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The Writer’s Toolbox

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The Writer's Toolbox is a collection of resources for students and educators that will assist in the writing process. The toolbox consists of six components.

Introduction to an Essay

This four-page handout guides students through the basics of the process of writing an essay. Using friendly language and down-to-earth examples, it provides a foundation for solid academic writing in virtually any genre.

Selecting a Topic

This guide explains not only how to choose a topic for a particular assignment, but also how to use life experiences to build a library of possible ideas to use in the future.

Creating an Outline

Teachers know that a solid structure is crucial to writing clarity and effectiveness. Outlines often make the difference between an essay that rambles or inappropriately diverges versus one that meets its goal. This handout helps students learn the techniques of creating an outline, including an example.

Developing a Thesis Statement

The thesis statement of any essay sets out its controlling purpose, and a strong thesis statement guides and influences writing in a way a weak one cannot. This handout explores how to create a strong thesis statement through examples of what not to do with accompanying revisions.

Guidelines for Revising a Rough Draft

An ability to truly revise, not just make superficial changes, is as rare as it is necessary. This handout has two parts. In the first, writers are guided on how to approach their drafts with fresh eyes and really revise it. In the second, a peer editing exercise is shared that will allow teachers to have multiple students give feedback to the writer on various components of the essay prior to the revision.

Transition Words

Moving smoothly from one idea or paragraph to another creates clarity and ease of idea flow. This comprehensive handout shares literally hundreds of transitions writers can use within sentences, paragraphs and sections of papers. They are divided into easy-to-use sections and listed in alphabetical order within those sections.

Introduction to the Essay

This handout explains the basic components of a basic essay. After you are comfortable with the structure of this essay, you will find your own writing voice and expand upon what you've learned.

Every essay begins with an introduction. Keep the following points in mind:

  • The major function of the introduction is to attract the reader's attention and make the reader want to read more of your essay.
  • Keep these ideas in mind while writing your introduction:
    • Topic (What is this essay about?)
    • Purpose (Why is this topic important?)
    • Audience (Who is your audience? Use the correct style for the reader.)
    • Form (How is the essay going to be set up?)
  • Don't be rude ["any idiot would be able to see that"] to your reader.
  • Use the present tense because the literary work you're writing about continues to exist. Say, "When Jimmy arrives at the store, he finds the clerk hiding behind the counter" — not, "When Jimmy got to the store, he found the clerk hiding behind the counter." The only exception is if you are talking about something that actually happened in the past ["When George Bush won the 2000 presidential election …"]
  • The introduction should go from broad to narrow like an upside-down triangle.

An oversimplification of the broad to narrow idea is: animals, pets, types of pets, dogs, my dog Bruno.

Example: Many unpleasant parts of growing up seem unavoidable. Pimples happen, voices crack and students worry all the time about their looks and their changing bodies. In time, the pimples disappear, the voices deepen and the worries recede. Unfortunately, one all-too-common aspect of growing up, bullying, can have lasting negative results. Young people must avoid bullying in any of its forms &mdsah; physical, verbal or social.

Ideas for your opening sentence include:

  • quotation
  • opinion opposite
  • short narrative
  • interesting fact
  • explanation of a term
  • paradox
  • analogy

Thesis

The last sentence of your introduction is your thesis. It states the general subject of the essay. This is what your essay is about. A thesis asserts the main idea you will develop in your writing. It summarizes your ideas and suggests your point of view toward it.

  • A thesis sentence takes a position of some type; it is never simply a fact.
  • It is an opinion that can be supported.
  • It must be a complete sentence. Only one!
  • Use strong words like analyze, interpret, compare, contrast, cause and effect, etc.
  • Don't hedge. Avoid using words like probably, might, seems, apparently, maybe, etc.
  • Use an action verb in your thesis; avoid "be" verbs.

Examples:

Action verb
In Romeo and Juliet, William Shakepeare shows that a lack of communication between generations leads to tragedy.
Present tense
A close study of William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury reveals many of the underlying causes of the Compson family's deterioration.

Body Paragraphs

Your body paragraphs are the meat of your essay. They flesh out the idea you put forward in your thesis. They should be well-organized and clearly relate back to the thesis. Each body paragraph will begin with a topic sentence.

  • A topic sentence echoes the subject of the thesis.
  • Avoid questions as topic sentences.
  • Use strong action verbs and avoid the passive voice (make the subject the doer).

Examples:

Transition word/phrase
Early on, Twain jokingly writes about the romantic views of the south.

Furthermore, Twain satirizes the superstitions of the southern people.

In addition, Twain ridicules the pretensions that southerners display toward religion.

Each body paragraph will have a topic sentence, as well as details from the story and your thoughts on those details.

  • After the topic sentence, give a concrete detail from the story.
  • Then, give commentary on that detail. Commentary does not have correct answers. It is your thought. Keep the commentary logical, though. This is not the time to tell the reader about your ideas about becoming supreme ruler of the universe (unless that is the topic of the essay).
  • Use the first person sparingly, even in the commentary. No offense, but the essay isn't as much about you as it is about the subject. You don't have to say, "I think it's hot in here." You can say, "It is hot in here." Same thing, but no "I".
  • After the commentary, use a concluding sentence to echo the topic sentence and show a result. Don't introduce new material in the concluding sentence. Use a good concluding transition word to show the reader that it is the conclusion. Use your Transition Word handout for this.

Example of body paragraph:

Topic sentence with concrete detail
In Of Mice and Men, George Milton looks out for Lennie's welfare. For example, he tells Lennie not to say anything to Curley in the ranch house. This shows that he understands how easily Lennie gets into trouble without realizing it. This also shows that he wants to keep Lennie out of harm's way by shielding him from contact with strangers. As a result, the reader understands George's desperate attempt to protect Lennie at the conclusion of the novel.

The commentary sentences are underlined. Do you see how the concrete detail is something that actually happened in the story? You don't have to say, "this shows"; it's just here to demonstrate the commentary. The conclusion sentence is the last one. It ties it all together and explains why what the earlier sentences said was important. You do not have to use this pattern (with the exception of the topic and concluding sentences — those are required); it's just one effective solution. The more writing you do, the less you will need to relay on a set structure.

Conclusion

The essay's conclusion leaves the reader feeling that you have covered your topic thoroughly. Avoid these "killer phrases:"

  • And this is why
  • I think
  • I know
  • I believe
  • In this essay I have shown that
  • As this paper shows

The purpose of the conclusion is to remind the reader of your excellent points you presented in the essay, to reinforce your ideas, and to reinvigorate your arguments, just in case the reader forgot how great they were. Don't start throwing in a bunch of stuff you wish you'd said. Save it for another essay. This one's done.

The form of the conclusion is important. Just as the introduction was an upside-down triangle, the conclusion is a triangle, too. This time, it's right-side up. You will begin with a restatement of your thesis. What does that mean? It means you will remind your reader what your thesis was in slightly different words.

After you re-write your thesis, now you have to write the body of this paragraph. It's so easy! You just remind the reader of your previous points. Mentally put the phrase "remember how" before each body sentence.

For example, let's say you are writing an essay about the character of Romeo in "Romeo and Juliet" and you have one paragraph on how immature Romeo is. In your conclusion you would mentally think, "Remember how," and then you would write, "Romeo reveals his immaturity when he sees no other way to deal with Juliet's death than by taking his own life." Now repeat this for every major idea in your essay.

At the end of the introduction, think to yourself, "If you remember all those things, then you will know that…" and then write what conclusion the reader should be able to draw from the ideas you discussed in your essay.

For example, let's go back to our Romeo idea. Let's say your essay talked about Romeo's character and you have reminded the reader about all of the points you brought out in your body paragraphs. Now, you think to yourself, "If you remember all of this, you will know that" and then you write something like, "The actions and attitudes of a single character can transform the lives of those around him."

This is a broad statement. It deals with broader issues that just those related to this particular essay. It's what we call a "universal truth." Think about it. How many of you know people whose actions have seriously impacted people around him or her? We all do. This is why it's a universal truth. To write one for your essay, you have to think about how what you wrote about applies to the world beyond your essay.

Final Note

This may seem intimidating. You may be thinking that you can't do this. You may be thinking that you don't understand it. Writing is learned by doing it.

You can't learn to ride a bike by reading about how to do it in a book, and you can't learn to write by complaining about how you don't like it.

Pick up your pen and follow the directions. You can do it! Step by step, line by line, it will come to you. You will soon be writing better than you ever thought you could. You may even enjoy it!

Selecting a Topic

A Swiss man, looking for directions, pulls up at a bus stop where two Americans are waiting.
"Entschuldigung, koennen Sie Deutsch sprechen?" he asks.
The two Americans just stare at him.
"Excusez-moi, parlez vous Francais?" he tries. The two continue to stare.
"Pariare Italiano?" No response.
"Hablan ustedes Espanol?" Still nothing.
The Swiss guy drives off, extremely disgusted.
The first American turns to the second and say, "Y'know, maybe we should learn a foreign language."
"Why?" says the other. "That guy knew four languages, and it didn't do him any good."

 

In this joke, it didn't matter how smart the Swiss guy was, or how many ways he could say what he was saying. What mattered was that he didn't know where he was going. In an essay, not knowing where you are going is like being the guy in this joke. It doesn't matter how smart you are: if you don't know where you're going, you won't get there.

Your teacher may give you a topic, but sometimes you will have to select one. Sometimes you may need to further narrow or even expand the assigned topic. If you have to come up with your own topic, here is how you find and decide on a topic, how to narrow a topic, and how to keep your eyes open for topics in general.

One key idea is that must have something to say about the topic that is not simply repeating what everyone has said before. On a scale of 1 to 10, you should care about the topic at least a six or you will not have the cognitive energy to sustain the essay.

Guidelines for Selecting a Topic

1. Brainstorming possibilities: If you need a topic to write about, you should simply begin listing as many potential topics as possible without taking the time to decide whether each one is good for your assignment or not. You simply want to get a list of as many topics as you can in the time that you have. No judging allowed! Just list.

2. Sentence completion: Complete as many of the sentences below as make sense in the context of your assignment in as many ways as you can. Try to word your sentence beginnings so that they lead you to a topic you can use for your writing. You can think of your own sentence beginnings to get your "topic brainwaves" flowing.

  • I wonder how…
  • I hope our school…
  • Our grading system…
  • I hate how…
  • One place I enjoy…
  • Too many people…
  • If my parents…
  • The good thing about…
  • The government should…

3. Be alert for "found" topics: These are topics which you find unexpectedly as you are shopping, walking, driving, eating lunch at McDonald's or hanging out with friends, or even listening to the lyrics of your favorite song. You might come across an unusual event, person, place, or conversation.

4. Experience: Experience as many different aspects of your community as you can. Visit museums, churches, parks, libraries, businesses, factories, schools, colleges. As you expand the scope of your world, you will naturally build a supply of ideas. Write in a journal on a regular basis, entering your personal feelings, opinions, and observations of your daily experience. All of your experiences are fair game for future writing.

5. Observe: Watch and listen carefully to everything and everyone when you are looking for a topic. Think about possible topics as you read. Talk to people (friends, parents, grandparents, neighbors, workers) about their ideas and experiences. People who are interested are interesting.

6. Read magazines and newspapers: The table of contents of your favorite magazine could help you discover an idea for a topic. A newspaper could give you a current event or interest topic.

Ideas for Literary Analysis

If you are asked to write about literature, the ideas listed below will help you choose a specific focus for your analysis.

Theme: You can write about one of the themes presented in your selection.

  • Does the author seem to be saying something about ambition, courage, greed, jealousy, happiness or some other universal emotion?
  • Does the selection show you what it is like to experience racism or loneliness or some other universal experience?
  • Does the author say something about a specific time and place in history?

Characterization and plots: You can explore aspects of character and plot development.

  • What motives drive a character's course of action?
  • What are the most revealing aspects of one of the characters? (Consider his or her thoughts, words, and actions.)
  • What external conflicts affect the main character? (Consider conflicts with other characters, the setting, or objects.)
  • What internal conflicts make life difficult for the main character? (Consider the thoughts, feelings, and ideas that affect him or her.)
  • How is suspense built into the story? (Consider the important events leading up to the climax.)
  • Are there any twists or reversals in the plot? (What do they add to the story?)
  • Does the text exhibit traits of a quest, a comedy, a tragedy, or an ironic twist on one of these patterns of development?

Setting: You may want to analyze the role of the setting in the story.

  • What effect does the setting have on the characters? The plot? The theme?
  • Has the setting increased your knowledge of a specific time and place?
  • Is the setting new and thought provoking?

Style: You can give special attention to the author's style of writing.

  • What feeling or tone is created in the selection? How is it created?
  • Is there an important symbol that adds meaning to the selection? (How is this symbol represented in different parts?)
  • Has special attention been given to figures of speech like metaphors, similes, and personification? (What do these devices add to the writing?)

Author: You can focus on the life and times of the author.

  • How does the text reflect aspects of the author's experience or beliefs?
  • How does this text compare to other works by the author?
  • How does the literary work represent the author's particular time, place, and/or culture?

Creating an Outline

Goal: Find a sensible method of arranging your evidence in the form of an outline.

What is it? An outline is an abbreviated picture of the parts of your paper or project and the order in which they will come. You can think of it as a "road map" of your journey toward making a final product. A thorough outline will make writing the first draft much more simple.

Why do it? It helps you to…

  • stay on course and not get off-track when you put your final product together.
  • see if you have enough (or too much) material to support your Thesis Statement.
  • figure out the order in which your subtopics will appear in your final product.
How to do it: Take all of your research and ideas and separate it into subtopics. Figure out the most logical flow of information, the best order for the information to be in, using the subtopics you have created. Think about the different possible orders in which you could present each group of ideas.

Should the ideas in pile one be presented first, or those in pile three? Why? Look for relationships between the ideas and information in each subtopic, as well as between subtopics.

Put your subtopics, with the key points that support them, in words or short phrases, into draft outline form that shows how they will flow from beginning to end.

Draft outline form is a formal outline used as a basis for your rough draft. It can be in either sentence or topic (words, phrases, or clauses) form. Note that your outline:

  • Begins with a statement of controlling purpose (thesis).
  • Is divided into two or more major sections introduced by Roman numerals (I, II). Each major section is divided into two or more subsections introduced by capital letters (A, B). The subsections may be divided into sub-subsections introduced by Arabic numerals (1, 2), and those into sub-sub-subsections introduced by lowercase letters (a, b).
  • If you have an "A," you must have a "B." If you have a "1," you must have a "2." If you have an idea just dangling by itself, fit it in somewhere else or flesh it out more.

 

EXAMPLE: The Political Message of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath

Thesis: Steinbeck's novel expresses a strong political message warning that exploitation of migrant workers would cause them to rise up as a group against their oppressors, the state and the wealthy landowners.

  1. The historical background of the migrant situation
    1. The Dust Bowl of the 1930s
    2. The migration to California
    3. The nature of California Agriculture
    4. The living conditions among the migrants
  2. Steinbeck's opinions about the migrant situation
    1. Steinbeck's publication of Their Blood is Strong
    2. Steinbeck's descriptions of the migrants' lives
      1. travel
        1. truck
        2. desperate nature
      2. poverty
    3. Steinbeck's warning about the consequences of exploitation
  3. Steinbeck's message about the migrant situation in The Grapes of Wrath
    1. The Joads as self-absorbed, passive victims
    2. B. The Joads as active agents of change
    3. The conclusion of the novel as a warning
    4. The title of novel as a parallel between the migrant system and Babylon

Resources: McDougal Littell Writing Research Papers

 

Continue to Part Two (Thesis statement, rough drafts & Transition words)