4. Turning Arguments into Papers


Now that your students have generated an idea for their thesis, how do they turn that into a fully formed paper? This module focuses on how to guide students through the drafting process. It covers the nuts and bolts of the drafting process including outlining, analysis, and grammar. It further provides some resources for how to help students with the structure of their writing at the paper-, paragraph-, and sentence-level.

Paper Structure: The Five-Paragraph Essay Is Just So Boring ^

This section discusses the challenges that students face moving beyond the five-paragraph essay structure that, for many of them, may have been the only form of writing they were assigned in high school. Consequently, many students have trouble developing their ideas into longer, more complex, and more sophisticated academic arguments.

Our students have grown up in the most intensive assessment culture in U.S. history. Many students have had little writing experience outside of timed essay exams. As a result, our students are masters of the Five Paragraph Theme (FPT), which Thomas Nunnally succinctly defines:

As it is usually taught, the FPT requires (1) an introductory paragraph moving from a generality to an explicit thesis statement and announcement of three points in support of that thesis, (2) three middle paragraphs, each of which begins with a topic sentence restating one of the major ideas supporting the thesis and then develops the topic sentence (with a minimum of three sentences in most models), and (3) a concluding paragraph restating the thesis and points. (quoted in Wesley 58)

The drawbacks of our educational system’s reliance on the FPT are clear; students sometimes have little experience in writing essays that give them an opportunity to develop much of an analysis or argument.

Here’s the takeaway for you as an instructor: don’t assume that students understand precisely what you mean when you say analysis or argument. Be prepared to show them what you mean.

For more information about the FPT and its effect on student writing and learning, please read Kimberly Wesley’s The Ill Effects of the Five Paragraph Theme.

Additional Resources:

One strategy for helping students get beyond the five-paragraph essay structure is to emphasize that arguments arise in response to other arguments, and effective essays typically build from one point to the next like a conversation with real or hypothetical others who have different perspectives on the subject. For more information on this strategy, please read Entering the Conversation from They Say, I Say by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein.

For additional thoughts on developing a thesis into an argument, read Making a Thesis Evolve from Writing Analytically by David Rosenwasser and Jill Stephen.

Getting Started: The Shitty First Draft ^

This section discusses how to support students in crafting their first drafts.

Once your students have found their topic, some of them will put off drafting to the last possible moment. However, drafting early, and writing multiple drafts, vastly improves students’ essays and writing skills. Encourage your students to begin drafting early, no matter how rough their first draft may be.

Successful and relatively pain-free drafting relies on good planning. It’s easy to skimp on this step of the writing process. Mapping, grouping, and outlining are just three possibilities for exercises your students can complete prior to drafting. If possible, have your students do some planning exercises before drafting. Students can complete exercises in class and give each other feedback, or you could ask students to do some planning on their own.

For more ideas about how to support your students during drafting, please read Drafting fromA TA’s Guide to Teaching Writing in All Disciplines by Beth Finch Hedengren.

Additional Resources:

For a short narrative on the experience of drafting, read “Shitty First Drafts” from Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott.

Analysis: Making Sure Students’ Essays Actually Have a Point ^

The following resources define “analysis” and its purpose for student writing.

Analysis, as Rosenwasser and Stephen describe it, is to ask what something means (41). An analysis begins with a question, or something a student wants to understand better. They explain that:

Analysis places you in a situation where there are problems to resolve and competing ideas for you to bring into some kind of alignment. The starting point for analysis is a situation where there is something for you to negotiate, where you are required not just to list answers but to ask questions, make choices, and engage in reasoning about the meaning and significance of your evidence. (25)

One of the difficulties students encounter when crafting an analysis is remaining open to where a guiding question may lead them. In other words, to hold off on making a claim. Formulating a claim too early can prevent students from exploring an issue as fully as they should, and worse, will just about guarantee papers that support overly general and often obvious ideas (Rosenwasser and Stephen 26). If students become tied to an idea before examining all the evidence, they could gloss over complicating evidence that should be attended to. A good analytical thesis reveals itself in stages, taking account of evidence along the way.

As students work through their analysis, a handy tool to use is the So What? question. As Rosenwasser and Stephen describe it:

The prompt for making the move from observation to implication and ultimately interpretation is: So what? (32)

For more on teaching analysis, please read What is Analysis and How does it Work? from Writing Analytically by David Rosenwasser and Jill Stephen.

Additional Resources:

This handout, Five Analytical Moves, summarizes some of Rosenwasser and Stephen’s discussion.

The Sweetland Center for Writing also provides the handout How Can I Create Stronger Analysis?

Paragraph Structure: Making Clear and Coherent Body Paragraphs ^

The following section provides some resources for writing clear, well-organized paragraphs that incorporate sources and analysis.

When students have an idea of what their argument is and how analysis works, they still might need some resources for how to structure their writing at the paragraph level. Having been taught to write the Five Paragraph Theme, students might struggle to write paragraphs that make a coherent, substantive point while fitting smoothly in the argument of the paper as a whole. This handout provides examples of a “Decent Body Paragraph,” and breaks down the function each sentence in the paragraph performs (the examples in his handout are drawn from student writing in two course taught by Gina Brandolino).

Additional Resources:

If a student has difficulty articulating what the point of a particular paragraph is, it might help to focus on how the student’s ideas are in conversation with others. This handout on Polyvocality analyzes a paragraph from Martha Nussbauma’s Can Patriotism be Compassionate? Note how Nussbaum utilizes different strategies to incorporate many different voices in a single paragraph, moving from a projection of others’ ideas at the beginning, to citation of specific examples and analysis in the middle, to articulating her own position at the end.

If a student has difficulty writing paragraphs that are coherent, or that transition smoothly from the previous paragraph, they mayA�need more tools for writing transitions on the sentence- and paragraph-level. “Connecting the Parts” from They Say, I Say by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein provides a number of strategies for writing effective transitions.

Sentence Structure: How Should You Teach Grammar (and Is It Even Worth It)? ^

Depending on the course, you might not want to devote much class time to teaching writing at the sentence level, but your class will likely have students with different levels of proficiency and confidence when it comes to the conventions of standard English. Module 5 discusses how to address sentence-level issues when responding to student writing. This section focuses more on the philosophy with which to approach the teaching of grammar.

Anne Curzan recommends teaching sentence-level matters not as rules, but as rhetorical choices informed by social context:

Grammar is not, and should not ever be framed as, a Because I say so subject. Teachers in composition and literature classrooms often state that they want to address issues of power and social justice as part of discussions of literature, writing, and culture. Language may work as well as or better than any other topic to put those issues on the table. Who says what is correct? Who gets discriminated against? Why do we all acquiesce in such decisions? (877)

Please read Curzana’s essay, Says Who? Teaching and Questioning the Rules of Grammar.

Additional Resources:

For ideas on when and how to teach style and grammar, read Teaching Writing at the Sentence Level from The Elements of Teaching Writing by Katherine Gottschalk and Keith Hjortshoj.

For recommendations on style and diction, read Style from Writing Analytically by David Rosenwasser and Jill Stephen.

For recommendations on how to revise style and grammar, read Nine Basic Writing Errors and How to Fix Them, also from Writing Analytically by David Rosenwasser and Jill Stephen.

For a few short recommendations on how to approach sentence-level revisions, read The Paramedic Method from Revising Prose by Richard Lanham.