Paisley Currah's Writing Guide

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Below are some important guides for conceptualizing and writing papers for my classes.
(This guide is a work in progress.)

Words, concepts, and definitions
Stuck? The problem is the solution
The importance of precision
What is an argument?
The thesis or crux of an argument
Essay pitfalls
When and how to quote
How to cite sources
Academic integrity / plagiarism
The passive voice: enemy of humankind
Writing is revising
Links to other writing guides

 

WORDS, CONCEPTS, AND DEFINITIONS

When a word is just a word

The vast majority of words are not contested concepts in the social sciences -- you are not going to find social scientists or political theorists writing articles attacking some other scholar's definition of, say, "plethora," "ahistorical," "ignominious," "contumacy," or "puissance."  When you're reading an article, and you come across a word that you don't know, you should look it up in a dictionary. 

When a word is a concept:

Some words we use in the social sciences, however, are actually "concepts."   That is, they are, as William Connolly has pointed out, "essentially contested terms," whose definition is subject to debate.  Political theorists and social scientists spend a lot of time analyzing and unpacking the components of concepts such as "the state," "democracy," "liberalism," "gender," and "the underclass."  For example, students in my Core Studies 3 class read an article by Stephen Steinberg examining how the meaning of the term "underclass" has changed in recent years.   Below are some of the concepts that we look at in Core Studies 3:

authority

institutional racism

the power elite

class

internal colonialism

race

consent

intrinsic racism

racism

democracy

liberal feminism

socialism

faction

liberalism

social class

feminism

marxism

status group

gender

patriarchy

the underclass

heterosexism

pluralism

structure

homophobia

power

agency

In my political science courses, other contested concepts, in addition to the ones above, that we study include:

discourse

identity

rationality

the West

liberty

holism

the public sphere

negative liberty

fascism

the private sphere

positive liberty

totalitarianism

civil society

internal preference

Nature

essentialism

external preference

History

immutability

justice

utility

freedom

individualism

rights

The point is, you shouldn't rely on dictionary definitions of these contested concepts in your analysis because dictionary definitions won't be sufficiently layered and complex--most likely, dictionary or encyclopedia definitions won't refer to the battles over meaning taking place in the literature you're studying. Read W.E.B. DuBois's article on "The Propaganda of History" to see how the encyclopedias of his time defined racial terms with such absolute certainty--and yet appear horribly racist to us now. If you do want to look up the dictionary definition of a concept, go to the library and look it up in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). That dictionary will show you how the concept's meaning has shifted over time.

When you are writing about a contested concept in my class, you would be ill-advised to start your essay on theories of racism, on the underclass, on democratic participation, on status groups, or on any concept, with the dictionary or encyclopedia definition of the term. While this rhetorical gesture is common in high school essays, such pat definitions almost invariably fail to attend to the complexities required of college-level writing.  Instead, you should focus at least part of your essay on the very battle over the definition. (See also "The problem is the solution" below.) 

How? By identifying the components of each writer's definition of the concept you are examining. Sometimes these definitions will be explicit, sometimes implicit. These components, when "clustered" together, add up to concept.  How do the parts that fit together to form one writer's concept of democracy compare with the parts of another writer's notion of that same concept?  You'll soon find that the conflicts between theories in the social sciences and political theory are actually the results of disagreements over the precise definition of the term or concept at issue.

Once you've identified precisely how the cluster concepts differ, you can build on that work as you move on to the exciting task of figuring out why these concepts differ. When you analyze a concept, much of what you're actually doing is identifying and questioning the assumptions (components) that make its definition appear coherent. Below, Stephen Steinberg effectively analyzes the assumptions behind claims about the "underclass."

Claim: `an underclass individual is "someone in an underclass area who engages in various socially costly behaviors'" (Steinberg 1995, 156).

Analysis of the assumptions: "Although such an approach has all the trappings of objective social science, it is riddled with value assumptions. Furthermore, it obfuscates the historical and structural sources of the underclass, and in doing so, fudges over the significance of racism in the production and maintenance of this underclass. The term `underclass' implicitly accepts the established order as the starting point of analysis. We begin with the empirical observation that certain people languish outside--or "below"--the class system, and we want to know why. This class system itself is accepted as a given" (Steinberg 1995, 156).

By examining precisely how the components of a definition differ from one social scientist to another, you will start to pay attention to the more general differences in outlook that shape social scientists' analyses and conclusions.  Below are some questions that might help you distinguish more finely the positions of two or more social scientists:

Does the social scientist have a primarily economic or political focus?

Does he or she engage in a process-oriented analysis or start the analysis by looking at the results of a particular system and work backward from there?

Which unit of analysis is fundamental to the writer's work (individual, family, class, status group, faction, interest group, power elite, etc.)? 

Can you locate the perspective (time, place, position of relative privilege or disadvantage, etc.) of the writer and suggest how it might been reflected in his or her analysis? 

Does the social scientist in question have a constructionist or essentialist view of human nature? 

Does the writer ascribe importance to human agency or to economic or social structures? 

(Many of these questions might not make sense to you at the beginning of the course. Don't worry--we'll get to them.) When you engage with questions like these (though not all of them at once!), your analysis becomes theory-building in itself. (Be sure to read the section on crux below.)

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STUCK? THE PROBLEM IS THE SOLUTION

A conceptual analysis of a specific empirical problem (your "topic") demands that you first have a solid grasp of the concept -- its history, the battles over its meaning, even its "politics." Sometimes when you apply a conceptual approach to the analysis of an empirical problem (an actual situation), your analysis will lead you to conclude that the theorist's or social scientist's definition of the concept is inappropriate or needs refining.  Often, however, when student writers reach this point in the road, they take the wrong turn:  instead of relying on the results of their own careful analyses and locating the problem in the definition of the concept, they assume that the problem stems from their own analysis.  So they get stuck, hit the wall, discover the joys of writer's block. But here's the thing: it's (probably) not your fault!  When you come up against some kind of conceptual problem, always keep this simple formula in mind:

Instead of seeing a problem as a problem, as a wall you cannot get beyond, think of it as an opportunity, as a knot you get to untangle; instead of crashing and burning when you hit a conceptual roadblock, use it as fuel to move your analysis forward.   (Aside: to see an example of a "tortured metaphor," reread the previous clause.) In this way, the problem becomes the actual subject of your paper, or at least the starting point of your analysis.

Ask yourself why the concept doesn't work when applied to phenomenon x.  Or why the two concepts don't mesh with each other. Or why x doesn't result in y, when a conceptual model predicted that it would. Often this kind of analytical reasoning involves questioning the assumptions behind the theories. This is the kind of analysis that Manning Marable works through in "The Paradox of Integration."  Marable begins his article with what appears to be a contradiction: how can we explain "the emergence of a successful black middle class and the acceptance of black participation in cultural, political, and social institutions, within the context of a deepening crisis in racial attitudes and social behavior"?  In the process of untangling this paradox, Marable develops a complex argument with two important conclusions: first, only by uncoupling the concepts of race and ethnicity can we understand the paradox outlined above; and second, the assumption that equality before the law would eventually lead to a race-blind society was flawed.

(For more pointers on untangling paradoxes, see the section on Crux.)

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THE IMPORTANCE OF PRECISION

What is society?

Sometimes students identify "society" as the cause of a social problem they are analyzing, or the  potential solution to that social problem.  As term of analysis, however, "society" is so vague that it serves no useful purpose in this kind of analysis.  For example, consider the following sentences:

Society has treated women differently than men for hundreds of years.

Until society comes to grips with racism, we will always have racial discrimination.

But who, or what, precisely, is "society" in these sentences? Institutions of government? People? And if society means people, which people precisely?  Naming "society" as the cause and/or solution to a social or political phenomenon means that the writer doesn't have to actually name the specific agents, policies, structures, historical patterns, or ideologies--this list of potential agents could go on forever--as the cause of the problem.  The term society also suggests a false unity: society in fact is comprised of many many different groups of people, and thus its use masks important disagreements and conflicts between groups in society.

Who is "the government"?

Similarly, students are often too quick to pin the blame on "government" as the cause of some social ill, without being more specific about what they mean by "government." 

The government decided to intern Japanese-Americans during the Second World War.

While the sentence above is technically true, it's not very helpful. Which institutions of the government carried out the policy?  Which institution found it constitutional?  And more importantly, what other factors played a role in supporting this decision?  (For example, why did most Americans not protest the internship of tens of thousands of fellow citizens even though they had committed no crime?)

In general, government is too broad a term to be very useful.  It would be better to speak more specifically to particular policies and then identify the particular institution that supported those policies.  Not only is our federal government divided into three branches--the executive, the judiciary, and the bi-cameral legislature--at least the legislature is also divided ideologically, between Republicans and Democrats, between centrists and right-wing extremists, for example. Furthermore, every policy initiative has a set of interested private parties lobbying for or against it.  Who are they?  What role did they play?  In addition, those working to change the laws or create new policies also often deploy ideological arguments to the people through the media. What arguments do they make?  (For example, an anti-enviroment lobbyist or politician might argue, "Environmental regulations are unjust intrusions on the part of the federal government, undermine the right to private property, and are contrary to the Fifth Amendment.") How and why is a particular argument effective? What ideologies does it rest upon?  What chords does it strike with at least some of the American people and why?  As you can see, "the government" is not a static idea, but a fluid constellation of interacting institutions and interests.

Most importantly, identifying "government" as the source of a problem also tends to minimize or skip over completely the fact that the government's authority and legitimacy ultimately is based on the decision of the majority of voters, a decision exercised through the franchise. So it was not just the government that was ultimately responsible for the internship of Japanese-Americans during World War II. 

Writers who use these type of shorthand words lack of precision in their argument. They're not taking the time to think more carefully about the actual identity of the causal agent of the social problem they're trying to explain, and so their analysis suffers as a result. (See also the section on the passive voice below.)

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WHAT IS AN ARGUMENT?

Evidence and analysis make an argument

Many students ask if they are allowed to write about their "opinions" on a subject. In fact, informed opinion is fundamental to any argumentative paper; uninformed opinion, however, will fail to convince your reader.   One develops an informed opinion by finding evidence and then analyzing that evidence.

Example of an argument:

What does an argument look like? Here is a sample beginning to a coherent argument:

"The Metropolitan Transit Authority and Governor Pataki discriminated against the subway and bus riders of the City of New York when they decided to favor suburban commuters more than the city bus and subway riders in the allocation of mass transit subsidies. Because the majority of bus and subway riders are black, Asian, and Hispanic, and the vast majority of suburban commuters are white, this policy has had a disparate impact on black New York city residents (cite source). In this paper, I argue that this type more subtle discrimination, "institutional racism," has replaced the blatant prejudice of the Jim Crow era.

This student has a real reason to write her paper because she's motivated by an argument: she has something important to say about an issue. The student has collected information and evidence on her topic, analyzed it, and then developed an argument (informed opinion). Moreover, she has begun to analyze her topic conceptually -- in this case, by referring to the difference between old-fashioned Jim Crow type individual racist prejudice and more insidious modern-day institutional racism.

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THE THESIS OR CRUX OF THE ARGUMENT

What is a "crux" and what does it have to do with writing?

According to Pat Carden:

"Crux" comes from the Latin word for "cross. In terms of writing, it refers to a point where things come together, an intellectual knot, an apparent paradox or contradiction ("the crux of the matter"). Analytical writing deals with cruxes. It seeks to untie them and show their strands to the reader. We call this re-knotting "the resolution of the crux." You may be familiar with the term 'thesis.' A crux may be said to be a thesis, but it demands more rigor. A thesis may be wan and descriptive and may lead to a paper with weak argumentation. To write a good argumentative paper, the kind sought in this course, you need to look for a strong thesis or crux, a genuine problem that requires explanation. The more fascinating, challenging and paradoxical the problem you identify in your thesis, the more sophisticated your paper will be. If you set yourself an easy goal by arguing a simple, obvious thesis your paper will inevitably be mundane. Having a strong thesis means the difference between an 'A' and a 'B' paper in most courses.

So think of theses as answering the questions, What? How? and Why? A strong thesis, or a crux, answers all three questions.

The "What" thesis:

A thesis that only answers the question "What" will invariably lead to a pedestrian discussion that merely identifies questions or problems in the material at hand. (Or, even worse, fails to identify a real problem in the text.) This type of thesis inevitably limits itself to description.

Example of a "what" thesis:

"The Metropolitan Transit Authority's decision to raise the bus and subway fares so much while keeping the commuter fare increase low is racist."

Note the underlying structure of this sentence/thesis: X is Y. This thesis lacks an assertion of causation. Moreover, the writer does not fully define the term racist.

The "How" thesis:

A thesis that also answers the question "How" will show exactly how the phenomena you identified in the "what" question actually works. "How" theses are always more specific, more focussed. This kind of thesis calls forth explanatory, analytical writing -- as well as descriptive writing. This type of thesis, although usually a vast improvement on the "what" thesis, still lacks a larger outlook, a political analysis, or a resolution.

Example of a "how" thesis:

"The fare increase imposed on the bus and subway riders of New York city provides a clear example of the insidious way institutionalized racism operates -- through the lack of access to political power and through geographic segregation."

This thesis is saying much more than the one above, and will lead to a more powerful analysis that examines not just what is going on (institutional racism) but exactly how institutional racism operates. This argument is more complex and will be more engaging for the reader.

The "Why" thesis:

A strong thesis or crux that engages the "Why" question also considers larger questions: What might be at stake in the problem? What are the effects of this problem? How can it be resolved? What are the politics of this phenomenon? A "why" thesis implicitly contains the "what" and "how" questions; but a "why" thesis not only elicits descriptive and explanatory writing, it also elicits writing that seeks to resolve. A strong thesis or crux identifies and describes a significant paradox, explains how it operates, and finally resolves the paradox, tackling the larger implications. The goal of all writing in the social sciences is to further our understanding of the world. And that's what a paper that contains within it a resolution to a complex problem accomplishes.

Example of a "why" thesis:

"The fare increase imposed on the bus and subway riders of New York city provides a clear example of the insidious way institutionalized racism operates -- through the lack of access to political power and through geographic segregation. Racism, in its institutional variety, does not have to be thought up by some evil mastermind in order to come into existence. Instead, racist effects are brought about by historical, structural, institutional practices or ways of doing things that are not explicitly or intentionally racist. This means, however, that institutional racism cannot be combated by the simple anti-racist goodwill of policy-makers; instead, combating institutional racism may require a radical restructuring of the institutions of our society."

This "why" thesis tells us that the writer will look at institutional racism as exemplified in the MTA policies ("what"), how institutional racism works in this specific case ("how"), and the larger implications of this analysis ("why").

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ESSAY PITFALLS

Don't just state your disagreement with the author.

Many students tend to make unsubstantiated critiques rather than coherent arguments that engage directly with the reading/author. For example:

i) "I believe that Marx's scheme can't work because people are lazy, and won't work unless they are forced..."

ii) "I happen to disagree with Madison; I think we can rise above self-interest..."

These are perfectly reasonable responses to the readings, but you must follow through on them, with evidence that you analyze.

Avoid excess summarizing

You will always need to summarize and synthesize other people's arguments and descriptions of events in constructing your argument. These summaries, however, should serve your own argument, and not stand in place of it. After you have finished your rough draft, try constructing a brief abstract of your argument; then go through your paper to identify and eliminate summaries that seem superfluous to the argument.

Avoid too much story-telling

Many writers get caught up describing the subject of their paper and spend too little time on their actual analysis. One clue that a paper has too much narration, and not enough analysis, is found in the transition words in the topic sentences of paragraphs.  For example, if your transitions are chronological, you're probably spending too much time describing a phenomenon. Check to see if your paragraphs begin with dates, or "then," "after," etc. Even if you're incorporating analysis into a chronologically-structured paper, more likely than not your argument will be driven by the events, rather than by the analysis.  Restructure your paragraphs so that they highlight the analysis, not the narrative.

The General Introductory Sentence

Students in high school are often taught to follow the “inverted triangle” essay form. That is, they learn that essays should start with a broad, general introduction and then proceed to discuss more particular, concrete, phenomena or ideas.  But you’re in college now and often it’s not necessary--or even a good idea--to start off an essay with a general, vague introductory sentence or sentences.   Here’s an example of one of those sentences:

“During the course of American history there have been many writers that have contributed works that have shaped our society and government.”

While this rhetorical maneuver is sometimes useful, much of the time these first sentences are so abstract and general as to be inane, or obvious, or both.    So, by all means, go ahead and begin your essay with these general introductory sentences if it helps you get started. But when you work on your drafts, read them again and ask yourself, “Does this sentence actually add anything to my argument? Does it give the reader new information that she might not have had?”  If not, think about rewriting it and adopting a new approach; jumping right into the meat of your argument can be very effective.

It's not Cinderella: Avoid the abrupt happy ending

Many student writers assume that their papers simply must end on a happy note.   While it's generally a fine idea to accentuate the positive, it's not a good idea to deflate the paper's entire argument with a trite, hackneyed conclusion.  For example, students who analyze the state of race relations (institutional racism, etc.) in their paper will often tack on a somewhat jarring ending: "As Americans, we will learn to get along and respect others' differences."  Conclusions like this one are disconcerting, because they contradict the paper's central arguments and detract from its overall consistency and tone. 

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WHEN AND HOW TO QUOTE

(Part of this section was written by Bill Weinberg.)

Don't let quotations tell the story

As in this example:

"Joe Feagin and Clairece Boohr Feagin write that, `once a colonial system is established historically, those in the superior position seek to monopolize basic resources.' They continue: `In this process, privilege becomes institutionalized, that is, it becomes imbedded in the norms (regulations and informal rules) and roles (social positions and their attendant duties and rights) in a variety of social, economic, and political organizations.'"

The problem here should be clear: the student is merely representing the text. However, the solution is not simply to paraphrase the quotation after presenting it, as this student does:

"Joe Feagin and Clairece Boohr Feagin write that, `once a colonial system is established historically, those in the superior position seek to monopolize basic resources.' According to Feagin and Feagin, then, the people who have gained power through the establishment of a colonial system will try to take control over the basic resources also."

Rather, you should be synthesizing the material in a way that is meaningful to you and faithful to the text. Here is an example of a good synthesis:

"Feagin and Feagin describe three theories of discrimination: the interest theory of discrimination, internal colonialism, and institutional racism. Interestingly, these three theories of discrimination are characterized by different approaches to the role of human agency in bringing about racist practices and structures. For example, proponents of the interest theory of discrimination argue that discrimination is a rational attempt on the part of white people to protect their dominant position in a society of scarce resources. In contrast, the internal colonialism theory of discrimination emphasizes broader historical forces, such as European expansionism, rather than individual prejudice. Finally, the proponents of the third theory of discrimination assert that institutional racism also does not depend on 'conscious bigotry.' Instead, institutionally racist structures can result from unintentional social and political mechanisms: thus this conceptual approach focuses more on racist effects of policy rather than on the intentions of the individual policy-makers (Feagin 1995, 199-203)."

This student has given a lot of thought to her paper: she has spend some time trying to figure out the differences between the theories of discrimination that Feagin and Feagin discuss. Because she understands the material so well, she is able to go beyond paraphrasing it. It is clear from the way she has organized her thoughts in the paragraph above that she has digested and synthesized the material in order to give it her own twist.

As a rule, provide quotations only:

i) when they say something pithy, elegant, provocative, unusual, or historically important, in language that your own summary could not capture. For example:

"Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life" (Marx).

"Ideology, like halitosis, is...what the other person has" (Terry Eagleton).

ii) when they provide stronger evidence than your summary could.

iii) when you are doing a close reading of a text.

As a rule, quotations should account for no more than 10 percent of your entire paper.

But not quoting a writer directly does not mean that you shouldn't cite them. Always cite the source: in a parenthetical reference or footnote/endnote at the end of the sentence. For information on correct citation styles, see the section below on citation guides.

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HOW TO CITE SOURCES

You must cite all sources used in researching and writing your paper. For this class, you may use the Modern Languages Association Style Guide (MLA), the American Psychological Association Style Guide (APA), or Chicago Style, (also referred to as the Turabian system). 

MLA Style:

P. Currah's short MLA style guide
Modern Languages Association Style Guide, from Ohio State

APA Style:

P. Currah's short APA style guide
Using APA Style
, from Purdue University
Handling quotes in your text, APA style, excellent advice, from Purdue
American Psychological Association Style Guide from Ohio State

Chicago Style:

Chicago Style, from the University of Wisconsin 
Citing electronic sources, Chicago Style

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ACADEMIC INTEGRITY / PLAGIARISM
Plagiarized papers will receive an "F" grade; students who plagiarize may fail the course.

Read the CUNY policy on academic integrity, and the Brooklyn College procedures for implementing the academic integrity policy.

The Brooklyn College statement on academic integrity contains clear examples of plagiarism, from quoting without attribution and quotation marks to paraphrasing without citation.

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THE PASSIVE VOICE: ENEMY OF HUMANKIND

Avoid the passive voice

Avoid using "passive" verbs (also referred to as the passive voice) that fail to describe who or what precipitates the verb's action -- who or what is doing what to whom. An entire essay full of passive sentences leaves the impression that things "just happen," that there is no specific causes of the effects your essay describes. If you revise your sentences so that the verbs are active (into the active voice), your essay will convey much more information, and inevitably will have more force. You'll also have to do more thinking to identify, as precisely as possible, the agent of the action.

Example 1:

They [Negroes] had for more than a century been regarded as beings of an inferior order.

(From Dred Scott v. Sandford, (1857).

But who did the regarding? Without naming the institution, or person or group responsible for the action, some readers might assume that such an opinion was universal, shared by everyone, as Taney wants us to believe.  But certainly the Negroes did not regard themselves as "beings of an inferior order."   In fact, only a segment of the population shared those beliefs.  Which segment?  Be as precise as possible.

For more than a century, most whites in the colonies had regarded the Africans as beings of an inferior order.

In rewriting Justice Taney's sentence, we have to be specific in identifying the actual agent, the doer of the deed.  In this case, the action is regarding, and looking at the text of this situation, we see that Taney was referring to the opinion of Negroes in the 100 years before the U.S. Constitution was adopted.  So we rewrite the sentence identifying white colonials as the agent. 

Example 2:

Over 160 people were killed in the bombing in Oklahoma.

The verb is "were killed." But who did it? This sentence leaves the impression that the bombing just happened. When you're revising your sentences, ask yourself the question, "by whom or by what?" after the verb: for example, were killed by who? If you can answer that question, you should rewrite the sentence to change it to the active voice.

Written with an active verb, the sentence might read: 

Tim McVeigh, and possibly other right-wing extremists, killed over 160 people in the bombing in Oklahoma.

Example 3:

The working class is exploited through the wage-labor system.

The verb is "is exploited." But who or what is doing the exploiting?

The same sentence rewritten with an active verbs:

The bourgeoisie exploit the working class through the wage-labor system.

Or:

Capitalism exploits the working class through wage-labor system.

Tip: Don't rewrite passive verb sentences with vague nouns.  Be especially careful to avoid words like "society."

Example 4:

Minorities were discriminated against.     

Students may be tempted to rewrite the sentence this way:

Society discriminated against minorities.

But naming "society" as the doer of the deed is uselessly vague.  In fact, such vagueness merely repeats a lot of the problems of the passive voice: making "society" the agent in this sentence makes it seem that of all the diverse groups of people in the nation discriminated against minorities--blacks, whites, children, adults, poor people, etc.  The writer needs to rewrite the sentence identifying who did the discriminating as precisely as possible.  Identifying the agent, then, depends on close attention to the time and place under discussion. Thus rewriting passive voice sentences often involves adding more detail than in the original version.  If the writer was referring to the South under Jim Crow, she might rewrite the sentence this way:

After the Supreme Court declared the segregationist doctrine of "separate but equal" constitutional in 1896, the white business interests in the South allied with the poor whites there to discriminate against minorities.

 

WRITING IS REVISING

Papers need to be revised again and again and again.  In fact, it is in the process of revising that you push your analysis further and further, expand on significant points of your argument, and, most importantly, make connections between all sorts of things--concepts, parts of your essay, theories, social and political theorists--that hadn't occurred to you before.  Why? Because when you revise, you're not just reworking sentences and paragraphs; you're actually reworking words, concepts, thoughts, theories--and the connections between them. That's how the revising  process can give rise to the magic of synthesis:  instead of merely producing a series of summaries of other people's work, you develop a more complex argument that builds on these summaries to produce something greater than the sum of the parts--new, original work that builds on the work of others but is uniquely yours.

Let me let you in on a little writer's secret: once a good writer has figured out where she is going with her argument--this often happens well into the first or second draft--she will go back and rewrite the earlier parts of the paper to add more information about the conclusions she made.  I realize that this is tricky and counter-intuitive: because readers read essays in a linear way, from the beginning to the end, beginning writers tend to think that essays are written that way as well. But the truth is, a lot of good essays are not written from beginning to end. All the parts of interesting, well-written essays--the introduction, the paragraphs in the body of the essay, the conclusion--hang together coherently as a whole precisely because the writer has gone back and added information, or changed what he/she wrote, to account for the analytical conclusions drawn at the end of the essay. Good writers very often figure out their neat analytical points only by writing their essays, working their thoughts out on paper. And part of this process, then, means going back and adding or altering the earlier parts that were written before the writer had that light-bulb go off above her/his head.

The revising process may also bring to light certain problems with your argument.   For example, when I comment on student papers I often note that a particular paragraph lacks a topic sentence that marks the transition from one set of ideas (the ideas in the previous paragraph) to the next (the ideas in the current paragraph).  If you can't explain why you're moving from one paragraph to another, that's not just a writing problem, that's problem with either the structure of your argument or your argument itself.  Conversely, if you can explain the transition, then you should, because the connection between paragraphs is an important part of your analysis.

These are examples of good transition/topic sentences.  (I've taken these examples from actual student essays.)

"The gaps and open spaces left by the above concepts of discrimination are filled up by the concepts of institutional racism."

"Perpetuation of class racism can occur in other ways."

As you can see, these sentences do not have to be overly complicated to be effective. The writers use them to refer to what had been discussed and what is to come. Good topic/transition sentences further the momentum of the argument. 

When are you done revising? 

Examine your "final" draft to decide if it really is your final draft, or if you need to revise again:

Is it clear, cogent, well-organized, well-argued?

Is it convincing? (Ask someone else to read it).

Can you succinctly sum up its argument? Is the argument original?

Does each paragraph follow logically from the previous paragraph? Do you need to add transition sentences or phrases?

Do you have a pithy title that hints at least at part of the paper's argument?

Is your evidence documented correctly? Have you cited every source?

Avoid grammar mistakes. If you are not sure about your grammar, read you paper aloud to yourself, pausing for commas -- really read it, don't just skim over it thinking that you know what it says.  When you read it aloud you may be surprised to find that what you think is on the page isn't there.  Often your ear is better than your eye.

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LINKS TO OTHER WRITING SITES

The Purdue University Online Writing Lab is an excellent site, with over  130 handouts (web pages) for students, including handouts on doing research, constructing paragraphs, eliminating wordiness, learning about grammar, and English as a Second Language help.

Harvard has a lot of material, including Writing Center Handouts

Also, check out these guides on English usage:

Strunk, William. 1918. The Elements of Style.

Jack Lynch's Grammar and Style Notes: 80 kb of notes on English usage

Reference Materials

Research It   dictionary, quotes, translators, Onelook dictionaries, specialized and general
Roget's Internet Thesaurus
Information Please Almanac 
Cambridge Biographical Encyclopedia

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Paisley Currah
Department of Political Science
Brooklyn College of the City University of New York
2900 Bedford Avenue, Brooklyn, New York 11210
pcurrah@brooklyn.cuny.edu
Copyright 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 1005, 2006 by Paisley Currah
Revised -- 05/24/06

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