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Below are some texts created by the consultants designed to be interesting to read while teaching the expectations of college-level writing.
Arguing Deeper: Not Every Paper is about Abortion, Legalization, or Gay Marriage.
Welcome to college. You've now entered a world that you can proudly call your own. You've taken the first step to creating a life outside of your family and friend from home. You have started out on an adventure that entails living with someone you've never met, eating food you or your family took no part in preparing, and showering with shoes on. Most importantly, you've entered a world in which the intellectual and educational landscape look vastly different from the one you've experienced in high school.
The assignments might be deceptively similar in nature. Undoubtedly, you will have a prompt that looks something like this:
"Pick a social issue. Do some research and identify different points of view regarding that issue. Discuss how it affects you personally, and the community in which you live. Then, propose your solution to the problem."
Surely there is value in doing all of these things, and surely your professor is assigning the paper from a genuine place, but that does not mean that you haven't been placed in a danger zone. Your knee-jerk reaction might be something along the sarcastic lines of, "Prime. I can write an argument in support of pot legalization in an hour. This is going to be cake."
If only you could see me slam my head against my desk.
There are a few topics of discussion that won't do you any favors in the setting of a college paper. I guarantee you won't be able to come up with any new and interesting ideas regarding legalization, gay marriage, abortion, or affirmative action. These have all been exhausted, and I promise your professor will be bored as soon as you quote Bob Marley or Gloria Steinem in your opening sentence.
When it comes to argument, I want to see the venom and fire I know exists inside of you. I want to see the soft compassion, too. Writing about something you genuinely care about will make that happen, and your paper won't be a drag to write or read.
I can hear the chorus of voices, already, screaming, "But I do care about abortion. It's a big deal. It's serious, and I'm serious about it."
Trust me, I understand the depth of the issue at hand, and I am fully aware there are people who dedicate their lives to whatever end of the spectrum. But I also know that you've written that paper before, at least once, most likely more than twice, in high school. You're in college now, and part of the spirit of a liberal arts education is the expansion of knowledge in a variety of fields and the dedication to inquiry.
So when you come to the Champlain College Writing Center and tell me you don't know what to write about, I will ask you one simple question: What makes you angry?
It's the best place to start. If you can find something that is unique to you, or at least more unique than your fight for legalization, that makes your skin crawl with genuine disdain, write about it. If you can pinpoint an injustice in your life, your family, your country, or the world, write about it. Heck, if you have a pet peeve, write about it. At least you'll care about what you're writing about. And if you can get excited about it, your professor will get excited too.
Checklist for Revising and Proofreading
(Because Sometimes the WC Actually Closes)
So you've just finished writing your paper, and you are exhausted. Your fingers are practically worn down to nubs, and you can barely move your wrists. With a sigh of relief, you simultaneously hit Ctrl + p to print the document but wait -you aren't quite done yet. You remember that there are a few final steps to complete before your paper is really done and groan at the prospect of continuing to sit at your computer, typing this paper instead of sleeping, eating, or watching the season finale of House. Never fear! There is an easy way to go about tying up loose ends on a paper, and it comes in the form of a fun little checklist.
First, you'll want to check for typos and those commonly mixed up words like they're, there, and their. If spell check doesn't catch everything, which it won't in the latter case, what you can do is read your paper aloud. Now it might seem kind of silly to read your paper to yourself out loud at what could very well be an ungodly hour in the night, but you'll find that you catch more mistakes that way. When we quickly skim our writing in our heads, we might glaze over errors or fill in omitted words because we know what we mean to say. After you've done this, you may also consider reading your paper backwards (word by word) to further ensure that you haven't misspelled anything, used the incorrect word, etc.
Next, you can go through your paper and make sure that you have used the appropriate punctuation. Check to see that you have periods at the ends of your sentences because if it's late, you may have accidentally hit the comma key instead. If you have quotes in your paper, be sure that you used quotation marks instead of apostrophes. If you're having grammar issues in general, visit OWL at Purdue's website or another credible web source, like MLA's website, but if you'd rather not do that, a good rule of thumb with commas and such is that you'll want them where it would be natural to take a pause. Periods and commas signify, especially when reading aloud, when to take breaths.
Along the same lines, you can then go through your paper and check for run-on sentences or sentences that can be combined or reduced. Having sentences that are neither too short or long contributes to a paper that reads well. You may refer to this concept as "having good flow," but when it comes to writing, it would probably be best to avoid such generic phrases. It might also be wise to make sure that you have wide sentence variation; for example, you don't want clusters of sentences that begin with The. A similar concept would be to ensure that your vocabulary is appropriate for the assignment and diverse, as well. This can you help you avoid sounding redundant.
In terms of the bigger picture, make sure that your paragraphs are focused. In other words, don't try to talk about more than one topic in a paragraph and certainly avoid straying from the idea at hand. Not only does this make your writing more coherent, but the general movement of your thoughts will be easy to follow, therefore making a read-through faster and painless. Also be sure that your thesis statement accurately captures what your paper is about and is presented in intelligent and concise wording. Organization of your paragraphs is also key, but with a strong thesis statement, this aspect should be fairly simple to deal with.
The order of the checklist items start at a broad and mechanical level and proceed to be more comprehensive and in-depth to help one ease into revising and proofreading a paper. Now, you might argue that it seems like you're basically writing your paper again, but here's the argument: you've spent a lot of time typing this paper so why not take a little extra time to check it over and make sure it's worthy of a high grade? So if you follow this brief checklist to revising, you should have a fair chance of having all your hard work pay off!
Theses-Pieces: How to Create a Killer Start to Your Paper
(and continue it)
So, you just sat down at your computer on the night before your big essay is due. You haven't started it despite the fact that you had two weeks to work on it. Well, you know what my motto is: "Time enjoyed wasted is not wasted." However, this does not lessen your impending doom any. For many students, the hardest part of writing the dreaded college essay is simply getting started. From personal experience, I know that the hardest words to write are those in the first sentence. But once you start to write, it is easy to continue. It's basic physics: it takes more energy to start motion than continue it.
"But Evan," you may be wondering, "How do I accomplish this amazing feat?? How do I start my paper when I have no idea what it's about??"
This is a common question when confronting an essay, and the first step is often to simply review the topic at hand, most likely assigned by a professor. This topic will ultimately lead you to your thesis, which is the essential core of any essay. A thesis is the argument presented in the paper and reflects the opinion(s) of the author.
But why do we even need a thesis? Can't a research paper be just fine and dandy if it's a summation of collected information on the topic? Essays by definition are all about an argument. Without a thesis, the reader may not understand what the paper is trying to say and it gives you as the author a focus on what to write about.
WHAT GOES IN A THESIS
So now that we know that we need a thesis, what the heck-sauce does a thesis actually look like? Let's take a look at what a thesis should and should not be. A thesis should be more than an opinion that you have on a particular subject; it should be an argument. A great thesis tells your reader what you think as well as why you do so. Just saying that, "The Red Sox is the best team ever" is an opinion, but not a thesis, until you give us some reasons. A thesis such as "Technology has affected today's students for the better by allowing easy access to teachers and resources" is an example of an opinion with supporting topics. Another reason to add the "Why Factor" onto your thesis statement is that it can provide you and the reader expectations for upcoming topic sentences. A topic sentence is what generally starts off a new point of discussion in your paper, placed at the beginning of a paragraph, which restates your thesis and what this paragraph will prove about it. In the technology example above, an example of a topic sentence could be, "By allowing easy access to teachers via email, technology has increased a student's ability to better understand project requirements." It restates the thesis of technology being a benefit and then goes into detail regarding one of the reasons for this argument.
A powerful thesis argues something that is...well...arguable. There needs to be a strong and unique argument that readers can be free to disagree with before your paper smacks them in the face with your words. A thesis like "killing people is a bad idea" is not very arguable, as many people would most likely be inclined to agree anyway. The argument in this case is weak. Now, saying, "While murder is a viewed universal immoral practice, each culture must make a series of knotty ethical decisions regarding its definition" is a strong argument in that there are clear sides here and is a powerful idea.
Let's take a look at some examples and see what we can glimpse about the nature of theses. Note that the stronger thesis appears in the blue box. These examples are taken from the Diana Hacker website, which I recommend visiting to strengthen your writing skills of all kinds.
What we see here is the fundamental difference between a fact and a thesis. The white box merely tells the reader a factual statement. The blue box contains the author's opinion; in this case the argument is that the trend shows promise. However, despite this box being a better example of a thesis than the white one, it is still not really strong enough for the scope of a big college paper; it needs a bit more focus.
While both of these may appear at first to be facts, the blue box does indeed contain an argument. The argument here is not that "research suggests this," but that zero-emissions vehicles are not the way to go. In this case, it is detailed enough to write a decent paper. A thesis should try to avoid broad claims that cannot possibly be condensed into one paper or clear, flowing thoughts.
These are both thesis statements in essence, but the blue one is much more developed. In the white, we have an opinion, but the argument is rather broad; why was he important? The blue box gives a detailed and precise argument that can be easily embellished in an essay with supporting examples. Also, as a general rule, one should avoid using "and" in a thesis, as it effectively makes you arguing two things, which is not a good idea for a college essay. You can use "and" to link two related ideas together in your thesis, such as, "The internet is useful in that it is fast and contains many sources." That was a somewhat weak example thesis, but you get the idea. I hope.
HOW TO GET STARTED
These are some useful steps you can take to form a thesis:
These steps are entirely optional and can really be done in any order, but if you are having trouble forming a thesis, then this suggested method can be quite effective.
This all seems to heavily revolve around having a topic to orbit your thoughts around. But what about when there is no assigned topic for your paper? How do you choose a topic for your paper that can be made into an effective thesis? There really is no set way to go about tackling the dreaded "think of it yourself" essay. With little guidance, it can take days just to conceive a topic you are interested and opinionated in, much less research and write about it. Usually there are some guidelines in such assignments, such as what you cannot write about or a list of topics you can choose from. The key is to think of opinions you have on things related to the assignment, even vague ones. Think of something that interests you and research it, even if you don't really know much about it. It is through this research that a real opinion can be formed, and thus an argument. Indeed, it is easier said than done, but with enough time and thought a beautifully crafted thesis can spring from anywhere.
Now that you have this great thesis with mountains of research to back up you claims, it seems obvious that any reader will be forced to give in to your flawless reasoning and commanding thesis. But where does the reader actually find your argument? Without clearly identifying your thesis for what it is, a reader may not get the right idea out of your paper or be confused about what you are trying to argue. Generally, your thesis statement should be included in your intro paragraph, the first paragraph of your essay, which, as the name suggests, introduces the reader to your topic and argument. Often times, the thesis is the last sentence in this paragraph, but there is really no set rule for this. On some occasions it may be more useful to put the thesis in the paragraph after the intro, but it is your call as the author when to do this. To be safe, stick to the last sentence of the into rule, as it gives you an idea on how to start your paper and readers familiar with this rule will know right where to look for your thesis.
As mentioned earlier, you should restate your thesis in the topic sentences for your topic paragraphs, which embellish your thoughts in more clear terms. Not every paragraph needs to start with a topic sentence, only those that begin to discuss a new subject, usually preceded by a transition phrase, such as, "furthermore," "in addition," and "lastly." Finally, your thesis should be reiterated in the conclusion paragraph to remind the reader what your point was and to re-highlight your key supporting details. A strong thesis paper will also cover a proposed solution to the issue at hand if the argument is of that nature, such as conceiving a better car to fight rising air pollution from the thesis in the aforementioned second example. The conclusion should leave no doubt in the reader's mind that your argument is the correct one.
SPECIAL CASE THESES
Some forms of thesis statements may have unique ways to strengthen them. One such example would be an essay that is analyzing a work of literature in order to interpret the author's intentions. Often called "Interpretive Literature" essays, these tend to focus on short stories or poems that can be analyzed in entirety and depth due to their length. An analytical essay of this type should start with a thesis that covers these key features:
An example of this would be, "the author displays John's emotions through the use of alcohol as a metaphor, which allows the reader to empathize with the character." This is a good thesis that can be argued with in-text citations and in much detail. Remember that there are no real formulas for any thesis, so ultimately it is up to you the author to convey your argument in a clear and concise way. If your reader cannot underline your thesis upon reading your paper, you may need to make it more obvious.
Gods be praised! You are now ready to tackle the daunting task of crafting the college essay. With your thesis at hand, which conveys a multi-sided, precise, and detailed argument, you can explain your thoughts using resources and bring it all together in a resounding conclusion. Your readers will only be able to wonder how they ever had views contrasting yours before reading this opus. No you can go to bed and get some well-deserved sleep.
Writing Outlines like a Nerd
I wear a bike helmet, knit in the winter, and outline my papers before I write them. My boyfriend cliff dives at Redrocks, skis in the winter, and writes his papers with no preparation the day before they are due. In sum, I am a nerd and my boyfriend is cool. But I'm here to tell you that while writing an outline isn't glamorous and certainly won't impress the ladies or the lads in party conversation, it does have its pros. For example, this is what it looks like when my boyfriend writes a paper:
3-3:05 pm: Read the assignment sheet.
3:05-3:30 pm: Write an introduction, seemingly out of mid air. (Mind you, no research has been done yet.)
3:30-3:55 pm: Troll the internet for an article that resembles something he talked about in the introduction.
3:55- 4:15 pm: Write a paragraph about it.
4:15-6 pm: Repeat the trolling/writing process.
6-6:15 pm: Begin to feel a creeping panic that he is running out of resources. Wallow in self pity.
6:15-6:45 pm: Start to settle for so-so sources.
6:45-7:15 pm: Add in some "fluff" in order to get it up to four and a half pages.
7:15-7:30 pm: Write a conclusion.
7:30-7:31 pm: Print it out.
I used to ask him questions like, "what if you get to the end and realize that your introduction says things that are totally different than how it ended up?". But mostly the responses I got were just looks over his shoulder that meant, if you don't stop asking me questions, I'll throttle you.
I've learned that it's best for me to leave the room while he's working, because I can't stand to watch him torture himself.
As for my own writing process-I won't say that it's better, but it certainly seems to hurt less.
Here's what it looks like when I write a paper:
3:00-3:05 pm: Read assignment sheet.
3:05-3:30 pm: "Light research." Google my topic. Read a Wikipedia article on it.
3:30-3:45 pm: Write an outline. (It doesn't take long!)
3:45-5:00 pm: Research online and at the library.
5:00-5:30 pm: Use copy and paste to organize my "research points" into my "outline points." Possibly revise outline.
5:30-7:00 pm: Write the introduction, make my research into body paragraphs, and write the conclusion. (It doesn't take long to write when the research is already done.)
7:00 -7:15 pm: Reread. Revise.
7:15-7:16 pm Print.
My method doesn't save me much time. And it is nerve-wracking when I'm two and a half hours in without a word on the page yet, but my way does have it's advantages.
First of all, I don't get backed into any corners. If I find a really great source that could shift my whole argument, it's no problem to switch up the bullet points on my outline a bit, whereas, if I had found the amazing source when I was three pages in, I'd probably lay on the floor and cry.
Secondly, writing an outline helps me hone my ideas and realize where my argument has some leaks. By figuring out what my biggest challenges will be in the beginning, I can steer my research towards answering those harder questions.
Finally, my outline saves me from blank page syndrome. You know-- when you open up a word doc, write your name, and then stare at the screen for twenty minutes, hoping inspiration will strike? By making an outline, I am basically creating a manual for how to write this paper. I can refer back to my outline and say, "Oh yeah. There were three ideas I wanted to cover in this paragraph."
And remember, while outlining is the best solution for me, there are a ton of other ways to plan your paper without having to remember how to use roman numerals. Perhaps a flow chart or an idea web or just a piece of paper with all kinds of scribbles and arrows is the best solution for you.
As a Writing Center consultant, I understand that a lot of the writing students have to do isn't by choice. That doesn't mean that these essays have to be miserable, though. Tricks like writing an outline may seem nerdy, but these are the methods that even the best writers use to organize their ideas. As nice as it would be, good writing doesn't just flow out of your fingers like milk from an udder (weird visual, I know,) so the more preparation you can do before you put pen to paper (or hand to keyboard,) the easier the writing will be.
When was the last time you read a five paragraph essay outside of class? What was that you said.... Never? It's understandable. Just looking at a five paragraph essay can make my eyes feel all mush and my brain start wobbling around to more interesting topics.
So why are they so popular in class, then? Mostly I think, it's because five paragraph essays are what most students learn first. Our high school and middle school teachers tell us we need an introduction with a thesis statement, three body paragraphs, and a conclusion, so for most of our essay writing lives, a standard five paragraph essay can earn us an "A."
It's easy to go into cruise control when we get to college and keep pumping out the same papers we've been writing for years, but at some point these essays get tiresome. Which is why the Writing Center is on a rampage to rid the world of the misconception that five paragraph essays are the only way.
We want everyone to break the rules and make their own path in writing, but we know that can be harder than it sounds. So let's break it down and find out what is essential to an essay and what is an archaic ruling made by your eighth grade teacher trying to teach you a lesson about thinking inside the box.
All a good research paper really needs is four things: context, argument, evidence, and a resolution. (I just made up these terms, you could probably call them by 50 different names.)
So what are they? Let's break them down even more:
Context-Put the reader in a frame of mind. Tell them who/what/where/when they should be thinking about and why this topic matters.
Argument-Make a statement about this subject that is controversial. There's nothing to argue unless someone can disagree with you.
Evidence-Prove your point with specific examples.
Resolution-In your expert opinion, what should be done as a result of your findings.
The trick to writing an interesting and thorough paper is to keep these basics in mind and then go beyond them. Maybe you want to start your paper by proposing a solution. Maybe you want to start with your most striking piece of evidence. Maybe you want to start by shocking people with your outlandish opinion. Starting an essay with the context (or background information) is the most traditional way, but it can also be a legitimate option as long as you do it creatively.
You'll probably find that the body of your paper is mostly made up of evidence, no matter what kind of essay you're writing, but this doesn't mean that you have to cower to those three measly paragraphs. Remember that your evidence can come in all shapes and forms. An anecdote, a statistic, a pie chart, an illustration, a hypothetical situation, or a quote could all be used as evidence in an essay. And the more types of evidence you have, the more rock solid your argument is going to be.
Then there's the conclusion. I'm sure that someone at some time in your life told you to write a conclusion by restating your thesis and summarizing everything you just wrote. Here's my advice: don't do that.
Since conclusions are hard to talk about in a general sense, I'm going to give you a visual so you know what an outstanding conclusion could look like:
A conclusion that restates the thesis and summarizes the paper is like a turkey, leaping up into the air, wildly flapping it's wings, and then ungracefully crumpling back to the ground.
A conclusion with an honest reflection of the possibilities and limitations of the argument made is like an eagle forcefully pushing of a branch and soaring into the sky, (possibly with wind ruffling its feathers and patriotic music in the background.) The conclusion should not end the conversation, but rather open up the topic for further discussion and debate.
So next time you write a research paper, before you conform to the standard five paragraphs, try to think about how you can make your paper better than average. What is the best way to present all of this information that you have gathered? How can your argument have the most impact? And, of course, if you ever get stuck, come visit the Writing Center.
Commas suck. It's a fact. There are a lot of rules and just as many exceptions. These days, we don't get the all-in-one comma talk; we're required to piece the puzzle together on our own with bits of information we pick up-from context alone, no less-spread out over years of schooling. Things get lost in translation, and correct comma placement can be downright bewildering. I promise, though, you can defeat the comma-menace.
Before explaining the mystery shrouding the elusive comma, allow me to explain why I am qualified to dole out grammar battle tactics. If you haven't seen me or my name around yet, here I am in a nutshell: a junior Professional Writing major working as a student tutor in Champlain's Writing Lab who spends her few moments of free time writing for The Current; running her own magazine, Moss on the Moon; and copyediting any last bit of writing that crosses her path. In short, I spend enough time cozying up to the English language to be considered a bona fide grammar geek.
Listen; commas really aren't that tough. By the end of this article, you should have a better grasp on where they go and don't go-if you don't, come into the Writing Lab and whine about it.
Now, down to business. This particular piece of punctuation is actually important, believe it or not. A lot of people might tell you that you should put a comma where ever you naturally pause while reading the sentence. This isn't necessarily true-some people have a really odd idea of where to pause. Hence, comma rules. I'll give you some of the major ones.
The basic purpose of a comma is to help the reader figure out what you're trying to say, to reduce confusion. Example: "Come to dinner and eat, Jaime" could accidentally be "Come to dinner and eat Jaime." In this case, clarity is key. The comma is kind of important to understanding what's for dinner (and Jaime's future).
Use a comma before (not after) a conjunction-and, or, but, nor, yet-connecting two independent clauses. Otherwise, you have a run-on sentence. Example: I went out on Friday, and I got some guy's number. Note: both clauses have to be independent clauses (complete sentences on their own). "I went out on Friday, and got some guy's number" is wrong: "got some guy's number" is an incomplete sentence (aka, don't use a comma there).
Another note: without the conjunction, you have a comma splice. I know comma splices are mythical things, so here's a breakdown: they're two independent clauses joined only with a comma. In this case, the comma is the enemy and should be replaced with a period or semicolon.
Use a comma after an introductory clause. This is a word, phrase, or clause that introduces the sentence, and the comma sets it off. "While I was running over, the cat, my foot and the mouse were covered in blue paint." This means that while you were running there, blue paint covered the cat, mouse, and your foot. "While I was running over the cat, my foot and the mouse were covered in blue paint" means that while you ran over the cat, both your foot and the mouse turned blue. Common intro words: today, although, however, surprisingly, etc. Example: "Thursday, I went to Rasputin's."
Use them with parenthetical expressions, little interjections that aren't integral to the meaning of the sentence, but provide more context and detail. You can take out the clause and it wouldn't screw with the structure of the sentence. Example: There are places outside the U.S., such as Canada, where I can go to the bar and grab a beer like the legal adult I am. Another example: The company, while good, was lacking in spastic excitement.
There are more rules for dealing with commas, but these are the fundamentals. They're the ones I see most often broken, and most often docked for. Now you know how to beat the comma. Go forth and conquer.