In our first week of classes, ENG 131 students were asked to fill out a notecard with questions after receiving the syllabus and reviewing the rhetorical situation, which was new information to most. Rather than answering each question individually in class, I’ve compiled them here as a reference.
Q: How many rough drafts are necessary for a good paper?
A: There’s not actually a definite answer for this! People draft differently, some preferring to work in a single document, writing and rewriting their paragraphs, adding information, rewording sentences. Others prefer to write a draft, print it out, get feedback from a friend, tutor, or teacher, and create a new document, saving a separate record of every attempt. I would also argue that drafts don’t always exist on paper at first. Sometimes, I draft in my head by visualizing what I want to write, and it helps me avoid writer’s block. In short, several rough drafts. Plan ahead. Start thinking about your assignment before you sit down to write. Experiment with prewriting strategies. Time and intention are what’s essential here.
For futher reading, I highly recommend Anne Lamott’s “Shitty First Drafts.”
Q: When you have a stance can you argue and agree on some things?
A: Yes! You’ll find that most arguments appear polarized (opposite sides arguing against each other), but more productive conversations take place in the gray area between. This means that it is possible, and good, to take on a topic and engage with what works and what doesn’t. It’s likely that your audience will be more willing to hear you out if you can demonstrate an understanding of your opposition (even if you don’t explicitly agree with any of your opponent’s points). That said, it might also be useful to imagine a form of argument that isn’t about tearing your opponent down, or even about agreeing or disagreeing, but about pointing out a problem or a point that should be considered. If we can detach ourselves from the need to “win” an argument, we’ll probably find that the issues themselves are much more nuanced. For example, if we want to argue about whether or not birth control should be provided to minors without parental consent, we might discover that the problem isn’t in whether or not to provide a pharmaceutical, but about how we approach sex ed as a whole.
Q: What if you struggle coming up with things to write about, like writer’s block?
A: Writer’s block is the worst, and it happens to everyone, even people who have been writing successfully for a long time. Sometimes it helps to try and analyze the situation: do you have writer’s block because you’re nervous or lack confidence, or because you don’t understand the material? Is it because the assignment feels unclear to you? Is it because a blank page is intimidating? Each cause will have a different solution. When I have writer’s block, it’s most often because I feel overwhelmed by the amount of information out there, and I start to feel like an imposter. I think, “I am not possibly well-informed enough to speak on this issue,” and I write some really awkward sentences that I hate, and then I get mad and walk away. Sometimes walking away helps, though, because I can get into a better space by freeing up that part of my brain that is trying to both master new content and produce a document.
It’s normal to write badly when you’re trying to write about something that is new, unfamiliar, or not interesting/not something you’re invested in. One of the best things you can do is talk through it with someone. Find a friend, a relative, a significant other, your instructor during office hours, and just have a casual conversation. Ask for clarity if you need it. Sometimes it’s easier to sort out your thoughts verbally, or to have someone say them back to you.
Q: How do I use the “rhetorical situation?” I’ve never used it before.
A: You use it to think about, or analyze, all communicative situations. Anytime you communicate whether it’s an email, a paper for a class, a text message, posts on social media, note-taking, making a playlist for the gym, and so on, a rhetorical situation exists. You always have an author/writer/speaker, a message, and an audience. Sometimes you are your own audience (i.e.: note-taking in class, diary writing at home), but I bet that even then you are making distinct choices for that communication to be successful. The big circle around the triangle we saw in class is the context: the surrounding “stuff” that influences that particular communication event. So, for example, this blog post might look something like this if I were to map it out:
Author: me. Message: answering questions that students asked. Audience: probably current students, possibly future students, also this blog is public so anyone who stumbles upon it can read and comment. Context: I’m writing it while a different class is completing an in-class essay, I’m feeling pleased with the questions asked, and am thinking about how it’s much easier to type responses in a digital space where I can link to resources than to verbally respond to each question in class. We can also identify purpose (to clarify expectations and provide practical support for students based on needs they have identified), genre (a blog post accessible on all devices, anywhere, anytime), and design (I’ve opted not to do anything fancy here, no photos, no colored text). Being aware of the rhetorical situation can help you communicate more effectively.
Q: Why are introductions and conclusions the most difficult part of an essay?
A: Your introduction is meant to tell your reader where you’re going to go. Sometimes, we don’t know where we’re going until we start writing. Placeholder introductions can help with that. Write a temporary introduction. Use the first draft of your introduction to guide you, to help you see where you might be going. Conclusions, in theory, should be easier because they tell the reader where you’ve been, they wrap things up, but it’s difficult to do that without sounding repetitive, or even worse, cliché. Remember that conclusions should give your reader a meaningful sense of closure, or even a recommendation for action: in other words, what should they do with the information you gave them? And again, give yourself permission to write poorly, and allow yourself time to revisit, rework, and reimagine.
Many of you had questions about how to start a paper. Best advice: READ! Go find some good introductions and imitate them. But it also depends, as sometimes there are specific criteria an instructor might want in the introduction of a paper. If you need clarity on an instructor’s expectations, ask. Usually, in academic essays, an introduction follows an upside down triangle: general to specific, specific being the thesis. Try drafting a few variations of your introduction, though, thinking about meaningful ways to engage your audience. Find yourself a reader, too, to get some feedback. Remember that your introduction is a way to connect: it is a gesture, a “take my hand and walk me through these ideas” kind of thing. What will your audience need in order to do that?
You might be feeling a little tired of hearing “it depends,” and “yes and no,” and “sort of,” because all of that leaves you with no clear path to success, no definite series of steps designed to earn you an A. Here’s an article, written by a writing teacher with students as the audience(!!), about the act of essay-ing, titled “The Sixth Paragraph: A Re-Vision of the Essay,” that you might find useful.
Q: Are fiction and non-fiction considered genres?
A: Yes, but very broad categories of genre. Think about how sections of a bookstore or a library are categorized. Under fiction, you might see romance, mystery, teen fantasy, and anthologies. Under nonfiction, you might see poetry, essay collections, cookbooks, study guides, and biographies. Genres are categories of media that share specific features. If I handed you Twilight and told you it was a cookbook, you’d disagree, and you’d be able to explain the difference. Same with music. You know the difference between country and hip-hop. This applies to forms of written communication as well: a wedding invitation is not an assignment sheet, is not a lab report, is not an advertisement, is not an academic journal article. When you can recognize that different types of writing have different features, you can make appropriate choices to compose effectively within that genre.
Q: Will what we learn in here be applicable to all writing asked to do in college?
A: Yes and no. In this class, we’re building a foundation that helps us to analyze many types of writing/forms of communication. We’re assembling a toolbox that will help you be flexible, responsive, and aware as a writer. Because there’s not a one-size-fits-all universal formula for writing a successful essay, the only constant we can work toward is preparing you to address changing expectations and unique situations where you’ll be asked to write something. Take a look at the Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing for more on this topic.
Some questions were very specific, like how many essays do we have? What format should our papers be in? What is the final portfolio? That information can be found in your syllabus!
Further questions can be addressed to me via email or during office hours.