October 2009 Archives

Hands and skeletons--what could these have to do with writing? Let me explain.

You've done your research, gathered your ideas, identified your audience, and have a clear purpose in mind. What's next? You begin construction. For this you'll need the paragraph--the building block of composition. Ann Berthoff, in Forming, Thinking, and Writing (1982) suggests that a paragraph works much like a hand: "the hand is a gatherer, and it takes different shapes depending on whether it is picking up a couple of eggs, measuring sticks of spaghetti, or scooping up water." In much the same way, the paragraph changes shape according to its subject matter and the writer's purpose.

The writer's perception of the shape, or logical ordering of his/her piece must come from a consideration of the rhetorical context and the purpose the piece serves. For example, in narration, or storytelling, chronological order is useful if time is significant to the elements of the piece. However, narration may be paired with description, in which the writer develops the ideas based on sensory details--what we see, hear, taste, smell, and feel. Another strategy for organization is exemplification, or the use of illustrations to convey the purpose. Examples are emphasized in arguments of definition, comparisons, contrasts, classifications, process analysis and cause and effect.

A completely different way to view organizational strategies is by considering arrangement. You might organize the content from general to specific detail (or specific to general), least to most controversial (good for persuasive arguments), or least to most important (helps build tension and is referred to as emphatic order). No matter what organizational strategy you adopt, give it conscious thought. Then carefully construct your paragraphs focusing on topic sentences, transitions, unity, and cohesion.

In technical writing, the topic sentences are direct and easily located (usually the first one in the paragraph). Make sure the topic sentence announces the subject of the entire paragraph. Check each sentence within the paragraph to see if it is relevant to the subject that was announced in the topic sentence. You may find by the fifth or sixth sentence, you've changed the subject. If this is the case, you can revise your topic sentence, delete this sentence, move it to a more related paragraph, or develop an entire paragraph around this sentence. Your selection should be based on your purpose. By editing carefully for organization, you'll accomplish unity in your paragraphs: one topic per paragraph.

Equally important to your reader's ease in moving through your text is cohesion: how do the sentences and paragraphs fit together? Transitions are essential in giving your readers the clues for what's coming next. Just as road signs are necessary to keep order among drivers, transitions keep order in your text. Transitions indicating comparison include also, in the same way, likewise, and similarly. Transitions indicating contrast include on the other hand, although, and nevertheless. There are many more transitions, but using them frequently helps your reader make the connections from one point to the next. If your writing lacks organization, your reader will leave you!

And a word about paragraph breaks--they're important for reader engagement too. However, paragraph divisions are not absolute. In general, a paragraph is six to eight sentences long. But they can be one sentence or many sentences. Short paragraphs liven the page and can add power to a point; however, overused they can make the writing choppy and disconnected. Longer paragraphs require more from your reader and are best used for a truly committed reader (e.g., researchers in a peer-reviewed scientific journal). Keep in mind varying paragraph length and using it effectively is another tool you have as a writer.

William Strunk and E.B. White in Elements of Style (2005) suggest a writer choose a suitable design, or structure, and hold to it. All forms of composition are flexible, "but all have skeletons to which the writer will bring the flesh and the blood. The more clearly the writer perceives the shape, the better are the chances of success" (p.31). Hands and skeletons--all about Halloween? No way. Think of them as metaphors for the organizational structure of your writing. Next week a discussion of the flesh and blood!

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I am embarrassed to say I learned this writing principle the hard way. It was my first semester of my freshman year, and my English professor assigned a paper on a poem that I didn't like. As the due date approached, I sat down and composed three pages of text--even though I had nothing to say. I marveled at my abilities.

The awakening came when the paper was returned with a low grade and the comment, "you've written three pages and said nothing." Of course, I had, but so what. My sentences were well-constructed. My paragraphs had unity and cohesion. I had no typos or errors in mechanics. Such a big deal made for missing one ingredient: a purpose.

I made an office visit to Professor Jeanne Braham who then instructed me to begin with the end in mind. What did I want my reader to think, feel, understand, or do after he/she read my piece? Professor Braham taught me unless you can state your purpose, or controlling point, in one (or maybe two) concise sentences, you aren't ready to write. Sometimes this means you have to go back and research or learn more about your topic (what I should have done), or sometimes you have too many unrelated points and you have to identify your primary purpose, and then limit your scope. But before you can begin, you have to clearly identify your purpose.

Two of the most important writing principles are audience and purpose. Lose touch with either and the force will not be with you!

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Step 1. Know your audience.
Are the advertisements during the Super Bowl the same as the ones played during soap operas? Do you tell your parents the same details about your weekend that you tell your best friend? Intuitively we know the importance of adapting our message to our audience, yet when we sit down at our keyboards we seem to forget that as writers we also have an audience.

Keep in mind that a key writing principle is to adapt your message to your audience. Consider the level of understanding of your readers. Are they familiar with your topic, or do you have to spend more time providing background information? Consider word choice and vocabulary to enhance the connection to your reader. What are their expectations and preferences? What do they hope to get from your message? If you ask these questions, you will anticipate your readers' questions and make sure to include the necessary details. In the long run, this is both satisfying to your reader and cost effective.

Arrangement is important too and is related to audience. One of the most important audience-centered considerations is their likely reaction to your message. Four basic reactions are possible: neutral, happy, unhappy, or "what's in it for me." If your message is likely to be received as neutral or happy news, you can start with your main point. (Remember your college acceptance letter began with "congratulations.") If you're writing a bad news message, and your audience is likely to be unhappy, start with the rationale for the decision or the explanation. If you place the main point (bad news) in the first sentence, your reader is unlikely to carefully consider your reasons. Place the actual bad news in the middle of a paragraph, and use a complex-compound sentence to lessen the impact and deemphasize the negative tone. If you have a persuasive message (what's in it for me), engage your readers with why they should care; follow-up with the key selling points and include the benefit to the readers. Finally, request action. (This is the recipe for a cover letter!)

Today you can take the first step towards becoming a better writer. Envision your specific reader as you compose your message. Kurt Vonnegut offers the following advice on audience: "Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia." Imagine what you will catch if you write as if you don't even know who your audience is.


You voted, and here are your preferences for dates and times to run together for October:
October  5   @ 5:15 pm
October 12  @ 7:30 pm
October 21  @ 5:15 pm
October 28  @ 7:30 pm

In November and December we'll run on Tuesdays and Fridays (the second most popular times). This will make sure everyone that voted is represented.

How does that sound? Give me feedback if you'd like to see a different schedule.

See you in front of Rec Hall on the Nittany Lion Shrine side. Come and bring a friend for a non-competitive fun run! 

Also, appointments are available for help with your writing. Send me an email, and we can set up a time to discuss your concerns with your writing assignments. If you haven't stopped by my office yet, please do. I'm here to help you.

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