Stay Focused on Purpose
It is critical to keep focused on the purpose of your writing. If you are planning an essay, start with at least a scratch outline and a working thesis – a starting thesis that you know you might change as you draft your paper. If you are writing an essay exam or paper, be sure to identify the key terms in the instructions such as the following and don’t stray from the topic and/or question or what the instructions say to do: analyze, clarify, classify, compare, contrast, define, describe, discuss, evaluate, explain, identify, illustrate, interpret, justify, relate, summarize, support, or trace. Remember to review and revise. See Writing Process and Outlining.
A good paper must have coherence. This means that all the ideas should be in a logical order and fit together like links in a chain. One way to do this is to have an overall plan for how the paper will develop, such as in an outline. Another is to use transitional devices.
Transitional devices are a word or words that help one sentence or paragraph flow into the next.
The weather looked threatening. They went on their picnic.
In the above example, we are unsure how these two ideas relate to each other.
The weather looked threatening. Nevertheless, they went on their picnic.
Now we understand the relationship between the ideas. The word Nevertheless serves as a transitional device from one sentence to the next.
Transitional devices can be more than just a word. They can also be entire phrases.
In spite of the cloudy sky, they went on their picnic.
The words In spite of the cloudy sky are a transitional device.
Just as there should be transitions between sentences, paragraphs should also link together. There are a few ways to do this.
Refer to key words or thoughts from the thesis.
- Refer to key words or ideas from the preceding paragraph.
- Use transitional expressions.
- Use transitional sentences.
Using transitions in your paper like using signals when you drive. Imagine following someone in a car who is leading you to a place you’ve never been before. Think about how difficult it would be to follow him to the correct destination if he didn’t signal! Just as in driving, you don’t want to take a turn in your paper and risk leaving your readers behind.
Using examples is a way to explain or to prove that our position is accurate. Examples can be true or actual situations or they can be hypothetical.
Using examples are more effective if they are close to or exactly the same circumstances as in the case you are trying to prove. If a person can think to themselves that there is a significant difference, the example will not be effective.
If you are using an actual event, you should be careful to be sure you are familiar with the details. If not, using the example can backfire and convince the person of the opposite.
If you use a hypothetical situation as an example, you should think it through completely first. Again, if it is not a good example, it would weaken your position.
Attorneys use example to argue cases. In fact, if they can present a previously decided case in the same jurisdiction that matches up with the existing decision, the judge must decide in their favor. The supportive case has to be “on all fours,” that is, match up on all the essential points.
Using Facts and Statistics
Facts and statistics can be very persuasive. In fact, a critical reader will challenge the accuracy or the legitimacy of the sources for purported facts and statistics.
It is important to investigate those ourselves before we use information that is supposed to be factual. We should know exactly where the information comes from and evaluate whether the source is credible. It is not a good idea to present information as though it is a fact unless you know it is a fact.
Statistics can be manipulated. An educated audience will pick that up and you’ll lose credibility if they sense that the presentation of statistics is not honest.
Here’s an example:
A board president claimed that ninety percent of the people who responded to a survey wanted a certain action taken. When asked how many responded to the survey, he answered that ten people had responded.
Primary and Secondary Sources
A primary source is a source written by the person providing the information. If you get information from your friend, the friend is the primary source.
In research, it is preferable to get information directly from the source when it is available.
Secondary sources are not directly from the provider of the information. It is like getting information about what Joan said from John. This information is not as reliable as primary sources. However, it is common practice for authors to include what others have said in their articles and analyze what was said.
Using Analysis Effectively
Using examples and facts can support your paper, but simply using these is not enough; you must also think critically about what you have read and react to it. Analysis means to go beyond the obvious and beyond what is literally in the text.
It is very tempting when writing a paper to simply paraphrase or summarize a source than it is to think critically about what was written. Often, when the source is difficult to understand, just repeating his or her words may seem simpler.
Analysis, however, requires a complete understanding of the point the author is making because you must take a complex idea, break it down in to smaller, simpler parts, and then figure out how they fit together.
We compare and contrast things all the time in life to make decisions from where we buy our groceries to what car to buy. Just as in life, college papers also often require comparing and contrasting. You might have to compare two historic events, world leaders, or poems. Often, even if it is not required, ideas become clearer when you evaluate them in relation to one another.
It is important to remember to be fair when contrasting ideas to show that one is superior. If you note only the strengths of one and only the faults of the other, your readers may determine that your argument is weak or not credible.
One way to do this is to think about how they are similar in addition to how they differ. Take the words liberal and conservative for example. Usually these are seen as very different things, but they do have similarities. They both are political philosophies, they both have a moral underpinning, and they both have people who passionately support their ideals.
It is important, especially when dealing with a complex topic, that you define all the key terms in your argument. This is important because not all definitions are universally agreed upon. Take the idea of immigration reform. For some this could mean providing a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants; for others, it could mean tighter border security.
How you define something influences how you and your audience see a particular issue. Even the terms used to describe an issue can influence the reader. Take for example the difference in calling someone an “illegal immigrant” versus an “undocumented worker.”
Using the first entry in a standard dictionary is not usually sufficient, especially when writing about something very technical. Some areas have specialized dictionaries to define specific terms. The word gross is used very differently if used in everyday language or by a medical clinician. In everyday language, the word gross means awful or disgusting. However, in medical language the word gross means large.
Be careful not to use vague or judgmental words in your definition as it can seem to your readers that you are biased or imprecise.
Persuasion and Argument
In a way, all communication has a purpose: to persuade or argue for the validity of what is being said. Even when a person is expressing an emotion, effective communication involves convincing the audience that those feelings are legitimate.
The same strategies used to develop a good writing are used when the purpose is specifically to persuade. Transitional devices, use of examples, facts and statistics, primary and secondary sources, analysis, comparison/contrast, and definitions are ways to prove your point.
See the difference in how these strategies can be used for persuasion.
A simple sentence:
It was a cold day.
In addition to being dark and cloudy, it was a cold day.
It was so cold that the chill of the air was felt right through layers of clothing.
It was a record-breaking cold with temperatures plummeting below 15o F.
According to Jones, “Temperatures fell as though we were entering another Ice Age.”
Goldstein agreed: “This cold wave surpasses any recorded to date” (qtd. in Jones).
The measurement of what is considered a cold day includes the temperature and humidity reading along with any wind-chill factor.
It was so cold this year that the strawberries froze and fell to the ground whereas last year’s crop survived the freeze.
The temperature at which water freezes is 32o F. This is typically the temperature used to describe weather conditions as freezing.
Visuals – pictures, charts, graphs, drawings, and diagrams; not appropriate in writing for all courses – check with instructor if not indicated on assignment