Be Your Own Writing Tutor

by Maya Jenkins

Finished with an essay draft and stuck on revising? Hoping to avoid the most common pitfalls of academic writing? Want to learn how to think like a Writing Center tutor? Look no further than this blog post! Below, you’ll find a list of the top ten paper problems that we here at the Writing Center encounter when working with students—and how to solve them!

Problem #1: Your thesis is in your conclusion.

A wise Expos preceptor once told me that writing is just thinking with a keyboard. That’s why the act of drafting an essay can help you figure out what your argument actually is! At the end of that thinking/drafting process, you may find that the clearest, most succinct statement of your argument—your thesis—is at the end of your paper! Not to worry! With a little editing (Ctrl C Ctrl V anyone?) you can place your thesis in your introduction where it belongs.

Problem #2: Your thesis is not arguable.

Take a position! Especially in your thesis. Oftentimes, students draft a descriptive thesis (the Granny Smith apple is green) or a normative thesis (Everyone should love Granny Smith apples). But a strong, scholarly thesis is one that a reasonable person might be hesitant to accept, or even try to argue with. Here’s an example:  Despite its origins in Australia, the United States has sought to adopt the Granny Smith as its own—including it as one of just four apples honored by the Postal Service and making it the staple ingredient in apple pie—thus demonstrating its national cultural importance.

Problem #3: Your thesis is not answering a specific analytical question.

Strong papers are often the result of a strong analytical question. When students do not write with a specific question in mind, their theses often reflect this by being descriptive, normative, or vague. Whenever you’re engaging with class material, it helps to take note of ideas that are interesting, confusing, troubling, or outrageous! That is the kind of material that can spark a strong academic question (typically a HOW or WHY question). For the Granny Smith fans out there: HOW did the Granny Smith make its way to the center of the American cultural imagination? WHY does this apple matter in American culture?

Keep in mind: most of the challenges that students face while writing are related to the strength of their thesis.

Problem #4: Your introduction’s “hook” is grandiose or random.

In high school, many of us were taught to grab the reader’s attention with the first sentence of an essay. But in college, “Since the dawn of time, apples have dictated human destiny …” and other grandiose openers are not appropriate. Neither are openings that have nothing to do with the topic you’re discussing. In college, you can think of your readers as people with at least moderate interest in the subject at hand. You can draw their attention by thinking about what first drew your interest to the matter (was it a contradiction? a question? something else?), and go from there.

Problem #5: You’re missing the stakes of your argument… or your stakes are totally over the top.

In college, we need a reasonable set of stakes for adopting the arguments that we put forth, but we still need stakes! Sadly, our papers probably won’t bring world peace or solve climate change (and we should not suggest that they will). But we do need to do the work of demonstrating why our intervention into a particular academic debate has consequences for how people continue to engage with the topic going forwards. So, for example: By demonstrating that cultural producers have engaged in a concerted effort to redefine the Granny Smith as an all-American commodity, we can illuminate the processes that bind objects, imagery, and nation, and disentangle the threads between media, commodities, and national identity in America.

Problem #6: Your paper introduces similar pieces of evidence and analyzes them in the same way.

In college, we use evidence in order to develop an argument. That means that an effective paper will not identify three examples of a given phenomenon in order to argue that the phenomenon exists. My paper would not be very strong if all of my evidence pointed to the same claim—that the Granny Smith apple has no real ties to the United States because it was created in Australia, not America; Granny Smith was a British woman, not an American woman;  horticulturalists believe that the Granny Smith is a hybrid of the Malus domestica and the Malus sylvestris, neither of which are native to the U.S., therefore its adoption as American was artificial. Strong papers develop an argument that progresses logically, with each new piece of evidence and its analysis building on what came before it.

Problem #7: You feel like your argument doesn’t flow… and you’re not sure what that means!

When you sense that the “flow” in your paper is off, you probably have concerns about the strength of your thesis and/or the structure of your argument. To improve that “flow,”  first, head back to your thesis statement and ask yourself these questions: Is my thesis actually arguable? Am I answering a strong analytical question? Can it be discussed for 8-10 pages (or 2-3, or 5-7) without being repetitive? Once you’ve done that, you can figure out whether your argument is progressing logically from one step to the next, or if you are hopping around a bit. Try creating a reverse outline of your paper, pulling out your thesis and the central argument of each body paragraph. Now read those sentences in order. Does that make sense? Is there something that the reader must understand in order to grasp a given paragraph that you are not telling them? These kinds of questions can help you to make sure your paper goes with the flow.

Problem #8: Your paper takes the reader on a “museum tour of topic sentences” or you do not have any topic sentences at all!

First, you have come to the right place for writing help. Second, the Writing Center can help with all of your writing needs. Third,… yep you guessed it. This is the museum tour of topic sentences (Over here, we have a painting! And over here we have another painting!), and not fun to read! At all! Your topic sentences, a.k.a the first sentence of each of your argumentative paragraphs, should be fully developed sentences that build logically from the sentences that precede them. You can think of each strong topic sentence as a mini-thesis that clearly states the argument that the rest of that paragraph is making. In academic arguments, it is important to broadcast to our readers exactly what our writing is going to accomplish before we accomplish it.

Problem #9: You are struggling to find a strong academic writing style.

Students often feel intense pressure to appear intelligent and knowledgeable about a subject. In papers, that pressure can get translated into big words and long sentences. But, as it turns out, a successful paper is one that your readers can understand! Clarity is much more important than the use of fancy or flowery language, especially when you’re advancing a sophisticated and scholarly argument. Clear and concise is always, always better than a brain dump of academic lingo.

Problem #10: You have absolutely no idea what to say in your conclusion.

While the conclusion is by no means the most important part of an essay, students often arrive at the end of a paper with a loss for words. Don’t worry! You’re done with the hard part. Now you can freestyle. Once you have summarized your argument and its stakes, you can begin to engage with new analytical questions that only a person who read your paper could think to ask. Does national origin impact which fruits our country idolizes? Does Granny Smith apple pie taste more American than Golden Delicious apple pie? I sure wouldn’t have ever asked that had I not written a fantastic paper about the Granny Smith! Talking about new directions for scholarly work and the potential impact of such work is a great way to close a fantastic paper.

As you revise your work, keep these common issues in mind! With practice, the awareness of these issues will become second nature to you. Good luck!

How to Close Read a Film

by Nathan Roberts, Departmental Writing Fellow in Art, Film, and Visual Studies

Departmental Writing Fellows offer discipline-specific writing support to students taking courses in that department. This post is adapted from a handout Nathan shared at a recent workshop on close reading film for students in AFVS.

Step 1: Decide what to focus on depending on your assignment.

  • Are you working on a film review or critique? For a critique, it will typically be important to pay attention to the overall structure of the film, as well as salient details.  
  • Are you working on a paper? For a paper, it will be important to attend to the overall structure and specific/salient scenes and sequences that stand out as evidence for a specific argument that you’re trying to make.
    • This lends a paper care and focus and helps avoid the temptation of summary or plot analysis.
    • When choosing specific scenes, you still need to consider their place and function within the film as a whole. Ask: what sequences complicate or even contradict the reading of one specific scene? (Ex: “somewhere over the rainbow” vs. “there’s no place like home.”)

Step 2: Set watching goals depending on how many times you will be able to watch the film.

If it’s a rare film or a film that will only be shown once, I suggest these goals:

  • Consume a good amount of caffeine–but not too much.
  • Warm up by watching anything by the director/featuring the actor/etc. that’s readily available. This will attune you toward issues of style, interests, etc.  
  • Take notes in the dark about all salient features that you notice. This will help  activate your mind and your attention. Don’t worry if these are readable when writing– the main goal here is developing an active mind and memory.  As soon as the film ends, leave the theater and try to decipher your notes. Write down/type out as much as you remember.

If the film is readily available, and you’re writing a paper on it, I suggest that you watch it several times.

First watch: Note striking elements.

On the first watch of all films watched for a class, note only the aspects that stand out most to you. Focus on aspects that seem strange, weird, unusual captivating. Writing these down can keep your active attention, without expending too much mental energy on your paper. Most people find this kind of intense energy hard to sustain, especially if the film is long, and so they eventually give up writing notes all together. Noting the most striking elements will help you know which films you want to write about – trust your instincts to propel you further into your paper.

Second watch: Note the film’s formal features.

In this watch, note all the salient formal features that stand out to you.

What are formal features? Features related to how the film is uniquely crafted as a cinematic object.

Film formal features to start with: storyboarding elements (camera angles: wide shot, medium shot, close up, extreme close up, etc. memorize them. Then camera moving: left, right, up, down, track, pan, dolly, rack focus, etc.)

Then think about: what’s in the frame, what does the frame focus on?

Then consider: issues of editing: cuts, rhythm, order of shots, etc.

Then posit: sound – most people don’t attend to sound. Sound can give you a major analytical advantage if you pay attention to it – many scholars don’t

Try to list as many film formal features as you can! Don’t be afraid to be obvious/mechanical with our observation at this point.

Tip: when it comes to things like lighting or other more ephemeral aspects, YouTube or Vimeo will be extremely helpful. People have made video essays dealing with almost all of these film formal features. (If you can and you have filmmaker friends, try to get on a set, even the set of a student film.)

How can you learn more formal features?

Yale Film Analysis guide. Detailed GIFS, etc. The more you know, the better.

When it comes to things like lighting or other more ephemeral aspects, YouTube or Vimeo will be extremely helpful. People have made video essays dealing with almost all of these film formal features. (If you can and you have filmmaker friends, try to get on a set, even the set of a student film.)

Third watch: Think about what these elements do in a sequence or in the film.

An easy way to think about this is to ask yourself: “how could this have been filmed differently, and why?”

Tip: If you have access to a digital copy of the film, edit out specific scenes, or crop shots… play with what’s on the screen. If you’re thinking about sound, mute the soundtrack and see how this changes things.

Or: Play your own soundtrack under the sequence to see how this changes the tonality or affect of the sequence.

If you’re thinking about temporal spread, rhythm, compression, etc., use a stopwatch to think about how long sequences are. (In the middle sequence of an action film, for instance, you may discover that the sequence is edited faster than earlier sequences, but not as fast as later sequences. This will be useful.)

Think about how the accumulation of edited scenes make meaning. (The Kuleshov Effect.)

Final watch: Think about what these elements mean–not necessarily what they represent.

Sometimes symbols do exist in films, but asking what the film enacts or exemplifies gets you beyond the secondary quality of representation.

Representation (symbolization, etc.) tends to point toward something external to the text, something beyond what you’re reading. Enacting or exemplification does not. It does something in the world through the film; it creates something that does not necessarily exist outside of the film. And, crucially, it allows one to analyze elements that are not necessarily intentionally placed in the film by creators.

This final step will often leave you with a contestable claim or argument––and that is ok. That is the point of making arguments and engaging in academic dialogue and discourse.

Your claims should be, by this point, based firmly in how the film is constructed and what it is doing. Your close reading observations therefore put you in an immediate position of authority and allow you to make strong claims. Your approach forces potential intellectual opponents to return to the text, and argue from turf that you’ve already trodden. Therefore, your close reading has immediately made arguments that are grounded and productive.

If you are an undergraduate enrolled in a film course you can discuss a draft of any assignment with the DWF. Schedule an office hour appointment here!

How What You Learned in Expos Applies to Science Writing

by Ariel Vilidnitsky

For STEM concentrators, writing assignments in non-science courses may sometimes feel a bit removed from the academic work you’re asked to do in your science courses. But while it may not seem like it at first, many of the skills you develop in learning to write, say, a literary analysis or a lens paper actually translate very usefully to science writing. The subject of your writing might be very different, but the strategies for analytical writing are very similar.

You’ll likely remember from your Expos class that the first step to developing a strong argument for your essay is to ask the right analytical question. The same is also true for science writing. In some cases, the analytical question may be given to you in the prompt for the assignment. For instance, your instructor may ask you to intervene in a specific scientific debate by analyzing research papers from both sides and deciding which theory, if either, is more compelling. For other assignments, such as a grant proposal, you will need to develop your own research question that addresses some knowledge gap in the field.

Just as you would in a non-science paper, you will introduce your research question in the introduction of the essay. To better illustrate this similarity, consider the two excerpts from introductory paragraphs given below, one from an Expos paper about a film and the other from a grant proposal for a neuroscience course.

This is an image of text from two separate papers to compare their similarities. The first sections of text is highlighted in pink and compares two hooks at beginning of papers. The first hook is from an Expos paper: "The 2012 film adaptation of Stephen Chbosky's novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower is perhaps best known for its tunnel scene." The second is hook from science paper: "In mammals, a mother's behavior and environment during pregnancy can have profound effects on her offspring's development."

After the hooks, the image shows two background information sections side by side highlighted in yellow. The first is from the Expos paper: "In this scene, Emma Watson's character Sam stands up in the truck bed of her stepbrother's car as he drives through a tunnel. Sam strikes a power pose--her arms out and the wind in her hair--while the song "Heroes" by David Bowie plays from the car radio. The film adaptation of this scene shares many similarities with the original scence of the novel, but one notable difference is the song choice. In the novel, it is Fleetwood Mac's "Landslide that plays on the radio, not "Heroes."

The second paper's background information reads like this: "In mice specifically, a mother's diet during pregnancy has been shown to influence her offspring's sensitivity to certain odors. This type of in utero learning has been associated with changes to the olfactory system of the developing mouse fetus, such as increases in the size of the olfactory bulb. Receptors for ghrelin, a hormone that stimulates appetite and has been implicated in obesity, are expressed in neurons of the olfactory bulb."

Finally, the image show the analytical questions from the two papers for comparison. The first question, from the Expos paper, reads as follows: "This change in soundtrack raises the question, how does each song contribute to the development of characters and themes in the novel and film."

The second analytical question, from the science paper, reads as follows: "In adult mice, ghrelin is known to modulate olfactory sensitivity to conditioned odors by acting on the olfactory bulb neurons; ghrelin's effects on in utero odor learning, however, have not been previously studied."

The analogous portions of the two introductions have been highlighted in different colors. The essay’s hook is in purple, the background information is in yellow, and the analytical question—or knowledge gap—is bolded. We can see that, though each essay focuses on a very different topic, the purpose and organization of the introductions remain the same.

Whether you are writing a humanities paper, a social sciences paper, or a science paper, the last part of your introduction will be the thesis, which is essentially your answer to the analytical question. The thesis for a science paper may look a bit different because sometimes in a science paper you’re not yet ready to answer the question when you write the paper. For instance, in the grant proposal example above, the writer does not yet know what ghrelin’s effects on in utero learning are; they are writing the grant so they can get the funding necessary to figure it out! This does not mean that the writer does not need a thesis. Instead, they should end their introduction with a claim about the purpose of their research and the primary method they will use to answer their question. Below is one potential claim:

Using wildtype and ghrelin-knockout mice, I will explore the effects of exposure to methyl salicylate (mint) during pregnancy on mint odor sensitivity in offspring.

In contrast, in a debate-style science essay, your thesis might look more similar to the thesis in a humanities or social science paper. It will state which theory in the field, if either, is more compelling or perhaps argue that two seemingly contradictory scientific theories can coexist. Regardless of which type of claim you make, however, all science writing should also be sure to address the implications, or stakes, of the research topic, just as you learned in Expos. In the ghrelin example above, the writer might end their introduction by stating that determining ghrelin’s role in in utero learning is important for understanding potential prenatal risk factors for obesity.

We’ve focused a lot on the introduction, but actually, much of the remaining organization of a science paper will closely parallel what you learned in Expos, too. For example, each body paragraph should have three main components to it: a topic sentence that states the main idea of the paragraph, evidence to support the topic sentence’s claim, and analysis of the evidence. For analysis, you might consider the strengths and weaknesses of the techniques used, additional interpretations of data, potential experimental confounds and how well they were controlled, and/or how the results relate to other similar research in the field. Between each body paragraph, it is also important to incorporate transitions. In science writing, you might use phrases such as, “To determine the cause of [result from previous paragraph]…” as a way of linking two paragraphs.

Ultimately, an important part of being a scientist is not just understanding key theories in your field, but also being able to communicate these theories—and the ongoing research surrounding them—to an audience. The audience for a science paper may be different from the audience for your Expos papers, but you can draw on what you learned in Expos about sharing your ideas with an audience and explaining why those ideas matter.