1. Class Exercise: Essay Sketch.
If you have had difficulty with organizing your essays in the past, you might consider integrating the essay sketch into your writing process. The good people at the Dartmouth Institute for Writing and Rhetoric (2014) explain how making a sketch or a diagram (prior to creating an outline) can improve your organization:
Sketching is an important step in the writing process because it allows you to explore visually the connections between your ideas. If you outline a paper too early in the writing process, you risk missing these connections. You line up your argument – A. B. C. – without fully understanding why. Sketching your argument helps you to see, for example, that points A and C really overlap and need to be thought through more carefully.
For the full content, go to Dartmouth’s page Considering Structure and Organization.
As a class, we did what you might call a “reverse sketch.” Rather than start with a thesis, as one normally would, for the purpose of demonstration, we worked backwards. We used a finished product, in this case the NYT article “Like, Degrading the Language? No Way” by John McWhorter. As a class we looked for the following elements in the article:
- Thesis: The most important statement; the main claim.
- Purpose: The objectives of the article, in terms of impact on the reader. (Yes, one of the objectives is usually to convince the reader of the thesis. But why make the argument in the first place? In other words – who cares? What does the author hope the reader feels, thinks, does after reading the essay?)
- Strategies: The tools the author uses to achieve his/her purpose and make his/her major points (e.g. compare and contrast, explain, analyze).
- Major Points: The supporting claims the author uses to strengthen his/her thesis.
- Illustrations: The examples the author uses to demonstrate his/her major points.
After talking it through, we came up with a sketch that looked like this:
As described by Dartmouth, this sketch depicts the connections between McWhorter’s ideas. Were McWhorter to create a diagram like this, the subsequent processes of outlining and drafting would likely be easier and less time intensive.
2. Individual Exercise: Notecard Puzzle. After finishing the class exercise, we approached the essay sketch from another angle. Rather than draw the sketch on a sheet of paper, this method allows you to physically move pieces around until you have a configuration that makes conceptual sense to you.
The instructions were as follows:
STEP 1: Label the top of one notecard: “Thesis.” Write out your thesis on the card.
STEP 2: Label the top of a second notecard: “Purpose.” Write out your purpose on the card.
STEP 3: Label three separate notecards “Strategies,” “Main Points,” and “Examples.” (You won’t be writing anything else on these cards, so the labels can be large.) Once you are finished, you should have five cards that look something like this:
STEP 4: Use the remainder of the notecards to create your puzzle pieces. Each notecard should
contain one strategy, main point, or example.
STEP 5: Organize the cards on the table in a fashion similar to the sample essay sketch (pictured above).
For example, if I were writing a response essay on the article we read in class, my response might be a qualified agreement. My thesis might be something like, “While certain modern uses of American casual language do reflect a level of ingenuity, McWhorter’s few examples are not sufficient to lead the reader to believe that American casual language, on the whole, is growing increasingly sophisticated.”
At this point in the writing process, I have a working thesis, but I don’t fully know how I’m going to support my thesis. I do have a few ideas, which I can use as pieces of my essay puzzle.
For instance, when I was reading the McWhorter article, I thought of Jimmy Fallon’s bit “Ew” – a parody of teenage-girl speak – and I wondered how the expression “Ew” could possibly be a demonstration of growing sophistication. If I know I want to use this example to support my thesis, for the purpose of this exercise, I would write on a card “Jimmy Fallon/Ew” and place it under the examples category card:
STEP 6: Once you have an arrangement that makes the most sense to you (this may take some time), copy your diagram onto a separate sheet of paper.
3. We reviewed this week’s assignment. (See below.)
Use your diagram to develop a rough outline of the body of your paper. Your outline should include 1) thesis 2) total page length 3) major sections 4) page length of each section.
Under each major section, generate questions that will help you further develop the body of your paper. See the excerpt below from the Berkeley Student Learning Center for further explanation:
This is one of the best and most useful approaches to get yourself started on writing a paper, especially if you really have no idea where to start. Here, you write down all the questions that seem relevant to your material. These should definitely be legitimate questions, possibly ones you have yourself. By generating a lot of questions, as well as forcing yourself to contemplate answers to those questions, you’ll get out a lot of the ideas, issues, thoughts, etc. that could potentially get you started on paper writing. Similarly, a lot of great essay topics come out of a question. By focusing on a question that is not easily answered, you’ll have a framework for your argument.
Example: Question-Asking for Beloved.
-Why does Morrison focus on Sethe’s relationship with her children?
-What is the significance of mother/child relationships in Beloved?
-Is milk and breastfeeding important? Why? How does it connect to other themes in the book? Could it be symbolic? If so, what does it symbolize?
-How does slavery affect Sethe’s relationshp with her children? Is Morrison addressing this? If so, how?
-What does Sethe’s murder of her baby signify? Is it clear by the end of the book? Or is it unresolved? How does it connect to slavery, mother/child relationships, and other themes?
View full content at: Before You Start Writing That Paper… A Guide to Prewriting Techniques
- Introduction to Prewriting from Purdue OWL – A general introduction to prewriting. This site discusses purpose a bit and provides a nice list of questions associated with each writing strategy. For example, “What are the consequences of X? (causal analysis).”
- More articles by John McWhorter: “Gawker is Trying to Use ‘Adult’ Language. Good Luck to Them.” and “Internet-Speak is Improving English Because Empathy.”