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- Writing a Literacy Narrative
- Model Reading
- Key Features / Literacy Narratives
- A well-told story
- Vivid detail
- Some indication of the narrative's significance
- Choosing a Topic
- Considering the Rhetorical Situation
- Generating Ideas and Text
- Ways of Organizing a Literacy Narrative
- Writing Out a Draft
- Considering Matters of Design
- Getting Response and Revising
- Editing and Proofreading
- Taking Stock of Your Work

- Analyzing a Text
- Model Reading
- Key Features / Textual Analysis
- A summary of the text
- Attention to the context
- A clear interpretation or judgment
- Reasonable support for your conclusions
- Choosing a Text to Analyze
- Considering the Rhetorical Situation
- Generating Ideas and Text
- Ways of Organizing a Textual Analysis
- Writing Out a Draft
- Considering Matters of Design
- Getting Response and Revising
- Editing and Proofreading
- Taking Stock of Your Work

- Reporting Information
- Model Reading
- Key Features / Reports
- A tightly focused topic
- Accurate, well-researched information
- Various writing strategies
- Clear definitions
- Appropriate design
- Choosing a Topic
- Considering the Rhetorical Situation
- Generating Ideas and Text
- Ways of Organizing a Report
- Writing Out a Draft
- Considering Matters of Design
- Getting Response and Revising
- Editing and Proofreading
- Taking Stock of Your Work

- Arguing a position
- Model Reading
- Key Features / Arguments
- A clear and arguable position
- Necessary background information
- Good reasons
- Convincing support for each reason
- Appeals to readers' values
- A trustworthy tone
- Careful consideration of other positions
- Choosing a Topic
- Considering the Rhetorical Situation
- Generating Ideas and Text
- Ways of Organizing an Argument
- Writing Out a Draft
- Considering Matters of Design
- Getting Response and Revising
- Editing and Proofreading
- Taking Stock of Your Work

Writing a Literacy Narrative

Narratives are stories, and we read and tell them for many different purposes. Parents read their children bedtime stories as an evening ritual. Preachers base their Sunday sermons on Bible stories to teach the importance of religious faith. Grandparents tell how things used to be (sometimes the same stories year after year). Schoolchildren tell teachers that their dog ate their homework. College applicants write about significant moments in their lives. Writing students are often called upon to compose literacy narratives to explore how they learned to read or write. This chapter provides detailed guidelines for writing a literacy narrative. Here is an example.

In the following literacy narrative, Shannon Nichols, a student at Wright State University, describes her experience taking the standardized writing proficiency test that high school students in Ohio must pass to graduate. She wrote this essay for a college writing course, where her audience included her classmates and instructor.

The first time I took the ninth-grade proficiency test was in March of eighth grade. The test ultimately determines whether students may receive a high school diploma. After months of preparation and anxiety, the pressure was on. Throughout my elementary and middle school years, I was a strong student, always on the honor roll. I never had a GPA below 3.0. I was smart, and I knew it. That is, until I got the results of the proficiency test.

Although the test was challenging, covering reading, writing, math, and citizenship, I was sure I had passed every part. To my surprise, I did pass every part—except writing. "Writing! Yeah right! How did I manage to fail writing, and by half a point, no less?" I thought to myself in disbelief. Seeing my test results brought tears to my eyes. I honestly could not believe it. To make matters worse, most of my classmates, including some who were barely passing eighth-grade English, passed that part.

Until that time, I loved writing just as much as I loved math. It was one of my strengths. I was good at it, and I enjoyed it. If anything, I thought I might fail citizenship. How could I have screwed up writing? I surely spelled every word correctly, used good grammar, and even used big words in the proper context. How could I have failed?

Finally I got over it and decided it was no big deal. Surely I would pass the next time. In my honors English class I worked diligently, passing with an A. By October I'd be ready to conquer that writing test. Well, guess what? I failed the test again, again with only 4.5 of the 5 points needed to pass. That time I did cry, and even went to my English teacher, Mrs. Brown, and asked, "How can I get A's in all my English classes but fail the writing part of the proficiency test twice?" She couldn't answer my question. Even my friends and classmates were confused. I felt like a failure. I had disappointed my family and seriously let myself down. Worst of all, I still couldn't figure out what I was doing wrong.

I decided to quit trying so hard. Apparently—I told myself—the people grading the tests didn't have the slightest clue about what constituted good writing. I continued to excel in class and passed the test on the third try. But I never again felt the same love of reading and writing.

This experience showed me just how differently my writing could be judged by various readers. Obviously all my English teachers and many others enjoyed or at least appreciated my writing. A poem I wrote was put on television once. I must have been a pretty good writer. Unfortunately the graders of the ninth-grade proficiency test didn't feel the same, and when students fail the test, the state of Ohio doesn't offer any explanation.

After I failed the test the first time, I began to hate writing, and I started to doubt myself. I doubted my ability and the ideas I wrote about. Failing the second time made things worse, so perhaps to protect myself from my doubts, I stopped taking English seriously. Perhaps because of that lack of seriousness, I earned a 2 on the Advanced Placement English Exam, barely passed the twelfth-grade proficiency test, and was placed in developmental writing in college. I wish I knew why I failed that test, because then I might have written what was expected on the second try, maintained my enthusiasm for writing, and continued to do well.
Nichols's narrative focuses on her emotional reaction to failing a test that she should have passed easily. The contrast between her demonstrated writing ability and her repeated failures creates a tension that captures readers' attention. We want to know what will happen to her.

Key Features / Literacy Narratives

A well-told story. As with most narratives, those about literacy often set up some sort of situation that needs to be resolved. That need for resolution makes readers want to keep reading. We want to know whether Nichols ultimately will pass the proficiency test. Some literacy narratives simply explore the role that reading or writing played at some time in someone's life—assuming, perhaps, that learning to read or write is a challenge to be met.

Vivid detail. Details can bring a narrative to life for readers by giving them vivid mental images of the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures of the world in which your story takes place. The details you use when describing something can help readers picture places, people, and events; dialogue can help them hear what is being said. We get a picture of the only treasure Bragg has ever known through the details he provides: "a water-damaged Faulkner," "a paperback with two naked women on the cover," books "wrapped in fake leather." Similarly, we hear a three-yearold's exasperation through his own words: "I'd like to see a menu." Dialogue can help bring a narrative to life.

Some indication of the narrative's significance. By definition, a literacy narrative tells something the writer remembers about learning to read or write. In addition, the writer needs to make clear why the incident matters to him or her. You may reveal its significance in various ways. Nichols does it when she says she no longer loves to read or write. Bragg is more direct when he tells us he would not trade the books for a gold monkey. The trick is to avoid tacking onto the end a statement about your narrative's significance as if it were a kind of moral of the story. Bragg's narrative would have far less power if he'd said, "Thus did my father teach me to value books of all kinds."


Choosing a Topic

In general, it's a good idea to focus on a single event that took place during a relatively brief period of time. For example:

  • any early memory about writing or reading that you recall vividly
  • someone who taught you to read or write
  • a book or other text that has been significant for you in some way
  • an event at school that was interesting, humorous, or embarrassing
  • a writing or reading task that you found (or still find) difficult or challenging
  • a memento that represents an important moment in your literacy development (perhaps the start of a LITERACY PORTFOLIO)
  • the origins of your current attitudes about writing or reading
  • perhaps more recent challenges: learning to write instant messages, learning to write email appropriately, learning to construct a Web page
Make a list of possible topics, and then choose one that you think will be interesting to you and to others—and that you're willing to share with others. If several seem promising, try them out on a friend or classmate. Or just choose one and see where it leads; you can switch to another if need be. If you have trouble coming up with a topic, try FREEWRITING, LISTING, CLUSTERING, or LOOPING.

Considering the Rhetorical Situation

PURPOSE Why do you want to tell this story? To share a memory with others? To fulfill an assignment? To teach a lesson? To explore your past learning? Think about the reasons for your choice and how they will shape what you write.
AUDIENCE Are your readers likely to have had similar experiences? Would they tell similar stories? How much explaining will you have to do to help them understand your narrative? Can you assume that they will share your attitudes toward your story, or will you have to work at making them see your perspective? How much about your life are you willing to share with this audience?
STANCE What attitude do you want to project? Affectionate? Neutral? Critical? Do you wish to be sincere? serious? humorously detached? self-critical? self-effacing? something else? How do you want your readers to see you?
MEDIA / DESIGN Will your narrative be in print? presented orally? on a Web site? Will photos or other illustrations help you present your subject? Is there a typeface that conveys the right tone?

Generating Ideas and Text

Good literacy narratives share certain elements that make them interesting and compelling for readers. Remember that your goals are to tell the story as clearly and vividly as you can and to convey the meaning the incident has for you today. Start by writing out what you remember about the setting and those involved, perhaps trying out some of the methods in the chapter on GENERATING IDEAS AND TEXT. You may also want to INTERVIEW a teacher or parent who figures in your narrative.

Describe the setting. Where does your narrative take place? List the places where your story unfolds. For each place, write informally for a few minutes, DESCRIBING what you remember:

  • What do you see? If you're inside, what color are the walls? What's hanging on them? What can you see out any windows? What else do you see? Books? Lined paper? Red ink? Are there people? Places to sit?
  • What do you hear? A radiator hissing? Air conditioners? Leaves rustling? The wind howling? Rain? Someone reading aloud? Shouts? Cheers? Children playing? Music? The zing of an instant message arriving?
  • What do you smell? Sweat? White paste? Perfume? Incense? Food cooking?
  • How and what do you feel? Nervous? Happy? Cold? Hot? A scratchy wool sweater? Tight shoes? Rough wood on a bench?
  • What do you taste? Gum? Mints? Graham crackers? Juice? Coffee?

Think about the key people. Narratives include people whose actions play an important role in the story. In your literacy narrative, you are probably one of those people. A good way to develop your understanding of the people in your narrative is to write about them:

  • Describe each person in a paragraph or so. What do the people look like? How do they dress? How do they speak? Quickly? Slowly? With an accent? Do they speak clearly, or do they mumble? Do they use any distinctive words or phrases? You might begin by DESCRIBING their movements, their posture, their bearing, their facial expressions. Do they have a distinctive scent?
  • Recall (or imagine) some characteristic dialogue. A good way to bring people to life and move a story along is with DIALOGUE, to let readers hear them rather than just hearing about them. Try writing six to ten lines of dialogue between two people in your narrative. If you can't remember an actual conversation, make up one that could have happened. (After all, you are telling the story, and you get to decide how it is to be told.) If you don't recall a conversation, try to remember (and write down) some of the characteristic words or phrases that the people in your narrative used.

Write about "what happened." At the heart of every good narrative is the answer to the question "What happened?" The action in a literacy NARRATIVE may be as dramatic as winning a spelling bee or as subtle as a conversation between two friends; both contain action, movement, or change that the narrative tries to capture for readers. A good story dramatizes the action. Try SUMMARIZING the action in your narrative in a paragraph—try to capture what happened. Use active and specific verbs (pondered, shouted, laughed) to describe the action as vividly as possible.

Consider the significance of the narrative. You need to make clear the ways in which any event you are writing about is significant for you now. Write a page or so about the meaning it has for you. How did it change or otherwise affect you? What aspects of your life now can you trace to that event? How might your life have been different if this event had not happened or had turned out differently? Why does this story matter to you?

Ways of Organizing a Literacy Narrative

Start by OUTLINING the main events in your narrative. Then think about how you want to tell the story. Don't assume that the only way to tell your story is just as it happened. That's one way—starting at the beginning of the action and continuing to the end. But you could also start in the middle—or even at the end. Shannon Nichols, for example, could have begun her narrative by telling how she finally passed the proficiency test and then gone back to tell about the times she tried to pass it, even as she was an A student in an honors English class. Several ways of organizing a narrative follow.

Ways of organizing a narrative

Writing Out a Draft

Once you have generated ideas and thought about how you want to organize your narrative, it's time to begin DRAFTING. Do this quickly—try to write a complete draft in one sitting, concentrating on getting the story on paper or screen and on putting in as much detail as you can. Some writers find it helpful to work on the beginning or ending first.

Draft a beginning. A good narrative grabs readers' attention right from the start. Here are some ways of beginning; you can find more advice in the chapter on beginning and ending.

  • Jump right in. Sometimes you may want to get to the main action as quickly as possible. Nichols, for example, begins as she takes the ninth-grade proficiency test for the first time.
  • Describe the context. You may want to provide any background information at the start of your narrative, as I decided to do, beginning by explaining how my grandmother taught me to read.
  • Describe the setting, especially if it's important to the narrative. Bragg begins by describing the small Alabama town where his father lived.
Draft an ending. Think about what you want your readers to read last. An effective ending helps them understand the meaning of your narrative. Here are some possibilities; look also at the chapter on beginning and ending.

  • End where your story ends. It's up to you to decide where a narrative ends. Bragg's story ends with him standing in front of a pile of books; mine ends several years after it begins, with my graduation from college.
  • Say something about the significance of your narrative. Nichols observes that she no longer loves to read or write, for example. The trick is to touch upon the narrative's significance without stating it too directly, like the moral of a fable.
  • Refer back to the beginning. My narrative ends with my grandmother watching me graduate from college; Nichols ends by contemplating the negative effects of failing the proficiency test.
  • End on a surprising note. Bragg catches our attention when his father gives him the boxes of books—and leaves us with a complicated image to ponder.
Come up with a title. A good title indicates something about the subject of your narrative—and makes readers want to take a look. Nichols's title states her subject, "Proficiency," but she also puts the word in quotes, calling it into question in a way that might make readers wonder—and read on. I focus on the significance of my narrative: "How I Learned about the Power of Writing." Bragg takes his title from something memorable his father said: "It's all over but the shoutin.' " See the section on guiding your reader for more advice on titles.

Considering Matters of Design

You'll probably write your narrative in paragraph form, but think about the information you're presenting and how you can design it to enhance your story and appeal to your audience.

  • What would be an appropriate typeface? Something serious, like Times Roman? Something whimsical, like Comic Sans? Something else?
  • Would it help your readers if you added headings in order to divide your narrative into shorter sections?
  • Would photographs or other visuals show details better than you can describe them with words alone? If you're writing about learning to read, for example, you might scan in an image of one of the first books you read in order to help readers picture it. Or if your topic is learning to write, you could include something you wrote.

Getting Response and Revising

The following questions can help you study your draft with a critical eye. GETTING RESPONSE from others is always good, and these questions can guide their reading, too. Make sure they know your purpose and audience.

  • Do the title and first few sentences make readers want to read on? If not, how else might you begin?
  • Does the narrative move from beginning to end clearly? Does it flow, and are there effective transitions? Does the narrative get sidetracked at any point?
  • Is anything confusing?
  • Is there enough detail, and is it interesting? Is there enough information about the setting and the people? Can readers picture the characters and sense what they're like as people? Would it help to add some dialogue, so that readers can "hear" them? Will they be able to imagine the setting?
  • Have you made the situation meaningful enough to make readers wonder and care about what will happen?
  • Do you narrate any actions clearly? vividly? Does the action keep readers engaged?
  • Is the significance of the narrative clear?
  • Does the narrative end in a satisfying way? What are readers left thinking?
The preceding questions should identify aspects of your narrative you need to work on. When it's time to REVISE, make sure your text appeals to your audience and achieves your purpose as successfully as possible.

Editing and Proofreading

Readers equate correctness with competence. Once you've revised your draft, follow these guidelines for EDITING a narrative:

  • Make sure events are NARRATED in a clear order and include appropriate time markers, TRANSITIONS, and summary phrases to link the parts and show the passing of time.
  • Be careful that verb tenses are consistent throughout. If you write your narrative in the past tense ("he taught me how to use a computer"), be careful not to switch to the present ("So I look at him and say . . . ") along the way.
  • Check to see that verb tenses correctly indicate when an action took place. If one action took place before another action in the past, you should use the past perfect tense: "I forgot to dot my i's, a mistake I had made many times."
  • Punctuate DIALOGUE correctly. Whenever someone speaks, surround the speech with quotation marks ("No way," I said.). Periods and commas go inside quotation marks; exclamation points and question marks go inside if they're part of the quotation, outside if they're part of the whole sentence:
    Inside: Opening the door, Ms. Cordell announced, "Pop quiz!"

    Outside: It wasn't my intention to announce, "I hate to read"!
  • PROOFREAD your finished narrative carefully before turning it in.

Taking Stock of Your Work

  • How well do you think you told the story?
  • What did you do especially well?
  • What could still be improved?
  • How did you go about coming up with ideas and generating text?
  • How did you go about drafting your narrative?
  • Did you use photographs or any other graphics? What did they add? Can you think of graphics you might have used?
  • How did others' responses influence your writing?
  • What would you do differently next time?
See Chapter 27 if you are required to submit your literacy narrative as part of a writing PORTFOLIO.

Back to Top

Analyzing a Text

Both Time and U.S. News and World Report cover the same events, but each magazine interprets them differently. All toothpaste ads claim to make teeth "the whitest." Saddam Hussein was supporting terrorists—or he wasn't, depending on which politician is speaking. Those are but three examples that demonstrate why we need to be careful, analytical readers of magazines and newspapers, ads, political documents, even textbooks. Not only does text convey information, but it also influences how and what we think. We need to read, then, to understand not only what texts say but also how they say it. Because understanding how texts say what they say is so crucial, assignments in many disciplines ask you to analyze texts. You may be asked to analyze sensory imagery in James Joyce's "Araby" for a literature class or, for an art history course, to analyze the use of color and space in Edward Hopper's Nighthawks. In a statistics course, you might analyze a set of data—a numerical text—to find the standard deviation from the mean. This chapter offers detailed guidelines for writing an essay that closely examines a text both for what it says and for how it does so, with the goal of demonstrating for readers how—and how well—the text achieves its effects. Here is an example.

"Stay Sweet As You Are": An Analysis of Change
and Continuity in Advertising Aimed at Women
Doug Lantry wrote this analysis of three print ads for a first-year writing course at the University of Akron.

Magazine advertisements aimed at American women have a long history of pushing things like makeup, mouthwash, soap, and other products that reinforce men's roles in women's lives. The concept of personal hygiene has been used to convey the message that "catching" a man or becoming a wife is a woman's ultimate goal, and in advertisements from the 1920s, 1930s, and 1950s this theme can be traced through verbal and visual content.

For example, a 1922 ad for Resinol soap urges women to "make that dream come true" by using Resinol (see Fig. 1). The dream is marriage. The premise is that a bad complexion will prevent marriage even if a woman has attributes like wit and grace, which the ad identifies as positive. Blotchy skin, the ad says, will undermine all that. The word repellent is used for emphasis and appears in the same sentence as the words neglected and humiliated, equating the look of the skin with the state of the person within. Of course, Resinol can remedy the condition, and a paragraph of redemption follows the paragraph about being repellent. A treatment program is suggested, and the look and feel of "velvety" skin are only "the first happy effects," with eventual marriage (fulfillment) implied as the ultimate result of using Resinol soap.

Fig. 1

Visual content supports the mostly verbal ad. In a darkened room, a lone woman peers dreamily into a fireplace, where she sees an apparition of herself as a bride in a white veil, being fulfilled as a person by marriage to a handsome man. She lounges in a soft chair, where the glow of the image in the fireplace lights her up and warms her as much as the comforting fire itself. A smaller image shows the woman washing with Resinol, contentedly working her way toward clear skin and marriage over a water-filled basin suggestive of a vessel of holy water. This image is reinforced by her closed eyes and serene look and by the ad's suggestion that "right living" is a source of a good complexion.

A somewhat less innocent ad appeared more than a decade later, in 1934 (see Fig. 2). That ad, for Lux soap, like the one for Resinol, prescribes a daily hygiene regimen, but it differs significantly from the Resinol message in that it never mentions marriage and uses a clearskinned movie star as proof of Lux's effectiveness. Instead of touting marriage, Lux teaches that "a girl who wants to break hearts simply must have a tea-rose complexion." Romance, not marriage, is the woman's goal, and competition among women is emphasized because "girls who want to make new conquests . . . [are] sure to win out!" by using Lux. Lux's pitch is more sophisticated than Resinol's, appealing to a more emancipated woman than that of the early 1920s and offering a kind of evidence based on science and statistics. The text cites "9 out of 10 glamorous Hollywood stars" and scientists who explain that Lux slows aging, but it declines to cite names, except that of Irene Dunne, the ad's star. The unnamed stars and scientists give the ad an air of untruthfulness, and this sense is deepened by the paradox of the ad's title: "Girls who know this secret always win out." If Lux is a secret, why does it appear in a mass-media publication?

Fig. 2

Like Resinol, Lux urges women to seek love and fulfillment by enhancing their outward beauty and suggests that clear skin means having "the charm men can't resist."

The Lux ad's visual content, like Resinol's, supports its verbal message. Several demure views of Irene Dunne emphasize her "pearlysmooth skin," the top one framed by a large heart shape. In all the photos, Dunne wears a feathery, feminine collar, giving her a birdlike appearance: she is a bird of paradise or an ornament. At the bottom of the ad, we see a happy Dunne being cuddled and admired by a man.

The visual and verbal message is that women should strive, through steps actually numbered in the ad, to attain soft, clear skin and hence charm and hence romance. Not surprisingly, the ad uses the language of battle to describe the effects of clear skin: girls who use Lux will "make new conquests!" and "win out!" Similar themes are developed for a younger audience in a 1954 ad for Listerine mouthwash (see Fig. 3). This time the target is no longer grown women but teenage girls: "If you want to win the boys . . . Stay Sweet As You Are!" Because attracting men would be inappropriate for teenagers, boys are the catch of the day in the Listerine ad. The idea of staying sweet means on the surface that girls should have nice breath, but the youthful context of the ad means that for women to be attractive they must stay young and "stay adorable," preferably with the girlish innocence of a teenager. The consequences of not staying sweet are clear: if you don't use Listerine every morning, every night, and before every date, "you're headed for boredom and loneliness." If you do use Listerine, there are "good times, good friends, and gaiety ahead."

Fig. 3

Like Lux, Listerine relies on science as well as sex. With talk of "the bacterial fermentation of proteins," research, and clinical tests, the mouthwash props up its romantic and sexual claims by proclaiming scientific facts. Listerine is "4 times better than any tooth paste," the ad proclaims "With proof like this, it's easy to see why Listerine belongs in your home."

Visuals contribute to the message, as in the other ads. The central image is a photo of a perky, seemingly innocent teenage girl playing records on a portable phonograph. A vision of midcentury American femininity, she wears a fitted sweater, a scarf tied at the neck (like a wrapped present?), and a full, long skirt. She sits on the floor, her legs hidden by the skirt; she could be a cake decoration. Leaning forward slightly, she looks toward the reader, suggesting by her broad smile and submissive posture that perhaps kissing will follow when she wins the boys with her sweet breath. The record player affirms the ad's teenage target.

The intended consumers in the Resinol, Lux, and Listerine ads are women, and the message of all three ads is that the product will lead to—and is required for—romantic or matrimonial success. Each ad implies that physical traits are paramount in achieving this success, and the ads' appearance in widely circulated magazines suggests that catching a man (whether or not she marries him) is the ultimate goal of every American woman. While there is a kind of progress over time, the ads' underlying assumptions remain constant. There is evidence of women's increasing sophistication, illustrated in the later ads' use of science and "objective" proof of the products' effectiveness. Women's development as individuals can also be seen in that marriage is not presupposed in the later ads, and in the case of Lux a single woman has a successful career and apparently has her pick of many partners.

Still, one theme remains constant and may be seen as a continuing debilitating factor in women's struggle for true equality in the world of sex roles: pleasing men is the prerequisite for happiness. Despite apparent advances on other levels, that assumption runs through all three ads and is the main selling point. The consumer of Resinol, Lux, and Listerine is encouraged to objectify herself, to become more physically attractive not for her own sake but for someone else's. The women in all three ads are beautifying themselves because they assume they must "make new conquests," "win the boys," and "make that dream come true."
Lantry summarizes each ad clearly and focuses his analysis on a theme running through all three ads: the concept that to find happiness, a woman must be physically attractive to men. He describes patterns of images and language in all three ads as evidence.

Key Features / Textual Analysis

A summary of the text. Your readers may not know the text you are analyzing, so you need to include it or tell them about it before you can analyze it. Because Safire's text is so well-known, he describes it only briefly as "Abraham Lincoln's words at the dedication of the Gettysburg cemetery." Texts that are not so well-known require a more detailed summary. Both Rubin and Lantry include the texts—and images—they analyze and also describe them in detail.

Attention to the context. Texts don't exist in isolation: they are influenced by and contribute to ongoing conversations, controversies, or debates, so to understand the text, you need to understand the larger context. Rubin describes Leslie's development and names several song titles that visual artists have "appropriated." Safire notes the source of the phrase "of the people, by the people, for the people" and is clearly writing in the context of the United States after 9/11.

A clear interpretation or judgment. Your goal in analyzing a text is to lead readers through careful examination of the text to some kind of interpretation or reasoned judgment, generally announced clearly in a thesis statement. When you interpret something, you explain what you think it means, as Lantry does when he argues that the consumers of the three beauty products are encouraged to "objectify" themselves. He might instead have chosen to judge the effectiveness of the ads, perhaps noting that they promise the impossible, that no mouthwash, soap, or other product can guarantee romantic "success."

Reasonable support for your conclusions. Written analysis of a text is generally supported by evidence from the text itself and sometimes from other sources. The writer might support his or her interpretation by quoting words or passages from a written text or referring to images in a visual text. Safire, for example, looks at Lincoln's repetition of the word "dedicate" in the Gettysburg Address as a way of arguing that the speech was still relevant in 2002, on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Lantry examines patterns of both language and images in his analysis of the three ads. Note that the support you offer for your interpretation need only be "reasonable"—there is never any one way to interpret something.


Choosing a Text to Analyze

Most of the time, you will be assigned a text or a type of text to analyze: a poem in a literature class, the work of a political philosopher in a political science class, a speech in a history or communications course, a painting or sculpture in an art class, a piece of music in a music theory course. If you must choose a text to analyze, look for one that suits the demands of the assignment—one that is neither too large or complex to analyze thoroughly (a Dickens novel or a Beethoven symphony is probably too big) nor too brief or limited to generate sufficient material (a ten-second TV news brief or a paragraph from Fast Food Nation would probably be too small). Be sure you understand what the assignment asks you to do, and ask your instructor for clarification if you're not sure.

Considering the Rhetorical Situation

PURPOSE Why are you analyzing this text? To demonstrate that you understand it? To persuade readers that the text demonstrates a certain point? Or are you using the text as a way to make some other point?
AUDIENCE Are your readers likely to know your text? How much detail will you need to supply?
STANCE What interests you about your analysis? Why? What do you know or believe about your topic, and how will your own beliefs affect your analysis?
MEDIA / DESIGN Are you writing an essay for a class? to be published in a journal or magazine? something for the Web? If you are analyzing a visual text, you will probably need to include an image of the text.

Generating Ideas and Text

In analyzing a text, your goal is to understand what it says, how it works, and what it means. To do so, you may find it helpful to follow a certain sequence: read, respond, summarize, analyze, and draw conclusions from your analysis.

Read to see what the text says. Start by reading carefully, to get a sense of what it says. This means first skimming to preview the text, rereading for the main ideas, then questioning and annotating.

Consider your initial response. Once you have a sense of what the text says, what do you think? What's your reaction to the argument, the tone, the language, the images? Do you find the text difficult? puzzling? Do you agree with what the writer says? Disagree? Agree and disagree? Your reaction to a text can color your analysis, so start by thinking about how you react—and why. Consider both your intellectual reaction and any emotional reactions. Identify places in the text that trigger or account for those reactions. If you think that you have no particular reaction or response, try to articulate why. Whatever your response, think about what accounts for it.

Next, consolidate your understanding of the text by SUMMARIZING (or, if it's a visual text, DESCRIBING) what it says in your own words. You may find it helpful to OUTLINE its main ideas. See, for instance, how Lantry carefully described what a soap ad he was analyzing shows and says. Some of this analysis ended up in his essay.

Several demure views of Irene Dunne emphasize her "pearly-smooth skin," the top one framed by a large heart shape. In all the photos, Dunne wears a feathery, feminine collar, giving her a birdlike appearance: she is a bird of paradise or an ornament. At the bottom of the ad, we see a happy Dunne being cuddled and admired by a man.
Decide what you want to analyze. Having read the text carefully, think about what you find most interesting or intriguing, and why. Does the language interest you? The imagery? The structure? The argument? The larger context? Something else? You might begin your analysis by exploring what attracted your notice.

Study how the text works. Texts are made up of several components—words, sentences, images, even punctuation. Visual texts might be made up of images, lines, angles, color, light and shadow, and sometimes words. All these elements can be used in various ways. To analyze them, look for patterns in the way they're used and try to decide what those patterns reveal about the text. How do they affect its message? See the sections on thinking about how the text works and identifying patterns in Chapter 38 for specific guidelines on examining patterns this way. Then write a sentence or two describing the patterns you've discovered and how they contribute to what the text says.

Analyze the argument. Every text makes an argument. Both verbal and visual texts make certain assertions and provide some kind of support for those claims. An important part of understanding any text is to recognize its argument—what the writer or artist wants the audience to believe, feel, or do. Consider the text's purpose and audience, identify its thesis, and decide how convincingly it supports that thesis. See the section on ANALYZING THE ARGUMENT for help doing so. Then write a sentence or two summarizing the argument the text makes, along with your reactions to or questions about that argument.

Think about the larger context. Texts are always part of larger, ongoing conversations. To analyze a text's role in its larger context, you may need to do additional research to determine where the text was originally published, what else was happening or being discussed at the time the text was published or created, and whether or not the text responded directly to other ideas or arguments. You'll find detailed help doing so in the section on thinking about the larger context in Chapter 38. Then write a sentence or two describing the larger context surrounding the text and how that context affects your understanding of the text.

Consider what you know about the writer or artist. What you know about the person who created a text can influence your understanding of that text. His or her other work, reputation, stance, and beliefs are all useful windows into understanding a text. Then write a sentence or two summarizing what you know about the writer and how that information affects your understanding of the text.

Come up with a thesis. When you analyze a text, you are basically arguing that the text should be read in a certain way. Once you've studied the text thoroughly, you need to identify your analytical goal: do you want to show that the text has a certain meaning? Uses certain techniques to achieve its purposes? Tries to influence its audience in particular ways? Relates to some larger context in some significant manner? Should be taken seriously—or not? Something else? Come up with a tentative THESIS to guide your thinking and analyzing—but be aware that your thesis may change as you continue to work.

Ways of Organizing a Textual Analysis

Examine the information you have to see how it supports or complicates your thesis. Look for clusters of related information that you can use to structure an OUTLINE. Your analysis might be structured in at least two ways. You might, as Safire does, discuss patterns or themes that run through the text. Alternatively, you might analyze each text or section of text separately, as Lantry does. Following are graphic representations of some ways of organizing a textual analysis.

Ways of organizing a textual analysis

Writing Out a Draft

In drafting your analysis, your goal should be to integrate the various parts into a smoothly flowing, logically organized essay. However, it's easy to get bogged down in the details. Consider writing one section of the analysis first, then another and another until you've drafted the entire middle; then draft your beginning and ending. Alternatively, start by summarizing the text and moving from there to your analysis and then to your ending. However you do it, you need to support your analysis with evidence: from the text itself (as Lantry's analysis of advertisements does‚ or from research on the larger context of the text (as Rubin and Safire do).

Draft a beginning. The beginning of an essay that analyzes a text generally has several tasks: to introduce or summarize the text for your readers, to offer any necessary information on the larger context, and to present your thesis.

  • Summarize the text. If the text is one your readers don't know, you need to give a brief SUMMARY early on that introduces it to them and shows that you understand it fully. For example, Lantry begins each analysis of a soap advertisement with a brief summary of its content.
  • Provide a context for your analysis. If there is a larger context that is significant for your analysis, you might mention it in your introduction. Safire does this when he begins his analysis of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address by describing its status as a "centerpiece" of 9/11 commemorations.
  • Introduce a pattern or theme. If your analysis centers on a certain pattern of textual or contextual elements, you might begin by describing it, as Rubin does in his first sentence when he mentions the "instant associations and pangs of nostalgia" certain song titles evoke.
  • State your thesis. Lantry ends his first paragraph by stating the THESIS of his analysis: "The concept of personal hygiene has been used to convey the message that 'catching' a man or becoming a wife is a woman's ultimate goal, and in advertisements from the 1920s, 1930s, and 1950s this theme can be traced through verbal and visual content."
  • See Chapter 28 for more advice on beginning and ending.
Draft an ending. Think about what you want your readers to take away from your analysis, and end by getting them to focus on those thoughts.

  • Restate your thesis—and say why it matters. Lantry, for example, ends by pointing out that "one theme remains constant" in all the ads he analyzes: that "pleasing men is the prerequisite for happiness."
  • Say something about the implications of your findings. If your analysis has any general implications, you might end by stating them as Rubin does: "Taken together, these minutiae present a disconcerting time capsule of Los Angeles in the 1970s."
  • See Chapter 28 for more advice on ways of beginning and ending.
Come up with a title. A good title indicates something about the subject of your analysis—and makes readers want to see what you have to say about it. Rubin's title, "It's the Same Old Song," uses a cliché to refer to the "old song" on which the painting he analyzes is based. Safire's title may seem cryptic but would have made sense when it was published, shortly before the first anniversary of 9/11: "A Spirit Reborn." And Lantry's title uses an eye-catching headline from one ad with a clear statement of his essay's content: " 'Stay Sweet As You Are': An Analysis of Change and Continuity in Advertising Aimed at Women." See Chapter 29 on guiding your reader for more tips on writing titles.

Considering Matters of Design

  • If you cite written text as evidence, be sure to set long quotations and DOCUMENTATION according to the style you're using.
  • If your essay is lengthy, consider whether headings would make your analysis easier for readers to follow.
  • If you're analyzing a visual text, you may need to include a reproduction, along with a caption identifying it.

Getting Response and Revising

The following questions can help you study your draft with a critical eye. GETTING RESPONSE from others is always good, and these questions can guide their reading, too. Make sure they know your purpose and audience.

  • Is the beginning effective? Does it make a reader want to continue?
  • Does the introduction provide an overview of your analysis and conclusions? Is your thesis clear?
  • Is the text described or summarized clearly and sufficiently?
  • Is the analysis well organized and easy to follow? Do the parts fit together coherently? Does it read like an essay rather than a collection of separate bits of analysis?
  • Does each part of the analysis relate to the thesis?
  • Is anything confusing or in need of more explanation?
  • Are all quotations accurate and correctly documented?
  • Is it clear how the analysis leads to the interpretation? Is there adequate evidence to support the interpretation?
Then it's time to REVISE. Make sure your text appeals to your audience and achieves your purpose as successfully as possible.

Editing and Proofreading

Readers equate correctness with competence. Once you've revised your draft, edit carefully:

  • Is your thesis clearly stated?
  • Does the beginning make readers want to read on?
  • Check all QUOTATIONS, PARAPHRASES, and SUMMARIES for accuracy and form. Be sure that each has the required DOCUMENTATION.
  • Make sure that your analysis flows clearly from one point to the next and that you use TRANSITIONS that help readers move through your text.
  • Does the ending make clear what your findings mean?
  • PROOFREAD your finished analysis carefully before turning it in.

Taking Stock of Your Work

Take stock of what you've written and learned by writing out answers to these questions:

  • How did you go about analyzing the text? What methods did you use—and which ones were most helpful?
  • How did you go about drafting your essay?
  • How well did you organize your written analysis? What, if anything, could you do to make it easier to read?
  • Did you provide sufficient evidence to support your analysis?
  • What did you do especially well?
  • What could still be improved?
  • Did you use any visuals, and if so, what did they add? Could you have shown the same thing with words?
  • How did other readers' responses influence your writing?
  • What would you do differently next time?
  • Are you pleased with your analysis? What did it teach you about the text you analyzed? Did it make you want to study more works by the same writer or artist?

Back to Top

Reporting Information

Many kinds of writing report information. Newspapers report on local and world events; textbooks give information about biology, history, writing; Web sites provide information about products (jcrew.com), people (johnnydepp.com), institutions (smithsonian.org). We write out a lot of information ourselves, from a note we post on our door saying we've gone to choir practice to an essay we're assigned to write for a history class, reporting what we've learned about the state of U.S. diplomacy in the days before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. This chapter focuses on reports that are written to inform readers about a particular topic. Very often this kind of writing calls for some kind of research: you need to know your subject in order to report on it! When you write to report information, you are the expert. This chapter offers guidelines for writing essays that inform. Here is an example.

The Greatest Generation:
The Great Depression and the American South
The following essay was written in 2001 by a student for a history course at the Trumbull Campus of Kent State University. It was first published in Etude and Techne, a journal of Ohio college writing.

Tom Brokaw called the folks of the mid-twentieth century the greatest generation. So why is the generation of my grandparents seen as this country's greatest? Perhaps the reason is not what they accomplished but what they endured. Many of the survivors feel people today "don't have the moral character to withstand a depression like that."1 This paper will explore the Great Depression through the eyes of ordinary Americans in the most impoverished region in the country, the American South, in order to detail how they endured and how the government assisted them in this difficult era.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) announced in 1938 that the American South "represented the nation's number one economic problem." He commissioned the National Emergency Council to investigate and report on the challenges facing the region. Though rich in physical and human resources, the southern states lagged behind other parts of the nation in economic development.2

Franklin D. Roosevelt

Poor education in the South was blamed for much of the problem. Young children attending school became too costly for most families. In the Bland family, "when Lucy got to the sixth grade, we had to stop her because there was too much to do."3 Overcrowding of schools, particularly in rural areas, lowered the educational standards. The short school terms further reduced effectiveness. As Mrs. Abercrombie recalls, "Me and Jon both went to school for a few months but that wa'n't enough for us to learn anything."4 Without the proper education, the youth of the South entered the work force unprepared for the challenges before them.

Southern industries did not have the investment capital to turn their resources into commodities. Manufacturers were limited to producing goods in the textile and cigarette industries and relied heavily on the cash crops of cotton and tobacco for the economy. Few facilities existed in the South for research that might lead to the development of new industries. Hampered by low wages, low tax revenue, and a high interest rate, Southerners lacked the economic resources to compete with the vast industrial strength of the North. As Abercrombie indicates, "Penalized for being rural, and handicapped in its efforts to industrialize, the economic life of the South has been squeezed to a point where the purchasing power of the southern people does not provide an adequate market for its own industries nor an attractive market for those of the rest of the country."5 The South had an untapped market for production and consumption. However, without adequate capital, it did not have the means to profit from them.

Southern industries paid their employees low wages, which led to a low cost of living. "You could live very cheaply because . . . you couldn't make a great deal of money," remembers Rita Beline."6 Most families did not have much left for themselves after bills and living expenses. "Nobody had much money, you know," recalls June Atchetce. "Everybody kind of lived at home, had gardens and raised their own produce, raised their own meat and had chickens and eggs and such as that." The needs of the families "were very small as far as purchases were concerned." What they could not grow, they did not have a need for, except for basic staples such as coffee, flour, sugar, and honey. To save on the cost of clothes, families "had a lot of handmedowns from the oldest to the baby. We did not throw them away. We patched them up and sent them down the line."7 Luxury items, like radios, cost too much money, and "only the [aristocrats] had radios because the poor did not stay at home long enough to enjoy them."8 The fact was that Southerners wanted modern consumer items but did not have the purchasing power to pay for them. "The people of the South need to buy, they want to buy, and they would buy—if they had the money." Without paying laborers a fair wage, industry had forced upon itself a lower living standard, thus perpetuating losses in local revenue resulting in a decline in purchasing power.9

The Federal government had to step in and help, as historians David L. Carlton and Peter A. Coclanis note:
Some of the South's credit difficulties have been slightly relieved in recent years . . . by the Public Works Administration, . . . the Works Progress Administration, [and] the Soil Conservation Service, [which] have brought desperately needed funds into the South.10 Along with other New Deal projects like the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and the Civilian Conservation Corps [CCC], President Roosevelt was able to prime the pump into a seemingly dead Southern economy.
Other ways the federal government primed the pump was with the WPA [Works Progress Administration]. This New Deal measure gave jobs to those who wanted to work. Local governments benefited too. The WPA provided new roads, buildings, hospitals, and schools. Rita Beline remembers her "father came very short of money, . . . took a job with the WPA, in which he helped in building a road across a lagoon."11 President Roosevelt knew "cheap wages mean low buying power."12 The WPA ensured a fair wage for good work. Warren Addis remembers that "workers were tickled to death with it because it gave so many people jobs. It started out at eight cents an hour for common labor, and it finally went to thirty cents an hour."13

FDR also created the CCC. The concept of putting the American youth to work yielded an economic stimulus by having them send home twenty-five dollars a month. That money worked itself back into local economies as families spent the money on needed goods. Young men across the South "left home to go and do this work. They got paid a little bit of money, which they sent home to their families."14 The CCC created recreation habitats as well. Jefferson Brock recalls, "They came and built brush poles for the fish to live in the lake near my cottage."15 The CCC became an outlet for young men who could not find work in their hometowns. Jesse Brooks remembers:
They did a great lot of good. For instance, they built Vogel State Park and raised the wall up on the national cemetery. Just put people to work. Gave them their pride back. A man's not going to feel very good about himself if he can't feed his family. So, that was the New Deal itself—to put people back to work and get the economy growing again.16
The South did not enjoy the United States' economic successes in the early part of the twentieth century and in many ways was a third world country within our own nation. The federal action that fueled the Southern economy during the Great Depression changed the way of life for the better and helped Southerners endure a time of great despair. Programs like the TVA, WPA, and CCC planted the seeds for a prosperous future. I still do not know if they were the greatest generation, but they did overcome tremendous obstacles to bring forth other "greatest generations."


1. Allen Furline in Kenneth J. Bindas, "Oral History Project," Kent State University, Trumbull Campus, Trumbull, OH. Dr. Bindas has a collection of 476 oral-history interviews from western Georgia and eastern Alabama, from which the information for this paper is derived. (Hereafter cited in Notes as BOHP.)
2. David L. Carlton and Peter A. Coclanis, Confronting Southern Poverty in the Great Depression: The Report on Economic Conditions of the South with Related Documents (New York: Bedford / St. Martin's Press, 1996), 92.
3. Vera Bland in BOHP.
4. M. Abercrombie in BOHP.
5. Carlton and Coclanis, Confronting Southern Poverty, 76–78.
6. Rita Beline in BOHP.
7. June Romero Atchetce in BOHP.
8. Ruby Girley in BOHP.
9. Carlton and Coclanis, Confronting Southern Poverty, 62–65.
10. Ibid., 73.
11. Rita Beline in BOHP.
12. David M. Kennedy, Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929–1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 346.
13. Warren Addis in BOHP.
14. Jane Berry in BOHP.
15. Jefferson Brock in BOHP.
16. Jesse Brooks in BOHP.
DeRoven's essay reports information about how the American South got through the Great Depression. His information is based on both library research and interviews with people who lived through the period he describes. He documents his sources according to The Chicago Manual of Style, the preferred style in history classes.

Key Features / Reports

A tightly focused topic. The goal of this kind of writing is to inform readers about something without digressing—and without, in general, bringing in the writer's own opinions. All three examples focus on a particular topic—Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, the physics of roller coasters, and the Great Depression in the American South—and present information about the topics evenhandedly.

Accurate, well-researched information. Reports usually require some research. The kind of research depends on the topic. Library research to locate scholarly sources may be necessary for some topics—DeRoven, for example, uses an archive available only at his university's library. Other topics may require field research—interviews, observations, and so on. The 9/11 Commission interviewed "more than 1,200 people, in ten countries"—and also reviewed more than 2.5 million pages of documents.

Various writing strategies. Presenting information usually requires various organizing patterns—defining, comparing, classifying, explaining processes, analyzing causes and effects, and so on. Eastman and Burrell explain the process that makes roller coasters work; the portion of the 9/11 Commission Report reprinted here provides a detailed narrative; DeRoven analyzes some of the causes of the Great Depression in the South.

Clear definitions. Reports need to provide clear definitions of any key terms that their audience may not know. Eastman and Burrell define several terms—"potential energy" and "gravity," among others—as they explain how coasters work.

Appropriate design. Reports often combine paragraphs with information presented in lists, tables, diagrams, and other illustrations. When you're presenting information, you need to think carefully about how to DESIGN it—numerical data, for instance, can be easier to understand and remember in a table than in a paragraph. And see how the 9/11 Commission Report shows us the flight path of United 175 on a map, along with a minute-by-minute account of the events on the plane (laid out as a list to make the chronology easy to see).

Flight path of United 175

8:14          Takeoff
8:42          Last radio communication
8:42–8:46  Likely takeover
8:47          Transponder code changes
8:52          Flight attendant notifies UA of hijacking
8:54          UA attempts to contact the cockpit
8:55          New York Center suspects hijacking
9:03:11     Flight 175 crashes into 2 WTC (South Tower)
9:15          New York Center advises NEADS that UA 175 was the second                  aircraft crashed into WTC
9:20          UA headquarters aware that Flight 175 had crashed into WTC


Choosing a Topic

If you are working with an assigned topic, see if you can approach it from an angle that interests you. If you get to choose your topic, the following guidelines should help:

If you get to choose. What interests you? What do you wish you knew more about? The possible topics for informational reports are limitless, but the topics that you're most likely to write well on are those that engage you. They may be academic in nature or reflect your personal interests or both. If you're not sure where to begin, here are some places to start:

  • an intriguing technology: file sharing, Google, cell phones, roller coasters
  • sports: soccer, snowboarding, ultimate Frisbee, skateboarding, basketball
  • an important world event: 9/11, the fall of Rome, the Black Death
  • a historical period: the African diaspora, medieval Europe, the Ming dynasty, the Great Depression
  • a common object: hooded sweatshirts, gel pens, mascara, Post-it notes
  • a significant environmental issue: Arctic oil drilling, the Clean Air Act, mercury and the fish supply
  • the arts—hip-hop, outsider art, the J. Paul Getty Museum, Savion Glover, Mary Cassatt
LIST a few possibilities, and then choose one that you'd like to know more about—and that your audience might find interesting, too. You might start out by phrasing your topic as a question that your research will attempt to answer. For example:

How is Google different from Yahoo!?

How was the Great Pyramid constructed?

Why did the World Trade Center towers collapse on themselves rather than fall sideways?

What kind of training do football referees receive?
If your topic is assigned. Some assignments are specific: "Explain the physics of roller coasters." If, however, your assignment is broad—"Explain some aspect of the U.S. government"—try focusing on a more limited topic within the larger topic: federalism, majority rule, political parties, states' rights, division of powers. Even if an assignment seems to offer little flexibility, your task is to decide how to research the topic—and sometimes even narrow topics can be shaped to fit your own interests and those of your audience.

Considering the Rhetorical Situation

PURPOSE Why are you presenting this information? To teach readers about the subject? To demonstrate your research and writing skills? For some other reason?
AUDIENCE Who will read this report? What does your audience already know about the topic? What background information do they need in order to understand it? Will you need to define any terms? What do you think they want or need to know about it? Why should they care or want to know about it? How can you attract their interest?
STANCE What is your own attitude toward your subject? What interests you most about it? What about it seems important?
MEDIA / DESIGN What medium are you using? What is the best way to present the information? Will it all be in paragraph form, or is there information that is best presented as a chart or a table? Do you need headings? Would diagrams, photographs, or other illustrations help you explain the information?

Generating Ideas and Text

Good reports share certain features that make them useful and interesting to readers. Remember that your goal is to present information clearly and accurately. Start by exploring your topic.

Explore what you already know about your topic. Write out whatever you know or want to know about your topic, perhaps by FREEWRITING, LISTING, or CLUSTERING. Why are you interested in this topic? What questions do you have about it? Such questions can help you decide what you'd like to focus on and how you need to direct your research efforts.

Narrow your topic. To write a good report, you need to narrow your focus—and to narrow your focus, you need to know a fair amount about your subject. If you are assigned to write on a subject like biodiversity, for example, you need to know what it is, what key issues are, and so on. If you do, you can simply list or brainstorm possibilities, choose one, and start your research. If you don't know much about the subject, though, you need to do some research to discover focused, workable topics. This research may shape your thinking and change your focus. Start with SOURCES that can give you a general sense of the subject, such as an encyclopedia entry, a magazine article, an Internet site, perhaps an interview with an expert. Your goal at this point is simply to find out what issues your potential topic might include and then to focus your efforts on an aspect of the topic you will be able to cover.

Come up with a tentative thesis. Once you narrow your topic, write out a statement that explains what you plan to report or explain. A good THESIS is potentially interesting (to you and your readers) and limits your topic enough to make it manageable. Eastman and Burrell state their thesis in the form of a direct statement—"roller coasters work because of two main principles: the laws of conservation of energy and gravity" - assuming that readers will know that in the essay that follows those two principles will be explained. DeRoven, on the other hand, lays out exactly what will be discussed: "This paper will explore the Great Depression through the eyes of ordinary Americans in the most impoverished region in the country, the American South, in order to detail how they endured and how the government assisted them in this difficult era." At this point, however, you need only a tentative thesis that will help focus any research you do.

Do any necessary research, and revise your thesis. To focus your research efforts, OUTLINE the aspects of your topic that you expect to discuss. Identify any aspects that require additional research and develop a research plan. Expect to revise your outline as you do your research, since more information will be available for some aspects of your topic than others, some may prove irrelevant to your topic, and some may turn out to be more than you need. You'll need to revisit your tentative thesis once you've done any research, to finalize what your statement will be.

Ways of Organizing a Report

Reports can be organized in various ways. Here are three common ones:

One way of organizing a report

Other ways of organizing a report

Many reports use a combination of organizational structures; don't be afraid to use whatever method of organization best suits your material and your purpose.

Writing Out a Draft

Once you have generated ideas and thought about how you want to organize your report, it's time to start DRAFTING. Do this quickly—try to write a complete draft in one sitting, concentrating on getting the report on paper or screen and on putting in as much detail as you can.

Writing that reports information often calls for certain writing strategies. The report on the hijacking of United 175, for example, uses NARRATION, telling readers what happened, minute by minute. The article about roller coasters requires the DEFINITION of concepts such as "gravity" and "conservation of energy." When you're reporting on a topic your readers aren't familiar with, you may wish to COMPARE it with something more familiar; you can find useful advice on these and other writing strategies in Part 4 of this book.

Draft a beginning. Essays that report information often need to begin in a way that will get your audience interested in the topic. Here are a few ways of beginning:

  • Simply state your thesis. DeRoven begins his essay about "the greatest generation" this way. Opening with a thesis works well when you can assume your readers have enough familiarity with your topic that you don't need to give detailed background information.
  • Open by asking a question. Eastman and Burrell open this way, asking a question about roller coasters that their report then answers: "Ever wonder how they get the energy to deliver thrill after thrill?"
  • Jump right in. The writers of the report on the hijacking of United 175 can assume their audience is familiar with the events they are reporting on, so they open by saying simply that "United Airlines Flight 175 was scheduled to depart for Los Angeles at 8:00."
Draft an ending. Think about what you want your readers to read last. An effective ending leaves them thinking about your topic.

  • Summarize your main points. This is a good way to end when you've presented several key points you want readers to remember. Eastman and Burrell end this way when they write "Remember, the energy does not increase, decrease, or disappear; it just changes from one form to the other."
  • Point out the implications of your report. DeRoven concludes with a paragraph explaining that "The federal action that fueled the Southern economy during the Great Depression changed the way of life for the better and helped Southerners endure a time of great despair."
  • Frame your report by referring to its introduction. DeRoven begins and ends his report by mentioning "the greatest generation."
  • Tell what happened. If you are reporting on an event, you could conclude by telling how it turns out. The report on the hijacking of United 175 ends powerfully by simply saying that "All on board, along with an unknown number of people in the tower, were killed instantly."
Come up with a title. You'll want a title that tells readers something about your subject—and makes them want to know more. Eastman and Burrell, for instance, get our interest in their report on how roller coasters work with the title "The Science of Screams," and tell us something about the subject of their report in a subtitle, "Laws of Physics Instill Thrills in Roller Coasters." See the chapter on Guiding Your Reader for tips on coming up with titles that are informative and enticing enough to make readers wish to read on.

Considering Matters of Design

You'll probably write your report in paragraph form, but think about the information you're presenting and how you can design and format it to make it as easy as possible for your readers to understand. You might ask yourself these questions:

  • What is an appropriate typeface? Something serious like Times Roman, something traditional like Courier, something else?
  • Would it help your readers if you divided your report into shorter sections and added headings?
  • Is there any information that would be easier to follow if it were in a LIST?
  • Could any of your information be summarized in a table?
  • Do you have any data that readers would more easily understand in the form of a bar graph, line graph, or pie chart?
  • Would illustrations—diagrams, photos, drawings, and so on—help you explain anything in your report?

Getting Response and Revising

The following questions can help you study your draft with a critical eye. GETTING RESPONSE from others is always good, and these questions can guide their reading, too. Make sure they know your purpose and audience.

  • Do the title and opening sentences get readers' interest? If not, how might they do so?
  • What information does this text provide, and for what purpose?
  • Does the introduction explain why this information is being presented? Does it place the topic in a larger context?
  • Are all key terms defined?
  • As you read, do you have any questions? Is more information or explanation needed? Where might an example help you understand something?
  • Is any information presented visually, with a chart, graph, table, drawing, or photograph? If so, is it clear how these illustrations relate to the larger text? Is there any text that would be more easily understood if it were presented visually?
  • Does the organization help make sense of the information? Does the text include description, comparison, definition, or any other writing strategies? Does the topic or rhetorical situation call for any particular strategies?
  • If the report cites any sources, are they quoted, paraphrased, or summarized effectively (and with appropriate documentation)?
  • Does the report end in a satisfying way? What are readers left thinking?
These questions should identify aspects on your report you need to work on. When it's time to REVISE, make sure your report appeals to your audience and achieves your purpose as successfully as possible.

Editing and Proofreading

Readers equate correctness with the writer's competence. Once you've revised your draft, follow these guidelines for EDITING a report:

  • Check your use of key terms. Repeating key words is acceptable in reports; synonyms for unfamiliar words may confuse readers while the repetition of key words or the use of clearly identified pronouns can be genuinely helpful.
  • Check your use of TRANSITIONS to be sure you have them where you need them.
  • If you have included headings, make sure they're parallel in structure and consistent in design.
  • Make sure that any photos or other illustrations have captions, that charts and graphs have headings—and that all are referred to in the main text. Have you used white space effectively to separate sections of your report and to highlight graphic elements?
  • Check any DOCUMENTATION to see that it follows the appropriate style without mistakes.
  • PROOFREAD and spell-check your report carefully.

Taking Stock of Your Work

  • How well did you convey the information? Is it complete enough for your audience's needs?
  • What strategies did you rely on, and how did they help you achieve your purpose?
  • How well did you organize the report?
  • How did you go about researching the information for this piece?
  • How did you go about drafting this piece?
  • Did you use any tables, graphs, diagrams, photographs, illustrations, or other graphics effectively?
  • How did others' responses influence your writing?
  • What did you do especially well?
  • What could still be improved?
  • What would you do differently next time?

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Arguing a Position

Everything we say or do presents some kind of argument, takes some kind of position. Often we take overt positions: "Everyone in the United States is entitled to affordable health care." "The university needs to offer more language courses." "Ice-T shouldn't have gone into acting." Some scholars claim that everything makes some kind of argument, from yellow ribbons that honor U.S. troops to a yellow smiley face, which might be said to argue for a good day. In college course work, you are constantly called on to argue positions: in an English class, you may argue for a certain interpretation of a poem; in a business course, you may argue for the merits of a flat tax; in a linguistics class, you may argue that English should not be made the official language of the United States. All of those positions are arguable—people of goodwill can agree or disagree with them and present reasons and evidence to support their positions. This chapter provides detailed guidelines for writing an essay that argues a position. Here is an example.

Airport Security: What Price Safety?
Here is an argument written in 2002 by Andy McDonie for his first-year writing course at Wright State University, in Dayton, Ohio.
We all want to feel safe. Most Americans lock their doors at night, lock their cars in parking lots, try to park near buildings or under lights, and wear seat belts. Many invest in expensive security systems, carry pepper spray or a stun gun, keep guns in their homes, or take self-defense classes. Obviously, safety and security are important issues in American life. But there are times when people are unable to protect themselves.

Air travel is one such situation. There is nowhere to run, and no one is allowed to carry weapons that could be used for self-defense on board an aircraft. Therefore, it is important that no one at all be allowed on board an airplane with a gun or any other weapon. Unfortunately, this is much more easily said than done.

Though airlines and the U.S. government are taking many steps to ensure the safety of passengers, there is still a risk. In light of recent hijackings by militant Islamic Arabs, it would be very easy and economically sensible to target Middle Easterners for security checks at airports and anywhere else security could be an issue. This would allow everyone else who is statistically less likely to be a terrorist to travel more freely without long delays. However, as sensible and economical as this solution could be, it must never be allowed here in the United States.

One airline that targets passengers for security checks based on ethnicity and gender is El Al, Israel's national airline. In "Unfriendly Skies Are No Match for El Al," Vivienne Walt, a writer for USA Today, describes her experience flying with this airline. Before anyone gets on any one of El Al's aircraft, he or she has to go through an extensive interview process. The intensity of the process depends on categories into which passengers fit. Jews are in the low-risk category. Most foreigners are medium risk, while travelers with Arabic names are very high-risk. Women traveling alone are considered high risk as well, because authorities fear that a Palestinian lover might plant a bomb in their luggage. Screening passengers takes time; El Al passengers must arrive three hours before their scheduled departure, and even so flights are sometimes delayed because of the screening process.

El Al is secretive about what goes on in its interviews, and company spokespersons admit that the airline will deny boarding privileges to certain ticket holders, but their security record is the best in the world. Since these and other policies took effect over twenty years ago, not one terrorist act has occurred on an El Al plane (Walt 1D–2D). El Al's anti-terrorist system is indisputably effective. But is it ethical? Here in the United States, airports and airlines are racing to meet new security standards set by the federal government. As travelers are flying and as new regulations are being implemented, more and more air travelers are getting pulled aside for "random" security checks. In my experience, these checks may not be as random as the airports would like the public to think. Since September 11, 2001, I have spent several hours at airport gates and have boarded eight separate flights. Not once have I been delayed at the gate for a random security check. I am a young white male. However, I have seen who does get checked. I have seen some middle-class Caucasians checked, but at least from what I have observed, that is not the norm. Minorities are a target, especially minorities traveling alone. I have seen a seemingly disproportionate number of nonwhites delayed at gates. I have also noticed that women traveling alone or with other women are often picked out.

History has many examples of the U.S. government's suspending or abridging the rights of certain groups during wartime. In the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln suspended the right of habeas corpus (which allows prisoners to have their detention reviewed by a court of law), an act that was later ruled unconstitutional. During the First World War, freedom of speech was restricted by the Supreme Court, which declared, "When a nation is at war, many things that might be said in time of peace are such a hindrance to its effort that their utterance will not be endured so long as men fight and that no Court could regard them as protected by any constitutional right." During the same war, Pittsburgh banned Beethoven's music; the Los Angeles Board of Education forbade discussions of peace in school; and in many states German could not be taught. Perhaps the worst example of American wartime discrimination occurred during World War II, when Japanese Americans had their property seized and were forced to live in internment camps. Lieutenant General John L. DeWitt, one commander enforcing the internment, justified this policy by saying that "in the war in which we are now engaged, racial affiliations are not severed by migration. The Japanese race is an enemy race. . . . A jap is a jap" (O'Brien 419–25).

What can we learn from this grim history? Ben Franklin said that if we sacrifice freedom for security, we get neither. Though safety is important, at what price should it be bought? And if we sacrifice our freedoms for it, are we really safe? It would be easy for most Americans to justify restricting the rights of just one minority group. After all, most people would not be affected. But if we can oppress people from the Middle East during a time of crisis, we can do the same to any other group of people at any time. That is not the way Americans should have to live.

There is an additional point here: not all terrorists are of Middle Eastern descent. If we were to target Middle Easterners for security checks, many Muslims might have difficulty boarding an aircraft, but the Unabomber or Timothy McVeigh would have had little or no trouble. Acts of murder, political turmoil, and terrorism are carried out by persons of all races and nationalities. Focusing on one group might only simplify the process for non-Arab terrorists.

New security measures exist in many European airports. Some use retinal scans, a high-tech way of identifying passengers by scanning their eyes. Most screen checked baggage and match checked baggage to passenger lists. Many airports interview all passengers. According to one German frequent flier, "The level of scrutiny at a checkpoint says a lot about security at the whole airport to me. I feel safer flying to the United States than flying back" (Davis).

Clearly more changes need to be made at airports worldwide. Though it would be more economically sensible to target certain groups, doing so would be unethical. If the rights of one group of people are jeopardized, then the rights of all Americans are jeopardized. Freedom must not be sacrificed for security.

Discriminating against a single group would also be ineffective. Many people of Arab descent would have difficulty boarding an aircraft, but white, black, or Asian terrorists could move through security easily. Targeting certain groups would be easier but less than fair. Instead of focusing on one or more groups, airlines should treat all passengers equally, using technology that is currently available.

Works Cited
Davis, Aaron. "Guarding Europe's Airports—Future of Air Travel
     Visible in Tight Security Terminal." San Jose Mercury News.
     22 Nov. 2001: A1+.
O'Brien, Ed. "In War, Is Law Silent?" Social Education 65 (2001):
Walt, Vivienne. "Unfriendly Skies Are No Match for El Al." USA
1 Oct. 2001: 1D–2D.
This argument offers a clear statement of its position: people of Middle Eastern descent must not be targeted for airport security checks. McDonie organizes his essay carefully: after introducing the topic, he contrasts El Al's procedures with those of U.S. air carriers, provides examples of suspended rights in the United States during wartime, presents the core of his argument against targeted searches, and concludes by acknowledging the need for improved security.

Key Features / Arguments

A clear and arguable position. At the heart of every argument is a claim with which people may reasonably disagree. Some claims are not arguable because they're completely subjective, matters of taste or opinion ("I hate sauerkraut"), because they are a matter of fact ("The first Star Wars movie came out in 1977"), or because they are based on belief or faith ("There is life after death"). To be arguable, a position must reflect one of at least two points of view, making reasoned argument necessary: Internet file sharing should (or should not) be considered fair use; airport security should target certain groups (or should treat everyone the same). In college writing, you will often argue not that a position is correct but that it is plausible—that it is reasonable, supportable, and worthy of being taken seriously.

Necessary background information. Sometimes we need to provide some background on a topic we are arguing so that readers can understand what is being argued. McDonie establishes the need for special measures to ensure airline passengers' safety before launching his argument against targeting specific groups for security checks; Quindlen offers a characterization of the current connotations of the term feminism and provides its historical context as context for her argument that it's a term we're "still needing."

Good reasons. By itself, a position does not make an argument; the argument comes when a writer offers reasons to back the position up. There are many kinds of good reasons. Some are a matter of defining—Quindlen bases her argument about feminism on a dictionary definition of the word. Lessig makes his argument by comparing, showing many examples of so-called piracy in other media. McDonie's main reason for his position that we should not target Middle Easterners for airport security checks is that doing so is unethical.

Convincing support for each reason. It's one thing to give reasons for your position. You then need to offer support for your reasons: facts, statistics, expert testimony, anecdotal evidence, case studies, textual evidence. All three essays use a mix of these types of support. Quindlen uses statistics from a Princeton study to support her claim that women do not yet have job equality in comparison with men; Lessig offers facts from the history of the broadcast media to support his argument for file sharing.

Appeals to readers' values. Effective arguers try to appeal to readers' values and emotions. Both Quindlen and McDonie appeal to basic values—Quindlen to the value of equality, McDonie to the values of freedom and security. These are deeply held values that we may not think about very much and as a result may see as common ground we share with the writers. And some of Quindlen's evidence appeals to emotion—the examples she offers from Duke University and the state of California are likely to evoke an emotional response in many, if not all, readers.

A trustworthy tone. Arguments can stand or fall on the way readers perceive the writer. Very simply, readers need to trust the person who's making the argument. One way of winning this trust is by demonstrating that you know what you're talking about. Lessig offers plenty of facts to show his knowledge of copyright history—and he does so in a self-assured tone. There are many other ways of establishing yourself (and your argument) as trustworthy—by showing that you have some experience with your subject (as McDonie does), that you're fair (as Quindlen suggests when she says that "hundreds of arenas . . . have opened to working women"), and of course that you're honest.

Careful consideration of other positions. No matter how reasonable and careful we are in arguing our positions, others may disagree or offer counterarguments or hold other positions. We need to consider those other views and to acknowledge and, if possible, refute them in our written arguments. Quindlen, for example, acknowledges that women today have more employment opportunities than they did forty years ago, but she refers to the Duke study to refute any argument that women have attained complete equality with men.


Choosing a Topic

A fully developed argument requires significant work and time, so choosing a topic in which you're interested is very important. Students find that widely debated topics such as "animal rights" or "gun control" can be difficult to write on because they seldom have a personal connection to them. Better topics include those that

  • interest you right now,
  • are focused, but not too narrowly,
  • have some personal connection to your life.
One good way to GENERATING IDEAS for a topic that meets those three criteria is to explore your own roles in life.

Start with your roles in life. On a piece of paper, make four columns with the headings "Personal," "Family," "Public," and "School." Below each heading, LIST the roles you play that relate to it. Here is a list one student wrote:

A list one student wrote

Identify issues that interest you. Think, then, about issues or controversies that may concern you as a member of one or more of those groups. For instance, as a primary-education major, this student cares about the controversy over whether kids should be taught to read by phonics or by whole language methods. As a college student, he cares about the costs of a college education. Issues that stem from these subjects could include the following: Should reading be taught by phonics or whole language? Should college cost less than it does?

Pick four or five of the roles you list. In five or ten minutes, identify issues that concern or affect you as a member of each of those roles. It might help to word each issue as a question starting with Should.

Choose one issue to write about. Remember that the issue should be interesting to you and have some connection to your life. It is a tentative choice; if you find later that you have trouble writing about it, simply go back to your list of roles or issues and choose another.

Considering the Rhetorical Situation

PURPOSE Do you want to persuade your audience to do or think something? change their minds? consider alternative views? accept your position as plausible—see that you have thought carefully about an issue and researched it appropriately?
AUDIENCE Who is your intended audience? What do they likely know and believe about this issue? How personal is it for them? To what extent are they likely to agree or disagree with you? Why? What common ground can you find with them?
STANCE How do you want your audience to perceive you? As an authority on your topic? As someone much like them? As calm? reasonable? impassioned or angry? something else? What's your attitude toward your topic, and why?
MEDIA / DESIGN What media will you use, and how do your media affect your argument? If you're writing on paper, does your argument call for photos or charts? If you're giving an oral presentation, should you put your reasons and support on slides? If you're writing on the Web, should you add links to counterarguments?

Generating Ideas and Text

Most essays that successfully argue a position share certain features that make them interesting and persuasive. Remember that your goal is to stake out a position and convince your readers that it is plausible.

Explore what you already know about the issue. Write out whatever you know about the issue by FREEWRITING or as a LIST or OUTLINE. Why are you interested in this topic? What is your position on it at this point, and why? What aspect do you think you'd like to focus on? Where do you need to focus your research efforts? This activity can help you discover what more you need to learn. Chances are you'll need to learn a lot more about the issue before you even decide what position to take.

Do some research. At this point, try to get an overview. Start with one GENERAL SOURCE of information that will give you a sense of the ins and outs of your issue, one that isn't overtly biased. Time, Newsweek, and other national weekly newsmagazines can be good starting points on current issues; encyclopedias are better for issues that are not so current. For some issues, you may need to INTERVIEW an expert. For example, one student who wanted to write about chemical abuse of animals at 4H competitions interviewed an experienced show competitor. Use your overview source to find out the main questions your issue raises and to get some idea about the various ways in which you might argue it.

Explore the issue strategically. Most issues may be argued from many different perspectives. You'll probably have some sense of the different views that exist on your issue, but you should explore multiple perspectives before deciding on your position. The following methods are good ways of exploring issues:

  • As a matter of DEFINITION. What is it? How should it be defined? How can phonics or whole language be defined? How do backers of phonics define it—and how do they define whole language? How do advocates of whole language define it—and how do they define phonics? Considering these definitions is one way to identify different perspectives on the topic.
  • As a matter of CLASSIFICATION. Can the issue be further divided? What categories might it be broken into? Are there different kinds of "phonics" and "whole language"? Do various subcategories suggest various positions or perhaps a way of supporting a certain position? Are there other ways of categorizing the teaching of reading?
  • As a matter of COMPARISON. Is one way better than another? Is whole language a better way of teaching children to read than phonics? Is phonics a better way than whole language? Is the answer somewhere in the middle?
  • As a matter of PROCESS. Should somebody do something? What? Should teachers use whole language to teach reading? Should they use phonics? Should they use a mix of the two methods?
Reconsider whether the issue can be argued. Is this issue worth discussing? Why is it important to you and to others? What difference will it make if one position or another prevails? At this point, you want to be sure that your topic is worth arguing about.

Draft a thesis. Having explored the possibilities, decide your position, and write it out as a complete sentence. For example:

Pete Rose should not be eligible for the Hall of Fame.

Reading should be taught using a mix of whole language and phonics.

Genetically engineered foods should be permitted in the United States.
Qualify your thesis. Rarely is a position on an issue a matter of being for or against; in most cases, you'll want to qualify your position—in certain circumstances, with certain conditions, with these limitations, and so on. This is not to say that we should settle, give in, sell out; rather, it is to say that our position may not be the only "correct" one and that other positions may be valid as well. Qualifying your THESIS also makes your topic manageable by limiting it. For example:

Pete Rose should not be eligible for the Hall of Fame, though he should be permitted to contribute to major league baseball in other ways.

Reading should be taught using a mix of phonics and whole language, but whole language should be the dominant method.

Genetically engineered foods should be permitted in the United States if they are clearly labeled as such.
Some questions for qualifying a thesis

  • Can it be true in some cases?
  • Can it be true at some times?
  • Can it be true for some groups or individuals?
  • Can it be true under certain circumstances?
Come up with good reasons. Once you have a thesis, you need to come up with good reasons to convince your readers that it's plausible. Start by stating your position and then answering the question "Why?"

Thesis: Pete Rose should not be eligible for the Hall of Fame. Why?

Underlying reason (because): He bet on professional baseball games, an illegal practice. Why?

Underlying reason (because): Professional athletes' gambling on the outcome of games will cause fans to lose faith in professional sports.
As you can see, this exercise can continue indefinitely as the underlying reasons grow more and more general and abstract. You can do the same with other positions:

Thesis: Pete Rose should be eligible for the Hall of Fame. Why?

Underlying reason (because): He's one of the greatest baseball players of all time. Why?

Underlying reason (because): Few players have played with more hustle and passion than Rose.
Write out your position, and then, below it, list several reasons. Think about which reasons are best for your purposes: Which seem the most persuasive? Which are most likely to be accepted by your audience? Which seem to matter the most now? If your list of reasons is short or you think you'll have trouble developing them enough to write an appropriate essay, this is a good time to rethink your topic—before you've invested too much time in it.

Develop support for your reasons. Next, you have to come up with support for your reasons. Here are some of the ways you can offer support:

  • facts
  • statistics ("A national study found that X percent of . . . ")
  • testimony by authorities and experts ("According to X, . . . ")
  • anecdotal evidence ("This happened . . . ")
  • scenarios ("What if . . . ?")
  • case studies and observation ("This is what happened when . . . ")
  • textual evidence ("I found this in . . . ")
Some kinds of support are acceptable to certain audiences but not to others. For example, case studies may be readily accepted in certain social sciences but not in the physical sciences; anecdotes or stories may be accepted as evidence in humanities courses but not in engineering. Some audiences will be persuaded by emotional appeals while others will not. You may well need to consult SOURCES.

Identify other positions. Now, think about positions that differ from yours and about the reasons people are likely to give for those positions. Be careful to represent their points of view as accurately and fairly as you can. Then decide whether you need to acknowledge or refute the position.

Acknowledging other positions. Some positions can't be refuted, but still you need to acknowledge readers' doubts, concerns, and objections to show that you've considered them. Rather than weakening your argument, acknowledging possible objections shows that you've thought about and researched your argument thoroughly. For example, in an essay about his experience growing up homosexual, writer Andrew Sullivan acknowledges that not every young gay man or woman has the same experience: "I should add that many young lesbians and homosexuals seem to have had a much easier time of it. For many, the question of sexual identity was not a critical factor in their life choices or vocation, or even a factor at all." Thus does he qualify his assertions, making his own stance appear to be reasonable. In addition to acknowledging other views, though, you may sometimes shape other views to incorporate them into your own argument.

Refuting other positions. State the position as clearly and as fairly as you can, and then show why you believe it is wrong. Are the values underlying the position questionable? Is the reasoning flawed? Is the supporting evidence inadequate or faulty? If the argument has some merit but fails on some points, say so, but emphasize its shortcomings. Avoid the FALLACY of attacking the person making the argument or bringing up a competing position that no one seriously entertains.

Ways of Organizing an Argument

Readers need to be able to follow the reasoning of your argument from beginning to end; your task is to lead them from point to point as you build your case. Sometimes you'll want to give all the reasons for your argument first, followed by discussion of any other positions. Alternatively, you might discuss each reason and any counterargument together.

One way of organizing an argument

Another way of organizing an argument

Consider the order in which you discuss your reasons. Usually what comes last is the most emphatic and what comes in the middle is the least emphatic, so you might want to put your most important or strongest reasons first and last.

Writing Out a Draft

Once you have generated ideas, done some research, and thought about how you want to organize your argument, it's time to start DRAFTING. Your goal in the initial draft is to develop your argument—you can fill in support and transitions as you revise. You may want to write your first draft in one sitting, so that you can develop your reasoning from beginning to end. Or you may write the main argument first and the introduction and conclusion after you've drafted the body of the essay; many writers find that beginning and ending an essay are the hardest tasks they face. Here is some advice on how you might begin and end your argument:

Draft a beginning. There are various ways to begin an argument essay, depending on your audience and purpose. Here are a few suggestions.

  • Offer background information. You may need to give your readers information to help them understand your position. McDonie provides a rationale for Americans' desire to fly safely in dangerous times before stating his own position that safety must not be achieved through selective airport security checks.
  • Define a key term. You may need to show how you're using certain key words. Lessig, for example, defines piracy as "using the creative property of others without their permission" in his first sentence, a definition that is central to his argument.
  • Begin with something that will get readers' attention. Quindlen's first sentence does just that: "Let's use the F word here." From there, she goes on to argue that feminism "is not an expletive but an ideal."
  • Explain the context for your position. All arguments are part of a larger, ongoing conversation, so you might begin by showing how your position fits into the arguments others have made. Quindlen does this in her third paragraph when she refers to the "conventional wisdom" that sees feminism as having accomplished all it set out to accomplish.
Draft an ending. Your conclusion is the chance to wrap up your argument in such a way that readers will remember what you've said. Here are a few ways of concluding an argument essay.

  • Summarize your main points. Especially when you've presented a complex argument, it can help readers to SUMMARIZE your main point. McDonie sums up his argument with the sentence "Freedom must not be sacrificed for security."
  • Call for action. Lessig does this when he concludes by saying the law should seek a balance between copyright law and the need for continued innovation.
  • Frame your argument by referring to the introduction. Quindlen does this when she ends by saying that "The F word is not an expletive but an ideal—one that still has a way to go."
Come up with a title. Most often you'll want your title to tell readers something about your topic—and, if possible, to make them want to read on. McDonie covers both bases with his title and subtitle, "Airport Security: What Price Safety?" Quindlen's title doesn't quite tell us what she's writing about, but she probably makes a lot of readers continue reading to see what "Still Needing the F Word" is all about. See the chapter on Guiding Your Reader for more advice on composing a good title.

Considering Matters of Design

You'll probably write your essay in paragraph form, but think about the information you're presenting and how you can design it in such a way as to make your argument as easy as possible for your readers to understand. Think also about whether any visual elements would be more persuasive than plain words.

  • What would be an appropriate typeface? Something serious like Times Roman? Something traditional like Courier? Something else?
  • Would it help your readers if you divided your argument into shorter sections and added headings?
  • If you're making several points, would they be easier to follow if you set them off in a LIST?
  • Do you have any supporting evidence that would be easier to understand in the form of a bar graph, line graph, or pie chart?
  • Would illustrations—photos, diagrams, or drawings—add support for your argument?

Getting Response and Revising

At this point you need to look at your draft closely, and if possible GETTING RESPONSE from others as well. The following are some questions for looking at an argument with a critical eye.

  • Is there sufficient background or context?
  • Is the thesis clear and appropriately qualified?
  • Are the reasons plausible?
  • Is there enough support for these reasons? Is that support appropriate?
  • Have you cited enough sources, and are these sources credible?
  • Can readers follow the steps in your reasoning?
  • Have you considered potential objections or other positions? Are there any others that should be addressed?
  • Are source materials documented carefully and completely, with in-text citations and a works cited or references section?
Next it's time to REVISE, to make sure your argument offers convincing support, appeals to readers' values, and achieves your purpose.

Editing and Proofreading

Readers equate correctness with competence. Once you've revised your draft, follow these guidelines for EDITING an argument:

  • Make sure that every assertion you make is well supported.
  • Check to see that your tone is appropriate and consistent throughout, reflects your STANCE accurately, and enhances the argument you're making.
  • Be sure readers will be able to follow the argument; check to see you've provided TRANSITIONS and summary statements where necessary.
  • Make sure you've smoothly integrated QUOTATIONS, PARAPHRASES, and SUMMARIES from source material into our writing and DOCUMENTED them accurately.
  • Make sure that illustrations have captions and that charts and graphs have headings—and that all are referred to in the main text.
  • PROOFREAD and spell-check your essay carefully.

Taking Stock of Your Work

Take stock of what you've written by writing out answers to these questions:

  • What did you do well in this piece?
  • What could still be improved?
  • How did you go about researching your topic?
  • How did others' responses influence your writing?
  • How did you go about drafting this piece?
  • Did you use graphic elements (tables, graphs, diagrams, photographs, illustrations) effectively? If not, would they have helped?
  • What would you do differently next time?
  • What have you learned about your writing ability from writing this piece? What do you need to work on in the future?

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