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From Topic to Presentation: Making Choices to Develop Your Writing

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    Beth L. Hewett


    Every semester, I ask my students for topic ideas, and then I write an essay for them.* When we’re in a traditional classroom, they watch me write the initial draft using a computer and projector; they comment on the writing, and I present revisions to them later. When we work online, they receive copies of all my drafts with changes tracked for their review and comments. My students like this exercise—partially because they don’t have to do the writing, but mostly because they like to see what I can make of an assignment they give me. They tell me that they struggle with beginning the writing and that the model I offer teaches new ways of understanding writing and revision. I like this exercise for the same reasons.

    This chapter addresses how to make decisions about essay development and revision. It pays particular attention to using feedback from peers, instructors, or other readers. While you’ve probably had a lot of instructor feedback and many opportunities to review other students’ writing and to have them review yours, you may not have learned much about how to make revision choices related to such feedback. To help you learn about making choices, I present my own argumentative essay that I developed from my students’ feedback, and I analyze my decision-making processes as a model for you.

    In this chapter, you’ll see various stages of an in-progress essay:

    1. Choosing among topics
    2. Brainstorming
    3. Writing an initial, or “zero,” draft
    4. Writing a preliminary draft that is intended to be revised
    5. Using student feedback to revise
    6. Completing a presentation draft
    7. Considering how to make these processes work for you

    The drafts, feedback, and commentary demonstrate how you can develop an essay from early thinking to preliminary writing to presentation-quality writing. Although there are many other ways to write an essay, this model may give you some ideas for your own writing. In addition, don’t be surprised if you need more drafts for your essays than you see presented here. This essay was a short one (for me), and so I was able to revise fairly thoroughly in one step. However, a longer project usually takes me many drafts and many feedback rounds to develop fully.

    My essay was developed much like your essays are even though I’m a more experienced writer. My assignment was to write an argument, so I was constrained by the genre’s requirements. The argument needed to state a position (my assertion or thesis) and had to support that position with good reasons and sufficient evidence to substantiate those reasons. I had a choice of topics, but I didn’t have complete freedom to write about just anything I wanted. The topic I ultimately chose was one that I was interested in but knew little about, so I needed to do a lot of research. Because my class was taught in a completely online setting and because I was working from home, I didn’t have a physical library to go to, so I used my university’s library search engines and the Internet for my research. Finally, I had only four work days to begin and complete a preliminary draft for student review; the process took twelve solid work hours.

    My Students' Suggested Writing Topics

    To figure out what I would write about, I asked my students to suggest an assignment for me. As the example topics show, some them were pretty mundane—easy to do, but insubstantial and, frankly, boring. Other topics were substantial, but difficult to research and write about thoughtfully in just four days for the class. Finally, one student suggested a topic that captured my interest and that of other students; peers added their questions, and I knew this was the topic I wanted to address even though I knew little about it.

    Students’ Suggested Topics

    • Write about a cell phone charger. I had a teacher in high school that would pick random things every class and make us write about it for 10 minutes to “warm up” our brains. I hated those assignments.
    • Why are liquid laundry detergents superior to powdered detergents?
    • Does modern technology make life better and more convenient?
    • How will the recent election of President Barack Obama affect race relations in the U.S.?
    • What are your thoughts and opinions on adoptions by homosexual couples?
    • Nadya Suleman gave birth to octuplets. Should the doctors have advised her against in vitro fertilization since she’s not financially stable to take care of all of those children? If she does end up on welfare should taxpayers be outraged? At what point or if at any should the government step-in in situations such as this?
      • One angle to look at this sort of story is whether humans should impregnate themselves with “litters” of babies.
      • Personally, I would also like to know what doctor would inseminate this woman without [who didn’t have] the funds to do so. It makes me wonder if he/she just wanted part of the publicity.

    When you find a topic that is interesting and challenging, you’ve probably got a good subject that will sustain your attention during the harder parts of the writing. In this case, I was fascinated by the idea of a woman giving birth to eight children and the moral questions that the students asked about this case. I wondered what the woman’s motivation was for having more children when she already had six of them, was unmarried and without a supportive partner, and unemployed.

    Notice that the interest level of the topic doesn’t guarantee an easy one to research. I chose to do quite a bit of digging into the issue because I had an “itch to know”; my curiosity was sufficient reason for me to do this work. Although school assignments may not seem this way, the motive behind research is—or should be—the genuine need or desire to answer a question for which you don’t have the answer but about which you really want to know more.

    My topic choice also took into consideration that my students would be writing an essay that supports a position during the semester. I wanted to write a similar type of essay that would provide a model for them at that time in their writing development. Thus, choosing my topic was connected to the rhetorical situation of my teaching these students to write arguments that are designed to convince audiences.


    One way that writers can find ideas is commonly called “brainstorming.” While there are many ways to find ideas, brainstorming is popular because writers often learn how to do it by such strategies as journaling, listing thoughts, and circling and connecting ideas.

    To brainstorm my essay topic, I developed a series of questions that interested me. I also did some preliminary research. Although I didn’t list where that research came from in my notes here, I did list them on my original notes so I could be sure to credit my sources with their ideas and words.


    • Octuplets = irresponsibility?
    • Selfishness?
    • Freak of non-nature?
    • Potential for abuse of children
    • How the children will/may grow up
    • Include stats
      • The increase in multiple births in the past 29 years clearly is due to supplemental fertilization methods like invitro fertilization (IVF). Increase of rates XYZ.
    • Newborn octuplets have taken the world by surprise and gotten our attention: how were they conceived (IVF), who is the mother and why would she have asked to have so many embryos implanted (six other children, divorced and single, no job, on disability, lives with mother)—what about them?
      • Multiple birth children are exploited; humans not made to have litters; how do we care for all these children? Sensationalism: TV, movies, books, Quintland. Can we predict the ramifications for the children? Yes. Dionne quintuplets; Jon/Kate + 8
    • Assertion? As the rate of multiple births increases due to various fertility treatments, we must be thoughtful about the possibility that children of such births will be exploited by their parents and a curious society. (curiosity, money, nurturing) (to insist on protecting these kids would be a persuasive paper)
    • Assertion? As fertility treatments increase the rate of multiple births, the potential for both parents and society to exploit these children also increases.

    Notice that while I just listed some ideas, my notes show that I also began my research. First, I needed to learn about the topic, which is to earn an “informed opinion,” and then I could express that informed opinion through a thesis, or assertion. I wrote two possible assertions at this early stage. They helped me to narrow down what I believed I wanted to argue.

    Initial, or Zero, Draft

    After brainstorming, many people write an initial draft, which I am calling a zero draft. The zero draft gets the writing started and generally isn’t going to be ready for others to see. This draft is a great way to begin because you don’t have to be neat and tidy or super correct sentence-wise. Since this draft just begins to organize ideas, a zero draft should never be turned in as a completed draft for grading; trust me—these drafts just aren’t ready for prime time. Zero drafts also tend to be fairly useless in a peer response session, so write a complete preliminary draft for that purpose. Unless your instructor asks you to provide it, this draft is yours alone. Return to it as you write your preliminary draft to keep track of how your earliest ideas are developing. You’ll be interested in seeing whether your preliminary draft follows these early ideas or veers from them.

    Zero Draft

    For demonstration purposes, I’m showing you only one paragraph of my zero draft. It provides the barest details of what the first paragraph of my preliminary draft would become. Don’t worry if my zero draft looks stronger than one of yours might. I write professionally and I teach writing—it’s natural that I would get a good start. When you look at the preliminary draft, however, you’ll see that I can do much better! The assertion, which is the last sentence in both examples, is much more focused in the preliminary draft than it is in the zero draft

    For people who really become stuck or “blocked” when beginning to write an essay, the combination of some brainstorming and a zero draft can get you started writing fairly painlessly. If you’re really stuck, just take some of your brainstorming ideas and begin writing without looking at the paper or screen. Take time to begin developing your thinking before worrying about whether it makes much sense. As long as you take time for writing additional drafts, this zero draft process will be helpful.

    Preliminary Draft

    How does this first paragraph change in the preliminary draft? As we can see from the example preliminary draft that follows, the argument becomes more fully fleshed out. It contains more detail in general and it uses various source citations for authority. One of the reasons that I included these citations was to give my readers a sense that I had earned an informed opinion. My process before writing this next draft was to deepen my knowledge of the topic through more research and to try to express my informed opinion through a coherent assertion. Throughout the entire argumentative essay, I needed to support that opinion so that readers could be convinced that it is reasonable. Readers didn’t have to agree with me or with each other for my argument to be successful. Because people argue only about those things for which there is no definite or single position, it isn’t possible to get everyone in my audience to agree with me—which is why my readers only needed to find the argument reasonable.

    Let’s look now at the complete preliminary draft. After I finished this draft, I posted it for my students to review. Their feedback is shown in the right hand column. At various places in this draft, I make a break and respond to the comments to show my thinking and decision making process. Since I’m writing this chapter for you months after teaching this particular class, I provide you with some hindsight thinking as well.

    Bold text shows what I added to the preliminary draft in response to student feedback and my own developing thinking. A strikethrough shows what I deleted in revision. If you can imagine that these changes were all accepted, then you have a good sense of what the presentation draft looked like. Notice that the revision was fairly substantial in that I addressed what I considered to be most important: content, organization, and sentence-level issues in that order.

    Preliminary Draft and Tracked Changes

    The first revision change I made was in response to Student 1’s comment, which was a good catch on his part. It’s surprising that such a small change as adding a date to an event can contextualize an entire argument. In this case, I substituted the actual date of the octuplets’ birth, which makes the piece understandable in the future.

    Student 2’s feedback clearly indicated that there was a potential misunderstanding of the thesis, or argumentative assertion. This argument opens with an anecdote about a mother of octuplets, which doesn’t mean that this mother is necessarily its subject. The assertion appears in the last sentence of the opening paragraph, a common place for a thesis in a short essay. This essay’s goal is to support the position that exploiting multiple children harms them by skewing their experience of family and emotionally harming them. Notice that the goal is broader than just Suleman’s case, as indicated by the word “example” in the third from the last sentence. In order to further help readers to understand that Suleman isn’t the topic, I deleted detailed information about her that might have caused some readers to think the argument is all about her. I moved that information to later in the essay when I talk about Suleman as an example of an exploitative parent.

    Student 3 found my uses of language to be somewhat informal on various occasions. I didn’t always agree with this reader’s advice; for example, there’s nothing wrong with beginning a paragraph with a question, but she was right that I was being informal in a way that she wasn’t being taught to be informal in most of her college writing. To that end, I eliminated the initial paragraph question and created a sentence that was somewhat more precise.

    I had to agree with Student 1’s remark that wasn’t a strong source. I knew that fact when I first used the source, and I searched the Internet and the library search engines for something more authoritative. I wasn’t able to find a better source, but I think that if I had talked to a librarian about these statistics, I probably would have done better. My way of trying to mitigate possible problems from using this source was to make sure that I used the available statistics well from the preliminary draft onward; the rest of the paragraph demonstrates how I used this source.

    On the whole, this paragraph seems out of place in the sense that it doesn’t directly deal with the assertion. To some degree, I think that is what Student 4 was indicating. Yet, the information also seems necessary as context. In a longer essay, this paragraph (and even more contextual material) might come in a section called “Background.” I thought a lot about the student’s advice; I tried moving this material to another place in the argument, and I also tried deleting it altogether. Finally, I decided it was needed information and I left it where it was.

    These two paragraphs are fairly intimately connected in terms of content, so let’s look at them together. I added the information about the challenges of multiple births here and in paragraphs found below to satisfy readers like Students 1 and 4, who needed more information and wanted better transitions. Throughout the revised essay, I used their advice and added more detailed material wherever it seemed useful. Pointing me to the need for strong transitions was especially good advice. When I write early drafts, I don’t worry much about transitions because I know that my organization of certain material will change and that I’ll insert appropriate transitional later. I like it when students notice that the “glue” that holds an essay together is missing.

    Student 5 really wanted some statistics and other evidence of my argument’s main points. I agreed that I needed to find more statistical proof to support a point about the unnatural nature of multiple births. Doing so would have helped to show why people are so interested in them. This paragraph also has background material that I used to get to the heart of my thesis: that there’s disruptiveness about multiple birth children’s and parents’ lives. It provides a reason for why people respond so intrusively to multiple births. But the feedback is well-taken. This material needed authoritative support—not statistics necessarily—but pertinent thoughts about human behavior around multiple birth children.

    The final sentence of the second paragraph takes the background information and links it to the assertion. Unfortunately, this technique didn’t work for some of my student readers who were already confused about the thesis—wrongly believing it was about Suleman alone. I left this sentence intact because I believed that the other changes to the essay would make this thesis link more obvious in the presentation draft.

    For those who are curious about methods for arguing an assertion like this one, at the end of this second paragraph, I reasoned from the lesser to the greater: if something is true at a smaller number (twins, triplets), it also will be true at a higher number (sextuplets, octuplets). I’ll say more about such reasoning later in this chapter.

    Although Student 6 believed that opening the next paragraph with the words “an historical example” was unnecessary, I thought the idea of history was quite important because I also used two contemporary examples. Instead of deleting the sentence as advised, I added material to help make that connection: “because it demonstrates that multiple births can be problematic even when they arise from natural causes.”

    It’s helpful to remember that “positive” criticism like that from Student 5 can be useful to writers by reinforcing what they are doing well. In this case, the example of the Dionne children is reasoning from past fact to future fact: what happened in the past will happen in the future. Some student readers, like Student 7, were unconvinced because the situation was a little different in the 1930s. Yet, the quintuplets from natural birth were just as much a curiosity in the 1930s as octuplets or sextuplets from IVF birth are in the twenty-first century. Additionally, the financial issues that the Dionne parents experienced are similar to the two main cases I cited. Finally, the “zoo” atmosphere of the Dionne quintuplets certainly can be compared to the television screen that gives the world a peek into the Gosselin sextuplets (discussed later in the essay) and the Suleman octuplets. For these reasons, I left the historical example intact and developed it even more.

    In the second paragraph of this set, I restated the assertion. This paragraph and the following one directly support the thesis, which, as you recall, isn’t about Suleman, but about the potential exploitation of all multiple birth children. These causes of death for the Dionne adults are suggestive evidence of the health problems I noted earlier in the essay about multiple birth children, for example.

    This third paragraph particularly makes a transition from the past to the present. I made changes to address level of formality appropriate to what my students also were writing. But I also added material about another set of multiple birth children that may not be as famous because they are not always in the public eye. Despite the major excitement of their birth as the first set of octuplets ever recorded (one died shortly after birth), the Chukwu octuplets appear to be living fairly normal lives. It is here that I use an argumentative strategy of providing a counterargument. A counterargument is an acknowledgment that there are valid points of view other than the one I argue; acknowledging (and sometimes refuting) counterarguments can increase my ethos, or believability, as a writer. I needed to provide evidence that I’ve considered assertions other than my own and that my position still is the most reasonable. This brief material about the Chukwu family (and later the McCaughey septuplets) counterargues that multiple birth children don’t have to be exploited. After admitting this fact, however, I return to my argument in the next paragraph and reveal yet another example of exploited famous multiples: the Gosselins.

    The evidence provided in the next two paragraphs might be called arguing from anecdote (story), but really it’s a continuation of argument from past (to present) to future fact. It can be a very convincing technique because people tend to believe that what was possible in the past is possible again in the present or future. Part of reasoning from past fact to future fact is bringing in recent and current examples. It’s impossible to accurately predict the future, but it’s possible to suggest how the future might develop based on current events.

    When I was writing this essay in early 2009, for example, the parents of the Gosselin children (Jon and Kate) appeared to be happily married. In the short months between writing my essay and using it to write this chapter for you, the Gosselin adults have become common faces in print and TV media tabloids as Jon has admitted to adultery and has taken on a playboy persona, and Kate has aired their problems publically and filed for divorce. Their children are sometimes photographed looking confused and sad. For all of that, the network has continued the television show for some time, suggesting that this divorce is just a normal part of the children’s lives. Anecdotally, I think readers who are children of divorce would not have wanted television cameras filming their experiences and emotions as they adjusted to the new family situation. Similarly, in early 2010, Suleman contracted to begin a reality show with her currently-one year-old octuplets. If I were revising this essay today, I’d certainly be adding this material as proof of exploitation of the Gosselin children’s painful home life and the Suleman children’s lack of privacy.

    Student 8 still wasn’t convinced that the argument was reasonable. Fair enough. We can’t convince everyone to take our position in an argument although we can present reasonable evidence. One student suggested that I use the case of child celebrities to show how innocent children can be ruined by exploitation and publicity. In a longer revised essay, I would seriously consider that argument from analogy.

    Students 6 expressed a need for more direct connections among the past, present, and future. That was the difficulty of my argument from the outset because I was writing it only weeks after the Suleman octuplets were born. All I could do at this point was to predict, but my prediction wasn’t a far stretch given that the infants already were on camera as a way to exonerate the mother’s choice and to make money for her. Multiple sources revealed that she had received money to buy a much larger house and that she had daily outside assistance with the children. Contemporary sources confirm those facts and certainly much more evidence could be provided now that the babies are more than one-year old.