It’s the first day of the week after Christmas, which here in the UK, for Queen Mary Drama students anyway, means it’s the day to turn one’s attention full-time back to writing the essays due in January. I’ve had a steady stream of queries today, ranging from slightly worried to totally panicked. The most interesting one, however, came from a second-year student who wrote to ask me for some practical, general advice; she noted that she’d been getting feedback consistently faulting her essay structure, and that her confidence was dropping. Did I have some recommendations for her that could help?
Some of you might be rolling your eyes: we’re not writing instructors, right? University teachers, unless we teach writing, don’t technically teach writing. We teach subject areas; students are expected to develop their writing skills on their own (or to have them already). But they don’t, mostly because writing well is HARD, people, and learning to write well is frankly baffling (I remember how baffling – any good researcher/writer who tells you the skills came easy is lying). We all need to share tips with one another, throughout our careers, and I think we should share them more often with our students, because they needs those tips, and also because the epidemic of people in positions of power in the culture at large who have very poor written communication skills is growing at an alarming pace.
I am reminded constantly of how important good writing skills are to acts of activism, and to our current dearth of effective activism. (Yes, even accounting for Occupy, we’re not protesting nearly as much as we used to, and we’re not being heard nearly as often. Ask a union organiser if you don’t believe me. Care.org only kind of counts.) How many times have we complained that the media dumb down complex ideas in the neoliberal public sphere, leaving thoughtful politicians scrambling to make their cases for action heard above the din of “lower taxes! Too many immigrants!”? Every Rob Ford shouting “stop the gravy train!” not only clouds the airwaves with ridiculously oversimplified non-arguments (“stop the gravy train” is not an argument; it’s a sloppy but annoyingly catchy catch phrase designed to stifle argument). S/he also lowers the bar, making it that much harder for people who’d like to help the public understand, say, where our municipal tax dollars actually go, why public transit is really expensive but remarkably necessary, and why municipal issues in a large city like Toronto are rarely simple in any way. In order for the latter voices to get better hearing in what currently passes for our public sphere a number of things need to happen, but I’d argue that one of those things must be a broader appreciation for how to build, and read, and make sense of complex arguments in all sorts of venues.
So, festive season and all, here’s a version for all of you of the email I wrote to my student in reply to her useful query about how she might learn to structure her academic essays more effectively. I drew these “top tips” from my own experience learning (over and over again, at different stages in my career) how to write better, more clearly, with more nuance and with more precision. But they’re just mine. I’d love to hear yours – please do hit reply – and feel free to quibble with anything below that you think doesn’t ring true.
Happy new year!
1. Figure out what you actually want to argue. It may be a version of what you first thought you were going to argue, but very likely it’s not the same as that first thought. It’s probably a bit more complicated now, and this is where students often get tripped up. As you mull over your essay plans your ideas evolve, but with that evolution can come fear that your ideas are somehow “getting away” from you. Don’t let this cause you panic! Instead, embrace the evolution. Take the time to wander around your room/flat/kitchen, talking your ideas out to yourself or with friends or flatmates or parents. When you “hit” what “it” is you’re trying to say, write it down. Don’t skip this step. In fact, probably you’ll want to do this series of things (think/talk/wander/write) a bunch of times, and that’s fine – remember that your ideas are getting more complicated, which means multi-dimensional. There are more than one or even two ways to say what you’re saying, and you’ll need those multiple phrasings as you work through your paper later.
2. When you think you’ve got “it”, work out a draft introduction to give it some body. Make sure you are as clear as possible in your introduction about the “it” you’ve worked out as your argument: in other words, don’t be afraid to say exactly what you mean to argue BEFORE you start arguing it. Don’t worry that you’re spoiling some kind of surprise – just spit it out! This is the best thing you can do in the introduction, and in fact everywhere in your essay – be very, very clear about the argument to come and your essay’s larger goals. My friend Joanne Tompkins calls this “signposting”; she taught me to signpost when she helped me create what later became my first published journal article, and I’ll always be grateful.
3. Next, go back to some planning. How are you going to support your argument? What things do you want to highlight as evidence? Plot the argument for yourself, in the way that works best for you to be sure, but DO plot it out. What will go in each paragraph – stick to the key points here, no more at this stage – and (this is important) how will the paragraphs feed into each other? Plot these transitions out in the way you like best – using text, visuals, string, anything. But do plot them. Plotting really, really works, especially when you’re learning.
4. Draft the rest of the paper. After you’ve finished each paragraph, go back to your list of “it” phrases. See if there is a connection between what you’ve been arguing in the paragraph and “it”. If there is, make sure it’s clearly marked. If there’s not a connection, figure out why not (and if there should be one – sometimes the answer to this is no, but usually it’s yes). Edit as appropriate.
5. Finally, after you’ve drafted the paper, put it away for a day and then read it again (or, ask a friend to read it). After you’ve read it, answer this question: what is the paper now, in this state, ACTUALLY arguing? Is it the thing you believe you were trying to say? Or is the paper veering off track in places and trying to say something more, or something new? If it is, ask yourself one more question: is that because you haven’t argued your case fully enough, with enough evidence, or is it because you’re in fact trying to make the point that’s coming out in the tangents rather than in your introduction? Either way, chances are you’ll need a solid edit at this stage. That means another full day of work, most likely, so make sure you’ve saved time for it! As you revise, have your “it” phrases to hand, and be careful you’re not letting your edits take the paper off track. By the same token, if you think the tangents you’ve found in your paper are serious enough to warrant a re-write, with a new argument and a new, improved introduction, well, get busy. We’ve all been there, and rarely do we regret the re-writing.
AND: before you do anything, take a look at this: https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/section/1/2/