Thursday, September 26, 2013

Myths about Writing Essays

Four suitcases sit,  and the title "Myths about Writing Essays" appears above them.  The subtitle, "Check these preconceived ideas about writing at the door" appears to the right of the baggage.
Following certain old "rules" can actually cause more
serious writing errors.

There are a few "old friends" students bring into the college composition classroom with them year after year.  These memorized rules, these "old standby buddies" are called upon paper after paper, student after student, only to let their writers down in the end.

These seedy comrades, after all, are merely posing as pals, when in reality they are nothing more than mythical shadows leading their followers astray.

In other words, students come into my writing classes thinking that there are a certain number of sentences per paragraph, a certain number of words per sentence, a rule that states a sentence can't start with "because," and a rule that says a writer is not allowed to use "I" in an essay.


Myth #1: There are 3 - 5 sentences in a paragraph.


Reality: A paragraph is as long as necessary to support a topic sentence.  That means a paragraph requires two things: a topic sentence or a statement of a main idea and some sort of support or evidence that demonstrates the credibility of that main idea.  If a paragraph seems too short, it's missing its main idea or an element of support.  If the paragraph seems too long, it may contain more than one main idea or it may be "beating a dead horse" with its copious or trite evidence.

Believing the myth, students often commit more serious errors than paragraph length.  When students believe their paragraphs are too short, they add evidence that lacks credibility or they add meaningless sentences as filler, often even straying off topic or countering their thesis claims.  On the other hand, if they think a paragraph is too long, they cut sentences that help clarify their main ideas, leaving gaps in their arguments or reasoning.

Myth #2: There are no more than 25 words in a sentence.


Reality: Sentences can be (and should be) long, short, and in-between.  A good essay will be composed of sentences of a variety of lengths and complexity.  As long as a sentence is well-written and well-punctuated, it can be as long as it needs to be in order to clearly establish the writer's claim or position on the topic under discussion.

When students adhere to the myth, they sometimes simplify their ideas at the expense of clarity or coherence.  For example, if writing an essay about a literary work, students will sometimes leave the title of the story, play, or poem out of their thesis statements in order to reduce the number of words, leaving a reader with a major question.  If including quoted evidence from an expert source, student writers will sometimes omit an introductory phrase or a statement of attribution before the quote, making the evidence seem arbitrary or pushing the edge of plagiarism.  Plagiarism is a much more serious error than sentence length.

Myth #3: Sentences cannot start with "because."


Reality: A sentence should be complete.  Beginning a sentence with "because" does not necessarily mean a sentence will be incomplete; it simply means the writer must be certain the dependent "because" clause is followed by a comma and an independent clause.

Sentences should always begin with the most important words within the sentence.  Furthermore, reasons generally follow the word "because."  If a writer begins a sentence with "because," it could be because he or she wants to emphasize the reason within the sentence over the premise or conclusion.  Because some students are taught never to do such a thing, however, they never learn to add emphasis to the reason within a sentence.

Myth #4: Writers should never use "I" in an essay.


Reality: An essay is a short discussion.  That short discussion can be molded into an expository essay, a descriptive essay, an argumentative or persuasive essay, or a narrative essay.  Depending on the type of essay a student is writing, "I" could be perfectly acceptable.

When students are trying to avoid "I," they sometimes commit a worse error; that is, they resort to using the second person, even when commenting on their own lives.  That error distracts readers and can even put a reader on the defensive.  For example, in a narrative essay about learning to drive, I once had a student writer state, "You need to drive more carefully so you aren't in any more accidents."  When I asked him why he was assuming I had been in a car accident, he stated that he was the one who had been in an accident.  When I asked him why he said it in his paper as though his reader had been in an accident, he told me it was because he had been taught never to use "I" in an essay.

In conclusion, although there are some hard and fast rules about writing writers should learn to trust like old friends, these are not those friends, those rules.  A paragraph should be as long as necessary to support a topic sentence.  A sentence should be as long or as short as necessary to clearly establish an idea.  Sentences can begin with "because," and "I" can sometimes mean the difference between offering a lesson or insight to a reader or offending or confusing a reader.  In the end, it remains a matter of unity, coherence within and between paragraphs, and a clearly stated and supported discussion of a claim or position.

Want to learn more about writing essays?  

Try my complete online essay writing course on called "Quality Paragraph and Essay Writing."  Use the coupon code link to get 50% off the regular price of the course. Receive a certificate of completion when you've finished!

Copyright Amy Lynn Hess.  Please contact the writer for permission to reuse.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Mina Loy's "Modern Poetry" and Its Relevance Today

An excerpt from an essay by Mina Loy: Poetry is prose bewitched, a music made of visual thoughts, the sound of an idea.
From Loy's "Modern Poetry" Image by Dave Bonta

Mina Loy's opinions about poetry are just as important today, if not more so, than in her own Modern Era.

One of the lesser-known poets of the Modern Era, Loy took seriously the tenets of Lowell and Pound's Imagism as stated in the "Imagist Manifesto," as well as Pound's challenge to make poetry new. She followed his example and joined the Modern literary conversation with an essay of her own called "Modern Poetry." What makes this essay relevant today is that what she praises as well-written poetry for the Modern Era remains true in our own time.

The Modern Era

The beginning of Modern poetry can be defined by the emergence of American avant-garde poets just before the start of World War I in 1914. Among the most famous of the Modern poets, and this list is certainly limited, are Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, T.S. Eliot, Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, E.E. Cummings, and Hart Crane. These poets exhibit the sentiments of Pound, who challenged the poets of his time to “make it new.” Not only did they meet this challenge, but their influence has grown over the past poetic century as they have influenced new generations of poets.  How these poets made poetry "new" was defined not only by the most well known of the Era's poets, it was also explained by Mina Loy in her essay, "Modern Poetry."

Mina Loy's "Modern Poetry"

In Mina Loy's “Modern Poetry,” an essay first published in the non-literary magazine Charm in April of 1925 (Conover 217), Loy begins, “Poetry is prose bewitched, a music made of visual thoughts, the sound of an idea” (157). What follows that first sentence is a nine-point evaluation of Modern Era poetry. The majority of her essay focuses on using a natural rhythm for personal topics, and in the popular poetry of today, this acclaim for free verse, rhythm, and musicality is just as popular, if not more so than in 1925. As for the music of poetry, one only has to look at the popularity of rhythmic slam poetry, "music made of visual thoughts," to hear its spontaneity and see its effect on the popularity of poetry.

"Music Made of Visual Thoughts"

Several of Loy’s points in "Modern Poetry" praise the music of the then-new free-verse form. Almost with an air of knowing what was to come in the future of poetry, as over the years it has competed more and more with popular music as entertainment, she begins by saying music is more easily accessible to people than poetry because while music is “easy to get in touch with,” poetry requires “voluntary attention” (Conover 157). She continues to explain that poetry must be read as “pictured song” (157). Almost prophetically predicting the advent of slam or jam poetry, she explains that tempo and verse are used properly when found spontaneously, just as structured meter was at one time new and original, spontaneous thought. She extols Ezra Pound as the master at creating musical qualities in verse, and gives much credit to E.E. Cummings. Of Cummings she states his success lies in his “rich compassion” for “common things,” and his rhythms created by the combination of a free-verse form and “fresh rhymes.” Loy then gives examples of perfect poems, naming work by Hilda Doolittle, Marianne Moore, Lawrence Vail, and William Carlos Williams. Her last point again praises the “sublime” Williams. Loy cites his ability to create the new rhythm of poetry by his joining of bare fact with personal nature (161).

The poetry of the Modern Era has had a profound effect on the poetry we read and hear today - both as the written word and in popular song. Modern poets, famous and lesser-known alike, contributed to this evolution of rhythm, meter, image, and "the everyday" as acceptable poetic subjects. Most notably of the lesser-known poets is Mina Loy, whose opinions about poetry as explained in her essay, "Modern Poetry," are just as valid today as they were in 1925.

Want to read more about Mina Loy?  Try

Diagramming Mina Loy's "Letters of the Unliving" as a Method of Close Reading

Works Cited

  • Conover, R L. (ed.) (1996). The Lost Lunar Baedeker; Poems of Mina Loy. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Works Consulted

Copyright Amy Lynn Hess. Contact the author to obtain permission for republication.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Introducing the Syllogism by Example Example Example

A girl thinks about her friend and his refusal to let her borrow his car.
Does a friend's refusal make him a bad friend?

“All men are mortal,” you tell your class as they nod.  “Socrates is a man,” you continue as some students glance at the clock.  “Therefore, Socrates is mortal,” you finish with a flourish as a student in the back yells, “Who’s Socrates?”  You wilt.

Although Aristotle’s pronouncement, in perfect syllogistic validity and truth, may be the most famous of all categorical syllogisms, it won’t necessarily have much of an impact on our students.  That’s not to say it isn’t important or shouldn’t be discussed; perhaps it just isn’t the best way to begin a lesson on syllogisms. It’s much more likely we’ll capture our students’ attention and interest if we use examples of deductive logic they use on a daily basis, then link those situations to valid syllogism forms.

To start, begin with a short and sweet introduction to deductive reasoning, perhaps including how it is different from inductive reasoning. Be sure students understand the following key terms:

Syllogism - A form of deductive reasoning that includes two premises and a conclusion based on those premises.
Valid - When a syllogism follows the prescribed form, it is considered valid.
Sound - When a syllogism's premises are true and the form is valid, we can say the reasoning is sound.

After these basics are established, allow the students to experiment with some of the syllogism forms. The following three examples are hypothetical syllogisms, but categorical syllogisms may work just as well. 

Example Hypothetical Syllogisms

The Modus Ponens Syllogism

A fantastic example of an affirming syllogism, a modus ponens syllogism, comes from the Sherry Diestler text, Becoming a Critical Thinker: A User Friendly Manual (2009, pg. 81).

  • If our team wins the playoff game, it will be in the championship game.
  • Our team did win the playoff game.
  • Therefore, our team will be in the championship game.

Using an example the students can understand, even if they are not sports fans, can help them visualize a real situation.  The ability to visualize a concrete situation can help students both retain the new vocabulary and the process for creating syllogisms.  By asking students to confirm the truth in each of your premises before moving to the next, you can also help instill in them the habit of questioning the truth of premises right from the start.

After asking the students to visualize your concrete example of modus ponens, you can label the premises and conclusion, explain the valid form, and ask them to create their own real-life examples.  Again, be sure to emphasize the importance of confirming the truth of the premises before coming to a conclusion.

  • Major premise, If A, then B: If our team wins the playoff game, it will be in the championship game.
  • Minor premise, A: Our team did win the playoff game.
  • Conclusion, Therefore B: Therefore, our team will be in the championship game.

The Modus Tollens Syllogism

John Chaffee’s Thinking Critically  text approaches examples of modus tollens syllogisms a little bit differently.  Chaffee uses premises that are somewhat questionable, which can work in an introductory lesson to emphasize the importance, again, of questioning the truth of each premise (2012, pg. 434).

  • If Michael were a really good friend, he would lend me his car for the weekend.
  • Michael refuses to lend me his car for the weekend.
  • Therefore, Michael is not a really good friend.

When you use this example, you will have students who will question the truth in the first premise.  They are right to do so: It is not an objective truth, but a subjective truth that relies too heavily on the vague language “really good friend.”  You can use this as a springboard to discuss with your students the importance of specific language and an objective definition of all terms.

Once the students understand the form of this syllogism, you can ask them to create their own using specific language and objective terms.

  • Major premise, If A, then B: If Michael were a really good friend, he would lend me his car for the weekend.
  • Minor premise, Not B: Michael refuses to lend me his car for the weekend.
  • Conclusion, Therefore, Not A: Therefore, Michael is not a really good friend.

The Chain Argument

The Critical Thinking text by Moore and Parker (2012, pg. 314) offers a great example of a chain argument all students can understand.  It’s the age-old problem of who’s going where. 

  • If Casey goes to the meeting, then Simone will go.
  • If Simone goes, then Chris will go.
  • If Casey goes to the meeting, then Chris will go.

Of course, this example will prompt some students to question the premises because everyone knows that even though someone says they’ll go, they do not always go.  You can use that as a great teachable moment to explain that the truth and certainty in this conclusion relies on the specific premises as stated.  If it is a class of applied linguistics or philosophy majors, be prepared for questions concerning intentions, truth, ethics, and even speech act theory.  Again, all of these are great springboards for further discussion.

  • Major premise, If A, then B: If Casey goes to the meeting, then Simone will go.
  • Minor premise, If B, then C: If Simone goes, then Chris will go.
  • Conclusion, Therefore, if A, then C: If Casey goes to the meeting, then Chris will go.

Using examples to help students understand this seemingly abstract concept of deductive reasoning can certainly bring it to life in the classroom.  It's a great way to introduce the syllogism while setting the bar for its use in more realistic contexts later in the course - and more importantly, beyond the course.

Want to read more about critical thinking?  Try 


  • Moore, B. N. & Parker, R. (2012). Critical Thinking (10th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw Hill.
  • Chaffee, J. (2012). Thinking Critically (10th ed.). Boston, MA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.
  • Diestler, S. (2009). Becoming a Critical Thinker: A User Friendly Manual (5th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Sticky Theories: A Lesson for Critical Thinking

Sticky Notes City by wsilver

A sticky theory is an idea, opinion, leaning, or belief we may "know" is wrong, but we just can't seem to be convinced is wrong. Our students have them, but teachers have them, too.

Falling victim to a sticky theory is often a matter of falling victim to confirmation bias or faulty assumptions, things we generally don't want to admit to others.   However, talking about sticky theories with our students on the first day of our Critical Thinking, Political Science, Philosophy, or other Humanities classes can introduce them to the course in an active way while inspiring them to open up to you and one another right away, too.  It always helps, as educators know, if we share a little of ourselves with our students.    Therefore, in order to truly discuss sticky theories and get to know your students, be prepared to participate.  Have one or two sticky theories ready to share with your students as an example of both the concept of sticky theories and as an example of intellectual humility.  Have vocabulary and prompts or examples at the ready to help coach students through group discussion.  In the end, prepare an assessment that emphasizes the most important aspect of sticky theories: overcoming them!

Be warned, however, that if you ask, you have to be prepared to handle any answer or response your students might give.  This is a brave first assignment, as students may be passionate about their sticky theories.  As another option, you can lecture about sticky theories during class time and ask students to respond to prompts in a journal, blog, online discussion post, or essay.

Critical Thinking Vocabulary and Key Terms

A great way to begin the lesson is with an overview of the vocabulary you'll be using in the lesson.  In addition to getting all of the students on the same page, it gives you a way to set ground rules before the discussion.  For example, you may want to define all or some of the following terms before beginning your lecture or activity.  Alternately, you can ask your students to define the terms.

  • Critical thinking
  • Confirmation bias
  • Assumptions (Generalizations or Stereotypes)
  • Sticky theory
  • Evidence
  • Intellectual humility
  • Self analysis
  • Ad hominem
  • False fact
  • Judgement
  • Hot-button issue
  • Self-fulfilling prophecy

After introducing the vocabulary terms, ask the students to take a few moments to jot down a sticky theory they might have.  Most will be benign, like having a strong belief about name brand versus off-brand groceries.  Some might be fact-based or localized, like thinking a "short cut" to school is shorter when really it takes longer.  Others might be more controversial and might be based on gender, religious, or racial stereotypes.  Walk around the room and be prepared to monitor and guide responses.   Coach and remind students that inflammatory opinions or opinions that may hurt or offend others should be kept private.

Sticky Theory Discussion

Conversations about sticky theories can help students not only identify, but learn to overcome, erroneous sticky theories.

If your class is small, the discussion can be with your entire class.  However, for larger classes, break the students into groups of 3 to discuss their sticky theories.  Ask the students to try to come to a conclusion about why they have their sticky theories, what the source of the theory might be, and what kind of evidence might one day convince them to change their minds.  Walk from group to group to listen to their conversations and share your sticky theories with them.  Ask questions to prompt students who may be having a difficult time coming up with a sticky theory.  Redirect any conversations that veer off topic or get too heated.  Remind students that oftentimes people carry sticky theories with them from childhood, even when they suspect the theory is erroneous.

Homework or Flipped Lesson

Because the activity and discussion takes place during class hours, a flipped lesson plan can be used in place of the traditional lecture.  Prior to the class meeting you could ask your students to look at the original source of the sticky theory theory, a paper entitled "Sticky Theories"  presented by Dorsten and Hotchkiss in 2005.

As homework or assessment following the discussion activity, any number of objective-based assessments can be given based on both the activity and the reading, depending on the level of your class.  For example, questions on a quiz or exam might include the following Bloom's Taxonomy verbs.

  • Students will define "sticky theory" and identify their own sticky theories.
  • Students will explain the type of evidence they would accept in order to counter their sticky theories.
  • Students will research sources that both support and refute their sticky theories.
  • Students will use evidence to argue against their sticky theories.

Just as with any lesson, faculty must prepare ahead of class in order to effectively discuss sticky theories.  Introducing vocabulary to the students gives faculty the opportunity to introduce the lesson while setting ground rules for academic discussion.  Preparing personal examples of sticky theories can help a faculty member relate to and offer examples to the students.  Preparing additional prompts and gauging the appropriateness of discussion will make the class run much more smoothly. Last, but not least, preparing an assessment activity that emphasizes the importance of overcoming sticky theories by the use of evidence will help ensure student understanding.

Want to read more about critical thinking?  Try

Stages in the Development of Critical Thinking
Why Do I Have to Prewrite?
The Difference Between Persuasion and Argumentation
Writing an Argumentative Essay: Basic Terminology
Assessing Critical Thinking


  • Dorsten, L. & Hotchkiss, H. L. (2005). Sticky Theory.   Retrieved from

Copyright Amy Lynn Hess. Contact the author to obtain permission for republication.