No Research Required: Tips for Writing a Narrative Essay

 

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Narrative or Personal Essays are a common writing assignment in English classrooms. Many freshman will run across this type of writing in college, and for natural storytellers, it can be a fun assignment. If the guidelines ask you to simply retell an event from your past, you already know the information! For a narrative essay, most likely, no research is required. Composing a narrative is simply a matter of putting a story from your past on paper. Sounds easy, right?

Actually, not as easy as it sounds. Move ahead with caution.

One of the biggest problems that arise when composing a personal narrative is not compiling the information; you already know it, as it’s part of your memory. The problems often lie in organizing those memories into a cohesive, well-organizing, interesting story that holds the reader’s attention from start to finish. This is not always so easy.

Once Upon a Time

Logic would tell you that if you want to retell a story or event, you will start at the beginning and conclude at the end. Right? Not necessarily. Taking a story out of chronological order is often the most effective way to hold the reader’s attention, create rising tension, an exciting climax, and conclude with a thoughtful reflection of what it all meant to you. This is what is referred to as the “narrative arc.” This seems logical; beginning, middle, end. Sometimes these narrative essays will incorporate a brief flashback, but never deviate from the chronological retelling of events.

The problem with this kind of storytelling organization is that it can become tedious to a reader. Writers tend to begin too far back, before the actual event even begins, then proceed to tell every detail up to the conclusion. By the time the reader gets to the main event or action, he or she may lose interest. By taking the narrative out of chronological order and begin in the middle of the action, or what writers refer to as in media res, we get off to a swift start that will sustain the narrative through to the end and hook the reader’s interest.

In medias res (or medias in res) is a Latin phrase which simply means the narrative story begins at the mid-point of the action rather than at the beginning. Setting, characters, and conflict can be set up immediately via flashback, conversations, or inner reflection. The main advantage of starting in the middle of the event is to open the story with dramatic action rather than explanation (exposition) which sets up the characters and situation in an exciting and captivating story. The reader is hooked immediately; a “hook” is often a requirement of a narrative essay. Beginning in the middle of action avoids what writers refer to as spinning your wheels or throat clearing; a lot of talk that gets you nowhere.

In medias res often (though not always) entails nonlinear narrative, or non-chronological order; earlier events are condensed briefly in the backstory. Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey use this technique to begin with the action of the Trojan War. To Kill a Mockingbird begins with Jem’s broken arm, which doesn’t happen in the narrative until the conclusion. The entire Star Wars series is completely out of chronological order! Think about the stories you’ve read for class; where in the story has the action begun? I’ll bet you’ll find it is seldom in the actual beginning of events.

CUT!

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When composing your own essay, there is no right technique on how to organize it, but one tool writers use once a solid draft is complete, is scissors. Print your draft on one side, and cut each paragraph into its own page. One you have all of your paragraphs cut up, lay each out in front of you. Try to envision where the narrative could be re-arranged, and play with the organization. When you chopped up your essay, did you notice a lot of paragraph breaks, or two double spaces between paragraphs (white space)? If you tend to use a lot of paragraph breaks with no discernible reason, maybe that paragraph is in the wrong place in the narrative. Place the end at the beginning. Place the beginning in the middle. If a paragraph doesn’t fit, maybe it’s not needed. Maybe you’ll find a gap in time or action that needs more information to clarify details of the event.

Once you shift your perspective to consider other possibilities of organization for your narrative other than chronological, you may find that the first two pages of your narrative are unneeded. You will hook the reader more quickly by eliminating non-essential details and placing him or her immediately into the action, which will improve the narrative arc and set you on course for a narrative essay that your reader can’t put down.

 

 

Show it off! Tips for Adding Description to your Narrative

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When writing a narrative essay, your reader needs to see, hear, smell, taste and touch along with the writer, so it’s the writer’s job to show these details as clearly as possible. It’s not enough to tell the readers that someone is beautiful, handsome, slim or happy; the readers must see it for themselves. Writers can do this by incorporating sensory details.

As humans, we learn about the world and our surroundings through our senses. A reader needs to feel engaged in the written world you are creating. When we write using sensory detail, we are showing someone or something as it is instead of telling. Incorporating the five senses – sight (visual), sound (auditory), smell (olfactory), taste (gustatory), and touch (tactile) – into a narrative forces readers to see, hear, smell, taste, and touch just as the writer or character does. Writing that incorporates sensory images engages the reader and makes the writing come alive. Writing that utilizes sensory images quicken the pulse, gives you goose bumps, makes you taste and smell and hear what the writer tastes, smells, and hears.

Take, for instance, the following example:

The mountains are beautiful.

What, exactly, does “beautiful” look like? The word “beautiful” doesn’t tell us what color the mountains are, how high they are, what they might sound like (echoing or rustling leaves?) or smell like (clean cedar or musty leaves?). Mountains in Colorado are quite different in every “sense” than mountains in southern Appalachia.

Take this example taken from a student essay, as the writer is describing her grandmother:

She was very pretty.

What does “pretty” look like?

Revision:

My grandmother’s silver hair sat at her crown in a tight knot. Her skin, creviced from decades of laughter, hung loosely over her still high cheekbones. As she kneaded the dough, her thin, delicate hands sprinkled flour atop the dough, the smell of freshly baked bread clinging to her like perfume.

In narrative essays, you want the reader to experience what you experienced. Telling an audience something looks beautiful or pretty is vague; you need to create a sensory image of what “beautiful” or “pretty” means to you. Look at the following short paragraph describing a boy helping an elderly woman up a flight of stairs:

Grandmother Workman reached over and grabbed her grandson’s arm. He was nervous because the staircase was so steep, but she leaned against him and they began to climb.

Now, look at the same scene, but here, the writer has incorporated sensory detail:

Grandmother Workman lurched over and grabbed the pale skin of Randal’s thin forearm with her leathery hand. The folds and creases beneath her skin coiled themselves out like electrical wiring, like the bloated, roughly-textured relief map of the world that his mother just posted above his bedside table. Randal looked ahead toward the winding spiral staircase, fidgeted with a small hole in his baseball jersey, and bit his lip. His mouth filled with the sweet, coppery taste of blood as she leaned in closely toward him, breathing her hot breath on the damp hair at the base of his neck. She smelled of wet cigarettes and bacon. As they slowly climbed the long, steep staircase, the only sound was his grandmothers’ labored breathing and the mournful creak of the wooden stairs.

(writing.colostate.edu)

How many senses are utilized in this scene?

One way to help you incorporate more sensory images into your writing is by drafting the narrative first, then go back through the draft to see where you have told when you could have shown, and incorporate sensory details. The chart below is one type of tool to use as you construct and revise your narrative:

Sight

I see…            __________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Sound

I hear…            __________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Taste

I taste…            __________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Smell

I smell…            __________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Touch

I feel…            __________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Remember that as you write your narrative, your reader didn’t experience what you experienced. To engage your reader, work on incorporating sensory detail into your narrative, and watch your writing come alive.

All about Conjunctions

 

Conjunctions function as connectors in sentences. They join words, phrases, clauses and sentences. Short sentences often weaken the effectiveness of your writing, so by joining short, choppy sentences with conjunctions, the sentence variety is improved, thereby improving the style and flow of your writing.

In the first example below, notice how the style is improved by joining sentences with conjunctions in the second example:

Maria created a resumé. She copied it on expensive, high-quality paper.  Her prospective employer was not accepting resumé.

Revision: Maria created a résumé, and she copied it on expensive, high-quality paper, but her prospective employer was not accepting resumé.

(example from Purdue Owl)

In the previous example, the conjunctions “and” and “but” join the sentences, the most commonly used conjunctions. Their use is pretty straightforward; “and” means “in addition to,” and “but” means “yet” or “on the contrary.” However, choosing the appropriate conjunction can sometimes be a bit difficult.

Conjunctions are classified as either coordinating conjunctions, correlative conjunctions, or subordinating conjunctions. We’ll discuss coordinating and subordinating conjunctions below.

Coordinating conjunctions include and, but, or, yet, for, nor, and so. These conjunctions are used when you want to relate equal ideas in a sentence.

They purchased the ranch and they began to raise goats and sheep.

Steve purchased a cup of coffee in the new shop, but the service was quite slow.

Amanda needed yarn for her scarf, so she went to the fabric store.


Subordinating conjunctions are used to emphasize one idea over the other. This means one idea is “subordinate,” or secondary to, the other idea.

Common Subordinating Conjunctions

after     although     as      as if     as long as
as though     because     before     even if
even though     if     if only     in order that
now that     once     rather than     since     so that
than     that     though     till     unless     until
when     whenever     where     whereas     wherever     while

Understanding when to use a coordinating conjunction or a subordinating conjunction can be a bit tricky. The conjunction “and” is often overused, and a sentence would be more clear and effective with a subordinating conjunction. The sentences below show the difference in emphasis when a coordinating conjunction is used as opposed to a subordinating conjunction:

Example:

Aqua Blues is a great band and they only recorded one album.

Revision:

Aqua Blues is a great band, even though they only recorded one album.

The first example is grammatically correct, but the two clauses don’t really carry equal weight. By using a subordinating conjunction, the emphasis is placed on the independent clause (Aqua Blue is a great band).

Note the differences in the examples below when the sentences are revised using subordinating conjunctions:

Example: John practiced the cello and the cat screeched from the porch.

Revisions:

John practiced the cello while the cat screeched from the porch.

Although the cat screeched from the porch, John practiced his cello.

John practiced the cello even though the cat screeched from the porch.


To edit your writing for appropriate use of conjunctions, ask yourself, does the independent clause contain the most important idea you want to convey?:

The textbook was short and had good information.

The textbook was short but had good information.

The textbook was short although it had good information.

Although the textbook was short, it had good information.

 

Visit http://www.englishgrammar.org/conjunctions-exercise-2/ for conjunction exercise.
 (Some explanation cited from The Everyday Writer by Andrea A. Lunsford)

The Perfect Ending: Concluding the Narrative Essay

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Concluding a narrative essay can be a challenge for experienced and beginning writers alike. Writers often fall into the trap of tying the narrative up too neatly, telling the readers what they are supposed to take away from their story instead of letting the reader come to their own conclusions. Study a few essays from some of the great writers and notice how they conclude their stories. Often the ending to their narratives is left ambiguous; the reader isn’t exactly sure how everything will turn out. The reader should be left with a sense of closure, without being told how or what to feel. 

Conclude with an Image

Have you ever heard the phrase, “Show, don’t tell”? Showing an image puts a visual in the reader’s mind, an effective way to conclude without telling too much. Showing an image prevents you from telling your feelings, which, in most cases, you want to avoid. In the essay “Buckeye,” Scott Russell Sanders uses the image of a grazing deer to conclude his narrative:

. . . within a few paces of a grazing deer, close enough to see the delicate lips, the twitching nostrils, the glossy, fathomless eyes.

This lyrical conclusion comes from “Bathing,” as writer Kathryn Winograd shows the last moments of her bath:

The wind sings through the window like a siren, and the steam floats from my skin like milk.

Conclude in the Action

Show yourself in action. Move. Do something, anything, to avoid telling the reader how happy, or sad, or hopeful you are in the end. Look at something, and walk away, as Edward Hoagland does in “The Courage of Turtles”:

But since, short of diving in after him, there was nothing I could do, I walked away.

Or look at something, and become mesmerized. A chapter from the classic memoir, Stop Time by Frank Conroy, “Yo-Yo Going Down, a Mad Squirrel Coming Up,” shows a young Conroy as he watches a girl through a window:

That same night, hidden in the greenery under the window, I watched a naked girl let down her long red hair.

Conclude with Dialogue

Dialogue can be tricky to conclude with, but can work if it avoids a message or moral. You’ll only want to use this concluding technique if it has been maintained in the narrative; you probably don’t want to throw in spoken word if we haven’t heard anyone speak up until that point.

David Sedaris, in his essay, “Cyclops,” ends with the voice of his father, who is the main character in this essay:

“I don’t know where you got it from, but in the end, it’s going to kill you.”

The following brief reply, taken from Jo Ann Beard’s “The Fourth State of Matter,” shows an image, followed by unquoted dialogue. Beard uses italics instead:

Around my neck is the stone he brought me from Poland. I hold it out. Like this? I ask. Shards of fly wings, suspended in amber.
Exactly, he says.

Another example below comes again from Scott Russell Sanders, this from “Cloud Crossing,” as his toddler son babbles:

“Moon,” he is piping from the back seat, “moon, moon!”

Conclude by Reflecting

When used well, reflection is a great way to convey feelings without telling the reader how you felt – or how they should feel. Reflection offers the writer’s thoughts about what is happening or has happened. Reflection can include thoughts about the moment or thoughts looking back, about the experience. Reflection can add clarity, as we see the writer thinking through the experience. This concluding moment is from James Baldwin’s, “Notes of a Native Son”:

. . . I wished that he had been beside me so that I could have searched his face for the answers which only the future would give me now.

Bret Lott, in his short essay, “Brothers,” reflects on childhood memories of his family, taking him into the present with his own two sons:

What I believe is this: That pinch was entry into our childhood; my arm around him, our smiling, is the proof of us two surfacing, alive but not unscathed.
And here are my own two boys, already embarked.

In Conclusion

When writing your own conclusion, think about what you want your readers to take away from your story. Then think about how best you can show it. You seldom can go wrong with images. Dialogue is a great way to let a character have the last word. Ending with reflection, sharing thoughts or feelings, works when a bit more needs to be said. Think about what feeling, emotion, or question you want to leave your readers with, the take-away, then choose the type of conclusion that best suits the narrative. It’s not unusual to actually write the conclusion first, and it often serves as a road map to get the narrative where it needs to go. Taking time to carefully craft a conclusion can make or break your narrative.

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Season’s Greetings! Holiday Punctuation Tips

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This is the time of year we are busily writing our holiday messages, so it’s important to note that those cheery holiday messages can be a slippery slope into punctuation errors. Read on to learn how to perfect your holiday greetings.

When to Capitalize

Different sources of reference have differing opinions on when to capitalize holiday terms. Any time you refer to the actual holiday by name, always capitalize it as you would a proper name. Below are examples from Merriam Webster Dictionary:

We’re spending Christmas with my parents.

We had a very happy Christmas this year.

I wish you all a merry Christmas.

You might notice that “merry” is not capitalized in the final example. Reference sources vary on this, and the Cambridge Dictionary’s example shows to capitalize “merry”:

I ​hope you have a very Merry Christmas!

The greeting cards I am mailing have the phrase capitalized. In this case, it’s probably more a matter of stylistic choice than following any specific reference source. Other common holiday greeting terms, happy holidays, merry Christmas, season’s greetings, are not capitalized. But note the apostrophe in “season’s”; it is the possessive form when used with “greetings.”

“Happy New Year” follows the same rule, so you would not capitalize “Happy” – unless it begins the sentence. You would include an apostrophe when using the terms New Year’s Eve, or New Year’s Day. According to Chicago Manual of Style, also capitalize “Eve” and “Day” when referring to the actual days.

When wishing someone a happy Hanukkah, knowing how to spell Hanukkah correctly is the most common question. According to Merriam Webster, common variants of the spelling are Chanukah or Hanukah. Why so many different ways to spell Hanukkah? The spelling often depends upon your religion, and most traditionalists will spell it “Chanukah.” In America, the most common spelling is “Hanukkah,” as this is the spelling used by the Library of Congress.

Other Holiday Terms

Champagne-glasses

If you are planning to enjoy a glass of bubbly on New Year’s Eve, the word is capitalized – Champagne. Why is a drink name capitalized? This particular drink originates from the province in France – Champagne, France, so it would be capitalized.

Are you planning to give Grandma the gift of a beautiful red holiday plant? If you include a note, “I hope you enjoy this poinsettia,” is poinsettia capitalized?

The poinsettia plant is named for Joel Roberts Poinsett, a botanist and physician who was the first United States Ambassador to Mexico and who introduced the plant into the United States in 1828. So logic would tell you if it was named for a person, it would be capitalized, right? It depends. The Associated Press style manual capitalizes Poinsettia, but plant names are usually not capitalized, even when they are named for a person (the name of the species is not capitalized but the genus is). The only exception is when proper nouns are used, as in black-eyed Susan.

The real problem with poinsettia is the spelling, which ends with “ia.” We commonly pronounce the plant with an “a” as in poinsetta, but technically, even that pronunciation is incorrect. It’s poinsett-i-a.

Happy holidays from the MCC Writing Center!

(For further reading on the origins of Christmas, visit Encyclopedia Britannica. )

Breaking Down the Rhetorical Triangle

 

 

The concept of the rhetorical triangle has been in existence as far back as ancient Greece. The great philosopher and teacher, Aristotle, became fascinated with how rhetoric functions. How an individual says something, the emotions and sentiment used, conveys as much or more meaning as what one says, or the actual content of message. Aristotle defined 3 key elements of rhetoric: Logos, Ethos, and Pathos.

While many philosophers defined rhetoric in their own language, Aristotle’s rhetorical triangle is known and taught widely in modern-era composition classrooms. Studying the rhetorical triangle teaches writers whether or not they have created an effective argument. Over time, different scholars have conceived different models of rhetoric, so you may find the definitions vary slightly from text to text.

Logos

The Greek logos, means “word.” Originally, logos referred to the content of a speech and how it was organized, though today in speech or argument writing, a well-developed logos refers to a strong claim and reasoning, or the “message.” For effective logos, the argument must have

A Clear and Consistent Claim

Logical Reasons

Effective Evidence

The claim, or thesis, must be clear for the audience. The reasons are often referred to as “because clauses,” which is a simple way to define the argument in the early stages of drafting. For instance, the claim, “Rap music has a bad influence on teens,” can be completed with a logical reason: “Rap music has a bad influence on teens because it promotes disrespect for women.” Once a claim and reason are made, effective evidence must back up the claim for an effective argument.


Ethos

Greek for “character,” ethos refers to the writer’s (or speaker’s) perspective and credibility. A paper with a strong ethos will utilize several strategies to communicate the message effectively. A writer can develop ethos by utilizing effective tone and style; incorporating strong evidence and support; and including fair treatment of opposing views.

The writer or speaker must always be mindful of the impression created by their delivery of a message. Understanding audience plays an important role in effective ethos. When writing an argument, consider how you, as the speaker, are coming across. For effective ethos, the writer (or speaker) must

Be knowledgeable. Present strong reasoning and support for your argument.

Be fair. The opposition may disagree with your argument, but they may have their own valid opinions.

Understand your audience by using audience-based reasons.


Pathos

Pathos, Greek for “suffering” or “experience,” refers to the emotional appeal the writer makes to the audience. For effective pathos, the writer must first understand exactly who their audience is. Some texts refer to pathos as “audience.” Tone and style plays a large role in pathos.

One way to incorporate pathos into your argument is by telling a narrative story. For example, if you are arguing to legislate a one-strike law for drunk driving offenses, showing your audience the scene at a drunk driving accident will create sentiment and incite emotion that is more persuasive than reasoning alone. Storytelling, with vivid language and illustrations, can create a strong emotional reaction in an audience, moving them to your side.


Final Thoughts

Some instructors include other rhetorical elements, Telos, or “purpose,” and Kairos, or “setting.” All of these terms are interconnected, and each has qualities that affect how they interrelate. Each element in the rhetorical triangle, logos, ethos, and pathos, carries some responsibility for the success – or failure – of the argument.

 

(Some definitions from Writing Arguments: A Rhetoric with Readings)

Plagiarism: What is it and How to Avoid it

plagiarism

Plagiarism is using the ideas and words of others and failing to acknowledge the original source. However, college students are constantly exposed to the ideas of others. Students read texts, attend class lectures, watch documentaries, and even surf the internet where we are routinely inundated with unlimited online content. Students are often confused by all the complexities involved in citing sources, so determining when and how to cite information in research papers is always a challenge.

To avoid plagiarism, you must credit any source when using

  • another’s idea, opinion, or theory

  • statistics, graphs, charts, or other images

  • any direct quotations of written or spoken words

  • paraphrase or summary of another’s written or spoken words

In short, any time you incorporate another’s ideas or words in any form, regardless of whether you use a direct quote, or whether you paraphrase or summarize another’s information, you must clearly acknowledge the source or you could be accused of plagiarism.

Quoting and Paraphrasing

It’s most common to incorporate direct quotes into our research papers, and most students know to acknowledge the original source of any direct quotes used. But paraphrasing is another skill that you might utilize even more often than directly quoting sources. Paraphrasing, even though it isn’t the exact words of the original source, must be cited, so it’s imperative to learn how to paraphrase correctly.

When you want to paraphrase, you must not only change the words of the original source, but the sentence structure as well. Simply replacing one word with a synonym is not enough to avoid plagiarism.

Original –

“Childhood obesity is a serious medical condition that affects children and adolescents. It occurs when a child is well above the normal weight for his or her age and height. Childhood obesity is particularly troubling because the extra pounds often start children on the path to health problems that were once confined to adults, such as diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.”

Paraphrase Considered Plagiarism –

Obesity in children is a serious condition that affects children and teens. It occurs when a child is above the normal weight for his or her age and height. Childhood obesity is particularly worrisome because the extra pounds often cause kids to have health problems, such as high cholesterol, diabetes, and high blood pressure.

 

Notice that in the paraphrased example, a few words were omitted and a few were changed to a word with the same meaning. The sentence structure – the order of the words in the sentence – however, has not been altered, except for one or two words. Basically, the second example is the same as the original, minus a few synonym changes. The best way to avoid plagiarism when paraphrasing is to read the section a few times, and then put it in your own words. Avoid cutting and pasting, then simply tweaking the language.

 

Plagiarism and the Internet

The World Wide Web is a wonderful thing. Boundless information is available at our fingertips, some of which has an author attributed to the writing, but many that do not. Don’t be fooled into thinking that an online source does not need to be acknowledged if no author’s name is attached. The rules apply to online sources of information just as they do to print sources, even blogs and social media. Any content taken from another source must be acknowledged. This includes not only ideas or theories, but also images, graphics, tables, charts – any type of information that you have not originally conceived.

If you can find no attributable author, then you would cite either by the title of the article, the web page, or the website name.

 

Information Considered Common Knowledge

Common knowledge is information that is widely known and available in numerous sources. Note the following statements, which would be considered common knowledge

The first president of the United States was George Washington.
The Earth is one of nine planets that orbit around the Sun.
World War II ended when the Allied troops defeated Nazi Germany and Japan.

These statements are widely known and widely read in texts. Each of these statements can be used in a research paper without acknowledging the original source, as the statements are general knowledge.

Experts sometimes disagree on how to judge what is considered common knowledge and what is not. Some facts that are common knowledge in one discipline may not be common knowledge in another. For instance, if a definition or fact is found in a highly specialized reference book, such as a medical reference book, but not readily known to a general audience, than it should probably be cited.

Understanding exactly what constitutes plagiarism is the first step to avoiding it. Take care to acknowledge any information you get from any type of source, be it print or online, with a given author, or no author. If you have any doubt about how or when to cite a source, always ask your professor.