A retired master teacher of English and Comparative Literature teams up with his son, a History professor, on a new version of the writing manual he wrote and used for decades at the University of California, Davis.
Getting Started WritingAnxiety is the writer’s first obstacle. We often wonder, “what can I write that hasn’t already been written by someone else, and probably much better?” As you can see, we (the two authors of this handbook) are already on the way to overcoming this anxiety simply by writing a section heading and two sentences (now three). However, we’re still anxious about doing a good job and making this a useful tool that you’ll benefit from reading. 1: Analyzing Texts, Taking NotesFirst of all, what is a text? For our purposes, a text is any statement you run into in this class. Anything you read, of course. But a lecture is also often a text. Even a discussion can be, if people have prepared their arguments. You should be thinking about texts, analyzing them all the time. Don’t passively accept what you’re told or what you read. Ask questions, compare what you’re reading or hearing with things you’ve heard before, things you’ve read, things you believe. 2: Discovering a Topic, Preparing for DiscussionThe texts you’ll need to work with at this level of your education are probably givens. In English they are often the “classics,” books that informed readers consider the most significant of their time. In History we also have texts (primary and secondary) that are central to our understanding of an event or a period. The process of becoming a classic is interesting and involves both the innumerable readings the texts have undergone and the ongoing construction of our common culture. 3: Creating a ThesisYou’ve probably been told by writing teachers that if the topic is the main idea, then the thesis is the main idea statement. You develop your topic, which was a word or a phrase (your subject), into a sentence (your subject plus a predicate, or what you have to say about it). But that’s not enough if you want the satisfaction of creating a fine thing, or if you want to present your reader with an essay worth reading. 4: Ordering Evidence, Building an ArgumentWhen you’re given a writing assignment in an English or History class, you’re being called on to interpret, evaluate, appreciate, condemn, praise – but, above all, to think. An essay, in that sense, is just like being called on in class. You’re being asked to say something thoughtful about the topic at hand. So just as you would in a face-to-face conversation, you’ll want to stick to the point and offer your response in a way that is understandable and that puts your ideas in the best possible l 5: Coherent ParagraphsThis brings us to the well-known (but apparently not well enough known) paragraph: the basic unit of composition. The traditional and still useful rule that a paragraph must have unity, coherence, andemphasis only means that it must make sense, that the sentences should fit together smoothly, and that not all the sentences function in the same way. 6: Effective SentencesThe common-sense question to ask about writing is: How well does it work? In order to answer that, we should first consider two other questions: What does it intend to do? To whom is it addressed? A writer’s purpose and audience quite naturally help to determine style, and we shouldn’t be surprised to find Stendahl’s writing often looking like the second example and White’s writing like the first – when appropriate. 7: Appropriate WordsPhilosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein claimed “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” While it may not always be necessary for you to expand your world in order to complete an essay assignment, it is important to choose appropriate words. Remember that in addition to trying to earn some respect for your argument, you are always trying to hold onto and focus your reader’s attention. 8: RevisingJust as proportion in your overall structure will help your reader follow your argument more easily, attention to the details of sentences and words will win their respect and help insure they will seriously consider your argument. Revising and editing your writing—as many times as it takes—is the hard work that produces a style. Handbooks and manuals like this one or Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style can set you on the right path. 9: Revision ChecklistUse this as a guide while revising and editing your essay.