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Building Writers for the NEXT Millennium
A Modest Outline for Writing a Composition, an Essay, a Paper, or the Great American Novel
by Barbara Smith

Compiled with high hopes for Young Writers (or Writers Whose Hearts are Young.)

How do you find stuff to write about?
Open your eyes – your ears – wake up your heart and crank on your mind -- but not so wide that your brains fall out! Every idea is not always worth the effort of developing. One Person will always be there as you think, research and reflect upon your work. Always seek first the Lord Jesus's direction.

Next, here's A VERY IMPORTANT TIP: Keep a little notebook for ideas – sometimes by your bed – in pocket – or where you work. You will never remember all the ideas that can come to you. So, taking a moment to jot down your thought gives you an opportunity to refine your genius.

I. Getting Started

A. Pinpointing A Topic:
The topic of your paper is a specific refining of a subject that captures your imagination, or your teacher's imagination. You may not believe it, but you do know more than 750 words about art, history or medicine. These are subjects that are too broad-based, so sift through them. Here's a strategy:

  • What interests you? An artist, a battle, a disease or a scientific breakthrough?
  • What do you know about your interest?
  • What do you want to learn about?
  • What are your time constraints?
    (NEVER wait until the last minute to do a writing assignment.)

B. Getting a Handle on your writing assignments and ambitions.
Five tactics to move from the general topic to specifics:

  1. ASK: Who? What? Why? Where? When? And How?
    Answering these questions about a topic can lead to more ideas and sources of information.
  2. Brainstorming (free associating listing all you know about the topic) and clustering - Draw a fat SPIDER -that’s your main idea. Add legs, label each with supporting or expanding information.
  3. Free-writing, that is a series of short timed writing "bursts" Even answering the whine, "I don't know what to write about" can generate reasons which might become topics!
  4. Journaling - safe way to explore topics
  5. Research - Classic way to generate material for topic. Yes, the library or Internet are the major resources, but also use observation or interviews but keep careful notes. (I didn’t hear any groans, did I?)

C. When you get an idea, establish your purpose.
Ask yourself why you are writing what you are writing? Answering this thoughtfully will point you to the style of writing. Choose from 4 Categories.

  1. Narration - relate events that tells a story in sequence
  2. Description - of an event, person, object or setting -- depends on details and images
  3. Explanation. - explains, analyzes or interprets an issue
  4. Argumentation - persuades readers of your position

It is your responsibility to be understandable to your audience. If your readers can't figure out what you mean to say, you have failed to communicate! It is your responsibility to write well. More about that later.

E. Pick Up Your Pencils and write, write, write – even if you don't feel like it.

F. Establish your pattern of writing; that is, begin at the beginning, proceed to the middle and on to the end. How you worked your way to this point will greatly bear upon how long a piece you are writing. A simple essay or composition is usually five paragraphs. A simple formula therefore usually divides your work into three distinct parts: Introduction, Body, Conclusion. More complicated writing longer topics or research papers may require more development. However, all successful writing still hangs on a clear thesis and concrete supports.

II. Three Reasons Why Writing Takes Time: PLANNING, DRAFTING, REVISING

A. Planning
Take time to OUTLINE this is not an English teacher's exquisite implement of torture designed to squash your creativity! Go with an informal outline, which does not require complete sentences. An outline will show you the gaps and gaffs in your sequencing and balancing. A formal outline uses complete sentences, and each category is divided into at least two sub-categories. Then, pick a working title, that you will probably change when you finish. Now, write your thesis statement. You may polish this up, after you complete your outline, employing precise details you uncovered researching your topic. After your revision, you may want to insert concrete language to draw the reader into your paper. Why bother polishing your thesis statement? You want people to read beyond this point, especially if it is a complex topic like macular degeneration of the retina, Martin Luther's view of consubstantiation, or NIH's employment's practices. Now let'er rip and jump into that outline! (See Sample following our discussion.)

B. Doing the First Draft

  1. NEVER ever assume the first draft will be the last draft. Pushing against a deadline is risky, even for the pros.
  2. Don't edit extensively as you write – get all the words on paper before you start revising.
  3. Overwriting ideas can be cut later.
  4. Leave the first draft alone for awhile. (See why it is imprudent to roar up on a deadline?)
  5. Be open to digging up more information, re-reading notes, or checking sources.

C. Revision Techniques Do the BIG Stuff first.

  1. Take the time and answer these questions:
    • Is your topic focused – did you stick to your topic?
    • Does your thesis statement clearly explain your focus?
    • Do your examples support your thesis?
    • Are your paragraphs effective – does each one support one point and contribute to the overall development of the thesis? Shifting and re-writing here is SOP.
  2. Be willing to cut!
  3. Move on now to the details.
    • Check out your sentences.
    • Do you have a balance of simple and complex sentences?
    • Do you transition well between ideas, using appropriate language?
    • Have you trimmed your paper of excess ideas that detract or confuse your thesis?
  4. How's your manuscript form?
    • Did you use medium-weight white paper?
    • Is your copy clean, typed on one side and double space?
    • Double space indented quotations.
    • Use white-out for a few minor typos, but retype if typos are too many.
    • Justification? One inch on all sides. (Check with “prof” for final form!)
    • Spacing?
    • Two spaces at the end of a sentence.
    • Two spaces after a colon.
    • One space after a semicolon.
    • Pages fastened with paper clip or staple.
    • Title page with separate information, or Center title with information.
    • Do not italicize or underline title.
    • Capitalize important words.
    • Use Arabic numerals and number all pages in upper right margins beginning with second page.
  5. Proofreading
    Never, never, never, skip this step! You will rue the day when your idiot mistakes in print.
    • Check for spelling and grammar errors, especially commas!
    • Try reading work backwards to catch glaring gaffs.
    • Ask a friend to proofread.
  6. ALWAYS KEEP A COPY! Accidents happen.

III. Conclusion: WHEN your assignment is returned with a grade of stellar rank, remember me – and vow never to forget me – especially if you win a cash prize for your cogent writing!

Here’s a sample OUTLINE: A Guide to Apply and Use

I. Introductory Paragraph(s)
Depending on the length of your composition, one will suffice. A complicated topic can require two. In the introduction you tell readers what they will be reading about, and your opinion. This is your thesis statement, and with which you may choose to begin or end the introductory paragraph. Keep it simple! "Brevity is the soul of wit."
A. Topic Sentence
B. Supporting Points use three or more well-written sentences:
II. Body of Paper
Several paragraphs, at least three or more that present evidence of your topic in an orderly manner. Everything must relate to your thesis statement.
A. Paragraph #1 - Supporting points
B. Paragraph #2 - Supporting points
C. Paragraph #3 - Supporting points
III. Conclusion
Usually no more than one paragraph that restates your thesis, recaps essentials and leads to a general statement of conclusion.

And some FINAL reminders -- Reminders of stuff I bet you already know:

  1. Usually you will use declarative sentences, rarely you may use an exclamatory or an imperative sentence.
  2. Rewording declarative sentences into questions is a good technique to involve readers. So also, consider changing your sentence's patterns:
    (S+V; S+V+D.O.; S+V+I. O.+D.O.; S+V+S.C.)
  3. Revise your sentences' structures strengthen your writing:
  4. Again, go for simplicity and clarity.
  5. If you want to write more effective paragraphs, include one or more of these devices. (Check Strunk & White’s Elements of Style for clarification:
    • Examples and illustrations.
    • Definitions.
    • Analogies.
    • Comparisons and contrast.
    • Cause and effect.
    • Classification and division.
    • Process analysis

© Barbara W. Smith 1999, all rights reserved
Permission is given to reprint any of Barbara's articles in non-profit publications as long as the article is reprinted in full and contains the copyright information and Web site address.

Please send a copy of the publication to:
Third Floor Publishing
PO Box 827
Arnold, MD 21012

We hope our thoughts encourage you in the Lord Jesus Christ who has enabled us to do exceedingly abundantly more than we could have asked or imagined -- please let us know what YOU think. E-mail us at workbook@toad.net. (Please don't forget to include your e-mail address with in the body of the message--we've had some of our responses returned due to insufficient e-mail addresses.)


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