Writing Essays

Equivocal Thesis

(A poem for all English Composition students)
 
 

I think.…

Take that,
professor.

 

Discuss.

Process Writing

Process writing (A.K.A. process notes, A.K.A. metacognitive writing) is the quintessential self-learning tool.

After doing any freewriting exercises, reflect on the writing and thinking process you were just engaged in. Did anything surprise you? What was your experience while you were writing? (—anxious, liberated, fuming, vulnerable, giddy—whatever it was, elaborate on it). What was interesting about the arc the writing took?

Process notes are especially useful and revealing when they reflect on the composition of an essay or the creation of a work of art. Because essays and art projects are long, involved processes, it is best to pause and do some process writing at various stages throughout the project. For instance, you have an Economics assignment on stock investing that initially you’re not sure how you want to approach; but later, while watching an ice hockey game on T.V. it all suddenly becomes clear to you: Of course! an investment is just like the puck, getting slapped up and down the ice! (value fluctuations)—and the players are investment brokers, checking each other on the boards and trying to score! (Can you tell I’m not an economist?)… Anyway, after you scribble down your brilliant idea (in a focused freewrite, of course), follow up with process notes on just how stumped you were when you first got the assignment, and then how you became inspired.

Process writing is done as a narrative, not as an outline. (In that respect, the term itself, “process notes,” is a little misleading, because they’re not the kind of notes you can jot down on Post-Its.) One way of thinking of process writing is to tell the story of what happened in your thinking process and in your writing process;—a story more like a personal essay, less like a report;—a story about how your intimations arose from the primordial goo of your brain, and were fruitful and multiplied, and how and by what/whom they were influenced, and how you nurtured them into ideas, and lo, how you brought them forth and arranged them just so onto sheets of paper, and they were good.

The reflective aspect of process notes is key. Imagine you were going to write about an experience you had with your family: you’d write it reflectively, thinking about what happened and why, just as much as (if not more than) merely recounting the bare events. In this very same way, your process notes should talk about the conception and writing/making of your essay or art project as your experience, not merely as an assigned activity. Why do process notes take this tack? Because an assigned activity ultimately belongs to the class that assigns it, whereas a writing or artistic experience belongs to the writer/artist: you. Process notes are a way of taking full ownership of what you’ve created.

It is true that students and even many faculty have found the exact purpose of process notes elusive. You might feel that this metacognitive exercise is arbitrary and redundant: “I already wrote the paper! You want me to explain it again?” Like response journals, process writing is a method of inquiry and learning, except whereas in response journals you’re writing about the assigned reading, in process notes the subject you’re writing about is yourself—you as learner and author. Patricia Hampl in her essay “Memory and Imagination” makes the distinction between “writing what I know” and “writing to find out what I know.” The benefits of process notes come more into focus if we augment Hampl’s statement to: writing to find out how and what I’ve learned, how and what I think, how and what I write. This kind of reflection is usually not manifest in the essay itself.

In process notes the writer becomes the object of examination and analysis. Some people have found this image helpful: To write the essay, I read, take notes, compose, edit. To write process notes, I step outside of myself and observe myself reading, taking notes, composing, editing… in order to gain insight into the evolution of my thinking. The question remains, though, to what end?

One of my mentors and a former colleague, Jamie Hutchinson, offered this as one of process writing’s many useful purposes: “[To learn] how to make a case for what one has written, both its form and content.” The ability to articulate a case for something you yourself have written implies a capacity to see yourself in a broader context of other learners and authors; to be able to think of yourself on the same plane as and in relation to, for example, Patricia Hampl, or the author of the text you’ve just been assigned to read, instead of being content to sit back and shout praise or criticism at books from the grandstand. In a more immediate sense, articulating a case for your writing enables you to see and think of yourself in relation to fellow learners and writers (including faculty) in your class at your school.

Perhaps more than any other type of writing assignment, process notes build intellectual community. Certainly metacognitive writing directly fosters the conscious (as opposed to impulsive) development of authorial voice.

Despite all these Utopian pedagogical sentiments, many people nevertheless find process notes difficult either to do or to explain how to do, or both. Really the only known remedy for this predicament is to practice process writing until their benefits become self-evident, as when the obscured image suddenly emerges out of a “Magic Eye” pattern. Once you’ve beheld their effects, process notes might very well become a learning tool you never want to do without.

How To Write a Logical Essay in Four Steps

This tool is nothing more than an essay template; not a five-paragraph “Baker’s” essay, but a college/grad-school short essay structure based on fundamental principles of logic. I teach this method sparingly because, followed slavishly, it can hinder the highly individual, impressionable and corruptible process of the inner germination of unique ideas. But when you need to grind out one or seven papers, this template can provide an efficient process and a solid product.

Here’s how it works. You start with a worksheet. The worksheet contains the structure of a logical exposition:

  1. Define the problem / state the question
  2. Propose a solution, or a clear path to a solution
  3. Marshal/analyze the evidence
  4. Conclude (see below—the conclusion is perhaps the most complex step)

Use the worksheet as an outline for the essay. Fill in each step with one or a few sentences. Then write the essay by filling in and fleshing out the concepts that you’ve already articulated on the worksheet—like cooking a full meal from a recipe.

(If you are under enormous pressure to produce several essays one on top of the other, read this paragraph; otherwise skip to the next paragraph.) When the essay is finished, read it over to see whether it makes sense. Make minor adjustments in logic. Then print it and set it aside. Don’t proofread it yet. Just get a snack and a cup of tea or coffee or hot chocolate, and come back to start the next recipe. Ideally, give each completed essay to the most wonderful, grammar-competent friend in the world, who will proofread and correct it purely out of the goodness of her heart, because she wants nothing more than to help you out in this mad dash for the finish line. If no one is available for this favor, proofread each essay yourself the following day, or after your next recognizable sleep cycle. (The message here is that proofreading it yourself immediately is about as effective as dreaming that you’re proofreading it.) But make sure each essay gets proofread thoroughly! An essay can lose a whole grade or two, or even fail outright, just for looking like a last-minute rush job.

Now, here is each step, with explanations and examples. It is vitally important to note that these steps absolutely do not bear a 1:1 correlation to paragraphs in the essay. Each step theoretically can be from one sentence to ten paragraphs long, depending on the length of your paragraphs and the nature of the topic.

Step 1: Define the problem / state the question. This is both the topic and the driving force of the essay. Always define your terms and include a sensory picture (i.e. concrete image or example) either of the problem/question as a whole, or that exemplifies the problem/question. Be highly descriptive in this step, because it is at this early stage of the essay that concrete language is most crucial.

Example of this step: The Batman is a superhero, in a Nietzschean sense, at least, even though he has no mutant powers. As such his role is to protect Gotham’s citizens from outlaws. For instance, Catwoman is a thief, and the Penguin is a terrorist, and accordingly the Batman thwarts their plans: he prevents the bombs from exploding and restores the stolen goods to their rightful owners. But now the Joker shows up and suddenly the Batman, himself a crime-fighter, begins to operate outside the law—e.g. destroying property and beating up police officers. (This is a real problem, and naturally leads to a question, the answer to which is likely to be illuminating, so the essay has a feeling of purpose.) Does being a superhero make the Batman above the law?

Step 2: Propose a solution, or a clear path to a solution. This is your main idea, often called the “thesis.” It is not, however, to be confused with a rhinoceros thesis, which is often taught as a one-sentence (one-horned) statement that you can prove by putting your head down, ignoring bothersome contradictions, and ramming into the reader’s chest with three to five example-paragraphs. Trying to frame an idea in a single sentence, while useful for clarity of conception, often ends up being more restricting than fruitful.

Example: It seems to be especially in response to the Joker that the Batman must take such extraordinary measures, some of which break the law. If we can discover in what ways the Joker is different from the other criminals, perhaps we can better evaluate the Batman’s unlawful actions.

Note: no thesis statement yet. I could put one in, but for this particular essay it wouldn’t make sense yet. What I have done is given the reader a definite sense of direction in my paper’s inquiry, a clear path to a solution. In a different essay, laying out my thesis here might very well work fine. It depends on the essay.

Step 3: Marshal/analyze the evidence. This is usually the main body of the paper. It’s a detailed exposition of what evidence you have already considered in the prewriting1 stage of your essay process, and what connections you made upon analysis of that evidence, that led you to propose the solution you proposed in step two. Generally, detailed analyses of three to five very specific, organically related items will do the trick. You should briefly outline each of these items separately on the worksheet under (a), (b), (c), (d), (e).

Example: (a) The Joker’s motives are unlike those of other criminals. He murders people randomly, he cares nothing for wealth, and he’s not interested in power in any organized way—he wouldn’t make himself dictator of Gotham City even if he could. He appears to be interested in chaos; in fact every one of his criminal acts appears to function not for personal gain but in order to construct an evil fun house.
    (b) The damage the Joker inflicts on Gotham is not fanciful, it’s real and tragic, and outrageously against the law. The job of law enforcement is to stop the Joker.
    (c) But Gotham’s law enforcement can’t stop the Joker. He is too big a problem for them to handle. The Joker is beyond the society’s capacity to deal with within the bounds of its justice system.
    (d) The Batman, who is willing to work for justice and yet simultaneously outside the legal terms of justice, is needed to battle this heinous madman. The Batman is not above the law, which would imply that he need not pay any attention either to the law’s letter or its spirit. Though he breaks specific laws by specific actions, those actions serve the same greater good which the laws are enacted to serve.
    (e) How is Gotham to regard the Batman? How can a law-abiding city condone, much less celebrate, breaking the law in order to uphold it, without opening the floodgates to vigilanteism? The Batman must be considered an outlaw; an outlaw who is also a hero.

Step 4: Conclusion. In this step you tie all the threads of the essay together in this way: In light of the foregoing evidence and analysis in step three, evaluate (i.e. discuss the relative robustness, parsimony, and limitations of) the solution you proposed in step two, as this solution applies to the original problem/question in step one.

Example: An outlaw-hero would appear to be either an oxymoron or a paradox. In the Batman’s case, because his heroism is as authentic as his dark, cave-hidden methods are liable to prosecution, it is a paradox: both statements, outlaw and hero, are true. Commissioner Gordon once spoke of the historical suspicion that F.D.R. knew the Japanese were going to bomb Pearl Harbor, and he let the bombing happen, let innocent people die, because he knew it was the only way the U.S. would get into the Second World War to fight the Nazis. Gordon tried to judge whether F.D.R. had done right, but ultimately decided that he “couldn’t judge it. It was too big.”2 Similarly the Batman breaks strict categories of lawfulness and challenges us to think about existential moral choices: what does it mean to place oneself outside of society’s restrictions, as well as outside society’s protections, and yet act as an agent of that society’s good? Perhaps the fact that the popular imagination tends to read the exploits of the Batman as ultimately heroic implies that there are moral impulses which are harder to define than lawful and unlawful behavior.
 

Make as many copies of the worksheet as you’d like. Remember to fill in the worksheet before writing out the essay. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t brainstorm, freewrite, etc. in order to come up with ideas; you absolutely should (in fact, this template won’t work if you don’t). But once you have your ideas, structure them into the worksheet. This is essential if you’re under time constraints. If you have plenty of time, use the worksheet merely as a guide, or as a way to check up on the organization of a paper you’ve already written, or however else it is useful to you. If the worksheet gets in your way, do what you would do if you met the Buddha in the road: kill it.


  1. See posts on freewriting, loops, and sprints

  2. Frank Miller, The Dark Knight Returns (New York: D.C. Comics, 1986), 40. 

Women Writers

No black woman writer in this culture can write “too much”. Indeed, no woman writer can write “too much”…No woman has ever written enough.
 
—bell hooks, Remembered Rapture: The Writer at Work

How To Bake an Essay

BAKING AN ESSAY

List of Ingredients

1 package of essay draft

Dashes of “I wonder…” (at least 3; add more to taste)

1 whole “tell the story behind this”

Preparation

Liberally sprinkle dashes of “I wonder…” over the essay draft. Mix in a “tell the story behind this.” Gently fold over the language in your mind — blend thoroughly, but do not overmix. While turning over the language in this way, occasionally dip your finger in and taste. Make careful note of the following three flavors as they become stronger on the palette:
(a) feeling
(b) distinguishing (of sameness & difference)
(c) intention

Baking

Identify the most resonant passages (you can mark these with a musical note: ♪). Juxtapose these passages on a baking sheet. Bake until a theme begins to emerge. When the theme begins to rise, remove from oven, cool, and describe the theme in your own words.

Go Fish in
Streams of Consciousness:

absenceacceptanceaccomplishmentADHDaimsanalysisannotationanxietyAPAappearanceappleappreciationargumentartistaskingattachmentattentionawarenessBatmanbeingblank mindblissboatboring!brainstormingbraverycandlescenter of gravitychoicechoosing collegecognitioncommunicationcompassionconclusionconfidenceconsciousnessconversationcreative writingcreativitydawdlingdiagnosisdoorsdramadreamdrinkingecologyemotionenergyessaysessentialevidenceexamexcitementexecutive functionexerciseexperienceexpositionfailurefearfeelingfightfigurationflowfootballfrederick douglassfreewritinggamegedankenexperimentgesturegetting startedgoalgrammarhappinesshealinghearthonorhopehumanideasimaginationimagination_exerciseimplexinnovationinspirationinstinctinterestjubileekinestheticknifeknowledgelogicloudlovemagicmanagemasterymeaningmechanicsmedicationmeditationmetacognitionmilitarymindmistakesMLAmothermotivationmountainnontraditional collegenote-takingnotesorganizeout-of-the-boxparticipationpartspassionpatiencepeak-experiencepedagogyperseverancepersistencephysicalizeplanplayingplaywrightingplotpoetrypositive pointingpre-writingpreferenceprepositionpresenceprioritiesprocessprocrastinationprofessorsproofreadingputteringquestionsreadingrealityreflectionrelationshiprelaxationrepresentationreservesresourcesresponseresponsibilityrevisingsanctuaryself-actualizationself-assessmentself-relianceseptembershort storysocratic methodsoulspacestorystrengthsstressstudyingsuccesssummariessynthesistalkingtasksteachingtechniquetest anxietytest-takingThanksgivingthemethesisthinkingtimetolerancetomorrowtreetrusttruthunderstandingveteransvisualizationvoicewaldorfwelcomewholewillwillpowerwomenwordsworkingwriter's blockwritingyearningyesterday

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