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Guidelines for Writing #2

Thesis Essentials:

  1. Once you have a topic, you’ll need to refine it in order to generate a more specific thesis statement.  A thesis is an argument that you will prove with specific textual evidence and discussion.  It is an opinion, or message, you want to convey about your subject.  It organizes your entire essay, so it is the most important part of your project.  In order to generate a thesis, you must ask questions.  Remember:  intellectuals think and ask questions.  Your answers can become arguments.  For instance, what aspects of the novel preoccupy you?  Is there a passage that stands out in your memory?  Why? Does the novel present a theme that excites or disturbs you?  Why?  Was there any part of class discussion that made you think?  How?  Write down your answers.  Do you see the beginnings of an argument?  If not, ask yourself more questions, and write down the answers you think are interesting and not obvious.  Compose a sentence that incorporates your answers.  Does it make sense?  If your sentence makes sense, you can move to the next step with a solid “working thesis.”
  2. Test your working thesis.  Can you identify parts that you can prove?  Avoid the obvious.  A workable thesis usually has three or four parts that require evidence from the text.  Mark and identify them.  If you cannot identify the points you will need to prove, your working thesis may be too general.  Although specificity seems like it may leave you with little to say, the more specific your argument, the more you will have to say.  Repeat step #1 until your thesis passes your test.
  3. Remember: only argue what’s relevant to your thesis.  Always keep in mind this question of what is relevant and what is not.
  4. In the body of your essay, argue only one claim at a time.  Use the topic sentences to announce the point your will prove in that paragraph.

Ten Style Tips:

These tips come from William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White’s The Elements of Style:

  1. Use the active voice. The active voice is more vigorous and direct than the passive:  “I will always remember him.”  is much stronger than, “He will always be remembered.”
  2. Put statements in positive form.  Make definite assertions:  “He usually came late,” is clear.  “He was not very often on time,” is unclear.
  3. Use definite, specific, concrete language. Always prefer the specific to the general, the definite to the vague, the concrete to the abstract:  “It rained every day for a week,” is concrete.  “A period of unfavorable weather set it,” is vague.
  4. Omit needless words.  Vigorous writing is concise.  This requires not that the writer make all sentences short, or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.  For instance, the phrase “the question as to whether…” more effectively should read, “whether…” Or, “he is a man who…” should read “he…”
  5. Avoid a succession of loose sentences.
  6. Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs. The adjective has not been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place.
  7. Avoid the use of qualifiers. Strunk and White are clear:  “Rather, very, little, pretty—these are leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words.”
  8. Revise and rewrite. Revising is part of writing.  Do not be afraid to experiment with what you have written.  Save your drafts.  It is no sign of weakness that your manuscript ends up in need of major surgery.  This is common among the best writers.
  9. Be clear. When you become hopelessly mired in a sentence, it is best to start fresh; do not try to fight your way through the terrible odds of syntax.  Break apart the cumbersome sentence, and replace it with two or more shorter sentences.
  10. Use simple language. Avoid the elaborate, the pretentious, the coy, and the cute.  Do not be tempted by a twenty-dollar word when there is a ten-center handy, ready and able.

And three more tips:

  1. Avoid contractions in formal writing.  Doesn’t becomes does not; can’t becomes cannot.
  2. Avoid plot summary.  If you find yourself describing events in a narrative for more than two sentences, stop what you are doing and consider the relevance.  Make sure your prose supports your thesis rather than fills space on the page.
  3. When writing about literature, always use the present tense.

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