Thursday, June 17, 2010

Research, Sixth of Many Parts: Pre-Writing & Outlines

If you have followed the advice and steps in the last five blog entries, you:

1. persevered to learn a great deal about a subject;
2. organized the information, using topic headings and categories;
3. identified bias, errors in logic, and empty, emotional arguments;
4. placed quotation marks around passages and phrases that you copied from the original;
5. studied the style (MLA or APA) that you must use; and
6. recorded the information you need to cite your sources correctly.

Now you are ready to begin a draft, and for that, you should re-read earlier blogs. Return to the blog from February 21, 2010. The subject is beginning. In part, that blog reads:

If I dream of becoming fit and strong, I must begin to eat less and exercise more. If I long to play the piano beautifully, I must begin with scales and devote time to practice day after day, year after year. If I wish to write or need to write, then I must begin.

The question most often asked by those facing a writing task is how do I begin? My students often hope that I will answer that question with a foolproof strategy. Alas, the answer is neither foolproof nor magical. The answer is simply: begin.

Even if you are not sure what point you will prove and defend for your researched essay, even if you hate the first sentence, and even if you would like to start over, commit by beginning. You can always add, subtract, and re-write. You can use what you write to discover good phrases worth saving and main ideas. Writing helps you clarify your thoughts.

So, once again, you must persevere in spite of uncertainty and some level of confusion. You must be willing to write and revise in order to create a good researched paper so pick a point and start writing. You can always scratch out or modify the point of your essay as you go. The first line—the first draft—does not have to be perfect. For most writers, it will not be, but every writer simply must write in order to write.

John D. MacDonald, who wrote crime and suspense stories that thousands have enjoyed, said in an introduction to Stephen King’s collection of short stories entitled Night Shift:

"If you want to write, you write.

The only way to learn to write is by writing. And that would not be a useful approach to brain surgery.

Stephen King always wanted to write and he writes.

So he wrote Carrie and Salem’s Lot and The Shining, and the good short stories you can read in this book and a stupendous number of other stories and books and fragments and poems and essays and other unclassifiable things, most of them too wretched to ever publish.

Because that is the way it is done.

Because there is no other way to do it. Not one other way."

Here is a fill-in-the-blank thesis formula so that you can begin. It is not what you will insert into your final essay, but it is a place to start, a place for you to formulate your ideas:

The purpose of this essay is to prove (or disprove) that _______________, and the proofs will be 1) _______________, 2) ______________, and 3) ___________________.

With all those blanks, I’m sure you feel frustrated and unsure. Let me fill in all those blanks with a specific example: The purpose of this essay is to prove that anyone can write an excellent essay, and the proofs will be 1) the nature of the writing process, 2) the value of research, and 3) the importance of accurate record-keeping.

By the way, three proofs is an arbitrary number. Sometimes, you will have two major proofs (sections) and many sub-points within each section. Sometimes, you will have four or five proofs. Do not be confined to the five-paragraph essay, consisting of an introduction, three body paragraphs, and a conclusion. College-level analysis does not fit into such a tidy pattern. Your researched information will determine the pattern, not some high-school essay form.

So what are some patterns—also known as outlines—that could be useful for advanced analysis and synthesis? I offer two to help you organize the information that you have gathered.

The argument pattern: this pattern has the advantage of allowing you to demonstrate that you, as the writer, are well-informed on both sides of the issue and that your argument is logical and unbiased. Here is what it looks like:

Thesis: Although opponents present strong evidence to the contrary, ____________ must [or should, must not, should not]____________________.

Here is another generic example filling in those blanks: Although some teachers oppose efforts to transform the English classroom into a writing classroom because of the after-class work load, teachers must offer multiple writing opportunities each week and school year in order for students to become better readers, thinkers, and writers.

1. Section 1 of the argument pattern is a multi-paragraph explanation of the writer’s point of view; using the example above, section 1 will explain how students benefit from writing often and writing for a variety of purposes.
2. Section 2 of the argument pattern is also a multi-paragraph explanation; in it, you, the writer, explain the opponents’ points of view, presenting them without bias, without characterizing the opponents as malicious or stupid, and without manipulating data to win a point. If one of the opponents’ points is true and irrefutable, you, the writer, grant the truth of it.
3. Section 3 of the argument pattern is the final multi-paragraph refutation in which you, the writer, take up each of the opponents’ claims in order to challenge them, weaken them, or outright shoot them down. This is the section where you show off your logic and knowledge. In the first two sections, you showed off your knowledge, research, and character.

Most college writing will require an argument. I have offered only one pattern. There are more. To study them, look at Corbett and Connor’s Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student or Shea, Scanlon, and Aufses’ The Language of Composition: Reading, Writing and Rhetoric.

A second useful pattern for your advanced, researched writing is an extended analysis. This pattern provides you, the writer, with the challenge and opportunity to select evidence wisely and therefore prove both knowledge and logic. You would choose this pattern if you need to compare, contrast, define, persuade, and/or explain characters, battles, strategies, leaders, philosophies, legal arguments, novels, or others points of view.

You may begin with the same fill-in-the-blank formula:

The purpose of this essay is to prove (or disprove) that _________________, and the proofs will be 1) ____________________, 2) ______________________, and 3) ______________.

For example: The purpose of this essay is to demonstrate the evolution of the right to free speech, and the areas of consideration will be 1) Constitutional language and interpretation, 2) legal precedent, and 3) recent decisions extending and limiting free speech. (Explanation and Analysis)

For example: The purpose of this essay is to prove that Hamlet and Macbeth are comparable characters who question the purposes of life, and the areas of consideration will be 1) the characters’ early heroic status, 2) the characters’ motivations to discover their purposes, 3) the characters’ treatment of others, 4) the deaths of each character, and 5) the legacy of each character. (Comparison/Contrast)

For example: The purpose of this essay is to prove that Longstreet was a better strategist than Lee, and the areas of consideration will be specific battles and specific uses of resources. (Persuasion)

I must stress once more that you will not transfer this formulaic thesis, word for word, into your final essay. In the final version, using the second example above, the thesis might read: The noble Hamlet and the ignoble Macbeth, titular characters in Shakespeare’s canon, are actually quite similar men. Each confronts challenges that test his beliefs in man himself and the purposes of life, and each does extraordinary damage to others as he rationalizes his purpose.

The formula is simply to help you begin and develop an outline.

GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics):

Transitions are crucial, especially in lengthy writing. They are the glue that secures one idea to another, ties one paragraph to another, and knits sentences into paragraphs.

Some transitions are useful for lists: first, second, third, fourth, . . . .

Some transitions are complete sentences: Not only was Longstreet more concerned about the terrain when planning for the Battle at Gettysburg, but he was also deeply concerned about the number of men who would die as a result of walking uphill across open ground to the Union stronghold. (This would tie the preceding section about Longstreet’s analysis of terrain to the ensuing section about his concern for the men.)

Some transitions demonstrate the relationship between sentences:
Because of this, that . . . .
If X, then Y . . . .
Blah, blah, blah therefore (thus, hence, ergo) yada yada yada

Some transitions are useful for chronologies: first, then, next, finally . . . .

Use online resources or a writing manual to review transitions.

Reading Challenge, the First:

Search online for essay abstracts and examples of the précis. Each is a miniature essay and provides the thesis and the proofs (or areas of consideration) for the longer essay to come. Identify the thesis statements and observe how many sections (proofs) the writer will develop in order to prove his point or make his argument.

Writing Challenge:

Use the formulaic patterns herein to plan your own essay, then write an abstract or précis, relying upon your plan.

Reading Challenge, the Second:

Re-read your own abstract or précis. Evaluate your own use of transitions. Revise your abstract or précis as needed.

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach.