A (Kind of) Writing Handbook
The handbooks and guides available to help a writer struggling with one facet or another of writing are almost innumerable at this point. Do not hesitate to search for a particular problem if you can name it. What follows here is a compilation of the basics that I have found most useful in working with students who are, in turn, working on their writing. Use what’s useful. Ignore the rest.
While the subjects you encounter in my classes may be literature or folklore or even just raw data, my goal is to teach you to gather data into information and to process information into knowledge. And then to communicate that knowledge to others. In most cases, writing is part of the process or the end result of the process, the product.
Speaking of products, here are some examples:
- Underlying this video essay on “Wall-E as Sociological Storytelling”, which is a terrible title, is good writing: the writer here both knows how to pace things in relationship to the video but also calls upon scholarly sources to substantiate his exploration.
For those who need a brief (and very user-friendly) refresher on the parts of speech, there’s always this graphic.
As a reader who also writes, I come across a fair amount of material on the web, some of which strikes me as useful to share with others. For example, in this Medium post, Josh Spector gives you five things to do to make your writing better. I agree with most of them, except for the one about shorter sentences and shorter paragraphs – my advice there is to vary the length of both.
Types of Clauses
Sentences are made up of words, phrases, and clauses, going from smallest to largest units. Knowing the types of clauses that make up sentences is foundational to understanding the types of sentences. Please note that I am not introducing the oft-used definition of a sentence as a complete thought—I have never been entirely clear on what that meant.
- An independent clause (IC) is a group of words that contains a subject and verb. An independent clause is a sentence, usually a simple sentence.
- A dependent clause (DC) is a group of words that contain a subject and verb but cannot stand on its own: a dependent clause cannot be a sentence. Unwitting dependent clauses are usually considered fragments, but carefully constructed ones can be used for some rhetorical purposes.
- A dependent marker word (DM) is a word added to the beginning of an independent clause that turns it into a dependent clause. Some common DMs are: after, although, as, as if, because, before, even if, even though, in order to, since, though, unless, until, whatever, when, whenever, whether, while, that, which, what, who whoever, whom, whomever, and whose.
Types of Sentences
All sentences must have at least one independent clause, but beyond that you can build just about anything you want, with the only risk being a Frankensentence that your reader has to read too many times to understand—but that shouldn’t stop you from trying to create interesting sentences that represent the complexity of the topic at hand.
- Simple Sentences have one main clause (IC) with a subject and verb, either of which can be compound. e.g., I studied. Lily and Madeline studied. Lily read and studied. Lily and Madeline played music and studied.
- Compound Sentences consist of at least two main clauses (IC) joined with a coordinating conjunction, a semi-colon, or a colon.
- Complex Sentences have one main clause (IC) and at least one subordinate clause (DC)—note the difference between coordination and subordination.
- Compound-Complex Sentences have two more main clauses (IC) and at least one subordinate clause (DC).
That’s it. Thats all the sentence types there are. Every sentence you make will be one of these.
A Step-by-Step Guide to Writing a Paragraph in an Analytical Work
Writing well composed paragraphs that move an analysis forward can be tricky. The following is a guide on how to draft, expand, refine, and explain your ideas so that you write clear, well-developed paragraphs and discussion posts.
Step 1: Decide the Topic of Your Paragraph
Before you can begin writing, you need to know what you are writing about. If you are writing from a prompt, this should be straightforward: look at the writing prompt or assignment topic and note any key terms or repeated phrases and use those words in your response. Writing from a self-generated topic can be a little more difficult, but in the end you need to find ways to break your point into topics and then to remain on topic within a given paragraph:
- On what topic am I supposed to be writing?
- What do I know about this topic already?
- If I don’t know how to respond to this topic, where can I go to find some answers?
- What does this topic mean to me? How do I relate to it?
Step 2: Develop a Topic Sentence
Before writing a paragraph, it is important to think first about the topic and then what you want to say about the topic. Most often, the topic is easy, but the question then turns to what you want to say about the topic. This concept is sometimes called the controlling idea.
Strong paragraphs are typically about one main idea or topic, which is often explicitly stated in a topic sentence. Good topic sentences should always contain both (1) a topic and (2) a controlling idea.
- The topic is the main subject matter or idea covered in the paragraph.
- The controlling idea focuses the topic by providing direction to the composition.
Read the following topic sentences. They all contain a topic (in bold) and a controlling idea (in italics). When your paragraphs contain a clearly stated topic sentence such as one of the following, your reader will know what to expect and, therefore, understand your ideas better.
Examples of topic sentences:
- People can avoid plagiarizing by taking certain precautions.
- There are several advantages to online education.
- Effective leadership requires specific qualities that anyone can develop.
Step 3: Demonstrate Your Point
After stating your topic sentence, you need to provide information to prove, illustrate, clarify, and/or exemplify your point.
- What examples can I use to support my point?
- What information can I provide to help clarify my thoughts?
- How can I support my point with specific data, experiences, or other factual material?
- What information does the reader need to know in order to see my point?
Here is a list of the kinds of information you can add to your paragraph:
- Facts, details, reasons, examples
- Information from the readings or class discussions
- Paraphrases or short quotations
- Statistics, polls, percentages, data from research studies
- Personal experience, stories, anecdotes, examples from your life
Sometimes, adding transitional or introductory phrases like: for example, for instance, first, second, or last can help guide the reader. Also, make sure you are citing your sources appropriately.
Step 4: Give Your Paragraph Meaning
After you have given the reader enough information to see and understand your point, you need to explain why this information is relevant, meaningful, or interesting.
Ask yourself: What does the provided information mean? How does it relate to your overall point, argument, or thesis? Why is this information important/significant/meaningful? How does this information relate to the assignment or course I am taking?
Step 5: Conclude
After illustrating your point with relevant information, add a concluding sentence. Concluding sentences link one paragraph to the next and provide another device for helping you ensure your paragraph is unified. While not all paragraphs include a concluding sentence, you should always consider whether one is appropriate. Concluding sentences have two crucial roles in paragraph writing:
First, they draw together the information you have presented to elaborate your controlling idea by:
- Summarizing the point(s) you have made.
- Repeating words or phrases from the topic sentence.
- Using linking words that indicate that conclusions are being drawn (e.g., therefore, thus, resulting).
Second, they often link the current paragraph to the following paragraph. They may anticipate the topic sentence of the next paragraph by:
- Introducing a word/phrase or new concept which will then be picked up in the topic sentence of the next paragraph.
- Using words or phrases that point ahead (e.g., the following, another, other).
Step 6: Read and Revise
The last step in good paragraph writing is proofreading and revision. Before you submit your writing, look over your work at least one more time. Try reading your paragraph outloud to make sure it makes sense. Also, ask yourself these questions: Does my paragraph answer the prompt and support my thesis? Does it make sense? Does it use the appropriate academic voice?
There are a variety of ways to take texts apart, to analyze them, in order to understand how the parts fit together. A good summary must represent all the parts of a text. In a non-fiction text, like a work of scholarship or science, you want to look closely at each paragraph to understand how the author is building his/her argument.
Think of each paragraph as a stepping stone through a large field: there are possibly a number of ways to get from where you start to where you end, but the author has chosen this particular path. The path is nothing more than each step the text takes and a paragraph, for the time being is a step.
Nota bene: We can do the same for sentences within a paragraph, but that kind of “zoomed-in” analysis we will do elsewhere. For now, we will stay at a slightly higher level, “zoomed out” if you will – this scaling, zooming in and out, of analysis is very useful for compartmentalizing the work we do in analysis.
The easiest way to do a says/does analysis is to make the process simple and clear:
- Draw a vertical line down the middle of a piece of paper – or make a table in a word processing document – creating two columns. On the left is the says column; on the right, does.
- Write a phrase of sentence in the left column to summarize the key point of the paragraph. On the right, describe what the paragraph does for the reader: introduce a new point, expand the point of the previous paragraph, describe a particular moment, provide some historical background. The does descriptor cannot mention any content in the paragraph.
Usually when I do this in a course, I will divide people into groups and have each group work with a chunk of paragraphs. We then assemble a summary, using the lefthand entries as the content and the righthand entries as means to weigh their importance.
More importantly, writers can use this method of analyzing texts to assess their own: be clear on what each paragraph is doing, because if the writer isn’t clear, the reader certainly won’t be.
|That the writer is going to the laundry room and will be there for a while.
|Sets the scene both physically or emotionally.
|that the writer puts clothes in the washing machine and thinks about her boyfriend
|prepares the reader for alternate description of activities and reflection
|that the writer would like to be swept offer her feet by someone rich and handsome
|makes a bit of fun of the writer’s reflections; shows that she doesn’t take herself too seriously
|the writer continues with doing what she has to do to get the laundry done but is interrupted (and embarrassed) by someone she doesn’t like and by someone who gives her a chalce to reflect amusingly on male behavior
|describes the actual world the writer is in and shows how she reacts to it
Defining a Term
In his introduction to his essay on “Tradition,” Henry Glassie establishes that defining a term need not term to external source but can be conjured out of what he and his audience already know and believe to be neccesarily true:
Accept, to begin, that tradition is the creation of the future out of the past. A continuous process situated in the nothingness of the present, linking the vanished with the unknown, tradition is stopped, parceled, and codified by thinkers who fix upon this aspect or that, in accord with their needs or preoccupations, and leave us with a scatter of apparently contradictory, yet cogent, definitions. More important, I believe, than erecting and polishing a new definition, which would but stand as a monument to the worries of our unmemorable era, is developing an understanding of the concept in the breadth of its semantic extent. Widening into an embrace of the many ways people convert the old into the new, tradition spreads into association with adjacent, related, equally indispensable terms. Our understanding begins as we refine tradition in conjunction with history and culture. (Glassie 1995: 395)
Richard Bauman does not define a term in the introduction to his essay on “The La Have Island General Store.” Instead he discusses its current usage and how it might warrant expansion. He also, like Robinson does, uses a pas de deux approach and saves the articulation of his focus for the second paragraph.
ONE OF THE ROCKS on which the ethnography of speaking is built is that the role of speaking in culture and society is cross-culturally variable and diverse. For some peoples, speaking will be the focus of a high degree of interest, elaboration, and evaluation, while in other groups it will receive relatively little conscious attention. A major part of our collective ethnographic task is to establish the full range of variability in this sphere. Despite this charter, however, there has been a clear bias in our work toward the groups in which speaking is a cultural focus; either we become interested in the ethnography of speaking because language turns out to be quite important in a group we are working on, or we make our choices of groups in which to do ethnographies of speaking on the basis of the apparent importance of speaking in their culture because time for research is be- coming ever more precious. Certainly both sets of factors have entered into my own decisions to work on the Quakers and the Vincentians.
To be sure, we do have a few glimpses of the other side of the coin, as in Peter Gardner’s description of the Paliyans, for example,’ but note how often this case must be cited as the one example of a group with a minimal and negative concern for language because we have no others.2 If we are to avoid skewing the still de- veloping field of inquiry in which we are engaged, we need to start bringing in accounts of more sociolinguistically modest groups together with their more talkative brethren, with a view toward the larger goal of constructing typologies of the role of speaking in culture and society.
My own introductory paragraph, like Glassie’s above, seeks to suggest an intellectual history for a term:
“Talking shit” is a venerable tradition in many African American speech communities. As an umbrella term, it typically covers only a particular portfolio of genres, both in day-to-day as well as in analytical uses. In performance, individual speakers deploy forms that are largely made up of reported speech, reflecting an understanding of authorship as diffused in the space of the fictive present as well as across performances reaching back to the historical past. A close examination of the forms involved in fact reveals that not only are texts generated, variously, in dialogue but that they are constructed of dialogue as well, creating a continuum across semantic and pragmatic domains which speakers use to great effect. This study, located in a small south Louisiana town, highlights the flexible nature of the genres involved, allowing speakers to move into and out of the performance frame, which is itself sometimes considered a dimension of the performance.
Sketching a Scene
Dropping your reader into the middle of a scene that dramatizes some aspect of what you are about to analyze is another way to write an introduction.
Consider the following scenario: Three months or so before the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, a reader gets online, locates Amazon. com, and, typing in the title of the seventh novel, pulls up the exact timing of its release (July 21, 2007), the package deals featuring the first six Potter novels, as well as industry and customer buzz about the series’ final installment. Having logged on seeking specific information about Hallows, our reader is pleasantly surprised to discover that Amazon has already done much of the looking for her and has placed its results at the Harry Potter Store, one of only two stores on the site devoted to a single series.1 There, just a click away from Amazon’s home page, she finds that the novels reside alongside the site’s own version of Pottermania—trivia quizzes, film updates and interviews, an ever-increasing stock of paraphernalia, testimonials, message board discussions, and blog accounts. There, too, she learns that the store acts as a kind of Potter impresario, sponsoring special features from Kid Correspondents, to the Owl Delivery Writing Adventure, to the Harry-est Town in America.2 Before she leaves the site, our reader bookmarks the Harry Potter Store. She plans on returning. (Wu 2010: 190)
Some years ago, I found myself touring the city of Cincinnati with a friend and as we drove through one particular neighborhood she identified it in a twofold fashion: it was a “hillbilly” neighborhood and it was dangerous – one being the product of another. While I was dismayed by my friend’s characterization, since she was a recent transplant to the city herself, I understood her remark to be drawn from received wisdom, a term used loosely in this context. What intrigued me more as a student of material culture and vernacular architecture was what I actually saw: significantly different uses of urban spaces. I wanted to find out for myself what was going on, and so at my first opportunity I began doing fieldwork in which a series of encounters led me to Charlie Kraft, a self-identified urban Appalachian. (Laudun 2000: 135)
Bauman, Richard. 1972. The La Have Island General Store: Sociability and Verbal Art in a Nova Scotia Community. Journal of American Folklore 85(338): 330-343. doi:10.2307/539322.
Glassie, Henry. 1995. Tradition. Journal of American Folklore 108(430): 395-412. doi: 10.2307/541653.
Wu, Yung-Hsing. 2010. The Magical Matter of Books: Amazon.com and The Tales of Beedle the Bard. Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 35/2: 190-207. https://www.muse.jhu.edu/article/381187.
While you may view summaries as exercises performed strictly for the satisfaction of your instructor, the fact is that summaries are singularly useful reports that you write to yourself. You write a summary of a text so that you don’t have to read a text again later, when you are either being examined or when you are writing your own analysis. Some things to keep in mind as you write a summary:
- Be clear on the purpose for the summary: what do you need it to do?
- As you read, or better re-read, mark sentences that seem to present the “big picture” or the “gist” or “the point.”
- What are the text’s main ideas? Sometimes, oh sometimes, the text does not necessarily make its main ideas clear: you will have to extrapolate. The good news is that such extrapolations will necessarily be in your own words, i.e. paraphrased.
- Analyze the part of the text in relation to the whole – when it comes to non-fiction texts, says-does analyses can be useful here. (See § Says-Does above.) Be sure your assessment of what is important is what the text itself is signaling as important. (And if the text says one thing and does another, that is worth describing.)
- Just as importantly, sometimes what’s important to you is different from what is important to the text. Be sure to note your own takeaways.
- Be objective! Injecting your opinion is not useful to you later. A summary is a report that attempts to be as true to the original text as possible.
Most readers of essays look for a one or two-sentence condensation of the argument or analysis early in the text: first, because they want to know in what they are about to invest their time, and, second, they want a clear idea of the perspective or line of inquiry or argument the essay is going to pursue so that they can evaluate the text for its own consistency as well as understand how it relates to their own point of view or sensibility.
From a writer’s point of view, such a condensation, aka a thesis statement, allows you distill your ideas down, forcing you to clarify for yourself what your essay is about. It also allows you to better organize your text.
In general, a thesis statement will accomplish these goals, of both readers and writers, if it answers a question that:
- tackles a subject upon which reasonable people could disagree,
- deals with a subject that can be adequately treated within the scope of the essay,
- can be expressed as a single idea—though you can think of this idea as being a main clause within a complex sentence that has subordinate ideas attached to it,
- allows the possibility for a conclusion to be proffered.
Use these four points not only to develop a thesis statement but also to test it. As you work, you will find that an iterative process includes the following steps:
- You begin with a topic, which can often be described with a sentence fragment: e.g., artificial intelligence.
- Then you narrow the topic into a hypothesis, which still might rather fragmentary: e.g., growth of artificial intelligence industries. Such a simple narrowing, by expanding the number of qualifications reduces the number of possibilities. We’re not talking about AI in general but AI as an industry, and an emergent or expanding industry at that.
- Then you take a position and offer your reader a thesis. This can be simple, like “The growth of the artificial intelligence industries threatens humanity”, or it can be something more complex, “With the growth of artificial intelligence industries, many white collar jobs could be automated in the near future.” But notice how the simpler thesis is actually weaker than the more complex one. What’s the difference? Specificity. The simpler thesis doesn’t tell us how the growth of AI industries threaten humanity. How would you revise it to make it more specific?
Stronger thesis statements:
take some sort of stand: they offer a position from which to understand the subject being discussed;
- justify discussion–e.g., “My family is an extended family.” versus “While most American families would view consanguineal marriage as a threat to the nuclear family structure, many Iranian families, like my own, believe these marriages help reinforce kinship ties in an extended family.”;
- express one main idea, avoiding having readers confused about what they are about;
- are specific, making it clear what the essay will be about and making it easy for you as a writer to guarantee that the topic and scope are manageable.