Student Success Strategies: Coping with Class during Covid

As colleges have closed and we have transitioned to distance learning, many students are faced with the task of completing class assignments largely on their own. For students who didn’t sign up for online classes, independent learning can be stressful and difficult. English Composition classes can be especially challenging, as much of the vocabulary is new to Freshmen, and the writing assignments – policy proposals, research papers, analysis essays – are much longer and more complicated than perhaps they were in high school. Take a deep breath and read on for some tips on how to complete your class assignments and make it to the finish line.

Keep a Schedule

“If you do not conquer self, you will be conquered by self.” – Napoleon Hill

Get out your academic calendar and write down “appointments” for every online class meeting. But don’t stop there. The academic rule of thumb is that for every credit class hour, you should spend 2-3 hours of outside study. If your professor has reduced the class meeting times because you’re now in class on ZOOM, that doesn’t mean the (normally) 2-3 hours weekly class is now only 30 minutes. Keep to the original schedule; if your English Comp class was to meet twice a week for a weekly total of 3 hours, schedule out an additional 6-9 hours of study/writing time. This is the MINIMUM amount of time students should devote to college-level coursework; for many of us, the current distractions could necessitate additional hours of study.

Stick to a Routine

“We are what we repeatedly do; excellence then is not an act but a habit.” – Aristotle

It’s essential during these times of crisis to have a regular routine. Trying to navigate life right now without some kind of regular routine is like trying to run a marathon without regular training. Not gonna happen.

Establish a daily routine. Wake up at the same time, get dressed, go to bed at the same time, eat at least 3 meals a day, exercise, and maintain relationships. Once your basic needs are met, you’ll have more space – mental, emotional, and physical – to meet life’s other demands, including college coursework.

Check your syllabus to see when your professor holds virtual office hours. Pencil those hours into your academic calendar so you’ll have access to your instructor when you need it if questions or problems arise. If your instructor has offered the option of recorded classes, try your best to virtually attend the live class meeting, as you’ll have the benefit of immediate chat or breakout sessions. These live sessions can also be a great way to keep up our social interactions with our classmates.

Break School Work into Smaller Chunks

“The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones.” –Confucius

A long research paper takes time, but try to avoid sitting in front of the computer screen for hours on end. Schedule in break time to get outside and take in some fresh air and give your brain a break. Instead of scouring library databases for hours collecting sources, schedule a research session for one hour and take a break. Try creating an outline of your research assignment, and break each point in the outline into smaller chunks of actual work time.

Alternate between doing coursework and listening to music. Research has shown that listening to music can help improve cognitive performance, but listening to your favorite music before you have an especially stressful or challenging assignment or exam will also improve your emotional state (The Benefits of Studying with Music).

We’re All in this Together

“If you light a lamp for somebody, it will also brighten your path.” – Buddha

If you find yourself struggling with an assignment, don’t delay in reaching out to your classmates or instructor. If you have a question, I guarantee a classmate has the same question, but might be too embarrassed or intimidated to ask. Consider starting your own virtual study group. It’s not only a great way to keep up with classes, but also a great way to keep up social connections and prevent isolation fatigue.  

If you find yourself falling behind, keep putting in the effort. In our current academic environment, professors really do appreciate the effort, and the last thing anyone wants is their students to drop or disappear. If your institution offers a virtual writing center, make an appointment with a writing consultant for assistance.

Also, consider that instructors might be struggling too. This might be the first time they’ve taught online, and many professors are just trying to figure things out as they go. They might have let some of the lessons drop that could have made your assignment easier to understand. By speaking up and posing questions, you’re not only helping your classmates, but you’re helping your instructor navigate this new academic territory we’re all finding ourselves in.

Final Thoughts

Reach out, make connections, and keep showing up. The antidote for worry is action. Take action, even if the action is imperfect. Finish the assignment, even if it’s not your best work. You’ll feel a sense of accomplishment, and you’ll be one step close to that final goal.

Productive Writing: 5 questions to help manage your writing project

When starting a writing assignment, sometimes we have more questions than answers, such as

What topic should I choose?
How can I get all my jumbled thoughts to make sense?
How can these jumbled thoughts ever result in a successful essay?

Beginning writing without spending any time in the initial planning stages is a recipe for failure. Careful planning is vital before any action can be taken. In the world of business, this is referred to as Project Management.

According to business writer and coach, David Allen, author of Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-free Productivity, our minds go through five steps to accomplish any task:

  1. Defining purpose
  2. Outcome visioning
  3. Brainstorming
  4. Organizing
  5. Identifying next action

Our minds work in mysterious ways, but sometimes our minds become overwhelmed if we try to mentally juggle too many tasks. Instead of trying to mentally multitask a huge project like an essay assignment, take it one step at a time.

Before you ever begin developing an outline for your paper, you’ll need to answer a few key questions.

What is my purpose?

If the purpose of writing is to satisfy a class assignment, what is the assignment? What are the guidelines and requirements? What type of topic can best satisfy those requirements?

This is merely common sense. Don’t get caught up in worrisome details. Think about the “why” behind your reasons for writing. Knowing the why will help clarify your focus and make the rest of the decision-making process easier.

If you decide your purpose is to write a policy proposal on a current issue in your community, then knowing that will guide your choice of topic.

What outcome do I envision?

Having a clear vision provides the blueprint for your paper. Do you want to argue in favor or in opposition to a controversial issue? Do you want to propose changes to current laws, policies, or procedures? The vision is the “what” instead of the “why.”

Take some time here to imagine what you want the final paper to communicate. What arguments or points do you want to make? What message do you hope readers take away? What changes in thought or policy do you hope readers will consider?

For example, you might envision readers will agree that spending more in the city budget to increase the number of bike lanes in your town will save money in the long run by reducing road maintenance, traffic, and accidents. That is the outcome that you envision.

Brainstorming

 “If you’re waiting to have a good idea before you have any ideas, you won’t have many.” — David Allen

Now that you know your purpose and where you’re going, you’ll need to capture ideas of how to get there. Following the why and the what comes the how.

Brainstorming has lots of terms – mind-mapping, clustering, spider webbing – but they all basically mean the same thing. They are all ways to organize our thoughts. Once you’ve defined your purpose and vision, your brain will automatically begin to create thoughts and ideas, but if you don’t have any method of capturing those ideas, you will either lose them – or won’t have any. Psychologists call this “distributed cognition,” or the need to get all the stuff out of our heads and into objective, reviewable formats, such as a mind map, cluster, or even a Post-It note.

“The best way to get a good idea is to get lots of ideas.” Linus Pauling

The most important thing to keep in mind is to not judge your thoughts as you have them. You are going for quantity, not quality. You might naturally analyze them, such as, “Here’s what might not work with that idea,” which is good. You’re beginning to critically think about your project. But don’t let your critical side overtake your creative side yet. Just give all your ideas a chance at this stage and analyze their usefulness later.

Organizing

Now you know the why, what, and how. Once you’ve emptied all the clutter in your head, your mind will naturally begin to organize those thoughts. You’ll think in relationship to sequences and priorities. What are the essential components for the final paper? Which of the brainstorming ideas will best support my argument?

Organizing is a matter of identifying the significant pieces, then sorting by

  • Components
  • Sequences
  • Priorities

In relation to an argument paper, what are the major components needed to reach your vision? This will most likely be the major points of argument that will support your thesis or reasons why your policy proposal should be implemented.

For example, the policy proposal, increasing spending in the city budget to increase the number of bike lanes in your town will save money in the long run, will require the components of argument points, such as

  • reducing road maintenance
  • reducing traffic
  • reducing automobile accidents

Other components might include the opposition’s side, outside research, and a call to action.

The sequences are the natural progression of the paper. How should you order the ideas – which should come first, second, and last? How will you organize the paper to best present the information for a logical flow? Should you introduce the opposition for each point, or should it come after the points are fully laid out?

Finally, what are the priorities, or essential information that must be included? What must you do first to meet these objectives? For example, once you determine your topic and brainstorm ideas, you might need to gather information from research, data or statistics. Consider what is your next step, and what steps should follow, prioritizing your work into manageable steps. Every essay is different, and no two projects are the same, so for one you might need to do more initial research before you begin, and for another, you might need to write out the points of opposition first.

Identifying Next Actions

So far, you’ve considered the why, what, and how, and begun the steps to organize how you are going to approach the work, prioritizing your next steps. The final stage of planning your writing project should come easily once you’ve defined and clarified your project.

Any writing project, especially longer projects, will have lots of moving parts. For each step above, decide what the “next action” is for each moving part of the project. For example, if you know your paper’s thesis, but not quite sure on your major points of argument, your next “action” might be to brainstorm a bit more to decide on your points of argument. If the components of your essay will require quotes from experts, your next “action” will be to locate research from reliable resources. This will most likely require you to find library databases with peer-reviewed research, read lots of articles, and begin keeping notes on source information that will best support your essay.

Make A Plan!

As you can see, a lot of planning goes into a writing project before the actual writing begins. How much planning is enough? As much as you need to get the project off your mind. The reason things are on your mind and causing you worry is that the outcome and action steps have not been clearly defined, or you may not have developed the details sufficiently to trust your plan. If you are worrying about the project, you obviously need to spend more time planning.

Feeling confused or lack clarity? You need more planning in stages 1, 2 or 3. Are you getting bogged down in research? Do you need more action? Move down to steps 4 or 5. You don’t need to read every single article on your topic in EBSCO to collect 6 or 8 required sources for your project. Focus on what you need that will meet your objectives, and move out of the research phase and onto writing.

Applying project management steps in your writing will not only save you time in the end, but will also create a mental environment where worry, stress and anxiety will be reduced, allowing creative ideas to flourish, one step at a time.

The Rhetorical Triangle: Identifying Ethos, Pathos, and Logos

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The great philosopher, Aristotle, was fascinated with how rhetoric functions. How an individual says something, the emotion, tone, and sentiment used, conveys as much or more meaning than the actual content of the message. Aristotle defined the three key persuasive appeals of logos, ethos, and pathos, and the theory of rhetoric was born.

The concept of the rhetorical triangle is often foreign to most beginning writers; however, the components that make up the rhetorical triangle— logos, ethos, and pathos—are crucial elements to most forms of academic writing. Most casual readers, however, do not always recognize these elements of persuasive argument. However, to be a critical reader and informed audience (as well as a successful writer), it’s essential a reader and writer keep a keen eye toward the elements of these persuasive techniques.

How do we come to understand these appeals as we, writers and readers, construct our own persuasive writing? Let’s break each down to its simplest form, and consider how each are used.

Logos

The Greek logos, means word or reason.  Logos is often referred to as the idea, message, reason, or text. Logos relates to the premise, or foundation, of an argument. When an appeal of logos is in the text of an argument, the writer is appealing to reason. As we deconstruct (or construct) an argument, consider if the writer or author has presented an argument with a strong claim (thesis), and reasoning (support).

For logos to be effective, an argument must contain the following:

  • a clear and consistent claim
  • logical reasons
  • effective evidence

For a claim, or thesis, to be effective, it should be specific:

The U.S. should increase funding to prevent underage drinking, as youth are at higher risk of death due to excessive drinking, are more likely to binge drink, and related economic costs are skyrocketing.

In this example, the thesis is clearly stated, and the reasons are clear. But what kind of facts will back up this claim?

Including reliable facts, such as statistics, testimony, surveys, experiments, and even personal experience, is essential for a successful logical appeal (logos). Look at the following statistic. Would a reader interpret this as strong support for the previous claim?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), excessive drinking is responsible for more than 4,300 deaths among underage youth each year, and cost the U.S. $24 billion in economic costs in 2010.
(https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/underage-drinking.htm)

The audience, or reader, must determine if this stat is from a trustworthy source. The CDC is part of the Department of Health and Human Services, a government agency, and is highly respected. Most readers would probably consider the source quite trustworthy, and not question the data.

Are the facts clearly defined?

An inquisitive reader might wonder what exactly the data means by economic costs, and how they measure those costs. This would need clarification and explanation. But the data source that is used here would most likely be considered credible, as it comes from a government agency with a strong reputation for reliable research.

Ethos

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

When constructing an argument, consider how you, as the writer/speaker, are communicating your message. Questions to consider when determining if ethos is successful include

  • Is the writer knowledgeable on the subject?
  • What are his or her qualifications?
  • Does the writer sound credible?
  • Has the writer presented strong reasoning and support?
  • Is the writer’s tone suitable for the purpose, such as the word choices?
  • Has the writer demonstrated respect for the opposition, or merely declared it invalid?

Television personalities, politicians, and athletes are often used in advertising to promote a product. While the public often admires famous individuals, does that mean we should automatically believe what they say—or sell? Would you put all of your money in an investment solely because an Olympic athlete has promoted the product? Would you follow a trendy diet because a famous TV personality says it’s the best diet ever invented? The writer’s credibility and how he or she has presented the facts weighs heavily if an argument is to be successful.

Pathos

Ethos-Logos-Pathos

Pathos, Greek for “suffering” or “experience,” refers to an appeal based on emotions. Many (if not most) politicians use emotional appeals in their arguments: the story of a family who is struggling to make ends meet to push for tax cuts; the image of a glacier breaking away in the arctic to enact tougher environmental measures; the story of a homeless family to push for more affordable housing.

Another common situation pathos is used is fundraising campaigns. Direct mail solicitations almost always rely on pathos to play on the readers’ compassion, whether it be fundraising for polar bears, rain forests, or orphanages.

These types of emotional appeals have been highly criticized, as they are in many ways a form of manipulation, and are often used to mislead the audience. However, effective arguments almost always use appeals to emotions such as fear, sadness, fury, distress, or hope. It’s up to the audience to be well-informed and critical, taking an active approach to analyzing each part of an argument to confirm its validity.

For an effective emotional appeal, the writer must first understand exactly who their audience is and what motivates them. What are their values and beliefs?

Final Thoughts

Keep in mind that often one aspect of a text could include all of the rhetorical appeals. They work together, overlapping to strengthen the argument. Remember that as you analyze other writing or are building your own argument, each appeal in the rhetorical triangle—logos, ethos, and pathos—carries some responsibility for the success—or failure—of the argument.

 

 

Works Consulted

Lunsford, Andrea A. The Everyday Writer. Sixth ed., Boston, Bedford St. Martin’s, 2016.

“Underage Drinking.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).  Aug.  2018, Atlanta, GA., https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/underage-drinking.htm. Accessed 15, Apr., 2019.

Poetry Analysis

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“Poems are a form of music, and language just happens to be our instrument—language and breath.”

—Terrance Hayes

 

Writing a poetry analysis is one of the most dreaded assignments for students. Poetry is often intimidating to the untrained reader and it often takes time and practice to learn how to critically analyze a poem. Once you understand some of the basic principles of literary analysis and learn some simple poetry vocabulary, writing poetry analysis won’t be so daunting.

First, let’s review some vocabulary that we’ll be using –

Basic Vocabulary

Below are some basic poetic devices that are commonly used in analysis. Some you may be familiar with:

Simile: Comparison using like or as.

Metaphor: a direct comparison.

Tone: the emotion that the speaker uses when he/she talks

Personification: human qualities attributed to non-human objects

Imagery: A way to create pictures with words, often using sensory detail

Alliteration: Repetition of the same consonant sound

Assonance: Repetition of the same vowels sound

Stanza: A grouped set of lines in a poem

Now that you’ve learned some simple vocabulary, let’s look at some ways you might analyze a poem.

Title

The first thing you read is obviously the title. This is your first clue as to what the poem might be about. The title often reflects the subject of the poem, so come back to the title after you’ve read the poem to analyze the connection to the content.

Close Reading

To begin, it’s important to read the poem several times, at least 3. Each time you read a poem, you might find something different you didn’t notice from previous readings. Try reading it aloud. Take note of words you are not familiar with so you can look them up later. Circle nouns or phrases that stick out to you.

Who is the Speaker?

Don’t confuse the speaker or narrator of the poem with the writer. The voice could be that of the writer, expressing thoughts or feelings, but not necessarily.

The speaker of the poem may be an old man, but the person who wrote the poem might be a twenty-year-old. Is the speaker a man or woman? Is he or she addressing someone in particular? Is there more than one speaker? What is the speaker’s mood? Angry? Cynical? Happy? If you can easily pinpoint the mood, how did you know?

Do you have any clues as to the main idea the speaker wants to communicate?

What is the Subject?

The title might be the first clue to the subject of the poem. If you’re still confused, ask yourself simply, “What is the poem about?”

You could uncover clues to the subject by the speaker’s tone. What is the speaker’s attitude about the subject? Angry? Hurt? Resentful? Sad? Scared? Joyful?

What is the Situation?

Is there an event in the poem the speaker is reflecting on? Or is the speaker simply discussing a memory? The weather? A long lost love?

Often, but not always, a poem tells a story. Did something happen? Does the speaker want something to happen? Why is the speaker talking about this?

Structure

How is the poem organized or divided up? You might be familiar with traditional stanzas, or several groups of 4 or 5 lines each, but there are as many different ways to organize a poem as there are poets. A poem might have numbered stanzas, or each stanza line may have no end punctuation and flow into the next stanza.

Poems are a unified piece of writing, and for the most part, don’t jump in topic from stanza to stanza, but are usually connected in meaning. You might see some kind of link in emotions, ideas, or images, a common thread that runs through each stanza. Do you notice any common thread?

If there are no stanza divisions, try looking at the poem line by line or sentence by sentence. Do you notice any patterns of repeated words or images?

Theme

The theme is the central idea of the poem, and often the theme conveys the poem’s message. As you put all of these ideas together, what does the poem mean as a whole? What do you think is the “take away” or the big “so what?” of the poem?

Language and Imagery

The conclusions you draw about the poem will come from the language and imagery of the poem. So it is imperative to understand the denotative meaning, as well as the connotative meaning of the words.

Denotative Meaning: This is the literal, or dictionary definition of a word.

Connotative Meaning: This is the emotional or associative meaning of a word. For instance, a snake is often associated with evil. Hollywood is associated with glamour. Blue birds are associated with happiness. The color white or a cross is associated with goodness or holiness.

Poets rely on language and imagery to convey meaning. Understanding the denotative and connotative meaning in language is important to understand the meaning of a poem.

Final Thoughts

This is only the tip of the tip of the poetic iceberg on how one might analyze poetry. Once you learn a few simple terms, you’ll find there are dictionaries devoted to poetic vocabulary. One good resource can be found on the Poetry Foundation’s website, who has a large glossary of terms, found here. Another good source is Poets.org.

Writing about poetry can be challenging, but learning a few simple terms and strategies will hopefully take the fear out of your next poetry analysis.

Practice!

Considering the questions above, analyze the following poems-

Tattoo by Ted Kooser

What once was meant to be a statement—
a dripping dagger held in the fist
of a shuddering heart—is now just a bruise
on a bony old shoulder, the spot
where vanity once punched him hard
and the ache lingered on. He looks like
someone you had to reckon with,
strong as a stallion, fast and ornery,
but on this chilly morning, as he walks
between the tables at a yard sale
with the sleeves of his tight black T-shirt
rolled up to show us who he was,
he is only another old man, picking up
broken tools and putting them back,
his heart gone soft and blue with stories.

Kin by Maya Angelou

We were entwined in red rings
Of blood and loneliness before
The first snows fell
Before muddy rivers seeded clouds
Above a virgin forest, and
Men ran naked, blue and black
Skinned into the warm embraces
Of Sheba, Eve and Lilith.
I was your sister.

You left me to force strangers
Into brother molds, exacting
Taxations they never
Owed or could ever pay.

You fought to die, thinking
In destruction lies the seed
Of birth. You may be right.

I will remember silent walks in
Southern woods and long talks
In low voices
Shielding meaning from the big ears
Of overcurious adults.

You may be right.
Your slow return from
Regions of terror and bloody
Screams, races my heart.
I hear again the laughter
Of children and see fireflies
Bursting tiny explosions in
An Arkansas twilight.

 

Understanding Writing Assignments

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Writing assignments can often be difficult for new students to understand. The academic jargon used by professors often sounds like a foreign language! Learning how to translate complicated assignment directions is the first step to put you on the path to writing success.

Breaking it Down

The first thing you’ll need to do when given a new writing assignment is to consider what the instructor’s expectations might be, so put it in context. Are you reading a chapter on a specific type of writing, maybe a chapter on summarizing or persuasive writing? It’s a good bet the assignment is related to the assigned readings.

It’s obvious to state that you should read the assignment carefully, but if you’ve read it five times and still don’t get it, then what? Look for clues, and the clues are in the verbs.

VERB: a word used to describe an action, state, or occurrence.

The verbs are the key to unlocking the mystery of the assignment. In writing assignments, the verb will tell you what kind of thinking or writing task is required. Some common assignment verbs are describe, examine, explain, and compare.

(Click here for a thorough list of academic writing verbs from Ashford University Writing Center)

What Exactly is a “Research Paper”?

It’s not uncommon to receive a broad, vague assignment such as the “research paper.” Defining the research paper will reap a glut of responses, such as . . .

A research paper is an argument.

A research paper is an analytical essay.

A research paper is informational.

A research paper is the same as a persuasive paper.

A research paper is your opinion about something with quotes from experts.

Let’s break each of these answers down.

A research paper is an argument: True, it can be an argument, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be an argument. Your instructor might simply want you think seriously about some issue, and present your research findings. (See “informational” essay.)

A research paper is an analytical essay: True, sort of. An analytical research paper is different than an argument, in that the writer poses a research question he or she intends to “analyze,” but has taken no position on. In this type of research paper, the writer is simply exploring the topic thoroughly and possibly evaluating the research, or exploring a problem. Some instructors might even ask you to write a research paper to evaluate the existing research on a topic. This type of essay is often referred to as a meta-analysis or literature review.

A research paper is an informational essay: It can be, but in order for a research paper to be solely an informational essay, like the analytical essay, the writer will take no stance on the topic. The term “informational essay” is sometimes used interchangeably with “analytical essay,” as the point is to simply present information as opposed to take a position and persuade the reader to agree with you.

A research paper is my opinion about something with quotes from experts: This type of research paper would be considered an argument essay or persuasive essay (terms used interchangeably) , in that the objective is to persuade the audience that your position should be supported. Any time you see something like “offer your opinion” or “argue your point” this translates to “Argument Essay,” which is persuasive.

However, this is where a close reading of the assignment and taking the assignment in context of the class gets tricky. Your instructor might simply want you to write an opinion essay by arguing a point, but include no research. This is similar to an op-ed, or opinion editorial, in a newspaper. So if it’s labeled “research paper” it’s a good bet that you are to include expert quotes from research.

Other Guidelines May Help Determine the Assignment Objective

Your assignment might have directions that state such requirements as Follow MLA or APA guidelines; include Works Cited; include source information in-text; or peer-reviewed sources required. These are all academic-speak for OUTSIDE RESEARCH REQUIRED. You’ll need to include either direct quotes, summary, or paraphrases from experts, or ideally, a combination of all. Most likely, when this type of research is required, your instructor expects an argument/persuasive essay, with an argumentative thesis.

Concluding Thoughts

While it’s essential to learn key terms and concepts in academic writing, it’s quite common to become confused when trying to decipher a writing assignment. If you’ve exhausted all efforts and are still confused, don’t hesitate to ask the instructor to explain the assignment and their expectations. Even requesting a sample student paper is acceptable, and many instructors will offer sample papers with the assignment.

If you are still in doubt and the instructor fails to respond to your question? With few exceptions, you are probably being asked to make an argument. Convincing your reader of your argument is often the main goal of academic writing across disciplines, and often the end goal in college writing classes.

What are your thoughts? Have you had an assignment that was impossible to understand? Terms or directions that were confusing? Share your experiences!

Developing the Narrative Essay

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Photo by picjumbo.com on Pexels.com

Narrative essays are often one of the favorite writing assignments for students. We can write from our own experience and knowledge, sharing a pivotal moment from our lives. Still, many writers find it difficult to take jumbled thoughts and memories and compose a well-crafted essay. So where to begin?

A narrative essay should not only entertain, but also communicate a lesson or message that the writer has learned through that experience. Retelling an event from too large of a time period can lead to an overwhelming amount of information to narrate, so it’s best to choose a topic for a narrative that is a small moment in time, one pivotal event or experience.

Start from the Beginning

The introduction of your narrative should capture the readers’ attention. Introduce the “characters” and set the story in time and place. Incorporate a strong “hook” that will pull the reader into your story. The hook will create a sense of urgency, making the reader feel they have to keep reading to see what happens next.

Though a narrative essay and an argument essay have little similarity, they do have one thing in common: they both will have a thesis. Even though a narrative doesn’t argue a position, it still will present a main idea or a point that you hope to communicate to readers through your story. A thesis can be an overall theme or lesson learned, either stated plainly or implied through the events and outcome of the story.

Examples of a narrative essay thesis statement:

Death is an inevitable part of life.

Perseverance is more important to success than education level or work experience.

Life experiences leave lasting memories that money can’t buy.

It’s easy to envision a story that demonstrates each of the statements above. Do these statements bring an event to mind for you?

Organizing a Narrative Essay

After you’ve introduced the people in the story and set up the event with a strong hook, the body paragraphs come next. Body paragraphs should include descriptive detail as the narrative moves forward in chronological order. It’s essential in narratives to incorporate sensory detail, utilizing all five senses throughout the narrative. Descriptive detail should create a vivid image in the readers’ minds. Rather than say, “I was scared,” describe your actions instead. For example, “My stomach dropped like a lead weight and my heart felt as though it would pound out of my chest.”

Consider where dialogue can be included throughout the story. You’ve introduced your characters, so hopefully their personalities show through and now the dialogue will help to show their personalities even more.

Moving the narrative forward can be tricky. It’s important to use transitions throughout, and breaks in paragraphs will work to indicate a shift in time or place. As you incorporate dialogue in paragraph “scenes,” you’ll also break paragraphs to indicate a shift in speaker. Each new, indented line indicates a new speaker. Notice in the examples below how action is shown along with the dialogue:

“I’m not leaving without you,” Kirk said, holding out his hand.

Shelly hesitated as the bus rolled to a stop. “I can’t leave my brother. He’ll be lost without me.”

“He’s a grown man,” Kirk said, his voice rising. “He needs to grow up, and you can’t do it for him.”

When deciding when to incorporate dialogue, always make sure it’s working to move the narrative forward and show emotion of the characters. Leave out inconsequential dialogue that isn’t speaking anything meaningful or important, such as,

“Hi. How are you?”

“Fine. How are you?”

BOR-ING!

Concluding the Narrative

If you’ve told your narrative in chronological order, the concluding paragraphs will offer a resolution. Here, the reader should gain understanding of what the writer has learned or why the story is important. By the conclusion, the main point should be clear through the narrative story.

Narrative essays can be fun to write and read. Choose a small moment in time and re-create the event through descriptive detail, incorporating sensory details to show the reader what you experienced. The reader should finish a narrative essay and feel as if they were there in the moment with you, feeling the same excitement and emotion. If they do, you know you’ve done your job.

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.

Keeping Unbiased Language in your Argument Essay

Tone

 

When choosing a topic for your argument essay, it’s always best to choose an issue that you’re interested in and passionate about. There’s nothing worse than spending an entire term researching and writing about something that you have little interest in. But it’s also just as important to be fair and unbiased as you write your essay. The language you choose to communicate your points can work to either persuade – or alienate – your audience.

While it’s okay to feel excited or even enraged about a topic, your audience requires careful respect and consideration. Too much wrath and fury, or on the other side, too much praise and approval, will cause your reader to doubt your reliability, and could turn your audience against you.

Avoid Moralistic Language

A fine line exists between persuasive and opinionated, and it all comes down to word choice. In order for readers to feel sympathetic toward your position, a balance must be struck. In the example below, consider how your reader will react:

An added tax should be placed on all surgery drinks, including sodas, and is the only way to encourage healthy alternatives.

At first glance, many health-conscious readers might think this is a good idea. Added federal and state taxes are placed on another unhealthy – though popular – product, cigarettes, so why not sugary drinks?

But this statement implies that all surgery drinks harm our health. Most fruit juices, however, have as much, if not more, sugar than a can of Coke! But some fruit juices have no sugar added; the sugar content comes naturally from the fruit. Are fruit juices high in sugar? Yes. Is fruit juice as harmful as soda? Many would heartily disagree, and juice-drinking readers might feel targeted.

Avoid Superlatives and Exaggerations

Note the use of “only way” in the above example. The phrase, “is the only way to encourage healthy alternatives” implies that higher taxation will automatically push consumers to choose healthier options. The language of “the only way. . .” is a superlative that might turn off a reader by the moralistic tone. It could be one way, but not necessarily the only way.

Superlatives are terms that suggest the highest degree of something, such as
the best way
the worst way
should always
should never

Using superlatives paints the writer into an absolute corner and has no room for compromise.

Alternative: An added tax should be placed on all surgery drinks, including sodas, and could be one way to encourage healthy alternatives.

Example: Legalizing marijuana is the best way to decrease prison overcrowding.

Alternative: Legalizing marijuana might be one way to decrease prison overcrowding.

Example: Embryonic cell research is the perfect solution for finding a cure for Alzheimer’s.

Alternative:  Embryonic cell research is one of the best options to find a cure for Alzheimer’s.

Notice the difference in tone? Superlatives and exaggerations come off as dramatic and often biased and opinionated. By simply changing the language, your reader will be more apt to consider your points and consider your position as credible, whether or not they agree with you in the end.

When constructing an argument, consider how your language might be interpreted by varying audiences. While those who agree might not be offended, neutral or opposing audiences might be turned off by the language and opinionated tone.

 

 

 

 

Stay Positive! How to Avoid Negative Statements for Stronger Writing

be-positive-hi

Any type of writing, whether it be for an English class argument essay or an email, will benefit from positive statements. This doesn’t mean to look on the sunny side, but to eliminate negative constructions and use definitive statements in your writing.

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Elwyn Brooks White 

William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White, in their still-popular, The Elements of Style, urge writers to,

“Make definite assertions. Avoid tame, colorless, hesitating, noncommittal language. Use the word not as a means of denial or in antithesis, never as a means of evasion.”

Strunk and White know what they are talking about, but most of us don’t, so let’s break that down.

A definitive statement is a direct, succinct, clear declaration. Look at the two examples below:

a. He was not very often on time.                  b. He usually came late.

It’s obvious that the first example is not only unclear, but wordy and hesitant. Most of the time, a positive, definite statement is shorter, and in academic writing, this is a good thing. Writers should always strive to avoid wordy sentence constructions, which can lead to confusion.

Let’s look at another example from Strunk and White:

a.  He did not think that studying  Latin was much use.

b.  He thought the study of Latin useless.

In both first (a.) examples above, the writer has used a negative (not), which weakens the message (and the writer’s authority). The sentence communicates what is not, as opposed to what is.

Let’s look at another example from a college paper:

The argument in favor of stricter environmental waste laws might not seem to possibly be enforceable.

This sentence has more than one problem, so let’s take a closer look.

The sentence, like the examples above, uses a negative – “might not seem.” Like the previous examples, changing it to a positive will strengthen the sentence immediately:

The argument in favor of stricter environmental waste laws is not enforceable.

The previous version was not only negative, but also indefinite. What does the writer mean? We’re not sure!

Academic writing should be strong and to the point, avoiding words like may, might, seem, possibly, probably. Indefinite constructions communicate the writer hasn’t thought out her opinions, or can’t decide on which side of the fence to sit. In the revised version, we have eliminated the wishy-washy construction, “might not seem to possibly. . .”.

The argument in favor of stricter environmental waste laws is not enforceable.

This statement is strong, bold, forceful, and the reader knows she can trust the writer.

Positive, definitive statements communicate that the writer knows the facts, has strong opinions, and has done their homework. Practice revising your sentences in the positive, definitive form for stronger, bolder writing.

 

Sources:
Strunk, William Jr., and E. B. White. The Elements of Style. Macmillan, 1959.

Common Logical Fallacies in Argument Papers

(from Grammar Girl: Quick & Dirty Tricks)

5 Types of Fallacies You Don’t Realize You’re Using in Your Writing

 (By Lora Wegman, read by Mignon Fogarty)

The key to writing a strong argument is logic. Even writers who typically have sound logic, however, can fall into illogical conclusions when they are passionate about a topic and use unsound arguments—typically referred to as fallacies.

Here are a few tips for identifying the most common fallacies in writing and how to avoid them.

Overgeneralizations

This fallacy, also called a “hasty generalization,” happens when the writer draws a conclusion about a group of people based on insufficient data. Often, these assumptions come from stereotypes and implicit biases, so these can sometimes be the trickiest fallacies to detect in your own writing. Perhaps you assume, for instance, that all members of a particular political party have the same stance on the death penalty, or you believe that all people who attend a certain school are wealthy. Basing an argument on unproven assumptions will ultimately make your position weaker and therefore easier to attack. As you’re reviewing your writing and come across an assumption, be sure to ask yourself, “Do I really know that this is true?”

Straw Man

A straw man argument oversimplifies an opponent’s position and then attacks it. This is often a big one for politicians, who might portray larger-picture views instead of nuance. For example, imagine that you are assigned to write an essay opposing school uniforms. If you state, “Requiring students to wear uniforms means they will lose all sense of individuality,” then you may be setting up a straw man argument. Instead of arguing for why students should be able to wear their own outfits, you instead take the argument to a simpler and perhaps more emotional conclusion, and then argue against that broader implication. When you’re listening to politicians, as yourself whether their argument is against what their opponents are actually suggesting, or have they thrown a straw man into the ring by misrepresenting their opponents’ position as something more extreme?

Ad Hominem

In ad hominem attacks, a position is attacked not through reasoning related to the argument itself, but instead by attacking the opponent’s personal character. For example, if Squiggly says we should have chocolate cake for dinner, and Aardvark responds by saying that  Squiggly is an idiot, he’s using an ad hominem attack—addressing only Squiggly’s character—and not making a logical argument about why chocolate cake for dinner is bad.

Closely related to the ad hominem attack is the tu quoque fallacy: This is when, instead of opposing an argument or a criticism, the speaker or writer responds by turning it back on the accuser. It’s essentially an argument that says, “Oh, yeah? What about you?” An example would be crafting an argument against doctors’ anti-smoking messages by pointing out statistics about how many doctors smoke. Those facts would have nothing to do with the anti-smoking argument itself but instead simply attack the behavior of those on the opposing side.

Post Hoc

A post hoc argument assumes one event caused another, based solely on the order of occurrence. The full Latin phrase—“post hoc, ergo propter hoc”—means “after this, therefore, because of this.” So, to use a historical example that was once believed to be fact: “People who spend time outside at night are more likely to catch malaria, therefore, night air causes malaria.” The fact that things happen in order doesn’t mean that one thing actually caused the next to happen. We now know that malaria is caused by a parasite transmitted by mosquitos, not by night air.

This is somewhat like the “slippery slope” fallacy. In these cases, you’re arguing against something with the assumption that it will lead to another undesirable outcome through a series of incremental steps. But in reality, the events may not actually be related if they do occur, or the first event might happen without the catastrophic result.

Red Herring

A red herring is a classic misdirection. We see this all the time in fiction, from Sherlock Holmes stories to modern-day thrillers. False clues are planted to throw the reader off. Similarly, a red herring fallacy can pop up in your writing when your argument veers into an area only tangentially related to the core topic. This may be purposeful, but it’s also easy to do without intending to. Here’s an example in which President Ronald Reagan used humor and diversion as a red herring in answering a debate question:

 Reporter: You already are the oldest president in history. … President Kennedy had to go for days on end with very little sleep during the Cuban missile crisis. Is there any doubt in your mind that you would be able to function in such circumstances?

Reagan: Not at all … and I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.

So, how do you catch yourself using fallacies? Play devil’s advocate with your own writing. Ask yourself what the logical counter-argument is and whether yours holds up. Then, identify any stereotypes or biases you are inadvertently using to inform your position. This should help you identify holes in your logic and set you up for a stronger result.