M A I N * N E W S * T O P I C S * L I N K S * R E S E R V E S
Critical Response Essay #1: Tips for Rewriting
Stats About Your First Drafts
24 chose option #1, 14 chose option #2, 16 chose option #3, and 9 chose option #4.
The grade distribution on first drafts was as follows: A+=0, A=0, A-=3, B+=5, B=8, B-=14, C+=14, C=2, C-=12, D+ and below=5. Grades ranged from C- to A- on option #1, from C- to B on option #2, from D to A- on option #3, and from E to A- on option #4. Remember that if you choose to rewrite, your new grade replaces your grade on your first draft.
Tips for Rewriting
For those who picked up their drafts before break, rewrites are due at the end of the working day on Friday, October 15. For those who picked up their drafts after break, rewrites are due at the end of the working day on Monday, October 18. I am available during office hours and by appointment to discuss strategies for re-vision and rewriting. Do not turn in your revised paper until you have considered my comments carefully and read the following paragraphs. They contain crucial advice.
First off, you should not rewrite unless you plan to do more than simply fixing typos, misspellings, and grammatical errors. (Please note that in my comments on your papers, I do not copy-edit papers [although I point out patterns and suggest some sentence-level revisions]--it is up to you to find and fix these kinds of problems.) Unless you plan on revisiting your main argument, the way you organized your essay, and your use of evidence, what you do will not be a true "re-vision" of your essay at all. Only such re-visions will have a good chance of getting a higher grade.
More important, it is only by going through such a re-vision process that you will truly learn how to write more effectively. It's a cliche--but still true--that you have to treat your mistakes and failed experiments as learning experiences. Think of the last time you had to learn a difficult skill that required of you some persistence and ability to deal with frustrations and obstacles (from, say, learning to drive a stick shift to the last video game you learned to play to the last lab course you took to the last math proof you tried to derive). Learning the craft of writing is no different.
Moreover, no professional writer expects to get a draft perfect the first time--hardly anyone even comes close--and they accept that rewriting is where most of the real work of writing happens. In fact, many prefer the re-vision process to the process of generating ideas and composing a first draft, as crazy as that might sound to you.
So be sure to read my comments on your paper carefully and devote some time to thinking about what you want to change. The following pointers may also be helpful:
- Writing as Thinking: Writing your critical response papers and final essay are your best opportunities in this course to consider a difficult question in the depth needed to answer it adequately. Think of all the questions you've been asking on your reading responses, particularly the ones that nag at you and frustrate you because you're not sure of how to answer them. Your papers are the place to do the thinking required to answer the questions that matter most to you. This is not the sort of class where the professor will explain all there is to know about the text--this is simply not possible with something so complex, difficult, and open to multiple interpretations as most literature is. You won't leave my literature courses feeling you know all there is to know about what you've read, but you should leave it able to become aware of what you don't know and able to develop ways of figuring it out on your own and in discussion with others. In other words, my literature classes tend to be designed to turn you into an active and critical reader--someone who is able to generate interesting questions and can take significant steps toward coming up with plausible answers to them. There is no requirement of the course more crucial for developing the latter skill than your papers. Reading responses are much more about coming up with questions and observations; in-class exercises are much more about developing your critical and interpretive skills; discussion is much more about identifying difficult questions and sifting though multiple ways of answering them; and the exam is much more about demonstrating your critical and interpretive competence. It is really only in your papers that you put together every aspect of the course and can focus in on one question and one or two texts--and in the process perhaps figure out something you hadn't known before you began writing the paper. Once you think of the writing process as being about discovering something about a text or issue that you hadn't know before you began the process--rather than as an exercise in transcribing your class notes into a more organized form or basically regurgitating others' ideas--you will find that your papers dramatically improve. (Be aware that in some disciplines this conception of writing is not accepted--the regurgitation model is all too often the norm--but in literature courses, at least, the writing as thinking/writing as discovery model should become yours.)
- The Writing Process: There is no one-size-fits-all step-by-step method for writing well. However, the more aware you become of what your own writing process is, what seems to work best for you, and what it could become, the better your writing will become over time. Here's my own take on "the writing process"; it would be worthwhile to compare it to what you actually do when faced with a writing assignment. So, without further ado:
- First, consider that the process of writing typically takes place in three stages--pre-writing, drafting, and revising--and that it's important to become more conscious of how much time and what kinds of things you do at each stage. It's the toughest thing in the world to be faced with a blank page and have to start from scratch. Most successful writers do some kinds of pre-writing activities to "warm up" their writerly engines. There are many ways of doing this, but the basic purposes of taking notes, copying down key passages, doodling, and other more focused pre-writing activities is to brainstorm ideas (often through timed free writing--one way of doing this it to give yourself two minutes to write all you can on a specific question and then choose the best ideas from what you've written and try to develop those in another two-minute burst--the key is to keep the pen moving and write whatever comes to mind), to explore possibilities (don't close down or go into editing mode too quickly--try to get a sense of the range of approaches you could take to answering a given question), and to organize their thoughts in some way (not necessarily in an outline or fully-fleshed out blueprint for the entire paper, though--sometimes in a diagram, or web of connected ideas, or on notecards, or whatever approach works best for you).
- I've said a lot about pre-writing because too often people have never heard of it, despite its paramount importance. But it's also important to distinguish between the drafting and revising stage, and to be clear when you're doing what. You don't have to do the first, finish it, and only afterwards do the next; you can alternate between the two as you go along. But the key thing is to be aware of what you're doing and why. I tend to write a bit, then go back over it and revise it, then write a bit more, revise it, and so on (trying not to get too caught up in the revision process, however). This is just one way of doing it; basically, you have to figure out what process works best for you.
- Drafting is taking your pre-writing materials and, by turning them into sentences and paragraphs, attempting to generate a main argument and back it up as persuasively as possible. You shouldn't be so concerned with the exact order in which things should appear or how much you're writing at this stage; rather, you should be trying to get your ideas down on paper as precisely and specifically as possible. You should be less concerned at this stage with being logical, coherent, or polished, and more concerned with turning your ideas into sentences and figuring out what the main point of the paper is. When you're in drafting mode, resist the temptation to fiddle with your spelling or check your grammar or do other minor editing tasks. That's for later. Stay focused on getting your main ideas down on paper in whatever order they occur to you.
- The last--but not least--stage is revising. This is also an often-overlooked stage, but in many ways it's the most important. Pre-writing and drafting can help you figure out what it is you want to argue, but revising is how you go from getting your own ideas clear in your head to making them clear and compelling to someone else on paper. It's a process of imposing some sort of structure on the relatively stream-of-consciousness first draft you've probably produced. You'll need to read over your draft as if you are not the author, to forget what you meant to say and look at exactly what you did say, and to consider ways of saying it better (or changing what "it" is in the first place). This could involve cutting extraneous material, reordering paragraphs or combining parts of different paragraphs into a new one, or composing new sentences and paragraphs, but whatever you're doing, the goal should be to make sure you have a main argument and are considering possible ways of making it most effectively. Only when you've worked your paper into the order you think is most persuasive should you get down to making your writing better at the sentence level or focus on developing key parts of the paper like the introduction and conclusion or topic sentences and transitions.
- Proofreading and final editing should be the absolute last stage of the process. Don't get caught up in making a sentence perfect early on, because who knows? you might decide to cut it later because it's no longer relevant to your main argument. But do make sure that what you turn in represents the most polished and considered piece of writing you're capable of putting together.
- You'll probably have noticed that going through this process will take more time than other possible ways of generating the required page length--ways that are more familiar to you and that you may have come to rely on--but the pay-off is that if you stick with this process, you'll find that you are actually able to write better papers more efficiently. Which raises another point that I want to make: the hardest transition to college writing to make is to go from thinking you have to produce a certain number of pages to thinking that you have to put together the best possible argument within the page limits. The first (typically "high school") way of thinking about writing is generally to come up with as safe or obvious or easy-to-make an argument as possible (which as a result is often less about what you think than what you imagine the teacher wants to hear), write the minimum amount required in the formulaic five-paragraph form, turn it in, and hope. The second way of thinking of writing (which not all college students make the leap to, although all should!) is more challenging but also more rewarding--it means treating writing as an opportunity to discover something you wouldn't have otherwise found out, to come up with an argument that matters to you, and to engage it, the texts you're analyzing, and the audience you're implicitly addressing with both logical rigor and attentiveness to nuance, subtlety, and complexity. It will probably take you longer to accomplish, it may require more of you, and it will definitely mean taking more intellectual risks; however, the result will be not only a better grade but also more satisfaction out of what you've written.
- The last general comment I'll make is about the need to keep pushing your writing. As you have seen from the first rewrite, it's difficult to improve your grades on a rewrite if you just leave most of the paper as it was and change a word here or there, or add some new paragraphs at the end. A true re-vision requires you to take a hard look at how well you fulfilled the requirements of the assignment or answered the question, whether you have an debate-able main point or argument, whether you back it up effectively with textual evidence and relevant examples, whether you organized your paper well, whether your writing was clear and concise, and whether your introduction and conclusion are not simply mirror images of each other. You may find that you need to focus on a different text than one of the ones you chose, or rethink your argument, or make any number of revisions that will mean that the second draft looks quite different from the first. This is part of the writing process--and you won't get better unless you work on it. Finally, this process may make you see the text or texts you're writing on differently, or force you to reread sections of the text, or read a passage closely, or notice something about it that you had never thought of before. This is what writing as re-vision is all about--it means that you're not only rethinking what you've written, but getting a new perspective on the text or texts you're analyzing.
- Assignment: Be clear about what the question is asking and what you are required to do when answering it. More than three-quarters of the papers displayed some degree of confusion about the precise requirements and expectations of the question they chose to answer. For instance, on the first option, many people offered a definition of the ghost story genre and applied it to two or more texts, but never got around to justifying it or organizing their paper so as to persuade readers who may begin from different definitions of the genre that your definition "works best." Or on the second option they simply stated without justifying or defending their criteria for what makes a good ghost story. Or on the third option they talked about interesting stories or representations of ghosts in them rather than about interesting uses of ghosts. Or on the fourth option they discussed how Erdrich used ghosts in Tracks without addressing to "to what ends" portion of the assignment. For each of the assignments, many people had trouble coming up with an argument and a way of structuring it that would address the key requirements and satisfy the key criteria for evaluation. This suggests to me that people either were not reading the assignment sheet carefully enough or were embarrassed to ask questions about it. The kinds of close-reading and question-asking habits I'm trying to inculcate in you can and should be used whenever you get any sort of writing assignment--it's a fundamental college (and life) survival skill to figure out just what is being asked of you and how best to excel at doing it (and to ask questions when either are radically unclear). In general in this course, remember this mantra of things to avoid: stating (as opposed to proving); illustrating (as opposed to justifying); asserting (as opposed to persuading).
- Argument: Most of the papers had a fairly clear central argument, but over half of those arguments had fairly serious logical difficulties. Remember that it's not enough to come up with any thesis-statement-like sentence to be placed at the end of your introduction. Many of the theses I read either showed great confusion about the assignment or little thought put into their genesis. For the first and second options in particular, this could be a function of taking the question too lightly--what seem like very simple little questions are often quite complicated once you start to consider them carefully. For the third and fourth options, confusion over just what constitutes an authorial use of a ghost did several well-written and well-organized papers in
- Justification/Persuasion/Evidence: Very few papers successfully got into the "persuasion/justification" mode; most got beyond the "stating opinion" mode and into the "illustrating/explaining" mode, but for the papers to satisfy the most fundamental requirement of each option, this was not enough. Making this transition to "justification/persuasion" mode involves recognizing that the claims you want to make are debate-able and considering how best to convince someone who might well disagree with you that your claims should be taken seriously. Using evidence well is crucial to this process. For instance, it was not enough on option #1 to simply apply your definition to a few stories we read this semester and show how they were ghost stories; since your goal should have been to persuade your readers to take up you definition (no matter what definition they may have started with), the key thing was to both illustrate/explain your definition by showing how it includes stories that should be included and excludes those that should be excluded, and also helps us decide the tough cases (where there is lots of debate over whether it's a ghost story or not). For your rewrite, you should thus consider addressing such stories as Joyce's "The Dead," Cisneros's "Woman Hollering Creek," and Devi's "The Children" in your effort to persuade your readers that your definition "works better" than others.
- Structure: Fewer than a quarter of the papers had serious difficulties in organization or structure, which is a good sign, but more than half still relied on the kind of formulaic five-paragraph essay form that was taught when I was in high school. I suppose that teaching the five-paragraph structure in high school is a good way of getting across the importance of organizing your ideas and of teaching the fundamentals of writing--having a main argument, writing good topic sentences and transitions between paragraphs, and backing up statements with evidence--but it can become a hindrance at the college level, particularly in coming up with interesting introductions, transitions, and conclusions, and in actually thinking through what it would take to convince someone else of your main argument. Because of their reliance on this tired structure, all too many people's essays were wel-organized yet failed to address the requirements of the option.
The following aspects are less important in some ways but more important in others. The key emphasis in this course is not on the sentence-level of your writing and below--it is much more focused on the conceptual and structural levels of writing. However, in most of your other courses and outside of college you will be judged on more "surface" aspects of your writing. And as your reading experience should show, it is not that an author's ideas float somewhere independent of the words on the page and how they are arranged; rather, in the best writing, every word (even punctuation marks!) counts. So even though I won't be commenting as much on these aspects of writing in detail on your papers, I still consider them to be quite important:
- Voice and Tone: Too many papers didn't have a strong individual "voice." Strive to make your writing "sound" like you at your most coherent, organized, and measured.
- Sentences: Almost every paper could have used another edit for clarity, conciseness, and flow. Let me try to illustrate some of the problems:
You are responsible for catching these kinds of common errors. Having a friend read a draft and simply marking places that are unclear or cluttered can be a great way of identifying "problem" sentences. Also, trying to read what you wrote aloud to yourself can be instructive--when you stumble, it's likely that there's something up with the sentence. Before you hand in any paper, you should do a final proofread for all these kinds of sentence-level problems.
- Sentence fragments bad. Choppy.
- Too many papers had multiple sentences that repeated the same point over and over and over (and over). Repetition can substitute for development of ideas. Just think of Mojo Jojo in Powerpuff Girls as a parodic example of over-repetition. Try to avoid repetition. Repeating a point does not constitute persuading someone.
- Too many sentences could have been combined (into compound or complex sentences with ideas nicely subordinated), while still avoiding the dreaded run-on sentence, you should avoid those.
- A few sentences here and there didn't has subject-verb (or subject-object) agreements.
- Too many papers jumped around in verb tense, so that it is confusing to read.
- Words: Some common errors included 1) misspelling authors' names and the titles of their works (a cardinal sin!); 2) careless typos; 3) confusing possessives with plurals; 4) confusing "its" (possessive) and "it's" (=it is) or "their" and "there." I'll be sure to add to this list of "pet peeves" over time!
- Formatting: Many people did not know to put titles of stories in quotation marks ("The Power Line") and to underline or italicize titles of books (One More Story), despite the fact that the syllabus models the correct formats. Nor did they include a title for their papers (another cardinal sin!). Nor did they include page numbers. Nor did they know the proper format for introducing, quoting, and citing passages from texts. See the final essay page for advice on formatting.
- Punctuation: The most common errors were overusing or misplacing commas and misusing semi-colons. I introduced some people to the dash (--), which is a useful little punctuation mark when you want to connect two ideas with something stronger than a comma (,) but weaker than a colon (:) or semi-colon (;). It's a pretty informal kind of punctuation mark, and many people frown on it, but it does come in handy. Many people had problems with apostrophes and distinguishing between plurals and possessives.
- Overall Presentation: Very few papers--even ones that got high grades--had the "look" of a finished draft. You should always hand in your best effort and make every paper something you would be proud to show to anyone. Even when you know you can rewrite to replace the original grade--as you can in this course--you should still do the best you can.
M A I N * N E W S * T O P I C S * L I N K S * R E S E R V E S
EN 209: Novels and Tales, Fall 1999
Created: 10/15/99, 12:10 am
Last modified: 10/15/99, 8:57 pm