Writing Advice

Writing Advice

The suggestions that follow--gleaned from writing books and experience--are suggestions to help improve your papers. Prof. Grossman

Patterns & Questions

The patterns that you notice as you read, such as an event that repeats in different ways or even a character's reaction, can form the basis of a paper. Mark these patterns in your book. Look for shifting repetitions and connections between scenes, characters, images, even specific words.

The questions that occur to you as you read or sit in class can be part of your writing process. Write them down. They reveal what interests you. Good questions also show your opinion, what you are questioning and disagreeing with, and therefore may form the beginnings of your paper.

Once you begin writing, you can also think of your paper as answering a question. You need to ensure that the answer your paper is giving isn't obvious or one that everyone would agree on immediately. Ask of your thesis: "so what?" Are you teaching something? Like a response to a real and not a rhetorical question, your paper should be a convincing argument.


Freewriting means spouting your ideas, pondering textual quotations, or saying anything you feel like saying for a certain amount of space (perhaps a page or two) or time (maybe twenty minutes). You freewrite without regard to coherence, punctuation, or stupidity of thought.

After you are done, then you can look over what you have and decide if any worthwhile ideas surfaced. Something worthwhile almost always appears in the student freewrites I have seen. Be sure to read and re-read your freewrite carefully and energetically. Please feel free to hand in freewrites attached to your paper; they can only help me to read your paper and will never bring a grade down. (We can also go over freewrites together before you hand in a paper.)

Topic & Thesis

Usually papers have topics that are too broad. If your topic is too big, then you will be unable to analyze, to get into the nitty-gritty of what you are arguing. If you find yourself listing, your paper is probably on too broad a topic. A big topic does not mean a big idea; a careful reading of one line of text on a very specific topic could suggest an entirely different way of reading a novel.

A thesis describes the point that you are making about the topic. A topic becomes a thesis by adding your opinion, your critical thought. For example, a topic is the sexuality of Ebenezer Scrooge, but a thesis might argue that though Scrooge is usually asexual, when he travels into the past, he is transformed by a sexualized, nostalgic vision of childhood.

...And Always Most Important: Close Reading, Close Reading, Close Reading

A close reading is a specific term for analyzing and interpreting novels, movies, advertisements, newspapers, t.v. shows, book jackets, photographs, almost anything that represents really. One way to do a close reading is described below, but to understand what close reading is watch how the texts are handled in class and read through a sample paper.

  1. Choose a passage from the text that you find particularly interesting (probably not one that summarizes the story or the plot).
  2. Introduce the quotation with a comment about how it fits with your topic or thesis.
  3. Duplicate the passage in your paper.
  4. Continue to write about the passage in detail. You might pay attention to its details or consider how it is constructed. You should note at least two 'facts' about the quotation, neither of which repeat its immediate meaning.
  5. Analyze! Speculate about what you notice in the quotation. Interpret! How do you make sense of it?
In other words, a close reading means that you linger over one aspect of the text that interests you, rather than trying to cover the entire story. You slow down and observe carefully. A good close-reading will reveal aspects of the text that you did not notice before and lead you to an informed opinion on the text.

Out, damned lines, out!

An outline unfortunately suggests that the paper that will be written is nothing more than the filling in of an outline, a sort of coloring between lines. The effective outlining that occurs before a paper is written usually works as another space of writing, where thinking, erasing, and thinking-again occurs.

Some sort of outline, even just a few key words and arrows indicating where you are headed, ensures your paper some coherence, though you should never hesitate to throw out an outline.

Outlining a paper after a draft is written can be more effective than doing an outline before you write. Contrary to what most people are taught, there are lots of different ways to outline a paper. Here are two useful ways:

  1. A Sentence Outline
    Write a sentence for each section of the paper describing what you are planning to accomplish. e.g. In the first section, I will emphasize writing as a process.
  2. The Thesis from Hell
    Write one tortured sentence that is divided into phrases that indicate the sections and plan of your paper. An excellent form to fill in is:
    ALTHOUGH blah and bleh, NEVERTHELESS this and that, BECAUSE reason one, reason two, reason three.
    This sentence will be difficult to write and extremely ungainly, but it will help you ensure that you have a thesis as well as an outline. This method works excellently, but don't plug this ugly sentence into your paper.

D.N.R.: Drafts 'n Revisions, or Do Not Resuscitate

Though working on papers again and again can feel like performing surgery on a corpse, you should do it.

As you experiment with incorporating revision into your writing process, you may eventually find that revision has only a little to do with correcting and, cornily enough, everything to do with "re-vision."

Elbow, Peter. Writing With Power.  New York:  Oxford UP, 1981.
Flower, Linda. Problem Solving Strategies for Writing. San Diego: 
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1985.
Garrett-Goodyear, Joan et al. Writing Papers:  A Handbook for 
Students at Smith College.Smith College, 1980.