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.

No comments:

Post a Comment