May 2011 -->

Walden University Writing Center

Where instructors and editors talk writing.

Book Review: How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One, by Stanley Fish

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Amy KubistaBy Amy Kubista, Writing Consultant

Had I known that the contents of this book were intended for an audience of creative writers rather than academic writers, I would have sought out a book that is more appropriate for Walden students. The title of the book duped me into thinking that it would address sentences at all levels of writing, and I was hoping to point students toward a text that would excite them and help them breathe life into their academic writing, a style of writing that is often stereotyped as boring and tiresome. I was seduced by Fish’s long list of accomplishments, awards, and positions held (specifically his current position as a weekly columnist for the New York Times). I found myself hopeful after reading his definition of a sentence as a creation of relationships between the actor, action, and object of action, and that once you, the reader, understand this concept, you can “write anything: a paragraph, an argument, an essay , a treatise, a novel” (Fish, 2011, p. 8). However, it soon became obvious that academic writers would benefit little from Fish’s discussion.

From the moment I cracked open the book, I was expecting to be dazzled not only by examples of artistic and famous sentences, but by Fish’s sentences as well. However, the first sentence of the book failed to pique my interest much and was a disappointment, despite the fact that Fish spends an entire chapter focusing on first sentences. After reading the chapter on last sentences, I prepared myself for a grand finale for a book about sentences. In other words, the last sentence of this book, no doubt, will be phenomenal. Again, I was disappointed as the last sentence was actually a question that, instead of giving finality and purpose to the content of the book, left the reader hanging. It was a thoughtful and artfully composed question, but one that was vague and disappointing nonetheless.

The book had many examples of sentences that were well crafted, and Fish takes the time to dissect and analyze these sentences to determine why they are great. However, I was unimpressed with his selection of sentences; most of them derived from classical works, giving the impression that the art of writing a good sentence is an antiquated one that needs to be revived. Personally, I would have enjoyed examples of more contemporary sentences to make the content of the book more relevant to contemporary writers.

My time spent with Fish and his sentences was not a complete loss, though. I did take away a great deal from his emphasis on scrutiny and attention to detail. The book inspired me to pay more attention to sentence structure, content, and meaning. I particularly enjoyed Fish’s definition of a sentence as “a structure of logical relationships” (Fish, 2011, p. 133) and the journey he takes the reader on from the basic structure of a sentence, to the different sentence styles (I especially enjoyed the chapter on satirical sentences), to sentence content. I could not help but feel, though, that I was taking a college course that was devoted to writing a sentence. Each chapter felt like a distinct unit of study, complete with exercises, examples, and explanations. I could almost feel Fish lecturing to his students and assigning homework (write an additive sentence in the vein of Virginia Woolf). He even provides a summary prior to the last section of the book, and I couldn’t help but thinking of it as a review before the final exam.

Overall, while this book was fascinating in its investigation of the art of composing sentences, it is not one I would recommend to students invested in academic writing. I should have known better than to judge a book by its title.

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Expository and Persuasive Elements in College Essays

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By Mara Galvez, Writing Consultant

"Am I supposed to take a stand, or do I just summarize all my research findings?” This is a question a student recently asked me, attaching a copy of her assignment directions. The question made manifest a challenge both grads and undergrads face in writing papers for their courses: Students have a general sense that assignment directions set the parameters for their writing, but they don’t always know how to decipher those directions to determine the appointed purpose, content, or even research requirements.

Luckily, most academic essays fall into a few core categories or "genres"; once you know what types of essays are possible, deciphering assignment requirements gets less challenging. For example, assignment directions will typically indicate whether the overall purpose of the essay should be primarily expository (to inform the reader about something), persuasive (to convince the reader about something, especially about one side of a controversial issue), or a combination of the two. If an assignment asks you to explain, describe, provide an overview, or give the history of something, your purpose is going to be mostly informative. For instance, assignment questions for an expository essay might ask: Provide an overview of the treatment options for schizophrenics. Give a history of the concept of mental illness. Describe the main theories of adult learning. Notice that none of these directions asks you to choose among better or worse theories, to decide among treatment options, or to critique concepts. All of them just ask you to report the information.

On the other hand, persuasive essay assignments might ask questions along the following lines: What are the best contemporary treatment options for schizophrenics? What are the dangers of viewing mental illness as a social construct? Which adult learning theory is most applicable in the online educational environment? Notice that this trio of questions actually does require you to take a stand—to choose and defend one position (treatment x is the best because. . .; the social construction of mental illness is problematic because. . .; Knowles’s learning theory is most applicable because. . .). While both expository and persuasive essays will involve incorporation and analysis of research, then, the former essay type will foreground the informative aspects of the research, while the latter will use the data to support a particular position or argument.

Of course, most essay assignments will actually entail a combination of expository and persuasive elements. In these cases, it is still beneficial to try to break down the essay components into those aspects that are primarily information-centered and those that are mostly persuasion-centered; this will ensure that you successfully address all aspects of the assignment. Consider the following typical assignment question: Read the case study of Patient X. After comparing and contrasting the different therapeutic options available for treating the patient’s schizophrenia, choose the therapy (or combination of therapies) you believe to be most applicable in her case. Provide a rationale for your decision. Notice how this question requires that you first provide a detailed summary of treatment options (expository aspect of the assignment); then, building on that data, you are expected to convince the reader of the superiority of one treatment (persuasive aspect of the assignment). If you just summarize the data or you just present your position, you will leave half of the assignment unaddressed.

The student who came to me asking for help deciphering her homework assignment was unclear about whether she just had to provide a synopsis of research findings or if she had to take a stand regarding her findings. Her assignment turned out to be for a proposal; she was supposed to define a problem (exposition) and then propose a solution (persuasion). Once we broke down the different parts of her assignment question, she was able to determine her essay’s required focus and its purpose. From here, she was able to use the components of the assignment question to outline and organize her response, determining appropriate content for each section of her essay.

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If you found this blog topic useful, keep your eyes open for Mara's next blog post, which will look at differences between definition, comparison/contrast, causal analysis, and proposal essays.

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Announcement: Website Change

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In an effort to improve your experience with the Walden University website, the Writing Center web pages will have a new look come Monday, May 16. This change will not affect any of our content, so all the links that you rely on today will still be there come Monday! For a taste of how the Writing Center website will look, go here.

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Chapter 1 Made Easy

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By Jamie Patterson, Dissertation Editor

The number one problem I see with the writing in chapter 1 of a capstone study is that the writer is trying too hard. This should come as really great news if you haven’t started writing and will probably come as a blow if you have. Not to worry; this blog post is all anyone needs to write or revise for a perfect chapter 1--that is, if you’re writing a dissertation or an EdD research study. (My apologies to other schools, which have slightly different requirements.) Some of the golden nuggets to follow will certainly apply, but know that requirements for DBA and EdD project studies are slightly different.

No matter what school you’re in, my first piece of advice for making chapter 1 easy is to write it after chapter 3. Chapter 3 is where you’ll delineate the methodology of your study, where you’ll get to the real nuts and bolts of what it is that you’ll be doing. Because chapter 1 is introducing your study, it will be much easier to write after you’ve had a chance to really formalize what, exactly, it is that you’ll be doing.

Next, keep things as simple and to the point as possible. Never forget that chapter 1 is an introduction and is meant to do just that: introduce. Clear, concise, and to the point should be your writer’s mantra (referred to by APA as “economy of expression”). Chapter 1 in particular is incredibly formulaic. There are very specific pieces of information that you must present to your reader. Rubrics are available to help you present this specific information: http://researchcenter.waldenu.edu

Taking the rubric, then, you’ll outline your chapter 1 in this way:

Introduction (Shoot for one page, maybe two. Refer to greater detail in chapter 2)
Problem Statement (A really strong paragraph will suffice)
Nature of the Study (One paragraph. Refer to greater detail in chapter 3)
Research Questions and Hypotheses (Simply list your research questions. Note: if qualitative, no hypotheses)
Research Objectives (One paragraph)
Purpose of the Study (One paragraph)
Theoretical Base (quantitative) or Conceptual Framework (qualitative; no more than a page)
Operational Definitions (Four or five are fine)
Assumptions (Short paragraph)
Limitations (Short paragraph)
Scope and Delimitations (Short paragraph)
Significance of the Study (No more than a page)
Summary and Transition (No more than a page)

Okay, now that we’ve completely mapped out all the Level 1 headings for your chapter 1 (and I do mean completely; please don’t add to these headings), let’s talk about some elements here that might not be intuitive for all writers.

To begin, at Walden all quantitative studies require a null and an alternative hypothesis. When you present your research questions and hypotheses, do so by presenting the question, followed immediately by the corresponding null and alternative hypotheses, following the example below and the guidelines on APA 4.45 for guidance.

Research Question 1: Listed here following a one half inch indent, followed by a question mark.
H01: Place the H in italics, the 0 in subscript, and 1 in plain font, followed by a colon, followed by the hypothesis.
H11: The alternative hypothesis will follow the null hypothesis.
Research Question 2: Most often, focusing your research questions and limiting the number will also help you to focus the entire study.
H02: The null hypothesis for Research Question 2 goes here.
H12: The alternative hypothesis for Research Question 2 goes here.

Note that qualitative studies are not hypothesis driven and therefore will not include hypotheses.

Next, note that the assumptions will be based on the study itself. That is, what will you assume to be true as you conduct this study? For most qualitative studies, for instance, the researcher assumes that the participants will be honest and open in their responses. For all studies, the researcher makes the assumption that the chosen methodology is the best possible tool for solving the research problem. Take care to leave any assumptions about the outcome of your study out of this section (a common mistake I see). Remember you are an unbiased scientist. The assumptions you make in chapter 1 are related to the functionality of the study itself.

Finally, let’s talk about limitations and delimitations in very basic terms. The limitations are elements of your study that you have no control over. The delimitations of the study are choices you made as a researcher. That’s why the delimitations and scope of the study are often grouped together: both the delimitations and scope are explaining the choices you made to define the parameters of the study.

Seems pretty simple, right?
It is!

I promise you, it is. Chapter 1 is as formulaic as it comes, and it behooves you to follow that formula as closely as possible. Think of who your actual readers will be: people like me who read hundreds, if not thousands, of academic documents in a single year. There’s a specific language that extends to how and when information is presented, and meeting your educated readers’ expectations of that language and presentation will make it easier for your content to shine through.

So, just to review: write chapter 1 after you’ve written chapter 3 and, I would suggest, after you’ve at least started the research for chapter 2. Keep things simple, concise, and rubric adherent. Remember: after you’ve fulfilled the requirements of the rubric you can stop writing. Really.

Chapter 1 is just that easy.

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Demystifying Prewriting: Yeah, There’s an App for That

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By Matt Smith, Writing Consultant

In interviews, many well known creative writers report that one of the questions most frequently asked of them is also one of the most annoying: “where do you get your ideas?” Their answers to this question, while polite, detailed, and thoughtful, are usually elaborate ways of saying “I don’t know,” because writing—both creative and academic—is a complex, complicated process that often defies simple logic: what works perfectly for one person may not work at all for another, and what has worked in the past may no longer work in the future. While these writers are often unable to pinpoint the sources of their creativity (the ideas, they say, just sort of appear), they usually instead articulate the methods and techniques that they use to make themselves more receptive to inspiration when it arrives, allowing them to develop seemingly random connections and possibilities into something original. Some, for example, use freewriting (that is, writing constantly for a set period of time without stopping to change or correct anything) to bypass their inhibitions; others record everything of interest—an unusual phrase, a surprising fact, a key detail—in notebooks so that later, when they’ve forgotten all about those snippets of information, they can see them again and find new relationships between them.

This phase of the writing process, which consists of everything you do before you actually put words on the page, is called prewriting, and it includes almost as many tactics and tools as there are writers. Traditionally, prewriting methods—for academic writers as well as creative ones—were limited to what could be done with pen and paper: keeping notes in a college-ruled notebook, for example, or jotting your ideas onto note cards that you can rearrange into different organizational schemes. However, with the advent of personal computers, the Internet, and a variety of portable gadgetry (smartphones, tablet computers, etc.), new software tools have been created to help you organize and connect your ideas as you begin a piece of writing.

Freemind, for instance, is a mind-mapping tool that allows you to quickly record your ideas and rearrange them at will, creating organizational structures on the fly. It’s especially great for nonlinear thinkers (like me) who hate the Roman-numeral method (each topic indicated with a Roman numeral, each subtopic with a capital letter, etc., in an orderly column with sensible indents) and its oppressive linearity with a fiery passion. In Freemind, you can also use icons and arrows to visually connect ideas with each other regardless of their locations on the screen. Best of all, it’s free, and it will run on virtually any personal computer (there are versions for Mac OS X, Windows, and Linux).

For those who prefer the flexibility of Freemind but still want to produce a neat outline at the end of their brainstorming sessions, Microsoft’s OneNote provides an even compromise. In this program—which costs money but might already be on your PC if you own a copy of Microsoft Office—you can arrange your ideas as nonlinearly as you think of them. You can type anywhere on the screen, for example, and move your notes around at any time, and, when you want to start organizing, you can rearrange those ideas into bulleted lists to easily establish a hierarchy for your thoughts. OneNote is only available for Windows, though—Mac users, I feel your pain.

If you struggle to record your ideas in the first place (never mind arranging them), you might find Evernote useful too. It’s a free note-taking program that can archive nearly anything—text, audio, photos, web pages, etc.—into a virtual notebook that you can access on your computer, your smartphone, or your tablet. You can add tags to each item in your notebook so that, later on, when you’re trying to remember that one article—the one you read about, you know, that thing, you know, that study on, um, I think it was memory and technology, well, I think so, anyway, and it was written by a researcher from the Cleveland Clinic—you can simply search for “Cleveland” to find it again. Please note that Evernote is so useful it’s addictive, and if there were ever a computer program likely to lead us into a science-fiction future in which everyone’s brain is connected directly to the Internet, this is it. (You’ve been warned.)

Like Evernote, Zotero, a free add-on for the FireFox web browser, has exhaustive archiving powers, but it’s targeted specifically at scholarly writing, and it can greatly simplify the process of managing and formatting your references to other authors’ works. Furthermore, Zotero is possibly the easiest of these tools to integrate into your existing writing processes—you simply read text (web pages, articles from scholarly databases, etc.) as you normally would in your web browser, and, whenever you find a thought worth saving, you simply add the text to a collection in Zotero (if you’ve used iTunes, you can use Zotero—their interfaces are quite similar). From there, you can organize your notes into groups and subgroups, building your observations into an argument grounded solidly in the texts you’ve read. Also—and this is truly magical—Zotero automatically retrieves bibliographic information from the vast majority of databases and websites you read; the program all but eliminates the tedious step of manually typing authors’ names, titles, and publication information into your reference list. The Walden Library has a great guide to using Zotero here.

Of course, you might find some of these tools more useful than others—Freemind, for instance, might be too chaotic for your way of thinking, or you might find Zotero too rigidly hierarchical. Still, I encourage you to try at least one of these tools the next time you begin a writing project if only because they all, in their particular ways, can help you develop good prewriting habits, those little rituals that allow you to clearly see the ideas in front of you, the relationships between them, and with practice and luck, something new too.

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