Saturday, April 21, 2012

Planning Your Academic Essay Within Time Constraints

Writing an academic essay conforms as well as any task to Parkinson's Law: the work to be done expands based on the time allotted to the task.  Thus, a student who works on the paper for two months, absent a self-imposed deadline before the due date, will as likely be working the night before the paper is due as will the student winging it on the last day.  The work may or may not be as frenzied, and may require less coffee for the stretch drive than will the last-minute writer, but the diligent pre-planner still has work to do.

In writing, however, this occurs in part because of the unattainable goal of perfection in a subjective realm.  A conscientious student can use any available time to make a paper better.  The corollary to Parkinson's Law is thus also true, though ideally not to be tested: the work to be done can be condensed into the time allotted to the task.  Accordingly, this post will lay out a plan for different timelines a student may have allotted for writing the paper.

The Eight-Week Plan

You have planned for plenty of time.  Be proud.  This allows you to work steadily, delve in deeply to your topic, and deliver your best work.  The below timeline will help you do so.
First four weeks: Get to know your subject matter well.  If you are writing about a particular text, read it several times.  Take no more than margin notes the first two reads, then begin breaking it down.  Understand the literal meaning and the subtext, the hidden assumptions and premises of the text.  Find points of agreement and disagreement or, if you are analyzing literature, think of comparisons and contrasts with other texts, whether stylistic, thematic, or something else entirely.  After you have done this, read secondary materials, other people's analyses and opinions that you can use to inform your own, to develop your ideas with an understanding of those of others.

Fifth week: Draft your paper.  Build it based on your ideas, using citations not to drive the writing, but rather to supplement.  Even if your paper is a research paper, focus on what your ideas are, built around your thesis statement.  Other ideas influence you, and you must acknowledge that.  But every draft of your essay should show your own original thought process.  Your length doesn't matter yet; get the ideas on paper, as you will have time to trim or expand later.

Sixth week: Put your essay away, and congratulate yourself for your diligence to this point.  Feel free to think about it, but when you separate yourself from the text, your mind will focus on the ideas instead.  Or, it may focus on baseball, chess, Katy Perry, or any number of other topics.  The separation, though, will help you focus on the writing as writing, and not as the fruit of your labor and child of your heart and mind.

Seventh week: Focus on substantive editing.  Do your ideas work, now that you've stepped away from your writing and returned with fresh eyes?  Have you explained them well?  Is your writing interesting?  This may also be the time to expand your draft to the proper length with better explanations (for every idea or example, you need to explain how or why it ties back to the thesis statement), or trim the essay by being less wordy or cutting your weaker examples.  Use this week to make your paper structurally and cognitively sound.  You might also solicit the assistance of a trusted reader for feedback.  Your flattering friends serve little use here; if you don't know someone who will give honest, informed criticism, a campus writing center or private tutor may be the better option.

Eighth week: Fine-tune your writing.  Here, you are focusing on transitions between paragraphs, sentence structure, word usage, and the like.  Your ideas are in place and sound, so now focus on the language itself.  And, reserve the last day for proofreading.  Your word processor's spelling and grammar checks are not enough; you need to work through every sentence and check spelling, punctuation, and usage.  Finish, and get some sleep.

The Four-Week Plan

You still have plenty of time, and can put in most of the steps from the eight-week plan.  The main difference is that you need to condense the first five weeks of the previous plan into your first two, and then unfortunately skip the week off.  Thus, you should take a week and a half to prepare, followed by a half-week, or maybe a weekend, to churn out your first draft. 

After that, I do recommend a couple of days to set the paper aside; you can do your substantive editing from halfway through week three to halfway through week four, and then do your fine-tuning and final proofread in the final three to four days before the paper is due.  It is necessarily more efficient, and you can certainly turn in a solid product in this time frame.

The Two-Week Plan

Don't panic.  You will have peers who turned in their paper two weeks ago, but while hating those peers may bring brief catharsis, it will not further your need to complete your own work.  Instead, focus on how to get to where you need to get.  In the first week, then, get a draft done.  You may have four days to read and three to write, or a similar breakdown.  You need not rush; outline your ideas to get your structure established, then get your ideas written out.

At this point, you have a draft and a week to work with it.  You can't afford to take much time away, but you can still allow a half week for substantive editing, and a few more days to fine-tune.  You even have time to breathe, eat, and sleep along the way.

The One-Week Plan

Time is no longer your greatest ally.  Nonetheless, you can do this.  On the first day, if you haven't read the primary text or texts for your assignment, do so.  While reading, take notes.  From there, make a detailed outline on day two, and draft between days two and three.  You can then do substantive editing in day four, and fine-tune and proof in the days remaining.  You will feel tired at the end of it, but you can still turn in a good product.

OMG, This Thing Is Due Tomorrow

It's going to be okay.  You've read the text, right?


Oh.  Pick up the primary text on which you're writing.  If it's already evening, get or make some coffee or similarly caffeinated beverage.  Try not to use Vivarin, No-Doz, etc.; it will get you through, but you'll hurt for it later.  Trust me: I, um, know a guy who did that once.

Develop a preconceived idea of what you want to say.  Most professors grade papers on quality of writing (no, don't panic!), and not on the position you take.  And if you have one of the rare professors who does not do this, you should already know what position that professor will expect you to take.  Draft your thesis statement, knowing you can revise it after you write the rest of your paper.

Once you have the position in mind, skim for supporting points.  Use chapter titles, headings, indices, or anything else you can to speed this process along.  Lay those points out into a bare-bones outline, noting the pages on which you found them for ease of quotation and citation.  You should identify eight to ten points or counterpoints.

Grab the key to your abode, and step outside.  Breathe in the night (I'm assuming here) air; it will help clear your head.  If it is very cold or raining, so much the better.

Go back inside.  Have a little more coffee, and maybe a healthy snack.  Sit down, and begin writing.  First draft your introduction, funneling down to your thesis.  Be careful not to overcompensate with bombast for your lack of preparation.  You may do this to some extent in your conclusion, but not in the introduction.  You will not have time to fine-tune your language, so you should aim for slow, measured text.  Fake it.

From here, develop each of your citation-worthy points into two to three paragraphs of text.  Focus on answering the following: 1. What is the point?  2.  How does this point play out, in the text and in my mind?  3.  Why does this matter, particularly in relation to the thesis?  This should get you to the required length, and make your paper read more reasoned than it feels right now.

Next, draft your conclusion.  This is an upside down introduction, in that it restates the thesis and then fans out.  Let loose a little, but keep yourself tempered enough to sound academic.  After that, outline your written paper to make sure the order makes sense.  There is likely no time or ability to overhaul at this stage, but you can cut and paste, being careful to massage transitions between paragraphs so it makes sense.

From here, sleep a little if there is time, so you can refresh to some extent.  If not, run the spellcheck, and skim for potential errors.  Print your final draft, sprint to class, and remember to leave yourself more time next semester.

Not All Plans Are Created Equal

With just about any time frame available, you can create a competent paper.  Doing your best work, though, requires at least two weeks to focus on both your ideas and your writing.  Good luck, and happy writing!

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Originality in Writing?

In Ecclesiastes 1:9, Solomon laments:

     What has been will be again,
     What has been done will be done again;
     There is nothing new under the sun.

To this the writer may add that what has been written will be written again, and there is no new text committed to paper.  There are those who might contend, with some evidentiary support, that every story derives from Shakespeare, or the Greeks, or religious texts.  Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces even lays out the archetypal heroic quest, the pattern a hero can be expected to follow, and how this plays out within comparative mythology.  One might find the theories reflected and confirmed in Star Wars and Harry Potter, in Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and indeed in just about any book, film, or story that does not seek actively to undermine them. 

We might add that most romances follow some permutation of the same few plots, as do most mysteries, action adventures, etc.  In academic writing, similarly, there are only so many forms an argument might take.  Poetry has a little more creative room, but the practiced poet still learns classical forms, then applies them, avoids them, tweaks them--but in any event begins with poetic conventions in some manner.

What, then, is originality?  Can a writer create something original?  At the risk of promoting tautological thinking, the answer, as so often proves true, depends on the definition.  The American Heritage Dictionary provides the following most relevant possibilities:

1.  Preceding all others in time; first.
2.a.  Not derived from something else; fresh and unusual . . . .
2.b.  Showing a marked departure from previous practice; new . . . .
3.  Productive of new things or new ideas; inventive . . . .

Taking these in order, it may or may not be possible to be original under definition 1.  Any story one writes now cannot be the first story.  The like is true for a sentence, an essay, a paragraph, or a blog post.  One could coin a word, or a use for a word or phrase, but this would only be an instance of originality within a larger text.  On the other hand, barring plagiarism or a remarkable coincidence, the words one uses, arranged in the way that person arranges them, will certainly be the first such arrangement.

The second definition is difficult.  Anything I write is arguably derived from something else I have read, or seen, or heard.  Does this render anything I write unoriginal?  Or is a fresh and unusual presentation of a text derived from something else enough to overcome the first part of that definition?

We see again an issue with 2.b. and 3.  What is "new"?  Must we have a matter of jamais vu (something never seen before), or can something evoking deja vu (seen before) if in different context or presentation, or presque vu (almost seen before) suffice?  And does my having read about and analyzed those French phrases in the context of Catch-22 render this entire paragraph unoriginal?

My solution to the endless circle of maybe presented here comes through how we think about writing, as something separate from storytelling or arguing.  Writing is not simply telling a story or presenting an argument.  Rather, every written text is a new construction.  Writing consists of arranging words in such a way that it presents a story or argument to the reader or, ideally, readers.  One could argue that every tragedy is derived from the Greeks, but that doesn't mean that Sophocles' prior work rendered Hamlet a mere derivation.  A biography is necessarily derived from history (however recent)--but Sandburg's five-volume biography of Lincoln is still something different from that of Donald, in turn different from that of Oates or Goodwin.  The writing is something different, fresh.  How we put the story or argument into words makes it original.

Given this, given that every text written can be deemed original for being constructed differently, the conscientious writer should focus on how the words and sentences and paragraphs work, how they all fit together.  You are creating something that will be the first, and last, of that text.  Build carefully, and build proudly.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Persuasion: Know Your Audience

I found myself in a strange discussion with my offspring the other day.  My secondborn, a strong-willed five-year-old, was playing on his Nintendo DSi, and told me he was playing a mini-game called "Raft Ree-aht."  I looked over his shoulder, and informed him that the game was in fact called "Raft Riot."  A discussion ensued:

"No, Timmy, it's 'Raft Riot.'"

"Nuh uh, it's 'Raft Ree-aht'!  See?"

"I know, Timmy, it looks like 'Ree-aht,' but it's pronounced 'Riot.'"

"No, 'Ree-aaaaaaahhhhht'!"

Seeing the extent to which my son trusted my reading ability, I retreated and attempted a different approach.  When his brother returned from school, the two began playing the same game together.  Ben, eight, explained to me that the game was called "Raft Ree-aht."  I replied, "Actually, Ben, it's pronounced "Raft Riot."  Ben then turned and said, "Timmy, it's actually "Raft Riot."  And, sure enough, Timmy then turned to me and said, "Daddy, it's actually "Raft Riot."

I reacted first with annoyance that Timmy considered Ben a greater expert on pronunciation than he considered me.  Upon reflection, though, a different (and somewhat comforting) reality settled in.  To Ben, this was a question of pronunciation, on which he considers me an expert.  I've gently guided him in such matters since he was two, and he has thus learned to rely on me as an accurate source.  To Timmy, on the other hand, this was a question not about reading, but about gaming.  And, Timmy's experience playing games with each of us has demonstrated amply that Ben's expertise in that field is decidedly more reliable than mine.

Here, then, lies the writing lesson.  When we write, we have the ability to frame our presentation or argument to best persuade our audience.  Different audiences, however, bring different perspectives that we must engage to accomplish this.  Is the title of a game a question of reading or gaming?  Is winning a football game more a question of scoring more points or allowing fewer points?  Is abortion a question of a woman's (as opposed to mother's) choice, or a baby's (as opposed to fetus's) life?

Importantly, the above examples demonstrate that an attempt to persuade all will inevitably fail.  The questions, then, become clear: whom do you hope to persuade?  And given that target audience, what ideas or beliefs need to be engaged, or challenged?  The latter question turns on what you seek to accomplish.  Seeking to rally support requires engaging beliefs, showing like ideas and purposes.  Seeking to change ideas, a rather more difficult task, means identifying similarities and then using that entrance point to change opinions, to turn ideas back on those whom you hope to persuade.  Think of it as the different challenges of a presidential candidate in a primary and in a general election.  In the primary, the task is showing similarity of purpose and beliefs.  Is a Mormon still a suitable Christian conservative?  Can a pragmatist retain ideals suitable to a liberal base?  In the general election, on the other hand, the question is one of persuading those who may realistically vote for either party.  Can a conservative lead change for the benefit of the less fortunate?  Might a liberal effect positive economic change on a broader scale?  Can a candidate who has spoken to a party core do something to gain the approval of those outside that core?

Identifying your audience, then, goes hand-in-hand with identifying what you hope to accomplish.  Know what your audience believes, how he/she/they arrive at those beliefs, and tailor your approach accordingly.  You won't win everyone, but you will at least engage more effectively, thus giving yourself the greatest opportunity for which a writer should hope.