Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics: Credible Arguments and your Composition Paper

Originally posted on First Year Comp:

You may have heard that you need to “back up” your argument with outside sources—quotes from academic experts, maybe a statistic or a bar graph. Certainly an academic paper must cite outside sources in order to be credible. You gain your reader’s trust by showing that you have done the work of locating and citing existing scholarship on the subject of your research. But none of what you’re going to find is going to “back up” your argument. Here’s why.

“I need back-up” is what cops say on cop shows when they feel outgunned and want another body to double their show of force “through the door.” You, too, may feel outgunned as you launch into your paper’s argument. You face the daunting task of speaking “up” to an instructor who has more degrees than you do, as well as the institutional authority to decide whether or not your argument…

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What the Flow?

Originally posted on First Year Comp:

If you’re new to college writing, you may be concerned about whether or not your paper “flows.” “Tell me if it flows” is what I most often hear students say as they pass their drafts around for peer review. If “flow” is on your mind, take another look at the assignment your instructor gave you. Look at what your instructor has asked you to do, and what they have said they expect from your writing. I would bet my Iphone that nowhere in that grading rubric does it say, “Flow: 30%.”

I have never had an experienced writer hand me a piece of their writing and ask me if it flows. So lately I’ve started wonder, what is flow, really? How did flow become the sine qua non of college writing? The je ne sais quoi? That thing instructors never ask for, but students nonetheless feel they cannot fail…

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When You Don’t Understand Your Assignment

Catherine Prendergast:

Back to school reading!

Originally posted on First Year Comp:

A colleague of mine directs a writing center offering tutorial help to students of a large university. One year, he surveyed his clientele to find out how soon before a paper was due they had sought the center’s help. Did students most frequently come in two weeks before a paper was due? One week? Four days? In fact, the most frequent answer was none of the above. The most frequent answer students gave for when they sought help was two days before the paper was due. The second most frequent answer was—wait for it—the day before the paper was due. My colleague was disconsolate. He knew that 24 hours was not enough time to help students who were writing the wrong paper because they had misunderstood their assignment.

When is the best time to begin your writing assignment? Is it somewhere between three days and a week and a half…

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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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