Friday, June 25, 2010

Research, Seventh of Eight Parts: Synthesis and Style

A long-term, documented essay project is much like a 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle.

First, you must choose the puzzle you will complete, using the clues provided in the pictures on the carton. Will you reveal a scenic landscape, multi-colored pebbles, or buildings in Rome? From all the possibilities, you select one—just as you selected a topic to study.

At home with your puzzle, you open the lid of the carton to reveal a jumble of meaningless pieces. Temptation steals in, urging you to slide the lid in place and bury the carton in a closet, but you persevere. You take a deep breath and begin to organize the pieces, one by one, blues and blacks and grays in separate areas along the edges of a large table. You reserve the center of the table for the edge pieces that you sort and join to identify the puzzle’s boundaries and parameters.

The sorting process described above compares to the time you invested in reading to become an informed expert and in writing notes. You organized a jumble of information, not by color or shape, but by topics and sub-topics, defining boundaries and setting parameters for your essay as you did so.

With the sorting over, you are now ready to fill in the picture—to put the pieces of the puzzle in place; in other words, you are now ready to synthesize the quoted, paraphrased, and summarized information into a new whole, using the plan or outline that you developed last week while referring to the note cards, picking up only those that relate to each topic as you write about it in detail. If you have followed the advice in the previous entries about research, your essay content will come from your brain. You will only need the cards to check facts, write exact quotations, and add in the correct page number of the original source as you create in-text citations. The cards merely support what you now know.

As you write, try not to focus upon matters of style such as word choices, sentence structures, or images. Instead, concentrate on being logical, accurate, and thorough, remembering your three tasks:

1. prove that you are knowledgeable on the subject;
2. prove that you have first-rate reasoning skills; and
3. demonstrate your writing abilities.

The first and second tasks are vital in achieving a great grade or impressing the boss so accomplish them as you develop a first draft. In addition, pretend that your reader has no information about the topic. This will urge you to add the details, background information, and evidence necessary for your reader to comprehend and understand. Save your third task for the revising stage.

As you write, review your plan (outline), abstract or prĂ©cis. Revise these if necessary; remember that writing helps you discover so you may discover more about your essay’s organization as you go. You should also refer to your plan often, even if it does not need revision, to insure that you stay on track.

As you write, you should also insert the in-text (also known as parenthetical) citations so that you will not overlook a resource and accidentally commit plagiarism. Highlight the source when you actually quote, paraphrase or summarize information from it. This is a final, important organizational step because the Works Cited page lists ONLY those works that you have quoted, paraphrased or summarized, nothing else. A separate Works Consulted page can be created to list resources that you read but did not actually quote, paraphrase or summarize.

Once you have a completed draft, set it aside—at least overnight—so that when you return to it later, you will more easily and clearly see what you actually wrote rather than what you meant to write. Writers have to develop objective eyes, and time is one avenue to this skill.

Another easy trick to employ is to read your draft aloud. Because your mouth moves more slowly than your eye and because your ears are great editing tools, read aloud. You will hear the passages that are just too complicated or the ones that are incomplete. Stop and repair them, then begin reading aloud again.

Your ears will also notice when you have repetitive sentence patterns. Stop to combine sentences into new patterns so that you achieve sentence variety. Scratch out general, abstract words, and substitute specific, concrete ones. In other words, revise as you read, then start again, reading the entire essay from first to last word, this time listening to your changes and revising again as needed.

For matters of style, please remember that this blog includes several weeks when style was the lesson. For example, you may return to

1. February 28, 2010 to review sentence patterns, especially the use of anaphora,
2. March 7, 2010 to review word choices and appropriate vocabulary,
3. March 28, 2010 to review editing (revising) skills,
4. April 18, 2010 to review concrete language, or
5. April 25, 2010 to review specific, concrete language.

GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics).

I have never written a perfect passage. I type the wrong letter. My hand lags behind my brain so that occasionally, I leave out whole words or use it’s when I need its. I need a proofreader, and I have one. Not only do I read, re-read, and read again what I have written, I ask a proofreader to read what I have written when I think I have a final draft before me and again, after I have posted to the blog. Even after my proofreader has announced that he finds no errors, I read the blog again, and much later, after blogs have been posted, I can still see places that could be edited and revised.

So the moral of my admission is: ask someone to proofread for you. Never assume that you have written clearly and flawlessly until you have released your writing to the eyes of another. Let that person tell you when a passage is muddy, and be grateful when your proofreader catches a spelling error, omission, or oversight.

Reading Challenge.

Read your final draft aloud one more time. Ask someone else to read what you wrote, take his or her advice, then read your final draft again.

Writing Challenge.

Listen to yourself, and rewrite when you tell yourself that a passage lacks sufficient evidence or explanation. Pay attention to matters of style and write so that you are proud of every word.

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach.