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Guide to Writing Analytically

Writing Anayltically coverHere's a summary I put together for myself from Writing Analytically, with Readings (2nd Edition) by David Rosenwasser & Jill Stephen, while borrowing from a friend.


Chapter 1 - Introduction: Fourteen Short Takes on Writing and the Writing Process
  1. Thinking About Writing as a Tool of Thought
  1. Learning to write well means learning ways of using writing in order to think well.
  2. Through writing, we figure out what things mean, which is this book’s definition of analysis.
  3. The book will make you much more aware of your own acts of thinking and will show you how to experiment more deliberately with ways of having ideas — for example, by sampling kinds of informal and exploratory writing that will enhance your ability to learn.
  4. The analytical process is surprisingly formulaic. It consists of a fairly limited set of basic moves. People who think well have these moves at their disposal, whether they are aware of using them or not. Analysis, the book argues, is a frame of mind, a set of habits for observing and making sense of the world.
  1. Analysis: A Quick Definition
  1. Analysis seeks to discover what something means. An analytical argument makes claims for how something might be best understood and in what context.
  2. Analysis deliberately delays evaluation and judgment.
  3. Analysis begins in and values uncertainty rather than starting from settled convictions.
  4. Analytical arguments are usually pluralistic; they tend to try on more than one way of thinking about how something might be best understood.
  1. What Do Faculty Want from Student Writing?
  1. Analysis rather than passive summary, personal reaction and opinions
  2. Analysis before argument, understanding in depth before taking a stand
  3. Alternatives to agree-disagree & like-dislike responses
  4. Tolerance of uncertainty
  5. Respect for complexity
  6. Ability to apply theories from reading, using them as lenses
  7. Acquiring and understanding the purpose of disciplinary conventions
  8. Ability to use secondary sources in ways other than plugging them in as “answers”
  9. To these expectations, we would add that the ability to cultivate interest and curiosity is a great desideratum of faculty across the curriculum. They want students to understand that interest need not precede writing; interest is more often a product of writing.
  1. Breaking Out of 5-Paragraph Form
  1. At the top of the unlearning list for many entering college students is 5-paragraph form — the rigid, one-size-fits-all organization scheme that is still taught in many high schools.
  2. The problem with treating 5-paragraph form as a relatively benign aid to clarity is that like any habit it is very hard to break.
  3. Students who can’t break the habit remain handicapped because 5-paragraph form runs counter to virtually all the values and attitudes that they need in order to grow as writers and thinkers — such as respect for complexity, tolerance of uncertainty, and the willingness to test and complicate rather than just assert ideas.
  4. The form actually discourages thinking by conditioning writers to be afraid of looking closely at evidence. If they look too closely, they might find something that doesn’t fit, at which point the prefabricated organizational scheme falls apart. But it is precisely the something-that-doesn’t-seem-to-fit, the thing writers call a “complication”, that triggers good ideas.
  5. It is a myth that SAT evaluators reward 5-paragraph form. In fact, the two criteria that most often earn high scores from graders are length (yes, length) and vocabulary (Michael Winerip, “SAT Essay Test Rewards Length and Ignores Errors.” the New York Times, May 4, 2005, On Education). Readers of writing-based college entrance exams give high marks not to writing that has a tidy structure but to writing that avoids clichés and overstated claims and that employs sentence and essay structures capable of accommodating complex ideas. (See Chapter 10 for alternative forms)
  1. Writing Traditional Papers in the Digital Age
  1. Learning to write the traditional essay is the only way to develop the skills and habits of mind necessary for engaging in acts of sustained, in-depth reflection.
  2. The necessarily concise lists of PowerPoints and of some kinds of writing on the Web don’t just spring into being in that form. The careful compression in such forms is typically the product of writing as a tool of thought.
  3. The first unit of this book, although its assignment can lead to traditional essays, focuses primarily on ways of using writing in order to improve your ability to observe. This kind of writing — exploratory writing, writing to help you discover ideas — can fuel various formats, including multi-modal ones.
  1. What’s Different About Writing Arguments in College?
  1. Arguments in college are more exploratory — aimed at locating new ways of understanding something or at finding a tentative solution to a problem. Such arguments lead with analysis rather than position-taking.
  2. The claims you arrive at in an analysis are, in fact, arguments — analytical arguments
  3. Here are some of the differences between argument as it is too often conducted in the media and argument of the type cultivated by college writing:
  1. has more than two sides
  2. moves from much more carefully defined and smaller (less global) claims
  3. seeks out common ground between competing points of view rather than solely emphasizing difference
  4. uses potentially contradictory evidence to test and qualify claims rather than ignoring such evidence or housing it solely as concessions (“okay, I’ll give you that point, but...”) and refutations (“here is why you are wrong!”)
  5. adopts a civil and nonadversarial ethos (self-presentation) and rhetorical stance (relationship with the audience) (see Chapter 3)
  6. avoids stating positions as though they were obviously and self-evidently true
  7. avoids cheap tricks such as straw man — misrepresenting or trivializing another’s position so that it is easy to knock down and blow away — and name calling and other of the logical fallacies (see Chapter 9)
  8. includes much more evidence and careful analysis of that evidence
  1. Rhetoric: What It Is and Why You Need It
  1. Rhetoric is a way of thinking about thinking. It offers ways of generating and evaluating arguments as well as ways of arranging them for maximum effect in particular situations. Writing Analytically is an invention-oriented rhetoric.
  2. In ancient Greece, where rhetoric was first developed as a systematic body of knowledge, emphasis was on public speaking. A person well-trained in rhetoric was adept at finding available arguments on the spot. Rhetoric training provided its practitioners with particular habits of mind.
  3. Today, training in rhetoric continues to be especially helpful for all people who wish to enter public discourse and contribute to civil debate on key issues. In one of the best current textbooks on classical rhetoric, Ancient Rhetorics for Contemporary Students, authors Sharon Crowley and Debra Hawhee say about rhetoric that “its use allows people to make important choices without resorting to less palatable means of persuasion — coercion or violence” (2).
  4. In order to make use of all that a rhetorical orientation toward writing and thinking can offer, you will first need to understand rhetoric as something other than a way of dressing up lies and making poor decisions sound respectable [sophistry!].
  1. A rhetoric is a systematic body of techniques for coming to understand and find things to say about a subject (invention).
  2. Rhetoric is also the term used to describe a speaker’s or writer’s way of using language to appeal to a particular audience.
  1. The various academic disciplines you will study have rhetorics, which is a very helpful way to understand them.
  2. Different styles have different rhetorical implications and effects.
  3. For more on rhetoric:
  1. Chapter 3, where analysis is defined rhetorically
  2.  Chapters 15 and 16, where paper organization and types of introductory and concluding paragraphs are explained rhetorically
  3. Chapters 17 and 18, where word choice and sentence structure are treated rhetorically
  1. Writing about Reading: Beyond “Banking”
  1. The learner (in the banking model) is mostly a passive conduit taking things in and spitting them back out. Educational theorists Paolo Freire mounted a famous attack on this model, arguing that an education consisting entirely of “banking” — information in/information out — does not teach thinking.
  2. It also occurs when teachers, through the best of intentions, do too much of the thinking for you.
  3. The best way to learn how to “process” complex course information for yourself is to write about the reading, not after the teacher has banked it for you but before.
  4. Why write about reading? It will teach you how to do the things with readings that your teachers know how to do — how to find the questions rather than the just the answers, how to make connections between one reading and another, how to bring together key passages from readings and put these into conversation with each other, and how to apply an idea or methodology in a reading to understanding something else.
  1. Freewriting: How and Why to Do It
  1. Freewriting is a method of arriving at ideas by writing continously about a subject for a limited period of time without pausing to edit or revise. E.M. Forster famously remarked (in regard to the “tyranny” of prearranging everything): “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” Freewriting gives you the chance to see what you’ll say.
  2. There aren’t many rules to freewriting — just that you have to keep your pen (or fingers on the keyboard) moving.
  1. Don’t reread as you go.
  2. Don’t pause to correct things.
  3. Don’t cross things out.
  4. Don’t quit when you think you have run out of things to say.
  5. Just keep writing.
  1. For academic and other analytical projects, we recommend passage-based focused freewriting.
  2. According to writer, teacher, and writing theorist Peter Elbow, poor writing occurs when writers try to draft and edit at the same time.
  1. It is hard to keep your larger purpose in sight if you constantly worry about making mistakes or being wrong.
  2. It is hard to discover where to go next if you keep looking back.
  1. But when you try to write fast — to forge ahead without looking back — you are more likely to discover a new leaping-off point, some connection to another and possibly better idea. Freewriting lets this process happen. Give it the chance to surprise you.
  2. Here are some of the things that regular freewriting accomplishes:
  1. develops fluency
  2. deters writer’s block
  3. encourages experimentation
  4. requires you to find your own starting points for writing and run with them
  5. provides a nurturing alternative to rigidly format-driven writing
  6. allows you to observe your characteristic ways of moving as a thinker, your habits of mind
  1. Process and Product: Some Ways of Thinking About the Writing Process
  1. The process includes everything you needed to do in order to get to the finished draft, which is known as the product.
  2. In classical rhetoric, the terms are invention and arrangement.
  3. Writing is a recursive, not a linear process. Writers do not simply finish a rough draft, then revise it, and then edit it in the tidy three-stage process commonly taught in school. They might, for example, make several different starts at the same writing task, then revise it, then learn from these revisions that they need to do more drafting, and so on.
  4. Your goal is to generate enough material to locate your best options.
  5. Tips for Managing the Writing Process:
  1. Start anywhere that gets you going. The writing process is nonlinear. Very few writers simply begin at the beginning and write straight through to the end. Sometimes your best bet is to write individual paragraphs and then arrange them later.
  2. Allow yourself to write a crummy first draft if that is how you work best. Get something on paper before worrying about what others might think of it. A writer’s assumptions about his or her audience can help to generate writing but it can also create writer’s block. When you get stuck or frustrated, don’t worry — just keep writing.
  3. If you draft on a computer, try not to hit delete prematurely. Instead, rename each of your drafts. Hang on to false starts; they may help you later.
  4. Postpone anxiety about grammar and spelling and style. You can revise and correct your draft once you have given yourself the opportunity to discover what you want to say.
  5. Know that what works for one writer might not work for another. There is no one right way to conduct the writing process. Some writers need to outline; other writers need to write first and then might use outlining later to figure out what is going on in their drafts. Some writers absolutely must write an introduction before they can move forward. Others need to jump in elsewhere and write the introduction last. Experiment! Devote some time to finding out what works for you.
  6. Put your unconscious on the job. You can’t always write through an act of will. Sometimes, when the words aren’t coming, it helps to go do something else — take a shower, go for a walk. Often you will find that a part of your brain has remained on the job. We call this resource in the writing process the back-burner — the place where things keep quietly stewing while you are thinking about something else. If you are really stuck, take some notes right before bedtime and write as soon as you wake in the morning.
  1. How to Think About Grammar and Style (Beyond Error-Catching)
  1. A mantra of the book is that a sentence is the shape that thought takes. The goal of the book’s treatment of grammar and style is to get you to refocus your attention from anxiety about error detection to particular interest in the structures of sentences.
  2. Instead, look at sentences in terms of logic and rhetoric. Ask yourself, “So what that the sentence is constructed in the way that it is? How does this shape relate to the way of thinking that the sentence contains?”
  3. You need to be able to recognize and construct the following: dependent clause, independent clause, simple sentence, compound sentence, complex sentence, compound-complex sentence, cumulative sentence, periodic sentence.
  4. Because punctuation makes sentence shapes visible, you should also know the basics of punctuation. In particular, learn the primary rules governing commas.
  5. Once you orient yourself toward thinking about the shapes of sentences, you will be able to use sentences that clarify for readers the way you organize your ideas and place emphasis. You will maximize your choices and increase your persuasive power. When analyzing the sentences of others, this knowledge will give you insight into the writer’s thinking: how the ideas are ranked and connected.
  1. A Quick Word on Style Guides
  1. Style guides are fine, provided they don’t acquire the status of law, which is to say that you shouldn’t take them as offering the last word.
  2. From E.B. White: “There are no rules of writing (who could possibly invent them?); there are only guidelines, and the guidelines can, and should be, chucked out the window whenever they get in your way or in your hair. I have never paid the slightest attention to ‘The Elements of Style’ when I was busy writing. [...] If the book inhibits you or constrains you, you should build a bonfire and throw the book in the flames”
  3. The problem with subscribing to one set of style “rules” is that this practice ignores rhetoric and context. There simply is no one set of rules that is appropriate for all occasions.
  1. How to Think About Writing in the Disciplines
  1. To navigate your way across the curriculum successfully, you will need to recognize that matters of form are also matters of epistemology, which is to say that they are indicative of each discipline’s ways of knowing. Embedded in a discipline’s ways of writing — its key terms and stylistic conventions — are its primary assumptions about thinking, how it should be done and towards what end.
  2. No single book or course can equip you will all that you will need to write like a scientist or a psychologist or an art historian. What this book can do is teach you how to think about discipline-specific writing practices and how to analyze them for their logic and rhetoric. Once you acquire these skills, you will find it easier to adapt to the different kinds of writing you will encounter in college. You will also learn to see the common ways of thinking that underlie stylistic differences.
  3. Interview a professor to collect brief examples of what he or she considers good writing in his or her academic discipline. Some disciplines accept a wider variety of suitable forms and styles than others. Your best bet is to study examples of what different disciplines think of as good writing, especially in disciplines where there is no rulebook for matters of form. (See Chapters 15 and 16, the opening chapters of UNIT III- Matters of Form: The Shapes That Thought Takes)
  1. Academic vs. Nonacademic Writing: How Different Are They?
  1. Not all writing that has proved central to academic disciplines — such as works by philosophers, novelists, or world leaders — was written by academic writers. And not all writing by academics is meant for other academics. This is especially the case when academics are engaged in problem solving outside the university — in public policy or government, for example — or when they write for popular audiences.
  2. Nonetheless, academic writers are typically cautious about trying to translate their work into forms suitable for consumption by nonacademics. This is not just in-group behavior but a product of the nature of of academic research and writing.
  3. Scientists, for example, typically focus on very small, narrowly defined questions, such as the function of a single receptor in the brain or a single kind of cellular reaction. Also, much scientific research goes on for a long time. In science in particular and in academic fields more generally, the results don’t come quickly or easily and are often necessarily uncertain.
  4. Translating these carefully contextualized, narrowly focused, and often long-term studies in a way that would make them interesting and available to a general audience is difficult. This is so not only because nonscientists have trouble with scientific language but because nonacademic readers often distort or overextend the science writing they take in.
  5. The single biggest difference between academic and nonacademic writing is the size of the claims. General audiences often expect bigger and more definitive claims than carefully qualified academic writing is willing to make.
  6. In any case, learning to write in one or more of the academic disciplines will change the way you think. The analytical habits of mind you will have acquired inside of your chosen disciplines will grant you confidence and independence as a learn. They will cause you to see more in whatever you read, to arrive at more carefully limited claims about it, and to have more patience with yourself and others as thinkers.

Chapter 2 - Toolkit of Analytical Methods I: Seeing Better, Seeing More
Focus on the Details
A. The Heuristics
  1. Notice and Focus + Ranking — select a few details as most important: What do you find most “Interesting” or “Strange”?
  2. The Method: Work with Patterns of Repetition and Contrast
  1. What repeats?
  2. What goes with what? (strands)
  3. What is opposed to what? (binaries)
  4. What doesn’t fit? (anomalies)
  5. (for all of these questions) —> SO WHAT?
  1. Asking “So What?” — make the leap from observing X to querying what X means
  1. What does the observation imply?
  2. Why does this observation matter?
  3. Where does this observation get us?
  4. How can we begin to theorize the significance of the observation?
  1. Paraphrase X (times) 3 — recast the words in new language to question what they mean
  1. Locate a short key passage.
  2. Assume you don’t understand it completely.
  3. Substitute other concrete language for ALL of the key words.
  4. Repeat the paraphrasing several (3) times.
  5. Ponder the differences in implication among the versions. Return to the original passage and interpret its meanings: what do the words imply?
  1. Identifying the “Go To” Sentence — locate the sentence shape a writer habitually uses; then ponder how that shape reveals the writer’s habitual ways of seeing
B. Counterproductive Habits of Mind
Reacting Is Not Thinking
  1. Premature Leaps
  1. Make It Strange, rather than trying to normalize what you see and read
  2. Get Comfortable with Uncertainty
  1. The Judgment Reflex
  1. Neither agree nor disagree with another person’s position until you can repeat that position in a way the other person would accept as fair and accurate.
  2. Try eliminating the word “should” from your vocabulary for a while. Judgments often take the form of should statements.
  3. Try eliminating evaluative adjective — those that offer judgment with no data. “Jagged” is a descriptive, concrete adjective; it offers something we can experience. “Beautiful” is an evaluative adjective; it offers only judgment.
  1. Generalizing
  1. What it all boils down to is… What this adds up to is… The gist of her speech was…
  2. We deprive ourselves with material to think with.
  3. Often, the generalizations that come to mind are so broad that they tell us nothing.
  4. The problem comes when generalizations omit any supporting details.
  5. Antidotes to Habitual Generalizing:
  1. Trace your general impressions back to the details that caused them. This tracing of attitude back to their concrete causes is one of the most basic and necessary moves in the analytical habit of mind. Train yourself to become more conscious about where generalizations come from.
  2. Think of the words you use as steps on an abstraction ladder, and consciously climb down the ladder from abstract to concrete. “Mammal”, for example, is high on the abstraction ladder than “cow”. A concrete word appeals to the senses. Abstract words are not available to our senses of touch, sight, hearing, taste, and smell.
  1. Naturalizing Our Assumptions (Overpersonalizing)
  1. It is surprisingly difficult to break the habit of treating our points of view as self-evidently true — not just for us but for everyone. The overpersonalizer assumes that because he or she experienced or believes X, everyone else does, too.
  2. What is “common sense” for one person and so not even in need of explaining can be quite uncommon and not so obviously sensible to someone else. More often than not, “common sense” is a phrase that really means “what seems obvious to me and therefore should be obvious to you.”

  1. Avoid deciding what your subject means before you analyze it, and remember that analysis often operates in areas where there is no one right answer.
  2. As a general rule, analysis favors live questions — where something remains to be resolved — over inert answers, places where things are nailed down and don’t leave much space for further thinking.
  3. As you analyze a subject, ask not just “What are its defining parts?” but also “How do these parts help me to understand the meaning of the subject as a whole?”
  4. Look for patterns of repetition and organizing contrasts in the data, as well as anomalies, and ask yourself questions about what these mean.
  5. Make the implicit explicit: convert the suggested meanings of particular details into overt statements.
  6. When you describe and summarize, attend carefully to the language you choose, since the words themselves will usually contain the germs of ideas.
  7. The analytical process is one of trial and error. Learning to write well is largely a matter of learning how to frame questions. Whatever questions you ask, the answers will often produce more questions.

Chapter 4 - Toolkit of Analytical Methods II: Going Deeper
  1. Passage-Based Focused Freewriting
  2. Uncovering Assumptions
  3. Reformulating Binaries
  4. Difference within Similarity
  5. Seems to Be About X But Could Also Be (Is “Really”) About Y

  1. Get beyond reading for the gist. Always mark a few key passages in whatever you read.
  2. Whenever you read critically, actively look for the pitch and the complaint — what the writer wants to convince you of, and the position that he or she is reacting against. Also be aware of the moment — how the historical context qualifies the way we interpret the reading.
  3. Experiment with passage-based focused freewriting. Find out what you think by seeing what you say.
  4. Alternatively, keep a commonplace book. The act of copying out key sentences from a reading and perhaps jotting a few notes will inevitably lead you to remember more and discover more about what you are reading.
  5. Paraphrase key passages to open up the language and reveal complexities you may not have noticed. Paraphrasing three times is sure to help get you started interpreting a reading, moving you beyond just repeating pieces of it as answers.
  6. In applying a reading as a lens, think about how lens A both fits and does not fit subject B: use the differences to develop your analysis.
  7. Uncover unstated assumptions by asking, “Given its overt claim, what must this reading also already believe?”
  8. A provocative way to open up interpretation is to try reading against the grain of a reading. Ask, “what does this piece believe that it does not know it believes?” Using The Method to uncover obsessive repetitions will sometimes provide the evidence to formulate against-the-grain claims.

  1. Laying out the data is key to any kind of analysis, not simply because it keeps the analysis accurate but because, crucially, it is in the act of carefully describing a subject that analytical writers often have their best ideas. The words you choose to summarize your data will contain the germs of your ideas about what the subject means.
  2. All explanations and interpretations occur in a context, which functions like a lens for focusing your subject. An important part of getting an interpretation accepted as plausible is to argue for the appropriateness of the interpretive context you use, not just the interpretation it takes you to.
  3. Look for a range of plausible interpretations rather than assuming only one right answer exists. Control the range of possible interpretations by attending carefully to context.
  4. It is interesting and sometimes useful to try to determine from something you are analyzing what its makers might have intended. But, by and large, you are best off concentrating on what the thing itself communicates as opposed to what someone might have wanted it to communicate. Besides, intentions can rarely be known with much accuracy.

  1. Find ways to move beyond passive summary (what questions). Use information to develop some idea (how and why questions) rather than just repackaging what others have written.
  2. Drastically reduce scope. Concentrate on what seems the most important or revealing part of your subject (ranking) rather than trying to cover everything.
  3. Avoid turning comparisons into pointless matching exercises. Only set up similarities and differences in order to discuss the significance of that comparison.
  4. You needn’t devote equal space to both sides of a comparison. If one side is used primarily to illuminate the other, a 30-70 ratio (or 20-80 or 40-60) makes more sense than 50-50.
  5. Rather than answering a question of definition with inert summary, test the definition against evidence and/or explore its competing parts.
  6. For agree/disagree questions, the best move is to choose neither side. Question the terms of the binary so as to arrive at a more complex and qualified position. Decide to what extent you agree and to what extent you disagree.


  1. Learn to recognize unsubstantiated assertions, rather than treating claims as self-evident truths. Whenever you make a claim, offer your readers the evidence that led you to it.
  2. Make the evidence speak. Explain how it supports the claim; offer your reasons for believing the evidence means what you say it does.
  3. Use evidence to advance your claim, not just confirm it. Explore how the evidence does not fit the claim, and use what you learn to reshape the claim, making it more accurate.
  4. Consider what counts as evidence in a given field or context, or as one of the Voices puts it, remember that “evidence itself is dependent upon methodology — that it’s not just a question of gathering ‘information’, but also a question of how it was gathered.”
  5. Most professors agree that evidence is never completely neutral, simply a matter of “the facts,” so you need to determine the slant — the principles of selection — that have produced this evidence. And as a corollary, try to gather evidence from more than one side of a topic.

  1. Make unstated premises (assumptions) explicit.
  2. Look for the general principle or reason (warrant) that connects your data (“what have I got to go on?”) with your claim.
  3. Remember that argument need not be mortal combat: “mutual inquiry or exploration” (as Wayne Booth puts it) is a constructive goal.
  4. Be able to state another’s position to his or her satisfaction before you agree or disagree with it, as Carl Rogers counsels.
  5. Beware of excessively categorical thinking, which produces overstated claims. To remedy, make sure to qualify your claims and check for unstated assumptions.

  1. Learn to recognize unsubstantiated assertions, rather than treating claims as self-evident truths. Whenever you make a claim, offer your readers the evidence that led you to it.
  2. Make details speak. Explain how evidence means what you say it does.
  3. Say more about less rather than less about more, allowing a carefully analyzed part of your subject to provide perspective on the whole.
  4. It is generally better to make ten points on a representative issue or example than to make the same basic point about ten related issues or examples; this axiom we call 10 on 1.
  5. Argue overtly that the evidence on which you choose to focus is representative. Be careful not to generalize on the basis of too little or unrepresentative evidence.
  6. Use your best example as a lens through which to examine other evidence. Analyze subsequent examples to test and develop your conclusions, rather than just confirming that you are right.
  7. Look for difference within similarity as a way of doing 10 on 1. Rather than repeating the same overly general claim (i.e., doing 1 on 10), use significant variation within the general pattern to better develop your claim.
  8. To find the most revealing piece or feature of the evidence, keep asking yourself, “What can I say with some certainty about the evidence?” If you continually rehearse the facts, you are less likely to let an early idea blind you to subsequent evidence.

  1. A thesis offers a theory about the meaning of evidence that would not have been immediately obvious to your readers.
  2. A thesis is made, not found. It is the result of a process of thinking about the evidence but is not itself present in the evidence, like a golden egg.
  3. Treat your thesis as a hypothesis to be tested rather than an obvious truth.
  4. Most effective theses contain tension. They are conceptually complex, and that is reflected in their grammatical shape — often they will begin with “although” or incorporate “however”.
  5. The body of your paper should serve not only to substantiate the thesis by demonstrating its value in selecting and explaining evidence, but also to evolve the thesis — move it forward — by uncovering the questions that each new formulation of it prompts you to ask.
  6. When you encounter potentially conflicting evidence (or interpretations of that evidence), don’t simply abandon your thesis. Use the complications to refine your thesis until you arrive at the most accurate explanation of the evidence that you can manage.

  1. Your thesis should make a claim with which it would be possible for readers to disagree. In other words, move beyond defending statements that your readers would accept as obviously true.
  2. Be skeptical of your first (often semiautomatic) response to a subject: it will often be a cliché (however unintentional). Avoid conventional wisdom unless you introduce a fresh perspective on it.
  3. Convert broad categories and generic (fits anything) claims to more specific assertions. Find ways to bring out the complexity of your subject.
  4. Submit the wording of your thesis to this grammatical test: if it follows the “abstract noun + is + evaluative adjective” formula (“The economic situation is bad”), substitute a more specific noun and an active verb that will force you to predicate something about a focused subject (“Tax laws benefit the rich”).
  5. Routinely examine and question your own key terms and categories rather than simply accepting them. Assume that they mean more than you first thought.
  6. Always work to uncover and make explicit the unstated assumptions (premises) underlying your thesis. Don’t treat debatable premises as givens.
  7. As a rule, be suspicious of thesis statements that depend on words such as “real”, “accurate”, “believable”, “right”, and “good”. These words usually signal that you are offering personal opinions — what “feels” right to you — as self-evident truths for everybody.
  8. One way to assess the adequacy of a thesis statement is to ask yourself where the writer would need to go next to develop his or her idea. If you can’t answer that question, then the thesis is still too weak.
  9. Qualify your claims; you will avoid the global pronouncements — typical of the dangers of overly categorical thinking — that are too broad to be of much use (or true).

  1. Avoid the temptation to plug in sources as answers. Aim for a conversation with them. Think of sources as voices inviting you into a community of interpretation, discussion, and debate.
  2. Quote, paraphrase, or summarize in order to analyze. Explain what you take the source to mean, showing the reasoning that has led to the conclusion you draw from it.
  3. Quote sparingly. You are usually better off centering your analysis on a few quotations, analyzing their key terms, and branching out to aspects of your subject that the quotations illuminate. Remember that not all disciplines allow direct quotation.
  4. Don’t underestimate the value of close paraphrasing. You will almost invariably begin to interpret a source once you start paraphrasing its key language.
  5. Locate and highlight what is at stake in your source. Which of its points does the source find most important? What positions does it want to modify or refute, and why?
  6. Look for ways to develop, modify, or apply what a source has said, rather than simply agreeing or disagreeing with it.
  7. If you challenge a position found in a source, be sure to represent it fairly. First, give the source some credit by identifying assumptions you share with it. Then, isolate the part that you intend to complicate or dispute.
  8. Look for sources that address your subject from different perspectives. Avoid relying too heavily on any one source. Aim at the end to synthesize these perspectives: what is the common ground?
  9. When your sources disagree, consider playing mediator. Instead of immediately agreeing with one or the other, clarify areas of agreement and disagreement among them.

  1. Examine bibliographies at the end of the articles and books you’ve already found. Remember that one quality source can, in its bibliography, point to many other resources.
  2. Citing sources isn’t just about acknowledging intellectual or informational debts; it’s also a courtesy to your readers, directing them how to find out more about the subject cited.
  3. Before you settle in with one author’s book-length argument, use indexes and bibliographies and other resources to achieve a broader view.
  4. URLs with domain names ending in .edu and .gov usually offer more reliable choices than the standard .com.
  5. When professors direct you to do bibliographic research, they usually are referring to research done with indexes; these are available in print, online, and CD-ROM formats.
  6. In evaluating a website about which you don’t know much, try “backspacing” a URL to trace back to its authorship or institutional affiliation.
  7. Tell your readers in the text of your paper, not just in citations, when you are using someone else’s words, ideas, or information; rewording someone else’s idea doesn’t make it your idea.
  8. Always attach a quotation to some of our own language; never let it stand as its own sentence in your text. Attribution — “According to Walden” — before the quote fulfills this function nicely.


  1. Find the space in a format that will allow it to work as a heuristic, a set of steps designed not just to organize but to stimulate and guide your thinking. Avoid the slot-filler mentality.
  2. Look for and expect to find the common denominators among the various formats you learn to use across the curriculum. You can master — and benefit from — virtually any format if you approach it not as a set of arbitrary and rigid rules, but as a formalized guide to having ideas.
  3. Don’t make your readers wait too long before you concede or refute a view that you can assume will already have occurred to them. Otherwise, they may assume you are unaware of the competing view or afraid to bring it up.
  4. Always treat opposing views fairly. A good strategy is to concede their merits but argue that, in the particular context you are addressing, your position is more important or appropriate.
  5. Use climactic order to organize your points, building to your best ones. The best ones are usually the most revealing and thought-provoking, not the most obvious or commonly agreed upon.
  6. Phrasing your thesis to include a subordinate construction — “although X appears to account for Z, Y accounts for it better” — will give your paper a ready-made organizational shape, along with giving you something to define your own position against.
  7. A good transition reaches backward, telling where you’ve been, as the grounds for making a subsequent move forward. Opt for “similarly” and “by contrast”, for example, which specify connections for your readers, rather than merely additive transitions such as “another” and “also”.
  8. Half a page is a healthy length for most paragraphs, long enough to launch an idea but short enough to give your reader time to rest.
  9. To keep your paragraphs healthy, focus at some point in your writing process on what they do — not just what they say. Here are five questions to ask yourself:
  1. Do you readers know why you are telling them what you are telling them?
  2. Can readers see the connection between the paragraph and your evolving thesis?
  3. Has your paragraph moved backwards before moving forward?
  4. Have you buried your best ideas, the main claims of the paragraph, in the middle, rather than leading or concluding with them?
  5. Have you asked and answered “so what?” at the end of the paragraph?

  1. The introduction seeks to raise the issue, not settle it. Articulate why, in the context of existing thinking on the subject, your topic matters.
  2. Don’t try to do too much. Offer only the most relevant context, the most essential parts of your road map, and (disciplinary conventions permitting) a first rather than last claim.
  3. Always introduce a working (hypo)thesis, frame it with (appropriately cited) background or other context, and indicate your method or angle of approach.
  4. Especially in longer papers, you can use a procedural opening to forecast the organization clearly, but don’t let it distract you from also stating your claim.
  5. Experiment with opening gambits: challenge a common view, use your second best example to set up the issue, or exemplify the problem with a narrative opening.
  1. Culminate — don’t just summarize. Offer your most fully evolved and qualified statement of the thesis or your final judgment on the question posed in the introduction.
  2. Come full circle: revisit the introductory hypothesis and context. This strategy will unify your paper and locate it within an ongoing conversation on your topic.
  3. Your conclusion should not unqualifiedly claim more than your evidence has established, but it should leave the reader with further implications or speculations to ponder (a send-off).
  4. Let your conclusion gradually escort the reader out of the paper. Like the introduction, it is a social site, so try to leave the reader with a positive last impression.

  1. Remember first and foremost that revision is not merely cosmetic: to change the words is to change the meaning.
  2. Strive for distance from your own prose as you edit for diction: place yourself in the position of the audience. Is the tone appropriate for the rhetorical context?
  3. There are always shades of meaning. Strive to choose the best — the most accurate and appropriate — word for the situation. When in doubt, consult etymology, the history of the word, as the most reliable guide to its usage.
  4. Avoid “good”, “bad”, “real”, and other broad, judgmental terms that prematurely close off analysis.
  5. Blend concrete and abstract diction, which is generally the language of details and the language of abstractions, respectively. In particular, go easy on those Latinate-tion words.
  6. In given context, jargon is useful shorthand, but there is always the danger of getting used by it. Make sure you know what the words mean, and don’t over-rely on them.

  1. Revise sentences to clarify their meaning by revealing the organization of thought. Align like with like, set difference against difference, and in general use form to emphasize what’s important and demote what is not.
  2. Become more aware of your own syntactic habits. What is your “go-to sentence” and how might you build upon it to extend you range and force?
  3. Cut the fat. Don’t use five words (“due to the fact that”) when one will do (“because”). Root out expletives that needlessly subordinate (“It is true that...”). Avoid redundancy.
  4. Tighten the syntax of your sentences by energizing the verbs. The active voice generally achieves directness and economy; it will promote clarity and cut fat.
  5. Look for potentially strong active verbs “lurking” in sentences that use a form of to be. Beware habitual use of to be and passives, since these forms tend to blur or submerge the action, omit its performers, and generally lack momentum.
  6. Look at the order and arrangement of clauses. Are ideas of equal importance in coordinate constructions? Have you used subordination to rank ideas? Have your sentences exploited the end as a position of emphasis?
  7. Look at the shapes of your sentences. Do they use parallelism to keep your ideas clear? Where do you find opportunities for composing periodic and cumulative sentences that revision can bring out?

Chapter 19 - Revising for Correctness: Grammar and Punctuation
  1. The Concept of Basic Writing Errors (BWE)
  2. Why Grammar Errors make Some People So Angry
  3. Usage: How Language Customs Change
  4. What Punctuation Marks Say: A Quick-Hit Guide
  1. The period marks the end of a sentence. The period says to a reader, “This is the end of this particular statement. I’m a mark of closure.”
  2. The comma separates the main (independent) clause from dependent elements that modify the main clause. The says to the reader, “Here is where the main clause begins (or ends),” or “Here is a break in the main clause.” In the case of compound sentences (containing two or more independent clauses), the comma says, “Here is where one main clause ends, and after the conjunction that follows me, another main clause begins.”
  3. The semicolon separates two independent clauses not joined by a conjunction. Secondarily, the semicolon can separate two independent clauses joined by a conjunction if either of the clauses already contains commas. The semicolon says to the reader, “What precedes and what follows me are conceptually close but grammatically independent and thus equal statements.”
  4. The colon marks the end of a setup for something coming next. The colon says to the reader, “Concentrate on what follows me for a more detailed explanation of what preceded me” or “What follows me is is logically bound with what preceded me.”
  5. The dash provides an informal alternative to the colon for adding information to a sentence. The dash says to the reader, “This too!” or, in the case of a pair of them, “Remember the thought in the beginning of this sentence because we’re jumping to something else before we come back to finish that thought.”
  1. Nine Basic Writing Errors and How to Fix Them [from most severe to least]
  1. BWE 1: Sentence Fragments
  1. Noun Clause (No Predicate) as a Fragment
  2. Verbal as a Fragment
  3. Subordinating Clause as a Fragment
  1. BWE 2: Comma Splices and Fused (or Run-On) Sentences
  1. Solutions for both comma splices and fused sentences:
  1. Place a conjunction (such as “and” or “because”) between the clauses.
  2. Place a semicolon between the clauses.
  3. Make the clauses into separate sentences.
  1. BWE 3: Errors in Subject-Verb Agreement
  1. plural subject, singular verb
  2. singular subject, plural verb
  3. “each” must take singular verb
  1. BWE 4: Shifts in Sentence Structure (Faulty Predication)
  2. BWE 5: Errors in Pronoun Reference
  1. Pronounce-Antecedent Agreement
  2. Ambiguous Reference
  3. Broad Reference
  1. BWE 6: Misplaced Modifiers and Dangling Participles
  2. BWE 7: Errors in Using Possessive Apostrophes
  3. BWE 8: Comma Errors
  1. comma missing after introductory phrase
  2. two commas needed around parenthetical element
  3. restrictive elements should not be enclosed within commas
  4. no comma setting off restrictive clause
  1. BWE 9: Spelling/Diction Errors That Interfere with Meaning
  1. it’s / its
  2. their / there / they’re
  3. then / than
  4. effect / affect