FAI: Freedom and Authority on the Internet

Writing

How can you successfully write papers for this tutorial and elsewhere? This is a somewhat harder question than the related question about reading. Why is it harder? You are likely to do a variety of kinds of writing, for a variety of different audiences. There is also some fairly strong evidence that different writers successfully apply a variety of techniques.

Nonetheless, there are some basic techniques that hold no matter what you are writing and who you are writing for. In particular, you should make sure that you understand your topic and your audience, that you have a clear thesis, and that you write early, often, and with support.

You cannot successfully write about a topic unless you know that topic well. It is also inappropriate to make strong claims about a field in which you have little background. Make sure that you've identified and read both primary and background readings, and that you've understood them well. For many topics, you will also need to do some independent research to find out what others have said, or to find more information to support your points.

You cannot write to an audience unless you understand that audience. Different papers have different audiences. What you would write to convince an expert in the field is different than what you would write to convince a novice; the main thrust of the argument might be similar, but the particular evidence and possible objections you raise are likely to be quite different. Make sure that you've thought about your audience, what they know, and what they don't know.

You cannot write about most topics unless there is a strong thesis that grounds what you are writing. A thesis is not I am writing about X. A thesis is a claim that you make, a claim that you will need to support through proper argument in your paper. A thesis also provides an entry to your paper. If your thesis statement is weak or uninteresting, you stand little chance of attracting and convincing readers. If you are unsure about your thesis, you should certainly talk to me. You should also read (or reread) Williams' and McEnerney's Another key feature of college writing: what's your point? and But what's a good point? (Williams and McEnerney, n.d., pp. 4-6).

You cannot write well the first time you write. Evidence shows that few writers can create beautiful and convincing prose on the first try. (Yes, some can. Such people are rare.) Williams (2003, p. 5) suggests that you should not focus on writing well the first time you write; you should instead focus on getting the ideas down. You should expect to need to rewrite everything at least once, and often many times. At least one rewrite is likely to be significant: You will need to change the structure of your argument, discard some prose, and introduce new prose. It can be difficult to throw away things you write, but there is little benefit to keeping extra writing that doesn't support your thesis. At times, I may show you pieces of my writing and how they changed as I revised them.

You cannot write well by yourself. By allowing others to read and critique your writings, you give yourself the opportunity to learn how someone else interprets and misinterprets what you've written. Experience also shows that others are often better at finding mistakes, both large and small. Build a support group of friends with whom you are comfortable sharing your writings and who can give you useful feedback on those writings. I hope that your tutorial colleagues will provide some members of that group.

You cannot write well unless you revise, and you cannot revise unless you start writing early. Successful revision includes giving yourself some time away from the paper, to both reflect on the topic and to let yourself forget a little bit of the paper. If you write early, you also give yourself time to show your paper to others. To encourage early writing, I often require rough drafts before papers are due.

References:

Williams, J. M. (2003). Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace. New York: Longman.

Williams, J. M. & McEnerney, L. (n.d.). Writing in college. Electronic document retrieved August 21, 2005 from http://www.cs.grinnell.edu/~rebelsky/Courses/Tutorial/2005F/Readings/Williams/writingincollege.pdf.

 

History

Monday, 22 March 1999 [Samuel A. Rebelsky]

Saturday, 21 August 1999 [Samuel A. Rebelsky]

Saturday, 23 August 2003 [Samuel A. Rebelsky]

Sunday, 21 August 2005 [Samuel A. Rebelsky]

 

Disclaimer: I usually create these pages on the fly, which means that I rarely proofread them and they may contain bad grammar and incorrect details. It also means that I tend to update them regularly (see the history for more details). Feel free to contact me with any suggestions for changes.

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Samuel A. Rebelsky, rebelsky@grinnell.edu