When to Write the Introduction

The first thing read, is the last thing written.

Every teacher loves to read a paper that begins with a strong, healthy introduction, one that has a hook, and narrows to a sound thesis, one that intrigues you, makes you want to read more because it gives you a roadmap of what to expect, one that discusses the gaps the paper will seek to fill. We teach our students these things, and we reiterate them in the Writing Center. One of the most important things we can tell them is when to write the introduction: How about last?

This is not to say that if they need to begin at the beginning, we are taught all things linear growing up, that they shouldn’t. I tell my students to go ahead, get it out, get the ball rolling, BUT don’t forget about it  just because you made it through and got to the “good stuff.” I remind them that the introduction is the first impression the paper makes, and sets the tone for the rest. I also remind them that it, including the thesis, can change as the paper evolves. I ask them to compare the conclusion and the introduction, to consider how pertinent, connected, focused what is being said in each is to the body. I tell them to wait until they are finished with the bulk of the paper, when they are “in the zone,” when they “own it,” and then revise the introduction.

I also find that often there is a “nugget” that is great in the conclusion, but it far greater if moved to the introduction, perhaps even as the hook (I did that with my opening line of this post.)

Here’s some terrific information on Introductions from UNC:

http://writingcenter.unc.edu/tips-and-tools/introductions/

 

Some Thoughts on “Academic Writing”

The semester has just begun. I cannot help but think of the new Freshmen because I have taught First Year Writing for the last three years. On the first day of class, I always ask them to write their definition of ”academic writing.” The usual answers are things like, “it’s more formal… it is precise…it is better language…” then, we talk about the definitions of ”formal, precise, and better.”

I give them an example from Q’s Legacy, by one of my favorite writers, Helene Hanff. She tells the story of how she, “wanted instruction in how to read and write English” (7). She went to the library, and discovered Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch’s On the Art of Writing. In it, he offers two sentences, one jargon, and one “good English prose”:

He was conveyed to his residence in an intoxicated condition.

He was carried home drunk.

Guess which one most of them choose. We then begin the discussion on “academic writing” and Standard American English, how good writing is not good mechanics, as well as an assortment of myths that need busting. L. Lennie Irvin talks about this in “What is ‘Academic’ Writing?”. He advises: “ Your success with academic writing depends upon how well you understand what you are doing as you write and then how you approach the writing task” (3).

Finding a voice for academic writing is a challenge to navigate, especially as a Freshman. Oftentimes, students are sure they are terrible writers, or they are superb, depending on their previous knowledge and experiences. The answer for each student is different. But, learning to write with more confidence makes a space for your academic voices (yes, there are more than one) to flourish. Here are some ideas on writing with confidence.

Works Cited

Hanff, Helene. Q’s Legacy. Penguin Books, 1985.

Irvin, L. Lennie. “What is ‘Academic’ Writing?”. Writing Spaces: Readings on Writing, Volume 1. Edited by Charles Lowe and Pavel Zemliansky, Parlor Press, 2010, pp. 3-17.

Greetings from the Writing Center, Fall 2017

Hello,

I’m Jeffery Downs, the new Writing Center Coordinator, at St. Edward’s. I have had the pleasure of serving St. Ed’s for the past two years as an adjunct teacher of First Year Writing. Now, I am excited to do even more for the students, and faculty, by coordinating the Writing Center.

We are located on the second floor of the Munday Library, and offer face to face, as well as asynchronous online collaboration/consultation for any type of writing assignment.

  • The St. Edward’s Writing Center is staffed by Writing teachers
  • Open Monday-Saturday
  • F2F, video, or online asynchronous submission
  • (ESL, multilingual students can find a great deal of support
  • From brainstorming to final draft, the WC can help
  • Not just for papers! We can also help with presentations, visual rhetoric, and other multimodal projects
  • We offer an environment of collaboration, not instruction
  • The website offers many resources for students to explore and use on their own–tools for their writing success

The Writing Center is always ready to work with you. Contact me at jdowns@stedwards.edu

Warm regards,

Jeffery Downs, MA

Writing Center Coordinator

St. Edward’s University, Austin, Texas

Giving Shape to a Stream-of-Consciousness Draft

The process of transitioning from research notes to a first draft can be daunting, and the creation of outlines and mind maps eases the way for many writers. But what if your favored method of working is a direct dive into writing pages and pages of exposition until you reach the conclusion? Can stream-of-consciousness drafts result in quality essays?

The truth is, readers can easily spot an essay that hasn’t been shaped. Some telltale signs are repetitiveness, disorganizationStreet signs, paragraphs that don’t align with topic sentences, and a conclusion that doesn’t match the thesis statement. To a professor, these are signs of a hastily crafted, night-before-it’s-due paper; to an editor, they’re signs that an author isn’t invested in the work being done. No matter what your writing timeline is, these are impressions to avoid, and there’s a relatively pain-free fix. It’s called “the reverse outline.”

Sometimes the mention of the word “outline” has writers rolling their eyes and envisioning roman numeral exercises from elementary school, but a reverse outline is a fast and simple method for revealing the bones of your work and is a critical part of the revising and editing process.  Here’s one method for reverse outlining:

  1. Read each paragraph, and write out the main point in the left margin.
  2. In the right margin, write down how each paragraph supports and advances the thesis.
  3. Review the right margin notes. Is there a logical build and direction that moves the reader from your thesis to the conclusion? If not, what needs to be shifted, added, or removed?
  4. Review the left margin notes. Are any main points repeated? Are there paragraphs where it was difficult to identify a main point? Are several main points jumbled together in the same paragraph? Are there sentences that don’t support the paragraph’s main point? What shifts might be necessary to resolve any of these issues?
  5. Making those shifts: move paragraphs, delete sentences, and clarify connections and focus.
  6. Note if there are sufficient signposts and transitions for the reader to follow the re-ordered argument and evidence.
  7. Carry on with your usual editing and proofreading from here!

For more on reverse outlining, see this Writing Center handout.

With a small bit of fine-tuning through the use of these reverse outline suggestions, a stream-of-consciousness draft can evolve into a logically structured essay with great flow while fully supporting the thesis and effectively guiding the reader to a logical conclusion. Not bad for avoiding the use of roman numerals! Even your elementary school teacher would be proud.

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Differences between Abstracts and Introductions in APA

Writing abstracts and introductions can be confusing for writers who are new to APA, but the process becomes simplified and the content differentiated when we consider how each section functions. Which serves as a concise summary of the complete article that could be easily used to index the work in a database? Which serves as a gentle entry into a topic, provides context, and postulates a thesis? If you’ve guessed that an abstract is the concise summary and an intro is the gentle entry, you’re absolutely right.

Understanding Abstracts

When submitting to a scholarly journal, you’ll definitely want to prepare an abstract. If the work’s end goal is assignment completion for a course, your professor’s requirement of including an abstract serves as a fantastic opportunity to develop the writing skills needed for publication. Abstracts are challenging to write and require practice because they’re so brief (under 250 words) and critical—they’re the hooks or “elevator speeches,” if you will, that are designed to draw readers to your research when source material is being perused. Abstract paragraphs should be rich in search terms that align with the main points of the overall work—this will also help guide traffic to your research if the published work is archived online.

Understanding Introductions

In an introduction, you establish the problem being studied and describe the context of your research. Unlike an abstract, a complete introduction may take a few pages, depending on the complexity of your work. There are several critical questions that need to be answered in an intro: What similar research does this work align with? How is this research furthering the conversation? What is the purpose of this study, and are there relevant theories that need to be introduced?

Here are some basics to become familiar with when developing abstracts and introductions…

Abstracts

  • Choose active voice instead of passive
  • Use present tense to discuss results and conclusions that are currently applicable
  • Use past tense to discuss measured outcomes
  • Stick to between 150 to 250 words (each journal will have its own limit)
  • Avoid evaluating the paper’s contents

Introductions

  • Move from the general to the specific, ending with a thesis
  • Describe relevant research, in brief, and provide appropriate citations
  • Explain the importance of the problem and need for research
  • Write for a wide professional audience, not just specialists
  • Avoid bias (especially when discussing controversy or conflicts)

Visually, the two sections will look very different on the page due to formatting requirements and varying lengths. It can be helpful to have a snapshot of how these sections look in a final document—check out pages 2 and 3 of the Purdue OWL’s APA sample paper. And, as always, if you have any questions as you draft your own abstracts and introductions, drop us a line: writingcenter@stedwards.edu.

If you would like additional details straight from the source, consult The Publication Manual of the APA, 6th edition, sections 2.04 (abstracts) and 2.05 (introductions).

 

 

 

 

 

 

Writing Exercise: Mimicry, Part 2

My last post was an introduction to the use of mimicry in writing as a tool for developing a writer’s voice. In this second half of the posted exercise, we’re going to try our hands at being copycats…for the sake of art.

If you’ve never done an imitation writing exercise before, granting yourself permission to be a hack may prove to be the first challenge. That fear of God that rises inside of a writer in near brushes with plagiarism is real—it serves the practical purposes of safeguarding work and respecting territory—and it can get in the way of allowing yourself the freedom to experiment. So, repeat with me: “I’m going to copy. I’m going to steal from talented writers.” You’re also not going to pass off a floundering word substitution exercise as a submission for The Atlantic (or for a class, unless your professor understands and agrees with your method!), so rest assured that you’re just flexing some underused muscles and testing your limits for the purposes of an exercise.

There are multiple approaches to imitation or mimicry exercises—you can substitute clauses while retaining punctuation, you can swap out words, and some writers even find value in transcribing text word-for-word to get a feel for the motion and rhythm of the original work. I’m going to select a passage and do my best to adhere to a rough sentence structure and theme. Feel free to play along with this passage or one of your own choosing.

  1. I’m giving myself a real humdinger of a complex and beautiful passage from Olga Grushin’s novel The Dream Life of Sukhanov:

“And slowly, as more recollections claimed him, all the accidentally intercepted glances and bitten lips and bright, insincere intonations slid into place, all the uncertainties were made certain, all the blank spots colored—and by the time Belkin turned to him with a new glass of colorless tea, he finally knew the truth, and his whole young past with Nina, with its sleepless rambles through the city, its flights of happiness, its ecstatic dreams, shifted, changed in time, became dimmer, sadder, more transparent, and at the same time more real” (2005).

Seriously. Isn’t that an incredible sentence?

  1. My second step is to identify the highlights of the passage, and I encourage you to do the same for a passage that you’ve selected. Here’s what I love about the excerpt from above and its author: Grushin is a pro at dragging the reader through her characters’ critical emotional crossroads, especially the ones where the unexpected barrels through and blindsides characters. Here, the anxiety is mounting as the main character of the novel sorts through memories of his wife and best friend, each recollection being tinted with a new sense of loss and betrayal in light of a freshly uncovered, disturbing truth about an enduring, clandestine love. The passage has a dizzying motion to it due to the movement from present to past to present to past to present, all while memories and reality are shifting. In the context of the story, the dizziness mirrors the physical and mental state of the unsteady main character, Sukhanov.
  1. Now for the hard part. Mimicking. Here’s my very basic shot at it (try your own, as well!):

Steadily, with a stream of regrets flooding her, all the paths she could’ve walked and canvases left untouched became rising, swift waters, all the wasted moments were droplets, all her talents were wind—and by the time Anna looked to her reflection, a pallid wash crossed with fine, worn tributaries, she realized that her youth, with its tired excuses, its manic spurts of partial paintings, its sullen dry spells, was lost, starkly barren, a fossilized, unchangeable history of inertia.

My aim for the exercise was to get a feel for Grushin’s structure, so I copied that as best as I could. I also wanted to fluctuate between past and present and stick with the themes of discovery and loss. The outcome is vastly different from anything that I would ordinarily write, and it’s refreshing and challenging to grapple with a complex structure when I gravitate toward a more straightforward, conversational style. What did I learn? This type of structure is really effective for engaging a reader in something that is typically boring to witness in real life: picturing a person untangling thoughts. The structure allows you to both see the person and experience revelations with that person. That’s one of the greatest beauties of writing, isn’t it?

I encourage you to test out a new style to see what can be learned and to push yourself out of the comfort zone. The process might bring about new themes for your work as well as adding variety to tired sentence structures, and it will certainly add dimension to your voice.

Writing Exercise: Mimicry, Part I

A writer’s voice is an ever-changing product of practice and exposure to others’ work. Much in the same way that we carry with us a gesture, a mannerism, a charm from each person who has influenced us in life, writers absorb structures, themes, cadences, and lyricism from authors. These essential adoptions in daily reading and writing practices add dimension to the timbre of writers’ voices and invite us to revisit classics and seek out new authors as part of our growth.

For novice writers, developing a voice is a critical challenge; some novices shift rapidly through styles and avoid cultivating a unique and mature voice while others stick with what they know and remain underdeveloped, firmly situated in a comfort zone. It can be hard for young poets, for example, to land confidently in a new verse structure. (If couplets are your cup of tea, why switch and brew up misery?) And it can be easy to write off a style without trying it out. Some fit like gloves while others seem to be shoes on the wrong feet. Growth. It’s a necessary, painful, and experimental stretch that can be eased through intentional development of voice. Enter the art of mimicry. Tell us all about it, T.S. Eliot:

One of the surest of tests is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest. Chapman borrowed from Seneca; Shakespeare and Webster from Montaigne. (“The Sacred Wood,” 1921)

According to Eliot, it isn’t so much about whether or not a writer will take from the masters (that’s a given, and you’re likely doing it to a degree without noticing); his test of a writer’s worth hinges on the quality and uniqueness of the resulting work. It takes exposure to great work and experience to develop into the “good poet,” and a writing practice that centers on absorption can take writers from the immature imitator to the master with a unique voice.

The first step of absorbing great work is analysis. All writers benefit from analyzing the work of influential authors—it doesn’t matter if you’re a poet looking to a novelist or a journalist looking to a screenwriter. Here’s an exercise to encourage you to seek out those who inspire you, and then I hope you’ll take some time to reflect on their work.

  • Identify a favorite author and one work from that author.
  • Identify what appeals to you about the author’s writing. Theme? Sentence structure? Narrative arc? Character development? Explore what is appealing about the handling of the identified elements.
  • Identify what doesn’t appeal to you or something that rings untrue in the work. What’s going on in the work at those turns?

Eventually, you’ll want to identify a sentence or paragraph that is particularly striking to you. Bookmark that page! We’re going to need that excerpt for the exercise that will be in my next post, “Writing Exercise: Mimicry, Part II.”

A Late Night Quandary about APA Abstracts

It’s midnight. Your paper is due tomorrow at 9 a.m. With coffee at your side, you’ve just settled into your chair, powered up your laptop, and pulled up the professor’s prompt on Canvas. And then it happens. You’ve just discovered a gray area in the assignment that seems like it might require an answer from your professor: Is an abstract needed for short papers when using APA style?

Now what? The first instinct is to go…

To the internet! The results of a Google search indicate that there isn’t a clear-cut answer to this question, unfortunately. You can often find incredibly helpful answers on APA style on the APA Style Blog or the Purdue OWL, but you’re not finding any answers this time around. You could spend another hour poking around for opinions online, or you could consult the actual APA manual, which you had the foresight to purchase at the start of your studies. Right? No? Okay. Never fear! Kindle is here. Instant information.

To the APA manual! It’s the go-to for students and editors alike. Section 2.04 of the sixth edition of the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (2010) describes the purpose of an abstract and states that “most scholarly journals require an abstract” (pp. 25-26). Well, you’re not planning to submit to a journal, so that isn’t terribly helpful in this scenario, and there doesn’t seem to be any mention of papers anywhere else in this section. The Kindle download wasn’t wasted money—you’ll be glad to have it when you’re working on your References page at 4 a.m.

Here’s the tough news: Your professor really is the only one who can answer the question of whether or not an abstract is needed for a short paper (unless you’ve got a buddy who already asked and can tell you the answer). Some style rules really are open to interpretation. The best course of action would be to err on the side of including an abstract rather than skipping it. Writing an abstract (which is best done *after* the paper is finished) is actually a pretty great way to test if your paper is cohesive, and it’s a chance to exercise concise writing (not to mention, it’s an opportunity to prep yourself for submitting to scholarly journals). It only requires between 150 to 250 words, so it truly won’t tack on much more work. Going the extra mile on a paper rarely has negative consequences, and the process will help you improve as a writer. As for the next time, thoroughly reviewing paper prompts on the first day that they’re accessible will allow ample time for questions and answers and avoid wild goose chases at midnight.

Civic Engagement 101: How to Write to Your Legislators

Photo of United States Capitol building

U.S. Capitol, photo by Flickr user ctj71081

Regardless of your politics, values, and opinions, chances are that at some point you have considered writing to a senator or elected representative. Whether you are writing in support of an action or in opposition to one, a few key techniques can ensure that your position is clear and that your voice gets counted.

1. Know whom to write to.

This is important. Members of Congress serve specific people: their constituents. Writing to a senator or representative who does not serve you is often a waste of time. For example, if you are writing to oppose or support a house of representatives bill, and the representative who introduced the bill is not your representative, writing that representative probably won’t get your voice on record. Instead, write to your own representative and ask them to oppose or support the bill. (It’s also helpful to know the process by which a bill becomes a law, so you know if and when your representative will have an opportunity to vote on the bill.)

What if you are a student attending college away from home? Just as you can choose to vote in either your home state or your school’s state, you can contact legislators from either your home state and district or your school’s state and district.

To find out who represents you in Congress (your state Senators and elected representative), enter your address at https://www.govtrack.us/congress/members. Note that different parts of a city, and even different parts of the same ZIP code, may be in different congressional districts. This is true in Austin, so if you move off campus or within Austin, your representative may change.

Members of Congress often do not make their email addresses public, so you may need to do a search for the person’s website, which will have a “contact” form. Other options are to send a physical letter, make a phone call, or make an appointment to visit in person.

2. Identify your purpose.

Identify one specific reason for the letter: Do you want to urge the person to oppose or support a piece of legislation? Do you want to request that they take action on a specific problem? Stick to one specific purpose per communication so that your position can be easily counted by the staffers who have to slog through all the mail.

3. Write formally and cordially.

Whether you’re writing an email or a physical letter, this is a formal letter—as formal as it gets! Use a clear and concise subject line. Use a salutation such as “Dear Senator Smith.” Then, identify yourself as a constituent and state your purpose. You may follow this with a second paragraph that briefly explains how the action or issue affects you or other constituents. End with a short paragraph that reiterates your position and thanks the person for their time or service. Use “Sincerely” before your name, and include your address (this is important, as it verifies that you are a constituent).

Do not make demands, be rude, use all caps, use all lowercase, omit punctuation, or use slang abbreviations.

4. Proofread.

Make sure the message is clear, professional, and error-free.

Interested in more resources on email writing? Here are three we like.

Featured Resources: Writer’s Block

Comedian Steve Martin once said, “Writer’s block is a fancy term made up by whiners so they can have an excuse to drink alcohol.” We know he was joking (isn’t Steve Martin always joking?) because anyone who has written as many books, magazine pieces, and plays as he has cannot have avoided writer’s block.

What is writer’s block? (Psych students, hold off—it’s not in the DSM.) Feel free to self-diagnose. Can’t figure out how to get started? Do you repeatedly write a line and then delete it in disgust? Have you found yourself in the middle of a paper without any idea of what you’re doing there? Sure, you have writer’s block! Here are some resources to help.

Overcoming Writer’s Block: This Writing Center handout suggests that maybe, if you’re stuck, you need to read your sources a bit more carefully, do some prewriting to develop your purpose and strategy, or work with a consultant in the Writing Center.

How to Crush Writer’s Block: This episode of Austin’s own Two Guys on Your Head podcast investigates the psychological and emotional reasons why writers get stuck and how they can get unstuck.

And finally, the Writer’s Block Instant Cure:

Follow any of this advice and you’ll be writing fluently again in no time. Happy writing!