An Architects Guide To Essay Planning

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Over the course of my essays in university I’ve come to realise I’m an architect when it comes to writing. That is I plan so much that when it comes to writing the essay itself there’s little thinking to be done. In the first year of my undergrad degree Dr. Lyle Skains of the School of Creative Studies and Media went through a planning format for producing a coherent essay that I still use to this day regardless of what kind of essay I happen to be planning. Since I, and several other students, have found this format to be very useful I thought it would be beneficial to write it out so that mentee’s who much prefer planning out their essays in great depth can be made aware of it during sessions…

First, make a note of the total word count of the essay, for this example let’s say we’re dealing with a 4,000 word essay:

Total word count = 4,000

Introduction

Your introduction should take up roughly about 10% of the overall word count. In this case 10% of 4,000 comes to 400 hundred words so…

Intro = 400 words

Based on this method of planning a good introduction should do five things:

  • Make sure the subject is clear.

What we’re looking for here is something as simple as stating what kind of work is being written; argumentative essay, report, critical analysis, proposal, etc.

  • Purpose/Argument

What is the reason behind writing this essay? What is the main argument/point/information you’re trying to convey to your reader?

  • Background & Context

Establishing the state of the art, introducing (by name rather than explanation) the main theorists and theories being put forward.

  • Justification & Importance

Why is this essay being written? Why should we care that is has been? Is it looking at something new and interesting? Going to argue a point that has yet to be made?

  • Forecasting

My favourite line to use in mentor meetings: ‘essays are not mystery novels’ forecast the structure of the essay so the marker (and us as mentors) know what the essay should look like, the flow of thought behind it and what kind of conclusions you might come to.

Main Body

Having prepped an introduction the main body and conclusion of the essay would come next. Though I, personally, tend to leave the introduction till last as I find it easier to plan out with a planned essay body already made. A conclusion should be roughly about 5% of the total word count (so 200 words in this example) leaving us with a total of 3,600 words to write. A good paragraph that makes a coherent point in depth could be roughly 300 words, so that’s the total we’ll be working off here.

3,600 ÷ 300 = 12

Based off that we have about twelve decent paragraphs to plan out for this essay. The best way to do this is to think of each paragraph as its own mini essay and work accordingly. There should always be a topic sentence within each paragraph (preferably the first, occasionally the second sentence) which explains the subject-matter of that specific paragraph. This can be an argument being put forth, a subject that is being explained, etc. It is always vital to think how this topic being set out works to answer the overall essay question to help keep the piece of work on track; with that shall usually come 3-5 supporting statements that link back to supporting evidence that is then expanded upon to create an overall point for the essay. Finally, a closing statement should restate the topic of the paragraph (linking it back to the overall essay question by extension) and lead into the topic of the next paragraph as well. This helps with the flow of the essay and settles the reader into the introduction of a new topic/argument.

Conclusion

Having briefly mentioned this above, we know the total length of the conclusion in this case should be roughly 200 words and it is vital those words are used effectively. Within a conclusion there should be no new information or arguments as they should have already been covered. What a conclusion should do is restate the thesis (purpose/argument) and sum up all of the sub-arguments that were crafted within the essay paragraphs; it should also restate the importance of the research (justification & importance). Finally, if appropriate, the conclusion could mention further avenues for the research; new directions it could go, elements that could be expanded upon, or topics that were not covered in this essay whose relevance could be worth looking into in later (larger) projects.

By the time all this planning has been done writing the essay is the easy part as all you’re doing is transferring the information from a plan to essay format, writing it out eloquently and ensuring the spelling, grammar and punctuation are correct. I hope you guys have found this useful and if you ever get any mentee’s who’re looking to try a more architectural approach to essay writing this comes in useful.

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Encouraging Others

I was having a nose around the web on how to encourage student writers more and came across this great succinct blog:

10 ways to encourage students to take responsibility for their learning…

1. Don’t make all the decisions

Allow choice. Encourage students to make decisions about how they learn best. Create opportunities for them to pursue their own interests and practise skills in a variety of ways.  Cater for different learning styles. Don’t expect everyone to respond in the same way. Integrate technology to encourage creative expression of learning.

2. Don’t play guess what’s in my head

Ask open-ended questions, with plenty of possible answers which lead to further questions.   Acknowledge all responses equally. Use Thinking Routines to provide a framework for students to engage with new learning by making connections, thinking critically and exploring possibilities.

3. Talk less

Minimise standing out front and talking at them.  Don’t have rows of learners facing the front of the class.  Arrange the seats so that students can communicate, think together, share ideas and construct meaning by discussing and collaborating. Every exchange doesn’t need to go through the teacher or get the teacher’s approval, encourage students to respond directly to each other.

4. Model behaviors and attitudes that promote learning.

Talk about your own learning. Be an inquirer. Make your thinking process explicit. Be an active participant in the learning community. Model and encourage enthusiasm, open-mindedness, curiosity and reflection.  Show that you value initiative above compliance.

5. Ask for feedback

Get your students to write down what they learned, whether they enjoyed a particular learning experience, what helped their learning, what hindered their learning and what might help them next time. Use a Thinking Routine like ‘Connect, extend, challenge’. Take notice of what they write and build learning experiences based on it.

6. Test less

Record student thinking and track development over time. Provide opportunities for applying learning in a variety of ways. Create meaningful assessment tasks that  allow transfer of learning to other contexts. Have students publish expressions of their learning on the internet for an authentic audience. Place as much value on process and progress as on the final product.

7.  Encourage goal setting and reflection.

Help students to define goals for their learning. Provide opportunities for ongoing self-evaluation and reflection. Provide constructive, specific feedback.   Student blogs are great tools for reflecting on learning and responding to their peers.

8. Don’t over plan.

If you know exactly where the lesson is leading and what you want the kids to think, then you‘re controlling the learning. Plan a strong provocation that will ‘invite the students in’ and get them excited to explore the topic further. But don’t  plan in too much detail where it will go from there.

9.  Focus on learning, not work.

Make sure you and your students know the reason for every learning experience. Don’t give ‘busy work’. Avoid worksheets where possible. Don’t start by planning activities, start with the ‘why‘ and then develop learning experiences which will support independent learning.  Include appropriate tech tools to support the learning.

10.  Organise student led conferences

Rather than reporting to parents about their children’s learning, have student led 3-way conferences, with teacher and parents. The student talks about her strengths and weaknesses, how her learning has progressed and areas for improvement. She can share the process and the product of her learning.

 

 

This webpage also led me to a great site on visible thinking: ‘a flexible and systematic research-based approach to integrating the development of students’ thinking with content learning across subject matters…to cultivate students’ thinking skills and dispositions, and…to deepen content learning. By thinking dispositions, we mean curiosity, concern for truth and understanding, a creative mindset, not just being skilled but also alert to thinking and learning opportunities and eager to take them’.

I hope to add another blog with a summary of this info soon.

 

 

Don’t forget the audience

Trupe, A. L. (2005) Organizing Ideas. In B. Rafoth (Ed.), A tutor’s guide: Helping writers one to one (2nd ed.). (pp. 98-106). Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook Publihsers, Inc.

This book has a fantastic chapter on structuring  your writing (Chapter 11: Organizing Ideas). The most useful advice the chapter offers is to be aware of the perspective you take when organizing your writing. The author suggests that there are two primary viewpoints one can take in order to do this: the viewpoint of the writer and the viewpoint of the reader.

Taking the writer’s perspective will generate a question like ‘What do I want to say?’, and writers will often organize their writing based on the answer to that question. However, the chapter suggests moving towards an organization that is based, instead, on the reader. One such guiding question is, ‘What does the reader need to know?’ This will move the writer to take on the reader’s perspective, giving insight into any existing gaps that need to be filled.

We, as writers, can easily cloud our judgment about the coherence of our work simply due to the fact that we (usually) already know what we want to say. We already know that it makes sense. Of course, this coherence doesn’t always translate to the reader. After-all, the reader doesn’t necessarily have the same presuppositions as the writer. As such, this distinction can be helpful to ensure that no leaps in logic are made in the writing (as well as many other errors).

Hope you find this helpful.

Doc Blog

Kamler, B. and Thomson P. (2006). Helping Doctoral Students Write: pedagogies for supervision. London: Routledge.

As a new PhD student, I read this book both for my own learning and out of fear of the fact that I could be asked at any moment to meet with a PhD student who will – absolutely – have more experience of this level of study than I do.

Compared with other texts I have read preparing for this next step, this particular book is aimed at supervisors rather than students, and is therefore couched in a lot of politics and pedagogical literature, which will hopefully be of particular use in the mentoring context.

The key advice from the book I believe may be valuable for sessions with doctoral candidates is:

  • Supervisors often wish students would write more simply, more logically, and less tentatively.
  • Students need to make their writing more concise and focus on the order of content: lead with comments and themes, rather than other authors for a sense of variety and authority. However, some level of repetition of terminology for instance can be helpful in connecting all passages of the work.  In short, students need to pay attention to style and the how of writing, not just the what and why.
  • Formatting should not be left until the last minute, as presentation is important too.
  • Use blank space to make the writing easier on the eye.
  • Frontloading or backloading is common in theses: either adding too much background and methodology without enough actual new research, or too much writing about findings which are then undertheorized and unsubstantiated.
  • Literature work requires:
    • sketching the nature of the field and possibly some of the historical developments involved;
    • identifying major debates and defining contentious terms;
    • establishing which studies, ideas, and methods are most pertinent to the study;
    • locating gaps,
    • in order to create the need for the study,
    • and identify the contribution the PhD study will make.
  • It is worth thinking of the Literature Review as a metaphor of moving into occupied territory, as it can be overwhelming, the students feeling uncertain as to where landmines are, or which paths are best to take/ avoid. Or it can be seen akin to ‘persuading an octopus into a glass’, which equates to the living, unruly nature of literature which constantly needs to be updated and revised throughout the years.
  • Moreover, the ‘invisible scholar’ phenomenon is common when literature reviews are all ‘he said’ ‘she said’, without evaluation, centralised ideas, or links to broader discussions. The simple act of shifting attribution/citing to the end of the sentence can foreground the idea and writer though. More assertive phrases can also be used, like little attention is paid to…, it appears that…, this work focuses on…, evidence to date suggests…., despite…
  • Be aware of various expressions and their usages. Hedges like possible, may, believe can either show the writer’s uncertainty, or it can bring attention to the concept as an opinion rather than fact, and also convey deference and modesty. Emphatics clearly, in fact, definitely demonstrate writer certainty and stress the information.  Attitude can also be expressed via adverbs like unfortunately and hopefully, as well as modal verbs like should or must.
  • Being critical is not just about praising or contradicting, but
    • making decisions about which literature to engage with, which to ignore, and which aspects to stress or omit or downplay;
    • paying attention to underlying assumptions, definitions, theories, methodologies, methods, and findings, as well as looking at points of similarity and difference;
    • while showing respect by concentrating on what a work contributes as opposed to what it fails to achieve.
  • It can be useful to think of the literature review as holding a dinner party. It is something found in normal everyday life, it is the student who is actively doing the inviting, the student will expect to be part of the conversation, and a dinner party is usually a positive experience.
  • Take care over bias and assumptions influencing the work however, through self-critical questions. All texts can be deconstructed, even our own.
  • Having a supervisor edit work with the student in the room can be dynamic and allow for more integration of the student, while increasing their understanding.
  • The concepts, arguments, and findings of a PhD need to be ‘potent and convincing’.
  • Argument is the compelling part; so can it enter into more parts of the written work than just fixed formulaic sections like the Discussion section? The argumentative thesis, after all, is central to reaching the ‘scholarly contribution’ criteria of the PhD.
  • Lively and stimulating writing can be very appealing; there’s ‘no reason why the scholarly requirement to interrogate complex ideas and to use precise terminology should equate with eye-watering ennui’.
  • Writing papers helps with flexibility and focus: foregrounding and de-emphasising different aspects and playing with structure and coherence for different audiences is a great skill to adopt.
  • Abstract writing helps develop a clear argument and succinctness, as well as author identity.
  • Going to conferences and talking about the work and defending it will clarify the work in the student’s mind, as well as giving the student a sense of authority.
  • There are 3 types of questioner at conferences: people who want to talk about the paper the student didn’t actually write, those who wish to make themselves look smart by ripping into the student’s work, and people who just didn’t get the point. To all, the student can simply say thank you and seek to discuss it after the talk, while the questions may illuminate the work and its gaps.
  • The main message of the book: stop thinking in terms of ‘writing up’. Writing is a ‘vital’ part of the research process from day one, through keeping journals, summarising information, and recording observations, to expressing ideas and theories as they develop, composing articles and conference talks, the act of thinking through writing, and writing the final thesis dissertation itself.  ‘The phrase ‘writing up’ actually obliterates all this labour and complexity.’  I quite agree!

Watch this space for how the PhD sessions work in practice!

Achievement Boards

Watching a Christmas film over the weekend, I came across a fantastic idea from across the pond: achievement boards.  Though they presented it in a fixed format, it can be simplified and utilised by anyone.  Might even try it myself.

The fundamentals include taking a fairly simple picture of your choice that you can colour in, with decent blocks of white (see examples below).  Write into each block a target you’d like to achieve, which can be themed or cover life goals or anything you wish.  Then as you reach each goal, you colour that part of the picture in, leaving a stunning and creative image that also highlights your achievements to go on the wall.

This would be ideal for help with time management, organisation, motivation; you could possibly even adapt it for mind mapping.

 

Reflections

Ever since I began mentoring, I have tried to engage in the reflections as much as possible, often informally considering my sessions even if I haven’t written up about them.  However, it can be tricky at times to reflect: digging deep, being so open and honest with myself and with others, and being brave enough to criticise myself while also trying to encourage myself to improve next time.

But recently, I felt that all this hard work had been put into practice with an amazing and enjoyable session in which I simply asked a multitude of questions, such as ‘How else could you do this?’  ‘How would that idea make it better?’  ‘Why is it important to you to change x?’  ‘What else do you need to do and know before you can hand this in?’ ‘Why is x a concern?…What makes you think that?…How could you change this?’

I realised, as the session was progressing, it was the first time I hadn’t actually said anything at all.  I hadn’t pointed out issues I personally thought were important to focus on, or decided on a topic for the session.  I hadn’t said anything was a good or a bad idea.  I hadn’t even come up with suggestions the writer could use.  It was as if I had become the writer’s inner voice, or Jiminy Cricket, present only to listen and to challenge, but not to judge or impose.  The only comment I made was to reassure the writer at the end that they had obviously put in a lot of thought into their work, had clearly exhausted alternatives, and this boosted their confidence in their efforts and they felt ready to submit.  In short, I felt like I had actually earned my star, and I just hope to be able to replicate this in future, after a few inevitable wobbles of course.

jiminy

Writing Essays by Pictures

Review: Gröppel-Wegener, A. (2016). Writing Essays by Pictures. Huddersfield: Innovative Libraries.

I recently came across this book as a new addition to the Peer Mentor library and wanted to give it a read.  I found it very colourful and creative, easy to read, with some innovative techniques for approaching essay writing that would best work for a relatively new student or people with a more kinaesthetic learning method.  As a result, it might be handy to have a flick through and keep it in mind as an alternative for anyone struggling with traditional note-taking, planning, and writing techniques.

Some key examples:

  • The ‘Assembly Approach’ uses the analogy of snacking as opposed to eating Christmas dinner when writing up.
  • Connecting the dots instead of simply spider diagramming can reveal gaps in knowledge.
  • The Iceberg analogy shows that work needs to come to a point and have substantial support for one’s polar bear reader to be challenged and intrigued, and yet to remain on safe ground.
  • Seeing the writer as a Detective finding sources and then noting all evidence.
  • Making visual pictorial notes initially if accessing the right words is tricky, or a ‘poetic inquiry’ summarises texts as a poem using key phrases.
  • The analogy of the Ocean of Literature describes skimming, mapping, then diving into the literature.
  • Taking a ‘long short walk’ improves powers of observation by literally slowing down a typical walk to notice things which would otherwise have been ignored; the skill can be transferred to reading and notetaking.
  • Creating an annotated bibliography as greeting cards: with an illustration encapsulating topic, topic details and notes on the inside, and on the back any details about source bias and source details such as whether it is peer-reviewed.
  • Using index cards to make notes of points rather than notes on whole texts, as these can be easily moved around physically to create an order for the essay.
  • Seeing the first draft as spilling the beans only, a bit like free writing.

Once Upon A Time: Mentoring On Creative Pieces

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Though not necessarily a common occurrence within Peer Writing sessions, it could be possible that a student approaches us with a piece of non-academic writing; be it for an assignment within The School of English, The School of Creative Studies and Media or even a personal piece it could be useful to know a few tips to help advise a mentee on their creative work.

The Cambridge Companion to Creative Writing which is available online via the university catalogue (I’ve copied a link to it below) is an excellent compilation of advice for both students attempting creative writing and mentors trying to give constructive feedback. This is a useful skill for us to have because, as the Companion states, ‘writers are, at their best, creative writers whether they are writing journalism, plays, philosophy, novels, history, poetry or scientific nonfiction.’ (Morley & Neilsen, 2012 Pg. 1) Below I have compiled a list of three aspects within creative writing that I’ve noticed my students struggling with consistently, and how we can aid them in overcoming these obstacles.

https://tinyurl.com/yb4jnaeu

  1. Floating Dialogue

This is a term used to describe too much dialogue being used in succession. It applies mainly to bodies of text such as novels and short-stories and can sometimes be used by writers attempting to avoid heavy amounts of description because they worry it makes their work seem ‘boring’ or takes away from the action. Essentially, the writer shall have a small map in their head of everything that is occurring within the story as they write it and may not be aware that we, the reader, cannot (and will not) create the same map of movement without written hints. So, when the writer focuses only on the dialogue between the characters the speech tends to ‘float’ up and the reader loses track of where exactly these characters are. It’s important to reassure the student that despite having good dialogue, the reader sometimes requires a little description too, even if it’s as simple as…

‘They began to pace, hands flapping and feet stomping against the ground.’

This is enough to ground the reader and remind them that the characters are still within the same room they were when the dialogue began.

  1. Purple Prose

This may be a term some are familiar with, and probably experienced if you’ve ever read Tolkien or Wilde, and is essentially the opposite of floating dialogue; purple prose is when the writer spends far too much time setting the scene. They may write pages about the glorious medieval manor house their story is set in and after a page of dialogue we leave it behind, never to be seen again. It brings down the reader engagement of the story and can oft times be a slog to read through. The best advice to give a writer who is showing this within their writing is to simply tell them it’s not required. Remind them that world-building is important but should be peppered in over the course of the narrative. If they’re unaware of it, inform them of Checkhov’s Gun:

‘Remove everything that has no relation to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.’

This is an excellent quote to use because it can get the writer thinking ‘What does have to be there? What can I put in that will become important in later chapters?’ etc. and can often turn a point of criticism into a point of creative thought.

  1. The Inciting Incident

Many times when going over creative works with my students I will read about half way through, put a small line by a sentence and tell them ‘you’ve started your story here.’ All stories need to have a hook, an incident that incites the movement of the narrative while gaining the reader’s attention; this, as the name suggests, is the inciting incident. We, as the mentors reading through and helping to improve the work will often pick up on this much more easily than the mentee will. We read ourselves and if you look through the mentee’s creative work and find yourself wondering ‘what is going on here? What has happened? Why are these characters doing this?’ And you’re halfway through the piece it’s important to flag that up with the writer and let them know you’re lost. Once the writer explains it to you things may make sense and if they do, let them know that you should be able to obtain that information from the writing alone; encouraging them to think like they’re reading it for the first time is useful too.

And that’s about it! The most important thing, as I’m sure we all know, is to be kind when giving this kind of feedback as students can become very attached to creative pieces they’ve written, especially if it in some way is a reflection of their life, and encourage them to redraft, edit and never delete anything for good. If a piece needs to be removed I tell my students to save it within its own word document. Later down the line if they’re looking for inspiration for another piece of writing that small part could be just the thing… Come to think of it, that may work for pieces of essays that need to be edited out too.

 Bibliography

Morley, D. and Neilsen, P. (2012). The Cambridge companion to creative writing. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

 

Polished writing, and recurrent themes.

 

Two things crop up in mentoring sessions a lot. First, questions like ‘How do I make my writing sound more formal/professional?” Second, the length and wordiness of the weaker bits of writing. In academic writing too many words are worse than too few. On starting University, the gulf between written and spoken English grows, and once well-crafted essay now seems amateurish.

When asked for help refining writing- well, it’s a lifelong thing!  But there are few tricks that can be used. Tense, too, can make a great difference (‘tense can be making, too’ doesn’t sound as snappy). Much of this will fall into the final editing stage, which can feel more like a pruning session than anything else. Still, it’s often the little microskills that add an air of confidence and professionalism. It may be easier to categorize them…

Substituting words-Because/as, Lots of/many, this means that/hence, Even though/while, Keep/retain, But/yet, Says/states (affirms, suggests, argues…), you’ll  probably come up with far more as you think about them. Swapping a longer word with a shorter one, or an informal with a formal one, is an easy way to polish your work. Remember the word count, but also how long it will take to read your sentence. A syllable count will make a difference too!

Emotiveness-Another thing is to keep traces of emotion to a minimum. You may be writing a heartrending report on some appalling topics, but it is not so much about your feelings, as the reasons the reader should feel that way. I read an article in the Guardian which was basically about how much the writer hated the Thames Garden Bridge. I gave up caring what they thought long before the end of the article, being presented with so many laden words (despicable, chummy, gobbled ect…) and so few reasons to feel the same way as the journalist.

While essays allow more flexibility for personal opinion than reports, remember to present the information, order it so it supports what you believe, summarise what you feel should be taken from it- and let the reader form their own views.

Structure and order- ‘Many excellent blog posts have been published by the Study Skills Centre’ is not quite as strong as ‘The Study Skills Centre has published many excellent blog posts’. The first is an example of the ‘passive construction’, where a noun has something done to it. The second is the ‘active construction’- the subject does something in its own right. The blog posts were published- but the Study Skills Centre publishing them sounds more engaging.

Also-paragraph beginnings and ends. A common way of beginning a paragraph is to finish the previous one with a statement, then begin with a formulaic link word such as ‘ However’ or ‘Therefore’.  If each paragraph follows the same pattern it gives an under confident impression and a rather flat tone.

Try using a question or a quote. An element of uncertainty in the leading statement, can pique reader interest. Especially if it’s something they didn’t expect. Or beginning a paragraph with a ‘honing in’ of something brought up in the previous one? The ‘Henceforth’ or ‘Although’ can be moved further into the paragraph, if used at all.

 

Writing should be enjoyable to read. For all the stress and worry of writing, it will be worth it in the end. You’re always going to come back to it later on and feel you could do better (hence my previous post on cringy pre-teen poetry). The main thing is that the piece at hand is as good as you can make it. Be proud of your writing!