Non-Fiction Writing Tips

Over the last decade or so of teaching composition, I’ve come up with a variety of ways to look at and discuss different elements of writing. Because various people “click” with different explanations, I’ve had to try out a variety of analogies and such during that time. For this week, I figured I’d pass on a few of the most effective ones:

Before the analogies, I do want to stress the importance of prewriting. Whether brainstorming, outlining, webbing, or whatnot, or some combination of methods, prewriting is extremely helpful. Personally, I find brainstorming followed by outlining to be the most effective, as the outline gives me a sort of checklist for my main ideas. But, everyone is different and that combination may not work for all people. This is one way in which writing is an art, something everyone has to experiment with to see what works best for them.

One of the things students seem to have the biggest problems with is introductions. Basically, every introduction should include three things: an attention grabber, a thesis, and a brief outline of major points.

To help, I like to use the analogy to a movie trailer. This seems to be the most effective analogy. Basically, an essay introduction is very much like a movie trailer. It is the one paragraph summary of the essay. It needs to provide enough information to draw the reader in, but not so much that the reader decides there’s no point in buying the movie ticket.

Another way to consider introductions is to place oneself in the role of researcher. The researcher has ten articles, each of twenty pages. Would the researcher rather read through 200 pages of material to determine which articles are useful, or ten paragraphs (say, five pages)? The answer should be obvious.

To clarify for the science and math folks: a thesis is the same thing as a hypothesis. We’re just lazy over in the humanities. For everyone: a thesis is an arguable theory. It is a possible answer to a question. So, every research project, every essay, begins as a question. The thesis is an answer to that question. It is also the Big Idea™ that every part of the project-essay will refer back to.

An essay, an article, is made up of claims. Sometimes, especially in elementary through high school, these are also called topic sentences or paragraph theses. Claims are usually the first sentence of a paragraph. They must be arguable, e.g. they need to be proven, and they need to relate back to the over all thesis. Basically, a claim is a miniature thesis.

Thesis-Claim Relationship
As noted, claims always need to relate back to the thesis. But, students often ask about the difference between a thesis and a claim. I’ve found this analogy works well in answering the question:

The thesis is the roof of a house.
The claims are the walls of a house.
The evidence is the foundation of the house.

With no roof, the house isn’t very effective. Without a thesis, the essay isn’t going to be effective. Additionally, the thesis acts like a roof in that it is the overarching, all-covering idea.

With weak walls, the house collapses. With weak or no claims, the essay falls apart since nothing is there to support the roof-thesis.

With a weak foundation, a house settles and collapses. With weak or no evidence, the essay collapses because there is nothing to support the claims and therefore the thesis.

Writer vs. Quotes
Another major question students often ask is how much they should quote. Many instructors have a minimum number of quotes requirement. I’ve always avoided that, it tends to lead people to build the argument and essay around the quotes, rather than using quotes in a support role. My answer to the question of how many quotes is: However many you need to fully support your argument. That said, if the writer finds that (s)he is stringing quotes together, then there are too many. The voice of the writer must still be there; if the instructor (editor, publisher, reader) wanted to read, say, Thoreau, they’d read Thoreau, instead, they want to read Writer and Writer’s ideas.

The other caveat is that every field of study is different in terms of quoting. In literature, we tend to quote more than other fields because the words are our data. In psychology (APA), the rule is to summarize or paraphrase, reserving direct quotes for use only when there is absolutely no better way to say things. Other fields fall somewhere in between.


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