this:
Henry David Thoreau claims that many of the luxuries that people believe
are necessary for living a comfortable life actually get in the way of living a
spiritual life (115).
A summary of the same passage might go like this:
Thoreau argues in Walden that material possessions interfere with spiritual
thought (115).
Notice that the paraphrase is not much shorter—twenty-nine versus
thirty-two words—but uses simpler, more conversational language. The
summary, however, is significantly shorter—eleven words—but, like the
paraphrase, it remains faithful to the original idea.
Whether you quote, paraphrase, or summarize depends on your purpose in using the reference. For example, if you want to feature an especially colorful, precise, or otherwise well-written passage from a text,
quote it directly. The Thoreau passage above is well written and might
well be quoted directly. However, if you sense the original might confuse
your audience, then you want to simplify or clarify the passage, so you
paraphrase it. Finally, if you are short on space and wish only to capture
the essence of the idea, you summarize it. In one sense, paraphrase
and summary are weaker than direct quotation, since readers are viewing
material filtered through your perspective, not reading the expert’s own
formulation. However, paraphrasing is the better choice for dense or
jargon-filled language, just as summary saves you space and helps get to
your own point more rapidly.
Writing with Sources
Direct Quotation
Quoting authors directly brings the full authority of their voices into your
text. When used carefully, a direct quotation both substantiates and enlivens your ideas. I use direct quotations when the language of the quote is
especially strong—better than I could paraphrase—or when it is important for my argument that the reader see exactly what the expert said.
Some people are experts by reputation or fame: “According to Albert Einstein (or Virginia Woolf, or Tony Morrison, or Mick Jagger).” Other people
become experts because of labels or titles: “According to President Smith
(or Secretary Jones, or Captain Bob, or poet Joy Harju).” Citing the precise
language of respected authorities allows readers to check your sources
and see that, yes, Einstein, Woolf, Morrison, or Jagger really did say that. You
and your argument each gain strength by association.
At the same time, control your sources; don’t let them control
you. When you write a research essay it is your paper and not your
sources’. A good research essay is not a string of expert citations held together by your introduction and transitions; instead, it’s your idea supported carefully and judiciously by others whose opinions matter to your
The following guidelines for incorporating direct quotations into
your papers apply to whatever documentation system you select:
1. Introduce each quotation with a lead that makes it clear who is
speaking: According to Arthur Miller, “The play failed.” If there is
any doubt about the speaker’s identity, add that information
briefly: According to playwright Arthur Miller. . . .
2. Quote only as much of your source as you need to make your
point so that readers know exactly why you are quoting. Insert an
especially careful or colorful phrase, then paraphrase the rest: In
Fate of the Earth, Jonathan Shell argues that “knowledge is the
deterrent” to nuclear war.
3. Work each quoted passage into your text smoothly and grammatically:
• Use a comma to introduce most quotations, such as the first
quotation (above).
• Use a colon to introduce quotations that are examples (often a
long indented quote), explanations, or elaborations of the
previous sentence, or lists of items.
• Use no punctuation to introduce quoted language that, without
the quotation marks, does not need punctuation (see number
two above).
Citing Sources
4. Include commas and periods within quotation marks: “The play
failed.” Put all other punctuation outside quotation marks, unless
it is part of the quoted material itself: Arthur Miller asked, “What
is drama?”
5. If you make changes in punctuation or capitalization in order to
integrate quotations smoothly into your sentences, enclose the
changes in brackets.
6. If you make changes in words or verb tense to integrate quotations smoothly into your sentences, you must put the changed
word(s) in brackets: Before the end of the Cold War, Jonathan
Shell argued that “knowledge [was] the deterrent” to nuclear
7. If you add language in the middle of a quotation, include the additions in brackets: Arthur Miller asked, “What is [American]
8. If you delete material from within a quotation, indicate the omitted material with a three dot ellipsis: If you delete material, . . .
indicate . . . with [an] ellipsis. If you delete material at the end of
a sentence, add a period to the ellipsis, making four dots. . . . If
you omit words at the beginning of a sentence, make sure the
quote is grammatical, but do not use an ellipsis.
9. After including a quotation that is complex or capable of being
interpreted in more than one way, be sure to explain your reason
for including it, the meaning you intend, or the value you believe
it has.
1. Make a list of library or Internet services you want to learn more
about. Ask a librarian or media expert to help you; record what you
2. Select a book at random from your roommate’s bookshelf, one you
haven’t read, and see how much you can learn about it by using the
Evaluating Research Sources guidelines in this chapter.
1. INDIVIDUAL: To any of the research ideas suggested in the last few
chapters, add a substantial amount of library research: Can you use
some of the reference works listed here? Can you include current
periodicals as well as books? Will you make sure to look at more
than one source? Plan to include at least three Internet sources.
Writing with Sources
2. COLLABORATIVE: Select a historical subject to research that all
members of your group agree upon. Divide up research tasks so
that each of you brings back to the group a one- or two-page review of a book and an article to share with others. Invent an interesting form in which to report the results of your investigation.
Chapter Twelve
I liked writing this paper more than any other paper I’ve
ever done. I think it was because we worked as a team
when we toured the factory and later, when we wrote each
of the three different drafts of this paper. Everybody
pitched in, nobody slacked, we had a really good time, and
we even learned how to make ice cream!
Each subject area in the curriculum has developed its own system for documenting sources in research-based papers. Each system does essentially
the same thing, yet the conventions for citing and documenting sources
within the text vary slightly. A student in English or a foreign language uses
the system preferred by the Modern Language Association, or MLA, while
a student in the social sciences (psychology, sociology, political science,
etc.) uses the American Psychological Association, or APA. These two are
the most commonly used across the curriculum; however, disciplines such
as history, biology, chemistry, and mathematics each has its own documentation system. If you learn the basics of any one system, such as MLA,
which is featured in this book, you can learn any of the others quite easily.
If you are not sure which system to use in writing an academic paper, ask
your instructor which he or she prefers; if you want to know which system to use when you write a paper for publication in a professional journal (e.g., Change, College English, or The Journal of Chemical Education), study the system used in that journal.
Documenting Research Sources
The guidelines for documenting sources outlined in this chapter are
brief but basic, and should stand you in good stead for writing most undergraduate papers using MLA conventions. If you are required to write using
the conventions of the APA—the other most common system across the
curriculum—consult the APA Web site (see p. 163). If you undertake to
write a thesis-length work in any discipline, consult your thesis director
for the appropriate manual to follow.
If you keep in mind the reason for documenting in the first place,
the process won’t seem so mysterious or complicated. The reason is simply this: Whenever you solve a problem, answer a question, develop a case,
or substantiate an idea, you need to tell your readers where you got that information. Who provided it? What did they say? When did they say it?
Where can I look it up? The reason you include citations, references, footnotes, and such in research papers is, essentially, to answer this query: Who
said what, when, and where?
The most common and economical form for documenting sources in
research-based English papers is the MLA system described below:
• All sources are briefly mentioned by author name in the text.
• A list of “Works Cited” at the end outlines full publication data for
each source named in the paper.
• Additional explanatory information written by the writer of the
paper can be included in footnotes or endnotes.
The MLA system is explained in authoritative detail in the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, 5th ed. (New York: MLA, 1999) and
on its Web site ⬍⬎.
Guidelines for In-text Citation
The logic of the MLA format is to identify author and page number in the
body of your text as briefly as possible, including only as much information as a reader needs in order to locate the complete source, alphabetically, on the final “Works Cited” page. Footnotes or endnotes are used only
for additional comments not appropriate for the text body itself.
Author Not Named in Your Text Identify the author so that
readers can look up the full source at the end of your paper. Place
the author’s last name in parentheses at the end of the sentence
(outside the quotation marks, but inside the ending punctuation)
followed by the page number:
MLA Documentation
“In Arthur Miller’s 1953 play, The Crucible, the witchcraft trials that
took place in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692, are presented as an openand-shut case of social injustice” (Rafferty 119).
Author Named in Your Text If you introduce the quote or paraphrase with the author’s name so that it is apparent who is speaking,
include only the page number in parentheses:
Mark Twain reveals Huckleberry Finn’s moral growth after the storm
when Huck blurts out, “All right, then, I’ll go to hell” (123).
Two or Three Authors For works with two or three authors, include each author’s last name (Goswami and Stillman). For works
with four or more authors, include only the first author followed by
et al. (Spiller, et al. 917).
More Than One Author Cited in Same Sentence If two or
more authors are cited in the same sentence, identify each next to
the relevant material:
While one critic contends the major influence on Twain was Lincoln’s view of democracy (DeVoto), others claim the enduring
influence was Calvinism (Spiller, et al. 917).
Multiple Works, Same Author When your “works cited” contains more than one work by the same author, include a shortened
version of the title of the book or article you are quoting following
the author’s name in parentheses:
Twain’s voice is both innocent and ironic when he writes, “Animals
talk to each other, of course. There can be no question about that, but
I suppose there are very few people who can understand them”
(Tramp 43).
Unsigned Work If no author is listed in a book or article, identify
by short title in the text.
A Source Referred To by Another Source Make a shorthand
notation that your source is not from a full original text, using qtd. in
for quoted in:
The anthropologist Robert Brain calls romantic love “a lunatic relic of
medieval passions” (qtd. in Gray 203).
Long Quotations If you quote five or more lines, indent all the
material ten spaces and omit quotation marks (the act of indenting
tells the reader the passage is a quotation). Place title and page numbers in parentheses outside the end punctuation. Indented passages
are double-spaced. Introduce all quoted material so that readers
Documenting Research Sources
know what it is and why it’s there, and punctuate correctly. For example:
Author and columnist Diane Johnson describes the difficulty in writing neutrally about rape:
No other subject, it seems, is regarded so differently by men
and women as rape. Women deeply dread and resent it to an extent that men apparently cannot recognize; it is perhaps the ultimate and essential complaint that women have to make
against men. Of course men may recognize that it is wrong to
use physical force against another person, and that rape laws
are not prosecuted fairly, and so on, but at a certain point they
are apt to say, “But what was she doing there at that hour anyway?” or “Luckily he didn’t really hurt her,” and serious discussion ceases. (“Rape” 296)
Electronic Source If an electronic source uses no page numbers,
identify by paragraph number (Smith, par. 5). If the source uses no
paragraphs, identify as you would a whole book (Smith).
Footnote or Endnote Supplement in-text citations with notes
only when you need to:
1. provide useful information that does not fit easily into the main
body of your text
2. comment on a source (There is no confirmation that Twain
ever said this.)
3. cite several sources at once
Identify each note by a small raised number in your text where appropriate, then type the same number and the note either at the bottom of the page (footnote) or end of the text (endnote), preceding
the “Works Cited” page:
(Four recent cookbooks contain the same salsa recipe1).
Guidelines for “Works Cited” Page
At the end of the paper, type “Works Cited” at the top of a separate page,
centered, and list all the textual sources referred to in the paper, following
these general guidelines:
1. Alphabetize the list, by author’s last name, then first name. If author’s name is not given, alphabetize the source by the first main
word in the title (exclude A, An, and The).
2. If there are multiple authors, after the first name, list the others in
MLA Documentation
normal order (first name, last name), separating each with a
Provide full titles, capitalizing all important words. (For periodicals, omit A, An, or The.) Underline the titles of books and periodicals. Place titles of chapters, poems, and periodical articles in
quotation marks.
Provide volume and edition number (if relevant) after title.
Provide publication information after the title. For books, give
city of publication (add state abbreviation if city is small), the
name of the publisher (short name only), and date. For periodical articles, give volume or issue number, the date (in parentheses), and the page numbers.
Double space each entry and between entries. Indent all lines after the first line, five spaces (½ inch).
Documenting Books
single author
O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. New York: Penguin, 1990.
two books by one author
Elbow, Peter. Writing Without Teachers. New York: Oxford UP, 1973.
———. Writing With Power. New York: Oxford UP, 1981.
two or three authors
Strunk, William, Jr., and E. B. White. The Elements of Style. 3rd ed. New York:
Macmillan, 1979.
more than three authors
Barr, Mary, et al., What’s Going On? Language/Learning Episodes in British and American Classrooms, Grades 4–13. Montclair NJ: Boynton/
Cook, 1982.
anonymous author
American Heritage Dictionary. Second College Edition. Boston: Houghton
Mifflin, 1982.
an editor or editors
Ellmann, Richard, and Robert O’Clair, eds. Modern Poems: An Introduction
to Poetry. New York: Norton, 1976.
Documenting Research Sources
more than two volumes
Parrington, Vernon L. Main Currents in American Thought. 2 vols. New
York: Harcourt, 1927.
Parrington, Vernon L. Main Currents in American Thought. Vol. 1. New
York: Harcourt, 1927.
a later edition
Aaron, Jane. The Little Brown Essential Handbook for Writers. 2nd ed. New
York: Longman, 1997.
a translation
Camus, Albert. The Stranger. Trans. Stuart Gilbert. New York: Random House,
a chapter in an anthology
Britton, James. “The Composing Processes and the Functions of Writing.”Research on Composing. Eds. Charles R. Cooper and Lee Odell. Urbana, IL:
National Council of Teachers of English, 1978.
an introduction, preface, foreword, or afterword
Graff, Gerald. Afterword. When Writing Teachers Teach Literature. Eds. Art
Young and Toby Fulwiler. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 1995.
an unsigned article in a reference book
“Style Manual.” The American Heritage Dictionary. 2nd College Edition.
Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1982.
Documenting Periodicals
a signed article in journal
Ohmann, Richard. “Reflections on Chaos and Language.” College English 44
(1982): 1–17.
a signed article in monthly or bimonthly magazine
Mayersohn, Norman. “Rad Wheels.” Popular Mechanics May, 1987: 84–87.
a signed article in a weekly or biweekly magazine
Hoffman, Michael.“Hardly Cricket.”The New Yorker 2 Dec. 1996: 113–114.
MLA Documentation
daily newspaper
“Ex-Officials See Lobbyists’ View.” The Burlington Free Press 12 April 1987,
sec. 2: 1.
an unsigned article
“The Decade of the Spy.” Newsweek 7 Mar. 1994: 26–27.
Documenting Electronic Databases
The “Works Cited” entries for electronic databases (newsletters, journals,
and conferences) are similar to entries for articles in printed periodicals:
cite the author’s name; the article or document title in quotation marks;
the newsletter, journal, or conference title; the number of the volume or issue; the year or date of publication (in parentheses); and the number of
pages, if available.
periodically updated cd-rom database
James, Caryn. “An Army As Strong As Its Weakest Link.” New York Times 16
Sep. 1994: C8 New York Times Ondisc. CD-ROM. UMI-Proquest. Oct.
If a database comes from a printed source such as a book, periodical, or
collection of bibliographies or abstracts, cite this information first, followed by the title of the database (underlined), the medium of publication, the vendor name (if applicable), and the date of electronic publication. If no printed source is available, include the title of the material
accessed (in quotation marks), the date of the material if given, the underlined title of the database, the medium of publication, the vendor name,
and the date of electronic publication.
Portable databases are much like books and periodicals. Their entries in “Works Cited” lists are similar to those for printed material except
that you must also include the following items.
• The medium of publication (CD-ROM, diskette, magnetic tape).
• The name of the vendor, if known (this may be different from the
name of the organization that compiled the information, which
must also be included).
• The date of electronic publication, in addition to the date the material was originally published (e.g., reprinted book).
Documenting Research Sources
nonperiodical cd-rom publication
“Rhetoric.”The Oxford English Dictionary.2nd ed. CD-ROM. Oxford: Oxford
UP, 1992.
List a nonperiodical CD-ROM as you would a book, adding the medium of
publication and information about the source, if applicable. If citing only
part of a work, underline the title of the selected portion or place it within
quotation marks, as appropriate (as you would the title of a printed short
story, poem, article, essay, or similar source).
diskette or magnetic tape publication
Lanham, Richard D. The Electronic Word: Democracy, Technology, and the
Arts. Diskette. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1993.
List these in the “Works Cited” section as you would a book, adding the
medium of publication (e.g., diskette or magnetic tape).
Documenting On-line Sources
Documenting a World Wide Web (WWW) or other Internet source follows the same basic guidelines as documenting other texts: who said
what, where, and when. However, important differences need to be
noted. In citing on-line sources from the World Wide Web or electronic
mail (E-mail), two dates are important: the date the text was created (published) and the date you found the information (accessed the site). When
both publication and access dates are available, provide both.
However, many WWW sources are often updated or changed, leaving no trace of the original version, so always provide the access date
which documents that this information was available on that particular
date. Thus, most electronic source entries will end with an access date immediately followed by the electronic address: 23 Dec. 2001 ⬍http://⬎. The angle brackets ⬍ ⬎ identify the source as
The following guidelines are derived from the MLA Web site ⬍http:/
/⬎. To identify a WWW or Internet source, include, if available, the following items in the following order, each punctuated by a period, except date of access.
• Author (or editor, compiler, or translator)—If known, full name,
last name first (if unknown, include alias).
• Title—Include title of poems, short stories, articles in quotation
marks. Include title of posting to discussion list or forum in
MLA Documentation
quotation marks followed by “On-line posting.”Underline the titles
of full-length published sources (books, magazines, films, recordings).
Editor, compiler, or translator—Include name, if not cited earlier,
followed by appropriate abbreviation: Ed., Com., Tran.
Print source—Include the same information as in a printed citation.
Title—Of scholarly project, database, personal, or professional site
(underlined); if no title, include description such as “Home page.”
Include name of editor if available.
Identifying number—For a journal, include volume and issue
Date of electronic publication
Discussion list information—Include full name or title of list or
Page, paragraph, or section numbers
Sponsorship or affiliation—Include the name of any organization
or institution sponsoring this site.
Date of access—Include date you visited this site.
Electronic address—Include within angle brackets ⬍ ⬎.
published web site
Beller, Jonathon L. “What’s Inside The Insider?” Pop Matters Film. 1999. 21
May 2000 ⬍http://popmatters. com/film/insider.html⬎.
personal web site
Fulwiler,Toby.Home page. 2 Apr.2000 ⬍⬃tfulwile⬎.
professional web site
Yellow Wall-Paper Site. U of Texas. 1995. 4 Mar. 1998 ⬍http://www.cwrl,daniel/amlit/wallpaper/⬎.
Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Internet Wiretap Online
Library. 4 Jan. 1998. Carnegie-Mellon U. 4 Oct. 1998 ⬍http://www.cs.cmu
To interrupt an electronic address at the end of a line, hit return, but do
not hyphenate.
Documenting Research Sources
Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Raven.” American Review, 1845. Poetry Archives, 8 Sep. 1998. ⬍
article in a journal
Erkkila, Betsy. “The Emily Dickinson Wars.” Emily Dickinson Journal 5.2
(1996): 14 pars. 8 Nov. 1988 ⬍
article in a reference database
“Victorian.” Britannica Online. Vers. 97.1.1 Mar. 1997. Encyclopedia Britannica. 2 Dec.1998 ⬍⬎.
e-mail or listserv
Fulwiler, Toby. “A Question About Electronic Sources.”23 May 2000. E-mail to
the author. U. Vermont.
If you quote a personal message sent by somebody else, be sure to get permission before including his or her address on the “Works Cited” page.
Documenting Other Sources
an unpublished dissertation
Smith, Peter. “Literacy Reconsidered.” Diss. U of Vermont, 1994.
Springsteen, Bruce. Nebraska. Columbia, TC38358, 1982.
Rather, Dan. CBS Evening News. 13 April 1987.
The following research essay examines Ben & Jerry’s Homemade Ice
Cream Company as an institution concerned with issues of both local
and national importance. It was researched and written by the team of
Michelle Anderson, Pamela Jurentkuff, Sandy Martin, Heather Mulcahy,
and Jennifer Stanislaw. The essay gains authority by using both local
and electronic library research, in addition to personal interviews and
Sample Research Paper, MLA Style
site visits. They also composed the essay with a lively, first-person plural
voice (we) to which they added other voices they encountered along
the way.
The essay is not included here as a model for you to follow. Instead,
read it as one possibility for combining formal academic research and the
MLA style with a lively personal voice.
Ben and Jerry’s Homemade Ice Cream Company has developed an international reputation for making “the world’s
best ice cream” while, at the same time, setting a new standard for the social responsibility of American corporations.
Numerous trips to the local scoop shop had already convinced our research team—Pam, Sandy, Heather, Michelle,
and Jennifer—that Ben and Jerry’s ice cream was good;
now we wanted to find out the rest of the scoop.
When you enter the front door of Ben and Jerry’s Homemade Ice Cream Shop in downtown Burlington, Vermont,
you find yourself standing on a clean, tiled, black-and-white
checkered floor. To the left are three dark-red booths with
white tables, just big enough for four people to look out onto
the street while eating their ice cream. The opposite wall is
covered with eight black-and-white spotted cows standing in
a lush, green field, probably somewhere in Vermont. The
sky above them is a bright blue with several white, puffy
Just around the corner are five black steps that lead
to the upstairs where the ice cream is sold. At the top of
the stairs, next to a white metal wastebasket, is a blue plastic sign that says, “We are now recycling spoons!”
On the right wall is the white, chest high ice cream
counter. Behind it a colorful, wooden sign reads, “Today’s
Euphoric Flavors,” listing twenty-nine flavors, including
Cherry Garcia, Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough, Chunky Monkey, Heathbar Crunch, Coffee Heathbar Crunch, New York
Super Fudge Chunk, and Rainforest Crunch. To the left of
the flavors, is a white sign with black writing that tells the
prices—$1.44 for a small, $1.84 for a medium, $2.60 for a
Sitting on the counter, in glass containers, are waffle
Documenting Research Sources
cones, almonds, walnuts, Jimmies, M&Ms, and Reese’s
Pieces. At the end of the counter sits a freezer with factorysecond pints, chocolate chip ice-cream sandwiches, and Peace
Pops—in case you want to take some home with you, which
most people, including us, want to do.
One of the reasons we chose to investigate Ben and
Jerry’s was to find out more about the delicious ice cream
that we love to eat. We asked the person behind the counter, “How do you get the names of the flavors for the ice
“Most of them are pretty basic. Well, like Cherry Garcia was thought up by a Grateful Dead fan in Maine. Some
lady in New Hampshire wrote in with the idea of Chunkey
Monkey. They gave her a lifetime supply of the ice cream
and it turns out she doesn’t even like it” (Martin).
The three workers behind the counter all seem to be
having fun while scooping ice cream and joking with the
steady line of customers. They are all wearing Ben &
Jerry’s T-shirts, but different hats—a blue beret, a baseball
cap, a beanie. We asked the nearest scooper, a young
woman named Susan, “Why do you all wear hats?”
“Actually, it’s a health regulation. We have to keep our
hair back. In the factory they have to wear elastic caps and
all-white sanitary outfits. Here we’re encouraged to have fun
with it. We wear all different types. I’m known for my Viking hat that I often wear. I wear my hair braided, they all
nickname me Helga.”
Another scooper adds: “There are some limitations.
Like they wouldn’t let me wear a hat made out of a pair of
jeans or one out of a paper bag. But I have a great hat
planned for Christmas. It’s a secret though.”
It was clear from our visit to Ben and Jerry’s main
scoop shop in downtown Burlington, that both eating and
serving ice cream could be fun. How, we wondered, did such
a funky business get started?
Ben and Jerry’s Homemade Ice Cream company began when
two old friends from Long Island, Ben Cohen and Jerry
Greenfield, decided to honor a childhood pact that one day
they would go into business together and “do something
more fun” (Hubbard 57). At the time, Ben was working
Sample Research Paper, MLA Style
with emotionally unstable children in New York, and Jerry
was a lab technician in North Carolina. They selected
Burlington, Vermont, as just the right sized rural college
town for a small food business—a food and ice cream emporium, as they first envisioned it (“Solid”). However, neither
Ben nor Jerry had any experience in making ice cream, so
in 1977 they took a five-dollar correspondence course in ice
cream making from Penn State. In 1978 they received a
four thousand dollar loan which, combined with eight thousand dollars in savings, was enough to establish the first
Ben and Jerry’s scoop shop—an old run-down gas station on
the corner of St. Paul and College Street, which opened on
May 5, 1978.
At first Ben and Jerry tried to sell both bagels and ice
cream. As Jerry tells it, “At first it was almost like a race
to see who would sell the most, would it be Ben with his bagels covered with marinated artichoke hearts, mushrooms,
and sliced cucumber? Or Jerry with his Sweet Cream Oreo
ice cream?” (Greene). They saw the handwriting on the wall
when everybody bought the ice cream and nobody bought
the bagels. So at the end of 1979, Ben gave up the bagels
and joined Jerry in the ice cream business.
The ice cream succeeded because it was hand made in
an old fashioned rock salt ice cream maker; the flavors
were original and fun; and they claimed to use only Vermont dairy products and strictly natural ingredients. They
also double-flavored their ice cream, making it with twice as
much flavor as a recipe normally called for. How did they
know how much flavoring was enough? “Well when we first
started, I made the ice cream and Ben tasted it. If Ben
couldn’t tell what flavor the ice cream was with his eyes
closed, he would tell me it needed more flavoring” (Greene).
After a year in business, Ben and Jerry celebrated by
offering free ice cream cones to all their customers. “We always told ourselves that if we were still open after the end
of the first year, we’d give away free cones on or about our
anniversary” (Smith). The demand for their ice cream became so great that often their daily supply was not enough,
forcing them to introduce the International No Ice Cream
Sign, a cone with a red slash through it symbolizing that
there is no ice cream left for the day.
However, it took time and practice to perfect their recipes. Jerry remembers, “I once made a batch of Rum Raisin
Documenting Research Sources
that stretched and bounced” (Hubbard 57). By 1981, however, through the process of trial and error, they were
noted in Time magazine for making “The best ice cream in
the world” (“They”).
By 1983, the small shop in downtown Burlington could
not generate enough ice cream to keep up with the streams
of customers that poured in each day, so they relocated
their main store to Cherry Street and their production facilities to the outskirts of town. By 1986, when they launched
a nationwide campaign, distributing free ice cream around
the country from a black and white “Cowmobile,” they
needed an even larger plant, so they reestablished their
headquarters in Waterbury, Vermont, some forty miles east
of Burlington, where they continue to produce the majority
of their ice cream.
Our research team toured the Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream
Plant in Waterbury to see how the ice cream is actually
made. The main lobby smelled like peppermint and was
packed with people holding ice cream cones in one hand and
T-shirts, sweatshirts, bumper stickers, boxer shorts, cow
socks, and hats in the other. We were surprised to find so
many people there in the middle of the week in the middle
of a Vermont winter.
We arrived just in time to take the noon tour. We
joined a dozen other people and slowly followed our tour
guide, Rick, into a long corridor with light green trees, pale
yellow flowers, and bright pink birds painted on the walls. A
tape recording of toucans and other tropical birds played in
the background—“Vermont’s only tropical rain forest,” Rick
From the rain forest we entered another long hallway
with a large window that looked down over the production
room where the ice cream is made. The number 44,560 was
painted in big, black, bold numbers on the wall. This is their
record pint production for a seventeen hour period, enough
ice cream for an individual to eat a pint a day for one hundred ninety-six years. You might think that this is a lot of
ice cream, but every employee takes home three pints a
day. “It’s a wonderful benefit,” Rick explained, “but not too
good for the waistline, which is why Ben & Jerry’s also
Sample Research Paper, MLA Style
offers a free health club membership to everyone that
works there.”
The ice cream begins in the Blend Tank, a two hundred
forty lb. stainless steel tank that combines Vermont milk,
cream, egg yolks, unrefined sugar, and the flavor of the
day. From there, the mix is sent in big vats to the thirtysix degree Tank Room, where it sits for four to eight hours
before it receives further flavoring.
The plant has two production lines. On this day, one
was making Coffee Heath Bar Crunch and the other Mint
Oreo, which are good sellers, but not their top sellers. The
current top five flavors are Heath Bar Crunch, New York
Super Fudge Chunk, Cherry Garcia, Rainforest Crunch, and
Chunkey Monkey, flavors that have proved popular year in
and year out in all parts of the country.
From the Tank Room, the mix moves into four, three
hundred gallon Flavor Vats, so they can put in the peppermint extract for the Mint Oreo and the coffee extract for
the Coffee Heath Bar Crunch. From the Flavor Vat, the mix
goes to the Fruit Feeder, where they mix in big chunks of
Oreos or Heath Bar or whatever chunks they need for the
ice cream they are producing on that day.
After all the ingredients are put into the mix, the
mix is sent through a freezer made to hold seven hundred
fifty gallons of ice cream, turned by a crank which adds
air to the ice cream. Companies are allowed up to a 100%
overrun—for every one gallon of mix, two gallons of ice
cream should come out. However, Rick told us that “Ben &
Jerry’s has a twenty percent overrun, making it much
thicker than standard commercial ice cream found in supermarkets.”
The automatic filler fills the pints, sometimes in the
wrong container. When this happens, the pint becomes a
“factory second” and is sold in local stores in Vermont at a
lower price. Vermonters are used to finding the “seconds”
freezers full, but according to Rick, only two percent of
their pints become factory seconds. Mistakes are identified
in the Quality Control Room, where every hour four pints
are taken and tested for color, taste, texture, and consistency.
The packaged ice cream is then sent to the Spiral
Hardening Tunnel to be frozen solid at thirty-five degrees
below zero. A life size doll, called “Freezer Fred,” sits in a
Documenting Research Sources
snowsuit watching the ice cream as it passes through the
tunnel. We poked our noses into the tunnel, but did not stay
long. After that, the packages are sent to shipping for distribution throughout the country.
We enjoyed the thirty-minute tour, but felt a little selfconscious because we were the only ones taking notes. One
man in the production room picked up a pad of paper and
started taking notes to mimic us. At one point, Rick said
over the loud speaker, “Looks like we have a lot of people
taking notes here today, doesn’t it?” Our faces turned red
and we all started laughing. But in the end, Rick gave us
free ice cream to take home, which is exactly what we
hoped for. (For more information about Ben & Jerry’s factory tours, see their site on the World Wide Web: http://
The tour impressed us, and the cleanliness and
efficiency of the whole operation made it clear that the
workers enjoy their jobs. But we still wondered where the
Ben & Jerry’s reputation as a “socially responsible company” came from, so we continued our investigation.
According to a story in People magazine, by 1984 Ben realized that, “We’re no longer ice cream men, but businessmen” (Hubbard 58). Since their opening in 1978, their
profits increased annually. Being businessmen instead of icecream men, however, made the two old friends nervous. As
Ben said in a Washington Post interview, “We were sitting
at desks, and we were people’s bosses and giving orders.
Growing up in the 60s, being a businessman wasn’t a cool
thing to do. I started feeling we were a cog in the economic
machine” (Kurtz). How much of a cog you wonder? Their
most recent net sales for the quarter ending April 1, 1995,
were $34,205,000, up from $32,191,000 for the same time
the previous year (“Ben & Jerry’s First”).
However, Ben and Jerry also realized that just because
they were successful businessmen who made money, they
didn’t have to change what they believed in. In fact, their
substantial annual income allows them to make a profit and
give to their community at the same time. Jerry explained,
“Early on, we knew that if we stayed in the business, it
was because of the support of a lot of people, so it seemed
natural to want to return that support” (Hubbard 55). They
Sample Research Paper, MLA Style
began to sell public stocks to Vermonters to keep their center of operations within the state.
Ben and Jerry believe in a concept called “Caring Capitalism and Social Activism,” which means giving a percent
of the profits back to the community. Every day seven-anda-half percent of the company’s profits go to a worthy
nonprofitable organization and to preserving the environment. They developed a Statement of Mission, which
explains the product mission, the social mission, and the
economic mission:
Product Mission—To make, distribute, and sell the finest quality, all
natural ice cream and related products in a wide variety of innovative
flavors made from Vermont dairy products.
Social Mission—To operate the company in a way that actively recognizes the central role that business plays in the structure of society by
initiating innovative ways to improve the quality of life of a broad
community—local, national, and international.
Economic Mission—To operate the company on a sound financial basis of profitable growth, increasing value for our shareholders,
and creating career opportunities and financial rewards for our employees.
Underlying the mission of Ben and Jerry’s is the determination to seek new and creative ways of addressing all three
parts, while holding a deep respect for the individuals, inside and outside the company, and for the communities of
which they are a part. (About 5)
Part of their social mission is evident in the program called
“One Percent for Peace,” a campaign that advocates redirecting one percent of the United States defense budget to a
global effort “to solve world problems of hunger, disease,
the environment, poverty, and human rights” (Kurtz).
Whenever you buy a Peace Pop, chocolate covered ice cream
on a stick, you help promote this campaign.
In addition to promoting peace, Ben and Jerry’s promotes helping people. According to Ben and Jerry’s Annual
Report, Greyston Bakery, based in Yonkers, New York, supplies Ben and Jerry’s with brownies for use in their
Brownie Bars and their Chocolate Fudge Brownie Ice Cream.
The bakery employees are people who are unemployed and
without homes who are trying to better themselves and improve their lifestyles. Greyston donates the majority of its
Documenting Research Sources
profits to programs that “assist such disadvantaged citizens
in becoming economic and social contributors to the community” (Severance 7).
The company’s social concerns include consumer health
issues. Recently, Ben & Jerry’s has taken a stand against
using dairy products from cows injected with bovine growth
hormones (BGH) that are meant to increase milk production. They argue that artificially injected hormones may affect the quality of the milk as well as pose health risks for
consumers. Consequently, though the Food and Drug Administration does not require it, they label their packaged ice
cream as BGH free (“Ben & Jerry’s Position”).
Ben & Jerry’s also promotes environmental issues,
such as saving the rain forests in Brazil by directing a percent of the profits from Rainforest Crunch ice cream and
Rain Forest Buttercrunch candy, which is manufactured by
Community Products Inc. of Montpelier, VT, a company
founded in 1989 and directed by Ben Cohen. Both the ice
cream and candy contain Brazil and cashew nuts purchased
from Cultural Survival, a human rights organization, which
is using the profits to set up Brazil nut processing plants
owned and operated by natives of Brazil. They provide a
market for rainforest products which helps to decrease the
destruction of the forests.
Closer to home, Ben and Jerry’s does all it can to contribute to the safety of the environment. Remember that
sign about recycling spoons when you first entered the
Burlington scoop shop? At every Ben and Jerry’s scoop
shop there are big buckets for depositing used plastic
spoons. On every table the napkin dispensers have a sign
saying, “Save a tree, please take only one napkin.” Presently, they are recycling approximately sixty percent of
their paper supply products either to outside recyclers or
for internal use as note paper. The company is now looking
for an alternative material for their pint containers, because
they are made from paperboard and covered with a plastic
coating for moisture resistance. “As a result of this and
other recycling efforts, we have reduced our solid waste volume by about 30 percent this year” (Severance 6).
Ben and Jerry’s is a growing enterprise which shows
continued signs of world-wide expansion, not only because
they make and market an excellent product, but because
they care about the future of the planet. Their sociallyresponsible and profitable business practices have gained the
A Note on APA Documentation
partners the support of both environmentalists and the business community. The wonderful tastes of their Heath Bar
Crunch and Chunky Monkey have gained them our support
as well.
Works Cited
About Ben & Jerry. Pamphlet. Burlington, VT 1.
“Ben & Jerry’s Homemade, Inc. Announces 1995 First Quarter Results.”
25 November 1996.
“Ben & Jerry’s Position on BGH.” http:/ 25 November 1996.
“Ben and Jerry’s Sells Boston Franchises.” The Burlington Free Press 5 June
1984: B1.
Greene, Robert. Personal interview. 30 October 1984.
Hubbard, Kim. “For New Age Ice Cream Moguls Ben and Jerry, Making
‘Cherry Garcia’ and ‘Chunkey Monkey’ Is A Labor of Love.” People 1990,
Kurtz, Howard. “Ben and Jerry: Premium Ice Cream Sprinkled with Liberal
Ideology.” Washington Post 4, Oct. 1989: A3.
Martin, Sandy. Personal interview. 12 October 1990.
Severance, Lyn.Ben & Jerry’s Annual Report.Boston: Daniels Printing 1995.
Smith, James L. “Ben and Jerry’s Homemade Meltdown of Total Pleasure.”
Rutland Herald, 23, Feb 1981: 2.
“Their Ice Cream Takes the Cake.”Sunday Times Union 26 Sep. 1982: C1.
“They All Scream For It.” Time 10 Aug. 1981: 42.
Papers written for disciplines in the social sciences, business, and education use the name-and-date system of documentation put forth by the
American Psychological Association (APA). The APA citation style highlights dates of publication following authors’ names in the text; each paper
concludes with a “References” page (similar to MLA’s “Works Cited” page)
where the full citation can be found. While APA citations contain the same
information as MLA citations, the details for citing entries differ in a number of ways. If an instructor asks you to follow APA documentation style,
consult the APA Web page ⬍⬎ or the Publication
Manual of the American Psychological Association, 5th ed. (Washington:
APA, 2001).
1. Mark the passages in the Ben & Jerry’s research essay that you most
enjoy. Mark those that seem dull or tedious. Explain the difference.
Documenting Research Sources
2. Name an institution in your community that would lend itself to
both an on-site investigation as well as library research. Imagine at
least two different approaches or angles you might take if you investigated this institution.
1. INDIVIDUAL: Select an institution that exists within a one-mile radius of where you live. Visit that institution, interview employees
and customers and, if possible, take a guided tour. Then collect any
artifacts and photograph or photocopy any printed material put out
by this place. Finally, look up its history by checking local records, libraries, or newspapers. Write a first-person story—a personal research essay—detailing the process and results of your research.
2. COLLABORATIVE: Do assignment number one by selecting a team
of classmates to help you. Either select an institution and recruit
co-researchers or team up and together select an institution to
Section IV
Chapter Thirteen
This class has finally taught me that rewriting isn’t just
about correcting and proofreading, but about expanding my
ideas, trying experiments, and taking risks. Why did it take
me so long to learn this? And why don’t I do it on all my
Yes, Rachel, rewriting is about expanding ideas, trying experiments, and
taking risks. It’s also chancy, unpredictable, laborious, frustrating—and impossible to do if you don’t make time for it. But in every way, it makes your
writing better. There are no guarantees, no formulas, no shortcuts. How
and when then, do we learn to rewrite? I do it all the time, yet I’m not always sure what I’m doing. Often when I rewrite, I don’t know exactly
what I’m looking for, but recognize the need for change when I see it. I
doubt I ever rewrite the same way twice, sometimes starting here, sometimes there, but I always do rewrite, and because I do, my writing always
gets at least a little better than it was before.
Revising differs from editing. Revision is conceptual work, where I
reread, rethink, and reconstruct my thoughts on paper until they match
those in my mind. Revising is reseeing my approach, topic, argument, evidence, organization, and conclusion, and experimenting with change.
In contrast, editing is stylistic work, changing language more than ideas.
I usually edit after I know what to say, testing each word or phrase to
see if it is necessary, accurate, and correct. The last stage of editing is
Options for Revision
proofreading, checking spelling, punctuation, capitalization, and the like.
(See Chapter Fourteen, “Options for Editing”).
It makes more sense to revise before you edit, to attend to conceptual matters first, then to fine-tune your sentences. But don’t be worried if
sometimes you revise and edit simultaneously. In my own case, there are
times when I can’t develop an idea further until I get a certain sentence or
paragraph just right, where the revising and editing simply blur. As a
writer, what I’ve learned above all else is “There ain’t no rules” that apply
to every situation—only good suggestions that sometimes work better
than other times.
Much that has to do with writing is a matter of habit and time. To change
writing habits or find more time, remind yourself that all writing by all
writers gets better when returned to, reviewed, and revised. If you want to
improve your writing, from now on, plan for revision. Plan to make more
Start Today
If an essay, report, or story is due next week, start this week, no matter if
you have all your information and ideas or not, no matter how otherwise
busy you are. Beginning to write, even for ten minutes, will start the incubation process in your own mind, and you’ll actually be working on the
paper in your subconscious as you go about your daily business. You cannot revise if you haven’t first written. Start your papers before the night
before they are due.
Set Deadlines
All writers are deadline writers. Learn that deadlines are friends, not enemies. Use the external deadlines set by the assignment, then create your
own internal ones to get it done on time. Plan at the outset to finish on
time. And plan for at least three drafts—one rough, one revised, one edited—or more. I always do more.
Keep a Revision Notebook
Make a point of writing about revision in your journal or class notebook.
Record notes about books, authors, and articles related to your project.
Capture ideas about theme, direction, and purpose. Writing informally
about your revision plans will almost certainly advance the project in useful and surprising ways.
Compose with a Computer
Computers make rewriting almost easy. Save early drafts by relabeling files;
that way you always have early copy to restore in case you change your
mind. If you don’t have access to a computer, try to make at least one
typed draft before the final one: Typed words give you greater distance
from your own ideas and invite more possibilities for change. For early
drafts, start a new file each time and see what else your paper can become.
You can always merge files later on and synthesize your several insights.
(And always make backup files [copies] of every paper on separate disks,
in case a disk or drive goes bad!)
Prepare to Let Go
Treat first drafts as language experiments, meant to be changed, even discarded. No matter how much you like the draft as you write and just after
you finish, know that you will like it less the next day, even less the day after. And that’s okay! Sometimes there are exceptions, and your first language will stand the test of time; that will be wonderful, but don’t plan on
it happening.
Some of the following specific practices may help you revise.
Revise for Ideas
Focus on what you want and need to say, try to get that out, and worry
later about how it looks. Keep rereading and keep asking yourself: What is
my story? What else should be included? What’s no longer necessary? At
this stage, don’t worry too much about sentence structure, word choice,
spelling, or punctuation. (It’s not an efficient use of your time to carefully
edit a paragraph which you later delete because the gist of your paper
Establish Distance
Let your draft sit overnight. When you return to it the next day, you’ll see
more clearly what works well, what doesn’t, and where it can be improved. Do the same for each draft, returning later to see freshly.
Believe and Doubt
Read your first draft, trying to believe everything you’ve written; put
check marks next to the passages that are most convincing. Read your
Options for Revision
draft again, this time trying to find places that don’t convince you; put an
X next to each such passage. Revise accordingly.
Ask, So What?
Writing should teach readers something. Reread your paper and, at the
end, ask what have you learned. If you’re not sure, it’s time to revise.
Evaluate Evidence
To convince readers that your claims or assertions are good ones, double
check your facts and examples, and ask: What evidence supports my thesis
or advances my theme? What objections can be raised about this evidence? What additional evidence will answer these objections?
Find the Center
Gloss each paragraph by writing in the margins about its central idea. If
there is more than one idea, should there be more than one paragraph?
Use the margin notes to reassess the arrangement of your paragraphs: Are
related paragraphs kept together? Does a different arrangement suggest itself? Is the beginning, middle, and end as you want it?
Limit and Focus Close
When you’re describing a personal experience, write a second draft that
tells what happened during one small moment of that experience—an important day or hour of the story. Focus close on the details of setting, character, and action. When you’re writing a paper based on research, write
the second draft about one small part of your story. In either case, ask detail questions: What time of day? Where did this happen? Who else was
there? What words were said? What color, size, and shape was it? What ran
through your mind? This limited draft does not need to be your final version of the story, but the careful details here may suggest how to add similar details to other parts of your story, or what to emphasize and what not
to emphasize in your final draft.
Add Research Information
Find supporting information in the library or on the Internet that will
make your case stronger. In addition, wherever appropriate, interview
experts in the field; quoting people adds both useful support and liveliness to your writing. And where appropriate, visit places and carry that information back into your paper by your own careful observation and note
taking. Remember, personal narratives as well as research essays will
benefit from conveying accurately recalled information, and such information is often most accurately recalled by returning to the site of the experience.
Switch Positions and Points of View
Sometimes, when your writing seems especially dull, stuck, or blocked,
consider switching perspectives. Consider adopting another point of
view: If you’ve been telling your story from the first-person point of view,
switch to third person. Or write a draft from your opponent’s perspective—seeing the other side lets you answer questions before someone
thinks to ask them. Likewise, if you’ve been writing in past tense, try a
draft in the present tense. Any of these seemingly mechanical changes actually cause interesting conceptual shifts and add new life to old ideas.
Let Form Follow Content
Writing can be, do, and look like anything you want it to. There are, of
course, certain conventions, and following these usually helps readers understand you. Don’t be afraid to experiment with form: Is your story best
told as a report? Would it make sense as an exchange of letters? As recreated journal entries? As drama? Does it need to be logical? Chronological? See what happens to your ideas in these alternate forms: They may
continue to metamorphose and enter still newer territory.
Reconsider Everything
When you return to your draft, reconsider the whole text. If you change
the information on one page, it may change ideas on another. If a classmate
or instructor suggests improvements on some pages, don’t assume the
others are perfect. Even when you return to a draft that you think just
needs a conclusion, reread the whole thing all over, from start to finish,
with an eye toward still other possible changes. The conclusion may be all
the old paper needed when last you read it, but don’t stand pat: Keep looking for what else could happen to the story you are telling.
Play with Titles, Introductions, and Conclusions
Beginnings and endings are emphatic, highly visible points in any paper.
Provocative titles catch readers’ attention. Good introductions keep readers going. Powerful conclusions leave strong memories in readers’ minds.
But these same elements work on the writer as well as the reader, as a
good title, introduction, or conclusion can suggest changes for what
Options for Revision
follows (or precedes). Sometimes these elements come first—as controlling ideas—sometimes later, but in any case they can capture (or recapture) the essence of your paper, telling you what to keep and what to cut.
Rewrite to Your Audience
Keep your teacher or several skeptical classmates in mind as you reread.
Of course your writing is clear to you, but ask: What information do they
need to know that I already take for granted? Then put it in because they’ll
understand you better.
Seek Response
As soon as you have enough copy in reasonable shape, show it to someone you trust and get his or her reaction. Another person can often
see what you cannot. Most good writers ask others to read and react to
their work before the final copy is due. Listen, don’t be defensive, and take
good notes, but you needn’t feel obligated to take all the suggestions
you’re given.
Listen for Your Voice
Finally, read your paper out loud and see if it sounds like you—your ideas,
your commitments, your style. If it doesn’t, revise so that it does.
Let me share one personal essay—an imaginatively treated factual essay—
that went through several of the revision moves discussed above, eventually combining authentic personal experience with a fictive form. In writing a personal narrative, Joan, a twenty-year-old first-year student, chose to
write about the year after she graduated from high school, when she
worked as a waitress at a Dunkin’ Donuts coffee shop. Her first draft was
lively and in the form of a conventional narrative.
I was a Dunkin’ Donuts girl. Just another face behind a
pink hat and a grease-stained uniform. The job could have
been degrading if I ever let it get under my skin. To get the
job I had to be able to count out a dollar’s worth of change
and read.
While this opening was especially lively, the rest of the piece was not, so
Joan decided to play with her format, and revised it as if it were a letter
home to her mom:
One Experiment with Revision
Dear Mom,
If you could see me now . . . I’m a Dunkin’ Donuts
girl. I was so tired of job hunting day after day that when I
found work here I couldn’t say no. I was kind of surprised
that I was hired right off the street, without any questions
about my work experience or character, but I’m not complaining. It will put food on the table and gas in the car.
Here Joan is trying to imitate a real letter home. However, the form seemed
limited unless she fashioned a series of letters to show her involvement over time, and then she figured she’d have to write some from her
mother as well, so she continued to ask herself: “What’s the story I want to
Narrative writing usually gains by close focus and concrete detail.
Joan wanted to focus close enough to show us her daily life in the donut
shop, by showing her behind-the-counter perspective (“Each customer
got only one napkin because they cost three and a half cents apiece.”) But
the real story Joan wanted to tell involved both her feelings in the shop
itself, and her progressive disillusionment working there over several
months. In fact, this latter was her actual theme, so her problem became
one of form: Which form would best contain both the nitty-gritty, everyday
detail and yet cover a time span of three months?
Joan kept experimenting with format, voice, time, and tense, until
she found one in which she could tell her story—a daily diary. While
fictive (Joan had not kept a diary during those months) the diary format
solved problems of detail, time, and psychological involvement nicely:
Here she could convincingly portray time passing, keep her piece rich in
detail, and avoid sweeping generalizations. Her diary starts with this entry:
Oct. 18 I’ve driven into Augusta everyday looking for work,
but no one’s hiring. Today for the twenty-fifth time I asked
“Who would I talk to about applying for a job here?” And
for the twenty-fifth time I was told “I’m sorry, but we’re
not hiring right now. But if you’d care to fill out an application anyway . . .” It takes every bit of strength I’ve got to
walk out the door with my head up.
Joan is taking personal-experience writing an imaginative step further.
She’s making up a format, inventing dates, recreating dialogue, and reimagining details to carry the truth she wants to tell, which is essentially
what great imaginative writers do. And she’s finding room for this in her
composition class, where format is wide open. Her diary continues after
she finally finds a job at Dunkin’ Donuts.
Options for Revision
Oct. 29 My work outfit is a khaki dress, garnished with an
orange apron and a pink jockey hat. The clothes are old and
worn, grease-stained and mended by hand with many colors
of thread.
I tried the uniform on, adding a pair of old white
nurse’s shoes from the depth of my closet, and went to admire myself in the mirror. My reflection took me by surprise—I looked just like every Dunkin’ Donuts girl I’ve ever
seen! The only part of me left was my face.
Tomorrow is my first day. Already I’m nervous, wondering if I’ll do a good job.
Joan’s writing solution allows her to describe her experiences with purposeful immediacy, yet keep the reader suspensefully in the present, with
Joan herself quite close. We can see her as a Dunkin’ Donuts girl because
she has real facts and colors there, but had she forgotten the details of the
uniform, she could have made a coffee stop at another Dunkin’ Donuts to
recapture what she’d forgotten. In the following entry, Joan imagines concretely a dimly remembered piece of conversation to add credibility to her
Nov. 23 I almost quit my job today, and I’m not sure why I
didn’t. Mr. Stacy brought me face to face with his temper,
and it lives up to its reputation. He went wild, yelling and
swearing at me because I only had two pots of coffee made
and he thought there should be more. He shouted, “Customers equal money, see? And we can’t have customers
without coffee, can we? You have to watch these things!”
Unlike informational or argumentative essays, narratives seldom start with
a strong thesis stated right up front: “Dear Reader, let me tell you about
how I became disillusioned with my job as a fast-food worker and how I
decided to attend college instead.” Joan’s implied thesis approach lets the
reader see the process of disillusionment as it actually occurred over a period of several months. Here is Joan’s last entry:
Dec. 7 I wonder how much longer I’ll be at Dunkin’ Donuts.
There’s no room here to move up or get a raise. I can’t
imagine doing this job for another ten or fifteen years, like
some of these people I work with. The turnover is high and
the names on the schedule change every week. . . . Starting
to look at “Help Wanted” ads again—or did I ever stop?
Experiments in Revision
Joan’s final draft diary totaled seven entries which together completed her
five-page personal essay. There were many other more conventional ways
she might have told the same tale—as a narrative focusing on highlights, as
a series of flashbacks from her present college life, as part of a larger essay
on work, etc. For Joan, writing the narrative assignment in an alternate
form brought it to life in a way both she as writer and I as reader thoroughly enjoyed.
Revision is a good time to experiment with theme, voice, tense, point of
view, style, and genre. Such experiments often create texts that recreate
your thinking about a subject, and sometimes the changes are more
superficial or cosmetic. The problem is, you can’t tell unless you do the
writing and see what it does to your thinking. The following are some
ideas for reseeing and reinventing assignments—instructor willing.
Role Play
Assume the perspective of someone else and attempt to write as consistently as possible from that perspective, seeing the situation as that person
is constrained to see it. For example, describing life in the pre-Civil War
South from the point of view of slave Frederick Douglass, or from the
point of view of his white Christian master or mistress. A good format for
such an assignment might be an exchange of letters, a dramatic scenario,
or an imaginary interview on a late night talk show; in other words, in addition to recreating each character’s voice accurately, I would hold my
piece together in a format in which these characters would actually speak
their opinion—imagined yet authentic.
Invent Dialogue
Ask in what circumstances would these two characters be likely to meet
and talk? If, for example, you were to recreate a conversation between Edgar Allen Poe and Walt Whitman, it might be set in either a bar or an open
field—depending on whose turf you wished to dwell.
Write in the style of the work you are studying. For example, you might be
explaining or interpreting a passage of James Joyce and you run your sentences together as he does in the style usually called stream of consciousness. Or you might attempt to mimic the prose or poetry of a favorite
Options for Revision
writer. Or you might recreate the political speech of a president or the patter of a game show hostess. It helps to imitate a stylistic extremist, someone whose writing is clearly distinctive. In any case, to do this effectively,
you need a thorough knowledge of the style, which you might gain by
practicing it in your journal before you tackle it on the assignment itself.
Invent new endings for classic works, such as a new ending for the Shakespeare play Hamlet. First figure out what thematic difference it made that
X now happened rather than Y, then recreate the act/scene/line format of
the original play, paying attention to the small details, such as stage directions.
Pose Hypothetical Situations
You are a vice-president in charge of developing new uses for the bricks
your company manufactures. Your task is to write a report explaining
some of these new options to the company board of directors and recommend a marketing plan. Here you must stick close to the style and format
of a real company report: I would be sure to use a formal title page, lots of
subheadings, and include graphs and charts. You have fun—and prove you
know a hell of a lot about bricks, corporate development, and report writing all at once!
Write a spoof or satire about something serious. Parody is a well respected
genre in its own right. Think of Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” or
Mad Magazine or National Lampoon. A parody is a possible response to
any serious content, especially if the writer wishes to make a point at the
expense of some of that content. Before tackling parody, lest people think
you are taking an easy way out, know well the object of your parody; be
consistent in the voice, theme, and format, and write carefully!
1. Describe your own revision habits. How do they compare with
some of the suggestions in this chapter? Which ideas here seem especially useful? Which do not?
2. When you read the passages about imitation, imagination, and parody in this chapter, what author or work came first to mind? What
Experiments in Revision
element of this author or work would you choose to imitate, recreate, or parody?
1. Select one assignment for a course you are now taking and revise it
according to some of the ideas in this chapter. (If you intend to
hand it in for a different course, hand it in to that instructor first,
then to your writing instructor.)
2. Select one paper already written for this (or another) course and rewrite it in an alternate form, keeping intact the essential ideas of the
original piece.
1. INDIVIDUAL: Research the literature of revision and see if you can
discover what well-known writers have to say about the subject. See
for example, the several volumes of interviews published by the
Paris Review; also search the New York Times Book Review and biographies or autobiographies of your favorite fiction or nonfiction
2. COLLABORATIVE: Each student in the class can interview a selected
professor from a group who is known to publish frequently—one
who writes textbooks, has books displayed in the bookstore, or
shows up in authorial searches in the library. Ask these publishing
professors about their revision habits: When and where do they revise? How often? With what specific intentions? Do they have any
samples to share? Do they have any advice for student writers?
Write up in summary or interview form the results of these investigations, select class editors, and compile the results of these interviews in a class-written guidebook to revision (see Postscript Three).
Chapter Fourteen
How do you know when your writing is done? Me, I’m
never sure when it’s done, when it’s good enough. I mean,
if it says basically what I want it to say, who cares how
pretty it is?
I agree with Tom that writing need not be “pretty,” but I wouldn’t be
satisfied with writing that “says basically what I want it to say.” I want
my writing to say exactly what I want it to say—which is where editing
comes in.
Editing is finishing. Editing is making a text convey precisely what
you intend in the clearest way possible. Editing is sentence-level work, attended to after a text’s ideas are in order. Editing is polishing to make the
paragraphs, the sentences, and the individual words communicate carefully, accurately, and correctly with clarity, style, and grace. Edit first for
clarity, to make sure your purpose is clear to your audience. Edit also for a
style appropriate for the occasion. Finally, edit for grace—some sense that
this text is not only clearly and appropriately written, but that it is enjoyable, moving, and even memorable. At the same time, remember that editing is more a matter of making choices than following rules.
Sentences are written in relation to other sentences, seldom by themselves. Attention so far has been with the larger, more conceptual
Editing Suggestions
concerns in composing. This chapter focuses on the elements that make
sentences strong. First, look at particular words within sentences, especially nouns, verbs, and modifiers. Second, consider the importance of
rhythm and emphasis in whole sentences. And finally, identify and avoid
the common problems of wordiness, clichés, jargon, passive constructions,
and biased language. The following suggestions will help.
• Edit for concrete nouns. Nouns label or identify persons (man,
Gregory), animals (dog, retriever), places (city, Boston), things
(book, Ulysses), or ideas (conservation, Greater Yellowstone Coalition). Abstract nouns stand for general classes or categories of
things (man, dog, city), while concrete nouns refer to specific particular things (Gregory, retriever, Boston). Notice that concrete
nouns let you see specific images (not just any dog, but a retriever), which in turn appeal more strongly to a reader’s senses (I
can see the dog!) than abstract nouns, and create a more vivid and
lively reading experience.
• Edit for action verbs. Action verbs do something in your sentences; they make something happen. Action verbs walk, stride,
run, jump, fly, hum, sing, sail, swim, lean, fall, stop, look, listen, sit,
state, decide, choose, and conclude—all these words and hundreds more are action verbs. But static verbs are words that simply
appear to describe how something is, like the verbs are, appear,
and is in this sentence. Action verbs, like concrete nouns, appeal
to the senses, letting us see, hear, touch, taste, or smell something.
Thus they too create more vivid images for readers, drawing them
more deeply into our story.
Sometimes we write noun phrases as substitutes for action.
In the sentence, We need to reach a decision, the phrase reach a
decision substitutes for the simpler, stronger verb decide. Whenever you find yourself writing with noun phrases, consider how to
transpose them into action verbs:
reach a decision
make a choice
hold a meeting
formulate a plan
arrive at a conclusion
have a discussion
• Edit to modify carefully and selectively. Well-chosen modi-
fiers can individualize both nouns and verbs, making them more
detailed, concrete, and more appealing to the senses. Modifiers
which amplify nouns are called adjectives (yellow car); those that
amplify verbs are called adverbs (listen closely). Modifiers convey
useful clarifying information and help us see situations more vividly and realistically.
Options for Editing
It is possible, however, to add so many modifiers that they
distract from, rather than enhance, the paragraph’s central purpose. To describe a car as really ugly, dull, rusted, chipped, and
pale yellow calls extra attention to the car; you’ll need to decide
whether that suits your purpose or creates a distraction. In other
words, you can edit out modifiers as well as edit them in.But that’s
what editing is all about: looking carefully, trying out new things,
settling for the effect that pleases you the most.
Finally, not all modifiers are created equal: Specific modifiers
which add descriptive information about size, shape, color, texture, speed, and so on, appeal to your senses and usually make your
writing more realistic and vivid. But more general modifiers such
as the adjectives pretty, beautiful, good, bad, ugly, young, or old
can actually weaken sentences by adding extra words that do not
convey specific or vital information. And the adverbs very, really,
and truly can have the same weakening effect because these
words are so commonly overused that they provide no additional
clarifying information.
• Edit for pleasing rhythms. Rhythm is the sound sentences
make when you hear them out loud. Some rhythms sound natural,
like a real person in a conversation. Such sentences are easy to follow and understand, and are usually pleasing to the ear. Others
sound awkward and forced; they make comprehension difficult
and offend the ear. In most cases of college writing, it pays to read
your sentences out loud and see if they sound like a real human
being talking. To make sentence clusters sound better, try increasing sentence variety and making parallel constructions.
Varied sentence patterns make sentence clusters more clear
and enjoyable for readers. In the following example, the first long
sentence is followed by a short one, creating an easily understood
and pleasing rhythm:
We looked at the old yellow Pontiac, noticing its dented doors,
rusty bumpers, and oil leak, and realized we could afford to fix
them all. We bought it on the spot.
Parallel constructions repeat an identical grammatical pattern within the same sentence, which has the effect of reinforcing
a comparison or contrast. Parallelism creates symmetry and balance,
makes an idea easier to remember, and more pleasing to the ear.
A battle is being waged between environmental conservationists
who support the reintroduction of wolves, and sheep and cattle
farmers and western hunters who oppose it.
Editing Suggestions
The parallelism is established by the repetition of the word who.
The effect is to clearly separate these opposing forces into two distinct opponents, those who are for it and those who are against it.
• Edit for emphasis. As with paragraphs, so with sentences, the
most emphatic place is last.When you end-weight a sentence, you
place the information that is older, less essential, contextual, or introductory earlier in the sentence, so that the sentence ends with
the idea you most want your reader to remember. Notice the difference in emphasis in the following version of the same idea:
1. If you want to buy the yellow car, act now.
2. Act now if you want to buy the yellow car.
Either is correct, but you would choose the first to emphasize the
need to act, the second to emphasize the car itself. Which one you
choose will depend upon the effect you want to convey.
• Edit wordy sentences. Cut out words that do not pull their
weight or add meaning, rhythm, or emphasis. Look, for example, at
this set of sentences, each of which says essentially the same
1. In almost every situation that I can think of, with few exceptions, it will make good sense for you to look for as many
places as possible to cut out needless, redundant, and repetitive words from the papers and reports, paragraphs, and sentences you write for college assignments. [forty-eight words]
2. In most situations it makes good sense to cut out needless
words from your college papers. [sixteen words]
3. Whenever possible, omit needless words from your writing.
[eight words]
4. Omit needless words. [three words]
In the forty-eight-word sentence you can almost watch the writer
finding his or her way while writing. By simply eliminating repetitious or awkward words, the same idea condenses to the sixteenword sentence, saying much the same thing with one-third the
number of words. Only the end is recast: “from the papers and reports, paragraphs, and sentences you write for college assignments” to “from your college papers.”
Careful rephrasing reduces the sixteen-word sentence by
half, resulting in a good strong eight-word sentence. If an even
briefer imperative is called for, you write this three-word sentence,
“Omit needless words.” While the first sentence is wordy by any
standard, each of the next three might serve well in different situations. When you edit to make language more concise, you need to
think about the overall effect you intend to create. Sometimes the
briefest construction is not the best construction for all purposes.
Options for Editing
The best test of whether words are pulling their own weight,
as well as whether they are rhythmic, balanced, and emphatic, is to
read the passage out loud and let your ear tell you what’s sharp
and clear and what could be sharper and clearer.
Edit out clichés. Clichés have been heard so often that they lose
their power to convey an original thought. The test to apply is
whether you write the phrase you remember hearing in the same
exact words as before, especially more than once. If so, look for a
fresher construction that is your own. Common clichés to avoid
would include the following:
the last straw
better late than never
without further ado
the handwriting on the wall
tried and true
last but not least
lay the cards on the table
jump starting the economy
Each of these phrases once captured attention because it was
new and fresh (usually a new metaphor or a pleasant alliteration);
however, each has since been overused so that now we listen
right through it, perhaps even noting that the writer is not very
thoughtful or original.
Edit passive constructions. A construction is passive when
something is done to the subject of the sentence rather than the
subject doing something: John wrote the letter is an active sentence, with the subject John doing the action in the sentence;
however, The letter was written by John is passive. Not only is the
second sentence needlessly longer by two words, it takes a second
or two longer to understand since it seems an unnatural way to
make that assertion. Passive constructions are indirect, tiresome,
and risk putting readers to sleep.
Edit biased language. Writing should not hurt people. Review
your drafts to make sure your language doesn’t discriminate
against categories of people based on gender, race, ethnicity, or social class—issues about which most of your college instructors
will be sensitive.
Eliminate sexism. Sexist language is biased for or against one
gender. The most common occurrence of sexist language is the
use of the words man or men to stand for human beings or people, which seems to omit women from participation in the species. Since the 1970s, Americans have been sensitized to the notso-subtle bias against women embedded in our historical use of
Editing Suggestions
the English language. Texts written in earlier decades took masculine sexist pronouns for granted, using the words man, men, he,
him, and his to stand for all members of the human race. Consider
Thomas Jefferson: “All men are created equal,” or Tom Paine:
“These are the times that try men’s souls.”
Texts written from the 1980s on usually try to avoid this gender bias, so that today we would prefer “All people are created
equal” or “These are the times that try our souls,” two of several
possible fixes for this form of gender nearsightedness.
Eliminating sexism in current English is made more difficult
because the language does not have a gender-neutral singular pronoun (he/she, him/her, his/hers) to match the gender-neutral plural pronouns (they, their, them). For example in the sentence “Everybody has his own opinion,” the collective singular noun
“everybody” needs a singular pronoun to match. So while it is
grammatically correct to say “Everybody has his own opinion,” the
sentence is biased. It is grammatically incorrect to write: “Everybody has their own opinion,” but it is gender neutral. To fix these
problems, consider the following:
• Make the subject plural: People have their own opinions.
• Include both pronouns: Everybody has his or her own opinion.
• Eliminate the pronoun: Everybody has an opinion.
• Alternate masculine/feminine pronouns throughout your sentences or paragraphs.
• Avoid stereotypes. Don’t prejudge individuals by lumping them
into overly simplified categories based on race, ethnicity, class, gender, sexual preference, religion, or age: “Get out of the way, old
man” or “Don’t behave like a baby.” I am willing to repeat these examples here since we’ve all been babies and we’re all growing
older. But most other examples are too offensive to reproduce.
• Proofread. The last editing act is proofreading to make sure your
manuscript is correct. Proofread for typing and spelling errors by
using the spell check feature on your computer. Be aware that
computers will not catch all errors, so proofread the old-fashioned
way by reading slowly, line-by-line with a ruler.
Proofread for punctuation and paragraphing by reading your
text out loud and looking for pauses, full stops, questions, and exclamations.
Proofread for each other. We all see mistakes in others’ writing more easily than we do in our own. Proofread as a whole class
by taping final drafts on the wall and roaming the class with pencils, reading each other’s final drafts for both pleasure and correctness.
Options for Editing
1. Replace vague abstract nouns with specific concrete nouns.
2. Replace static verbs with action verbs.
3. Add modifiers for detail, but delete them if they distract from your
main point.
4. Write in the rhythm of natural speech unless you have a good reason for doing otherwise. (To check, read aloud.)
5. Begin sentences with old information, end with new. This strategy
makes the end of your sentences stronger.
6. Make sure all words in your sentences contribute to the meaning
you intend; if not, delete them.
7. Eliminate all clichés.
8. Make passive constructions active.
9. Delete or rephrase all stereotypes.
10. Proofread by computer spell check and also line-by-line with your
intelligent eye.
Chapter Fifteen
Why is academic writing so cut and dried, so dull? Why
can’t it be more fun to read and write?
Contemporary nonfiction writing is not dull. At least, it doesn’t have to be,
as the pages of The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, and even Sports Illustrated
will attest. Read these and dozens of other current periodicals, and you’ll
see a variety of lively, entertaining, and informative prose styles. While the
modern revolution in “creative nonfiction”—sometimes called “literary
journalism”—has been slow to find its way from the popular periodicals
to academic textbooks, professional journals, and student writing assignments, it is clearly on the way.
Current nonfiction writers commonly borrow stylistic and formal
techniques from the fast-paced, visual narratives of film and television
and from the innovative language of poetry, fiction, and drama. These creative influences encourage a multifaceted, multi-dimensional prose style to
keep pace with the multifaceted and multi-dimensional world in which
we live. In short, many current nonfiction prose writers find the traditions of continuity, order, consistency, and unity associated with conventional prose insufficient to convey the chaotic truths of the postmodern
world. This chapter examines some of the writing strategies associated
with alternative or experimental prose and suggests appropriate venues within the academic curriculum in which such strategies could be
Writing Alternate Style
Lists can break up and augment prose texts in useful, credible, and surprising ways. Lists of names, words, and numbers add variety, speed, depth, and
humor to texts. And lists are everywhere we look. In the following excerpt
from “Marrying Absurd,” * Joan Didion uses lists to illustrate that Las Vegas
weddings are big business.
There are nineteen such wedding chapels in Las Vegas, intensely competitive, each offering better, faster, and, by implication, more sincere services
than the next: Our Photos Best Anywhere, Your Wedding on a Phonograph
Record, Candlelight with Your Ceremony, Honeymoon Accommodations,
Free Transportation from Your Motel to Courthouse to Chapel and Return
to Motel, Religious or Civil Ceremonies, Dressing Rooms, Flowers, Rings, Announcements, Witnesses Available, and Ample Parking.
Didion’s list of competitive wedding services convinces us in a quick flash
of words that she’s observed carefully—she’s not making this stuff up.
While Joan does not specifically name it, we see some level of absurdity in
the way this town promotes marriage.
Lists need not be clever so much as purposeful. That is, you include a
list of names, items, quotations, and so on to show readers that you know
your stuff. You’ve done your homework, read widely or observed carefully,
taken good notes, and made sense of what you’ve found. Lists deepen a
text by providing illustrations or examples. And they add credibility by
saying, in effect, look at all this evidence that supports my point.
In her well-known “Bryn Mawr Commencement Address,”** Ursula
K. LeGuin urges graduating women to speak with strong voices when they
enter the world:
Now this is what I want: I want to hear your judgments. I am sick of the silence of women. I want to hear you speaking all the languages, offering your
experience as your truth, as human truth, talking about working, about making, about unmaking, about eating, about cooking, about feeding, about taking in seed and giving out life, about killing, about feeling, about thinking;
about what women do; about what men do; about war, about peace, about
who presses the buttons and what buttons get pressed and whether pressing buttons is in the long run a fit occupation for human beings. There’s a lot
of things I want to hear you talk about.
Unlike Didion’s list, which focuses close on a single subject, LeGuin’s list
opens things up, suggesting the many possibilities for speaking out on
*New York: Simon and Schuster, 1968, p. 81.
**From Dancing at the Edge of the World, New York: Grove Atlantic Inc., 1986.
subjects that matter. Note that LeGuin’s repetition of about before each
topic on her list adds an easy-to-remember rhythm; after all, these words
were written to be read aloud, and repetition helps readers listen and remember.
On the printed page, sometimes lists are presented simply as lists,
not embedded in prose paragraphs. Such is the case when William Least
Heat Moon overhears people describing the desert as full of “nothing” in
Blue Highways: A Journey into America:*
Driving through miles of nothing, I decided to test the hypothesis and
stopped somewhere in western Crockett County on the top of a broad
mesa, just off Texas 29. . . . I made a list of nothing in particular:
1. mockingbird
2. mourning dove
3. enigma bird (heard not saw)
4. gray flies
5. blue bumblebee
6. two circling buzzards (not yet boys)
7. orange ants
8. black ants
9. orange-black ants (what’s been going on?)
10. three species of spiders
11. opossum skull
12. jackrabbit (chewed on cactus)
13. deer (left scat)
14. coyote (left tracks)
Heat Moon’s list continues through thirty items, ending this way:
28. earth
29. sky
30. wind (always)
Itemized lists such as this change the visual shape of prose and call extra
attention to the items listed; in this case, Heat Moon is being mildly humorous by using a list to prove there is never nothing.
When Craig, a student in my advanced writing class, examined sexist
stereotypes in children’s toys, he made the following list of dolls on a single shelf at a local Woolworth’s store:
To my left is a shelf of Barbie: Animal Lovin’ Barbie, Wet ’n
Wild Barbie, Barbie Feelin’ Pretty Fashions, Barbie Special
Expressions (Woolworth Special Limited Edition), Super Star
Barbie Movietime Prop Shop, Step ’n Style Boutique, My
*New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1982, 149–150.
Writing Alternate Style
First Barbie (Prettiest Princess Ever), Action Accents Barbie
Sewing Machine, Barbie Cool Times Fashion, Barbie and the
All-Stars, Style Magic Barbie, a Barbie Ferrari, and tucked
away in a corner, slightly damaged and dusty, Super Star
This list simply documents by name the products on the toy shelf, actually
adding a dimension of authenticity and believability to the writer’s case
that the Barbie image and influence on children is considerable.
Creating an extended list is a bold, even audacious move, breaking
up prose sentences, surprising readers and therefore picking up their interest, engagement, involvement. The purposeful use of lists may make
readers pause to note the change in the form of words on the page; at the
same time, lists allow readers to pick up speed—reading lists is fast.
However, lists that are quick to read may not be quick to write; an effective list that appears to be written by free association may, in fact, have
been laboriously constructed as the writer ransacked his memory or her
thesaurus for words, then arranged and rearranged them to create the
right sound or sense effect.
Writing prose snapshots is analogous to constructing and arranging a
photo album composed of many separate visual images. Photo albums,
when carefully assembled, tell stories with clear beginnings, middles, and
endings, but with lots of white spaces between one picture and the next,
with few transitions explaining how the photographer got from one scene
to the next. In other words, while photo albums tell stories, they do so
piecemeal, causing the viewer to fill in or imagine what happened between shots. You can also think of snapshots as individual slides in slide
shows or as pictures in an exhibition—each piece of the work by the
same maker, each with a different view, each by some logic connected, the
whole forming a story.
Prose snapshots function the same way as visual snapshots, each
connected to the other by white space and requiring leaps of logic and
faith by the reader, with the whole making a self-explanatory story structure. You might imagine written snapshots as a series of complete and independent paragraphs, each a whole thought, without obvious connections or careful transitions to the paragraph before or after.
Sometimes individual snapshots are numbered to suggest deliberate
connectedness; other times each is titled, to suggest an ability to stand
alone, such as chapters within books. Sometimes they appear on a page as
block paragraphs without transitions, making it necessary for active reader
interpretation. As such, they are satisfying for fast readers. Each contains a
small story unto itself, while the whole is a larger story, in part of the readers’ making.
Margaret Atwood wrote snapshots to emphasize the dangers of
men’s bodies in the following passage from her essay “Alien Territory”*
The history of war is a history of killed bodies. That’s what war is: bodies
killing other bodies, bodies being killed.
Some of the killed bodies are those of women and children, as a side effect
you might say. Fallout, shrapnel, napalm, rape and skewering, anti-personnel
devices. But most of the killed bodies are men. So are most of those doing
the killing.
Why do men want to kill the bodies of other men? Women don’t want to kill
the bodies of other women. By and large. As far as we know.
Here are some traditional reasons: Loot. Territory. Lust for power. Hormones.
Adrenaline high. Rage. God. Flag. Honor. Righteous anger. Revenge. Oppression. Slavery. Starvation. Defense of one’s life. Love; or, a desire to protect the
men and women. From what? From the bodies of other men.
What men are most afraid of is not lions, not snakes, not the dark, not
women. What men are most afraid of is the body of another man.
Men’s bodies are the most dangerous things on earth.
Note how the white space between one snapshot and another gives readers breathing space, time out, time to digest one thought before supping at
the next. The white space between snapshots actually exercises readers’
imaginations as they participate in constructing some logic that makes the
text make sense—the readers themselves must supply the connectives,
construct the best meaning, which, nevertheless, will be very close to
what skillful authors intend.
Aldo Leopold wrote snapshots in Sand County Almanac (1948), using the “topical” almanac form for essay purposes. Norman Mailer wrote
snapshots in The Executioner’s Song (1979), each a passage or impression
from 16,000 pages of interview transcripts with convicted killer Gary
Gilmore. Joan Didion wrote snapshots in “Slouching Toward Bethlehem”
from the book of the same name (1961). Annie Dillard wrote snapshots in
“An Expedition to the Pole” (1982). Gloria Steinem wrote them to portray
Marilyn Monroe as more person than sex goddess in Marilyn: Norma Jean
*From Good Bones and Simple Murders, New York: O.W. Todd Ltd., 1992.
Writing Alternate Style
(1986). And Douglass Coupland wrote snapshots to portray postmodern
confusion in Generation X (1991).
The following four-snapshot sample is taken from Sonya’s eightsnapshot essay explaining her search for an undergraduate major:
1. What I care about is the environment, and what I want to do is
teach younger children to care about it too. That’s what brings me
to college, and to this English class, writing about what I want to be
when I grow up.
2. My first teaching was this past summer on the Caribbean Island
of South Caicos. In the classroom one morning, I tried to teach local teenagers about the fragility of their island environment, but
they did not seem to hear me or attend to my lesson, and I left
class very frustrated. Later on, we went to the beach, and they
taught me back my morning lessons, and I felt so much better. I
thought then I wanted to be a teacher.
3. The School of Education scares me. A lady named Roberta and
professor named Merton gave me a list of classes I would need in
order to major in education. “Environmental education is not a
real field, yet,” the professor said. I realized it would take four
years and many courses and still I wouldn’t be studying the environment or be sure of ever teaching about it in public schools.
4. The School of Natural Resources excites me. Professor Erickson
is my advisor, and in one afternoon, she helped me plan a major in
“Terrestrial Ecology.” I now know, for the first time, exactly what
I’m doing in college. I need to study natural resources first, later
on decide, whether I want to teach, work in the field or what.
These excerpts reveal telling scenes from her first-semester search for a
major, revealing her basis for choosing one major over another without editorializing. By showing us snapshots of the highlights and skipping most
of the complaining that characterized earlier drafts, we experience more
directly her reasons for majoring in natural resources rather than in education.
Becky, a college senior, wrote a twenty-snapshot self-profile to convey a lot of information in a brief amount of space. Following are seven
snapshots that examine the part of her that is highly religious:
• My mother grew up in Darien, Connecticut, a Presbyterian.
When she was little, she gave the Children’s Sermon at her
church. My father grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, a Jew. When I
went away to college, he gave me the Hebrew Bible he received
at his Bar Mitzvah.
• The only similarity between my parents’ families is freckles.
They both have them, which means I get a double dose. Lucky
me. My mother once told me that freckles are “angels kisses.”
Lucky me.
• I am a Protestant. I have attended First Presbyterian Church
of Boulder, Colorado, for most of my life. When I was baptized,
Reverend Allen said: “Becky is being baptized here today,
brought by their believing mother and their unbelieving—but
• When I was little, I was terrified of the darkness. Sometimes, I
would wake up in the night and scream. It was my mother who
came in to comfort me, smoothing my hair, telling me to think of
butterflies and angels.
• When I am in Vermont, I attend North Avenue Alliance Church. I
chose it because it is big, like my church at home. The last two
Sundays I have sung solos. The first time, I sang “Amazing
Grace.” The second time, I sang “El Shaddai,” which is partly in
• I have always said my prayers before going to bed. Lying silently
in the dark, talking to God. Like the disciples in the Garden of
Gethsemane, I have been known to fall asleep while praying.
Now I pray on my knees, it is harder to doze off that way.
• I wear a cross around my neck. It is nothing spectacular to look
at, but I love it because I bought it at the Vatican. Even though I
am not a Catholic, I am glad I bought it at the Pope’s home town.
Sometimes, when I sit in Hebrew class, I wonder if people wonder, “What religion is she, anyway?”
These shapshots portray Becky’s mixed religious heritage, strong commitment to Protestantism, and current participation in Christian rituals. Each
focuses on a single small event—a cross necklace, prayer, a church, and so
on. Note how each actually tells a small story, complete with a beginning,
middle, and punch line. At the same time, the cumulative effect of these
seven snapshots reveals Becky’s broad tolerance, education, and interest in
a spirituality that goes well beyond separate religious creeds. This theme
emerges as one experience is juxtaposed against another, past tense
against present tense, without editorializing, allowing readers to supply
the connective tissue by filling in the white spaces for themselves.
Snapshots allow busy writers to compose in chunks, in five- and tenminute blocks between appointments, schedules, classes, or coffee breaks.
And five or ten or twenty chunks—reconsidered, rearranged, revised—
can tell substantial stories.
Writing Alternate Style
While it’s fun to write fast, random, and loose, the real secret to a successful snapshot essay is putting prose pictures together in the right order—some right order—some pattern that, by the end, conveys your
theme as surely as if you had written straight narration or exposition. Writing snapshots on a computer is especially fun, since you can order and reorder indefinitely until you arrive at a satisfying arrangement. Composing
snapshot essays on 3 ⫻ 5 cards also works as you can easily shuffle the
cards to try out different arrangements. In either case, assemble and arrange the snapshots as you would arrange pictures in a photo album, playfully and seriously. Begin at the beginning, alternate themes, begin in media res, alternate time, begin with flashbacks, alternate voices, consider
frames, alternate fonts, reinforce rhythms, experiment with openings and
closings, type, and titles.
No matter what your form or style, sentences are your main units of composition, explaining the world in terms of subjects, actions, and objects,
suggesting that the world operates causally: some force (a subject) does
something (acts) that causes something else to happen (an object). English prose is built around complete and predictable sentences such as
those in which this paragraph and most of this book are written. Sometimes, however, writers use sentences in less predictable, more playful
ways, which we will explore here.
Fragment sentences suggest fragmented stories. Stories different
from the stories told by conventional subject–verb-object sentences. Fragmented information. Fragment sentences, of course, are used judiciously
in conventional writing—even academic writing, so long as the purpose is
crystal clear and your fragment is not mistaken for fragmentary grammatical knowledge. However, creative nonfiction writers use fragments audaciously and sometimes with abandon to create the special effects they
want. A flash of movement. A bit of a story. A frozen scene. Fragments force
quick reading, ask for impressionistic understanding, suggest parts rather
than wholes. Like snapshots, fragments invite strong reader participation
to stitch together, to move toward clear meaning.
Fragment sentences suggest, too, that things are moving fast. Very
fast. Hold on. Remember the snapshot passage from Margaret Atwood’s
“Alien Territory”? Note that she used fragments to emphasize the sharp
dangers of men’s bodies:
Some of the killed bodies are those of women and children, as a side effect
you might say. Fallout, shrapnel, napalm, rape and skewering, anti-personnel
devices. But most of the killed bodies are men. So are most of those doing
the killing.
Playful Sentences
Why do men want to kill the bodies of other men? Women don’t want to
kill the bodies of other women. By and large. As far as we know.
Atwood’s fragments make the reader notice sharply the brutal and
jarring truths she is writing about; in this example, the lack of conventional connections between words mirrors the disconnectedness she sees
in her subject: men, violence, and war. Notice, too, that some of her fragments illustrate another use of lists.
Write fragments so your reader knows they are not mistakes. Not ignorance. Not sloppiness or printer error or carelessness. Purposeful fragments can be powerful. Deliberate. Intentional. Careful. Functional.
And brief.
Labyrinthine sentences tell stories differently from either conventional or fragment sentences. In fact, a labyrinthine sentence is quite the
opposite of the fragment sentence because it seems never to end; it won’t
quit, and goes on and on, using all sorts of punctuational and grammatical
tricks to create compound sentences (you know, two or more independent clauses joined by a comma and a conjunction such as and or but) and
complex sentences (you know these, too; one independent clause with
one or more dependent clauses) and is written to suggest, perhaps, that
things are running together and are hard to separate—also to suggest the
“stream of consciousness” of the human mind, where thoughts and impressions and feelings and images are run together without the easy separation into full sentences or paragraphs complete with topic sentences—
the power (and sometimes confusion) of which you know if you have
read James Joyce or Virginia Woolf or William Faulkner or Toni Morrison.
Or James Agee, who in the following passage imaginatively enters
the thoughts of the people he is profiling in Let Us Now Praise Famous
Men,* the Depression-era Alabama tenant farmers:
But I am young; and I am young and strong and in good health; and I am
young and pretty to look at; and I am too young to worry; and so am I for my
mother is kind to me; and we run in the bright air like animals, and our bare
feet like plants in the wholesome earth: the natural world is around us like a
lake and a wide smile and we are growing: one by one we are becoming
stronger, and one by one in the terrible emptiness and the leisure we shall
burn and tremble and shake with lust, and one by one we shall loosen ourselves from this place, and shall be married, and it will be different from
what we see, for we will be happy and love each other, and keep the
house clean, and a good garden, and buy a cultivator, and use a high grade
of fertilizer, and we will know how to do things right; it will be very different:) (?:)
*New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1941, pp. 80–81.
Writing Alternate Style
Agee’s long connected sentence creates the run-together, wishful,
worried, desperate internal dream of his subjects in a way a conventional
paragraph could not. Notice, too, that punctuation and grammar are conventional and correct—even in the end, where they are used in unexpected ways to suggest something of the confusion and uncertainty these
people live with daily.
You may also write run-on or fused sentences—where punctuation
does not function in expected ways the missing period before this sentences is an example of that. However, such writing more often suggests
error and mistake than experiment so be careful. I use both fragments and
labyrinthine sentences to create certain effects, since each conveys its information in an unmistakable way; but I never, deliberately, write run-on
sentences, and when I encounter them as a reader, they make me suspicious.
Writers repeat words, phrases, or sentences for emphasis. They repeat to
remind us to think hard about the word or phrase repeated; they repeat to
ask us to attend and not take for granted. They repeat to suggest continuity of idea and theme. They repeat to hold paragraphs and essays together.
And, sometimes, they repeat to create rhythms that are simply pleasing to
the ear.
The following paragraph opens Ian Frazier’s book-length study, The
Great Plains*:
Away to the Great Plains of America, to that immense Western shortgrass
prairie now mostly plowed under! Away to the still empty land beyond
newsstands and malls and velvet restaurant ropes! Away to the headwaters
of the Missouri, now quelled by many impoundment dams, and to the headwaters of the Platte, and to the almost invisible headwaters of the slurped
up Arkansas! Away to the land where TV used to set its most popular dramas, but not anymore! Away to the land beyond the hundredth meridian of
longitude, where sometimes it rains and sometimes it doesn’t, where agriculture stops and does a double take! Away to the skies of the sparrow
hawks sitting on telephone wires, thinking of mice and flaring their tail
feathers suddenly, like a card trick! Away to the airshaft of the continent,
where weather fronts from two hemispheres meet and the wind blows almost all the time! Away to the fields of wheat and milo and Sudan grass and
flax and alfalfa and nothing! Away to parts of Montana and North Dakota
and South Dakota and Wyoming and Nebraska and Kansas and Colorado and
New Mexico and Oklahoma and Texas! Away to the high plains rolling in
waves to the rising final chord of the Rocky Mountains!
*The Great Plains. Ian Frazier. New York: Farrar Strauss, Giroux, 1989, p. 1.
Double Voice
Frazier’s singing chant invites us, in one sweeping passage, to think
about the great plains as geography, biology, history, and culture. Along
the way he uses fragments and lists and a plentitude of exclamation
marks to invite readers to consider this arid and often overlooked part of
Good nonfiction writing usually (I’d like to say always but don’t dare) expresses something of the writer’s voice. But all writers are capable of
speaking with more than one voice (how many more?), or maybe with a
single voice that has a wide range, varied registers, multiple tones, and different pitches. No matter how you view it, writers project more than one
voice from piece to piece of writing, and sometimes within the same
In any given essay, writers may try to say two things at the same time;
sometimes they want to say one thing that means two things; sometimes
to express contradictions, paradoxes, or conundrums; sometimes to say
one thing out loud and think another silently to themselves. (It’s clear to
me what I mean by this, but I’d better find some examples.)
Double voices in a text may be indicated by parentheses, the equivalent of an actor speaking an aside on the stage or in films, where the internal monologue of a character is revealed as voice-over or through printed
subtitles while another action is happening on screen (I hate subtitles on
small screen television sets—I can’t see them). It can also be shown in text
by changes in font or typeface: a switch to italics, boldface, or capital letters equals a switch in the writer’s voice. Or the double voice may occur
without distinguishing markers at all, or be indicated by simple paragraph
breaks, as in the following selection from D.H. Lawrence in his critical essay on Herman Melville’s Moby Dick from Studies in Classic American
Doom! Doom! Doom! Something seems to whisper it in the very dark
trees of America.
Doom of what?
Doom of our white day. We are doomed, doomed. And the doom is in
America. The doom of our white day.
Ah, well, if my day is doomed, and I am doomed with my day, it is something greater than I which dooms me, so I accept my doom as a sign of the
greatness which is more than I am.
Melville knew. He knew his race was doomed. His white soul, doomed.
His great white epoch, doomed. Himself doomed. The idealist, doomed. The
spirit, doomed.
Writing Alternate Style
Here, Lawrence critiques Melville by carrying on a mock dialogue with
himself, alternating his caricature of Melville’s voice with his own whimsical acceptance of Melville’s gloomy prophesy. Lawrence’s essay seems
written to provoke readers into reassessing their interpretations of literary
classics, and so he provokes not only through the questions he raises but
through his style as well. Note his poetic use of repetition and sentence
fragments that contribute to his double-voice effect.
A collage is an artistic composition of various materials and objects pasted
together in incongruous relationships for their symbolic or suggestive effect. Collages are more often associated with visual than verbal art, but,
again, alternate-style writers borrow freely from other media. In some
ways, my own journal has elements of a collage when I use it as a scrapbook, taping in photos or clippings wherever I find white space, thus creating sometimes strange juxtapositions. However, collage writing has been
used to more deliberate effect in the novels of John Dos Passos—a technique since borrowed by both Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson, in
their New Journalistic essays. Dos Passos began his essay “The Death of
James Dean”* with quotations taken from newspaper headlines:
James Dean is three years dead but the sinister adolescent still holds the
James Dean is three years dead; but when they file out of the close darkness and breathed out air of the second-run motion picture theatres where
they’ve been seeing James Dean’s old films
they still line up;
the boys in the jackboots and the leather jackets, the boys in the
skintight jeans, the boys in broad motorbike belts,
before mirrors in the restroom
to look at themselves
and see
James Dean;
Note, too, the unconventional prose lines in this essay, more like poetry
than prose, as well as the repetition of the opening line.
Collage techniques can be used in similar ways in nonfiction essays
to provide background for an essay to follow. Or an entire essay may be
*Esquire, December 1959.
A Caution about Alternate Style
crafted collage-style by the skillful juxtaposition of textual fragments—
possibly with the addition of photos, newspaper clippings, or other twodimensional items taped, photocopied, or scanned into the text. One of
my students wrote a self-profile by inserting photocopies of quotations,
photos, and posters throughout her paper, suggesting that who she was
contained these outside as well as inside sources.
Wise writers will master both conventional and unconventional styles, using each as occasion and audience demand. Proficiency in one is a poor
excuse for sloppiness or neglect of the other. Alternate-style techniques,
used carefully and judiciously on selected writing tasks, are fun to write,
and enjoyable to read. Overused, they become predictable, routine, and
dull, losing the surprise and freshness that made them effective in the first
place. Check with your instructor before handing in an unconventional
paper in response to a conventional assignment.
1. Describe any experiences you have had reading or writing
alternative-style texts.
2. For the next week, when writing in your journal, try different alternative-style techniques. Which are most effective for you and why?
1. Select one or more of the following techniques to compose your
next essay: lists, snapshots, fragmented sentences, labyrinthine sentences, repetition, double voice, and collage.
2. Recast an essay previously written in one or more of the alternativestyle techniques above. Compare and contrast the effects created by
each version.
1. Read the works of one of the authors listed in this chapter and
write a review essay on the intersection of theme with style.
2. Write a conventional research paper in traditional academic style
(see Section III); write an additional draft in alternate style.
Chapter Sixteen
If you feel that you can never write as well as John
Steinbeck [or] Charles Dickens . . . you may be right. But
you can write well . . . if you find a voice that rings true to
you and you can learn to record the surprises of the world
—Ken Macrorie*
Early in this book, we looked at the several purposes that cause people to
write in the first place: to learn something better, to question, to share, and
to present. Later, we looked at the audiences for whom writers write, including teachers, friends, the public, and oneself. In this final chapter, I’d
like to reflect on the writer’s voice and to consider how it develops.
In a book such as this, a discussion of voice in writing belongs either
first because it’s so important, or last because it’s so slippery. I have saved
it for last because, ultimately, voice is something that develops almost unconsciously or intuitively and largely apart from the more conscious techniques we have studied.
The concept that each speaker or writer has a unique voice, one
that’s indisputably his or hers, is perhaps the most difficult idea in this
book. I’d like to think that with each sentence and paragraph in these
chapters you can hear me speaking—that you can imagine the same person speaking, page after page, without ever having met me, the author. I’d
*Telling Writing, Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 1985.
The Style of Voice
like to think you can, for that is the best illustration of voice that I can
think of. However, I cannot speak for you.
But what really constitutes a writer’s voice? The type and length of
words, sentences, and paragraphs? The ideas expressed in the paragraphs?
The arrangement of the ideas into a whole? The values embedded in the
ideas? Some unidentifiable quality best described as mystical? Or, as some
would argue, do we each have many voices, which vary according to one’s
purpose and audience? It will be the business of this chapter to explore
where voice lies and what control, if any, writers have over it.
Think a little bit about Cicero’s definition of rhetoric: “The good man
speaking well.” (Changed to nonsexist language—“the good person speaking well”—the rhythm is less, but the content is more.) What I enjoy about
this simple definition is the implied attention to the character of the
whole speaker: What he or she stands for. What he or she believes. The
quality of his or her words. The truth of those words. And the embedded
notion that these words are, in fact, his or her own.
When we consider written instead of oral speech, the concept of
voice becomes even more difficult to pin down. In writing, we can’t, of
course, hear the timbre of the voice or see the expressions on the face. Instead, we hear the voice through our reading, perhaps gleaning our first
clues about the writer from the particular combination of words, punctuation, sentences, and paragraphs that we call style.
If I look for a moment at my own style, as evidenced in this chapter, a
few things become obvious:
1. I use lots of first-person pronouns (“I”) to let you know that these
are my truths, not somebody else’s. Other books about college
writing assert things quite different from those found here.
2. I frequently use contractions to make my voice more conversational and less formal. I’m an informal, not formal, person.
3. As much as possible, I eschew large or pretentious words (like eschew, which simply means avoid) because that’s how I speak
with my family, friends, and students.
4. And I use a fair number of qualifiers (fair, well, rather, perhaps, of
course). I want to suggest that my assertions are not absolute, to
give the reader time to chew on the assertions, and to help readers hear the tone of my informal speaking voice.
Of course, there are more observations we could make about my style—
about clause length, fragments, figures of speech, active versus passive
Finding Your Voice
verbs, punctuation patterns, sentence rhythms, and the like, but this will
do. Style is a matter of choices—some conscious and some not—about the
language impression you leave behind.
To the extent that we control our style, we control our voice. We
modify our language—sometimes consciously, sometimes not—to suit our
several purposes and audiences. Especially at the editing stage, after we
have worked out our central ideas (the content of voice), we have the luxury of going back over our draft and selecting just the right word or
phrase to convey an idea: to select the word large rather than big, huge,
enormous, or humongous. At this level of construction, we choose words
to represent our ideas in one way rather than in another. But we don’t
have time to edit everything that comes out, nor do we want to, and so we
probably make more unconscious than conscious choices.
The voice you find in a piece of writing is much more than a matter of
style; otherwise, this chapter would be nearly over. When someone reads
my writing and tells me that he or she could hear my voice, I believe that
is different from telling me he or she liked my style. Voice implies for me a
deeper, more permanent resonance; style implies surface elements that
are readily manipulated to produce various effects.
In addition to style, there is something that I stand for, some set of
beliefs and ideas that characterize me as distinct from you—that, too, is a
part of voice. There are some sentences that I could not utter, so foreign
are they to my particular way of thinking and living. (At least I’d like to
think that’s true.) I’d like to think that the words of a Hitler, Stalin, a Ku
Klux Klansman, or a terrorist could not appear among my utterances, nor
those of the beer commercials on television, nor those of some colleagues
down the hall. My voice not only permeates my words, but reflects my
thoughts and values as well.
My voice also arranges, organizes, and focuses whatever material comes
before it. In other words, voice is also a matter of the patterns through
which we see and express the world. From even this chapter you will see
the degree to which I am governed by logic or emotion, am inductive
rather than deductive, am linear or circular, am probing or casual. Do I begin a piece of writing with an anecdote or a proposition? Do I provide examples for all of my generalizations?
Arranging ideas is easier in writing than in speaking because we
can actually witness our thoughts. In writing, we have the leisure to
How Many Voices?
develop a thought carefully, to work from an outline, and to review and revise until we are satisfied that the order of presentation is as strong as we
can make it.
Ultimately, when we communicate in writing, style, content, and arrangement are all working together simultaneously, somehow combining to
represent us. Although we modify elements of our voices from time to
time, person to person, situation to situation, we are more likely to play
variations on a theme than to make radical departures from some fundamental expression that has come to represent us. Yes, I can write like
an impartial, dispassionate scientist if called upon to do so. Yes, I can
write free-association, stream-of-consciousness mind play if I’m in certain
moods. But these are not the me you’ll usually find when you read what I
write most often: my journal, letters, memos, articles, and books.
Your voice may be something you create consciously as you do a research paper or a poem. But more often it’s what spills out whenever you
talk candidly to your friends and when you write in your journal or to your
mother, a classmate, or a teacher. Your voice evolves over time as you do.
What I write today is basically the same as I would have written five years
ago, but a little different, because I’m a little different today than yesterday.
You are who you are, and when you speak or write it is reasonable to expect that your language represents you. If not your language, what does?
Another view of voice: I do have more than one voice. I can become
other people when I choose. I am even capable (sometimes) of uttering
thoughts in which I do not believe. In short, whenever I write, to some extent I am putting on an act, the meaning of which changes as my purpose
does. In this view, each of us is also a collection of several voices, none
more genuine than another.
Whether we each believe we have one or many voices may simply
depend upon how we define the word voice. When I asked the students in my advanced writing class how many voices they had, their answers differed in interesting ways. For example, Jen insisted that she had
only one:
My voice always maintains, if not screeches, an egocentric
notion of who I am.
Carter insisted that all writers have only one:
Finding Your Voice
Good writers or bad, we cannot change our voice from one
moment to the next. We can disguise it with style, but our
own voices will ring true.
However, Bobby and Lisa both believed they each had three distinct
voices, though each described these differently:
bobby: I think I have three different writing voices: one aca-
demic, one personal, and one which lies somewhere in between. The ones I use most are the two extremes.
lisa: I have three voices: the first is a writing-for-the-teacher
voice, the second is a letter-writing voice, the last is a trainof-thought voice. . . . I am more comfortable with the last
two—they are both like a real person speaking.
And Kim believed she had many:
The writing home voice, the chemistry-lab voice, the writingto-boyfriend voice, the writing-to-best-friend voice, the freshman English voice, the journal voice. Each one requires me
to author it, but my actual presence in the piece will be
stronger or lighter depending on the topic.
What may be most important in this discussion is not whether you actually have one, three, six, or more voices, but your awareness that your readers hear one whether you like it or not.
To college writers, I usually put it this way: We each have some bundle of beliefs, values, and behaviors that constitutes who we are (including
our own perception of who we are). When we write, we represent some
part of that self-concept on paper, unless, for certain purposes, we choose
to modify it—at which time the shape of our voice becomes more problematic, less clearly us, more possibly some single quality exaggerated: the
scientific me, the poetic me.
As a writer, you will be most versatile to the extent that you can assume a variety of voices, some less comfortable than others, perhaps, but
possible. Learn, then, to view your voice as a powerful personal tool that
you can shape as the occasion demands, recognizing that some shapes can
become gross distortions of that for which you generally stand.
In one of my first-year writing classes, Stephany chose to write about her
summer job on an egg farm. I watched her write several drafts, her voice
getting stronger and more assertive as she wrote. If we look at the first
Hearing the Voice
paragraphs of three of her drafts, we will see Stephany’s voice in various
stages of development.
This last summer my father said I had to get a job. I got a
job at a girls’ camp, but I didn’t dig the idea and hoped that
something better would come up. Much to my distaste, I applied for a job at a nearby egg farm. I wasn’t all that
thrilled with the prospects of spending the summer picking
eggs, but it would mean more money, so I said “what the
hell” and applied.
Stephany moves in this opening paragraph from her father to the girls’
camp to the egg farm in a rambling, informal adolescent voice. Yes, I hear
someone talking—complaining, actually—but despite the profanity, I do
not find Stephany’s voice to be especially distinctive here: she tells us
what she doesn’t like, but nothing of what she does.
In her next draft, Stephany concentrated on the job at the egg farm
from her opening and dropped the indecisive period leading up to it.
My summer job was at Arnold’s Egg Farms in Lakeview,
Maine. I was the candler for Complex 70s, a series of ten
barns. I worked six days a week, Thursday through Tuesday.
Here Stephany has the tight focus, but has lost most of the verbal cues that
told us something about her personality. I would describe the voice here
as fairly objective and cautious, with no boldly distinctive qualities to
make us know much of the writer herself.
Her last draft started like this:
T.G.I.T. Thank God It’s Tuesday. I always look forward to
Tuesdays. They mean two things: Tomorrow is my day off
and today is my boss’s day off, so I won’t be asked to pick
eggs. I really hate picking eggs—I get all covered with dust,
eggs, and grain. By the end of the day, I’m so tired that I
just want to sack out. When I was hired, my boss told me
I’d only have to pick eggs once in a while, but this week I
had to pick three times. It really gets me, because my real
job is candling eggs.
Finding Your Voice
Stephany has changed more than her style here: she now starts fast, with a
little riddle; she includes good details; she writes with new rhythm. But I
would argue that the real gain in this draft is in the totality of her voice. In
place of an aimless, complaining teenager or a technical report writer, we
find a whole, self-assertive, mildly cocky, genuinely humorous person. After
she found the story she really wanted to tell, her voice got stronger and
her overall writing much better.
It’s an interesting exercise to try to discover the origins and nature of your
own voice. In the last assignment of the semester, I asked my first-year
writing students to do just that—to reconstruct, by examining past writing, how their writing voices developed, and to locate the features that
presently characterize them. Some students, such as Amy, went all the way
back to their elementary school writing:
One of the earliest things I can remember writing is a story
called “Bill and Frank.” It was about a hot dog (Frank) who
could sing and play the banjo. Bill was the hot dog vendor
who discovered his talent and became his manager. I wrote
this story somewhere around third grade. It was very short,
simple and to the point.
As the school years passed, assignments got more and
more complex. Short, simple and to the point was no longer
a plausible style. Of course, page requirements often went
along with these assignments also causing a change in style.
She also remembered major influences on the development of her voice:
My first taste of truly more complex writing was in my
ninth-grade European history class. Mr. Page taught me how
to write an essay. He taught me about making a thesis, supporting this thesis with evidence (from documented
sources), and writing a conclusion.
Other students found truly negative influences on their development as
writers. Here Steve remembers Mr. Higgins with some anger.
Mr. Higgins was always on our case about grammar. I don’t
blame him for it, but he taught it totally wrong. He forced
it upon you. It is harder when you have to learn all those
picky rules all at once. I think you can learn much easier
by just plain writing. The more you write the more you use
Finding Your Voice
words. By the continuous use of sentences the learning becomes natural.
And Karen remembers not so much a single influence as her own attitude
towards writing, which was well developed by the time she was a high
school senior:
As I look back and review my writing habits I discover a
pattern: name, date, title, one draft, spell check, done!! I
handed it in and never looked at it again. My senior thesis,
I sat down at the computer, typed out a draft, and as soon
as the page numbers reached ten I wrote a conclusion, ran
it through spell check, and handed it in. I never proofread
it. I was content it didn’t have any spelling errors. So, why
did I get a D on it? I couldn’t figure it out.
In completing this assignment to analyze their own writing voices, many
college writers reported a new awareness of themselves as writers, of
their voices as distinctly their own. Colleen, for example, for the first time
believes she is a writer:
The important part of my growth as a writer is the fact
that I have grown into a writer rather than grown as a
writer. I never used to consider myself a writer and perhaps now I am being too bold by saying that I have become
one. I used to be afraid of writing. I despised anything that
resembled a diary. It was hard for me to get the idea into
my head that writing was for your personal use. That’s
what I think writing is all about.
Gavin reports major growth in selecting certain topics:
My major development as a writer has occurred in the topics that I write on. Through the years I have focused on
continually more powerful subjects. From violence in children’s literature to the destruction of tropical rain forests to
gang violence to my work this year on nursing homes and
the homeless.
Wendy views her changes as a writer as closely akin to her changes as a
Changing one’s personal voice is sort of like changing one’s
personality. . . . I see that as I grew older, my writing
Finding Your Voice
matured, became more open, and developed in the same
ways I did as a person.
Voice is difficult to isolate and analyze. I’ve chosen to write about it last because, to a large extent, voice is determined by other skills and beliefs.
However, there are some things you can do that will have a positive impact on your writing voice. None will be as important as living, learning,
working, loving, raising families, and growing older, but each will help the
process along.
1. Speak when you are afraid. You grow fastest when you take the
most risks, slowest when you remain safe. For me as an undergraduate, speaking out loud in class was as risky as anything I had
ever done, but until I tested my voice and my beliefs in the arena
of the class, I really didn’t know who I was, what I stood for, or
what I could stand for. The more you test your oral voice, literally,
the more your written voice will develop.
2. Keep a log or journal. These are safer places in which to take
risks than classrooms, so take advantage of that as often as you
can. The more you explore who you are in your journal, the more
easily you will be able to assert that identity both out loud and in
your more formal writing. Use your journal to rehearse your public self.
3. Share your writing with others. Sharing is another form of risk
taking, of being willing to see how others perceive you. Asking
friends, roommates, classmates, and teachers to respond to your
writing in general, to your voice in particular, helps you see how
your voice affects others, which in turn allows you to tinker with
it for this or that effect. If you hear good things back about your
writing, you will be most likely to do more writing; if you hear
bad things, you won’t write. Pick your sharing audience carefully!
4. Notice other people’s voices.One of the best means of growing in
every direction at once is simply reading. The more you read, the
more other voices you learn about. Read and notice how others
convey this or that impression. Take reading notes in your journal
to capture what you found. Notice the writers who make you
keep reading and notice those who put you to sleep, and try to
determine why.
5. Practice other people’s voices. One of the best of the oldfashioned composition exercises was copying, word for word,
the style of someone else. One day you copy a passage from Virginia Woolf, the next day you try Thomas Wolfe, then Tom Wolfe,
then you try to determine which is which and why. These exercises also help you notice what features characterize your own
6. Show, don’t editorialize, generalize, or summarize.Practice projecting your voice without telling your reader that’s what you’re
doing. Work so hard at noticing and describing and recreating
that you don’t need to explain in any obvious way what you
think, believe, and value. Place your observations, overhearings,
and discoveries so judiciously in your text that they make your
point and project your voice in tacit rather than explicit ways.
As I’ve presented it here, the matter of voice is fairly complex. On the one
hand, we each have a voice that is ours. On the other hand, it is also possible that we have more than one voice. While I believe that voice is something that develops over time—over one’s lifetime, actually— it can also
evolve over a several-week draft. As I said at the outset, the concept of
voice is both important and slippery: Others perceive us as our language
represents us. Some of this we don’t control, at least not yet, and some we
never will.
1. What influences have determined your current writing voice(s)?
That is, can you think of particular teachers or a parent or an incident that influenced how you write today?
2. Describe how you vary or change your voice according to whom
you are writing.
1. Write an analysis of your current writing voice. Collect as much of
your recent (during the past year) writing as you can in a single
folder. Consider writing you did in previous schools (for example,
high school, if that was recent), in other college courses, earlier in
this course, copies of letters, personal diaries, or journals. Arrange
these samples one of several ways: for example, according to subject, type, or audience. Then examine each specimen and identify
the features that seem to characterize your own voice—those that
appear from piece to piece: style? attitude? arrangement? word
choice? subject? Write a report describing that voice, using your analyzed data as evidence. (You could report the results of this study
Finding Your Voice
in either first or third person—try a passage of each to appreciate
the difference.)
2. Describe the development of your current writing voice. Follow the
procedures described above, but go back as far as you are able (middle school? elementary school?) and arrange your samples chronologically. Look from sample to sample and see if you can determine
any pattern or see any evolution in the development of this voice.
Write an essay describing and speculating about your personal evolution as a writer, using both samples and memories of particular
influences to help you.
1. INDIVIDUAL: Research the concept of voice in the library. Start with
authors such as Irving Goffman, Walker Gibson, and Loren Eiseley.
Write a paper in which you examine the degree to which a writer’s
voices are determined by particular social influences (neighborhood,
school, religion, family, friends, etc.) acting upon them.
2. COLLABORATIVE: Write a voice profile. Pair up with somebody else.
Interview each other about the nature of your writing and speaking
voices. In addition, you might ask to see samples of each other’s
writing. Write a profile describing each other’s voices, using interview and written material as data to support you. Conclude each report with a response by the person interviewed: How accurately
have you portrayed his or her voice?
Postscript One
Writing gets better by reading, practice, and response. The first two you
can do for yourself by selecting books that stimulate your interest and
show you interesting prose styles, and by writing regularly in a journal or
on a computer and not settling for drafts that don’t please you. But at some
point, to get really better, you need to hear other people respond to your
words and ideas. If you are using this book in a class, chances are that your
teacher confers with you individually about your work, and chances are
that you meet every week or so with your classmates in a writing group
where you take turns receiving and giving responses. During the last several years my students and I worked together to develop guidelines to
help writing groups work even more smoothly.
1. Writing groups work best in classrooms where there is a sense of
community and trust. All members of a given class share the responsibility for making this happen.
2. Permanent writing groups of three to five work best in most
classes. Fewer than three makes a weaker dynamic—though twos
are fast and work well for ad hoc situations where you have only
fifteen or twenty minutes. More than five becomes cumbersome
for time and equal participation—though larger groups work
very well outside of class where time is less restricted. So I shoot
for groups of about four and plan for these to stay together for
the duration of a given assignment, meeting preferably once a
Guidelines for Writing Groups
week for a series of weeks. For new assignments, I suggest forming new groups.
3. The length of a given paper determines what happens to it in a
group. It’s possible for three papers of four or five pages each
to be read and commented on in their entirety in a fifty-minute
class. With longer papers, or larger groups, writers need to read
selections from their papers, or take turns being featured. (I use a
rule of thumb that it takes two minutes to read a page of typed
double-spaced writing.)
4. Groups work best when they become habit. Keep the groups
meeting regularly and keep the group meeting time sacred. Jettison other things before you jettison group time in class. What
does the teacher do while you all meet in groups? I stay out of all
groups for the first few meetings, then participate in a group if invited.
5. It’s helpful to distribute papers before class so that readers have
had a chance to make private comments. However, in most classrooms, early distribution is very difficult. The following suggestions are made on the assumption that people show up in class,
on time, with fresh papers to be talked about.
1. Plan to read your paper out loud to the others in your group.
Hearing a paper read by the author adds a special dimension to
the writing—for the reader as well as the listening audience.
There’s no substitute for a little rehearsal reading aloud before
class—you’ll be surprised at how much you notice, both positive and negative, about your writing when you hear yourself
read it.
2. Prepare enough copies of your paper for each person in the
group. If finances are short, two could look at one copy together,
following you while you read aloud. Without duplicate copies
it’s difficult for your audience to remember all the language they
would like to comment on. (If you cannot make extra copies,
plan to read your paper—or portions of it—out loud twice.)
3. Direct your listeners’ response: Sometimes ask for general reactions: “How does it sound?” “Is it believable?” “What do you like
best?” “Where does it need more work?” “What questions do
you have?” “What do you expect next?”
4. Sometimes ask for more focused responses about the parts of
the paper that you most want to hear about: “Does my introduction work? Why?” “Which evidence for my argument is most
convincing?” “How would you describe my tone?” “Am I too
To the Audience
colloquial? too formal? inconsistent?” “Does my conclusion conclude?” “Does it sound like me talking?” (You will notice that
you get more mileage if you are able to phrase questions that
can’t simply be answered “Yes” or “No.”)
Sometimes ask for assignment-specific responses: “Where is my
interpretation most convincing?” “What holes do you see in my
analysis?” “Where do you think I show versus summarize?”
“Does effect clearly follow cause? If not, why not?”“What details
tell you that I was really there?”
Try some response exercises, such as those Peter Elbow describes in Writing with Power (Oxford, 1981): Ask people to tell
you the “movies of their mind” as they listened to you—what
impressions the language created, emotional or otherwise, as
you read. Or ask for metaphors stimulated by the writing. Or ask
them to summarize your paper back to you. Each of these exercises gives you a different kind of information to help you rewrite.
Listen more than talk. The writing group is your chance to hear
others’ reactions unaided by your own biases. Listen to your
groupmates, say as little as possible, and try not to get defensive.
Instead, take good notes and plan to use your verbal energy revising for next time. (It’s very nice to hear nice things about
your work and very hard to hear criticism, but both are very instructive.)
Keep track of time or have a timekeeper do so for you. You each
want your fair share and it’s a good idea to allocate it evenly at
the start: If you’ve got three papers in fifty minutes, stick pretty
close to fifteen minutes apiece.
At the end of your time, collect copies from people who have
written responses to you and say some kind of thank you.
It’s your paper. Revise based on your own best judgment, not
necessarily what the group told you. This is especially true if
you hear contradictory responses. But to ignore the group suggestions altogether may also be a mistake, especially if you find
more than one group member making the same comment. And
remember that if you have a chance to read to the same group
again, they will be especially attuned to whether or not you
took any of their suggestions.
1. Look for what the writer asks. Follow along silently as the paper
is read and try to focus on the kind of response the writer wants,
at least at first.
Guidelines for Writing Groups
2. Mark small things such as typos and errors in spelling or punctuation, but do not spend group time on such comments. Plan to
return your copy to the writer at the end of the session with
such items marked or corrected, preferably in pencil, never in
red ink.
3. Say something nice about the writer’s work. In spite of the value
of critical comments, we grow as much by comments which
confirm that we are doing something right. People are much
more willing to listen to critical comments once they feel
confident that much of their work is good.
4. Ask questions. If you find problems with the paper, the most effective comment is often a question to the writer about the spot
or intent or language or format or whatever: “What did you
mean here?” “What would happen if you told this story in the
present tense?” “What were some examples that might support
you here?” Questions point to problems but do not dictate solutions.
5. Share emotional as well as intellectual responses. Sometimes it’s
good for a writer simply to know how you felt about something.
6. Be specific. Try to identify the word, sentence, paragraph, or
page where you had this or that response. That way a writer has
something concrete to react to.
7. Don’t overwhelm the writer by commenting on absolutely everything you found bothersome about her paper. Try to mention the most important issues out loud in the group and let others go.
8. Share your response time equitably among group members. One
good way to do this is for each of you in turn to say one quick
thing, asking the writer to remain quiet while you do. This guarantees that you all participate at some level. The discussion will
naturally go on from there.
9. Be honest. If you really find nothing you like, don’t invent things
that are not true. But in thirty years of teaching, I’ve never found
a paper about which something positive could not be said (and
I don’t mean inane things such as “Nice spelling!” or “Deft use
of commas”). So maybe the best advice here is “be honest,
10. Stick to the paper. While it’s fun and sometimes fruitful to digress into related but peripheral issues, keep in mind that your
time—if you’re critiquing in class—is brief. And keep your comments focused on the writing, not the writer—that helps keep
egos and personalities out of the work at hand, which is writing
good papers.
Postscript Two
In simplest terms, a writing portfolio is a folder containing a collection of
your writing. A comprehensive portfolio prepared for a writing class usually presents a cumulative record of all of your work over a semester and is
commonly used to assign a grade. An alternate form of class portfolio is
the story portfolio, which presents selections from your semester’s papers described and discussed in narrative form.
The most common portfolio assigned in a writing class is the comprehensive or cumulative portfolio, containing all your writing for the term; it
usually includes a cover letter in which you explain the nature and value
of the portfolio contents. The following suggestions may help you in preparing a cumulative portfolio.
1. Make your portfolio speak for you. A clean, complete, and
carefully organized portfolio presents you one way; a unique, colorful, creative, and imaginative portfolio presents you another
way; and a messy, incomplete, and haphazard portfolio still another. Before turning in your final portfolio, consider if it presents
you the way you want to be presented.
2. Include exactly what is asked for. If an instructor wants three
finished papers and a dozen sample journal entries, that’s what
your portfolio should contain. If an instructor wants five samples
of different kinds of writing, be sure to include those five
Guidelines for Writing Portfolios
samples. You may include more than is asked for, but never include less.
Add supplemental material judiciously. Portfolios are among
the most flexible means of presenting yourself. It is usually your
option to include samples of journals, letters, sketches, or diagrams when they suggest other useful dimensions of your thinking. But include extra samples only in addition to the required
material (and be sure to explain why it’s there in a note or letter
to the instructor).
Include careful final drafts. Show that your own standard for
finished work is high. Final drafts should be double-spaced on
one side only of high quality paper; they should be titled, dated,
corrected, and follow the language conventions appropriate to
the task—unless otherwise requested.
Demonstrate evolution and growth. Portfolios, unlike most
other instruments of assessment, allow you to show your reader
how a finished product came into being. Consequently, instructors commonly ask that early drafts of each paper be attached to
final drafts, with the most recent on top—an order that shows
how a paper developed: It shows how you followed revision suggestions, how hard you have worked, how many drafts you wrote,
and how often you experimented. To create such a record of your
work, date all drafts and keep them in a safe place.
Demonstrate work in progress. Portfolios allow writers to
present partially finished work to suggest future direction and intention. Instructors may find such preliminary drafts or outlines
as valuable as some of your finished work. When you include
such tentative drafts, be sure to attach a note explaining why it’s
there and where it’s going next.
Attach a table of contents. For portfolios containing many papers, attach a separate table of contents. For those containing
only a few papers, embed your table of contents in the cover letter.
Attend to the mechanics of the portfolio. Make sure the
folder containing your writing is the kind specified and that it is
clean and attractive. In the absence of such specification, use a
two-pocket folder or three-ring loose leaf binder, inexpensive
ways to keep the contents organized and secure. Put your name
and address on the outside cover. Organize the material inside as
requested. And turn it in on time.
Include a cover letter. For many instructors, the cover letter
will be a key part of your portfolio since it represents your latest assessment of your work. A cover letter serves as an
Preparing a Story Portfolio
introduction describing and explaining the portfolio’s contents
and organization (what’s there as well as what’s not) and your
own assessment of the work, from earliest to latest draft of each
paper, and from earliest to latest work over the course of the semester. The following is Chris’s informal letter of self assessment:
As I look back through all the papers I’ve written this semester, I see
how far my writing has come. At first I thought it was stupid to write
so many different drafts of the same paper, like I would beat the topic
to death. But now I realize that all these different papers on the same
topic all went in different directions. This happened to some degree
in the first paper, but I especially remember in my research project,
when I interviewed the director of the Ronald McDonald House, I really got excited about the work they did there, and I really got involved in the other drafts of that paper.
I have learned to shorten my papers by editing and cutting
out needless words. I use more descriptive adjectives now when I’m
describing a setting and try to find action verbs instead of “to be”
verbs in all of my papers. I am writing more consciously now—I think
that’s the most important thing I learned this semester.
A story portfolio is a shorter but more carefully edited and crafted summary of your work. Instead of writing a cover letter and including all papers and drafts written during the term, a story portfolio narrates the evolution of your work and thought. In a story portfolio, you include excerpts
of your papers to illustrate points in your own development as a writer. In
addition, you include excerpts of whatever other written records you may
have accumulated at different times during the semester that help tell
your story: early paper drafts, journal entries, relevant class notes, in-class
writing, letter writing, and instructor and classmate comments on your papers.
In other words, to write a story portfolio, you conduct something
like an archaeological dig through the written remains of your work in the
class, usually assembling it in chronological order, choosing the most telling snippets and excerpts from these various documents. Then you write
the story that explains, amplifies, or interprets the documents you include
or quote. The best story portfolios commonly reveal a theme or set of issues that run from week to week and/or work to work throughout the semester. In truth, a story portfolio is actually a small research paper, featuring claims about your evolution as a writer supported with evidence from
texts you’ve written.
You may choose to write your story portfolios in an informal voice
Guidelines for Writing Portfolios
(like a journal or letter) or in a more formal voice (like a report). Or you
may prefer to write in the third person, analyzing the semester’s work as if
you do not know the writer and are making inferences strictly from the
texts themselves. Experiment with form: Is it better to present your work
as a series of snapshots or as a more fluid essay? Following are a few pages
from Karen’s ten-page story portfolio:
When I entered English One, I was not a confident writer
and only felt comfortable writing factual reports for school
assignments. Those were pretty straight forward, and your
personal opinion was not involved. But over the course of
the semester I’ve learned that I enjoy including my own
voice in my writing. The first day of class I wrote this in
my journal:
8/31 Writing has always been hard for me. I don’t
have a lot of experience writing papers except for
straight forward things like science reports. I never did
very well in English classes, usually getting Bs and Cs
on my papers.
But I began to feel a little more comfortable when we read
and discussed the first chapter of the book—a lot of other
students besides me felt the same way, pretty scared to be
taking English in college.
I decided to write about our basketball season last
year, especially the last game that we lost. Here is a paragraph from my first draft:
We lost badly to Walpole in what turned out to be our
final game. I sat on the bench most of the time.
As I see now, that draft was all telling and summary—I
didn’t show anything happening that was interesting or
alive. But in a later draft I used dialogue and wrote from
the announcer’s point of view and the result was fun to
write and my group said it was fun to read:
“Well folks, it looks as if Belmont has given up. The
coach is preparing to send in his subs. It has been a
rough game for Belmont. They stayed in it during the
first quarter, but Walpole has ran away with it since
then. Down by twenty with only six minutes left,
Belmont’s first sub is now approaching the table.”
You were excited about this draft too, and your comment
helped me know where to go next. You wrote:
Great draft, Karen! You really sound like a play-byplay announcer—you’ve either been one or listened
closely to lots of basketball games. What would happen
Preparing a Story Portfolio
if in your next draft you alternated between your own
voice and the announcer’s voice? Want to try it?
The following suggestions will help in preparing a story portfolio:
1. Assemble all of your collected writing. Arrange both formal
and informal writing, in chronological order, from beginning to
end of the semester.
2. Reread all your formal work. Examine typed final papers,
drafts with instructor comments, and highlight brief passages
that illustrate your development as a writer. Note particular passages that have evolved or disappeared over several drafts in the
same paper—what was going on?
3. Reread all your informal work. Examine journals, letters, and
instructor and student comments, and highlight brief passages
that further amplify your work at that time.
4. Arrange highlighted passages in a sensible order. Write the
story that shows how one passage connects to another, as well as
explaining the significance of each passage. (Indent passages ten
spaces for ease of reading.)
5. Identify common themes, ideas, or questions. Focus your
portfolio so that it tells a coherent story. Include an Introduction
aimed at someone unfamiliar with this class. Tell your main Story,
and conclude with a section called Reflections.
6. Append all drafts in chronological order. Date and label
each as d/1, d/2, etc., with teacher comments as an appendix to
the main story portfolio. Include the story portfolio in one side of
the pocket folder, the appendix in the other side.
Postscript Three
Publishing a class book is a natural end to a writing class. A class book is an
edited, bound collection of student writing, usually featuring some work
from each student in the class. Compiling and editing such a book is commonly assigned to class volunteers, who are given significant authority in
designing and producing the book. It is a good idea for these editors to discuss book guidelines with the whole class so that consensus guidelines
emerge. Editor duties usually include the following:
1. Setting a deadline for collecting final manuscripts. This is usually set so published copies can be delivered on the last class
day or next-to-last class day (this latter allowing for reading and
discussing the book on the last class day).
2. Defining the editorial mission. Usually students ask for
camera-ready copy from classmates to simplify and speed the
publishing process. However, editors may want to see near-final
drafts and return with comments; or they may wish to set up
class editorial boards to preview or screen near-final drafts; or
they may wish to leave this role with the instructor.
3. Setting page-length limits. For example, each student may be
allowed a certain number of single- or double-spaced pages.
Since printing charges are usually made on a per-page basis,
page-length discussion is related to final publication cost.
4. Getting cost estimates. Editors explore with local print shops
such as Kinko’s, Staples, or the college print shop the cost of
Publishing Class Books
producing a certain number of copies of class books (e.g., sixty
pages @ .05 ea., plus color cover $1.00 ea., plus binding .50 ea.
⫽ $4.50 per book). Alternatively, editors may ask the class to assemble the book—each student bringing in twenty copies of his
or her essay to be collated and bound with the rest.
Posting manuscript guidelines for what each submitted paper should look like. Class editors should ask for camera-ready
copy to speed production and decrease their own work load.
Other guidelines may include:
• typing double- or single-spaced
• type face
• font size
• margins: top/bottom, right/left
• justified or not
• centered title
• position of author name
Arranging collected essays according to some ordering principle. This may depend upon how many and what kind of writing
was done during the term. For example, students may have written personal profiles, feature stories, and reflective essays:
Should there be a separate section for each? How should the essays be arranged within each section?
Writing an Introduction and preparing a Table of Contents
(TOC). The most significant editorial work is writing an introduction to contextualize the class book, explain its development, and describe the contents. Introductions vary in length
from a paragraph to several pages. TOCs are routine but helpful.
Asking the instructor to write a brief Afterword or Preface describing the class, the assignment objectives, or any other instructor perspective that seems relevant to the book.
Collecting student-writer Biographies. Most class books conclude with short (fifty- to one-hundred-word) biographies of the
student writers, which may be serious, semiserious, or comical
depending on class wishes.
Designing a cover. The editors may commission a classmate or
one of themselves to design a suitable cover for the book.
Covers can be graphic or printed, black-and-white or color.
Dividing up editorial responsibilities. Class books are best
done by editorial teams consisting of two or more students who
arrange among themselves the various duties described above.
The final responsibility of class editors is usually leading a last-class discussion on the theme, format, and voice as represented by the class book
or its various sections. Class responsibilities here include both a careful
Guidelines for Publishing Class Books and Web Pages
reading of their own book and bringing cookies and cider to share along
with the discussion.
Since editors do a significant amount of work in compiling their
classmates’ writing, I usually excuse them from making oral reports or
leading class discussions—which the rest of the students do during the
Finally, when I assign editors to design and publish a class book, I
make it clear that the act of publishing in the book is the final draft of that
particular paper; when reading student portfolios at term’s end, it is in the
class book that I find the final drafts of one or more essays.
In addition to publishing paper texts, classes have the option to publish
texts electronically on the World Wide Web. The mechanics of such publishing may vary with the word processing program or network services
available at particular universities, but general guidelines for designing
Web pages remain constant. If you are planning to publish a text on the
Web, the following information may be useful.
What Are the Advantages of Web Publishing?
While you may publish on the Web any college essay or report in its traditional 81 2 ⫻ 11 paper form as usually handed in to an instructor, doing so
takes only limited advantage of the capabilities of electronic publishing,
which I see as the following:
Unlimited Free Access The advantage of the Web here is that anybody
with a computer can read your paper, which includes classmates in their
dormitory rooms or friends in your hometown. Photocopy and mailing
costs are eliminated so that you can, quite literally, publish your ideas to
the world.
Hyperlinks to Internal Report Information Once readers log on to
your title page they will have the option of reading selected parts of your
“paper” by clicking on buttons that will take them to just those parts; this
lets you write a text that can be read in different ways by different people.
For example, were you to write a paper examining acid rain pollution, a
reader could start at “definitions” or “effects” or “causes” or “locations” or
“solutions” and read only that of most interest. If the Web site is well constructed, readers will not feel as if they are missing necessary information
as they would in skipping around a sequentially written paper.
Publishing on the World Wide Web
Hyperlinks to External Research Sources In addition, your Web
page links may send readers to other Web sites, which you did not design,
to find out additional information. In this way, a Web page may offer readers not just a list of references, but access to the reference sources themselves. For example, in examining the sources of acid rain pollution, your
Web page may include a link to the site of the Great Lakes Acid Rain Commission Study, so by clicking on that link, the reader can read the actual report used as a reference in your paper.
Multimedia Capability On any given Web page, both sounds and visual images (moving as well as stationary) can be included so that less is
left to the imagination. While illustrations can accomplish the same thing
in printed paper books, reproduction costs are higher, the number of practical illustrations more limited, and none of the images can move. Sound is
even more difficult to include with written text, yet it is a natural accompaniment to Web pages. For example, in writing an essay on rock, jazz, or
classical music, the actual sounds of the music can be part of the “paper,”
helping readers/listeners hear your points more precisely.
Currency Readers expect electronic texts to be up-to-date. Unlike
printed paper documents which, once published, become fixed and difficult to change, Internet texts are fluid and easy to modify; that is, as
newer information becomes available, writers can add it to their “published” page without the need to change the whole page or site, or to go
through a complex and expensive new publishing process. In other
words, revision is natural and expected in classes that publish texts on the
Web, and college writers should plan for such revision in their composition of Web documents.
How Do You Compose for the World Wide Web?
When composing for the World Wide Web, instead of using the Web to
publish an already-composed paper, ask yourself the following questions:
Why is this subject suitable for Web publishing? What will be the main
point of the paper? How will electronic capabilities best present this
point? What can I do here that is different from what I would do in a traditional paper? Which elements of a traditional paper should I retain?
Organize Present information according to what readers need first, second, and so on. Some electronic papers may follow the same logic as they
would in a sequential paper. For example, in telling a straightforward narrative, both Web page and paper essay may use the same chronological
structure as a traditional paper, with a clear beginning, middle, and ending.
Guidelines for Publishing Class Books and Web Pages
The same may be true for a cause/effect report—both the paper and Web
site on acid rain might start with problems, look at causes, and end with
However, a Web page can also be menu driven, where none of the
items needs to be looked at in any special order. Such a Web page might
open with a set of definitions or a problem statement, but then offer
hyperlink options for the reader to look at the origins of acid rain in:
• Ohio
• Indiana
• Michigan
In addition, the reader might jump to the effects of acid rain in New England states, again selecting hyperlinks to specific states to find the most
accurate and detailed information:
• Maine
• New Hampshire
• Vermont
In other words, electronic texts promote browsing to rapidly find information on specific topics in a way that is less natural and much slower in sequentially structured paper “papers,” where readers must skip around in
their reading to find the same information.
An easy and old-fashioned way to start composing a Web paper is
to start with handwritten index cards, writing on each a separate bit of information. Then arrange accordingly as you would in constructing an outline, with coordinate and subordinate information in appropriate places.
Spreading your cards out on a table will then give you a sense of where
hyperlinks would make the most sense.
Edit Space seems more limited on Web sites due to the amount of information that is comfortably viewed on a monitor at one time. The opposite, of course, is true: space is virtually unlimited. However, when looking
at a monitor, readers become viewers and expect as well as appreciate
fewer blocks of densely packed text, more white space and subheadings,
and some accompanying visual images. So check to see that all the words
and sentences are necessary to communicate your message (see Chapter
Fourteen); use subheadings frequently to point your readers to changes in
topic; and where visual images could convey a thousand words, let them
do so.
Connect To take full advantage of Web capabilities, locate collateral Web
sites at other electronic addresses that provide information that supports
your paper; such information could provide background or contextual information for readers who need it, more in-depth information on selected
Publishing on the World Wide Web
subjects, or competing points of view for readers to examine on their
own. Construct hyperlinks to such sites on your page.
Test Preview your potential Web page on friends or classmates as you
would share a paper draft in a writing workshop. Before calling your page
or site finished, seek responses that will tell you where your page is unclear or difficult to read, and remedy accordingly.
Update Even in college courses which operate for a limited number of
weeks, usually between ten and fifteen, students who publish Web page
assignments can take advantage of the ease in keeping information current, so information presented early in the term should be tested later on
for accuracy and relevance. If a Web site is to continue to be useful and relevant after a course ceases to meet, the site author should keep the site
Postscript Four
Instructors assign essay exams instead of objective tests (multiple choice,
matching, true/false) because they want students to go beyond identifying
facts and to demonstrate a mastery of the concepts covered in the course.
The best preparation for taking an essay exam is a thorough knowledge of the course’s subject matter. If you have attended all the classes,
done all the assignments, read all the texts, you should be in good shape
for such writing. If you have also kept journals, annotated textbooks, discussed the course material with other students, and posed possible essay
exam questions, you should be in even better shape for such writing.
Equally important is your strategic thinking about the course and its
syllabus. If the course has been divided into different topics or themes, anticipate a general question on each one covered; if it has been arranged
chronologically, expect questions focusing on comparisons or cause and
effect relations within a particular period or across periods. Consider, too,
the amount of class time spent on each topic or work, and pay proportionately greater attention to emphasized areas. The following suggestions
may help in writing essay examinations:
1. Read the whole examination. Before answering a single question, read over the whole exam to assess its scope and focus. Answering three of four questions in fifty minutes requires a different approach than answering, say, five of eight questions in the
same amount of time. If you have a choice, answer those questions that provide a good demonstration of your knowledge of
the whole course, rather than two or more that might result in
repetitious writing. Finally, decide which questions you are best
Guidelines for Writing Essay Examinations
prepared to answer, and respond to those first (budgeting your
time to allow you to deal fully with the others later).
2. Attend to direction words. Analyze each one before you begin
to write. Focus closely on the particular question before you
begin. Read it several times. Underline and understand the direction words that identify the task you are to carry out, and be sure
to follow this direction:
Define or identify asks for the distinguishing traits of a term, subject,
or event, but does not require an interpretation or judgment. Use appropriate terminology learned in the course. For example, “Define John
Locke’s concept of tabula rasa” is best answered using some of Locke’s
terminology along with your own.
Describe may ask for a physical description (“Describe a typical performance in ancient Greek theater”) or request an explanation of a process,
phenomenon, or event (“Describe the culture and practices of the
mound builders”). Such questions generally do not ask for interpretation
or judgment, but require abundant details and examples.
Summarize asks for an overview or a synthesis of the main points. Keep
in mind that “Summarize the impact of the Battle of Gettysburg on the
future conduct of the war” asks only that you hit the highlights; avoid
getting bogged down in too much detail.
Compare and contrast suggests that you point out both similarities
and differences, generally between two subjects but sometimes among
three or more. Note that questions using other direction words may also
ask for comparison or contrast: “Describe the differences between the
works of Monet and Manet.”
Analyze asks that you write about a subject in terms of its component
parts. The subject may be concrete (“Analyze the typical seating plan of a
symphony orchestra”) or abstract (“Analyze the ethical ramifications of
Kant’s categorical imperative”). In general, your response should look at
one part at a time.
Interpret asks for a definition or analysis of a subject based on internal
evidence and your own particular viewpoint: “Interpret Flannery O’Connor’s short story ‘Revelation’ in terms of your understanding of her central religious and moral themes.”
Explain asks what causes something, or how something operates. Such
questions may ask for an interpretation and an evaluation. “Explain the
function of color in the work of Picasso,” for example, clearly asks for interpretation of the artist’s use of color; although it does not explicitly ask
for a judgment, some judgment might be appropriate.
Evaluate or critique asks for a judgment based on clearly articulated
analysis and reasoning. “Evaluate Plato’s concept of the ideal state” and
“Critique the methodology of this experiment,”for example, ask for your
opinions on these topics. Be analytical as you lead up to your judgmental
Guidelines for Writing Essay Examinations
verdict, and don’t feel that your verdict must be completely one-sided. In
many cases, you will want to cite more experienced judgments to back
up your own.
Discuss or comment on is a general request, which allows considerable latitude. Your answers to questions such as “Discuss the effects of
monetarist economic theories on current third world development” often let you demonstrate what you know especially well. Use terms and
ideas as they have been discussed during the course, and add your own
insights with care and thoughtfulness.
3. Plan and outline. Take one or two minutes per question to
make a quick potential outline of your answer. If asked, for example, to compare and contrast three impressionist painters, decide
in advance which three you will write about and in which order.
While other ideas will come as you start writing, starting with a
plan allows you to write more effectively. If you create a quick
outline in the margins of your paper or even just hold it in your
head, you will include more information and in a logical order.
4. Lead with a thesis. The surest way to receive full credit when
writing an essay examination is to answer the question briefly in
your first sentence. In other words, state your answer as a thesis
which the rest of your essay will explain, support, and defend.
5. Write with specific detail, examples, and illustrations. Remember, most good writing contains specific information that
lets readers see for themselves the evidence for your position.
Use as many supportive specifics as you can; memorize names,
works, dates, and ideas as you prepare for the exam so they can
be recalled accurately as needed. Individual statistics alone may
not be worth much, but when embedded as evidence in an essay
that also contains strong reasoning, these specifics make the difference between good and mediocre answers.
6. Provide context. In answering a question posed by an instructor who is an expert in the field, it is sometimes tempting to assume your instructor does not need a full explanation and to answer too briefly. However, in a test situation you are being asked
to demonstrate how much you understand. Briefly explain any
concepts or terms that are central to your answer. Take the time
to fit any details into the larger scheme of the subject. View each
question as an opportunity to show how much you know about
the subject.
7. Use the technical terminology of the discipline. Be careful
not to drop in names or terms gratuitously, but if names and
terms have been an integral part of the course, use them in your
answer. Make sure you define them, use them appropriately, and
Guidelines for Writing Essay Examinations
spell them correctly. Essay exams also test your facility with the
language and concepts peculiar to a particular discipline.
8. Stay focused. Answer what the question asks. Attend to all parts
of an answer, cover those parts and, once you have done that, do
not digress or add extraneous information. While it may be interesting to some instructors to hear your other ideas on the subject
at hand, for other instructors, your digressive ideas may actually
divert attention away from your more focused answers.
9. Write strategically. The following technical tips will make your
exam answers easier to read:
1. Start each new answer at the top of a new page by repeating
the number and part of the question. (1. The Civil War was
caused by . . .)
2. Paragraph for each new point to make sure your fast-reading
instructor sees each distinctive point you make.
3. Memorize and include short, accurate quotes of exceptional
power where relevant, and cite each by author, title, or date, as
4. Outline the answers or the rest of answers if time runs out.
5. Reread and proofread each answer during the last five minutes before handing in the finished exam; even this little distance from your first composing will allow you to spot errors
and omissions.
Postscript Five
Listed below are general explanations for punctuation. I have included the
most common uses for the punctuation marks described. If you know the
uses described here, you will be in good shape as a writer. However, be
aware that numerous exceptions to all the punctuation rules also exist—
exceptions that I have not attempted to cover here. To learn about these,
consult the handbook appended to most dictionaries, Strunk and White’s
The Elements of Style, or one of the many writer’s handbooks available in
libraries, bookstores, or English teachers’ offices.
1. Indicate that somebody possesses or owns something. In single
nouns or pronouns, place an ’s at the end of the word: John’s sister; the girl’s brother; the cat’s pajamas.
For plural words, add the apostrophe, but omit the s: the
boys’ books; the cats’ pajamas (meaning more than one boy
or cat).
Notable exception: it’s, since the ’s in this word indicates the contraction it is.
2. Indicate contraction. Use an apostrophe to indicate missing letters: can’t for cannot; it’s for it is.
Commas [,]
1. Indicate that the author has added additional or substitute words
in a quotation: “Then she [Susan Smith] voted again,” or “Then
[Susan Smith] voted again.”
2. Indicate parentheses within parentheses: (This is parenthetical
[this even more so]).
1. Indicate that an example follows: This is an example of an example following a colon.
2. Introduce lists of items: The ark housed the following animals:
cats, dogs, chickens, snakes, elephants, and goats.
3. Introduce quotations in your text. (MLA documentation recommends indenting quoted material five spaces or more; when you
indent quotes, this identification substitutes for quotation marks.)
Example: The first paragraph of the Declaration of Independence reads as follows:
4. Introduce phrases or sentences that explain or illustrate previous
ones: The explanation was clear: the example made it work.
5. Separate titles from subtitles: College Writing: A Personal Approach to Academic Writing.
Note: Misplaced or missing commas account for many of our punctuation
errors. You may take some comfort in knowing that even experts disagree
about some of these so-called rules. Journalists, for example, don’t put
commas after the next-to-last item in a series; professors most likely do:
The cat, the rabbit[,] and the bat.
In general, commas indicate pauses within sentences. You can usually hear the pause when the sentence is read aloud. I often read aloud to
myself to tell me where commas go. However, the following guidelines
will remind you more specifically when and where to use commas:
1. Separate two main clauses (complete sentences) joined by and,
but, or, for, nor: I can run fast, but I can’t run far.
2. Separate words or phrases in a series: His favorite sports included motorcycle riding, hockey, tennis, golf, fishing, and baseball.
3. Set off a clause or long phrase that introduces a main clause (the
Guidelines for Punctuation
major part of the sentence): After we attend class, we’ll eat
lunch and take our afternoon naps.
4. Set off transitional words from the rest of the sentence: She
asked, however, that she not be quoted. It is not true, for example, that squirrels fly. In other words, writing is easy.
5. Set off extra, explanatory information not absolutely essential in
the sentence: Toby, a professor of mine, occasionally gives good
lectures. That dog, the black one, ate the garbage. (The same information could be set off in parentheses, which would indicate
it was even less essential for an understanding of the sentence.)
6. Set off words that address or exclaim and people who say things:
“How are you, Paul?” she said.
“Oh, not so hot,” he replied.
7. Introduce or conclude direct quotations: According to the study
by Smith and Rocket, “acid rain is the major cause of the decreasing trout population in Vermont.”
1. Mark abrupt changes or breaks in sentences: It isn’t true—or
is it?
2. Set off information not considered essential to the understanding
of sentences: The stock market crash—it was 1929—did my
grandfather in.
3. Summarize earlier items in a sentence: The amount of unemployment, the price of gold, the availability of oil, the
weather—all these influence the amount of taxes we pay.
Note: Dashes can often be used to set off apparently digressive
information in the manner of commas or parentheses; however,
they imply that the information is, while slightly off track, essential. Note, too, that the use of dashes to connect loose thoughts
(in place of periods or semicolons) is not considered a sign of
good writing in the academic world, where one’s thoughts are
not supposed to be loose.
ELLIPSES [ . . . . ]
1. Three dots in a quoted passage indicate an omission of one or
more words in a quotation: John argued . . .that he should stay.
2. Four dots in a quoted passage indicate the omission of one or
more sentences, or missing words at the end of a sentence (the
Parentheses [( )]
fourth dot being the missing period): Remember Lincoln’s opening words “Four score and seven years ago. . . .”
3. Four dots indicate the writer’s thoughts trailing off mid-stream: a
deliberate strategy to convey. . . .
Indicate strong emotional statement, either positive or negative, on the
part of the writer: “Stop, you can’t go in there!” Henry, I love you!
Note: Use these marks sparingly in academic writing as they imply overstatement—and academics are wary of overstatement. Also use them sparingly in personal writing as they give away too much emotion and tell the
reader how to feel.
1. Divide a word of more than one syllable at the end of a line.
2. Connect some compound concepts: brother-in-law, know-it-all.
3. Connect some compound modifiers: student-centered program,
fast-sailing ship, four-cylinder engine.
4. Connect prefixes to some words (emphasize the prefix): postoperative, self-educated.
5. Connect compound numbers between twenty-one and ninetynine: twenty-one, ninety-nine, one hundred thirty-five.
Note: like commas, there is some debate about when and what to
hyphenate. Look up particular words in a current dictionary to be
absolutely certain. Note too that a writer may hyphenate whenever she wishes to create a special emphasis in a word or phrase.
1. Set off explanatory material the author does not consider necessary to understand the basic meaning of the sentence: In 1929
(the year the stock market crashed) he proposed to his first wife.
(The same information set off by commas would be considered
more essential to the sentence.)
2. Allow an author to use a double voice and comment about her
subject from a different perspective, often ironic: Parentheses allow an author to comment on his text from an ironic perspective (whatever that means).
3. Enclose numbers and clarifying information about numbers and
acronyms in a sentence: forty-seven (47), NFL (National Football League).
Guidelines for Punctuation
1. End sentences. Bring readers to a full stop. Period. (Are used the
same way with full sentences or deliberate sentence fragments.)
2. Indicate abbreviations in formal (Dr., Jr.) and informal (abrv.,
esp.) writing.
1. Indicate that a question has been asked: What do you want?
2. Indicate an author’s uncertainty: (Sp?)
1. Enclose direct quotations: “What’s for dessert?” she asked.
2. Enclose words or phrases borrowed from others: It really was
“the best of times,” wasn’t it?
3. Enclose titles of poems, stories, articles, songs, chapters, TV programs: Who wrote the poem, “To an Athlete Dying Young”?
Faulkner’s “Barn Burning” is ultimately a comic story. My favorite chapter in this book is “Finding Your Voice.”
Note: to indicate a quotation within a quotation, use single marks
(‘ ’) instead of double: “She said ‘It really isn’t necessary,’ but that
didn’t stop him long.”
1. Can be used in place of a period when you want to imply a close
relationship to the following sentence; here that’s what I want to
2. Replace commas in a series of phrases when the phrases include
commas: Considering the circumstances, it is dangerous to run,
when you can walk; talk, when you can listen; and read, when
you can write.
Note: semicolons are most frequently used in quite formal language; they are especially common in prose before the twentieth
century; academics are fond of them since they imply formal relationships and make sentences long—and long sentences appear
to be more intellectually rigorous; whether they are more rigorous or simply more ponderous is a question for you to decide.
Italics [Underlining]
1. Indicate special emphasis in typed and handwritten papers: He
was very careful to underline all the examples, except this one.
2. Indicate the titles of published works, including books, movies, albums/tapes/CDs, and collections of articles, stories, poems, and
essays: For Whom the Bell Tolls is a novel by Ernest Hemingway.
Only a few successful plays, such as The Sound of Music, also
become successful movies. My favorite tape is Bruce Live. The
story “Burning” can be found in The Portable Faulkner.
3. Indicate words and letters being referred to as words and letters:
Is the correct word to indicate a struggle founder or flounder?
The letter x is the least used letter in the alphabet, isn’t it?
abbreviations, 232
abstracting, 95
abstract nouns, 179
academic community, 55–63
academic journals, 42–43
academic writing, 55–63. See also writing;
writing assignments
personal beliefs and, 6–7
purpose of, 4
teachers as audience for, 7, 8–10
access dates, for on-line sources, 152,
action, in personal narratives, 71
action verbs, 88, 179
adjectives, 179–80
adverbs, 179–80
for class books, 219
MLA “Works Cited” format, 150
age-related stereotypes, 183
alliteration, 182
alternate-style techniques, 185–97
cautions about, 197
collage, 196–97
double voice, 195–96
lists, 186–88
playful sentences, 192–94
repetition, 194–95
snapshots, 188–92
American Psychological Association (APA)
documentation, 145, 146, 163
“References” page, 163
Web page, 163
analogy, 89
in explanatory writing, 90–91
in interpretative essays, 106–107
analyze (direction word), 225
anthology chapters, MLA “Works Cited” format, 150
APA documentation. See American Psychological Association (APA) documentation
apostrophes (‘), 228
argument, 98–104
arguing a position, 99–104
critical voice in, 110
defined, 98, 99
position papers, 99–104
types of, 98
value of, 98
written, 98
MLA “Works Cited” format, 150–51
on-line, MLA “Works Cited” format, 154
artifacts, writing self-profiles from, 77
academic community, 57
journals of, 42
arts, interpretive essays about, 105
assessment. See also evaluation
through journal writing, 49
attitudes toward writing, 25
classmates as, 10–11
colloquial terms and, 84
revising for, 172
self as, 12–13
teachers as, 7, 8–10
writing assignments and, 10
writing for publication, 11–12
writing group guidelines for, 211–12
writing purpose and, 7–13
citing, 140
direct quotations and, 142
research writing and, 134
MLA in-text citations, 146–47
MLA “Works Cited” format, 148–49,
of on-line sources, 138–39, 152
of on-line sources, MLA “Works Cited”
format, 152
autobiography, 74–77
defined, 74
language, 76
point of view for, 74
scope for, 74
self-profiles, 76–77
strategies for writing, 75
establishing, 58
evidence and, 58
in personal narratives, 70
evaluating, 136
showing, 119
suppressing, 119
biased language, 182–83
bibliographies, 59, 124–25
working, 128–29
biographies, for class books, 219
body language, 7
boldface, indicating double voice with,
book reviews
guidelines for, 109
published, 109
MLA “Works Cited” format, 149–50
on-line, MLA “Works Cited” format,
reference page information, 129
brackets ([])
with direct quotations, 143
uses of, 229
call numbers, 125
direct quotations and, 143
for double voice, 195
causes, multiple, 60
databases, MLA “Works Cited” format,
characters, invented dialogue between,
choice, in writing, 3–14
audience and, 4, 7–13
circumstances and, 4, 6–7
limiting, 3
purpose and, 4–6
questions to ask about, 3–4
chronological organization
of drafts in story portfolios, 217
of personal narratives, 67, 72
claims, in position papers, 99, 100–101,
editing and, 23
in reporting, 93
writing for classmates and, 10
writing for publication and, 12
class books
editorial responsibilities for, 219
manuscript guidelines for, 219
publishing, 218–20
as audience for writing, 10–11
responses from, 21, 206
sharing drafts with, 10–11
class notebooks, 42–43
introducing with commas, 229
separating with commas, 229–30
clichés, 182
collage, 196–97
colloquial terms, 84
colons (:)
with direct quotations, 142
using, 229
commas (,)
with direct quotations, 142, 143
using, 229–30
clarity of, 10, 12, 23
editing and, 23
writing for, 26–27
compare/contrast (direction words),
analogy, 89
in explanatory writing, 88–90
composing process, 15–24
drafting, 17–19
editing, 21–23
exploring, 16–17
journal writing and, 49–50
reporting, 93–94
researching, 19–20
revising, 20–21
strategies for, 15–16
comprehensive portfolios
contents of, 213–14
cover letter for, 214–15
learning to write with, 19
library catalogue systems, 124
limitations of, 51
revising on, 169
conceptual mapping, 37–38
concise language, 181–82
conclusions, 171–72
concrete nouns, 88, 179
apostrophes and, 228
voice and, 199
contrasting. See comparing/contrasting
conventions, 171
invented, 175
counterclaims, 100–101, 102
cover letters, for comprehensive portfolios,
creative writing
alternate style for, 185
personal narratives, 72
in writing assignments, 9
of electronic sources, 137–40
of field sources, 135–36
of library sources, 136–37
critique (direction word), 225–26
cross-referencing sources, 137
dashes (—), 230
periodical, 151
researching, 127–28
revision and, 168
debate, position papers and, 99
deductive strategy, for writing autobiography, 75
define (direction word), 225
in explanatory writing, 85–87
journals for, 44–45
delayed-thesis pattern, 96, 102, 103–4
describe (direction word), 225
in explanatory writing, 87–88
in personal narratives, 67
of physical settings, 119–20
of self, 77
action, 71
in essay examinations, 226
importance of, 72–73
in personal narratives, 70–73
in summaries, 95
invented, 175
in personal narratives, 67
defined, 42–43
direction words
in essay examinations, 225
in evaluative essays, 108–9
in writing assignments, 5–6
direct quotations
guidelines for using, 142–43
in interpretive essays, 107
diskette publications, MLA “Works Cited”
format, 152
dissertations, unpublished, MLA “Works
Cited” format, 154
in academic writing, 58–59
of online searches, 133
systems for, 145
Dogpile, 131
double voice, 195–96
drafts, 17–19
computers and, 169
guidelines for sharing, 10–11
revision and, 168
editing, 21–23, 178–84
for emphasis, 181
revising vs., 167–68
suggestions for, 178–84
editions, MLA “Works Cited” format, 150
MLA “Works Cited” format, 149
on-line sources, MLA “Works Cited” format, 153
Elbow, Peter, 211
electronic addresses. See URLs (universal
resource locators)
electronic sources
evaluating, 137–40
in MLA in-text citations, 148
Elements of Style (Strunk and White), 228
ellipses (. . . . )
with direct quotations, 143
using, 230–31
MLA “Works Cited” format, 154
em dashes (—), 230
editing for, 181
italics indicating, 233
endnotes, 58–59
MLA style, 146, 148
essay examinations
direction words in, 225–26
preparing for, 224
strategic writing in, 227
essay writing suggestions
academic community, 62–63
alternate style, 197
interpretative and argumentative essays,
purpose, situation, and audience, 13
reflective essays, 81–82
revision, 177
ethnic stereotypes, 183
in interpretative essays, 107–9
writing for teachers, 8–10, 26
creating belief with, 58
defined, 101
in interpretive essays, 107
in position papers, 101–2, 103
examinations. See essay examinations
in essay examinations, 226
in explanatory writing, 86
exclamation points (!), 231
executive summaries, 94–95
in reflective essays, 80
with revision, 172–76
explain (direction word), 225
explanatory writing, 83–97
analyzing, 90–91
comparing/contrasting, 88–90
defining, 85–87
describing, 87–88
examples in, 86
guidelines for, 85
research essays and reports, 84
thesis statements in, 85, 96–97
exploratory writing
characteristics of, 28–30
in reflective essays, 78
expository writing, 83. See also explanatory writing
expressive writing, 28
defined, 101
in personal narratives, 71
feelings, in personal narratives, 71
interpretive essays about, 106–7
field sources. evaluating, 135–36. See also
figurative language
in explanatory writing, 89–90
in personal narratives, 72
final drafts. See also drafts
in comprehensive portfolios, 214
first-person point of view
in autobiography, 74
in personal narratives, 67
flashbacks, 72
footnotes, 58–59
MLA style, 146, 148
home pages, 130
in exploratory writing, 28, 30
in personal narratives, 72
in writing groups, 212
humanistic disciplines
interpretative essays in, 104–5
investigative methods in, 57
external, 221
internal, 220
Web capabilities, 222–23
hyphens (-), 231
hypotheses, in interpretive essays, 105
index cards. See note cards
inductive strategy, for writing autobiography, 75
inferences, 101
informative writing, 84. See also explanatory writing
informed opinion, 101–2
integration, of research sources, 140–43
Internet. See also Web sites
e-mail, 154
on-line searches, 130–33
balance and, 60
defined, 98, 99, 104
interpretative essays, 104–10
analysis in, 106–7
evidence in, 107
interpret (direction word), 225
interviews, 116–18
evaluating, 135
preparing for, 116
questions for, 116–17
tape-recording, 118, 135
writing self-profiles from, 77
in-text citation, MLA guidelines, 146–48
for class books, 219
MLA “Works Cited” format, 150
revising, 171–72
investigative methods, 57
in position papers, 99–100
indicating double voice, 195
use of, 233
arranging, 200–201
conceptual mapping of, 37–38
outlining, 39, 129, 226
revising for, 169
identify (direction word), 225
imaginative writing, 27–28
new endings for classic works, 176
in reflective essays, 78
of form, 175–76
of voice, 206–7
implied thesis approach, 174
indenting quotations, 229
journal articles, on-line, MLA “Works Cited”
format, 154
journals, 41–52. See also logs
academic, 42–43
experimenting with, 51
guidelines for keeping, 50–52
history of, 41–42
personal, 29, 50
imitation of, 175–76
in story portfolios, 216–17
diary, 173–75
experimenting with, 72, 172–75
for personal narratives, 72
fragment sentences, 192–93
freewriting, 15, 35–36
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) About
the Web, 132
gender-biased language, 182–83
grades, 26
evaluation of, 6
knowledge (cont.)
inside, 70–71
research and, 60–61
labyrinthine sentences, 193–94
conventions, imagination and, 27–28
experimenting with, 169
functions of, 30–31
uses of, 26
language autobiography, 76
letters as letters, 233
letters of inquiry, 12
libraries, 123–28
bibliographies, 124–25
book indexes, 124–25
databases, 127–28
evaluating sources, 136–37
periodical indexes, 126–27
periodicals, 125–26
Library of Congress Subject Headings
(LCHS), 124, 128
in writing groups, 211
as alternative writing style, 186–88
for autobiography writing, 75
uses of, 38
literary journalism, 185
literature searches, 59
logs. See also journals
loose-leaf notebooks. See also notebooks
for comprehensive portfolios, 214
for journals, 51
Macrorie, Ken, 198
magazines. See also periodicals
MLA “Works Cited” format, 150
manuscript guidelines, for class books,
memoirs, 74. See also autobiography
writing reflective essays from, 79
writing to remember, 64–77
metaphor, 90, 182
MLA documentation. See Modern Language
Association (MLA) documentation
Modern Language Association (MLA) documentation, 145, 146–63
book documentation, 149–50
electronic database documentation, 151–
in-text citations, 146–48
on-line source documentation, 152–54
periodical documentation, 150–51
quotation format, 229
sample research paper, 154–63
“Works Cited” page format, 148–54
compound, 231
editing, 179–80
multimedia Web pages, 221
multiple authors
MLA in-text citations, 147
MLA “Works Cited” format, 148–49
multiple voices, 201–2
multiple works, MLA in-text citations, 147
narratives, 66. See also personal narratives
newspapers. See also periodicals
MLA “Works Cited” format, 151
nonfiction, creative, 27–28, 185
for journals, 50
suggestions for, 51
note cards
for note-taking, 129
writing snapshots with, 192
in interviews, 118, 135
from texts, 129
noun phrases, 179
abstract, 179
concrete, 88, 179
call, 125
compound, 231
in academic writing, 59
in explanatory writing, 83
journals for, 43–44, 48
reflective writing and, 79
site, 135
on-line searches, 130–33
on-line sources
access dates for, 152, 153
creation date of, 140
evaluating, 137–40
identifying site author, 138–39
MLA “Works Cited” format, 152–54
purpose of, 140
informed, 101–2
in reflective essays, 78–79
organization. See also structure
chronological, 67, 72, 217
of class books, 219
of essay examinations, 227
of story portfolios, 217
of Web sites, 221–22
outlining, 39
for abstracts, 95
drafting and, 18
for essay examinations, 226
working outlines, 129
in essay examinations, 227
indicating double voice, 195
proofreading, 183
revision and, 170
parallel construction, 180–81
integrating research sources with, 140,
when to use, 142
parentheses ( ), 231
brackets and, 229
indicating double voice, 195
parody, 176
passive construction, 182
peers, writing for, 10–11. See also classmates
interviewing, 116–18
listening to, 120
periodical indexes, 126–27
periodicals, 125–26. See also magazines;
MLA “Works Cited” format, 150–51
reference page information, 129
periods (.)
with direct quotations, 143
uses of, 231
personal beliefs
editing and, 22
expressing in writing, 6–7
personal biases, 6
personal interests
writing assignments and, 8–9
writing purpose and, 4–5, 6
personal interpretation, 59
personal journals. See also journals
personal narratives, 66–72
checklist for, 74
defined, 66–67
experimenting with revision, 172–75
purpose in writing, 73
structure of, 72
thesis statements for, 73
personal writing, 64–82
exploration through, 28
value of, 29
writing to reflect, 77–81
writing to remember, 64–77
personification, 90
identifying, 135, 137
revising, 171, 175
persuasion, 4, 58
photographic records, 135
balance, 60
choice of, 200
colons introducing, 229
noun, 179
repeated, 194
physical settings
as research sources, 118–20
for essay examinations, 226
outlining for, 39
for revision, 168
before writing, 17
playful sentences, 192–94
imagination and, 27–28
interpretive essays about, 105–6
on-line, MLA “Works Cited” format, 154
points of view
for autobiography, 74
identifying, 135, 137
in personal narratives, 67, 72
revising, 171, 175
position papers, 99–104
claims in, 99, 100–101, 102–3
counterclaims in, 100–101, 102
delayed-thesis writing pattern, 102, 103–
evidence in, 99, 101–2
issues in, 99–100
strategies for writing, 102–4
thesis-first writing pattern, 102–3, 104
thesis statements in, 100
possession, indicating with apostrophes,
for class books, 219
MLA “Works Cited” format, 150
prefixes, 231
problem solving
with freewriting, 35–36
writing assignments as, 9–10
process description, 87–88
of classmates, 82
self-, 76–77, 197
progress reports, 93
first-person, 199
sexist, 183
proofreading, 22–23, 168
by classmates, 11
for classmates, 183
suggestions for, 183
prose snapshots, 188–92
writing for, 11–12
publication information, MLA “Works
Cited” format, 149
letters of inquiry to, 12
class books, 218–20
on the Web, 220–23
apostrophes, 228
brackets, 229
colons, 229
commas, 229–30
for direct quotations, 142–43
ellipses, 230–31
em dashes, 230
exclamation points, 231
guidelines for, 228–33
hyphens, 231
italics, 233
parentheses, 231
periods, 232
proofreading, 183
question marks, 232
quotation marks, 232
semicolons, 232
underlining, 233
purpose in writing, 4–6
audience and, 7–13
classmates and, 10–11
personal interests and, 4–5
for personal narratives, 73
in reflective essays, 78
qualifying words
in interpretative essays, 107
voice and, 199
quantitative detail, 59
question marks (?), 232
questionnaires, 120–21
ad lib, 117
answering through writing, 32–35
in explanatory writing, 83–84
for interviews, 116–17
question marks indicating, 232
reflective writing about, 80
for research, 61–62
reporters 93–94
quotation marks (“), 232
brackets in, 229
colons introducing, 229
ellipses in, 230–31
guidelines for using, 142–43
indenting, 229
long, MLA in-text citations, 147–48
racial stereotypes, 183
“References” page, 59, 129, 163
reflective essays, 77–81
purpose in, 77, 78
strategies for starting, 79–80
religious stereotypes, 183
as alternate style, 194–95
eliminating, 181
reporter’s questions, 93–94
in explanatory writing, 93–94
academic community and, 60–62
authentic, 61
authority and, 134
composing process and, 19–20
experimentation, 120–21
people as resources for, 115–18
places as resources for, 118–21
purpose of, 61
texts for, 19–20, 123–29
writing with sources, 134–44
research essay suggestions
researching people and places, 122
research source documentation, 164
research logs, 52
research project suggestions
research reports
lead paragraphs for, 121–22
personal voice in, 155
publishing on the Web, 220–23
sample MLA style, 154–63
responses to drafts
guidelines for, 11
in writing groups, 209–12
responses to reading
dialogues, 48–49
reacting, 47–48
revising, 20–21, 167–77
adding supporting information, 170–71
for audience, 172
for credibility, 169–70
editing vs., 167–68
experimenting with, 169, 172–76
strategies for, 20–21
time allocation for, 168, 169
titles, 171
rewriting, 15, 167. See also revising
rhetoric, 199
rhyme, 27
editing for, 180
risk-taking, voice and, 206
role play, revision and, 175
satire, 176
scientific method
academic community and, 57
research assignments and, 61–62
searches, on-line, 130–33
analysis through journal writing, 31
describing, 77
writing for, 12–13, 16–17
collage style for, 197
writing guidelines, 76–77
semicolons (;), 232
colons introducing, 229
dashes in, 230
editing, 22, 178–84
ellipses in, 230–31
end-weighted, 181
fragment, 192–93, 195, 196
labyrinthine, 193–94
parallel construction, 180–81
playful, 192–94
semicolons in, 232
variety in, 180
wordy, 181
series comma, 229
series semicolons, 232
sexist language, 182–83
sharing writing, 206
silence, in interviews, 118
similarities, comparing, 88–89
similes, 90
site observations, 135
situation, writing purpose and, 4, 6–7
snapshots, 188–92
social class stereotypes, 183
source-driven papers, 140
controlling, 142
cross-referencing, 137
documenting, 145–64
electronic, MLA in-text citations,
evaluating, 134–40
external, 85–86
field, evaluating, 135–36
finding in books, 123–25
finding in databases, 127–28
finding in libraries, 123–29
finding in newspapers, 127
finding in periodicals, 125–27
finding on-line, 130–33
integrating, 140–43
MLA in-text citations, 146–48
on-line, evaluating, 137–40
sources (cont.)
Web hyperlinks to, 221
writing with, 134–44
language use, 26
recreating authentic language, 71
voice and, 199, 206
writing vs., 7, 10
in personal narratives, 69–70
journals for, 45
in reflective essays, 78, 80–81
sponsorship, for on-line sources, MLA
“Works Cited” format, 153
spoofs, 176
static verbs, 179
stereotypes, 183
stories, news, 93–94
story portfolios
defined, 213, 215
preparing, 215–17
stream of consciousness, 175
structure. See also organization
chronological organization, 67
of personal narratives, 72
alternate-style techniques, 185–97
imitating, 175–76
of summaries, 95
voice and, 199–200, 201
subject words, 5
subtitles, 22
summarize (direction word), 225
summarizing, 94–96
detail vs., 73
supporting information, 170–71
as research source, 120–21
synthesis essays, 93
tables of contents
for class books, 219
for comprehensive portfolios, 214
tape recording interviews, 118, 135
as audience for writing, 7, 8–10
responses from, 206
technical terminology, 226
interpreting, 104–10
in libraries, 123–28
research, 19–20
as research resources, 123–29
working bibliography of, 128–29
for autobiography, 75
in story portfolios, 215, 217
thesis-first writing pattern, 102–3, 104
thesis statements
argumentative, 100
delayed, 96, 102, 103–4
embedded, 96
in essay examinations, 226
in explanatory writing, 85, 96–97
implied, 174
for personal narratives, 73
stating up front, 174
thesis-first pattern, 102–3, 104
thinking with writing, 25–40
conceptual mapping, 37–38
freewriting, 35–37
list making, 38
outlining, 39
questions and answers, 32–35
relationships, 30–32
writing to learn, 39–40
colons in, 229
editing and, 22
italicizing or underlining, 233
MLA “Works Cited” format, 149
for on-line sources, MLA “Works Cited”
format, 152–53
revising, 171–72
learning about, 5
topic selection
common topics, 67
personal interests and, 4–5, 6
for personal narratives, 72
transition words
using, 88
translations, MLA “Works Cited” format,
translators, for on-line sources, MLA “Works
Cited” format, 153
underlining, 233
unsigned works
MLA in-text citations, 147
MLA “Works Cited” format, 150, 151
URLs (universal resource locators), 132
identifying type of sponsoring organization by, 138
longer than one line, 153
MLA “Works Cited” format, 152
for on-line sources, MLA “Works Cited”
format, 153
action, 88, 179
static, 179
tense of, 67
visual writing
conceptual mapping, 37–38
details and, 73
voice, 198–208
analyzing, 205, 207–8
arrangement of, 200–201
content of, 200, 201
controlling, 200
developing, 206–7, 208
double, 195–96
evolution of, 201, 207
influences on, 204–5
integrating source and own, 140
origins of, 204–6
personal, in research papers, 155
revision and, 172
in story portfolios, 215–16
style of, 199–200, 201
uniqueness of, 198–99
volume numbers, MLA “Works Cited” format, 149
Web sites. See also Internet
composing for, 221–23
hyperlinks, 220–21, 222–23
menu-driven, 221–22
MLA “Works Cited” format, 152–54
multimedia capability, 221
on-line searches, 130–33
personal, MLA “Works Cited” format, 153
professional, MLA “Works Cited” format,
published, MLA “Works Cited” format,
publishing, 220–23
white space, 189
women, biases against, 182–83
word processors, 19. See also computers
choice of, 200
pretentious, 199
repeated, 194
as words, 233
wordy sentences, 181
“Works Cited” page, 129
example, 163
MLA guidelines for, 146–54
World Wide Web. See Internet; Web sites
writing. See also academic writing; purpose in writing
alternate style, 185–97
attitudes toward, 25
frustration with, 55
for grades, 26
purpose in, 55–56
revision and, 168
speaking vs., 7, 10
uses of, 26
writing assignments
direction words in, 5–6
guidelines for, 8–10
personal interest in, 8–9
personalizing, 9
writing groups
guidelines for, 209–12
writing portfolios
comprehensive, 213–15
cover letter for, 214–15
guidelines for, 213–17
story, 215–17
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