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Walden University Writing Center

Where instructors and editors talk writing.

Breaking Down the MEAL Plan: Using Evidence Effectively

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Last week we learned about the importance of presenting a clear topic sentence (also known as the main idea) in every paragraph. This week we’re going to explore the second letter of the MEAL plan* acronym: E, for “evidence.” 


Breaking Down the MEAL Plan: Part II: Evidence

The purpose of evidence in any paragraph is to provide support for the main idea. But it isn’t enough to simply insert a few statistics or quotations, however compelling they might be. To effectively present and use evidence, whether in the form of a paraphrase or a quotation, it’s important to make sure you take the following two steps:

1. Cite appropriately: When you paraphrase material (that is, restate information from another source in your own words), you must give credit to the original source by citing both the author and the year. Direct quotations, which should be used sparingly, must include the author, year, page or paragraph number, and quotation marks.


2. Provide connections: Even an excellent supply of paraphrased or quoted material is not going to be effective if it isn’t incorporated into the paragraph in a meaningful way. Rather than string together a list of quotes or paraphrases, then, you’ll want to take the time to provide transitions or explanations that show how the different ideas are related.


To illustrate these two steps, let’s take a look at the sample paragraph from last week:
          Many infant and mother deaths can be prevented, especially in the third world. Worldwide, around 11,000,000 children under 5 years old die primarily from preventable diseases, and over 500,000 mothers die from pregnancy- or delivery-related complications annually; almost 99% of these occur in developing countries (Hill et al., 2007). This high number is devastating because while infants in these countries have a high risk of dying, their risk does not stop once they are adults. For women, the lifetime risk of dying from pregnancy and childbirth-related causes is about 100 times higher in Bangladesh than in developed countries (WHO, 2004). The continued failures in implementing straightforward interventions targeting the root causes of mortalities have been responsible for these deaths (McCoy, 2006). The medical community has not been able to come up with simple, cost-effective, and life-saving methods that would help save lives in developing countries. This lack of innovation in the medical field has resulted in the continued unnecessary deaths of thousands of mothers and children.
In this paragraph, we can see both of the steps for presenting evidence have been taken:

1. Sources are cited appropriately: We don’t have any quotations in this paragraph, but each of the three sentences containing paraphrased material also includes a parenthetical citation with both the author and the year.


2. Transitions and explanations show how the ideas are connected: Again, it isn’t helpful to the reader to simply pile up the evidence without explaining how one piece of information is related to the next. In the third sentence, for example, the author shows how these two sets of numbers—deaths of children under the age of 5 and deaths of mothers from pregnancy- and childbirth-related causes—are connected: Together they contribute to a high risk of dying over the lifespan for infants and mothers in the third world.

Of course, there is more to a well-crafted paragraph than effectively presented evidence, but by taking the time to accurately cite and carefully incorporate your material, you’re well on your way to establishing a critical foundation for a solid argument.

Have you used the MEAL plan? What was your experience? Share with us in the comments!


*The MEAL plan is adapted from the Duke University Writing Studio.


This post is the second in a four-part series. If you missed Part 1, start here. If you're ready for a discussion of analysis, check out this post next


Breaking Down the MEAL Plan with the Walden Writing Center: Part 1: The Main Idea Breaking Down the MEAL Plan with the Walden Writing Center: Part 2: Evidence Breaking Down the MEAL Plan with the Walden Writing Center: Part 3: Evidence Breaking Down the MEAL Plan with the Walden Writing Center: Part 4: The Lead Out Sentence Image Map

Jen JohnsonDissertation Editor Jen Johnson has been with the Walden Writing Center since 2007. As a writer and a former writing instructor, she has a particular interest in helping students craft well-written doctoral research, from the sentence level up.

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Breaking Down the MEAL Plan: Beginning with the Main Idea

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The MEAL plan* of paragraph development and organization is a popular acronym at Walden. Whenever I ask students if they’ve heard of it, at least half already have and the other half immediately start taking notes as I explain it. The reason it’s popular is clear. It’s easy to remember and helps to demystify a topic that can seem quite murky: paragraphs.


Breaking Down the MEAL Plan with the Walden Writing Center: Part 1: The Main Idea

However, to use the MEAL plan effectively to develop and revise paragraphs, it needs a little bit of explanation. In this first of a series of blog posts about the MEAL plan, I’m going to tackle the first letter: M, standing for “main idea.”

The main idea of a paragraph is often called a topic sentence. 

There are a few requirements of a topic sentence that you should always check off:
 You should always have one! Each paragraph should start with a topic sentence—that’s right, each and every paragraph. This type of sentence is that important.
 The topic sentence needs to introduce the main idea you’ll be exploring or explaining in the rest of the paragraph. It’s sort of like the thesis statement of the paragraph in this way: it helps tell the reader what topic all the sentences in the paragraph will have in common.
 It probably shouldn’t have a citation. While this isn’t a hard and fast rule, it’s a good guideline. A topic sentence may include research (with a citation), but it usually doesn’t because it should be an overall statement of the paragraph’s focus (rather than a specific idea or fact that needs a citation).

Here’s a sample paragraph with a topic sentence: 

          Many infant and mother deaths can be prevented, especially in the third world. Worldwide, around 11,000,000 children under 5 years old die primarily from preventable diseases, and over 500,000 mothers die from pregnancy- or delivery-related complications annually; almost 99% of these occur in developing countries (Hill et al., 2007). This high number is devastating because while infants in these countries have a high risk of dying, their risk does not stop once they are adults. For women, the lifetime risk of dying from pregnancy and childbirth-related causes is about 100 times higher in Bangladesh than in developed countries (WHO, 2004). The continued failures in implementing straightforward interventions targeting the root causes of mortalities have been responsible for these deaths (McCoy, 2006). The medical community has not been able to come up with simple, cost-effective, and life-saving methods that would help save lives in developing countries. This lack of innovation in the medical field has resulted in the continued unnecessary deaths of thousands of mothers and children.

In analyzing this paragraph, we can check off all of our requirements for a topic sentence:

 First, it exists! I know this sounds simple, but students often forget to include topic sentences in their hurry to include evidence from sources.
 Second, it tells us what this paragraph’s focus will be about. After reading the rest of the paragraph, we can see that all the other sentences reflect this focus—they develop and support this idea that (a) infants and mothers are dying, (b) these deaths are preventable, and (c) this is happening in the third world.
√ Third, the statement is general enough that it doesn’t need a citation. Instead, it’s an overall statement that summarizes the focus of the entire paragraph, not just one idea or fact that would need a citation.
 Lastly, take another look at the paragraph and imagine if that topic sentence wasn’t there. While each sentence on its own would make sense, we wouldn’t know the main point or idea of the paragraph until the very last sentence. Waiting until the end of the paragraph to understand the paragraph’s main idea impedes the reader’s ability to understand how these sentences fit together. 
I hope you’re getting a sense of what a topic sentence looks like and why it is important. However, most writers don’t naturally include topic sentences in their paragraphs, and that’s okay! What’s important is that you are able to revise for topic sentences. To do so, I always suggest that students review each paragraph of a first draft: look for paragraphs that don’t have a topic sentence that fulfills the requirements I outlined above, and add or adjust as needed.

* The MEAL plan is adapted from the Duke University Writing Studio.


For an explanation of evidence in a paragraph, see our next post in the series


Breaking Down the MEAL Plan with the Walden Writing Center: Part 1: The Main Idea Breaking Down the MEAL Plan with the Walden Writing Center: Part 2: Evidence Breaking Down the MEAL Plan with the Walden Writing Center: Part 3: Evidence Breaking Down the MEAL Plan with the Walden Writing Center: Part 4: The Lead Out Sentence Image Map


author

Beth Oyler is a writing instructor and the webinar coordinator for the Writing Center. Living in perpetually snowy Minnesota, she is fervently hoping for spring.


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WriteCast Episode 8: Top 10 Tips for Group Papers and Collaborative Writing

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We all know the frustrations that can come with writing a group paper or working on a collaborative project, whether for school or for work. In this episode, Nik and Brittany share their top 10 tips for writing a successful group assignment.



Read the episode transcript here.

For information on downloading or subscribing to WriteCast episodes and to access the episode archive, visit the blog's Podcast page.






Resources mentioned in this episode:

Collaborative Assignments

Other resources you might like:

Collaborative Writing in Business and Management


WriteCast podcast team

Writing Instructors Nik NadeauAnne Shiell, and Brittany Kallman Arneson produce the WriteCast podcast. 



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A Paper as a Self-Sufficient Organism: Notes on Audience and Context

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Confession: While taking walks, I keep the old, beat-up notes, lists, and letters I find. You know, the scraps of paper that have likely fallen out of someone’s backpack, car, purse, or pocket? In other words, trash? I have a collection. What I like about these scraps is that they provide a window into another person’s world, and I am fascinated by other people. (Incidentally, there is an entire magazine that curates and reprints found items.)

These written scraps, though, are often incomplete. The note begins mid-conversation, the letter refers to events happening the previous week, or the list is untitled. Therefore, it is up to me as the reader to imagine the purpose of such a list or the relationship between letter writer and recipient. I was never intended to be part of the audience, so I have to guess at the context.  

You most definitely do not want this same “guessing” scenario to happen with your academic work. 
Man holding a piece of paper
If someone found your course paper on the street, would they be able to understand your argument?
(Image from morguefile.com)
A paper should be a self-sufficient organism; that is, all of the necessary information should be found within the borders of said paper. Indeed, I tell students to write with enough background so that anyone coming across their work—in the classroom, in a journal, or yes, even on the sidewalk or street—will be able to understand and appreciate the argument. Oftentimes, I see papers that open very specifically, in a way that shuts out any readers who are unfamiliar with the assignment and/or course resources.

Consider the first sentence of this essay: In the video, Jones’s actions reflect the theories of constructivism and multiple intelligences.


As a reader, I am immediately confused. What video? Who is Jones? What actions did he/she take, and in what context? What is the relevance of the theories to those actions?

In this example, the author is referring to a course resource (a video featuring Dr. Jones) and assuming that all readers will know the reference. The author’s professor and fellow students will, but as Nik and Brittany discussed in February’s podcast, the hypothetical reader will not. So in effect, this is an alienating way to start an essay, rather than a welcoming one.

You might have heard a writing instructor say, “Guide the reader into the topic.” Similar advice is “Take a step back and look around. Widen your view.” If we follow these tips in the Jones example, we might get an introduction like this:

Learning theories explain how humans absorb information and process it most effectively (Wendell, 2013). Educators can use these theories to develop their own teaching philosophies and practices. In the recorded classroom observation video, Jones’s group activity reflects the theories of constructivism and multiple intelligences.

This revision both widens the scope (by mentioning learning theories in general) and guides the reader (by connecting the dots from learning theories to actions to classroom observation). We now expect the author to define constructivism and multiple intelligences and show how the group activity illustrates those theories. By using specific examples from the activity, the author can make her point to all readers—and not just those who have actually seen the video.

Next time you are writing, ask yourself, “If Hillary found this paper on the ground, would she immediately understand, or would she have to guess?” I’m happy to play that role.






Other posts you might like: 

WriteCast Episode 6: All About Audience







Hillary Wentworth has worked in the Walden Writing Center since 2010. Besides searching for discarded notes and letters, Hillary enjoys roller-skating, solving crossword puzzles, and basking in the spring sun in Portland, Maine.

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Using Quotations, Part II

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Good news! Quotes are not required in a study! But they can sometimes be potent statements in an argument. If you use them, however, use them sparingly. Walden puts a cap on quotes: No more than 10% of the words in a study can be quoted. (And even that rate might raise eyebrows.) We recommend following this guideline for course papers as well. Generally, paraphrasing or summarizing is preferred to using a quote. Quotations are very common—sometimes they are just the ticket, or, as Nik wrote last week, the icing on the cake—but proper application and style are a must.

Here’s a series of 10 tips, suggestions, and reminders about how best to use quotes.



Top 10 tips for using quotations

1. All quotations need quotation marks (" "). Readers need to know where your words end and where those of the quote begin and end.

2. All quotes need a citation that includes the source (author), year of publication, and page (or paragraph) on which the cited text appears. Sometimes a quote will span two pages; if so, include both pages.

3. Many students forget that readers need quotations to be introduced. (See No. 4 and 5 below.) Readers need to know that a quote is coming. In fact, the introduction typically constitutes the essence of the quote—that is, the claim you want to make—which you then support with the well-phrased quote.

4. In this way, quotes support claims rather than make them. (As implied below, part of the problem with using a quote to make a claim is that, without an introduction and explanation, the quote can be misunderstood.)

5. It’s not fair to readers to just drop a full-sentence quote into the middle of a paragraph to make a point. Even if it’s authoritative and brilliant, it’s jarring; it takes the reader out of the flow of your paragraph—in part because the quote is not in your own voice—and that can diminish your reader’s comprehension.

6. Rather than using full sentences, use only as much of a quotation as necessary to make your point and then carefully integrate the quote into your text (for example, making sure it fits the syntax of your own sentence). Put another way, a quote should fit seamlessly into your sentence.

7. As noted in No. 4, instead of using quotes to make a claim or point, quotes should be used to back up a point. Here are two other good uses: when you want to emphasize a point or when the quote is too complex to accurately paraphrase or is exceptionally well written!

8. After the quote has been introduced and after it has been carefully positioned in your sentence, it must then be explained, right away, including its significance in the context of the paragraph. If you don’t explain it, you are leaving it up to the readers to make their own interpretation—and they could be wrong. You must tell your readers what the quote means and why it is important.

9. Obviously, then, a quote cannot start or end a paragraph. Paragraphs must start with topic sentences and end with transition sentences.  

10. In sum, when you are considering using a quotation, first see if you can paraphrase or summarize it. If, however, a quote seems appropriate, then quote only what’s needed and take care to both introduce and explain it.

For examples of using quotations effectively, see our Using Evidence resource and pages 170-174 of the APA manual.



Other posts you might like:

Using Quotations, Part 1
Context, Context, Context!
WriteCast Episode 3: Creating a Successful Paragraph



Tim McIndooDissertation Editor Tim McIndoo, who joined Walden University in 2007, has more than 30 years of editorial experience in the fields of education, medicine, science and technology, and fiction. When it comes to APA style, he says, "I don't write the rules; I just help users follow them."

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Mark Your Calendar for April Webinars

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April Webinars banner
click on a webinar title to register

APA Formatting: Beyond Citations

Thursday, April 10
12-1 p.m. ET
Audience: All students
Besides citations and reference entries, APA consists of many other style rules that we must use. This webinar will focus on these style rules, covering topics like serial commas, numbers, capitalization, paper formatting, abbreviations, and passive voice. Whether you need a review of APA style or are new to these rules, join us to better understand how to format your writing. 

Welcome to the Writing Center

Monday, April 14
6-7 p.m. ET
Audience: All students
During this introduction to the Writing Center's services, learn about the many resources we have to offer. This webinar is designed to orient you to the many resources available at your fingertips, including Grammarly, paper reviews, tutorials, and social media.  

Synthesis and Thesis Development

Friday, April 25
11-12 p.m. ET

Audience: All students
A thesis statement and synthesis are essential components of strong academic writing and are intertwined as the synthesis in your writing serves to support your thesis statement. This webinar explores some strategies on how to approach synthesis and thesis development in your draft, helping you to integrate both to improve your writing. 

Annotated Bibliographies

Wednesday, April 30
7-8 p.m. ET
Audience: Graduate and KAM students
This session discusses the do's and don'ts of annotated bibliographies via examples. This discussion will be relevant for all KAM students, as well as any other graduate students who will be or have completed an annotated bibliography as part of their course work.

We also explain how annotated bibliographies can be used by all writers as a way to take notes and organize research. If you are currently writing or will write a large research paper, this is the webinar for you!




Writing Instructor Beth Oyler coordinates the Writing Center's webinar instruction. Visit our webinars page for the webinar archive.

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Using Quotations, Part I

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The best way to use quotations is to regard them as a last resort. Calling them a last resort does not mean that they are bad in and of themselves, but that overusing quotations is one of the surest ways to lose your readers’ attention and confidence in your standing as a scholarly writer.

Think about it this way: As a reader, I am choosing to spend part of my day reading your paper or dissertation. Instead, I could be watching TV, checking Facebook, taking a napor (so you don’t think I’m a complete sloth) buying groceries, cooking dinner, or training for my next marathon. But no, I am choosing to read your paper because I expect that I can learn something new, insightful, and unique—something that only you can provide.

Beware sign: Too many quotations

So if, as a reader, I find that a paper or dissertation is almost entirely made of quotations from other studies—aren’t I wasting my time? I want to know what you think, not all those other people. Most of all, I want the opportunity to dive into your thoughts, to see how your brain works, to view the world as you view it in all your genius and informed, critical thinking. Certainly I can’t do that if I see quotation after quotation after quotation! Here is a visual representation of what I mean:

“Quotation” (citation). “Quotation” (citation). “Quotation” (citation). “Quotation” (citation). “Quotation” (citation). “Quotation” (citation). “Quotation” (citation). “Quotation” (citation). “Quotation” (citation). “Quotation” (citation). “Quotation” (citation). “Quotation” (citation).


You get the idea. Here’s another example adapted from our resource on using evidence:

Teachers in ESL classrooms need more access to professional development. According to Grant (2009), "The percentage of ESL students in high schools has gone up 75% in the last ten years" (p. 338), and "the scope of ESL education is changing rapidly" (Gramber, 2010, p. 2834.) Teachers are finding it difficult to keep up with these population changes. Judes (2008) suggested "ESL teachers often do not have updated certification," and a study found that "non-native English speakers require a different pedagogy than native speakers”" (Bartlett, 2004, p. 97).

Rather than relying on quotations so heavily, aim to use them for only three reasons:
  • To introduce a specific term, phrase, or concept particular to an author/study that supports your own argument or analysis.
  • To emphasize or elaborate on your own argument or analysis.
  • To provide evidence or an example of your own argument or analysis.

Note that I repeat a key phrase here: “your own argument or analysis.” Remember that quotations (just like paraphrased source material) should supplement, rather than comprise, the critical thinking and synthesis your readers will expect from you, and you alone.

Here are three reasons not to use quotations, along with alternatives to consider:

  • Because you can’t possibly say it that well. (You can! Just practice effective paraphrasing.)
  • Because your instructor wants “evidence-based” analysis. (Paraphrases are also evidence, and they are usually stronger because they are integrated with your analysis.)
  • Because you just don’t have time to write more on your own. (Make time! Start earlier! Plan ahead!)

To prove to readers that you are more than just a copy-and-paste robot, do that extra work to provide your own analysis, using quotations as an icing on the cake rather than the entire batter.


***

When you do use that icing, you want make it look good, rather than just slopping it on the top of your carefully-baked cake. For tips on how to use quotations effectively, see Dissertation Editor Tim's post “Using Quotations, Part II.”



Other posts you might like:

Context, Context, Context!
WriteCast Episode 3: Creating a Successful Paragraph



Writing Instructor Nik NadeauNik Nadeau has worked as a writing instructor at Walden University Writing Center since 2011. He has reviewed more than 3500 student dissertations, capstone assignments, and course papers, and he takes great pride in seeing students enhance their persuasion and overall presence via the written word.

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