Tuesday, October 29, 2013

What's a Thesis?

A thesis starts with an idea, your own idea.
A thesis starts with an idea, the writer's own idea.

Whether a writer is composing a speech or an essay, there is one thing that the writer should not forget to add, and that is the thesis statement.  But, what exactly is a thesis statement?

A thesis statement is a writer's claim or position on the narrowed topic at hand.  

Seems simple enough, right?

Let's break it down.

Who Writes a Thesis Statement?

A thesis statement must stem from the writer of the speech or essay, since a thesis statement is the writer's own claim or position on the narrowed topic at hand.  A paraphrase, summary, or quotation cannot be a thesis statement because none of those things would be the writer's claim or position on a topic.  A fact, statistic, or dictionary definition cannot be a thesis statement because those would not be the writer's own claim or position on the topic.

What Makes a Thesis a Thesis?

According to Osborn, Osborn and Osborn in  Public Speaking: Finding Your Voice, a thesis statement "summarizes in a single sentence the central idea of your speech" (117).  Jean Wyrick, in Steps to Writing Well, states "The thesis statement declares the main point or controlling idea of your entire essay" (pg. 31).   In other words, a thesis statement is the writer's own claim or position on the narrowed topic at hand.

When Does a Writer Compose a Thesis Statement?

A writer should compose a thesis statement after a sufficient amount of prewriting, including any required research.  Prewriting helps a writer narrow a topic to a manageable size: Remember, a thesis statement is a comment on the narrowed topic at hand.  Composing a thesis after a sufficient amount of research helps a writer answer a research question and make an educated claim about a topic or choose a position on a topic before drafting an essay.

A thesis statement should be well-thought out and clearly stated before the writer moves from the prewriting stage of the writing process to the outlining stage of the writing process.  At any time, a thesis can be edited or changed to reflect greater clarity or a change in the writer's position or claim.  However, starting with the clearest idea possible will greatly help the writer maintain unity, coherence, and clarity within the speech or essay.

Where Does a Thesis Go?

A thesis statement generally appears near the beginning of a speech or essay; it introduces the reader or audience to the writer's claim or position on a given topic.

In a basic five-paragraph essay or short speech, the thesis appears at the end of an introduction, following an "attention-getter" or "lead-in."  It may appear, again, in the conclusion.  In a narrative speech or essay, a thesis statement will often appear only in the conclusion, after the story has been told.

Why Do I Have to Have a Thesis?

The thesis statement helps a writer maintain unity in an essay or speech. Any idea that does not support the thesis should not appear in the essay or speech.

Furthermore, the thesis statement also has an effect on the audience.  The writer uses the thesis near the beginning of the speech or essay to offer the reader or listener a glimpse of what the essay or speech is going to prove.  The body of the speech or essay proves the claim or position of the thesis, and the conclusion reiterates the claim or position.   When a writer omits the thesis from the introduction, the audience might be confused about the point of the evidence offered in the body.  A reader or listener might begin to ask, "What's your point?"

How Do I Write a Thesis?

How a thesis statement is worded is very much related to the topic and purpose or the speech or essay.  For example, if the purpose of an essay is to inform, the thesis will indicate a position about the topic that is informative.  For a persuasive or argumentative speech, the thesis will indicate that the writer will be offering evidence in support of a claim.  A narrative thesis is generally a statement that sums up a life lesson or piece of wisdom or insight that was gleaned during the event depicted in the narrative.

 No matter the mode of an essay or speech, however, a writer should never forget the thesis statement, the writer's claim or position on the narrowed topic at hand.

Want to read more about writing essays?  Try
An Overview of the Writing Process
Avoid Unintentional Plagiarism
Myths about Writing Essays
Before Writing Your Blog

Try my complete online essay writing course on Udemy Writing for English Composition: College Essays.


  • Osborn, M., Osborn, S. & Osborn, R. (2012). Public speaking: Finding your voice (9th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson.
  • Wyrick, J. (2011). Steps to writing well (11th ed.). Boston, MA: Wadsworth.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

An Overview of the Writing Process

Sometimes writing a paper can feel an awful lot like "Chutes and Ladders."

Writing is a process, but not necessarily a linear process.  

Instead of thinking about the writing process as a series of rungs in a ladder that lead to a final essay, think of the writing process as a successive set of cycles.

I don’t recommend trying to say “successive set of cycles” five times fast, but I do recommend reading this essay to get a better idea of what I mean by it.

Steps and Sub-Steps

The steps in the writing process include prewriting, outlining, drafting, and revising.  Each of these main steps includes several sub-steps.  For example, prewriting also includes choosing and narrowing a topic, creating a preliminary thesis statement, and defining a purpose and audience.  Outlining includes finding the best evidence, planning for order and flow, and logically dividing a preliminary thesis into preliminary topic sentences.  Some writers edit and draft concurrently, and others draft and research concurrently.  Revising may require additional editing for grammar, mechanics, and usage, but it is mainly a cycle of ensuring an essay has unity, coherence, and clarity. 

Clearly, the writing process is never as clear cut as the term “writing process” implies.  There are moments and situations where crossing back, across, and forward to additional “sets of cycles” might be necessary. 

  • Prewriting usually leads to outlining, but if a writer struggles with the outline, he or she may need to do more prewriting to clarify his or her own position on the topic or to better determine the purpose of the essay. 
  • Outlining leads to drafting, but a weak draft, a draft that includes too few details, may require more prewriting or a more detailed outline. 
  • A completed draft leads to revising, but after revising, a writer may need to redraft entire sections of the paper, which would call for additional prewriting, or outlining, or research.

Steps of the Writing Process in Action

Here is an example of the writing process in action.  The hypothetical writer, “Hannah,” has an expository essay assignment due in her composition class next week.  Where does Hannah begin? 


First, Hannah prewrites in order to generate ideas about a topic.  She uses the processes of freewriting and looping to help her decide to write an expository essay about how to make pine needle tea.  Her audience is her classmates, and after a brief conversation with many of them during a break from class, she learns that none of her classmates have ever heard of making pine needle tea. She knows she will be writing for people who will need to understand basic information in order to understand her how-to essay.

Armed with a knowledge of her purpose (to inform), a narrowed topic (how to make pine needle tea) and the level of knowledge of her audience (basic), she begins to compose a preliminary thesis statement.  She begins her thesis with her topic, and then she makes a statement about her topic, all within the same sentence.  “Making pine needle tea,” she writes, “is a simple process, and taking the time to learn to make this tea will yield a safe, delicious, and nutritious hot beverage.”


Once Hannah has her preliminary thesis statement, she places it at the top of an outline and figures out how to divide the support for the thesis into logical topic sentences.  She decides to make her first body paragraph an explanation of the tea’s nutritional benefits, the second paragraph about gathering pine needles, and the third paragraph about preparing the needles and making the tea. Her first topic sentence is “Pine needle tea has many nutritional benefits.”  Her second topic sentence is “Gathering pine needles is easy, not to mention inexpensive.”  Her third topic sentence is “Preparing the pine needles for tea takes about thirty minutes, but is well worth any time spent.”

Hannah looks back at her thesis and realizes she has forgotten to include supporting details for her idea that making the tea is safe.  She rewrites the topic sentence for the second body paragraph as follows: “Pine needle tea is safe to drink as long as the preparer is knowledgeable about gathering the proper ingredients.”

Next, Hannah outlines how she will support each topic sentence.  She adds credible, expert information about the tea’s nutritional benefits to the outline for her first body paragraph.  She adds a step by step explanation  and description of pine needles as support for her second paragraph.  For her third paragraph, Hannah adds a step by step explanation of how to prepare the pine needles and brew the tea.


Finally, Hannah drafts her essay, turning all of the support she jotted onto her outline into paragraphs.  She adds transitional words and phrases between paragraphs.  She adds attribution and citations for all of her expert testimony and credible, factual nutritional information.  Lastly, she adds a lead-in and a conclusion that summarizes her main points.


Hannah rereads her draft to look for opportunities for revision, and she realizes her second paragraph is weak.  When it comes to safety, she thinks, none of her classmates are going to believe the tea is safe right away.  She realizes she needs more ethos, or  expert testimony.  She then adds additional expert testimony about the safety of the tea to the outline for her second paragraph, and then she adds logical appeal, or logos, by adding the credible, factual information to her essay with proper attribution and a citation.  

While rereading her paper she also notices that the ending of her essay is abrupt and not very memorable.  She revises her introduction and conclusion to make them more interesting so that they capture and keep a reader’s attention. She incorporates pathos by using an introductory narrative that describes a harrowing wilderness adventure that ends in the explorers making pine needle tea for survival. 

Once Hannah is happy with her revised essay, she proofreads it one last time to look for grammatical and mechanical (punctuation and capitalization) errors.  She corrects the title of her paper for title case, corrects two sentence fragments, changes an instance of the second person “you” to the third person “people,” and changes the spelling of “they’re” to “their.”  She formats her essay according to the MLA style guide provided by her university, and she turns in her paper.


Following the steps in the writing process can help ensure a writer completes an essay that has unity, coherence, and clarity.  Each step, however, should not be thought of as a rung in a ladder that leads to a completed essay.  Each step is actually a set of cycles, a cycle of reading, thinking, revising, and rethinking, that gets a writer from idea to exceptional essay.

Want to learn more about writing essays?  

Try my online video course, Writing for English Composition: 

College Essays on Udemy.

Want to read more about the three qualities of writing? 

Clarity - Write with Clarity

Copyright Amy Lynn Hess. Please contact the author for permission to republish.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Avoid Unintentional Plagiarism

Plagiarism is theft, whether intentional or not.  Don't be a thief!
Don't be an intellectual thief: Cite your sources!

Plagiarism is intellectual theft, the act of taking someone else's words and ideas and passing them off as one's own.  Plagiarism can be either intentional or unintentional.  Unintentional plagiarism differs from intentional plagiarism in that the plagiarizer plagiarizes without knowing he or she has done it.

Whether a specific act of plagiarism is intentional or unintentional, however, is generally difficult to prove, and the punishment for academic dishonesty at a college or university will generally be severe. In the professional world, an employee or writer who plagiarizes could be fired or even sued.

So, how does a writer prevent unintentional plagiarism?  A writer avoids unintentional plagiarism by taking careful notes from sources, using attributed source content only where necessary to support a main idea, and by carefully adhering to the required documentation style guide.

Avoid Plagiarism by Taking Careful Notes from Sources

"Taking careful notes from sources" means writing a full source description even before writing down your first summary, paraphrase, or quotation from the source.  Jot down the author or authors, publication date, title, publication information, publisher information, editor information, page numbers, DOI number, call number, URL, and any other identifying information for that source.  In addition to reminding you to check your source for authority and timeliness, writing down the source description information guarantees you will be able to cite your source both in the text of your paper and at the end of your paper in your bibliographic entries.  If you need additional information, writing down a full description will allow you to find that source, again.

Furthermore, when you jot down supporting statements from a given source, be sure you can match that information with the source, not just the author, but the specific article and page or even the paragraph number.  That guarantees you will be able to ethically cite the source in the text of the paper and attribute the words or ideas to the original author.  Whether using a quotation, summarizing,  or even paraphrasing someone else's words, those words or ideas must be cited.  The rule is "If you can't remember where you found it, don't try to use it."  Therefore, you should always make sure you can remember where you found something so that you can use it.

Avoid Plagiarism by Using Attributed Source Content Only Where Necessary to Support a Main Idea

When writing, you should use source content only when that source content supports one of your own main ideas.  A paragraph in a literature paper, for example, that simply reports information about a poet seemingly has no purpose other than to fill space.  The entire paragraph would be source content, and every sentence would need attribution and in-text citations.

On the other hand, a writer who starts with his or her own idea has a much easier time getting to the point, and a much easier time avoiding plagiarism.  For example, a paragraph that begins with the original main idea that a poet lived a difficult life and therefore wrote difficult poetry might need only one or two pieces of source evidence that support the idea that the poet lived a difficult life.  In the rest of the paragraph, the writer could point out the similarities between the poet's life and her poetry.  Of course, if the entire idea came from someone else, passing this idea off as one's own would still constitute plagiarism.  The writer has to ask himself or herself, "Did I know this or think this before I read it someplace else?"

As stated above, words and ideas that belong to someone else must be pointed out to the the reader of a paper when and where they occur, not just at the end of the paper on a bibliographic page.  Let me say that, again: Within a paper, a writer must point out the specific words or ideas that came from someone else.   Quotation marks and transitional words like "According to" and "So and So states" become exceptionally important, as do parenthetical citations.  Those shortened citations will all match up to the longer bibliographic descriptions on the bibliographic page at the end of a paper.

Carefully Adhere to the Required Documentation Style Guide

Some common documentation styles include Turbian, American Psychological Association (APA), Modern Language Association (MLA), Chicago Style, and Associated Press (AP).  Whenever a writer, whether a professional or student, creates a document that includes research, the writer will adhere to the guidelines set forth by the appropriate or assigned style guide in order to effectively and consistently cite sources.  If you are unsure which documentation style to use, ask your professor or publisher.

An Example of How to Avoid Plagiarism

Take a look at the following process as an example of how to ethically cite your sources and avoid plagiarism:

1. Sarah decides to write a paper about the dangers of allowing pre-adolescent children to play "Grand Theft Auto V."

2. Sarah has seen the game and knows that it is violent.  She jots down a topic sentence on her outline that states, "Parents should not allow pre-adolescent children to play 'Grand Theft Auto V' because exposure to this violent video game can cause children to behave more violently."  In order to support her point she needs more scientific information about children's behavior after exposure to this type of content, so she does some research.

3. Sarah comes across a journal article that supports her hypothesis that when children play violent video games, they exhibit more violent behavior.  She write down all of the information she can about this article.

Title: Violent Video Game Effects on Aggression, Empathy, and Prosocial Behavior in Eastern and Western Countries: A Meta-Analytic Review

Authors: Craig A. Anderson, Nobuko Ihori, Brad J. Bushman, Hannah R. Rothstein, Akiko Shibuya,  Edward L. Swing, Akira Sakamoto, Muniba Saleem.

Date: 2010

Publisher: American Psychological Association, Published in Psychological Bulletin Vol. 136, No. 2, pgs. 151–173

DOI: 10.1037/a0018251

4. Sarah take a few notes from the article, and then she comes across the exact result she wants to use to support her topic sentence.  She writes it down exactly as it is stated in the article, and she makes sure to place quotation marks around it and record the page number where it was found:  "Regardless of research design or conservativeness of analysis, exposure to violent video games was significantly related to higher levels of aggressive behavior" (pg. 16).

5. She chooses to draft her paragraph as follows using the APA documention style because the paper is for her Introduction to Psychology class:

Parents should not allow pre-adolescent children to play "Grand Theft Auto V" because exposure to this violent video game can cause children to behave more aggressively.  That the game contains violent content is undeniable.  The game's rating makes it clear the game is only for mature players with its "M" for mature rating.  Unfortunately, not all parents understand that exposure to this violence within the game can affect their children's behaviors.  In a research study published in Psychological Bulletin in 2010, the researchers found that "Regardless of research design or  conservativeness of analysis, exposure to violent video games was significantly related to higher  levels of aggressive behavior" (Anderson et. al., p. 16).  The suggestion that parents not allow children to play "Grand Theft Auto V" is not merely an opinion, but rather, this study's results show that the game can change children's behaviors.

6. At the end of the paper, Sarah creates an APA references page and includes the following complete documentation details for her source.  The entry is formatted according to her school's APA style manual.  Notice that the name she uses in her in-text citation matches the first name listed for the article.

The  required elements for the references page includes the following: Authors (up to 6 & et. al.). (Date of publication). Title of article. Title of Journal, Vol(Issue), page number. doi:

Anderson, C. A., Ihori, N., Bushman, B. J., Rothstein, H. R., Shibuya, A.,  & Swing, E. L. et. al. 2010). Violent video game effects on aggression, empathy, and prosocial behavior in eastern and western countries: A meta-analytic review.  Psychological Bulletin 136 (2), 151-173. doi:10.1037/a0018251

The final references page entry looks like the following:

Sample APA References Entry for A Journal Article with Multiple Authors


No matter which style guide a student or professional writer uses, however, one thing remains the same: It is never ethical to take the words or ideas of another person and use them as though they were one's own.  Plagiarism, whether on purpose or on accident, is theft, and it will be dealt with as such.   Always be sure to take the proper precautions to be sure you aren't committing this dishonest act.

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

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Using Anti-Plagiarism Software as an Assignment Requirement

When used properly, anti-plagiarism software can
be a useful tool for students and faculty.
When used properly, anti-plagiarism software can be an effective way to reinforce research and documentation skills.

The Higher Education Plagiarism Conundrum

In a 2011 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education entitled “Toward a Rational Response to Plagiarism,” associate professor Rob Jenkins explains the higher education composition class conundrum. He writes of students that in grade school they learn to copy, summarize, and paraphrase. "Perhaps in high school," he continues, "they're exposed to concepts of research and documentation. But many students, when they arrive on our campuses, have not yet mastered those concepts or come to understand fully the difference between what they did in middle school and what we're asking them to do” (para. 10 – 11). Teaching students to copy, summarize, and paraphrase without proper documentation is a trend we have to address as educators, and we have to address it in a way that doesn’t turn us into Jeremy Bentham-esque or Orwellian “plagiarism police.”

There isn’t a whole lot we can do about intentional plagiarism, but for those students willing to learn, we can certainly help them learn to avoid unintentional plagiarism.

Responsible Remediation

To remediate missing skill sets, educators can lecture on the topic or use research and documentation bridging exercises and in-class demonstrations. Students can be taught to take proper notes and create annotated bibliographies, for example.  Students can complete rough drafts and outlines in class. However, the best way to ensure educators responsibly remediate research and documentation skills outside the classroom is to put the onus of academic honesty on the students.

Just as Jenkins has stated, students rarely come into composition classrooms already fully aware of what constitutes plagiarism, let alone how to avoid it. Beyond lectures and explanations, students will need to look critically at their own writing in order to fully comprehend the breadth and scope of plagiarism and proper use of source content. Plagiarism isn’t just using quotations without citation, but how much source content is used, how it’s used, and how even ideas – not just words - that do not belong to the student writer must be cited both in the text of the paper and on a bibliographic page.

The Use of Anti-Plagiarism Software as an Assignment Requirement

Outside the classroom, students can continue to learn research and documentation skills by submitting their papers to anti-plagiarism software tools. This software, such as Turnitin, SafeAssign by Blackboard, or Grammarly, should be presented to the students for use as a tool to make their writing better, not a tool educators use to "catch them."

I, for one, am not willing to sit like The Elf on a Shelf in a plagiarism panopticon and watch in wait for my students to forget to include a citation. Furthermore, I do not want my students to feel as though the writing assignments I give them are traps I am using to ruin their academic careers.  

When the use of such software is required, it’s essential that the students submit the papers themselves. They can then review their own reports and look closely to be sure they have used an appropriate amount of source content and cited it both in-text and on a bibliographic page. When repeated throughout a term or a semester, it then becomes part of the writing process, a skill in and of itself. Checking a paper for unintentional plagiarism becomes second nature. Faculty need only see the source content report when they deem it essential or when a paper is suspiciously outside a student’s writing ability. Otherwise, students take full responsibility for any mistakes and revise to make the paper better, more ethically sound,  before anyone else reads the paper.

Anti-plagiarism software can be an extremely useful tool for both educators and students. They can help the teacher meet course goals and learning objectives for research and documentation. They can help students realize that checking papers carefully for plagiarism is part of the writing process. Most importantly, when presented properly, these tools remind the students that in the end, it is their responsibility to avoid plagiarism and to write their papers with academic honesty.


Jenkins, R. (2011). Toward a Rational Response to Plagiarism. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from http://chronicle.com/article/Toward-a-Rational-Response-to/128611/?sid=wb&utm_source=wb&utm_medium=en

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

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Part II: The Use of Narrative Assignments in Introductory Literature Courses

What do you do when no matter what else you have done, no one is doing what you want them to do? Well, the best thing to do is to try to do one more thing.  I did that, and I can vouch for doing it.

As I stated in Part I: The Use of Narrative Assignments in Introductory Literature Courses, using a narrative, or chronological format, as the main assignment requirement in the study of literature has "saved" my classes and my sanity.  As suggested by Sheridan Blau in his book The Literature Workshop: Teaching Texts and Their Readers, using the narrative essay assignment in lieu of the argumentative or expository essay assignment has given the students the chance to explore their own thinking and analytical processes, making the papers rich and exploratory.  But, how do we get students to do it?

An Experiment in Reading a Short Story

The first step is to slowly introduce to the students the idea that there are things they need to do, actions they need to complete, in order to understand a poem or story better.  Reading is a great start, but it isn't enough for deeper analysis.   I emphasize that lesson many times throughout the course, integrating analytical actions into class time leading up to the narrative paper assignment: They must engage with active reading.  The course becomes a lot less lecture and a lot more workshop.

For example, on the first day of class, I hand out a worksheet called "An Experiment in Reading a Short Story."  When we begin the poetry unit, I hand out a worksheet called "An Experiment in Reading a Poem."  The worksheets prompt the students to read a (very short) story or poem three times and complete different actions each time they read it.  They are then given permission to discuss the work with one another, ask questions, and even complete research, given time.

At the end of the  process, I ask the students for ideas about additional actions they could take to understand the story or poem better.  If we complete the workshop early, we complete the actions they think would be appropriate to understanding, or I introduce preplanned activities.

Narrative Paragraphs

The second step is allow students the chance to practice explaining their actions in writing, actions they have decided to complete on their own.  I set this up as a short writing assignment completed as homework so they can get the hang of reporting their step-by-step analytical reading processes.  Their narrative paragraphs generally follow the format of the "An Experiment in Reading" worksheet. They write about each of their consecutive readings, in order.  I ask them to write about what they did, what they learned by doing it, and how what they did and what they learned helped them understand something deeper about the story or poem.  For my students, non-majors, it's more important that they can tell me what they did to understand the story better than it is for them to understand the "expert" take on the story.  Many of the students, however, will use "complete literary research" as one of their actions, often including expert interpretation in their paragraphs without being asked to do so.

To help the students a bit, I also provide them with a list of action verbs based on actions we practice completing during workshop.

Narrative Essays

From narrative paragraphs we move on to the narrative essays.  Writing the essay, working through the reading and writing processes, is a big "step three," but students, if steps one and two have been successful, can tackle this paper effectively.

Students complete a paragraph or two per reading of a story or poem, then create a narrative frame to add context to the essay.    I ask them to weave a research question (based on a literary theory and prompted during the second read) into the introductory paragraph and answer the question in the conclusion of the paper.  In this way they cannot possibly complete the essay until they have completed enough analysis to have worked themselves into answers to their research questions.  The process requires them to think deductively and come to an interpretive conclusion by the end of the paper.  Again, each paragraph must cover three things: what the student did to understand the story better, what he or she learned by completing the action, and how the action and what was learned helped the student understand the deeper meaning of the story better.

So, what do you do when no matter what else you have done, no one is doing what you want them to do?  You focus on the doing, asking and answering again and again, "What did you do to understand the story or poem better."