4 Chapter 4: Drafting a Paper
For many years now, most instruction on student writing tends to focus on process instead of product. Students frequently struggle to get their thoughts together, and as assignment that simply involves an essay with a single deadline can often set a student up for failure. Sometimes, a college paper will have a set of checkpoints built in (a proposal due by a certain day, followed by a draft due by another day, and so on). At other times, students have to provide this structure themselves.
Drafting consists of putting together ideas in a format that a reader will be able to understand. Ideally, a draft will allow a reader to follow the thought process of the writer while still satisfying the reader’s curiosity or interest in particular topics (or subtopics) of a given subject.
Overview: A lot of teachers remember writing essays using a combination of notecards, annotated bibliographies, and outlines. Others might have experienced peer workshops and drafting. Many teachers, however, have not had the need to sit down and think about why these steps are necessary. Some teachers might not even have accepted that the steps are necessary.
On a functional level, focusing on the process of writing (instead of just the final essay) gives students a chance to organize and to develop their ideas. It also allows teachers a chance to determine when or where a student has encountered difficulties.
Application: Most writing has steps, and even if those steps vary from class to class or from assignment to assignment, time needs to be built into both teacher and student schedules to finish each of these steps. Additionally, it tends to be more rewarding for students and teachers alike if at least a single checkpoint is built into the writing process (e.g. a proposal that is due, a bibliography that is turned in, or a draft that is contemplated by classmates).
A student in a class without these built-in checkpoints needs to work hard to develop them, and students in such classes really need to create their own chances to talk with faculty about their progress. On the other hand, faculty who lack the time or the ability to build in these checkpoints need to be understanding of the difficulties students will face with completion and with the development of their ideas.
What to Avoid: Don’t think of an essay as something that happens in a single sitting or at a single moment in time.
LENGTH versus DEPTH
Students, teachers, tutors, and online study guides all get it wrong. When we talk about essays, we really shouldn’t talk about how long an essay is; we should talk about how deep an essay is. Plenty of essays can be fairly long without making a valid argument, but it’s a lot less likely for an essay to be short and to still include everything that it needs.
Overview: Imagine typing the same sentence over and over again until it filled six pages. Does that fulfill the requirement of a six-page essay? Maybe it does, but only in the minds of those deliberately trying to undermine the learning environment. Likewise, imagine writing just one sentence that happens to make a valid factual claim and turning it in for the six-page assignment. Isn’t that one valid claim enough? Shouldn’t the ‘essay’ be judged on quality instead of quantity?
Not really. Both of these fictional student responses to an assignment overlook the idea of development. Take a moment to think about the reasons a teacher might have for assigning an essay. Most of the time, when college instructors are asked why they assign essays, they give the same basic answers: essay assignments are designed to check a student’s knowledge of an issue, to require a student to think critically about course content, and to improve the ability of a student to put course content into a broader context. Neither the ‘repeat the same content over and over again’ example nor the ‘cut all of the content down to the shortest possible answer’ example fulfills these goals.
Application: In order to demonstrate knowledge of an issue, a student needs to be able to explain that issue (in this case, in writing) in a way that is clear. Simply copying and pasting the Wikipedia entry doesn’t display this knowledge any more than driving through a fast-food restaurant displays an understanding of cooking. This is why even with proper source citation, direct quotation tends to be less meaningful than a student paraphrasing content into his or her own words—the first simply checks a box, while the second requires a bit more understanding.
Likewise, writing an essay about the content of a course usually requires the student to support a claim about one of the subjects the course covers (an essay needs a thesis, or something like a thesis). However, the real length of a good essay does not come from repeating the same point. It comes from developing an idea. Frequently, students are expected to show their work. In math, students are asked to explain how they reached the answers. In argument, students are expected to explain what evidence, and what reasoning, supports their theses. For students who really struggle to find ideas, both the Toulmin model and the scientific method offer suggestions for how such essays can be structured.
What to Avoid: Try not to think of an essay as an attempt to explain why you, personally, support your main claim. Instead, think of an essay as an effort to demonstrate the knowledge and understanding that went into reaching a conclusion.
If you have ever had a discussion end only to think, five minutes or five hours later, “oh, I should have said ______,” then you understand how frustrating it can be to try to organize an essay. Our best thoughts rarely occur to us when they are most useful, and even good ideas can seem silly when they are stranded without support or context. This is why organization is key for college-level essays.
Overview: One of the most frustrating things about writing anything, let alone writing essays for a grade, is how difficult it can be to organize thoughts into a meaningful form. Many different strategies have been proposed, and most of them work a little bit. One thing that seldom works is for a writer to keep all of the thoughts on the screen in the order those thoughts happen to drift through his or her head. However, the solution is rarely as simple as ‘outlining’ a potential essay in advance. Instead, organizing an essay requires understanding its goals.
An essay that is asking for a student to demonstrate an understanding of course content should probably focus most of its body on that course content, with very little ‘off topic’ on external material. On the other hand, an essay that specifically asks students to contextualize their writing should probably split its content much more evenly, with frequent connections being drawn between lecture notes, the textbook, and the broader world.
Application: Students writing college-level essays should remember their readers. Information should be presented with the mindset of explaining related facts to someone who wants to understand why the essay presents its thesis or central claim.
Writers of college essays have a major advantage over writers of professional documents. A writing assignment given by an instructor is almost certainly possible (not easy, but possible). Other students have likely struggled with and completed the assignment before. However, this advantage also has a downside—instructors grading college-level essays have seen good and bad versions before. They already have their own preferences. Be sure to ask about and to include these preferences in your own writing. Remember that it is not your place to organize your essay the way you prefer; it is your responsibility to organize the essay in a way your reader will think makes sense.
What to Avoid: Don’t think of organization as a one-time thing. It is a process. Students need to set aside time to evaluate how their essays are organizes as they write them.
TRANSITIONS AND PARAGRAPHING
Even if you have a good, general idea of how you want to organize your thoughts, it can be difficult to move from major idea to major idea. It can be even harder to decide which ideas belong together.
Overview: Whenever you’re trying to get somewhere new, you need directions. Whether you look at a map, read road signs, or have a navigation system guiding you, you need to know ‘what’s next.’ Reading an essay also requires guidance.
It is the responsibility of the author of an essay to explain how two different ideas relate. Transitions are supposed function like road signs or navigational signals, telling readers what relationships exist between ideas while also serving to indicate what differences merit the move from one section of an argument to the next.
Paragraphs, on the other hand, are a bit more complex. In a general sense, a paragraph is a group of related sentences connected by a shared focus. However, that’s not a very useful definition. Instead, it’s helpful to think of a paragraph as a bite of information. If you ‘feed’ your reader to small of a bite, it’s not very interesting; if you offer too big of a bite, it’s going to be hard for your reader to process it all. Instead, a paragraph should be broken in two whenever it is getting too big to understand. The easiest place to break a paragraph is when it essential to understand the first section—and to reflect on it—before reading the second section.
Application: Students should be certain that they write a document that is easy to navigate, posting ‘signs’ along the way to help a reader. If it is difficult to explain the relationship between two ideas, the student writer should consider the possibility that one or both of the ideas needs to be moved to another part of the essay, closer to the sections it does relate to.
Likewise, paragraphs need to be seen from the perspective of the reader, not the author. Look at a paragraph and imagine it is in an assigned reading such as a textbook. Is it massive and daunting? Would you think about skimming it? Is it so small and vague that you wonder why it is left to stand on its own? Paragraphs do not have a magic length—complex arguments might have longer paragraphs than simple narratives, for example—but by remembering that each paragraph needs to be used by somebody else, student writers can get closer to managing the length and form of their essays.
What to Avoid: Do not assume that simply because you intuit a relationship between ideas that your readers will agree. Don’t forget that someone needs to read the document after you’ve written it—turning in the essay is only the midpoint of the process.
REVISION and EDITING
Think about a professional athlete, musician, or actor. Imagine if, after each performance, that person could take back the worst quarter of his or her actions and try them over again. The ball is never dropped, the note is never misplayed, and the line is never forgotten. The ability to revisit a performance is a rare opportunity, and yet most amateur writers fail to take advantage of the chance. There are two ways to improve a writing performance after the fact: revision and editing.
Overview: Spending long periods of time thinking about a subject and trying to explain that subject in a clear, concise, and objective manner is not a skill most people practice. Opinions tend to be reached gradually, over time, and are then offered for discussion. Dialogue occurs. Then, all parties move on. College essays don’t work this way. As a result, writing an essay is a very strange experience. It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that many of us aren’t very good at it. The first time a student writes an essay for a college course might be the first time that student seriously thinks about the causes of World War I, the role of convergent evolution in biology, or the ethics of anti-smoking policies. Therefore, the initial draft of such an essay is likely to be shaky. Thoughts are probably incomplete. Evidence might be poorly explained.
After this first attempt at writing the essay, then, students should try to look at the essay again and try to see what needs to be changed. This process takes time. It means that the essay cannot be put off until right before the due date. It means that the student needs to spend even more time on a single assignment. However, it also means that one aspect of the student’s course performance is completely under his or her own control—because the student can keep working on the essay until it makes sense. This process, revision, is different than editing.
Editing is a more familiar process to many students. Editing consists of going through a written document and fixing mistakes. Proofreading an essay can help a student spot misspelled words, and looking over a document can allow for corrections of minor factual errors. Editing can be done after a desperate attempt to finish an essay just before a deadline, and frequent editing can help a student create writing that communicates clearly.
Application: When a draft is complete, the student who wrote the essay needs to take some time away from the essay (anywhere from thirty minutes to a couple of days, depending on the schedule). Then, the student needs to return to the draft and look at it honesty and critically. This is when having a friend or family member look at the draft can be a good idea, but only if this other person is going to be critical—blind support and encouragement isn’t all that useful. Once the student has looked at the draft and taken some notes on what need to get better, it’s time to go back to writing.
Editing and proofreading should not happen once. Students who proofread need to be aware of their own strengths and weaknesses. Struggle with punctuation? Then go over that part twice. Have trouble with spelling? Then stop relying on spell-checking software and go through the document slowly. The essay is a part of your course performance that is under your control. Take advantage of this opportunity.
What to Avoid: Don’t confuse revision and editing. It is possible to revise a document and still to fail in editing it. Likewise, just because a document has been proofread does not mean that it has been revised.