The Writing Process: Planning
A typical problem students have with their writing assignment is selecting a subject (or argument about that subject) that is too broad to cover in the space of a single paper. The unfortunate result is a paper weighed down by generalizations, assumptions, and summary. When considering your subject, be sure to locate your own particular argumentative niche so that your paper will be a focused, thoroughly considered analysis and will be supported by ample, specific evidence. Below is a series of questions to help you begin this process of narrowing your subject, conceiving of your argument, determining your evidence, and envisioning a structure for your paper.
Subject: What are you going to write about?
• Is there a specific topic assigned for the paper? Do you have free reign to interpret the subject as you want or has the professor asked for particular information in the paper?
• What about the subject interests you? How can you narrow or interpret the subject in a way that suits your interests?
• What discussions from class about this subject were most provocative? What have you underlined in your text or taken notes on in class with regards to the subject? Do you see any trends?
Purpose: What is the purpose or goal of the paper?
• Is it meant to persuade? Inform? Compare? Assess?
• Is the paper supposed to include outside sources?
• Is it meant to reach beyond class discussions and course texts? Are you being asked to reiterate a course idea or to expand on it?
• Are you required to answer specific questions?
Argument: What will your argument be?
• What has your professor or someone else said about this subject that you disagree with or find puzzling?
• What is the most profound question you have about the subject? How can you turn that question into an argument: a thesis?
• What do you need to do (revisit, read, research) to help you establish a position about the subject?
Evidence: What type of evidence do you need to support the argument you will make about the subject?
• Will you use only your own analysis? Or do you need to do any research?
• Are you being asked to incorporate others’ critical ideas about the subject? Where do you find this sort of information?
• What kind of documentation is required? MLA? Chicago Style? APA?
Organization: What is the best way to organize your ideas?
• Can you group together any of your ideas about the subject? Can you divide the subject into categories or “sub” subjects?
• Does one idea naturally follow another? Is one idea contingent on another? Do you want your reader to understand certain points before others? Are some points more important than others?
• If there is an assigned length, how will that affect your priorities?
As you answer these questions, you should keep the suggested essay length in mind. A ten-page research project requires lengthier topics and significantly more factual support than, for example, a three-page literary analysis. A well-organized paper uses the assigned space effectively; you should plan for and gather enough topical information to adequately complete the assignment and support the thesis before your writing begins. As a rule of thumb, a double-spaced page with one inch margins and 12-point text has approximately 300 words. With this in mind, you can generally conclude that a 1500-word assignment is about five typed pages and can plan your essay accordingly.
If your assignment requires outside sources for evidence, you have one more step before you can begin outlining and then drafting. Researching can be intimidating, especially if you are having trouble figuring out what information you need and where to get it. Below are some suggestions to get you started.
The first step in beginning research is to come up with research questions that you need to answer in order to prove your argument. The answers will be the evidence for your paper. At this stage, you might also consider adding possible sources for finding the information. For example, if you are arguing that—despite common assumptions that the Harry Potter series has increased reading frequency among adolescents—children today are still reading only as much as they did ten years ago, you might include the following questions (Q) and source (S) ideas:
• Q: How many adolescents read books before Harry Potter? S: Reference materials for the Literacy Council; history of adolescent book purchasing, library records.
• Q: How many adolescents read books today? S: Same sources as above but for current year.
• Q: What changes in education have occurred in the last ten years that might have affected reading habits? S: Department of Education curriculum and/or reading initiatives.
• Q: Are there any social or cultural changes that might have affected reading habits? S: Surveys on adolescent activities, behavior.
Most students know what search words are and most can come up with an initial list of obvious search words for a topic. In the example of Harry Potter, the search words that come to mind immediately are Harry Potter, JK Rowling, reading, adolescent, reading rates, and even the individual book titles. However, if you restrict yourself to just these obvious words, your search will not yield enough results to build a formal paper and thoroughly prove your thesis. You must stretch your thinking to come up with additional terms for your search. For example, try adding these words to your list: teen, pre-teen, literacy, behavior, books, kids, children, phenomenon, trends, literature, juvenile, media, television, Scholastic (publisher of HP books), libraries, motivation, education. By combining some of these terms, your searches will yield far more “hits” and potentially more interesting, certainly more productive, results.
The Barret Library website includes a comprehensive listing of online databases accessible through the library’s pages. The college pays for subscriptions to these databases and their use is limited to current Rhodes students and staff. To access a database from on campus, you must be logged into a computer. To access one from off-campus, simply click on the database link from the Rhodes Online Database page, and you will be prompted for your Rhodes username and password.
Your first stop for research should be www.rhodes.edu/barret. On this page, you will find numerous options; the most popular link for perusing online databases is in the left box: click on the highlighted word "databases," which will take you to an extensive description of online databases and resources. Most of these databases are particular to specific fields or topics, such as psychology or “Civil War,” but some encompass larger categories like “the Humanities” and some are purely reference sources like the Oxford English Dictionary. By clicking on the “more info” button, you can find out what kind of information the database offers. In most cases, a non-reference type database will ask for your search terms and then provide a bibliography of articles and (less often) books that include information about your subject. Be prepared to spend a good deal of time with the “Online Databases” website: this part of researching can be laborious because you will undoubtedly uncover many sources that you do not need, and weeding through the vastness of information can be tedious. However, if your goal is to produce “outside” evidence for your paper’s argument, it is a necessary process.
It isn’t hard to figure out what constitutes a newspaper article or a survey, but determining what qualifies as a scholarly article can be difficult. At some point at Rhodes, you will be required to use scholarly or “critical” articles in a paper and you should be prepared by knowing what that means. A piece of scholarship is very different from any other kind of resource. In the simplest terms, it is a text written by a scholar, reviewed and ultimately approved by scholars, and published by a scholarly source. You must confirm these aspects of an article before you can consider it scholarly. The easiest way to determine the scholarliness of an article is to search for it in a database that covers only scholarly journals. These journals have an editorial board of experts in the field to review and approve the articles contained in each publication, including online editions. You might also consult the database “MLA Bibliography of Periodicals” and find the entry for the journal in which the article is published. This entry will tell you whether or not a journal is “peer-reviewed,” which is another way of identifying scholarly work. You should consult with your professor for a list of databases or journals that are relevant in the field of your course study.
Be wary of using the World Wide Web as a source for an academic paper’s evidence. Although the internet provides a constant stream of information, it is often impossible to know where that information came from and whether or not it is accurate. It is especially dangerous to use the web for “scholarly” information. For example, if you are researching the effects of living near a particular chemical plant, you probably can find quite a bit of commentary on the web. You’ll discover local newspaper articles debating the issue; you’ll see the plant’s own public relations announcements; you might even find blogs written by people living near the plant. Although some of this information might be anecdotally relevant to your topic, none of it can be considered scholarly evidence. It is simply commentary, probably from biased parties.
Once you have considered these “planning” questions, begun researching (if necessary), and established your basic argument or hypothesis, you should create an outline, which serves as the transition between your ideas and your draft and is basically a directional map—a step-by-step guide through the essay. You should write down your outline, even if it is informal; you might have only a “working title,” a thesis statement, and one descriptive sentence for each body paragraph. Also at this stage of the planning process, you should remember to document any quotations or data from your texts or research that you intend to use in your draft. Be sure to include correct citations with your notes to avoid unintended plagiarism. For a more comprehensive and useful outline, follow the steps below.
Developing your Argument
To begin, determine the main points that support your thesis. Main points are essentially claims that will develop your larger argument. In “report” type papers, these points are topic sentences. A well-conceived thesis should direct you towards the nature, order, and relative value of your main points. (You can find more information about writing a thesis in the next chapter.) Not every claim will be of equal value, and some may need to come before or after others or be privileged in a particular way. These main points will constitute the Roman numerals in your outline.
Each main point or claim needs to be supported by evidence and analysis that essentially connects the evidence to the claim. For the sake of an outline, you should list pieces of evidence under their corresponding point and identify where to locate that evidence later (i.e., page number, source). If you encounter evidence contrary to your main points, you should determine how you can undermine that evidence, thus weakening a potential counter argument. Each piece of evidence can be listed with a capital letter under its corresponding Roman numeral “claim.”
Organizing your Ideas
Once you have categorized your supporting points and evidence into an outline, you should check the format of your outline. A well-organized outline is logical and consistent and follows—from beginning to end—an understandable route, with one point building on the previous one or adding a new, but appropriate, idea. For example, if an outline for a history essay begins in chronological order, it must carry this logical format through to the end.
Documenting your Sources
Even at this stage of the writing process, you should remember to document any quotations or data from your texts or research that you intend to use in your draft. If you include correct citations at this point, you are less likely to forget or mis-cite a source in your final draft. Plus, you will have any easier time locating that information when you need it for your draft.
Moving from Outline to Draft
If you have carefully organized your outline, it will be much easier to expand it into a successful paper. Each main point in your outline will become a topic sentence or claim statement in your paper. A topic sentence is generally the first sentence in a paragraph that states the point (the topic) of that paragraph, and while it should create a transition from the previous paragraph, it should not just repeat or reword the last sentence of that paragraph. Paragraphs that lack topic sentences are confusing, unfocused, even distracting. Each topic sentence should in some way relate to your thesis; that is, each topic sentence needs to support your thesis the way each main point supported the thesis in your outline. Your supporting points (evidence) in your outline will be used to write supporting sentences in your paragraphs. With a clear topic sentence and well-crafted supporting sentences drawn from your outline, each paragraph should be unified and focused on one main topic.