Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Prewriting the Research Essay: Starting with "I Think"

Mixed Metaphors for Prewriting

One of the most common problems I find in students' college-level essays is a lack of original, synthesized thought, and an overabundance of summarized, paraphrased, and quoted material.

Students often bring with them into the classroom a misunderstanding of what it means to write an essay.  They often misinterpret our requests for them to write essays as requests to summarize facts, statistics, and expert opinions or reference texts to prove to us they've read the given textbook or required journal articles.

However, we college faculty do not ask students to write essays just to get back a paraphrased version of someone else's thoughts, whether or not that someone is an expert.  We faculty do ask students to write essays as evidence of an ability to comment on research and study they should be doing anyway. In fact, the former is a part of the latter.  That is, summarizing, paraphrasing, and quoting research material is a part of  taking notes and organizing materials, which is a part of writing an essay, which is a part of learning about a topic.

In a research essay, before students even head to the library to find outside research, they should have already formed a thesis, a claim,  an opinion about the topic.  In other words, they should begin the writing process with "I think."  Like hypothesizing, they then find research by experts that might either confirm or deny what they think.  All of this happens in the first two stages of the writing process, prewriting and outlining.

Steps in the Writing Process

The basic writing process is generally taught as follows: prewriting, organizing, drafting, revising, and publishing.  My students report that they usually spend a half hour or less prewriting, a few hours outlining a paper, a few more hours drafting a paper, they skip revision entirely, and they spend maybe an hour or so formatting the paper per submission guidelines.  They either gather expert evidence that answers their research questions or assignment questions before they even begin to prewrite, or they research at the end of the process when they check to see if they've met the word count or research source requirements.

They're doing it wrong, and it's our job to fix that.

For research essays, that timeline students report to me has to shift.  Students should spend several hours prewriting research essays, and they should spend extra time outlining their essays, planning where researched evidence can be used to support original claims and topic sentences, not the paraphrased claims and topic sentences of experts.  If the evidence confirms their original claims, this is a straightforward process.  However, when the research denies their claims, they must reassess the claim, draft another thesis statement, and revisit the prewriting and outlining processes.

A Breakdown of Prewriting

Only when a student has successfully composed a thesis statement and topic sentences has he or she completed the prewriting stage and is ready to move on to outlining.  Before that can happen, however, there are several mini-steps that need to happen within the broader heading of "Prewriting."

When writing about ideas new to them, students may need to review basic information about a topic before generating ideas.  For example, they will definitely have to read a short story before they can write a literary analysis of that story.  They may also need to read about the author or time period. Depending on the assignment, they may also need to read other critical analysis articles and essays in order to respond to a given assignment requirement.

When given the freedom to write about any topic, students will usually need to conduct less research before beginning the following steps.

The key is to teach students when they will and when they will not have to conduct research before beginning their prewriting.  

That can be as informal as stating, "Be sure to read X, Y, and Z before generating your thesis for this paper," or "Read so-and-so's theory of such-and-such.  Without consulting any other outside sources, tell me why you agree or disagree with so-and-so's theory about such-and-such."  If you later want students to read outside sources, you can ask for a second draft that includes sources.

Mini-step #1: Divergent Thinking (Doodling Paperclips)

Breakpoint and Beyond, a book published in 1998 by George Land and Beth Jarman, includes a discussion of a longitudinal study conducted to measure divergent thinking. Fifteen hundred people were asked, "How many uses can you think of for a paperclip?" The majority of people came up with ten or fifteen uses, but people really good at divergent thinking came up with over a hundred.  The fun part?  The youngest participants were the really good divergent thinkers: They ran circles around grown-ups.

What's that mean?  It means our adult college students need more time and more help or encouragement coming up with original ideas about topics.  They need to know that any claim they make can be amended later after research confirms or denies their claims.  They need to know that any original idea is acceptable as long as they are willing to amend it later.

Mini-step #2: Critical Thinking (Pulling Taffy)

After students generate a multitude of ideas in the divergent thinking stage of prewriting, they then have to go back and carefully pick through their ideas to choose the best of the bunch.  They can then group ideas by category, by reason, or in a hierarchy to help them divide the best claims into provable pieces, or topic sentences.  This process involves thinking about what they think and why they think it, which is what critical thinking is all about.

The best of the best ideas become thesis statements, complete thoughts that clearly express a claim or position about a given topic.  That one position or claim must be divisible and supportable, and the students break their defensive plan into pieces, topic sentences.

As I like to tell students, a claim is like taffy.  You have to pull it into smaller pieces in order to eat it; otherwise, you'll choke.

Mini-step #3: Research (Getting Ducks in a Row)

Once students choose one claim to defend, and they pull it into topic sentences, they can begin organizing their ideas on an outline.  After the thesis claim and topic sentences are in place on the outline, they can begin generating original examples, narratives, or personal observations in support of their ideas. However, they should also begin their research.  This research they gather and carefully examine will either confirm or deny their claims.  If any part of the argument cannot be defended with evidence, the argument should change: One or more topic sentences may have to change, evidence may have to change, or the entire thesis may have to change.

The students need to see, on the outline, that evidence lines up hierarchically beneath a topic sentence, in support of that one topic sentence.  They need to get their ducks in a row so as not to sound like quacks in their final drafts.


The key to helping students write successful research essays is to help them learn when to research their own ideas and to help them plan their assignment and research time accordingly. Silly though my metaphors may be, paperclips, taffy, and ducks help students remember to appreciate and find value in their own, original ideas, to confirm or adapt those ideas based on evidence, and to support those ideas within unified paragraphs.

Want to read more about writing pedagogy?  Try

A Playful Lesson for the Composition Classroom
Using Anti-Plagiarism Software as an Assignment Requirement
Critical Thinking and Argument: Grading the Argumentative Essay


Land, G. and Jarmon, B. (1998). Breakpoint and Beyond: Mastering the Future Today. Carlsbad, CA: Leadership 2000, Inc.

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

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Verbals: How to Identify Gerunds

Examples of gerund phrases used as a subject, a subject complement, and a direct object.
Gerunds Behave Like Nouns and Verbs

Verbals are words that look like verbs, but they have functions and abilities beyond mere "verbishness."  

Instead of behaving like plain 'ol verbs, they behave like nouns, adjectives, or adverbs within the context of a sentence while still maintaining the ability to pass along the actions of their "verbish" natures.

Gerunds are only one type of verbal. The others kinds of verbals are participles and infinitives.

So how can you tell gerunds apart from participles and infinitives?

Which is Which? Three Kinds of Verbals

Infinitives, Participles, Gerunds

Infinitives are verbs that are preceded by the word "to," as in "to bake," "to swim," or "to run." However, these verbals are not used to show action or a state of being in a sentence like a verb is used. Instead, they are used as nouns, adjectives, or adverbs.  Infinitives can take on verbal complements, which are nouns that follow the verbal and receive the action of the verbal, as in "to bake a cake,"  or "to run a marathon."  It is easy to tell infinitives from gerunds because gerunds are not preceded by the word "to."

Participles look like "ed" or "ing" verbs, but they are used in sentences as adjectives.  Although participles and gerunds may both end in "ing," you can tell a gerund from a participle because gerunds are not used as either adjectives or adverbs.  "Running is a healthy habit" uses "Running" as a subject, a gerund, while "Turn off the running water" uses "running" to describe water, a participle.

Gerunds, like present participles, end in "ing."  In sentences, gerunds are used as nouns.  A gerund can be used in a sentence in any way a noun can be used: as a complement, object, or subject.  Like a verb, gerunds can take on verbal complements.

Identifying Gerunds

Gerunds as Subjects

It is important to be able to identify gerunds within sentences.  This can help writers avoid one of the most common grammatical errors, subject-verb agreement errors.  For example, take a look at the following two sentences.  Can you tell which sentence is grammatically correct and which sentence is not grammatically correct?

  • Riding her horses is her favorite pastime.
  • Growing gigantic sunflowers are her business.

If you said the first sentence is correct and second sentence is incorrect, well done!

In the example sentences above, the first sentence is written correctly.  The second sentence, however, contains a subject-verb agreement error.

The subject of the second sentence is the gerund, "Growing," which does not agree with the verb, "are."  Although "sunflowers" is the noun that appears just before the verb, "sunflowers" is not the subject of the sentence (it's actually the verbal complement).  "Sunflowers" are not her business; "growing sunflowers" is her business.

Gerunds as Subject Complements

Gerunds can also be used as subject complements in sentences.  For example, instead of saying "Riding her horses is her favorite pastime," we could swap the subject and complement and say, "Her favorite pastime is riding her horses."  Although our understanding of her feelings about riding her horses remains the same, the gerund as subject becomes the gerund as subject complement.  Why would you ever want to swap a subject for a complement?  Writers should always place the most important words in the sentence as the subject of the sentence for greater emphasis and more clarity.

Please note that using an "ing" gerund as a subject complement is very different from using an "ing" verb as an action or state of being.  In the sentence "She is riding her horses," "is riding" is the progressive tense of the verb  "ride," and it shows action.  It is not a gerund.

Gerunds as Objects

Last, but not least, gerunds can be used as objects within sentences.  Instead of writing, "Riding her horses is her favorite pastime," we can write "She loves riding her horses."  Replacing the linking verb "is," with the action verb "loves," changes (like magic!) "riding" from a subject complement to a direct object.  But why do you need to know how to do that? Because this "magical" transformation helps writers create more effective, more strongly worded and specific, sentences.

Another way a gerund can be used as an object is as the object of a preposition.  If you've ever gone horseback riding, you know that at times it can be very exhausting.  We could say, "She was very tired after riding her horses."  In this example, "after" is the preposition and "riding" is the object of the preposition.  "Horses" is the verbal complement.


When using gerunds in sentences, it is necessary to be able to identify the gerund's use or function within the sentence.  This ability to identify gerunds can help a writer maintain subject-verb agreement and can help writers generate more effective, more strongly worded, and more specific sentences.

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

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Writing for an Intended Audience

What does your audience know, and what do they need to know?

When you write an essay or speech, you must consider your audience, that group of people who will be reading your essay or listening to your speech.  

You must consider, as you are planning your essay or speech, what your audience may already know or believe about your topic so that you can appropriately inform, convince, or offer insight to that specific group of people.  You need to consider what about your topic will capture and keep the interest of those specific people.

In composition or writing classes, you may refer to that specific group of people as your intended audience. 

For example, say you are given the task of writing an essay about microscopes.

How would you want to narrow your topic if these children were your audience?

This essay would have to take into account the minimal experience your audience has with microscopes.  You can inform and interest this audience with basic information delivered in clear, everyday language. You could deliver information about how to use the classroom microscopes,  who invented the microscope, how microscopes are used in the sciences, or how to properly handle a microscope.  

You would probably not try to convince schoolchildren to buy their own microscopes or deliver a speech to them called "Reliable and Global Measurement of Fluorescence Resonance Energy Transfer Using Fluorescence Microscopes."  If you tried, you might lose their interest, as the type of information and the level of information in such a speech might make them "tune out."

But what if this was your audience?

Do you see how radically your essay would have to change?   This second essay, on the other hand, should be much more focused.  You should research new or developing information about microscopes in order to offer them information that may not already have.  You could use scientific jargon and more specialized examples to keep their interest.

Last, but not least, what if the local school board was your audience and you were given the task of delivering a speech to convince them to purchase new microscopes?  
With this audience, you face a much different challenge.  Delivering a speech about how to use a microscope, or offering them information about the newest use of a florescent proton microscope at M.I.T. isn't going to interest them much.  Your job is to find ways to convince the board that microscopes are worth the cost of meeting the objectives of the school district's science courses.

However, when writers do not write specifically for an intended audience, those mixed messages often appear in essays and speeches: School board members wonder why they're being told how to use a microscope, and school children wonder what in the world "M.I.T." might be, and scientists wonder why you're trying to convince them to purchase something they probably already have.  

In short, when you mix the messages in your writing, it pulls the reader or listener away from your essay or speech and you lose their attention.  In order to avoid that issue, always imagine your intended audience, and focus your writing for that specific group of people.

Focus your opening lines to capture the attention of your intended audience, formulate a relevant thesis, and offer evidence and supporting details within the body of your paper or speech that will help that particular audience receive your message.

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

Monday, February 2, 2015

Learn and Earn: Why Students Should Learn to Write

Have you ever wondered why you have to take writing classes to get your college degree? Have you heard others bemoaning having to take composition, essay-writing, or basic grammar courses? Have your children or students ever asked you, "Why do I have to learn this stuff?" 

Grammarly, a company devoted to the development of writing skills through online automated grammar checking, recently conducted research to help answer those questions.

Specifically, they set out to determine if there were any correlations between writing skills and career success.

The good news? Better writing, they found, correlated with success!


The company started their research by looking carefully at the profiles of freelancers listed on the Elance online staffing platform who had gotten high ratings, 4-star or 5-star ratings, from employers. What were the Grammarly folks looking for as they reviewed those high-rated employees? Grammatical and mechanical errors, of course!  It's what they do best!


Grammarly found that freelancers in all eight Elance categories who had the highest ratings also had fewer grammatical and mechanical mistakes than other freelance employees who had earned lower ratings.
In other words, better writing equaled more satisfied employers.

Furthermore, to reiterate findings provided by Grammarly, the better writers earned more!

  • Freelancers in Engineering & Manufacturing with 10 or fewer errors in their profiles on average made $520.64 per job; while those with 30 or more errors made on average $237.42 per job. 
  • Freelancers in Sales & Marketing with 10 or fewer errors made about $498.26 per job; while those with 30 or more errors made on average $182.07 per job.

The better writers in both categories earned more than double their counterparts!


Although cause and effect cannot be determined based on this survey of freelance professionals and their employment ratings, the results show a definite correlation between writing skills and high-rated employees.  For example, those who were already skilled writers working in disciplines devoted to writing, "Freelance Writers & Translators,  made the fewest amount of mistakes, averaging 10.1 errors per every 100 words."  On the other hand, "Freelancers in the IT & Programming fields fared the poorest, with 19.3 errors per every 100 words." 

Read more about Grammarly's findings in the attached infographic, and keep practicing your writing! As this study shows, learning to write well is well worth the effort.

Are you ready to learn to write better for the opportunity to earn more? 

Try my complete online writing course on, "Quality Paragraph and Essay Writing."  Use this link to sign up for a free Udemy account and take the complete course for 50% off!