Writing the Response Essay

To read without reflecting is like eating without digesting.
– Kenneth Burke

 

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In college, you will probably be expected to write a paper in response to another text often referred to as a Response Essay. The text could be in the form of a newspaper or magazine article, a government or business report, a book, or even visual texts, such as magazine advertisements. (For our purposes here, we will not be covering responses of literary texts.)

Instructors often assign response essays to not only encourage a deep reading of a text, but also empower students to form critical opinions of their own in response to others’ opinions. Responding to texts requires students to carefully consider how they feel about often controversial issues, perhaps issues students have never considered before. Often, the outcome for students of writing response essays can be a new understanding and appreciation – even a passion – for a topic.

How to Begin

The first step is the obvious – read the text carefully. But this step is often glossed over too rapidly. It’s not enough to read through a text once; read it enough times that you thoroughly understand the topic, the writer’s opinions, the main ideas, the minor details, and can articulate them without re-reading the text. This may take several reads before you fully understand the entirety of the text.

Annotate, Annotate, Annotate

As you read through the text, note in the margins what each paragraph is communicating. Some instructors will ask to see your annotations to make sure you’re taking notes. One way to gain a thorough understanding of the key points as you read is to note what each paragraph is saying, and what each paragraph is doing.

Annotating what the paragraph is saying is to simply summarize briefly the main idea in each paragraph. This helps you to retain the information and aids you in finding key points. Annotating what a paragraph is doing is to take note of what the author’s intention is. Does the writer argue a main point? Does the author prove his point with facts or statistics or other evidence? Does the paragraph cite background and history? Notice that when you annotate what your paragraphs “does,” you’ll use verbs to show action. This will demonstrate what rhetorical strategies the author is using to build his or her argument, and will play a key role in how you analyze the text.

Identify Major and Minor Details

Once you’ve done a thorough read-through and annotated the paragraphs, it’s a good idea to read again and highlight the details. You might use a color marker to highlight the major details of the paragraph, and then use a different color marker to highlight the minor supporting details. Although this sounds easy, this step is where students often fail. It is imperative to be able to identify the key major details that are moving the argument forward, and differentiate them from the minor details that only offer supporting evidence.

Ask Questions

Now that you have read through the text a few times, you might be thinking about some inconsistencies, contradictions, or lapses in information. This is the time to jot down questions you might have. Are you finding holes in the writer’s argument? Does the writer fail to fully communicate the full scope of the problem, or fall short of explaining other key points? Do you feel the writer is fair and unbiased, or leaning heavily toward one side without giving voice to the opposition? Does anything surprise or puzzle you?

What do YOU Think?

The objective of a Response assignment is to respond, so you’ll be asked to communicate what your opinions are. As you carefully consider your response to the text and author, think about how you feel about the text.

Do you agree or disagree?
What exactly do you agree or disagree with?
Can you recall a similar personal experience or do you have prior knowledge of the topic?
What key ideas might you want to evaluate  more closely?

Once you have a clear idea what you think about what you’ve read, now it’s time to put it all together.

Drafting: Organize your Thoughts

If you’ve followed all of these steps to prepare your response, congratulations! If you’ve taken careful notes, annotated the text thoroughly, and have an informed opinion, you may find you have the skeleton of your response paper written.


Putting it all Together

The Intro

Begin the paper by introducing the author and title of the text, as in the following example:

In Victor Frisk’s article, “No Way Out,” the author states that the US should detain all travelers coming into the country from destinations that have been proved to have Ebola cases within the last year.

This first sentence does many things: it introduces the author; introduces the article title, and gives the author’s main argument or idea.

The following sentences in the intro should briefly summarize the text. This should be a very brief summary of what you read. It’s not unusual for instructors to ask you to skip the summary, so follow your guidelines carefully.

The final sentence in the intro will state your thesis, a concise focused opinion of where you stand. Do you agree or disagree with the author’s premise?

The Body

There are several ways to organize the body of a response. Most instructors ask students to include textual evidence in the body. You might do this by inserting an author quote, contextualizing the quote, then commenting on the quote with your response. Regardless of how you organize it, the body paragraphs should contain only one idea each, and connect back to your thesis. What you include in the body will be determined by your assignment guidelines, but remember to  always relate back to the thesis as you go.

The Conclusion

The conclusion is a restatement of your thesis and how it fits with the original text’s argument. Reinforce your thesis, but avoid restating it word for word. You might leave the reader with a thoughtful comment or question to consider, or a prediction of future consequences or outcomes. Avoid inserting new information or quotes in the conclusion.

 

Response essays pose special challenges for students, but with several close readings and careful note taking, you’ll be well on your way to a successful paper.

Improving Sentence Style

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Describing good style in writing is one of those things that is hard to explain. Like fashion sense or a winning personality, either you have it or you don’t. But you can learn how to improve your sentence style by following a few easy steps.

Avoid Using Vague Nouns

The words below are examples of vague nouns. Relying on vague nouns often leads to wordy construction, so it’s always best to avoid them if you can:

  • factor
  • aspect
  • area
  • situation
  • consideration
  • case

Examples

Vague: Consumer demand is rising in the area of services.

Precise: Consumers are demanding more services.

Vague: Strong reading skills are an important factor in students’ success in college.

Precise: Students’ success in college depends on their reading skills.

Vague: Photography took on new aspects during the Civil War.

Precise: The Civil War saw the advent of graphic battlefield photography.

As you can see in the examples above, the sentences become wordy and confusing when vague nouns are used. This often can impede rhythm in sentences, which hurts the flow. This means that the reader must slow down to read the sentence, which isn’t necessarily a good thing.

 

Incorporate Absolute Phrases

If you’ve ever felt your essay plodding along in a repetitive “subject/verb/object” order, you probably could use some absolute phrases to enliven your rhythm and sharpen your style.

What exactly is an absolute phrase? An absolute phrase is a group of words that modify an independent clause. Just as an adjective modifies a noun, an absolute phrase modifies an entire clause.

Example:

Her arms folded across her chest, Professor Smith warned the students not to text in class.

In the sentence above, the absolute phrase is at the beginning of the sentence – Her arms folded across her chest.

The clause, Professor Smith warned the students not to text in class, is an independent clause, which means it can stand alone as a sentence. The absolute phrase (a dependent clause) is modifying this entire clause.

Building Sentences with Absolutes

Absolute phrases can be arranged in different positions in a sentence. In the example above, the absolute could be placed after the independent clause:

Professor Smith warned the students not to text in class, her arms folded across her chest.

Absolute phrases can also be placed in the middle of a sentence, between the subject and verb:

(S)                                                                                         (V)
Professor Smith, her arms folded across her chest, warned the students not to text in class.

Note that the absolute phrase is set off in the sentence with a pair of commas.

 

Eliminate Wordiness

Do you ever get your essays back from instructors with such comments as, “tighten,” “condense,” or “wordy”? What this means is that you are trying to communicate your point with more words than necessary. For example, note the difference in

“It is the opinion of our professor that we have failed to meet his expectations.”

and

“We have failed to meet our professor’s expectations.”

The second sentence is tighter, uses fewer words, and is stronger and more direct. Just remember, if you can communicate your point in fewer words, do it. Less is more.

Consider the following redundancies in italics:

Ex. 1:

It is absolutely essential that all students meet with their advisor on a regular basis.

If something isessential,” can it be any more essential withabsolutelyin front of it? Probably not.

Ex. 2:

The advance preview of Transformers scored big at the box office.

You might have seen this one in film reviews, or even on E TV. If a movie is a preview, doesn’t that mean it is in advance of the release?

Ex. 3:

In my personal opinion, everyone could benefit from eating more chocolate.

Everyone, at one time or another, has at least said this, if not written it. So what is wrong with this example? If it is your opinion, isn’t it personal?

Ex. 4:

The final outcome of the Literature exam was better than I expected.

The outcome of something is always final, right?

These are all examples of redundant words that create inflated sentences. Carefully edit your final drafts to make sure you’re not redundant.

Avoid Dangling Modifiers

A modifier is a word (or group of words) that qualifies or adds to the meaning of other parts of the sentence. A dangling modifier is created when the modifier is joined to the wrong words in the sentence.

To correct, make the “doer” of the action the sentence’s subject, as in the example below:

Wrong: Coming over the hill, the barn was seen. Who saw the barn?
Correct: Coming over the hill, we saw the barn.

Wrong: Having arrived late for practice, a written excuse was needed.

Who arrived late? This sentence says that the written excuse arrived late. The possible revision might look like this:

Correct: Having arrived late for practice, the team captain needed a written excuse.

The main clause now names the person (the captain) who did the action in the modifying phrase (arrived late).

 

Choosing the best words to express your ideas in the best possible way sounds easy, but often is more difficult than we think. Improving your writing style may take some time and effort, but by following a few simple rules, your writing will become more readable your style will be the envy of your peers!

 

(Sources: Purdue Owl, Essentials of English Grammar, writing.wisc.edu/Handbook.)

Lasting Impression: Concluding your Argument Essay

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Introductions and conclusions in persuasive papers often cause the most difficulty and angst for beginning writers. If you’ve spent your essay arguing passionately on a topic, you don’t want to fall flat in the end. The conclusion is your final chance to appeal to your audience and make a strong final impression.

A great conclusion will not only close the essay, but close the sale on your argument. Throughout the paper, you have been selling your audience on your position, and a successful conclusion will tie it all together, leaving your reader at least considering the merits of your argument. Unfortunately, by the time you get to your conclusion, most writers are either exhausted from writing the paper and end it too quickly, or can’t stop arguing their position and backload it with too much new information at the end.

Strategies for Great Conclusions

Generally, conclusions do three things:

  • Reiterates the main idea, re-emphasizing your position
  • Summarizes your argument
  • Provides a warning, explains consequences, poses questions for further study, or delivers a call-to-action – sometimes all of the above.

 

Note, however, that restating, re-emphasizing, and summarizing does not mean repeating word-for-word your thesis statement or other major points. The purpose of the conclusion is to remind the reader of the importance of your argument, synthesizing the information you’ve provided in the body, and show how the points you’ve made throughout your argument all fit together.

Framing Your Argument

If you’ve begun your paper with a scenario or framed it with a story, return to the theme you introduced in the introduction. This frame serves as a thread that ties the two ends (intro & conclusion) together.

An example of a frame for an argument on creating harsher penalties for texting while driving might be beginning the introduction retelling a true story of a car crash caused by texting while driving. The conclusion will come back to that scenario, perhaps completing the story you began telling in the intro, explaining the outcome or consequences. This complete story “frames” the narrative.

Project Outcomes

Another strategy for a successful conclusion might be to ask the reader to consider a future where your proposal has succeeded or your position is the norm. For instance, if your argument was to create more educational funding for job training outside of college, you might project a scenario where previously unemployed and uneducated men and women were now working in occupations with job security and stable wages with benefits.

What’s the “Take-Away”?

When drafting the conclusion, go big and broad. As focused and narrow as the intro should be, the conclusion can provide a larger framework to conclude your essay. Consider the broader implications related to your argument. Elaborate on the consequences of failing to follow through with your proposal or supporting your argument. Leave the audience with a question to ponder or something to think about. This is referred to as a “take-away.” Just as an intro requires a great “hook” to immediately pique the interest of the reader, the conclusion has to leave the audience with something tangible that sticks in their minds, an idea to consider or consequences of failing to act. What’s the take-away for the audience?

Things to Avoid in a Conclusion

In conclusion

I’ve listed this first, as it’s not only the most common, but also the most obnoxious. The most common words used to begin conclusions – that you should never use – are “in conclusion.” This is like putting up a big road sign that we are now reading your conclusion. Although it might be necessary to say the words in a speech, it’s totally unnecessary and almost cliché to use them in an essay. If it isn’t abundantly clear to the audience that we are now reading the conclusion, go back and revise it.

Repeating

You’ve stated your thesis succinctly in the introduction, so avoid repeating it verbatim in the conclusion. This comes across as not only repetitive, but clumsy and awkward.

Research

Hopefully, you’ve laid out your argument in the body of the essay, including strong support with outside sources. Avoid adding more new facts, statistics or quotes in the conclusion. This isn’t the place for more research. If you feel you have more to add to your points, put it in the body of the paper, not the conclusion.

Old Information & Nothing New

I’ll paraphrase an example: “In this paper I argued yada-yada, because of reason 1, 2 and 3. So I hope you’ll agree that you should agree with me. Thank you.”

This type of conclusion is simply repeating everything you’ve just said in your entire paper, adding nothing new. It’s painfully boring and just a bit condescending, as you are  telling the reader what they have just read, as if they don’t know what they’ve just read. Or you’re not confidant you communicated your argument effectively, and if that’s the case, go back and revise.

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Conclusions can be tricky, and by the time we’re done writing a long research paper, they are usually the last thing we want to spend time writing. By considering what impression you most want to leave the audience with, these decisions will guide you to compose a great lasting impression.

 

Incorporating Opposition into Your Argument Paper

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As you compose an argument essay, you must anticipate your audience’s objections. The ability to refute opposition in an argument essay is a key element in a successful essay.

Some writers make the mistake of introducing a weak or silly opposition to make it easier to refute. But this actually weakens the writer’s argument. Introducing the strongest point of opposition and strongly refuting it with a well thought-out response serves to make the writer’s position stronger.

Who is Your Audience?

The first step for creating a strong opposition section is to thoroughly understand your audience. Who are they? Where are they on the scale of opposition? Are they against your entire argument, or only against a few points?

Will They Oppose Your Argument?

How can you anticipate what the opposition might be? It’s always a good idea at this stage to get some peer feedback, as your peers might be a good source of opposing views. Ask your peers what their responses are to your argument to gain a clearer understanding of differing viewpoints.

As you introduce opposition, take care to be respectful of the other side’s opinions. Put yourself in the other side’s shoes. Coming across as disrespectful or failing to take the opposition seriously is a sure way to make your own argument seem weak.

Example

Let’s consider the argument below and how you might include opposition:

Argument: Schools should move to a year round curriculum

Reason:   because students lose much of the previous year’s information and must be re-taught, wasting precious time and resources.

For the reason stated above, the opposition may disagree the contention that information is lost and must be retaught. In fact, the opposition may state that studies on year-round schools have been inconclusive regarding the academic benefits.

Now that there is a clear statement of opposition, it’s your turn to rebut, or reinforce your point – that schools should move to a year round curriculum because students lose much of the previous year’s information and must be re-taught.

Opposition = Faulty Assumption

If the opposition states that the research in inconclusive, this is your opportunity to show strong, valid research that does support a year-round curriculum on the basis of lost information over the long break. You will argue that the opposition has based their argument on a faulty assumption – that research shows there is no benefit. The opposition/rebuttal paragraph would look something like this:

Those against changing our current 9-month school calendar to year-round,is that there has been no conclusive research that supports that it has any academic benefit. However, this is untrue. Researchers at Chimi-Changa Education Labs have done extensive studies focusing on the effectiveness of year-round schools, and their conclusions show an increase in learning in all areas of study. “The students we have tested in districts who have implemented year-round curriculum show higher test scores in math, reading, and science from those students in traditional 9-month districts,” says Sam Smith, Chair of Curriculum Design at Chimi-Changa.

Note the highlighted transitional cue word, “However.” This is a cue word that indicates that you are now stating your rebuttal, or disagreement with the opposition.

Conceding to Opposition

Often, the opposition has a very valid disagreement against your position, so valid that it might cause you to rethink your position. Instead of changing your thesis, consider conceding the point. By conceding to their point, or agreeing that the opposition has a strong argument, you are positioning yourself as respectful and are more likely to gain the audience’s trust. This is not only respectful, but also a great opportunity to drive home your own points to re-emphasize your argument.

Concession & Rebuttal:

Those against year-round school argue that the costs of running many of the aging buildings year-round are too high. While it is true that keeping schools open throughout the year may cost more, the higher costs could be subsidized by making the buildings available for community rental to offset those costs.

As you can see by the previous example, the opposition has a valid point. By conceding this point is actually true and then responding with a strong rebuttal – an alternative to offset the high costs – the writer’s position becomes even stronger. The cue words, “while it is true” lets the reader know the writer is conceding, but will refute this idea.

 

As you can see, a lot of thought and planning must go into building your argument and considering how the opposition may disagree with you. Consider what points of your argument may garner the strongest debate, and carefully think through how you will counter those who will disagree with you. A respectful and well thought-out response will put you on the path toward a successful argument!

 

Building Paragraphs with Research

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Recently here at Writing Center Underground, we’ve been discussing the research paper process. We began with explaining how to formulate a research question, how to write a thesis, and last week we discussed how to begin building paragraphs. For a research paper assignment, a large part of developing paragraphs requires knowledge of how to smoothly integrate your sources’ quotations, as well as paraphrases and summaries.

Research that is taken from an outside source and just stuck into random paragraphs without careful integration runs the risk of sounding like it doesn’t belong, creating paragraphs that are choppy and difficult to read. Writers who aren’t used to utilizing outside sources often have a difficult time making outside research sound like it belongs in their research paper, but with careful preparation, your sources will flow smoothly into your text. Remember that quoting should be done only sparingly; be sure that you have a good reason to include a direct quotation when you decide to do so.

Draft

Before you begin to integrate source material, you need something to integrate into. Writers who try to compose a paper at the same time they are integrating sources find they lose their “voice,” and begin to sound like the voice of the research they are quoting. To avoid this, write a draft of your paper with only your words and your voice doing the talking. By taking this first step in getting your ideas on paper, you’ll avoid letting the research take over your paper. Instructors often require a rough draft before even integrating source material.

Quote, Paraphrase or Summary?

Just to review, the difference between quotes, paraphrases, and summarizes are

Quotations must be identical to the original, using a narrow segment of the source. They must match the source document word for word and must be attributed to the original author.

Paraphrasing involves putting a passage from source material into your own words. A paraphrase must also be attributed to the original source. Paraphrased material is usually shorter than the original passage, taking a somewhat broader segment of the source and condensing it slightly.

Summarizing involves putting the main idea(s) into your own words, including only the main point(s). Once again, it is necessary to attribute summarized ideas to the original source. Summaries are significantly shorter than the original and take a broad overview of the source material. (Purdue Owl Online)

 

While you might prefer paraphrasing over directly quoting to avoid the headache of signal phrases or quotation marks, a mix of both is often preferred, and very short quotations work well when integrated into sentences.  However, overusing direct quotes, or using very long quotes, actually shows that you have not done your homework and only copied quotes to make it seem you understand the material.  An effective paraphrase or summary is often more effective than a direct quote and shows you understand the material.

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When to Use Quotes

Remember that quotes cannot take the place of your voice, but are meant to support your argument. Use quotes sparingly, and avoid long quotations when possible. According to The Bedford Handbook, use quotes

  • When language is especially vivid or expressive
  • When exact wording is needed for technical accuracy
  • When the words of an important authority lend weight to an argument

Integrating Quotes into Paragraphs

The first rule to remember is that quotes should never stand alone as a sentence. For example, the following quote has no other words in the sentence outside of the direct quote:

“A paragraph is a self-contained unit of a discourse in writing dealing with a particular point or idea” (57).

This is often referred to as a “dangling quote” and when inside of a paragraph, will seem disconnected not only from your thoughts but the rest of the sentences. To integrate the quote into the paragraph, introduce the quote with a signal phrase, an introduction of the author with a few words. In the example below, the signal phrase is in italics:

According to Doug Smith, consultant with WordMix Writing Labs, “A paragraph is a self-contained unit of a discourse in writing dealing with a particular point or idea” (57).

In the following example, note that there is no comma after “that” as it reads as a continuous thought. If the attribution ended with the word “says,” it would have a comma immediately after “says”:

Natalie Goldberg, in Writing Down the Bones, says that “It is a good idea to wait awhile before you reread your writing” (162).

Natalie Goldberg, in Writing Down the Bones, says, “It is a good idea to wait awhile before you reread your writing” (162).

Smoothing Transitions

It’s important for readers to move from your words to the source’s words fluidly. Utilizing signal phases with at the least the author’s name, creates a smooth transition:

There are numerous types of student loans available, but not all are in the best interest of borrowers. Student advocate Diane Bennett says, “Students need to understand the intricacies of all available loan programs” (89). Bennett believes students are often taken advantage of by scrupulous private lenders.

In this example, the direct quote is surrounded by sentences leading up to, and leading away from, the quoted material. The information in the quote is contextualized for the reader.

In the following example of an integrating a source, the signal phrase is a full, explanatory sentence:

Goldberg believes writers must show feelings and avoid telling at all costs: “The writer takes the reader’s hand and guides him through the valley of sorrow and joy without ever having to mention those words” (68).

The rule for using a colon following an attribution is if the attributive tag is a complete sentence, an independent clause, it must be followed by a colon. Dangling quotes, or quotes that stand alone as a sentence, are considered incorrect, as the quote has no attribution. You can often (though not always) correct this mistake by taking the previous sentence and place a colon at the end instead of a period:

Incorrect:  Cameron believes artists should stop making excuses for not following their dreams. “Stop waiting until you make enough money to do what you really love” (168).

Correct: Cameron believes artists should stop making excuses for not following their dreams: “Stop waiting until you make enough money to do what you really love” (168).

Paraphrases and Summary

When integrating a paraphrase or summary, be careful to change all language and phrasing, putting it in your own words. Even half-copying can be considered plagiarism. Also, make certain you have created a “boundary” between your words and the research, especially when it’s paraphrased.

Just like direct quotes, paraphrases and summaries require signal phrases as well. Otherwise, readers will not understand the words are from research and not the writer’s own words.

As Matt Fox has noted, not all professors utilize rubrics in their classrooms.

John Snow claims that not all distracted driving can be blamed on cell phones.

 

Final Thoughts

By following a few simple steps as you work to integrate outside source material, your research will flow naturally, creating a finished paper that will read fluidly.

Building Paragraphs

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Last week here at Writing Center Underground, we discussed how to write a thesis statement for your argument essay, and this week we’ll look at how to structure paragraphs. Organizing information into paragraph format is directly related to the thesis. How? Once you have formulated a working thesis, the next step is to begin formulating the paragraphs, which work to support the thesis by offering details, which may include facts, explanations, examples, and research, if required. A paragraph should convey one controlling idea in support of the main thesis, and no more than one; this controlling idea should relate back to the paper’s thesis.

Below is an example of a working thesis and supporting paragraphs:

WORKING THESIS: Recycling should be mandatory for all businesses.

PARAGRAPH ONE:            . . . because businesses create more landfill waste than individual households.

PARAGRAPH TWO:           . . . because landfill maintenance and administration is much costlier for municipal governments than recycling of domestic waste.

PARAGRAPHS THREE:   . . . because business recycling sets a good example for the community.

In the examples above, each of the paragraphs will directly support the thesis statement with different reasons, also known as “because clauses.” Forming your thesis into a “because clause” paragraph is a useful way to organize the paragraphs, especially for a proposal argument essay.

Let’s break the paragraphs down further. For paragraph one, the topic sentence will be “Recycling should be mandatory for all businesses because businesses create more landfill waste than individual households.” Just as the thesis is the controlling idea for the entire paper, the topic sentence is the controlling idea of the paragraph. The topic sentence works to keep the paragraph focused on supporting that specific reason or because clause. So in paragraph one, you will incorporate details, such as statistics, facts, examples, and research showing support that businesses do indeed create more landfill waste than individuals.

For paragraph two, you will show supporting information including statistics, facts, examples, and research to show that landfill maintenance and administration is much costlier for municipal governments than recycling of domestic waste. For paragraph three, the supporting details will include information that supports that business recycling will set a good example for the community. For each of the example paragraphs, only supporting details that directly relate to each topic sentence should be included. This will help to focus the paragraphs and prevent you from straying off-topic.

As you develop your paragraphs, remember that each should be

  • Unified: All of the sentences in a single paragraph should be related to a single controlling idea (often expressed in the topic sentence of the paragraph).
  • Clearly related to the thesis: The sentences should all refer to the central idea, or thesis, of the paper.
  • Coherent: The sentences should be arranged in a logical manner and should follow a definite plan for development.
  • Well-developed: Every idea discussed in the paragraph should be adequately explained and supported through evidence and details that work together to explain the paragraph’s controlling idea.

(courtesy of The Writing Center, UNC-CH • Chapel Hill, NC)

Steps to Developing Paragraphs

  1. Create a Topic Sentence. The topic sentence of a paragraph works as the controlling idea or thesis of just that paragraph.
  2. Explain the Controlling Idea. Explain how the reader should interpret the controlling idea. This smooths the transition to the supporting details.
  3. Offer Examples of Support. This could take the form of statistics, facts, examples, and research that directly supports or proves the statement or argument you make in the topic sentence.
  4. Explain the Examples. Especially for research or statistics, it’s imperative that the information be explained and contextualized for the reader. It’s not enough to include quotes or stats; they must be fully integrated into the paragraph with explanations and connections to the larger purpose.

Paragraph Length

How long should a paragraph be? In doing a little research of my own, I found several varying answers. Some sources say that a paragraph is a minimum of three sentences. Others say that a paragraph is between seven to twelve sentences. Still other sources say a paragraph should be one-half page in length. However, don’t rely on length alone to determine if a paragraph is complete. A paragraph should be long enough to fully support one main idea with adequate examples of support, and not so short that the main idea of the paragraph isn’t fully illustrated and explained.

Successful paragraphs are built one step at a time. Beginning writers find it easier to first create an outline of each paragraph, which often makes it easier to keep a strong focus and maintain a connection to the thesis. Following a few simple steps will help you build, paragraph by paragraph, a successful essay.

 

 

 

How to Write a Thesis Statement

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Our last post at Writing Center Underground discussed how to develop a research question. The research question is more of an open-ended beginning for the research paper. Your answer to your research question is your thesis. The thesis to your paper is an assertion you make about your topic.

 

THESIS = TOPIC + SPECIFIC ASSERTION

The thesis is considered a promise you are making to the reader about the purpose and direction of your paper. Some instructors refer to the thesis as a “forecasting statement,” forecasting what will lie ahead in the paper. The thesis statement usually is placed at the end of the introductory paragraph, setting up a roadmap for the coming argument.

In the research question you hopefully already created, you posed a question you wanted to know more about, a question that, after some initial research, you came to have an informed opinion about. Your answer to that research question will lead you toward your thesis.

For instance, if you wanted to know if watching violent television programs causes violent behavior in adolescents, your answer to this question is your working thesis. We call it a “working” thesis, as it may change shape as you move further into your paper.

If you think about this question and can’t decide, or you want to present both sides or ride the fence, as they both have valid points, this is NOT a thesis statement that will work in a persuasive paper. One of the main characteristics of a thesis statement is that it must be arguable. If you make a statement that others couldn’t disagree with, then there is no other side to pose, no assertion to make, so no arguable thesis.

If you take the same research question above and give a definitive answer, for instance, watching violent TV does not cause violent behavior in adolescents, then you have a statement that an audience might disagree with. Now you’re not riding the fence, you’ve jumped on one side of the fence to argue a point – a THESIS!

Let’s take another example from last week’s research questions. You have chosen the topic of children’s programming, and pose the research question, Does watching children’s programming have a positive effect on language learning in preschool-age children? After some initial research, you answer this question YES! The form of a thesis statement will be something like

Watching children’s TV programming has a positive effect on language learning in preschool-age children.

To confirm this thesis statement is arguable and well-qualified, ask yourself, could someone disagree with my assertion? For the above example, yes, some people might say that young children’s language learning might be hampered by watching TV. If you are ever in doubt about whether or not a thesis is going to work, ask yourself if someone else might disagree with you. If the answer is yes, then it’s passed the largest hurdle.

Be Specific

Vague thesis statements are one of the most common problems for beginning writers. A vague thesis statement leads to an unfocused paper, so the more specific the better. Say you want to write an argument paper on cell phone use. What about cell phone use?

Vague: All states should ban cells phone use while driving.

This thesis leaves too many unanswered questions. What kind of cell phone use? Is it okay to listen to messages? Is it okay to talk, but not text? Should all types of use be banned – texting, talking, listening? Should all drivers be banned from cell phones? All ages? What if you’re “driving” a boat or jet ski? Be Specific!

Revised: All cell phone use should be prohibited while operating a motor vehicle for all drivers under the age of 21.

The revised thesis is specific, arguable, and has research available. As you dig further into the research, you might decide to adjust the working thesis, and this is fine. This is just a starting point to focus your research and paper.

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Thesis Tips

Avoid Question Thesis – Make sure you form the thesis into a declarative statement and not a question. “Can we save the whooping crane? is a broad question that fails to express an assertion or perspective.

Focus Focus Focus – “Football should be outlawed” or “Drugs should be banned” are too broad. Both lack a specific focus. What level of football? What type of drugs? Go back to your research question and consider exactly what you want to investigate further. If you can’t answer the research question with a well-focused response, keep tweaking until you have an answer, or working thesis, that will fit the shape and scope of your assignment.

So What? – Does your thesis pass the “so what” test? – So what about banning drugs? So what about outlawing football? Consider if you are connecting your thesis to a larger issue and if you have clarified it enough so that readers will be interested and engaged in your argument.

Forecast –Your thesis should forecast what the paper will be about, without explicitly stating what it will be about. For example, “This paper will explore the extinction of prairie dogs and what we must do to stop it” is not a thesis statement, but a “signpost.” This type of statement signposts what you are writing about. Any statements of “I will do this in my paper,” or “Next I will talk about this and that” should be avoided.

Once you compose a strong working thesis, your paper will gain focus and clarity. Each paragraph will support and relate back to the thesis, which will keep the focus, flow and organization humming. Next week, we’ll discuss organizing your paper around your thesis.