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The Essentials of Writing

 

The Hamilton College Style Sheet

The Writing Process

As almost any writer will tell you, getting started is the hardest part of the writing process. For students, this is often the case because we view a writing assignment as an obligation to fill five pages rather than as an opportunity to say something. It may seem obvious, but arguing a point is much easier if we have ideas about it.

Read

Read the article, chapter, book, or whatever the paper is to discuss.

  • Make sure you understand the reading.
  • Highlight important points with a pen or highlighter (I prefer a pen, so I can jot down my own ideas in the margins). Comment on these points.
  • Summarize long or confusing passages to clarify them. Write all over the passage; just make sure it makes sense to you. Once you have digested the reading, you will be better prepared to relate its main points to your assignment. It is often helpful to discuss the reading with a friend, a roommate, or a writing tutor to make sure you understand it.

Freewrite

By now you should have some sort of reaction to the reading as it relates to your assignment, and you should be able to list your ideas and comment on them.

  • Jot down possible arguments for a few minutes and try to develop your ideas. 
  • After ten or fifteen minutes, print out what you have. Circle what you want to keep, and scratch out whatever isn't useful or relevant. Identify relationships among your ideas.
  • Can you formulate a main argument?  If not, freewrite again, using the ideas you have identified as a guide.  If you can, state that argument as concisely as possible in a sentence or two. Now you have a thesis statement.

Thesis

Your paper expands and develops the ideas stated in your thesis.  Your thesis should reflect the full scope of your argument, but no more. A sufficiently focused thesis will summarize your argument and set up a pattern for discussion.

Too broad:
The Catholic Church's influence on the formation of labor unions in the nineteenth century was extremely significant.

Sufficiently focused:
Through its use of both the pulpit and the purse, the Catholic Church exerted significant influence on the labor movement in the United States during the final decades of the nineteenth century.

For more information on writing thesis statements, refer to Introductions and Thesis Statements and Developing Your Thesis.


Outline

Armed with thesis and ideas, you are ready to organize an outline.

  • If formal outlines intimidate you, avoid Roman numerals and upper- and lower-case letters and simply write your thesis at the top of the paper.
  • Then, take the ideas you formulated while freewriting and list them in what you believe to be a logical order. If you can, develop one-sentence summaries at this point that will serve as topic sentences later.
  • Combine similar ideas. If you see a progression to your ideas, follow it. Develop a hierarchy of your ideas.  I like to save my strongest point for last, so that my paper ends solidly. Once you have an outline, follow it, but do not be afraid to change it if you think of a better way to organize your thoughts.

Draft

Using your outline, you can now begin to write a draft.  Your draft should include an introduction, a body of several well-developed paragraphs arguing your ideas, and a conclusion.

Though the form and content of your introduction will depend on the assignment, the discipline, and even your instructor, your introduction should

  • alert your reader to the question you are answering in your paper
  • explain the importance of the question and your position
  • appeal to the reader's interest
  • conclude  with your thesis statement.

You may want to identify the sources of evidence in your introduction as well. Above all, make sure your introduction is sharply focused.  Papers that begin, "In today's fast-paced world of modern society" or "Throughout the ages of human history" are likely to be vague and boring.

Body

In the body of your paper, develop the ideas you formulated in your outline.  Often, I find that by the time I sit down to write a draft, my ideas are well enough organized in my head that I am ready to write my argument; an introduction would only delay me.

If this is the case for you, don't be afraid to skip right to the body of the paper and write the introduction later.

Make sure that in the body each paragraph not only holds together well on its own (one single, unified point per paragraph), but that it is headed by a topic sentence that relates directly to your thesis statement.

In the body of your paper, you should explain your ideas in detail, but do not include too many extraneous details; that is, do not assume that your reader knows that Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress" is a seduction poem or that HCl + NaOH yields NaCl + H2O, but do assume she knows that the first is a poem and the second a chemical reaction. Generally, your intended audience should be an informed classmate.

Throughout the body, you should focus on developing your ideas fully. Remember that your first priority is to support your thesis. Keep asking yourself, "What did I tell my reader I was going to do? Am I doing it?"


Transitions

Use transitions to link ideas among paragraphs; words and phrases such as "In addition to," "However," and "I, on the other hand," identify relationships among points and work well either at the end of one paragraph or at the beginning of the topic sentence of a new paragraph.

Beware of statements of narrative or chronological order.  

Beginning a paragraph with, "Next in the novel," for example, indicates that your argument is no longer controlling the organization of the paper.  Rethink this sentence; you need to explain not what happened but why what happened is significant.  How does it fit into your argument? Do not let the chronology of your subject dictate the chronology of your paper.  For more information on transitions, refer  to Transitions.


Conclusion

Finally, you will need to draft a conclusion.  Do not let your conclusion merely restate your introduction; if you have successfully argued your point, a summary conclusion generally bores and can even insult your reader.  You may want to remind your reader of your thesis, but then take the opportunity to offer some additional insight into your argument. This can strengthen your argument while leaving your reader with something more to think about. Your conclusion could

  • address ideas from a fresh perspective
  • pose a question for future study
  • describe possible limitations of your argument
  • refer to a detail in the introduction to bring the argument full-circle
  • offer a provocative, unexpected, or exciting insight or quotation.

Whatever technique you choose to employ, your conclusion should convey to your reader why you think your argument is important. It should not be overstated or dogmatic.  Any paper that ends with such expressions as, "Thus it is unquestionably certain that..." probably expresses a dubious thesis.
For more information on writing conclusions, refer to Conclusions.


Revise

Now that you have a draft, you are ready to revise.  "Revision" literally means "to see again," but you will not be able to do this if you have just finished writing your paper.  We become wedded to our writing and therefore cannot and will not see its weaknesses. In order to rewrite, first print out your draft.  If time allows, let it sit overnight and clear it from your mind.  The more time that elapses before you return to your draft, the more clearly you will be able to see its strengths and weaknesses.

When you read your draft, ask yourself these questions:

In my introduction, did I
  • catch my reader's interest?
  • include all my key ideas in my thesis?
In my body, did I
  • clearly organize my paragraphs?
  • include a topic sentence for each paragraph?
  • use transition sentences between paragraphs?
  • provide enough relevant evidence?
  • explain the significance of the evidence I chose?
In my conclusion, did I
  • bring my argument to a close?
  • offer a new perspective on my argument?
Overall, did I
  • write with clarity and conciseness?
  • avoid grammatical errors?
  • avoid common sentence-level problems?
  • address my intended audience?

For further information on sentence-level revision, refer to Sentence Revision.


Peer Review

Next, you should ask someone else to look over your draft. The best person to read your draft ahead of time, short of your professor, is a tutor at the Writing Center, as tutors are trained to identify strengths and weaknesses in writing and to assist you in constructively revising your work.  Make an appointment early with plenty of time for revision after your meeting.

If you cannot obtain an appointment, ask a friend to look over your draft.  If you think your reader is no better a writer than you or too polite to point out your errors, ask her to read your draft aloud.  Mark the places where she stumbles; these are places that you may want to re-write.


Post-Draft Outline

You also may want to develop a post-draft outline in which you summarize the points you think you made and analyze them in terms of your thesis.  If this proves difficult, you may have discovered a focus problem.  If you run across an idea that does not relate to your thesis, don't be afraid to re-work it. You may find that your entire paper is buried in one paragraph and all the others need to go so that you can expand on that one.  This takes courage.  Fear not the delete key; it can set you free (but embrace "save as," so you can change your mind later).

For further information on revising, refer to Revision Strategies.


Proofreading

Proofreading is the last stage in the writing process, and one that should not be done on a screen.  Printing your paper will allow you to see more of your errors.  Reading your paper aloud is another good way to spot them. Read over your paper several times; you may find it helpful to look for only one error each time you read through it (e.g., read once for passive voice, once for run-on sentences, and once for misused commas).

A spell-checker or grammar-checker can be helpful, but under no circumstances can these tools be considered adequate substitutes for a human being. 

Even though your spell-checker thinks that the sentence "Iran down to the towns post office to sea if I cud male a let her" is fine (and it will), it doesn't know you meant to write "I ran down to the town's post office to see if I could mail a letter." Likewise, your grammar-checker will probably not identify the error in this sentence: "Humans share a need for food, shelter, and sex with lower animals."  Can you find it?

Proofreading is the easiest step in the writing process, and it can save you from considerable embarrassment and frustration.  Don't skip it! For a full explanation of common grammatical and stylistic errors, refer to the section Essentials of English Usage.


Other Ways to Go About an Assignment

While these steps constitute a generally accepted approach to writing, there are other ways to go about an assignment.

  • Some students can write only on a computer; others can write only by hand until the last draft. 
  • Some find outlines to be of no help at all, and instead organize their ideas in a flow chart or on note cards. 

Frequently, I find myself completely unable to formulate a thesis, no matter what I do.  Under these circumstances, I usually develop three or four ideas about an assignment, expound upon these ideas, and see where they take me.  If these ideas flow well, they will lead me to a thesis I would not have reached otherwise.  I then have the option of including the thesis statement at the end rather than in the introduction.  Beware of this approach, however; sometimes the ideas do not flow on their own at all, and I wind up several hours later, still without a thesis. This is not an approach to try at 2 a.m. the night before an assignment is due.  The best advice is to begin your assignment early and schedule an appointment at the Writing Center to discuss your draft.