Writing the Profile Essay

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Profile writing is common in Literary Journalism, but even freshman English Composition classes often assign a profile essay. What distinguishes a profile from other types of written assignments?

A profile usually asks you to closely observe a person. A good profile subject is someone who may represent a culture, place, or situation that is unique or intriguing. For instance, profiling an unknown tri-athlete can show an audience what it might be like to overcome challenges or demonstrate the dedication it takes to compete. Profiling a local pastry chef may show a unique occupation that has been gaining popularity from TV shows like Cupcake Wars.

A profile is similar to a narrative essay in that it utilizes a narrative method of organization, incorporating narrative storytelling devices such as scenes, sensory detail, and dialogue, to build the essay. All of these details work together to show the character of the profile subject. Specific details are shown in scenes; descriptions are shown through the use of sensory detail, such as sight, smell, touch, taste and sound, as well as literary techniques like metaphor and simile, and other figurative language.

Most profile essays will require you to interview your subject. This is a narrative storytelling technique which allows the subject to speak for themselves, again showing the character and personality of the subject. As the interviewer, you will be required to have a good ear to relay the spoken word. You’ll have to transcribe the interview into dialogue form, which is fun and challenging at the same time. Choosing what to leave in and what to edit out will determine how your profile subject is characterized.

Finding a great subject is half the battle, as a profile is only as good as the subject. Think outside the box when considering who you might want to profile. Good subjects come in unlikely places. The grocery store clerk. The Starbucks barista. The school security guard. All of these subjects work in places with lots of setting specifics and sensory detail.

 

Profile as Part of a Larger Project

It’s not unusual to incorporate a profile piece into an argument essay as a way to hook the audience and to dramatize an issue. Take a look below at the “Profile” introduction to an argument essay. The writer is trying to persuade the audience to require breathalyzers in the cars of convicted drunk drivers:

Charley Wolf left the bar at 1:00am after consuming seven beers and ten shots in a three hour period. Wolf slid behind the wheel of his Ford pickup, turned the ignition, and put the truck in “Drive.” In the next twenty minutes, Wolf was spotted by other motorists weaving on the expressway, running over a curb, and knocking down a road barrier. Within ten minutes, Wolf hit another car head-on, killing the driver and critically injuring the passenger. As the police booked Wolf, they learned he had four previous drunk driving offenses.

Consider this alternate scenario: Wolf consumed seven beers and ten shots in three hours. He left the bar to drive home. But when he got behind the wheel, the ignition wouldn’t unlock until he took a breathalyzer, which he failed. Wolf took a cab home, avoiding what could have been a tragedy.

In this example, the writer profiles a subject to show a tragic scene, hooking the audience with the emotional appeal of a true story, adding support to his argument requiring breathalyzers for previously convicted drunk drivers.

Final thoughts

When writing a profile essay, take some time to consider who might make a good subject, and what you want to “show” in the profile. Details you’ll glean from the interview and observation will help characterize the subject. Think about what you want your audience to take away from the profile. Maybe the grocery store clerk has been at the same store for thirty years and is a part of the local culture of the neighborhood. The Starbucks barista may have something interesting to say on this special form of addiction (caffeine!). Take your time with careful observation, and prepare interview questions ahead of time. A good subject and careful prep will go a long way toward a great profile.

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Constructing Arguments

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If you have been assigned an argument paper, you will be expected to argue a debatable position with a strong claim, clear reasoning, and logical appeals. But how do you know if your topic will make a good argument? Many topics might be interesting, but not all interesting topics are arguable. When constructing an argument, your topic must be more than a statement of fact; it must be debatable.

What is your purpose?

When we think about arguments, we assume our purpose is to win, though there is no way to determine who really wins. A writer can present his or her position with the best reasoning and evidence available, and hope to successfully rebut opposing arguments.

A writer usually tries to convince the reader that his or her argument is compelling enough to change minds. In proposal arguments, the writer might want to enact a solution to a problem, and to do this, the writer will have to convince a reader to change his or her mind.

Another purpose of an argument is to simply explore an issue. A writer whose intention is to explore will examine an idea in hopes of convincing a reader that the ideas are important and beneficial.

Testing your Topic

To test whether or not a topic will work as an arguable thesis, consider if you can answer “yes” to these basic criteria:

  1. Does it present a position that an audience might have differing opinions on?
  2. Does it attempt to change minds or urge a reader to take some sort of action?
  3. Does it address a problem and offer a solution, or does it present a problem where no easy solutions exist?

Examples of an Unarguable Statement:

Litter creates pollution of the environment.

Using our criteria, the statement isn’t trying to convince, present a problem (although technically, litter is a problem), nor is it a statement that others might disagree with. It’s merely an observation.

Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.

Is there any debate when the Emancipation Proclamation was signed? Is it trying to convince us of anything? This is a statement of fact, and a reader couldn’t debate the statement.

The incidence of breast cancer has risen in the last ten years.

Even though a reader may not know if this is an accurate statement or not, it is easily researchable and not an argument claim.

Examples of an Arguable Statement

Recycling programs, though expensive at first, are ultimately an efficient, cost effective, and environmentally friendly way of reducing waste in our environment.

This statement meets our criteria, as it is presenting a problem and offering a solution. It can be argued, as many opponents believe the cost of implementing a recycling program is too expensive and actually not efficient.
~  ~ ~

Though Abraham Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation is believed to have ended slavery, slaves emancipated themselves and forced Lincoln to recognize their de facto freedom.

This is a statement that would illicit disagreement (good!), and is an attempt to change the readers’ minds of a widely held belief, so it definitely meets our criteria.

~ ~ ~

Widely prescribed and highly controversial hormone replacement therapy is the cause of the high rates of breast cancer in women.

This statement is definitely arguable, as many would dispute the cause behind high rates of breast cancer. Others would dispute the assumption that breast cancer rates are any higher than they have always been. This statement addresses a problem that there may be no clear solution to, but it makes an arguable claim.

Formulating a Thesis

Once an arguable claim is made, the next step is to formulate a working thesis. The thesis is a claim with reasons. A reason is often referred to as a “because clause,” as the reason answers the question Why? behind the stated claim.

Reason: Pesticides endanger the lives of farmworkers.

Working thesis (claim with reason): Because they endanger the lives of farmworkers, (reason) pesticides should be banned (claim).


Reason
: Lack of sex education in public schools leads to high rates of sexually transmitted diseases.

Working Thesis: Because of the high rates of STDs among teens, all public schools should offer sex education.


Reason:
The cost of a four-year university degree has become unaffordable.

Working Thesis: Because a college degree has become unaffordable for all but the affluent, tuition costs should be lowered.

~ ~ ~

Once you have a working thesis, you may find you’ll need to alter the language or use qualifiers (may cause…; often leads…) to make it more precise or less susceptible to criticism.

Spending time in the planning stages to identify your purpose, test your topic, and formulate an arguable thesis is essential to constructing a successful argument.

Now You Try

For the broad topics below, formulate an arguable statement and working thesis (claim with reason):

  1. Music downloading
  2. Mandatory military service
  3. The effect of texting on youth’s literacy

 

 

Brainstorm Your Way to a Great Essay

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(A version of this post originally appeared Dec. 6, 2013)

 

For many writers, beginning and experienced, simply finding a topic to write about is the most difficult part of the writing process. Utilizing some simple invention or brainstorming tools will set you on your way to uncovering an engaging topic, one audiences will be interested in reading, and you will be excited writing about for the next several weeks.  

Brainstorming

This catch-all term is thrown around quite often in the writing classroom. An instructor will ask you to spend some time “brainstorming” before you begin the writing process, but for many, this request just draws a blank. How exactly does one brainstorm?

1.  Take a piece of paper, and list numbers 1-20.
2.  To begin filling in this list, write down what interests you. If you draw a blank, consider what has been going on in your life lately – conversations you have had, or things you have read or heard on the news – and jot them down on your list.

If this seems too overwhelming, try categorizing your list into groups of 5.

Create one list of 5 labeled POLITICS (this could include current legislation that might affect you or your community; concealed weapons; mandatory military service; electoral system, etc.)

Create one list of 5 SOCIAL ISSUES (this might include healthcare, deforestation, sharing wealth, etc.)

Create one list of 5 CULTURAL ISSUES (this might include language reform, religious freedom, polygamy, etc.)

Create a list of 5 COMMUNITY ISSUES (this might include things that affect you where you work and live, such as parking, recycling, dorms on campus, A-F grade system, etc.)

Once you break it down into manageable chunks, it’s much easier to uncover some interesting and unique topics from current issues. Let’s look at our examples from above. One way to decide if a topic will make a good persuasive paper is to ask a “should” question based on the topic. Let’s look at some of the issues from our examples and put them into a “should” question:

  •   Should the government require mandatory military service?
  •   Should the government alter the tax system to force the rich to share their wealth with the poor?
  •   Should elementary schools require students to learn a second language?
  •   Should colleges and universities abolish the A-F grade scale and GPA system?

Digging Deeper: What do you already know about?

Another way to identify topics you might be interested in writing about is to consider your own knowledge and expertise. Everyone is knowledgeable about something, and many of us are knowledgeable about several things. What topics are you an authority on? Don’t sell yourself short.  A list might include:

  1.     Unique hobbies (spelunking, metal detecting, dumpster diving)
  2.     Unique skills (second language, yoga master, cartoonist)
  3.     Training or education (CPR, computer tech, sign language)
  4.     Work Experience (manager, bartender, crisis counselor)
  5.     Personal Experience (single parent, foster parent, football coach, nurse aide)

Now that you have a good list of hobbies, skills, and other knowledge and experience, consider how you can pull a topic out of those lists to compose an interesting essay. Some topics would make great informational essays, while others would make great persuasive essays.

  •   To reduce waste and our reliance on landfills, dumpster diving, or reusing or repurposing someone else’s trash, is a viable alternative.
  •   Yoga has been proven to not only improve balance, lower blood pressure, and fight disease, but can also relieve symptoms of depression and anxiety.
  •   Training in CPR should be mandatory for all public school teachers.
  •   Bartenders should/should not be held liable for the accidental injury or death of a person by someone they served who was found to be intoxicated.
  •   Same sex couples should/should not be allowed to become foster parents.
     

Taking time in the early stages of the writing process to brainstorm will lead you to unique and engaging topics for your paper. No one wants to write another “Legalize Marijuana” or “Lower Drinking Age” essay like they did for their high school teacher, and I promise instructors don’t want to read another one either. Uncovering topics you wouldn’t normally consider or even think about will earn you the admiration of your instructor, and you’ll enjoy the research process more as well.

STUDENTS: Share your unique topic ideas with us. How did you uncover your topic?

Write on!

Is that a Word?

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Although I am the last person you’ll find speaking formal, or “proper,” English, I probably do spend more time thinking about grammar and punctuation than the average person. Even though I speak what is considered slang or conversational English, as someone with a background in English, I admit I sometimes notice other people’s mispronunciations. Interspersing slang or colloquialisms in our conversations is a matter of preference and personality. Using made-up words in writing or speech, however, is an error, and that’s different.  Read on to see if you’re guilty of using words that aren’t really words.

Common Errors

“He supposably ended their engagement.”

This is one of the most common errors I hear in speech, and it often transfers to writing because it’s so darn common. It’s an error because supposably is not, has never been, a word. It’s supposedly.

 

“I am quitting my job irregardless of the consequences.”

This might be the second most common error, after supposably. Irregardless is not a word either. It’s regardless, which means “irrespective” or “nevertheless.” It could have started from the related meaning to “irrespective,” but that’s a guess.

 

“For all intensive purposes, I think my political views are the same as yours.”

This use is so common in speech that it has worked its way into written English. But it’s still an error. The correct phrase is “for all intents and purposes,” which translates to “for all practical purposes.”

Interestingly, the origin comes from King Henry VIII in 1546. The first recorded use was in an Act of Parliament, which reads, “to all intents, constructions, and purposes.”

 

“I will do my upmost to help support the president.”

This one is a bit tricky. In this example, “upmost” is describing the degree or quality that this person hopes to support the president. It should say, “I will do my utmost to help support the president.

Though “upmost” is a word in British and some English dictionaries, it’s used as a shortened version of “uppermost,” an adjective meaning “highest” or “top,” as in, “We are on the upmost floor of the building.” However, according to many grammarians, this is an old, archaic word that is only now used when the writer actually means utmost.


Not So Common Errors

“I pulled out the letters from my chester drawers.”

I recently read a student’s narrative essay that described his room’s “chester drawers.” This is one of those errors that we translate from spoken to written word, though even saying “chester drawers” will raise eyebrows in certain circles. It’s chest of drawers, which makes a lot more sense.

 

“I was hired to type, file, answer phones, excetera.”

This is a word that worked its way in to written form from mispronounced speech. The correct use is et cetera, which is Latin for “and” (et) “the rest” (cetera). The abbreviated version – etc. – is often used in academic essays, but many instructors will request you to omit its use when possible. If you are writing out a list of 3 or 4 items and feel “etc.” is needed, it most likely isn’t. Just write out all the items instead.

 

“I have two expressos every morning.”

Okay, I admit I’ve pronounced it with an “x” forever, but I don’t drink it, so no barista has ever corrected me. However, I’ve seen it infiltrating writing, so we have to stop. It should be, “I have two espressos every morning.” Most people, like me, pronounce it with a hard “x” – EXpresso, but it should be an “s” – espresso. But I’ll bet you coffee aficionados knew that.

 

Final Thoughts

It’s shocking how quickly erroneous speech patterns can begin to creep into our written phrases. Even though we speak imperfectly, most serious writers agree on correct and preferred forms of a word. Carefully consider if your usage and spelling are correct before you turn in your final essay. You’ll undoubtably – I mean undoubtedly – have a better final paper!

 

Secrets to Effective Dialogue

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Last week here at Writing Center Underground, we discussed how to format written dialogue for your narrative essay. This week, we’ll look at the qualities of effective dialogue.

When composing a narrative essay, dialogue is an essential component for creating an engaging story. Without the spoken words, the reader can’t “hear” the characters (the real people who you are introducing to your audience) and get to know them. Simply summarizing what a character said isn’t as engaging or interesting as direct dialogue between characters.

When composing a narrative, you’ll most likely be re-creating conversations from the past. Don’t get too caught up in whether or not you recall exactly what was said. That is less important as how you portray the people in your narrative with their language, mannerisms, and other characteristics of their speech. When trying to decide exactly where and how to incorporate written dialogue, there are 3 essential questions to ask yourself before you begin:

  • Is it AUTHENTIC?

  • Is it ESSENTIAL?

  • Is it DOING MORE THAN ONE THING?

 Is it Authentic?

Authentic dialogue realistically portrays the person speaking. If it’s authentic, the spoken words will sound exactly like the person would sound in real life. This doesn’t mean you have to incorporate slang in every sentence, but it does mean that the diction, word choice, phrasing, and other stylistic choices can easily be attributed to the person who is speaking in the narrative. It shouldn’t be too formal or precise. Below is an exchange of dialogue between a son and his mother:

“Jason,” my mother asked, “what were your activities and pursuits at your elementary school today?”

“I had a full day of activities, Mother.  My teacher was quite stimulating, and recess was especially delightful,” I said.

Doesn’t quite sound right, does it? Most likely, an exchange between a mother and young son might sound something like this:

“How was school today?” mom asked.

“It was okay I guess.”

The first example obviously sounds stilted and formal, unlike how most families speak. The second example is more realistic. Some writers might choose to even use slang in their speech, such as “I dunno,” or “Kinda good,” but be very careful of overusing phonetic substitutes, as it becomes a bit tedious to read and runs the risk of characters sounding illiterate.

Is it ESSENTIAL?

“Hi Jim. How are you?” I asked.

“I’m fine. How are you?” Jim said.

“I’m fine,” I said.

BORING! An exchange like the example above is not essential to the narrative. It’s not really doing anything toward moving the narrative forward or showing any kind of characterization of the speakers. Compare this with the following exchange:

“Hi Jim,” I said.

“What wrong?” Jim asked, concerned.

“It’s my dad,” I said, breaking down.

In this exchange, the everyday-ness of the previous example is avoided. There may have very well been niceties exchanged, but in written dialogue, the writer must compress time and get to what’s essential. Here we get tension, we get emotion, and the narrative is propelled forward. Which leads us to essential element #3.

Is It Doing More Than One Thing?

Dialogue, whether in fiction or nonfiction, isn’t meant to simply allow characters to “speak.” If this is all it’s doing, then it isn’t doing enough.

Dialogue should draw a characterization. This means that the dialogue works to show traits of the person speaking, or the relationship between the speakers.  What they say, how they say it, and the tone they use provides the reader with lots of information they wouldn’t get otherwise.

The following excerpt is from Beloved by Toni Morrison, an expert at characterization through dialogue. Notice in this example that Morrison mostly avoids using phonetic spellings, but simply drops words to characterize the speakers:

“Something funny ‘bout that gal,” Paul D said, mostly to himself.

“Funny how?”

“Acts sick, sounds sick, but she don’t look sick. Good skin, bright eyes and strong as a bull.”

“She’s not strong. She can hardly walk without holding on to something.”

“That’s what I mean. Can’t walk, but I seen her pick up the rocker with one hand.”

“You didn’t.”

“Don’t tell me. Ask Denver. She was right there with her.”

In this exchange, Morrison avoids speaker tags, except in the first line to set up the exchange. This “he said, she said” can take away from an otherwise engaging exchange, and here, it isn’t necessary. Also notice that the two people speaking have distinctly different styles, so it’s easy to differentiate each speaker from the other.

Consider everything the following bit of dialogue is doing:

“What’s the capital of Spain?” Jerry asked, pausing over his crossword puzzle.

Susan looked up from her book and rolled her eyes. “Madrid, duh.”

“Why are you so sarcastic all the time?” Jerry slammed his pencil on table. He

looked like he was going to cry. “I don’t think I can take much more of this.”

Poor Jerry! You can cut the tension with a knife! What’s going to happen? Several things are happening with this dialogue-

  1. Characterizes speakers
  2. Shows relationship between characters
  3. Creates tension
  4. Moves narrative forward

When you’re writing dialogue for your narrative, consider why you are incorporating each exchange and know what your purpose is for including it. If it isn’t essential, leave it out.

There really are no secrets to writing effective dialogue, but knowing who your characters are and why you are incorporating every exchange will help you in determining what to leave in and what to take out. Avoid phony or forced speech, and use speaker tags thoughtfully. When you’re finished, read your essay aloud to “hear” what you’ve written. Try reading some essays or short stories to see how other writers do it. Follow these steps, and you’ll be writing dialogue like a pro!

Below is a brief reading list of some of the greatest writers of dialogue you might study.

“Hills Like White Elephants” – Ernest Hemingway.

“What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” – Raymond Carver.

Anything by Elmore Leonard or John Steinbeck.

 

 

 

 

Due-Day Polishing: 6 things to do before you hand over the final draft

(This post originally appeared here in Nov. 2011)
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You’ve worked hard all quarter getting your essay in top form. You’ve outlined. You’ve taken pages of notes. You’ve peer-workshopped. Your instructor has given you feedback – and at least 100 handouts. You revised. And revised. And revised. Today the final draft is due – but is it really done?

Don’t be too quick to hand your essay over just yet. Here are a few last-minute editing tips to get your essay as perfect as it can be.

1. Did you use spell-checker? Good. But don’t trust it. Spell-checker is great if you have misspelled a word or used incorrect punctuation (sometimes). But spell-checker doesn’t work if you’ve used defiantly instead of definitely, or their instead of there, or a semi-colon instead of a colon, or – you get the picture. One quick way to find these errors is to go to the toolbar under “Edit”; click “Find,” then type in the words you have difficulty with. It will highlight them so you can confirm you’ve used these words correctly.

2.  Read the first and last sentence of each paragraph. Does each paragraph focus on just one topic, or are you all over the place? See where you were beginning with the paragraph, and see where you ended up; if you went down one road and ended up on a multi-lane interstate, refocus your thoughts so the paragraph communicates one topic or point.

3.  How is your sentence variety? Do you vary the length and style to create a nice rhythm, or are sentences short and choppy? Can short sentences be combined? Do you say the same thing but in five different ways? Sometimes we spend so much time on research or MLA as we’re composing our essays that we overlook something as simple as sentence variety that can be the difference between blah and the best essay evah!

4.  Read your essay aloud to really hear the words. Reading your essay aloud is the most important thing you can do to find those difficult errors that spell-check or your peer group doesn’t catch. Read slow and deliberately. If you’ve read your essay so many times it’s too familiar, try reading your essay backward. This will slow you down and give you a different perspective on the sentences.

5.  Do you feel like you know your essay by heart? Time to take a step back. If time allows, put the essay away for a day or two. Getting some distance from your essay will give you the opportunity to read it with a fresh set of eyes.

6.  Finally, let it go. You’ve done the best you can and there comes a time when we have to let our writing go and move on. If you know you’ve done your best to make your writing all it can be, then a grade often becomes secondary to that sense of accomplishment you’ll feel when it’s complete.

What are your due-day rituals? Do you have any last-minute tips you’d like to share?

 

The Evaluative Essay: What do you think?

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If you were considering going to a movie, you might first consider if it’s to your taste. You might read some reviews or ask some friends if they thought the film was action-packed or slow moving, or if it was realistic or too futuristic for you. If your friend told you that the movie you were considering seeing was bad, you would want to know why. Maybe his or her idea of “bad” is that the movie was character-driven, as opposed to action-packed, but maybe you prefer character-driven movies.

As you can see, “bad” is totally subjective. You need specifics. How is your friend judging the movie? Does he or she have solid reasons and evidence to back up his or her opinion?

Everyone has an opinion, but in evaluative writing, it’s not enough to just present an opinion. The writer has to understand who his or her audience is and know what criteria are important for that specific audience.

Parts of an Evaluation

The judgment acts as a thesis for an evaluative essay. This judgment provides specific reasons based on carefully chosen criteria. The criteria are a set of standards based on your topic and audience.

Using our movie example above, a judgment might look like this:

Although the film, The Hobbit, is targeted for children, all audiences can appreciate and enjoy the movie because of its special effects, unique characters, and engaging storyline.

This thesis is a judgment (all audiences can appreciate and enjoy the movie) of the movie based on 3 criteria: because it has inventive special effects, unique characters, and engaging storyline.

When deciding on the criteria you’ll use to support your judgment, you’ll want to choose criteria which speaks directly to your audience. The criteria in our example, inventive special effects, unique characters, and engaging storyline, was chosen with an audience in mind who are adult movie-goers. Children probably wouldn’t care about all these criteria, nor would people who aren’t interested in movies. If you were to argue that The Hobbit is a bad movie because you don’t like fantasy-adventure tales, that’s more opinion, and the criteria help keep the judgment unbiased and balanced.

As you build support for your judgment, you will show evidence, possibly in the form of examples for each reason. Evidence is important, as it establishes credibility with your audience, so presenting a well-thought out judgment and criteria with strong evidence shows you are offering a fair and balanced judgment.

In most cases, each body paragraph will present one separate criteria, offering effective evidence in the form of examples from research, or even visual examples. In our movie example, you might use a film shot to illustrate a point. Depending on the requirements of your assignment, you’ll probably need to include research and cite those sources, but if you were writing an evaluation for a blog or magazine, citations won’t generally be necessary, though you should always name sources in a signal phrase.

Final Thoughts

We evaluate every day, whether we think consciously about it or not. We’re always making judgments, and considering how we make those judgments forces us to reason out our opinions. It’s not unusual to discover that perhaps our opinions are built on a flimsy foundation. Evaluative writing forces us to analyze not only what we pass judgment on, but how we pass judgment.

 

(Some examples from The St. Martin’s Guide to Writing)