Writer Advice: Getting from A to B, or Transitions

A common issue for early stage writers, although it appears with more experienced people as well, is transitions. These are the sentences and phrases that link paragraphs together. They serve to demonstrate how we are moving from one point to the next; they connect points A and B.

In short, transitions show the chain of logic that the writer is making.

Transitions can be seen akin to middle school algebra.

For example, a teacher writes: X + 5 = 10

Most people say, “X = 5”

Teacher says, “Show your work.”

Most people grumble and groan.

But, the teacher wants to see X + 5 – 5 = 10 -5; X = 5 because it shows the chain of logic. That becomes important when we get 2X + 3Y = Z – 5.

That chain of logic is important for linking evidence to claims and shifting between claims.

This is one reason that I like outlining before writing. With a formal outline, there is a good, visual representation of the main claims. These can be manipulated and moved around to where they best fit, compared to the other claims. It is, in my experience, always best to group claims based on what relationship they have to each other. That is, putting related claims next to each other. With that sort of organization, the transitions tend to be smoother, because the points are more closely related.

The chain of logic, aided by the transitions, or as shown by the transitions, makes the argument easier for the reader to follow. If the reader has a difficult time following the argument, then they aren’t focusing on the content, they’re focusing on the structure and trying to figure out what’s going on. This, obviously, is not good for convincing the reader. Rather, we want to make things easy for the reader to follow, so they don’t have to work so hard trying to figure out structural elements—ex. organization, syntax—and can spend more time chewing on the argument itself. Ultimately, that will produce a more convincing argument, or a more productive discussion.

Personally, I find that one of the easiest ways to create a smooth transition is the use of echoing language.  By echoing, I mean using one or two similar terms (or concepts) in the last sentence of paragraph A and the first sentence of paragraph B.

For example:

Her concern comes after years of knowing Lupin, the clearest exception to the prejudicial stereotype, and at a time far removed from a full moon.

The source of this prejudiced view, and its racial connotations, is nowhere more evident than in the words of Dolores Umbridge . . .

(Note the echoing of “prejudicial” and “prejudiced”.)

Alternately, referring to the next main point can create a smoother transition.

For example:

the medieval construct of sympathetic versus monstrous werewolf forms a lens through which Rowling discusses Lupin’s lessons as well as a historical connection to our literary past.

In Rowling’s work, the primary werewolf—Lupin—serves to directly educate key characters . . .

Here the last sentence of paragraph A links the idea of an old dichotomy to the concept of learning/education, with the first sentence of paragraph B moving straight into education.

 

Writer Advice: Intros and Such (Non-Fic)

Tail end of the semester has started (one week until finals here) and I’ve been focusing my writing time on some fiction/world pieces rather than blog stuff, so I thought I’d take a quick break from story posting to put up some advice.  A lot of the advice I give regarding writing, particularly non-fiction, comes from things I’ve seen crop up often over the last 13 years of teaching and tutoring.

Introductions & Theses

One of the most difficult things for a lot of writers, especially new ones, to do is introductions.

 Each introduction, in a formal non-fiction essay, needs to have three things:

1) Something to get the reader’s attention.

2) A brief outline of the major claims.

3) The thesis.

 There are many ways to get the reader’s attention from telling a joke or an anecdote to inserting a surprising statistic or a rhetorical question. Sometimes the thesis itself gets the reader’s attention.

 Outlining the claims is relatively easy, just a one sentence list (for shorter works) of the main points.

 The thesis can be the really difficult part.

 A thesis is also known as a hypothesis or theory. It is the overarching idea and argument of the paper. Alternatively, we can think of the thesis as the roof of the house—the roof covers the house and is supported by the claims (walls) which are, in turn, supported by the evidence (foundation). A thesis is always a sentence and always answers a question. It is, in effect, a theoretical answer that the writer will attempt to prove with claims and evidence.

 The simplest way to produce a thesis, in my experience, is to figure out what question you’re asking as a writer/researcher. Without the core question, developing a thesis becomes very difficult. With the question in mind, creating a thesis becomes infinitely easier.

 A couple analogies that I use for introductions follow:

 1) Think of the introduction as a movie trailer or TV preview. The two minute version of the movie is designed to get the reader interested, but not give away so much that they refuse to pay for a ticket.

 2) As a researcher, you have 10 articles that you found. Each article is 20 pages long. So, as a writer, ask yourself: would you rather read 200 pages to determine if the articles are useful or would you rather read 10 paragraphs? I’m guessing most people would prefer 10 paragraphs. So the introduction should provide enough information for a casual reader to decide whether the essay should go in the “Useful”, “Not Useful”, or “Maybe” piles of their research.

Who Can You Trust?: Source Evaluation

Thanks to some conversations recently, I’ve been thinking about evaluating sources. Obviously, this is something I’ve taught for years in the classroom setting, but I think it is even more important to consider in a wider context given the growing propensity for people to link articles in online discussions (arguments, rants, whatever) as evidence (or “evidence”).

So, why should we evaluate sources? Why not just go grab the first online articles that seem to agree with our positions?

Several reasons, really, but the most important is: just because a source agrees with your position, does not mean that it is a good source.

Again, so what?

To best convince an open minded audience, we need to present the best possible evidence. Part of doing so is presenting evidence from solid, reputable, credible sources.

So, how do we determine a source’s credibility?

Just because it’s written (or on the interwebs), this does not mean that it is credible or reputable. Honestly, anyone can write anything. And these days it’s easier than ever before for anyone to publish whatever the heck they want to, whether it’s true or a drug induced mental rambling. This is one reason that scholars and other professional researchers are often skittish about internet and self-published materials.

Here are some useful criteria, gleaned and boiled down from a variety of collections of criteria found in dozens of writing and research handbooks (this is by no means a complete discussion):

1) Authorial Reputation and Associations

As we know, most writers and speakers have reputations for various things and everyone is associated with something. For example, we know that Mike Huckabee is an evangelical conservative and is associated with Fox News while Al Gore is an outspoken environmentalist. These reputations create certain expectations. They can also help us determine whether the individual is typically trustworthy, approaches multiple perspectives fairly, or not. A recent example I saw was an article written about problems with the Canadian health care system, written by a person who works for a public policy group. One of that ppg’s primary goals is to dismantle the Canadian health care system, so the author’s reliability is suspect.

2) Publisher/Host Reputation

Just as authorial reputations influence whether we can call a source reliable, so does the reputation of the publisher (or web-host). And this varies from topic to topic. For instance, we can consider the Harlequin publishing group an excellent source for the romance genre of novels; however, they would certainly not be a reputable publisher for sources on nuclear physics. On the other hand, the Oxford University Press has spent over 600 years building a strong reputation for solid publications in a range of fields.

3) Obvious Bias

Does the source make clear its bias without attempting objectivity? Obviously, a purely objective position is impossible to achieve, however any good piece of journalism, scholarship, policy, etc. should at least attempt to be as objective in tone as possible. For example, Ludwig Von Mises’s Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis is a fairly obvious propaganda piece that does nothing to appear objective—one of the first lines is even a logical fallacy (either/or fallacy).

4) Whom Do They Reference?

This is important with all sources, really, although it is more obvious with print. Most print non-fiction will include a list of source material consulted by the author. A read through that list should bring up some recognizable names within the field the source is in. For example, in a source of medieval magic, I would expect to see Carlo Ginzburg’s name come up; for medieval childhood, Barbara Hanawalt should be in there somewhere; etc. Likewise, virtually every article online references other articles, interviews, or other sources. These sources of information for the writer are important to look at, both for veracity of data and credibility of the original source.

5) Do They Look at Multiple Angles or Perspectives?

One way to present objectivity, and build the author’s credibility, is to look, honestly, at multiple perspectives on an issue or topic. By honestly, I mean by clearly and truthfully presenting the other positions without resorting to stereotypes, ad hominem, or misrepresentation of the arguments. This lends both credibility and objectivity in that it shows the author looked at the topic from a number of directions and chose one in particular as best, or synthesized one of out many, rather than simply starting with a single premise, putting on blinders, and ignoring any other ways of looking at the topic.

6) What’s the Context?

No material is created in a vacuum. Everything ever written is produced within a cultural-historical moment that influences it, or even acts as a catalyst for its creation. For instance, MLK’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech was written in 1963. If the year had been 1943, the speech would have been very different, likewise if it had been 1983. But, that doesn’t tell us about credibility. Because culture influences thought and source creation, cultural biases and issues come into play as well. For example, it is difficult to trust an anti-socialism source from the early-1950s in the U.S., because of the effect of McCarthyism (e.g. a pro-socialist book would never get published, the author would be blacklisted, and the author would potentially be deported or face imprisonment as a Soviet spy). So, even if the author thought socialism was the greatest thing since sliced bread, (s)he would write that it is evil as a means of self-preservation.

7) Can the Information Be Confirmed by Unrelated Sources?

One of the most important, and potentially difficult, measures of source reliability is confirmation. That is, can the claims be confirmed with reference to other sources. The difficulty is that the other sources must be unrelated to the first and must reference different primary sources (studies, interviews, etc). For example, recently someone in a discussion posted links to three articles—one from a conservative website, one from a left leaning site, and one from CBS—that all said the same thing. On the surface, this is good. However, all three cited the exact same study, from the exact same conservative public policy group (in fact, the second one, on the left leaning site, was written by a senior fellow of said group). So, there was no credibility in terms of data confirmation, since they all used the same primary data source.

8) Has the Work Been Peer Reviewed?

For print, and eprint, works, particularly those from scholarly writers, the question of peer review arises. Peer review (double blind) basically means that two people, experts in the same field, read the document and decide: print as is, print with modification, or do not print. The author gets feedback from the reviewers, modifies as needed, and the piece gets printed. This is essentially quality control for the written word. It keeps publishers and journals from printing materials written by individuals who have no knowledge or expertise in the appropriate field(s), usually. Versus non-reviewed sources that literally anyone can publish.

9) For Online Sources, Who’s the Sponsor?

With online sources, it can be difficult to determine who produced the material or what the goal of the organization hosting it is. So, we can also look for the sponsor of the website, e.g. who pays the bills. Then we apply the same criteria to the sponsor as to the publisher or author.

10) For Online Sources, What’s the URL Suffix?

I know it has been said before as well, but the URL suffixes can be helpful in determining web source reliability. As we know, the most common is .com (commercial site; e.g. they’re selling something), probably not the best option. After that, .org (non-profit organization), which will likely have obvious biases that need to be accounted for. Perhaps the most reliable are .gov (government), .edu (American academic), and .ac (academic network; non-U.S.), as they generally undergo some standards for posting and review of materials.

Art Research, Please

I’ve been getting a little annoyed and frustrated with fantasy artists lately. In particular, I’ve been seeing a lot of fantasy artists who clearly have done no research into armor or weaponry. Yes, it’s fantasy. Yes, there’s some room for creative interpretation and such. But, even fantasy need some plausibility and a nod to basic physics and physiology.

Example 1: The cover of John Flanagan’s Emperor of Nihon-Ja
This cover has a fictional fantasy society based on Japan complete with samurai. Good so far. The bad part: the samurai on the cover are all right handed (good), but have their katana scabbards on their right hips. This means they can’t draw their swords. Sure, they can draw with their off-hand (the bottom hand), but that’s the power hand, not the control hand with a katana. Drawing with the power hand would make a lot of maneuvers virtually impossible.

Example 2: “Neverwinter Noble” (unknown artist)
This artist has no idea how shields are used and didn’t bother to find out. His figure has a shield. However, the guy’s arm is strapped in along the kite shield’s long axis. Why is this a problem? Two reasons. First, he loses shield coverage by placing the narrow axis vertical while the long axis is horizontal. Second, placing the long axis horizontal will interfere with his sword use.

Example 3: Pauldron Guy (unknown title and artist)
I’m calling this one “Pauldron Guy” because of the right pauldron on his armor. Basically, it’s an image of a guy in heavy plate armor. The pauldron on his right (sword) arm which should just cover his shoulder extends as a single piece of unarticulated metal down to his elbow. The problem? He can’t move his arm above the elbow. This makes his sword useless. Sure, he could bend his arm at the elbow and swing his hips around, but that’s going to lack significant power and be really easy to block. So, as a combatant, he can be ignored.

Example 4: Super Swords
Finally there are the anime inspired “super swords”. The swords that are twice as tall and just as wide as the person supposedly using them. I think the description says enough about them. They just need to go away, they were never a good idea.

Urban Centers Fiction & Reality

Writers of urban fantasy, near future sci-fi, even mystery, historical, and other genres have an important setting decision to make: real or fictitious city? The answer to the question offers a variety of opportunities and potential problems.

There are several benefits to choosing a real city as a setting. First and foremost, the city is already named. Real cities also have maps, politics, locations, notable people, and histories already “pre-made” as it were. This can be great for writers as it saves a lot of the creation process. All the writer has to do is personalize the city to fit his/her worldbuild and genre (e.g. add magical sites, intervening history, tech modifications, fictitious agency offices). Additionally, real cities, particularly famous ones, have reputations, a feel, and form preconceptions in the readers’ minds: compare expectations of New York or Las Vegas to London or Beijing. William Gibson made especially good use of the city’s feel in his foundational cyberpunk works, employing Tokyo his primary inspiration. Ilona Andrews’ magic post-apocalypse Atlanta works well in this respect as well.

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On the other hand, using a real city requires a significant amount of research and even a number of visits or long term visits to the city. Invariably, if a real city is chosen, there is going to be at least one reader who lives in or is very familiar with the city. Said readers will jump on errors in description of places, the city’s feel, and the like. Michael Scott and his Nicholas Flamel series is a great example of the level of research necessary, as he explicitly states that he repeatedly visited San Francisco, Paris, and London before writing his series (the vast majority of which occurs in the three cities). Using a real city can also open the writer up to a certain amount of ridicule, depending on the plot and genre. Case in point, the number of jokes circulating the web about the most recent run of Dr. Who and its use of London–ex. a Time Lord can travel anywhere in space and time, but he seems to spend an awful lot of time in early-21st century London.

Fictitious cities have the benefit of being tailored to the writer’s wishes and needs. The writer is not limited to a real place’s history, politics, or geographic limitations. Nor are there reader preconceptions. Fictitious cities also allow for secret societies and hidden communities, such as Eureka’s town Eureka and Sanctuary’s Old City. In both cases, the writers are given free rein to do whatever they wish with the city, in terms of initial design.

On the other hand, fictitious cities take a lot more work in some ways. They have to be designed from the ground up, including mapping, history, businesses and other sites, politics, famous people, cultural feel, everything. Even woth fictional cities, many writers take short cut by borrowing from real cities for some elements, or being inspired by real cities. This even comes into play with maps, ex. Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series, where he mapped his city by taking NYC and giving it a quarter turn. Another effect of fictional cities can be ambiguity of location, which can be a pro or con depending in one’s perspective. Case in point, Charles de Lint’s Newford, which American readers generally think is Canadian while Canadian readers tend to think Newford is an American city. De Lint says it was inspired by both, but tends to use U.S. laws.