writing

Equivocal Thesis

(A poem for all English Composition students)
 
 

I think.…

Take that,
professor.

 

Discuss.

Write Off Worries

Overwhelmed by too many things to do, too many situations to keep track of, too many worries about what could go wrong in all those situations? All these concerns can weigh heavily on your mind. Why not unload them? Here’s how.

  1. Get paper and pen (handwriting this is better than typing it), and make a list of everything that’s weighing and preying on you. Don’t worry about order or organization; we’ll take care of that in a later step. For now, put on paper each thought, task, nag in your head in whatever order they come in, like dealing cards off the top of a deck. When the stream slows to a trickle, add anything that’s missing. Done? Let’s do some annotating.
  2. In the margin, write “DO” next to anything that is a task you can physically accomplish.
  3. Next to anything you’re worrying about that is not a clear to-do, draw a worry-icon (a frowny-face, or a dark circle—anything simple). If it’s a task you’re worried about, you can alleviate your worry by doing it; not so with worries that have no clear DO that will make them go away. Keep DOs and worries separate.
  4. If there are any situations you want to do something about, but aren’t sure how to deal with, mark those with a “?” (or “Huh?” or “WTF”…). These are things you need more information about, to enable you to do something about them.

If you want, you can now put all the DOs, all the Worried Faces and all the ?s on their own individual sheets.

Separated from all the worries and question marks, DOs feel more doable, ’cause now they’re merely to-dos and nothing else.

Worries, when written down and separated from doable tasks, start to lose their mystery and menace: they’re merely thoughts, and often there’s nothing that need be done other than accept them.

Questions about situations are merely another kind of DO: get information. Knowing that you need to find something out is much less stressful than feeling like you have to do something but don’t know what.

Finally, notice if there are any recurring themes. You might discover that many worries are really about one or two things—work, for example, or money, or relationships.… What appear to be a multitude of worries often boil down to a few manageable categories of concern.
 

Worries are like hungry hyenas: they’re terrifying when we know they’re there but can’t see them; they’re still scary but less monstrous when they’re in front of us and we can keep an eye on them; they’re not so dangerous when separated instead of in a pack; and they’re harmless when they are mere words on a page. When you’re dogged by hungry hyenas, transmute them into ink on paper, and see who’s laughing then!

Focused Freewrites (FFW):
Response Journal

Focused freewriting is perhaps the most versatile pre-writing technique of all. A focused freewrite is the same as a regular freewrite (all the same rules apply), except it starts with a prompt. Some quick examples:

Do a ten-minute focused freewrite…

  • about one of your favorite foods
  • describing a peak experience you had as a student
  • beginning with the words, “From when I was eleven years-old, I remember…”

The response journal (a.k.a. “2-column” or “double-entry” or “dialectical” journal) is a kind of focused freewrite in which the focusing prompt is a quote, and the freewrite is a response to that quote. Response journals are endlessly useful. Whole, thoughtful, original, well developed essays can easily evolve out of a series of response journals.

How to do a response journal

  1. From a piece you’ve finished reading, go back and choose a quote
    • Generally speaking, a quote no longer than a single sentence and as short as a single word is the easiest and most fruitful to work with)
    • The quote should draw your attention (why is totally irrelevant); pick a short passage that strikes you in some way
  2. At the top of a fresh page, preferably in a different color, copy out the quote (the whole quote: writing it yourself is a way of taking it in)
  3. Under the quote, write a FFW response

What kind of response, though? Well, any kind, as long as it is a response. A response is when we listen to something that someone else has said, and say something back that is in some way related to what they have said. Our response might be personal, analytical, descriptive, comparative, sympathetic, argumentative, or something else, or some combination of two or more styles—in other words, no rules. If you said to me: “Nice weather today,” I could respond in various ways:

  • You: “Nice weather today.” Me: “I thought it was cold, but you’ve made me feel warmer. Thank you!”
  • You: “Nice weather today.” Me: “Reminds me of being in San Diego. Not enough rain, though.”
  • You: “Nice weather today.” Me: “What do you mean by ‘nice’? ‘Kind’? ‘Solicitous’? ‘Gentle’?…”

These are all responses to what you’ve said to me. By contrast, here are some ways I could react that wouldn’t be responses:

  • You: “Nice weather today.” Me: “Piss off.”
  • You: “Nice weather today.” Me: “I’m, like, totally in love with your voice.”
  • You: “Nice weather today.” Me: “Whatever. Where can I get a good hamburger?”

What do these reactions have in common? Not one of them has taken in what you’ve said, and given something back in conversation. Response journals are conversations with the text.

Sample response journal

Here’s an example of a three-minute double-entry journal on the poem “Piano” by D.H. Lawrence:1

a woman is singing to me

A woman. A woman singing makes me think of my mother singing to me at bedtime. Except my mother didn’t actually do that. So I guess I’m just thinking of some mother singing to her child—I mean, singing her child to sleep. It’s comforting, a comforting picture. For some reason I’m seeing a big down-feather blanket—a comforter—and the mom sitting in a wood chair next to the bed. She’s singing. There’s nothing else in the room, just the mother’s voice.

As you may suspect by now, the response is a true free write: no should s about the content. This is your chance to explore the text freely; to interrogate its concepts, conjure its images, test its implications and boundaries, play with its language, and plumb its associations. Freely written responses do all of these things. Analytical responses are fine; over-analytical responses miss much. The more parts of yourself you allow to respond, the richer your reading and writing will become.
 


  1. Here is the complete poem(1918):
     
     

The Best Revision Tool Ever

I’ve come across and taught many revision procedures in my time, but this one towers above all the rest. It was first articulated by Peter Elbow, and I received it from Jamie Hutchinson. I give the lineage of this technique because it possesses that timeless quality of a teaching that operates on multiple levels simultaneously and regardless of specific context—similar to the practice of using “I” statements—and because, when employed properly, it opens up writing like only truth can. I have used this process successfully in several areas outside academic writing: creative writing, understanding and evaluating art, directing plays, and coaching clients.

This tool originated as a “Peer Response” procedure (generally in groups of 3–4 students) which I will summarize forthwith. If you practice it regularly and get it into your blood, you can become able to use it all on your own, as I often do.

Peer Response Process

Rules: “The writer is always right. The reader is always right.” Nevertheless, the writer is in charge of the proceedings. Thus, the following is all addressed to you, the author.

Read your piece aloud. Always aloud. Never distribute your writing for silent reading.

There is almost always a powerful impulse for everyone in the group to plunge themselves into uncommunicative isolation by reading the piece individually in silence. For those responding to your writing, taking in your language (words) through the sense of sight is a significantly different cognitive experience from taking in language through the sense of hearing. The sense of sight tends to objectify, divide and classify what it perceives, whereas the sense of hearing tends to be experienced inside our heads. For your purposes, you want sympathetic, understanding responses. Let divide-and-classify come after your writing is published. Without the hearing, the quality of your authorial voice will be easily overlooked and misread. Similarly, hearing yourself speak your own words is a substantially different experience from reading them silently.

Read your piece aloud at least twice. Never once. Always two times—or more.

Another temptation is to read the piece aloud once through, and then let the critiquing begin. This doesn’t work, because the sentences and paragraphs your listeners hear after they’re already familiar with what’s coming are completely different from the sentences and paragraphs they hear for the very first time. Similarly, for you, reading a piece aloud for the first time is almost always about performance and nerves, and little if anything in your own writing is actually heard by you; but the second time around is often quite fruitful; you begin to hear nuances you hadn’t noticed before. So, read your piece aloud at least twice. At any point in the stages that follow, anyone in your group may request additional readings of the whole or any part of the piece, and you may at any time spontaneously decide to read aloud again; the more readings, the merrier.

The first reading is just for the listeners to get an overall sense of what the piece is about. The second and subsequent readings are for them to pay attention to details of language, images, ideas, feelings, intentions. (Also, after the first reading, your listeners may take notes.) After the second reading, lead your group through the following steps.

(Notes:

  • Steps 1–3 are to be performed by all the listeners of the writer’s group.
  • Repeated responses are valuable and not to be withheld—i.e. “I was going to say what she said” is not a valid response. If a listener heard what she heard, that listener should repeat it! It’s crucially important for you, the writer, to hear it more than once if the same response arose in more than one person.
  • Precision is required: your listeners must use the language given below. Why? Because it’s magical and it works. Think of it as a magic spell: say “Abraca-DOH!-bra” and nothing happens.)

Step 1. Positive Pointing: “I noticed/liked…”

Each member of your group, in turn, quotes—verbatim—words and/or phrases from your piece to you: specific language from the writing that particularly struck or impressed or simply stayed with them. The reasons for their quoting back what they do are irrelevant and distracting; stay focused here: you need to hear what parts of your language resonated in them, regardless of why.

Most important: verbatim quotes. Listeners often want to paraphrase: “I liked the part about…” Paraphrases use their language, not yours, and this is about your language, not theirs. You need to know that your words were heard, and which words and phrases in your writing have sticking power—for good or ill. Again, the listeners’ reasons are irrelevant and will mostly introduce impurities into the process. (Reasons for listeners’ responses will become important once you begin asking your own questions—see step four, below.)

2. Center of Gravity: “I hear this saying…”

This is when your listeners “say back” to you what they hear as “the source of energy, the focal point, the seedbed, the generative center of the piece” (Elbow and Belanoff, Sharing and Responding). Surprise, surprise, often this is not your intended main idea, but a segment, image, or anecdote where your writing feels more impassioned, more personally charged—i.e. what’s really on your mind and in your heart concerning the subject—whether or not you were aware of it while writing.

The utility of emphasizing center of gravity over thesis is powerful: It is easy (especially when under pressure to write something for a good grade) to jump to a hasty, underdeveloped thesis with no center of gravity, whereas a substantial center of gravity—precisely because it is heavy with meaning for the author—has zero tolerance for a weak thesis.

The easiest clue for where your listeners (and you) should look for the center of gravity is the language they quoted in step one: those passages drew them in because those passages have the force of gravity.

3. Active Listening: “I’d like to hear more about…” and “Have you considered… ?”

(Author, please insist that all suggestions in this step begin with either the words “I’d like to hear more about…” or “Have you considered… ?” Those phrases keep the authority of the writing firmly with you without diluting it.)

This is your listeners’ opportunity to share two powerful things with you:

  1. “I’d like to hear more about…”: Having articulated what rumblings and nascent ideas and images they hear emerging in step two, your listeners now suggest, based on their genuine interest (genuine not feigned interest is critical!), what you could develop further—what they felt they wanted or needed that is already rumbling in the piece and might be given full voice.
  2. “Have you considered…”: Alternative choices—suggestions of changes—that could strengthen what the piece is trying to say.

If your listeners become too insistent, gently remind them that this piece is your creation, your baby, and you’re responsible for its growth and wellbeing.

4. Author’s Questions

Finally it’s your turn! Ask your group any questions you want about your piece and how to revise it. If you think of a yes-or-no question, first turn it around so the answer will be fuller than a simple “yes” or “no”: for example, instead of “Was my paper clear?” (“No.” Awkward silence.), ask “What parts were clearest?” and possibly add “Where could I be clearer?”

Here is a list of suggested author’s questions from Jamie Hutchinson:

  • What do you hear lurking in this piece (what’s just beneath the surface)?
  • What does it make you feel? Where [in your body] and why?
  • What do you want to hear more about?
  • What kinds of connections do you hear in it? What connections do I still need to make?
  • What don’t you understand? What seems unclear?
  • What holds this piece together?
  • Who does my audience appear to be? Friends? Teachers? Strangers?
  • What’s your favorite part? Least favorite part? Why?
  • What seems unnecessary to the piece?
  • Where do you lose interest as you listen to it?
  • What would you remember about it tomorrow?
  • Where could I use more detail, more examples?
  • What theme(s) do you hear in the piece?
  • Which sections need more development?
  • What tone of voice do you hear in it?

Further Questions to Consider

Again, from Jamie, questions for you, the writer to ponder:

  • What kind of response do you want from your reader?
  • What feels “risky” to you about writing this piece?
  • What do you most care about in what you’ve written?
  • What would you like someone to get out of reading this piece?
  • Where does your voice feel strongest to you in this piece?
  • How will you know when this piece is finished?
  • What was the color of the sky when you…?

As with all deep processes, this one deepens with practice. Enjoy!

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 Proofread

Proofreading appears far from foolproof. Even if we can proofread other people’s writing just fine, we tend to miss the simplest mistakes when proofreading our own work.

Well, here is a tried and true, foolproof proofreading1 technique:

  1. Proofread your paper backward. Not like this: “.drawkcab repap ruoy daerfoorP” (silly!)—but sentence by sentence, from the end of the conclusion back to the beginning of the introduction. Proofread the last sentence, then the penultimate (second-to-last) sentence, then the antepenultimate (third-to-last) sentence, and so on.
  2. Read each sentence twice, both times out loud:
    • The first time, read and listen to the whole sentence. Actually use your vocal chords when you move your lips. Read it the way you mean it; read it expressively. Does the sentence say what you want it to say? Does it sound good to you, or does something sound not quite right? Does the punctuation structure the rhythm and meaning the way you want them? (you know, commas for pauses, question marks for questions, etc.). If something sounds off, look away from the page and say, out loud to the air, what you mean. If you need to, rewrite the sentence completely on a separate piece of paper until you get it the way you want it, and only then revise it in your essay.
    • The second time, read the sentence out loud slowly, and point to every single word as you speak it. Many people find this incredibly hard to do. They read at a normal or impatient pace and glide their pencil across the words like a seagull, maybe hovering for a split second over every third or fifth word. That won’t work. At all. Read. every. word. as. if. it. were. its. own. complete. sentence,. and. point. rudely. at. each. word. If you do, you’ll discover all kinds of things you missed on the first pass, like words that you thought were there but aren’t, mismatching pronouns, misspellings, typos (sometimes mind of funny ones [kind of]), and more.

The above method of proofreading works, and it works for good reasons.

Proofreading is checking to make sure that the writing came out correctly on the page. Not surprisingly it only works when you see the words that actually are on the page. And, surprisingly, this is exactly what we do poorly when proofreading our own work. We—all of us.

When we read our own writing, we’re not entirely reading what’s on the page; we are involuntarily replaying in our minds what we were thinking when we wrote it. And we thought the page correctly (as far as we could tell, anyway). So when we read—or rather replay the thoughts of—our writing, the words seem just as correct as when we first thought them.

This is why we usually are able to proofread other people’s writing quite well. The writing came out of somebody else’s head, not ours, and so we actually see the words on the page in front of us.

One key to proofreading your own writing and actually finding and correcting errors is to separate what you wrote from your original thinking. That’s why you proofread from the last sentence to the first: reading backward completely disrupts that original thought process.

Another key to proofreading effectively is to compare the words on the page to what they ought to be. We can do this by using not only one but two of our senses, seeing and hearing. Proofread out loud and you can compare what you are seeing on the page to what you are hearing in your head. So speak up!—at least enough to hear yourself clearly.

Finally, we need to proofread on two levels, the macro and the micro, the forest and the trees. Each sentence is a complete thought. Reading the sentence aloud for sense, you can hear whether the thought is complete or incomplete, whether it is syntactically and structurally sound, whether its tenses and references are consistent, whether it communicates exactly what you mean. But while concentrating on meaning (i.e. grammar), it is easy to miss small mishaps on the level of individual words and even individual letters (i.e. mechanics). Pointing to each word focuses your attention on the small stuff. Pointing and reading aloud enables you to focus on small stuff and compare what you’re seeing with what you’re hearing. This is why you have to go slowly and point at each word, one at a time. Reading at a normal pace and gliding the pencil across the words has no effect; all you’re doing is creating a blurry comparison, and distracting yourself by waving your pencil, to boot.

This all might sound like an awful lot of trouble. It does take a long time to proofread thoroughly, and after you’ve spent hours writing, it can be excruciating to read the damn thing again—out loud—backward—twice. It’s one thing if you’ve been getting D’s or F’s on papers because of grammatical and mechanical errors; then you’ll want to beef up your proofreading efforts as much as you can. But what if you’re not losing grade points, or only losing what you can live with losing? What if your writing is clear enough for the professor to be able to work out what you meant to say by mentally correcting your grammar for you while reading your paper? Why put in the extra time doing something that—as far as I know—no one enjoys?

Self respect, and the respect of your reader, in that order. That’s why.

Your writing, all writing, has content and form. Broadly speaking (for the purposes of this argument), the information and ideas are the content, and the grammar and mechanics constitute the form that expresses that content. Presenting writing that has errors because you didn’t take the time to find and correct them is analogous to showing up at a party with your butt crack showing and a booger dangling from your nose like a lost participle. Does presenting yourself this way make you a bad person? No, but the presentation is slovenly. An unproofread paper shouts: “I don’t care enough about my own thoughts to care for them, to make them clean and presentable to others in the public sphere.” If you don’t think that professors really feel this way about papers that aren’t proofread—and often, at least while reading them, about their authors—then enjoy your stay in Fantasy Land. And I will go out on a limb and claim that many writers, especially students, feel similarly when they present sloppy writing. I know I do. When I dash something off and present it as a final draft to someone without taking the time to clean it up, I feel a kind of shame. Honestly. (God, I hope after saying all this I’ve found and corrected all the errors in this post. It’s the good-faith effort that counts.)

It may be easiest to discern your own feelings about your writing after you’ve presented a final draft that you truly tried your hardest to make pristine; writing that articulates information and expresses ideas precisely as you meant it to do, writing that speaks what you had in mind, felt in your heart, and intended to communicate. Expect feelings like satisfaction, pride, and authority.

 


  1. This assumes you have already revised and read the paper through for sense. All you’re doing here is catching and fixing errors. 

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. 

Free Writing

Want your papers to be thoughtful? Think on paper.

Do you sometimes know what you want to write but have trouble writing it? Are you ever given an assignment and have no earthly idea how you want to approach it?

“Freewriting” is probably the best way to throw the doors wide open between your intelligence and the blank page. It’s equivalent to, and as necessary as, warming up before beginning a strenuous physical activity. It’s certainly the easiest, consistently fruitful kind of writing there is.

Here’s How: Either on a sheet of paper or at your keyboard (always use whichever is more effortless and productive for you), write for 5–10 minutes straight without stopping. Write whatever comes into your mind, write freely. Freedom always must be protected. We all have an inner editor, whose mission is to seek and destroy bad writing; and a good and necessary mission it is, but not yet! There will be plenty of time for editing and polishing after your ideas have made it safely onto the page and been re-vised—that is, re-seen by you, not in your head but on paper. The following simple rules will prevent your inner editor from oppressing the free flow of your thoughts:

  1. Write for the full amount of time you have set yourself (usually 5–10 minutes), and keep the pen/fingers moving: no stopping, except to shake out and stretch a sore writing hand.
  2. No going back; no editing! “No editing” means no stopping to think, no deliberating, no second-guessing, no hovering over how something sounds, and certainly no rejecting (i.e. crossing out or stifling) anything. In freewriting, the concept of stopping to think is an oxymoron. Just keep the pen/fingers moving.
  3. When you’re finished, no changing what you wrote; no editing; leave what you wrote alone! The next step is not altering or deleting, but looking over and collecting any interesting thoughts that have come out.
  4. Your freewrites are your private property. No one should see, nor ask about, nor think about, nor look in the general direction of your freewrite unless you want to show it.

That’s it. That’s the whole principle: write down whatever thoughts are in the front of your mind without hinderance or let.

First normal obstacle: when sitting down to do a freewrite, people often feel like there is nothing in their minds. If you find yourself feeling this, remind yourself of the truth: that it’s only a feeling, and it’s an illusion.1 Often the feeling is, Omigod, I’m supposed to be clever, which is why I sat down to write in the first place, but I don’t know what I’m supposed to be clever about—or I do, but my mind suddenly feels like a vast, silent, deserted stadium… and BAM: a mind filled with the profound emptiness known as “writer’s block.”

Brain Storm

Most of the time, though, the real problem is that there is so much in and on your mind that finding the starting point is like finding a tiny little arrow in a big maze. This is another illusion. In fact, there are countless possible starting points. Just like there is no one right interpretation of an idea, there is no one best entry point to your intelligence.

Some possibilities: Are you hungry? Full? Full of anticipation about this project? Full of anxiety about this project? Plain old grouchy? Just dying for a chocolate muffin?… ANYTHING goes. This is free writing.

You might well wonder, what does writing about craving a chocolate muffin have to do with your political science term paper? The answer is, obviously, that one has nothing whatever to do with the other. But if a chocolate muffin is on your mind, then political science isn’t on your mind at that moment—at least not in the front row. Our brains do have fronts: the pre-frontal lobe; and studies consistently show that we can only think about one thing at a time, and only even keep fewer than ten things in short-term memory.2 Writing about the muffin unloads it from you thoughts. Just like unloading crates off a ship, you often have to move trivial items first in order to get to the valuable cargo.

The Benefits: Freewriting simultaneously clears and lubes the discursive mind. The goal of freewriting is—not so much to write what you think, but to present all of your thinking to you, uncut and uncensored. Its great achievement is delivering your own individual genius onto the page. Is it a messy process? Yes. But then panning for gold requires sifting the weightier precious element through mud in a flowing stream.3

Freewriting is the foundation of a bevy of powerful pre-writing techniques (to be shared in future posts) that make writing easy, thoughtful, and original.

Whenever you sit down to start an assignment, try freewriting first. The few minutes you spend writing on no subject in particular will make writing about your intended subject more effortless.


  1. My wife and I have a lot of fun with the notion of an empty mind whenever a young (middle school) friend of ours asks us: “What are you thinking?”—We both instantly make brainless, mannequin-like faces, freeze, and go silent. 

  2. NPR article on the one-thing-at-a-time nature of attention: “Think You’re Multitasking? Think Again”. ScienceDaily.com article on the structure of working memory: “Brain Has Three Layers of Working Memory, Study Shows” 

  3. How to pan for gold (with pictures!) 

FFW: Loops

“Loops” are a series of (usually four) focused freewrites, done in succession, on a single theme. The prompt for the first loop is usually “first thoughts/impressions.” The prompts for the next three loops are then different perspectives on the theme. Here’s an example.

Theme:  Being afraid

Loop 1:  First thoughts
Loop 2:  Remember a time when I was afraid
Loop 3:  Describe the object/source of my fear
Loop 4:  Describe a person who helped me cope with my fear

Notice that the prompts follow the following pattern, which helps make the writing more immediate and vivid:

Loop 5:  Impressions—ease into the subject
Loop 6:  Setting: time &/or place
Loop 7:  Zero in on particular noun &/or verb
Loop 8:  Zero in on another particular noun &/or verb

Loops often work best when you give yourself (or are given) the prompts one at a time, so that you don’t think ahead, which would interrupt the free flow of the loops.

The rules of freewriting apply fully to loops. Quality is not a consideration. What counts is dumping the contents of your brain as quickly and dirtily as possible onto the page.

Questions to ask yourself about your essay

Some possible questions to ask yourself about your essay draft that go way beyond proofreading (you can also have someone else read your essay, and then you can ask them to answer these questions):

 

  • What do you hear lurking in this piece (what’s just beneath the surface)?
  • What does it make you feel?  Where and why?
  • What do you want to hear more about?
  • What kinds of connections do you hear in it?  What connections do I still need to make?
  • What don’t you understand?  What seems unclear?
  • What holds this piece together?
  • Who does my audience appear to be?
  • What’s your favorite part?  Least favorite part?  Why?
  • What seems unnecessary to the piece?
  • Where do you lose interest as you read it?
  • What would you remember about it tomorrow?
  • Where could I use more detail, more examples?
  • Which sections need more development?
  • What tone of voice do you hear in it?
  • Have I used enough quotes from the literature?
  • Have I used enough quotes from other sources (articles etc.)?
  • Are there places I’d be better off paraphrasing instead of quoting (or vice versa)?
  • Have I used MLA or APA formatting style correctly?

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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