Step 1: Prewriting and Choosing a Topic
Prewriting can help you take a general topic and make it more specific.
Explain the different types of prewriting exercises
- During prewriting exercises, it is important to record everything that comes to mind without editing as you write. You can use the various techniques to generate a number of different ideas to choose from to formulate your topic.
- Brainstorming can help you find where your true interests lie and what part of a topic you might want to delve into further.
- Freewriting can help you generate new ideas about a topic by writing nonstop, without editing, for a set amount of time.
- Clustering, or concept mapping, can help you refine your thoughts and narrow the scope of a topic by making a map or diagram of different ideas you associate with a central topic.
- clustering: A prewriting technique consisting of writing a central idea in a circle on a sheet of paper, adding related ideas around the circle, and connecting them with lines to show how they related to each other.
- Outlining: A prewriting activity that allows you to organize to your ideas by placing them into an ordered sequence of primary and secondary ideas, which shows the relationship of the parts to the whole.
- concept map: A diagram that shows the relationships between concepts. Concepts are written in circles or rectangular boxes, which are connected by arrows that are labeled with phrases such as “is a,” “gives rise to,” “results in,” “is required by,” or “contributes to” that denote the relationships between concepts.
- freewriting: A prewriting technique in which the writer writes continuously for a set period of time without regard to spelling, grammar, or topic.
- brainstorming: A prewriting technique intended to generate creative ideas quickly and without editing, through word or idea association.
Writing often feels demanding and difficult because you are doing two seemingly contradictory things at the same time: creating and containing. You want your ideas to flow like a river, swift and strong, but if you pour out your ideas indiscriminately, the river will overflow its banks. You have to be judicious about the amount of information you include and selective with your word choices. Both freedom and structure are necessary to contain and direct the flow.
When you have no idea what to write about, prewriting can help get ideas flowing. Prewriting refers to what you do before you begin writing, whether that’s brainstorming, making a concept map, or making an outline. By prewriting, you can give organization and logical coherence to your ideas. You might be tempted to save time by skipping the prewriting stage, but, ultimately, putting a little extra work in at the beginning can save you time—and stress—especially when you’re writing a paper close to your deadline. The tools used in the prewriting stage can be used at any point in the writing process to help you clarify your ideas, to help you decide what direction to take, and to nurture creativity when you’re feeling stuck.
Brainstorming, freewriting, and clustering are three forms of prewriting that help spark ideas and can move you closer to the heart of what you think and feel about a topic. And, yes, even in an expository composition, heart matters! You’re much more likely to write an interesting paper if you care about the topic. Let’s explore how these three primary methods work.
You might have heard the phrase, “There are no bad ideas in brainstorming.” This is another way of saying that it can be helpful to gather all of your ideas about a topic (even the bad ones) just to get started. This process is called brainstorming. You do this with another person or in a group, and each person contributes thoughts about the subject in a rapid-fire way. Afterwards, you can pick the best ideas and compile a list. Often, in the process of brainstorming, you will discover that many of your ideas are already connected to one another. Having these connected ideas already laid out will help you to form an outline more easily.
Freewriting can come in handy if you have a general topic but are not sure what you want to say about it. The purpose of freewriting is to help you develop ideas spontaneously and naturally. Set yourself a time limit, and then start writing about your topic, recording thoughts in full sentences as they come into your mind. Do not edit as you go or even look back at what you have written, and try to avoid any distractions. Just keep writing as thoughts occur to you.
The goal of clustering, or concept mapping, is to generate lots of ideas about a very broad topic, much like freewriting. You begin by writing down a key word in the middle of a blank page. You continue without pausing to jot down the words you associate with the key word, circling them, and drawing a line to connect them with the key word. As each word triggers new ideas, you write those down, circle them, and connect them with the word that inspired them, radiating out to create a concept map. You can then choose the ideas you think are best suited for your assignment and use the organization of the concept map to guide your writing.
After collecting your ideas, but before turning them into an essay, many people find it helpful to produce an outline. Outlining shows how particular ideas fit—or don’t fit—into a cohesive whole. You designate your primary ideas and group subordinate or supporting ideas underneath them. This is the first stage in structuring the essay itself.
Step 2: Researching
Researching your subject is an important step in writing because it helps you narrow your focus.
Identify useful techniques for the research process.
- Research is done to back up claims and verify specific data.Research is done to inform your own opinion, not to echo others’ thoughts.
- Continually asking increasingly specific questions about your topic will help keep your research focused and under control.
- Staying open to alternative ideas during the research phase will make for a better-informed opinion and a stronger paper.
- Keeping records of resources as you do your research will make the writing process less daunting.
- A strong thesis statement is specific, focused, and holds tension between ideas.
- Using prewriting techniques during the research phase can help refine and reorient the direction of research.
The primary thing to keep in mind during the research phase
is that you’re seeking primarily to inform your own thinking on the topic. You’re not looking at what others have written in order to provide you with an opinion. The point of
writing the paper is to explore your own thoughts about a topic. Research also helps you verify specific data and back up any claims you may make in your paper.
It’s useful to begin with a few questions related to your topic. These should be aspects of the topic that have made you curious. If you haven’t found such questions, do some more prewriting exercises to get your creative juices and intellectual passions flowing.
The attitude with which to begin searching is, “I want to know what other people have discovered when examining the same question.” At this point you’re not looking for evidence to prove a position. Your mind is open to all the possibilities. Think of it as gathering all the best thinkers on this topic in one room to have a discussion. You’re the moderator of the discussion, and you want to hear from everyone before you make up your mind. If you keep this mindset during the research phase, you’re more likely to write an engaging final paper.
Narrowing the Scope
Of course, with the vast amount of information available at our fingertips today, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to read everything ever written on a topic. It’s useful, therefore, to create some guidelines for your search that will narrow the pool.
Ask yourself, for example, whether your topic has a timeless quality or is best informed by recent opinion. A paper exploring whether Hamlet’s goal of revenge was achieved could draw on sources from all ages, whereas the theme of revenge in recent political events would require current sources.
When you write expository essays, you hear a lot about primary and secondary research. A primary source is authored by the person who conducted the study, or who created the particular theory or line of thought being discussed. Secondary sources may quote primary sources to support a point or draw conclusions from examining many primary sources. Most of the time, it’s useful to initially consult secondary sources because they can point you toward the primary sources that most interest you.
For the purpose of your paper, you’ll want to quote the study or the thinker (the primary source) directly—first, because you want to be sure you really understand what the author is concluding (secondary sources can misrepresent the primary source), and second, because by reading the primary source, you’ll get the whole picture, rather than just the part selected by the secondary source’s author. Remember, you’re assembling the best thinkers, and you want to understand all of their arguments.
So, how does one begin? With all the cautions about not using the Internet for research, if we keep in mind that we’re after primary sources, we needn’t be afraid of using a search engine to begin our investigation. While Wikipedia isn’t acceptable as a source itself, it can certainly give us a starting point. Putting your question right into your search engine can start you on a treasure hunt. Even just scanning the list, you can jot down some ideas that help better define what you’re interested in finding out. As you click, you can begin to follow “clues” to what leading thinkers or researchers (depending on my topic) have concluded.
Here’s how a student might winnow a research topic about the women’s movement in the 1970s. She begins with the question, “How has the women’s movement of the 1970s affected today’s women?” Putting that question into a search engine yields many articles, some very recent. Reading a few of these (and taking notes as she goes on exactly where she got her information) leads her to make the statement, “Largely due to the radical feminist faction of the 1970s women’s movement, girls born in the twenty-first century have opportunities and expectations well beyond what was possible for those born in the middle of the twentieth century.” Though this will not be her final thesis statement (find out why, below), it is narrow enough for her to start finding more specific information.
Be Ready to Change Course
As you narrow the scope of your research, you’ll be finding out things you didn’t know and encountering perspectives you hadn’t considered. Resist the temptation to ignore that which contradicts the conclusion you were heading toward. You might actually change your mind in the course of your research, and that just shows how flexible your thinking is. You can also keep an open mind about how you’re going to present your paper. The student above, for example, may find so many comparisons in her reading to the women’s suffrage movement that she becomes intrigued and writes an essay contrasting the ERA campaign with the campaign for women’s suffrage.
Back to the Drawing Board
At any time during the research process, you can clarify your thinking by using one of the prewriting exercises. Sometimes, a concept map can be of use during this phase, helping you see how things are related. You might find that what you thought was the central question is actually one of your arguments, and most of your lines come off a different bubble, which you can decide to make your thesis.
How Researching Can Go Wrong
The reason some people dread research is that they feel overwhelmed. It’s easy to do if you continually look at all the information available on a topic. It’s simply impossible to read and digest all that information! The solution is to recognize that you’re in control of the process. You have a question, you find information that informs you, and you make your question more specific. You keep at it (a more specific question, finding a variety of well-thought-out answers to the question, which lead to a still-more-specific question) until you feel confident creating a statement you can stand behind.
Another thing that can trip us up is neglecting to keep track of where we find what. There are useful software programs designed to help organize quotes and points with their source material, but all that’s necessary is pen and paper or a computer document. As you read, if you find something relevant, immediately make a note of the reference material for that source (book, article, website) and then underneath, enter the relevant research. There are more complicated methods for longer papers, but generally this works fine for essays. Just be sure you know in advance what form your references will need to take, so you gather all the information you’ll need. You don’t want to have to seek out every source again when you’re writing your reference page. Ideally, you’ll code each piece of text you put into your paper so that you always know which reference it’s attached to, even if you move it around in the paper.
Step 3: Outlining
After you choose your topic and assemble your research, organize your ideas before you start drafting.
Recognize the different uses for an outline as a tool
- Outlining the structure and organization of your paper before you start writing will save you time and help you form a stronger argument.
- The order in which you lay out your evidence can determine how convincing your argument is to your readers.
- Assembling an argument is a three-step process: (1) drawing conclusions based on evidence; (2) clearly explaining how you drew those conclusions; and (3) structuring your argument for maximum impact.
The Purpose of the Outline
Now that you have chosen your thesis statement and researched evidence to support your various claims, you need to organize it all into a coherent, logical structure.
An outline is a great way to troubleshoot and firm up your argument before you commit to it in a draft. It’s like planning out a route before you take your trip: it will save you a great deal of time and will help you foresee roadblocks before you get to them. You’ll be able to see whether you have enough evidence to support a given claim, whether your claims support your larger thesis, how to link your arguments and counter-arguments, and what order of presented evidence feels most powerful.
- Write your first claim/point on an index card, and then write each piece of supporting evidence on half an index card. (You can use shorthand for the research —as long as you know what it is.) Put all of your ideas on these cards, so you can get the full picture.
- Claim: Public-service campaigns designed to change consumer habits regarding electrical use, while successful, have had only minimal impact on factors contributing to climate change.
- Evidence: Study 1: Household electrical use falls by __% after consolidated ad campaign by environmental lobby.
- Evidence: Study 2: Scientists report that much more must be done to stem climate change. Lowered power usage by consumers is not sufficient.
- Evidence: Study 3: Pie graph showing reasons for climate change.
- Backing: Mention recent weather disasters?
2. Do the same with the other claims and pieces of evidence.
3. Now you can rearrange the pieces of evidence as necessary to go with the most appropriate claim. For example, the third piece of evidence, above, might not be necessary for that particular claim, because the other evidence is strong enough. The pie graph might make more of an impact if you wait and include it with the claim about the agricultural environmental footprint. You might also decide that the additional backing about recent weather disasters makes your argument weaker, rather than stronger, because it isn’t evidence-based and has little to do with the claim.
4. Once you’re fairly sure of your order, put tape on the back of the index cards and tape them, in outline form, onto a piece of poster board with the thesis written at the top. Leave this somewhere prominent in your work space, so you can make changes as they come to you.
Questions to Ask Yourself
There is no easy-to-follow formula for creating the perfect argument structure. The way you organize your paper will vary depending on what your goal is and what elements of the argument you want to emphasize. In general, ask yourself the following questions:
- Does the thesis introduce and give context for the discussion that follows?
- Do any ideas lack a foundation that needs to be addressed earlier in the paper?
- Does every claim have the evidence necessary to support it?
- Have you weeded out extraneous evidence?
- Do you want to lead with your strongest claim, or do you want to save it for the end of your paper so you can finish on a strong note?
- Where do you need to make claims explicit, and where will your audience understand them even if they are only implied?
- Where do you want to address your opposition? Does it make more sense to do it early on to preempt audience objections, or would you be better off building up your argument before addressing any counter-arguments?
The outline stage allows you to experiment with different ways of organizing. You can (and probably will) change the structure of your argument when you draft your paper, and perhaps again when you revise. If you plan your structure but realize that it isn’t working once you sit down and write, feel free to move elements around.
Using the Outline as a Tool
Here are some ways to use the outline to make a better argument.
- Read your thesis, claims, and evidence out loud to a friend. Ask your friend if the argument makes sense and what he or she would change to make it stronger. Ask what was the strongest part of the argument and why (so you can decide both where to put the strongest punch and how to shore up the other claims).
- Leave enough time after creating your outline to get at least a night’s sleep before writing your first draft. Often, some time away will allow your mind to reveal problems with the argument and may even provide the solutions!
- If you find that your argument doesn’t feel very strong, don’t hesitate to go back to the research phase to find additional evidence. Most successful writers go back and forth from stage to stage often as they write. As you learn more about both the topic and the argument you want to make, you’ll have a clearer idea of the kinds of studies to look for. As you find additional evidence, you may decide to create a new claim or even to tweak your thesis.
- Play devil’s advocate. Looking at your outline board, come up with counter-arguments and questions for each claim. You can even put these on the board on different color index cards. Make it your goal to address these questions and counter-arguments sufficiently in your essay.
- Think about transitions. Does one topic lead naturally to another? How is the subject of each paragraph related to the subject of the next paragraph? After each claim, ask, “What does the reader need to know next?” You may need to rearrange the order based on the ease of transition from one topic to the next.
- For each index card (each claim, piece of evidence, each backing concept), ask yourself, “How is this important to the thesis?” If you can’t answer, consider that you may be using evidence simply because you collected it, not because it supports the overall idea of the essay.
Step 4: Drafting
The drafting phase creates a coherent path for the reader to follow from thesis to conclusion.
Describe the different types of paragraphs in an essay
- The drafting phase is about leading the reader down the path of evidence to reach the conclusion you set out in your thesis statement.
- The introduction needs to be both interesting to the reader and a coherent guide to the paper.
- Each body paragraph contains one point and the evidence to support the point.
- Evidence should not be used to support more than one point.
- Anticipatory questions should guide body construction.
- The conclusion synthesizes, rather than restates, the argument.
Your thesis will condense a series of claims into one or two sentences. To prove your thesis, you will need to articulate these claims and convince the reader that they are true. Consequently, the majority of your paper will be dedicated to presenting and analyzing evidence that supports your claims.
By the time you start writing, you should already have conducted research and assembled your evidence. You should also know from your outline which pieces of evidence you want to use to back up each claim. What you have probably not finished working out is how you want to present those pieces of evidence and tie all the claims together. The first draft is the time to focus on doing that.
Drafting Best Practices
Writing drafts makes the work more manageable. It also builds in the time necessary for your brain to integrate the information and come up with new ways to present it. With that in mind, here are some ways to maximize the benefits of drafting:
Write without editing: Drafting gets your ideas onto paper, which gives you more to work with than the perfectionist’s daunting blank screen. You can always return later to fix the mistakes that drove you crazy. If you get stuck, just jump to the next paragraph. At this stage, your goal is to keep writing.
Allow time between drafts: One of the great benefits of writing a series of drafts is that it allows your brain to sift through the information layer by layer. When you write and then take a break, especially if the break includes a good night’s sleep, the next time you approach your paper you’ll have new ideas, and problems will be solved.
Recognize that you may need to narrow the scope of the paper: If you’re feeling overwhelmed and trying to manage mounds of evidence, it may be that the scope of the paper is simply too large. The drafting stage is about seeing what works and what doesn’t, so don’t hesitate to trim, discard, and shift as necessary.
Revisit prior stages of the process as needed to move forward: If you’re feeling stuck or unsure, go play with your outline. If you haven’t already put your points on index cards, do that now so you can move them around. If you’re finding that your evidence seems scanty, go back to the research phase. And if you need creative inspiration, doodle a concept map around your paragraph’s claim or chat about it with a friend. Try not to resist these steps “back”—writing is not linear, it’s iterative. Enjoy the benefits of that.
The first thing you should assemble is evidence. You cannot make a good argument unless you have strong evidence in sufficient amounts. It is the foundation of the rest of your paper—every claim you make and conclusion you draw must be backed up by the evidence you present.
Evidence can come in many forms: data, written reports or articles, graphs or visual representations, even anecdotes and interviews. Choose whatever forms work best for your argument. While it is important to provide enough evidence to support your argument, be selective about what you use. It is better to choose several very convincing pieces of evidence than to have many different pieces that are only vaguely convincing. Also be careful about how reliable your evidence is. Faulty evidence can damage the credibility of your entire paper, so make sure that everything you use is accurate and comes from a trustworthy source.
Next, you want to be clear on what conclusions you are drawing. Make sure that every conclusion corresponds to some piece of evidence. Also have an idea of how you want to organize your conclusions, particularly the order in which you will present them. Conclusions should build on each other. Figure out how they fit together before you start writing, and your paper’s structure will benefit from it.
Warrants are the way in which you link evidence to conclusions. Broadly speaking, “warrant” refers to the explanation of your reasoning. Even though you will not state every warrant openly, you need to make sure that they all hold up under questioning. If required, you need to be able to articulate to the audience why evidence supports claims and conclusions. You should also have an idea of what parts of your argument are complex or important enough that your warrants will need to be stated explicitly.
You have your thesis and all of the points of argument and counter-argument mapped out, along with their supporting evidence. The thesis often appears in the opening paragraph of the paper, although you may choose to construct a different form for your paper. Each point of argument or counter-argument will have a paragraph of its own. You’ll want to conclude the paper by bringing the points together and giving the reader a sense of closure.
Your paper’s opening lets the reader know what the topic is and, usually, leads him or her to your thesis statement.
Guidelines for construction:
Consider writing the introductory paragraph(s) last, rather than first: It’s easier to introduce something you know thoroughly. Also, it’s vital to be creative in this first paragraph, and after you’ve written your paper, you’ll feel freer to play with words and ideas. You can go back to the prewriting exercises to spark ideas for the approach you’ll take.
Let your topic and style of argument guide your method of introduction: A controversial topic that includes strong parries with counter-arguments might best be introduced by a provocative statement. A story about how the topic garnered your interest might be an inviting introduction to a paper that includes personal anecdotes. You might decide to begin with the question or conundrum that leads to your topic sentence. An analogy or metaphor could be a way to introduce a subject that’s difficult to understand or is well-worn and needs a new perspective. Some topics are best described with imagery. Don’t limit yourself to pedantic facts that plod toward the thesis statement.
Make it interesting for the reader: A good writer always keeps in mind that there’s potential for publication in every piece of writing. Even if on the first round there will be only one reader, write as if you have a broad audience. You need a strong start if you want the reader to read more than the first few sentences. You make it interesting by making strong statements. If it doesn’t captivate you, it won’t interest your audience. Take a risk and be bold. Why should anyone care about this topic Show us!
Also make it a coherent guide to the paper: At the same time as you’re making your introduction intriguing and captivating, you want to make it logical. You needn’t give away the secrets of your argument in the introduction (e.g., “I will show that this thesis is true by proving X, Y, and Z”), but you will need to create a clear path to the thesis and give us an idea of the terrain we’ll be crossing.
He’s eighteen years old, this soldier, just out of public school. The cliche about not being able to grow a full beard actually applies, and he’s cut himself shaving enough to have tiny scars healing on his thin face. He sits on the ground a few feet from the rubble, open-mouthed and barely breathing. The bomb must’ve been in the engine. The jeep’s door is a yard behind him and his buddies, well, he can’t see all the bodies, but there’s no question that they’re dead. And something inside him is dying too.
This story isn’t as rare as we civilians would like to think. Estimates from the Veterans Administration put the percentage of military personnel with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) between 11 and 20%, and U.S. veteran suicides average one per day. Although the government is up to $2 billion dollars spent on treatment for PTSD, there is a cap on what is offered to an individual. Asking for additional assistance can simply be too stressful for an already vulnerable veteran. Clearly, more of the military’s financial resources must be directed toward rehabilitating men and women who’ve experienced military combat. It is our responsibility as civilians to ensure their treatment and recovery.
What technique did the writer use to capture your attention? Did it work? What other elements of a good introduction did you notice here? What elements are missing? Can you find the thesis? What do you think about the use of statistics in the second paragraph? What would you do differently if you were introducing this thesis?
When analyzing your evidence, be as thorough and clear as possible. You may be familiar with the rhetorical strategy of logos, or step-by-step rational argument. It will probably be helpful to adopt that as a model and conduct your analysis through progressive points, each one of which builds off the previous one. Even if it seems like you are oversimplifying things, it is better to give your audience too much analysis than too little. Make sure every step is included, and that the description of your evidence’s purpose is clear. You do not want any part of your process to be ambiguous for your readers, or they may stop understanding or agreeing with your argument.
Revisiting your outline, you’ll see your strategy for building your argument. Whether you start off with your strongest point or a counter-argument, or you reel your reader in slowly, your body paragraphs will each have the following elements:
Each paragraph addresses one (and only one) idea in support of the thesis: Think of each paragraph as a point to be made, and then gather the resources around it. You can have several pieces of evidence in a paragraph, but each piece should be supporting that one point. In turn, of course, each paragraph (each point) supports the thesis. Keep in mind that with each paragraph, you’re wanting the reader to become less skeptical about your thesis. You’re creating an aha moment for the reader with each paragraph’s concluding sentence.
Eliminate redundancy: If you can make only three strong arguments in support of your thesis, don’t try to add more. You’ll weaken your case by muddling the reader. Don’t re-use evidence to support more than one point, either—it activates suspicion in the reader. And don’t make the common mistake of restating your thesis. Each paragraph needs its own focus. You want the reader drawing the conclusion that this point supports the thesis.
Paragraphs that articulate a counter-argument need to refute it: Perhaps it goes without saying, but if you’re going to bring up a counter-argument (and this is an excellent strategy), you need to acknowledge it and then give the reasons it does not lead to the conclusion its proponents espouse. You aren’t trying to make their argument, you’re bringing it up because you know it’s probably in your reader’s mind and you must address it to argue successfully.
Anticipating readers’ questions makes your argument flow: Look at your argument critically, asking yourself the same questions that you would of a scholarly article. Scholarly articles should be evaluated based on criteria such as thoroughness, credibility, and accuracy. Take the same approach with your paper. Think about the sub-claims you will need to make to clarify and support your main argument. If you make a claim, what other things will you need to prove in order to back that up? What assumptions have you made that need to be articulated to your reader? Anticipating readers’ questions and protestations will help guide the flow of the paper and make transitions smoother, as you’ll intuit what needs to come next.
There is a subtle art to transitions: You get a better sense of this art as you read and write more. You don’t want the reader thinking about form—you want the reader focused on your argument. Therefore, you link your paragraphs with transition sentences that make the path clear:
“So, we’ve found that solar power and wind power are economically viable in Costa Rica, but can geothermal power, with its high initial costs, prove a worthwhile investment over time?”
You can guess that this body paragraph follows others that discuss wind and solar power, and the thesis is about the use of alternative energy sources. This paragraph will likely show that geothermal power is also viable. As a reader, you have yet to be convinced, but your mind is open: you’re ready to hear whether or not it’s viable. You’re not wondering where the paper is going, and you’re not confused about the writer’s stance. If you find it difficult to create a transition, it may be that you need to move the paragraphs around so that a natural transition arises.
It’s sadly rare to read an interesting concluding paragraph, but it’s not a difficult challenge if you keep in mind that you’re not restating your thesis, you’re retracing your argument in a new way. Just because you’re not presenting new information doesn’t mean the conclusion must be stale. You have permission to get creative. Here’s what the conclusion must do:
Show how the ideas in the paper work together to support the thesis: You haven’t made your argument until you tie it all together. You’ve led the reader down the yellow brick road, but no heels have been clicked until they’ve read the conclusion. While you don’t want to introduce new points or evidence here, you can certainly use new techniques, like imagery or story. You might take the perspective of a skeptic and experience the argument through his eyes, or you might show us a vision of a brighter future now that your thesis has been implemented. The watchword is synthesis, rather than repetition.
Tie in the more compelling elements from the introduction and body paragraphs to provide a sense of cohesion: If you used an image in your introduction (think of the soldier from the example above), consider recalling it in the conclusion. This offers the reader a sense of symmetry and completion if it isn’t oversimplified. Similarly, you can recall images or stories used in other parts of the paper. These act as anchors for the reader’s memory, and when memory is triggered, our minds tend to be more open. Think of the crescendo in a piece of music, where the theme is woven together with other elements of the piece, and the listener is moved to tears. Revisiting and weaving, making something new in the process, is what makes a conclusion effective.
Read over your paper. What stands out to you? What gives you chills? The same will probably be true for your reader. These are the points to recall in your conclusion. Just as a lawyer lays out his case to the jury most powerfully in closing arguments, this is your chance to make your case clearly and concisely.
Step 5: Revising
Revising happens on many different levels of your paper, from individual words and sentences to larger issues of organization and coherence.
Distinguish between revising and editing
- Since the most significant changes will be made at the foundational level, it is best to start there.
- You revise for purpose and organization.
- Make sure that you end up fulfilling your stated purpose and that you remain on- topic for your entire paper.
- Also see if you maintain the same voice throughout the paper or if you ended up making unplanned shifts in tone or vocabulary.
- Taking breaks before, during, and after the revision process will make it easier.
- Letting go of what doesn’t work in the paper is a skill to be embraced and valued as a writer.
- organization: The way in which something is organized, such as a book or an article.
- purpose: An object to be reached; a target; an aim; a goal.
- consistency: In logic, a consistent theory is one that does not contain a contradiction. The lack of contradiction can be defined in either semantic or syntactic terms.
Good writing is essentially rewriting. I am positive of this. —Roald Dahl
One of the best tools in a writer’s toolkit is the ability to revise. As with the prior stages of writing, it’s actually not a distinct phase that happens only once, but part of a recursive process. Drafting and revising is a dialogue between the inner artist and the inner critic. The artist should not be bothered by the critic while in the creative zone, and the critic should be let loose unfettered during the revision process.
Writing and rewriting are a constant search for what it is one is saying. —John Updike
Revision is almost universally reviled initially, but the more experienced a writer becomes, the more he or she appreciates this pruning process. Revising tightens the argument, strengthens the voice, and smoothes the syntax so you’re left with only the best bits.
In the prewriting stage, we ask the inner critic to take a nice long nap all the way through the first drafting phase, but now we awaken it and put it to work.
When Should I Revise My Paper?
Revision begins after you’ve finished your first draft and is repeated as often as necessary from that stage forward. It’s useful, though, to take at least a day and a night away from the draft, rather than jumping into revising immediately. The break will give you the necessary distance from what you have written to look at it with a critical eye and will give you the psychological space to shift from artist to critic.
How Should I Get Started?
We first need to distinguish revising from editing. You’re going to have a separate round of going through your paper to fix grammar mistakes, adjust vocabulary, and make sure you have not repeated the word “very” too many times. There’s no need to think about that stage now. What we’re doing here is looking at how your argument is constructed.
The kinds of changes you make when revising relate to how well you’re making your case. You may have to alter how your argument works or how it’s organized. Changes at this level are the biggest ones you will make, which is why there’s no point in playing around with word choice or punctuation when you might be rewriting, or even deleting, the entire paragraph.
The first thing to look for when revising is purpose. Now that you’ve written the whole paper, look back at your thesis statement. Is it still what the paper is about? And if so, does everything in your paper relate back to that argument? Read through the paper now and check for purpose.
The next step is to ensure that your argument makes sense and has power. All of your claims may relate to your thesis, yes, but are you convinced? Remember, you’re wearing your critic hat now. Pretend you didn’t write the paper and are being paid as a critic. Make yourself very hard to please. Then go through the paper and make notes on these aspects and any others that strike you as you read.
The following are specific categories of things to watch for.
- Is the thesis set up in a way that makes you care about it?
- Are the claims related precisely to the thesis, or do they become tangential at any point? Are they interesting?
- Does the evidence prove what it is intended to prove?
- Are there well-placed examples? Are they entirely relevant?
- By the end of the paper, might someone who believed differently from the thesis be swayed by the argument? If not, why not? What’s missing? And if so, what were the strongest points?
- Are there extraneous paragraphs or sentences that seem less important to the point?
- Where is the climax of this paper, where you most feel the author ‘s mastery?
- Is the structure of the paper as effective as it can be?
- Does the order of the paragraphs make sense?
- Does each paragraph build off of what was developed in the previous one?
- Does the end of the paper relate back to the beginning?
- Are the different steps of the argument linked in a logical manner?
- Is every step adequately explained, or are there leaps or holes in logic?
- Do some ideas seem to come out of nowhere, or do you feel like you’ve been prepared for each new concept?
Voice and Consistency
- Does the topic capture your interest because of the way it’s presented?
- Can you tell from the tone that the author cares about the topic?
- Is the author’s tone maintained throughout the paper?
- Does everything in this paper work towards articulating or proving the thesis?
What to Do With Your Critique
Another reason students avoid revising is because they jump too quickly from the critique part of revision to the rewrite, asking the brain to do a creative activity when it’s still in the critical mindset.
So, if you have the time, it would be wise to take a break from the paper again at this point, at least for a little while. Once you’ve heard from the critic, taking a rest will give your brain time to relax and come up with ideas for revisions, moving naturally back into inspired, creative mode.
When you’ve taken that time, the process may flow quite naturally. If not, though, recognize that you’re repeating the steps you used in drafting.
Address Foundational Issues
First, you shore up the thesis statement (or rewrite it entirely), then address the claims—rewriting them for clarity or deleting them if they’re not strong. You can even go back to your outline and move things around again, reevaluating the order of the argument. Thesis, claims, order: these are the bones of the paper—the foundation. Only after you’re satisfied with these do you move to revising paragraphs.
Breaking Down the Big Picture: Revising at the Paragraph Level
For each paragraph and section, ask yourself two things:
- What do you want each paragraph to do?
- How well does each paragraph complete that task?
We begin with the body of the paper, leaving the introduction and conclusion for later. The body is the meat on the bones. It needs to be evenly distributed and form a powerful whole. For each one, ask the following questions, but ask them in gentler artist mode, rather than in ruthless critic mode:
- Is this paragraph necessary to the argument?
- Is every sentence relevant to the claim made in the paragraph?
- Is there anything missing from the first sentence to the claim—a piece of evidence or an argument that would make it more convincing?
- Is the argument fully explained?
- Does it flow well?
- How does each sentence make you feel? What is the trajectory of your feeling from sentence to sentence to claim?
- Does the information in this paragraph logically lead to the next one?
- Is the transition to the next paragraph smooth and easy to follow?
Fix these things now.
The introduction and conclusion bring in more of the artistic aspects of writing, and so you’ll want to relax the critic a bit here and look at these paragraphs from an interested reader’s perspective. Again, not a bad idea to take a break before addressing these two paragraphs.
Ask these questions for the introduction:
- Do the first few sentences intrigue me?
- Does the subject seem compelling?
- Does my attention lapse at any point?
- Does the narrative lead me to an understanding of the topic?
- How do I feel after reading it? Energized? Eager for more?
Take time to revise the introduction now, but consider beginning the revision with a prewriting exercise to get the creative juices flowing again.
Ask the following questions about your concluding paragraph:
- Is the argument woven together here or simply restated?
- Does this paragraph introduce new evidence or claims?
- Do I feel a sense of completion and satisfaction when I finish, or am I left with unanswered questions and unmet expectations?
- Is there a sense of artistry, of mastery, to this last paragraph or set of paragraphs?
If you can leave the revision of the conclusion for a few hours after answering these questions, your brain may solve any question of how to skillfully weave your argument together. Allow yourself some quiet time to let images and stories to arise. Re-read the revised introduction as a source of inspiration.
Revising can be a metaphorical journey in letting go. It’s easy to get attached to what we’ve written, and deleting something you’ve spent hours on can feel painful. Yes, you know it will make for a better paper in the long run, but you may bemoan all the lost time and effort.
If you can reframe it for yourself, though, and recognize that revising is not separate from writing but an integral and vital part of the process, you’ll see that the next paragraph you write is built on the one you just had to delete. Your final paper will be successful because you trusted the process—trusted your creative mind to come up with new material even better than the old.
That’s the magic of revisions—every cut is necessary and every cut hurts, but something new always grows. —Kelly Barnhill
Step 6: Editing and Proofreading
Editing and proofreading ensure clarity, improve style, and eliminate errors.
Recognize language that is unclear or imprecise
- Editing and proofreading are concerned with the style of your writing, not the substance of your argument. Editing focuses on the clarity of your writing, particularly word choice, sentence construction, and transitions. Proofreading focuses on mechanics, such as grammar, spelling, and punctuation.
- Unlike revising for purpose, editing and proofreading focus on the sentence level of your work. When editing, you look at how clearly you have written. The goal is to make sure that your sentences are easily understood and tightly written.
- While editing focuses on improving your writing, proofreading is more like fact-checking it. The goal of proofreading is to find and correct mechanical errors.
- It can be helpful to do a peer review: ask one of your peers to edit and proofread your paper. Since they are seeing your work for the first time, they will probably be able to spot problems that you have missed.
- Reading a printed page of text backwards is a good way to catch errors.
- peer review: Assessment, before publication, by an authority or authorities in the pertinent field of study, of the written form of an idea, hypothesis, theory, and/or written discussion of such.
- proofreading: The reading of text to detect and correct production errors. Proofreaders are expected to be consistently accurate by default because they occupy the last stage of production before publication.
- editing: The process of selecting and preparing written, visual, audio, and film media used to convey information through the processes of correction, condensation, organization, and other modifications performed with an intention of producing a correct, consistent, accurate, and complete work.
- hyperbole: Exaggerated statements or claims not meant to be taken literally.
After revising for purpose, you still have two levels of revision left: editing and proofreading. When you move on to editing, the emphasis is clarity. Then, once your sentence structure and language have been cleaned up, you move on to proofreading, where you check the accuracy of your spelling and grammar.
Editing, like revising, is something that you will do throughout the writing process. Most of the editorial process will take place after you have worked out your final argument and organizational structure. Editing looks at your work on a sentence-by-sentence level, considering ways to make everything you say as clear and precise as possible.
During the editing process you’ll mainly want to consider language, construction, and style.
Editing for Language
With language, the overall question is whether you are using the most accurate language possible to describe your ideas. Your reader will have an easier time understanding what you want to say if you’re precise. Be sure to check for the following.
- Pronoun clarity: Make sure it’s clear what each “it,” “he,” and “she” refers to.
- Precise vocabulary: Make sure every word means what you intend it to mean. Always use a dictionary to confirm the meaning of any word about which you are unsure. Although the built-in dictionary that comes with your word processor is a great time-saver, it falls far short of college-edition dictionaries, or the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). If spell-check suggests bizarre corrections for one of your words, it could be that you know a word it does not. When in doubt, always check a dictionary to be sure.
- Defined terms: When using terms specific to your topic, make sure you define them for your readers who may not be familiar with them. If that makes the paragraph too cumbersome, consider using a different term.
- Properly placed modifiers: Make sure your reader can clearly discern what each adjective and adverb refers to.
- Hyperbole: See if you can eradicate words like “amazing” and “gigantic” in favor of more precise descriptions. Also examine each use of the word “very” and see if you can find a more precise word or phrase.
Finally, pay attention to wordiness. Writing that is clean, precise, and simple will always sound best.
Editing for Sentence Construction
If you want to make everything easy for your audience to read and understand, start by simplifying your sentences. If you think a sentence is too complicated, rephrase it so that it is easier to read, or break it into two sentences. Clear doesn’t mean boring, by the way. Complicated is not a synonym for artistic!
Consider how balanced your sentences are within a paragraph. You don’t want every sentence to have identical length and structure or to begin the same way. Instead, vary your prose.
This is also the time to add transitions between clauses and sentences that aren’t connected smoothly to each other. You don’t need to introduce every sentence with “then,” “however,” or “because.” Using these words judiciously, though, will help your reader see logical connections between the different steps of your argument.
Editing for Style
Editing for style is more difficult, because as writers gain practice they usually develop their own unique stylistic quirks. That’s a good thing. Instead of thinking that you should write a certain way, what follows is general advice for the kinds of writing that can help or hurt your work.
Think about how you use active and passive verbs. Often, rewriting a sentence to take it from passive to active will make it simpler and easier to read. Consider the following sentences:
- Many of those who have held the office of governor of Illinois in the past twenty years have been met with charges of corruption due to political misdealings.
- Over the past twenty years, many Illinois governors have faced political corruption charges.
The second is shorter, less wordy, and clearer. In this case, changing from passive to active made a major improvement. Please note, this doesn’t mean that you should never use passive verbs. Some sentences do read better with them. It’s up to you to decide which works better for your scenario.
In general, whenever you can replace an “is” or a “was” with an action verb, your writing will feel more vibrant. “The horse was shaking with fear,” is slightly less powerful than “The horse shook with fear.” Better yet, if the context tells us the horse is frightened, we can say, “The horse trembled.” “Trembled” is a more specific form of “shook,” which is itself an improvement over “was shaking.” This step enlivens research papers perhaps more than any other.
Another thing to look at with your verb use is parallelism—using the same pattern of words to provide balance in a sentence. If you are listing things, try to make them all the same part of speech. Look at these examples:
- Unbalanced: “John likes reading, his studies, and talking.”
- Parallel: “John likes reading, studying, and talking.”
Both are grammatically correct, but the parallel sentence has a better rhythm.
Proofreading is the final stage of revision. It’s okay to correct typos or grammatical errors if you catch them in early drafts, but you should save thorough proofreading for your final draft. Wait to begin this step when you are sure that you will not be changing anything else in your paper.
Here are some of the things you should do every time you proofread:
- Check spelling. Be alert for typos.
- Check punctuation.
- Make sure that you are using the correct formatting and citation style.
- Check that your verb tenses remain consistent.
- Look at subject/verb and pronoun/antecedent agreement.
Try reading each page backward. This doesn’t work so well for editing, but it can really help with proofreading. You’ll catch many of the above problems this way.
Tips for Editing and Proofreading
Know your errors. As you get used to revising, you will probably realize that there are some errors you make more frequently than others. Maybe you have a tendency toward wordiness. Maybe there’s a particular rule of grammar that always gives you trouble. Whatever your particular weakness is, you can pay special attention to it when revising.
Secondly, take the time to do multiple re-readings. Start by going through for one particular kind of error, and only pay attention to that. Then choose another thing to focus on, and read your paper again. Keep going until you’re satisfied that your paper is as good as it can be. Prioritize the issues you know you’re most likely to find.
Before concluding any written assignment, you can use your word processor’s spell-check feature in order to identify any overlooked spelling mistakes in your work. However, it’s important to look for errors yourself as well. People are more capable of understanding words in context than word processors. For example, spell-check software can’t always tell whether “their,” “there” or “they’re” fits in a specific sentence, but a person always can. Therefore, it’s a good idea to use both computer spell-checking, and good old-fashioned human editing with a red pen and paper copy!
Step 7: Completing a Final Review
When you’re done with all the steps of revision—revising for purpose, editing, and proofreading—make one final review of your paper.
List questions you can use to self-evaluate your paper
- Look one more time to make sure that you meet the criteria of the assignment and that you have taken care of all the changes you wanted to make.
- Ask yourself if you think the paper is now finished, or if you still have things you want to improve upon.
- A final review after revisions will help you determine if your paper is ready to be turned in.
- criteria: Standards for judgement or evaluation.
After spending so long looking at your paper on the level of individual words and sentences, it can be helpful to return to the big picture. Before you turn your paper in, read it over one more time. You do not have to look for specific problems. Just try to get a general sense of what your paper has turned into.
It can be helpful to imagine that you are reading somebody else’s paper during this final read-through. What would you say to a peer if this were his or her paper instead of your own? Does it have a clear thesis? Does the argument make sense? You can also try reading your paper out loud to see how it sounds.
The purpose of a final review is not to prompt major changes, as you already addressed those when you revised for purpose. Instead, doing a final review will help you see how all the changes you made work together as a whole.
This is also your last chance to make sure you meet the criteria of the assignment. Are you still saying what you intended to say? Did you complete the task you set for yourself in the introduction? Look at how your argument has developed and whether you are happy with it. If you’re not, you can go back into revision mode. If you are, then congratulations—you can finally say that your paper is complete.
Evaluating Your Process
At this point, you can make a final assessment of your process. The learning comes not only from your research and writing, but also from reflection about the process you went through. After you read your paper, ask yourself the following questions:
- How creative is the paper? If it feels a little bland to you, you might consider spending additional time using the prewriting activities the next time you write a paper. You might also consider reading more of the type of writing you’re doing to get a feel for the style and to spark your own imagination.
- Does it feel like your best effort? Do you feel some disappointment when you read your paper, as if you know you could have done better? Time is often a factor here. Budgeting in time for reflection isn’t often taught, but it’s a crucial aspect of the creative process.
- Where did you get tripped up? Looking back over the experience of writing, which parts of the process did you avoid? Which parts were difficult to wrap up and move on from? Which parts did you enjoy most? Can you see all of the answers reflected in your writing? Is the writing good but the research scanty, or is it heavily cited but disorganized? How might you address balance in the process next time around?
- What did you enjoy? Dwell for at least a moment or two on the parts of the process you most enjoyed. Did you have a great conversation with a friend during the brainstorming session? Did you write an especially strong paragraph for one of your claims? Did you let yourself sleep on a problem and wake up with the answer? Did you feel like you found your voice when writing the introduction? Now give yourself a moment to consider how to expand those good feelings into the rest of the process next time you write.
Writing is an art. It’s not something we’re born doing, yet it’s something we’re asked to do a lot in professional work. Making the process enjoyable for yourself is both useful and important. You have the power to make your next writing experience even better. Keep working at the parts of writing that are more difficult for you while expanding on the phases that delight you, and your next paper is bound to be more enjoyable, more inspired, and, ultimately, better.