Scott A. Lukas, Ph.D.
What Is Writing?
We often think of writing as a product—a book that we might read or, more commonly, a paper that we produce for a class. Writing is seen as something that is finished, an end. In fact we should more properly think of writing as a process. It is something that is done to get somewhere, as a means to the end of the text or paper. As a process we realize that writing is something we must work on. Contrary to popular opinion, writing is not easy, and it is not something that can be done quickly. Like a work of art, writing is something that must be worked upon. One source on the subject of writing suggests that “all effective writing begins with careful observation—“being forever on the alert” and “looking always at what is to be seen”—and that composing is a recursive process of seeing and writing. Opening your eyes and taking a closer look around you not only gives you subjects and ideas to write about (which are necessary initial ingredients in writing) but also leads to effective writing” (Seeing & Writing, McQuade & McQuade, St. Martin’s, 2000, pp. xlv-xlvi). Writing is never something that just happens.
In his new text Faster: The Acceleration of Just about Everything, James Gleick offers a thesis on American society as being more and more dominated by speed. The process of time-consuming reading has been supplanted by speed-reading. Even on-line services offer busy workers the opportunity to have the major stories of the top newspapers summarized for a quick read. We are all products of our culture and we can be sure that our writing practices follow from our cultural practices. In a society fixated on saving time and finding the path of least resistance, we have been wrongly socialized in our writing practices. Instead of seeing writing as a time-consuming—yes, sometimes laborious, but very often enjoyable—process, we assume that we can write quickly and that somehow our writing will be “quality writing.” This assumption is one we have to challenge and we need to realize that writing, to reiterate, is a process that must take time if we expect to produce writing that is clear, thoughtful, critical and reflexive.
The Marked-Up Paper
No one enjoys getting a paper back that is full of marks. It is often a challenge to our ego to accept that we are not good writers or that our thoughts have not been clearly communicated to our readers. Writing improvement begins with realization. When you get a paper back that has marks on it, do not view these marks as an attack on your character or on your skills as a writer. Rather, think of them as guides to self-realization and writing improvement. Even the greatest writers have said that no author is immune from critiques and suggestions that will improve that author’s written work.
Where to Start
There are two contexts of writing that we generally think about in our courses. One is preparing to write. We know that we have a paper assignment for Sociology 101 and we realize that we have to get that assignment done by a particular date. We are all different writers, and some of us plan our papers weeks in advance, others write them the day before they are due. If we think about writing as a process we should know that the writer who plans ahead of time will always produce the quality writing. Think of developing writing plans in which you decide how to accomplish different phases of the paper assignment. Pre-writing is something which should be done for social science papers, yet we wrongly assume that this social science class is an “ideas” class, not a writing class, and we often forget that we must be writers first before we can hope to communicate our ideas as students of social science. A first key to our writing in this class is preparation. Plan your writing. Just as a great recipe must be prepared, worked out and refined in steps, so too should your writing for these courses.
The second context of writing in this class is assessment. Here too we wrongly believe that the only assessment for our writing is the instructor—the sometimes mean person who gives us back our paper full of marks, lines and editorial comments. In fact the first line of assessment for your writing is you! When you write anything, be it for this class, another class, or for your own personal journal, make sure that you read and reread your own work. One method of self-assessment which I have found to be successful is to read my papers out loud. This assists with two vital components of writing: (1) Form—have I said the things I wish to say correctly, or have I found some grammatical and spelling errors? (2) Content—what have I said and will my reader understand what I have said? By verbalizing the writing process we create a more reflexive and constructive context for our papers and assignments. A second method of self-assessment is a social context of writing. In some social science classes, such as research methods, we actually read our work aloud in the class. In most courses we do not have the time to do so, and too often our only reader is the instructor—again, the bad person who marks up our papers. I want to stress a second option that may help improve your class projects. This is giving your paper to a friend, family member, or acquaintance, perhaps a person in this very class. By having someone else read your paper you again assess potential problems with form and content, but more importantly, your having another person read your work establishes a secondary context of readership. A non-biased reader can often catch mistakes that you have made. As well, social reading is fun!
Getting that Paper Going
Though our culture leads us to believe the contrary, writing is never easy. We have all felt that blank feeling that precedes a big paper assignment and we know that frustration very often accompanies the writing process. One excellent idea that may help all of you to write is to pick up a writing guide. These handbooks are useful in offering suggestions on how to get started on papers, as well as guide you through the formal and content aspects of writing. One such guide, Writing from A to Z, offers the following useful discussion of the writing process. The authors suggest that any written assignment involves a rhetorical situation, occasion, audience, topic and purpose. Review these below before you write your next paper.
The Rhetorical Situation
“Every act of writing is done in a particular context, called the rhetorical situation” (p. 7). The book suggests the following questions be asked prior to writing:
(1) What have I already read or written that is similar to this assignment? What are my strengths and weaknesses? How can I address them when writing this paper?
(2) What is the context for writing? What are the requirements for length? How much time should I allot for planning and organizing, drafting and revising a piece of this length? What should my tone be?
(3) Who am I writing for? Can my peers understand what I’m saying? Am I fulfilling the criteria established by my instructor? How much revising and polishing will be necessary to meet the instructor’s standards? What format should I use?
(4) What do I know about this topic? What experiences can I draw on? Should I go to the library for additional information? How much information is necessary for a paper of this length?
(5) Why am I writing? Should I focus on describing the topic, explaining its purpose, or persuading my readers to accept my position?
Occasion relates to the reason why you begin to write. Obviously the occasion for writing in this class is for the purpose of finishing a paper assignment. Keep this in mind when writing, especially as your paper involves tone and voice. Slang terms, such as “you know,” “so” and “kinda” should be avoided unless your use of slang makes a point. Contractions are also seen as being too informal for college writing. Another mistake is the use of “flavorful” adjectives that are distracting to the reader or gives the reader an unclear sense of the writer’s purpose. An example would be using “the wonderful world of pop culture.” Here the reader has not established her position on the topic because the phrase could be interpreted as sarcasm or perhaps that the writer really enjoys popular culture. Make sure that you are clear that writing a formal class paper requires a tone much different than that of an e-mail to a friend. You should also consider your voice when writing class assignments. I always stress reflexive writing, and I will never make the statement that the first person should be avoided in class assignments. In some instances, though, reflexivity can become overbearing as your personal insights detract from the analysis in the paper.
We all write for different people. An e-mail we compose to a friend will often have writing short-cuts that are possible because of shared knowledge between the two parties. For this class you are required to write for an audience which might be defined as the social science community. Do not assume that you are writing strictly for your instructor. Though I will assess your class writing, do not write things in your paper which are not clearly established or clarified. Do not assume that I “will know what you’re talking about,” even if we spoke about your paper outside of class. I grade all of your papers relative to the class, which means that I am not expecting that your work will be read by other anthropologists and sociologists. I do require that you think carefully about your audience and consider how other sociologists and anthropologists go about understanding, interpreting and writing about the social worlds which we all inhabit.
Defining and clarifying your topic is a key to writing quality papers for my courses. I generally assign paper topics in my courses. In fact, I list them on your syllabus so that you can start on your paper topics sooner rather than later. When you read over a paper assignment ask yourself the following questions:
(1) What is the assignment? Do I understand the assignment? If not, when will I consult the instructor to get help in writing my paper?
(2) How do I prepare for the assignment? Do I need to gather information, perhaps from the Web, library or “in the field?” How long will it take me to prepare for the paper? When will I begin the assignment?
(3) What examples will I need to write a successful paper? How can I assure that my ideas and examples are clearly integrated in my writing?
As the A to Z guide offers us, “at the onset of the writing process, you need to decide on your purpose and then make sure you draft, revise, and edit your paper that everything works toward accomplishing that goal” (pp. 8-9). Some of our assignments may require library research work. If that is the case, plan to spend additional time working on research. Some assignments might require other aspects leading up to the paper such as web research, interviews or field observations. Always plan ahead and think about the purpose of your writing.
Writing the Paper
We now need to cover some of the practical aspects of writing successful class papers. Consider each of the following aspects of writing as you plan new papers and as you think about papers which were less successful than those you will write in the future.
In formal English class papers you are required to have a thesis which clearly articulates your central idea. Though I do not require you to follow a specific paper form in writing our class assignments, you need to be sure that you do have a central idea or thesis when you write a paper. Your main idea or thesis should be specific to your topic and it should relate to the paper assignment I have established for you. In some cases there is leeway in the assignment and it is your responsibility to come up with an effective paper. This begins with having a central idea. Think of the central idea as a theme in music which is then further analyzed as in musical variations.
You need to support all of your assertions. If you make the statement in your paper, “I believe that capitalism negatively affects the institutional structures of U.S. Society,” you must tell me why you believe this to be true, Again, do not assume that I will know what you mean, even if we discussed the idea in class. When you get a chance read or reread Aristotle’s On Rhetoric. One of the most important insights for any writer is given to us by Aristotle. Rhetoric involves persuasion and our writing can be seen as the attempt to persuade the reader of the validity of our ideas and assertions. Make sure that you back-up your points.
One of the major problems with class papers is the lack of organization in our writing. It is a good idea to pre-write and plan your writing before you begin to “pound the keys.” Successful writing is always organized and successful writers always show (persuade) their readers the path toward the clearing. When you establish your thesis or main point in the beginning of your paper ask yourself what you need to do in order to drive home this point by paper’s end. A good way to work on better paper organization is to produce a working outline of your paper. Bring this paper into office hours and work with the instructor on refining your paper organization. Again, the more prep work you do as a writer will ensure a better writing process and, ultimately, a much better final paper.
In addition to having a clear thesis and having good organization, a successful paper should offer the reader development. Development means that you work towards the goal of establishing your thesis through numerous angles. Two purposes are served by development: (1) You establish more proof (evidence) by showing your reader examples that support your claims. (2) You persuade your reader by showing her that you understand the topic because you have developed it. If you are writing a research paper, do not just string together a bunch of quotes, especially block quotes. Instead make connections between authors and their ideas. In a “thought paper” be sure that you develop your own ideas as you would those of others in a research paper. A common problem with development is the writer who makes the same point in numerous paragraphs or making irrelevant or vacuous points through underdeveloped examples or ideas.
Beginnings and Endings
In addition to having good development throughout your paper, you need to have clear and well-written introductions and conclusions. Your introduction should key the reader into your main point, signaling important issues you plan to consider in your paper. A conclusion is important in establishing what you have said and proven in your writing. Try to avoid ready-made conclusions that just summarize what you have already said. Instead, use the conclusion to draw attention to the specific insights of your paper topic.
A major goal of any social science paper is to develop your topic using critical social scientific methods of investigation. Analysis is defined in Webster’s New Twentieth-Century Dictionary as “a separating or breaking up of any whole into its parts so as to find out their nature, proportion, function, relationship, etc.” In addition to being part of successful paper development, analysis shows your reader that you have insight—you know about the topic and you can offer the reader creative variations of the topic. When writing a social science paper be sure that you have analysis. Ultimately your analysis should have a goal, which is typically proving your thesis statement. Analysis with no goal becomes very cumbersome in writing.
Critical Thinking and Creativity
You might find the following comments on your papers: “So what?” “What does this mean?” “What does this prove?” “Why” What each of these comments attempts to get at is the need to clearly and critically express yourself in writing your paper. Critical thinking is a must for social science papers. This type of thought shows your reader that you have indeed thought about your topic and that you have done so in a creative, unique and sometimes unexpected way. Simply restating ideas from the book, though accurate, leaves the reader feeling unfulfilled. When writing your papers think about your assignments in new and creative ways.
One of the most easily avoidable problems in paper writing is the simple spelling or grammar error. If your paper has more than four spelling and/or grammar errors, it will generally not be a successful paper. Some people have written papers that were good in terms of content and ideas but were full of so many construction problems that the papers were unreadable. If I mark “const.” or “construction” on your paper, it indicates that you need to improve on this area. One of the simplest things you can do is run the spell-check feature on your word processing program. Spell-checking is only a start, however, as mistakes like “effect” instead of “affect” can only be checked by a manual read-through of your paper. Again, I highly recommend giving your paper to a friend to read. This is one of the best ways to discover construction mistakes that will bring down your paper grade. Too, take advantage of the excellent Learning Assistance Center on campus to get help on formal writing problems.
Failure to fulfill the writing assignment’s requirements means large point deductions. Read over each assignment and make sure that you:
(2) Use one-inch margins on all sides of the page
(3) Use a 12-point Times or Times New Roman font
(4) Number your pages
If you have questions about these requirements please talk to me. As well, look at the sample page I have attached. This is what your paper should look like when you turn it in. Any papers which do not meet these requirements will lose major points.
Any paper you turn in should be professionally presented. You should be proud of the paper that you present to your instructor. This means making sure that your paper looks good, physically. Again, follow the format and keep in mind the following:
(1) Staple your papers. I will deduct points from papers that are not stapled. It is your responsibility to staple them. Do not turn in paper-clipped papers as pages may be lost.
(2) Do not turn in papers that have faint ink or cannot be easily read.
(3) No plastic covers of any sort.
(4) Make sure that your papers have your name and paper title on them. Do not write in information in pen or pencil. That is sloppy.
(5) Save your paper on disk. This eliminates problems related to losing your paper. Papers are also good reference sources for the future. As a collection, your old papers will allow you to see how your writing has progressed and what sorts of problems still exist in your writing.
(6) No late papers. Read over the late paper policy on your syllabus. Late papers mean major point deductions.
(7) Do not plagiarize. Plagiarism is a very serious offense of academic dishonesty.
The Pleasure of the Text
Writing can and should be pleasurable to you. Work on these suggestions and your writing will improve. Talk to your instructor when problems arise and be sure to be proactive in both your writing and your studies. When all of this is done, you can worry less about “finishing a paper on time” and more about the ideas and creative avenues you wish to explore in your writing. Good luck!!!