You Don’t Need to Make Your Paper Longer

Originally posted on First Year Comp:

At about this point in the academic semester, you may be staring at the page limit on your assignment sheet and wondering how to make your paper longer. Perhaps you’ve written six pages, and the assignment asks for 8-10. And you really have nothing left to say. Forget about the page length. It’s not your biggest problem. You don’t need to make your paper longer. You just need to make it better.

First, let me say that instructors know absolutely every hack there is for making a paper appear to be longer than it actually is. They’ve memorized the chunky fonts. They recognize the difference between 1-inch margins and 1.25-inch margins at a glance. True double-space does not look the same as double-space-and-a-half. They are on the look out for big chunky quotes. To circumvent such attempts at filler, many instructors request specific word counts instead of specific page lengths…

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Want to Write a Good Research Paper? Start with a Good Question

Catherine Prendergast:

Second top post of all time, Reblogged:

Originally posted on First Year Comp:

Much of what experienced researchers learn is how to narrow down their questions to something they can study. Sure, we might be motivated by the big questions: “How can we cure cancer?” or “How did the universe begin—really?” Research that is doable, however, begins much more modestly. Half the battle in starting a research paper is recognizing an undoable question, and then deciding not to pursue it.

As with much of what I know about writing, I learned this when I wasn’t writing. On my 40th birthday I followed the advice of all magazines targeted to women over 40 (which, like a typical overachiever, I’d started reading at age 39) and decided to take up a new sport, something that would give my dwindling years new meaning, stall the ravages of time on my weakening frame, and make me feel “empowered.”  I was torn between surfing and tennis.  Looking…

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Can I Use “I” in my College Paper?

Catherine Prendergast:

Reblogging answer to one of the biggest question students have about writing:

Originally posted on First Year Comp:

The short answer: Yes.
But please keep reading.

“Can I use ‘I’ in my paper” is probably the number one question I hear students ask their college composition instructors. And the response they receive is always a version of the one I’ve given above. Yes. Yes, you can refer to yourself as “I” to demonstrate your authorship of your college paper. The first year composition classroom that would tell you “no,” is not one I would want to be in. A “no” would have to ignore overwhelming evidence that published academic writers use “I” constantly. They do so in virtually all fields to explain their methods, lay bare their prejudices, avow their doubts, and identify their arguments as theirs.

However, using “I” or not using “I” will make little difference in your grade. Mastering college writing isn’t a matter of memorizing and implementing a list of do’s and don’ts. If…

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How to Write your Paper’s Introduction: Get to the Point and Keep Going

Originally posted on First Year Comp:

You may have heard that when you’re writing an introduction for a paper, you must start with the general and go to the specific. In reality, the best introductions start specific. After that, they get even more specific.

Just how specific? Imagine, for a moment, that you have heart failure, and that you will die in a matter of days unless surgery to replace a faulty valve in your aorta succeeds. Your surgeon has just come into your room to explain the procedure. How would you want your surgeon to start this explanation? With a description of heart surgery techniques throughout the ages? With a chipper anecdote about the first time she saw a real human heart in medical school and almost puked? How about a line from a Shakespeare sonnet about the heart? Likely you would want your surgeon to explain what she’s going to do when she takes…

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How to Write a Strong Thesis Statement

Originally posted on First Year Comp:

There is only one way to write a strong thesis: Write a strong paper.

Strong words in a thesis do not make it strong. A thesis that is controversial is not necessarily strong. No one can tell you your thesis is strong just by reading it unless they have read the rest of the paper because no thesis is inherently “strong.”

Consider the following thesis:

The expansion of nuclear power in the United States would solve our energy crisis.

Is that a strong statement? Yes. It makes an assertion that is hotly contested. It takes a stand. It looks into the future and does not flinch. However, is it a strong thesis statement? I have no idea. If the rest of the paper can convince me that it is accurate, then it is. If not, it is just an unsupported claim. A thesis is only effective when supported by the…

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Instructor Pet Peeves

We all have pet peeves—those tiny vexations to which we are peculiarly sensitive.  Maybe for you it’s people who take up two parking spaces. Maybe it’s loud gum smacking. But think for a minute about those pet peeves you have about language. Maybe you hate it when people use “impact” as a verb. Maybe you don’t like contractions (sorry). Go ahead and make a list of your language pet peeves. It feels soooo good to write them all down. Then review your list. Then realize that everyone you know has a list that’s just as long, but completely different.

Your instructor is no exception.

Every instructor has either a written or mental list of things they hate to see in student papers.  And every instructor’s list is different. Think of instructors as if they were Starbucks customers: Each one likes their coffee—and their student papers—a specific way.  One instructor might be a Grande-Decaf-Chai-Latte. Another one might be a Venti-Iced-Soy-Cappucino. One instructor might be a Passive Voice-Generalizations-Split Infinitives, while another might be a Colloquialisms-Rhetorical Questions-Wikipedia. So how do you know which is which?

Instructors kind enough to publish their preferences in their syllabi and assignments are giving you fair warning. If they announce a pet peeve ahead of time, however, they may be more likely to grade your paper down for ignoring it. Often, though, you only find out what your instructor’s pet peeves are when your paper is handed back to you with corrections. To avoid losing points on pet peeves, imagine that you are the Starbucks barista, and your instructor has just approached the counter with assignment in hand. But rather than ask them, “What can I get started for you today?” ask them if there’s anything in particular they do not like to see in student papers.

If you want to be extra careful, seize the initiative by studying style manuals describing common pet peeves.  Chances are your instructor may be sent up the wall by at least one of the following:

Colloquialisms (slang)

Split infinitives (“to boldly go”)

Adverbs (“boldly”)

Sentence Run-ons

Sentence Fragments

Contractions

Italics

Hyper-nominalization (“utilization” instead of “use”)

Homophone Screw-ups (Their, there, they’re; its and it’s; to and too; your, you’re)

Nouns as Verbs (“impact”)

Passive Voice

Citing the Dictionary

Citing Wikipedia

Stereotypes (“Women prefer…”)

Generalizations (“In society…”)

“In conclusion…”

Starting Sentences with a Preposition

Ending Sentences with a Preposition

One Word Sentences

Etc.

Exclamation Points

Rhetorical Questions

British Spellings (if in America)

American Spellings (if in Britain)

Use of “I,” “you,” or “one”

“To be” Verbs

“Since” used as “Because”

“While” used as “Although”

No Page Numbers

Serifed Fonts

Sans Serifed Fonts

Paperclips instead of Staples

Staples instead of Paperclips

As the last few pet peeves indicate, one instructor’s pet peeve can be another instructor’s requirement. It will not help you to remind your instructor of this fact. Pet peeves are not about correct or incorrect, (though, really, get those homophones and sentence boundaries down). They are matters of preference and, as such, are not subject to outside arbitration.  Seem unfair? Yeah, it probably is. But before you judge, the next time you’re in a Starbucks, force yourself to walk to the counter and order just “coffee.” We all have pet peeves.

Breaking the Mold: What to Say in the Sixth Paragraph

If you have found your way to this blog, you have probably at some point learned how to write a five paragraph essay. You know how it goes: You begin with your introductory paragraph presenting the thesis, proceed to three body paragraphs that give supporting points in order of strength, and end with a conclusion that restates the thesis and offers a concluding remark.

The funny thing about the five paragraph essay is that nobody likes it, but nobody can kill it. Most teachers hate it, but they have to teach it because it helps their students succeed on standardized tests that are used to assess their school’s performance. The people who design the standardized tests don’t like the five paragraph essay because it games the system, producing too much of a standardized response. Students don’t like writing the five paragraph essay because, well, it’s bad writing. But nobody hates them more than college composition instructors who have to un-teach them so that their students can learn how to write papers that meet university level expectations.

Why does the five paragraph fail to work in college? It generally contains little to no research. It has no clear audience. It is usually voiceless, or if it has a voice, it is that of an opinionated robot, say, C-3PO. It presents complex problems as though they were simple. It says nothing new, and it says it more than once. For this reason, it fails to inform. Worst of all, it appears to be harder to kick than cigarettes.

Did the five paragraph essay teach you some skills you might use in college? Some. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t jettison it now. Trying to write a college level paper in five paragraphs is like trying to balance the chassis of an SUV on tricycle training wheels.

So how do you kick the five paragraph habit?

Write the sixth paragraph.

I’m not talking about another body paragraph that adds one more point to support the thesis. I’m talking about the sixth paragraph, the one after the conclusion. The one where you say, “Up to this point, I’ve described how the mainstream media typically portrays this issue, but here at universities where we do research, we understand that that’s hokum.”

Then, you can begin your real paper. The real paper will take one point, and one point only from your five paragraph essay, and rigorously examine it. For example, if your five paragraph essay was on why you forgo the cinema to watch movies at home, you might re-examine your one point that movie theater behavior has become distracting, with patrons checking cell phones and teenagers giggling and throwing popcorn in the front row. Well that’s an observation. But what hard evidence do we have that watching a movie in a cinema is any more distracting than watching a movie at home, where the doorbell can ring, siblings can come in arguing, or the Internet can go belly-up, disrupting your Netflix stream? Do we have studies—real academic research—that would measure the level of distraction present in cinemas versus at home? Virtually every phenomenon has some researcher studying it and publishing about it an academic journal. Find the research.

Next, consider your audience: Who would most readily accept as true your point that movie theater behavior is too distracting? Who would challenge it? Maybe teenagers like giggling in a place away from the watchful eyes of parents. Perhaps some patrons are checking their cell phones because they like sharing details of the movie on social network sites. One person’s annoying distraction is another person’s enhanced experienced.

Change your question. Instead of asking yourself, why have I stopped going to the movie theater, ask instead, why is it that so many people do continue to pay a ridiculous price for a ticket, sit through previews and now commercials, only to place themselves 100 feet and several knees from the nearest bathroom when they could watch virtually any movie they want for much less money at home? What is the continued draw? If you can’t find any research on the subject, perhaps you could conduct your own, surveying and interviewing people as to what brings them to the movie theater.

That sixth paragraph is your invitation to break the mold of the five paragraph essay. It is your door into a paper that can succeed in a college environment. Write the sixth paragraph even a few times, and you’ll never have to write the first five again.

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