Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Writing Guide Assistance?

I'm writing a very practical, step-by-step guide aimed at undergrads in the humanities or social sciences (but also probably useful to advanced high school students and grad students who need a review) about how to write an argumentative essay. After a dozen years of teaching writing-intensive courses, I'm pretty confident about teaching the essay, so I'm approaching the guide as an (organized!) download of my brain onto digital paper. I'm going to give it to students in my classes and also maybe make it available for Kindle or as a PDF through ejunkie or some such outlet.

I've already received some great ideas about what should be included in such a guide, but I'd love to hear your thoughts as well. What would you want to see included?

I've drafted about half of the book, and I'm thinking it will come in at 40-50 pages single-spaced—longer once formatted into a book—plus worksheets and appendices. It's not a guide for last-minute, night-before-it's-due essay writers, but rather for students who really have no idea where to start and need a good deal of hand-holding between receiving the essay prompt and turning in the paper. Most importantly: I'm not looking for it to be the be-all, end-all compendium on student writing; I want to keep it under 100 pages when it's formatted.

On this first pass, I'm using a hiking/camping metaphor, though I may abandon it because it might be too precious—and it might not resonate with students who rarely leave an urban environment. Anyway, here's a rough section outline:
  • Packing Your Knapsack: gathering your tools
  • The Trailhead: examining your topic
  • Mapping Your Route: preliminary brainstorming
  • Foraging: gathering more information
  • Mountaintop Vistas: crafting your argument
  • Setting up Camp: organizing your essay
  • Campfire: revisiting (and possibly revising) your argument, and getting feedback
  • Packing Up: final clean-up
Additional topics covered in subsections or sidebars (listed below in no particular order):
  • making a checklist from the assignment instructions
  • how to narrow your topic if the essay assignment is wide open or vague
  • how to figure out if your instructor believes there's a "correct" answer, or if she's less interested in a "right" answer and more interested in seeing how well you make your argument
  • how to articulate the thesis statement
  • paragraph structure and transitions
  • using tables for brainstorming
  • advanced strategy: using metaphors effectively
  • using a rubric for assessing the paper
  • primary vs. secondary sources
  • scholarly vs. popular sources
  • clustering
  • outlining
  • plagiarism
  • citation styles
  • reference librarians are your friends
  • revision strategies
  • recommended resources (e.g. Strunk and White's Elements of Style)
  • 20 most common errors of grammar and usage (at least in my classes)
As always, your thoughts are much appreciated.


Arbitrista said...

One thing I think is very helpful in writing argumentative pieces is anticipatory rebuttals. After I've outlined my argument I try to come up with as many objections to what I've said as possible, and then state in the work why those arguments don't hold. The neat part of this exercise is that sometimes you change your position entirely! Just an idea.

L said...

Woo-hoo, this is awesome! (and it reminds me that sadly, or, perhaps, happily, I'm not teaching courses that are heavy in writing anymore. :( I enjoyed that, but the grading was a challenge. Coming up with obscure and complex paper topics was tons of fun, though! :)

If ever I get to teach those kinds of classes again, I'm sure your book will be SUPER useful.

Anyway... my pet-peeve when grading student essays was the typical "typo" or homophone words:
he's/ his

I have more written down somewhere. These are NOT caught by a spell-checker, so I would definitely add a note somewhere warning students about this common error.

And I one thing I could never emphasize too much was NARROW IT DOWN so you can really and truly handle the chosen or assigned topic effectively. That's where good practice in writing good thesis statements comes in.

The other one, use LOTS of very specific, concrete examples to support your idea.

ALL my paper topics were comparative in nature and required the students to use specific examples from the novels/books read to support their argument. That's where I'm coming from here. I gave them lots of options (topics), but they always needed to narrow them down, or else their papers wouldn't be effective, just a bunch of generalized comparisons or generalizations about each book.

The other hard thing to convey to students is how to make an essay "organic," that is, have all its parts "flow" well and point to a central idea (that's probably not what organic in a writing sense means, but, whatever, we're just brainstorming here, right).

Well, I'm sure I'd have tons more to say, I'll keep watching this thread. What a contribution this book will be, at least IMHO. ;)

susan said...

I'd be interested on your take on the part between "gathering more info" and "crafting your argument," which is to say, what kind of advice do we give to students about that messy period when they're working with sources?

Bardiac said...

I'd put in there something about finding a question to ask, and trying to answer it.

I'd also Graff and Birkenstein's *They Say/I Say* for dealing with secondary sources well (disagreeing, etc). And finally, Strunk and White is... overrated.

For help with the issue Arbitrista rightly brings up, Peter Elbow's believing/doubting game work is good. (It's a fuller statement of what Arbitrista explains.)

Bardiac said...

Oops, I thought of something else: if your campus writing help place is any good, be sure to recommend it. Also, recommend getting together with a peer and giving each other real feedback.

And finally, recommend proofreading as a separate step from writing.

Thesis Papers Writing said...

You have share a wonderful guidelines with us. These guidelines are helpful in writing a essay.

Jeff Mather said...

I think the best pieces of writing advice I ever received were not to be afraid of my using my own voice and to just get started writing, knowing that nobody gets it right on the first time. (Basically, this is part of what Bardiac said.)