Believe it or not, the biggest (and most significant) challenge of writing a course paper, thesis or dissertation is not getting the tables, figures, abstract and appendix in correct formats and in the right places, with the spacing and page headings just right. Professional formats and conventions make your work look professional and in control, but they don’t necessary mean that it is professional and in control.
Your professors and graduate chair will ensure that your work is good. Chapter 1 will help you make it look good; the purpose of this chapter is to make it sound good. Robert Sternberg of Yale University made this observation:
I have discovered that whereas it is usually easy to distinguish well-presented good ideas from well-presented bad ideas, it is often impossible to distinguish poorly presented good ideas from poorly presented bad ideas. . . . If an idea is presented in a sloppy, disorganized fashion, how is one to know whether this fashion of presentation reflects the quality of the idea or merely the quality of its presentation.
So, the quality of presentation can be as enhancing—or as damaging—as the quality of the work itself. Unfortunately, there is no formula for making your presentation accurate, coherent, and accessible.
A mindset that has become popular with professional writers and writing teachers during recent years might be helpful to you in conceptualizing and dealing with writing tasks. It’s actually a classification: writing is a craft. A versatile writer and writing theorist named Donald Graves (1985) explained it this way, “A craft is a process of shaping material toward an end” (p. 6). View yourself as a craftsperson with a large mass of facts, literature, precedent, and study data. You are shaping that material to present it to a particular audience for a significant purpose. If you approach your task with this sort of orientation, you may find that some of those shaping and perfecting processes seem to make more sense.
Why does a sculptor sketch and model before taking on a block of marble? In order to fulfill the potential of the marble and the artist, strokes must be purposeful and accurate. Haphazard slicing will not produce beauty and grace. It won’t produce a coherent thesis or dissertation either. Careful planning is necessary in order to maximize the potential of your materials and your talents.
Don’t just hack through your data. Plan purposefully how you will form it into an effective product.
Yes, I know teachers have been preaching to you about outlines for years. There must be a reason for this, since outlining is a topic that is not any more fun to teach than to listen to. Outlining is hard, and it is usually time consuming. But ultimately its value in time efficiency and quality assurance is well worth what you put into it.
An outline really is a way of exploring patterns and relationships.
Yes, information has shape—logic of form and proportion, just as visual art, music, and poetry do. And people respond, consciously or subconsciously, to shape and rhythm in the flow of information, just as they do in the arts.
If you are doing an article or a course paper, find your shape by looking at your purpose and the information you have to develop it.
For a thesis or dissertation, the overall shape provided by the chapters may be determined for you. If you have done an experiment, the shape of some of your sections will be predetermined as well. Be careful in setting up the structure of your dissertation according to the basic pattern and the headings given you by your chair.
Choose content and shape for the introduction.
Sometimes introductory subsections are garbled because writers forget that information needs a shape and pattern that generate a purposeful sequence. Decide before you begin drafting what needs to be established in your introductory section and what would be the natural sequence for presenting it. A few common patterns are given to illustrate:
Work out developmental subsections.
The subsections that develop each of the important aspects of your pattern should be separate, mutually exclusive, and logically sequenced. After you have worked out your pattern, sort your references, inferences, and conclusions accordingly. If you have a database or sorter for your notes, let this mechanical servant help you out. If not, you are your own sorter or database. Perform this function before, not after, you get into the thick of drafting. Again, a few fairly typical examples are offered:
No, this isn’t a senseless torture invented by English teachers. Expressing each section and subsection as a subject/predicate sentence forces you to bring the information together as a distinct concept, not a vague designation of territory. When you force yourself to express things in terms of conclusions and relationships, you think in these terms, and you can test out their logic and support structures.
The more complete and specific form of expression helps your professors and/or your graduate committee to understand more accurately what you are learning and how you are putting the work together. It’s difficult for faculty to advise and support you if they know only basic subjects in each section but not the ideas and conclusions you are forming from them.
Now that you have worked out your structure and expressed your sequence of ideas, data, evidence, and conclusions in the form of complete statements, you (and your graduate committee) can examine them critically. During these organizing steps you have solved several problems that would otherwise nag at you and drag you down throughout the drafting process:
Contrary to popular opinion, headings and subheadings are not merely a formality or an afterthought in your writing. They can be among your strongest tools for controlling your own work and for making it accessible to others.
Many people construct headings and subheadings mechanically and somewhat thoughtlessly because they do not understand what headings and subheadings should do.
Avoid these common errors:
If you are very skilled (and lucky), then headings/subheadings that are placed and constructed in random fashion may still be of some use to your readers--but only if you do them unusually well. Use of headings/subheadings can be a powerful tool if recognized and used properly.
Aim toward these aspects of functionality:
The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (2010) states that headings and subheadings should “establish the hierarchy of the sections via format or appearance.” They can do this because “all topics of equal importance have the same level of heading throughout a manuscript" (p. 62). You made the decisions in these areas as you prepared your outline. Thus, the outline becomes the guide to heading/subheading construction.
Heading placement reflects the sequence and development of your ideas. Let your outline guide you in placing headings and subheadings. Following is a very general and flexible guide.
Roman Numerals (I, II, III)
Overall pattern of chapter, article, paper etc.
Capital letters (A,B, C)
Pattern of ideas within the section
Supporting and developing materials
More detailed breakdown of support patterns
Each new level of subheadings represents a breaking down of the unit of information.
You can’t break anything down (including a pencil) and come out with just one piece. You can have two, three, seven, or even fifty, but you don’t break to one. Thus, each time you break to a new level of subheadings, be sure that you have at least two. If you only have one unit to deal with, don’t break down. You do not have to have the same number of levels for every section.
Construct headings as fragments, not questions or sentences. Make them parallel grammatically within their “sets.”
ARRANGE AND FORMAT HEADINGS ACCORDING TO APA INSTRUCTIONS
APA format uses five levels of headings. The number of levels you use will depend on the complexity and the length of your thesis/dissertation chapter, article, book chapter, document, etc.
Layers of headings and subheadings are a guide to the way you layer meaning.
Some writers like to use brief transitional paragraphs between sections. This establishes a smooth relationship between sections, reminds the reader of pattern of development, and reviews what went on in the previous section—for those who have become a little drowsy.
Though a transitional paragraph is not a personal statement, the author reveals his or her own thinking regarding the relationships—an important aspect for students who want to reveal the depth of their own synthesis of ideas.
Within sections and paragraphs, additional transitions are needed to keep things orderly and to make the purpose and relationships behind the sequences clear. They are not as large, but they reflect ways the writer sees patterns and interprets relationships.
Within paragraphs small, simple signals help to signal relationships and make things fit logically together.
first, second, third etc.
in spite of
at the same time
There is no formula for transition. Most of us use too little transition because we assume too much concerning our reader’s knowledge of the topic and ability to make connections. What feels like too much to the writer is generally what is required for the reader. An English professor once explained to a graduate student that if she felt like she was putting signs on the doors of the rooms in her house, she was probably using transition about the way she should (Glade Hunsaker, personal communication to graduate student, 2000).
The paragraph is the basic unit of meaning that you use in research and other academic writing—and in most other types of writing, for that matter. You may not think very much about paragraphs when you are writing a letter, a journal, or a personal essay—they just seem to flow naturally. But paragraphing techniques are more important and need to be more deliberate when you are writing an academic paper, an article, a thesis or a dissertation because information is more complex and easier to misunderstand.
Following are some questions that are often asked—consciously or subconsciously—about paragraphing.
The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (2010) states that paragraphs should not be shorter than two sentences or longer than a full page. In general practice writers who know what they are doing can make very effective use of a one-sentence paragraph, and many lawyers, novelists and social scientists can produce paragraphs longer than a page that they think are coherent and accessible. However, when in APA territory, you need to follow APA instructions.
The most important thing to remember about paragraphing is that a paragraph is a purposeful unit. As different paragraphs will have different purposes, they will have different lengths. A paragraph is the right length when it has fulfilled its purpose.
A nice little quotation that has been passed around so much that no one can remember who originated it says, “A paragraph is like a skirt. It should be long enough to cover the subject, but short enough to still be interesting.”
As noted in the section on transition, sometimes the purpose of a paragraph will be transition. Such a paragraph may be only two or three sentences. A similarly short paragraph may be used to isolate a particular point for emphasis. Some people will isolate the thesis or purpose statement, along with necessary explanations and definitions, resulting in a very short paragraph that calls special attention by its appearance as well as by its lack of developmental detail.
Most paragraphs are developmental. They take a particular portion of ideas/information and develop it to the extent required to be clear and convincing (long enough to cover the subject) but avoid adding so much bulk that it’s overburdened (short enough to still be interesting). In a narrative or descriptive paragraph, the details generally come together naturally without the writer consciously composing a topic sentence and comparing the selection of details against it. In academic writing, however, information is complex and often technical. Paragraphs that are not composed with a controlling sentence often wander aimlessly around both the writer’s and the readers’ minds.
It can be placed anywhere in the paragraph, but the most common area is within the first three sentences so that it gives maximum control to both the writer and the reader. A writer who places the defining statement early is staring at it while composing the paragraph—this “visual aid” makes it harder to stray off the topic. A reader who sees the topic sentence early understands from the beginning why the information has been selected and how it comes together to make its point.
Crafting—definitely crafting! In a good percentage of cases, there are different ways that information can be grouped as units. With practice you will learn to spot options as you draft.
Obviously these are very common situations that require a decision. In each, either one relatively long unit or two or three relatively short units could be justified logically. In these or dozens of comparable situations, the decision is yours as the author. You might want to take a couple of decision factors into consideration:
Short paragraphs are more emphatic. Just as isolating one face and a few details makes the face stand out more, isolating one study, one side of a comparison, one reason, one cause, etc. makes it stand out with more impact.
Long paragraphs emphasize interrelationships. By grouping things within a paragraph, you cause the reader to process them together, without a visual (and thus mental) break. Content is processed together and thus stored and naturally retrieved together. The reader remembers the unifying point.
Thus you might ask these questions: (1) “Do I want to emphasize the characteristics of the individual studies or do I want to emphasis the shared conclusion?” (2) “Do I want to emphasize the individual strategies, or do I want to emphasize the similarities or the differences?”
Thus, you might ask questions such as these:
As for the case study, a student once included a case study that ran a page and a half, and she put it all in one paragraph. It was a killer! A paragraph shouldn’t go over a page, and very few should go over half to two-thirds of a page. If you find yourself with a lot of chokingly long paragraphs, you may want to try to reprogram your mind to think in shorter units.
Fitting pieces together in a paragraph is like putting together pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Pieces are separate units, yet they need to come together to form a complete picture.
You need to discern the basic relationship of the pieces and then manipulate them carefully to discover which notch goes in which indentation to make the picture come together smoothly.
Sometimes we find the diverse elements that make up paragraph content are kind of loosely distributed within the boundaries of the topic sentence—sort of like putting together the puzzle border and then throwing the pieces at random in the middle. If not anchored to the topic sentence and attached satisfactorily to each other, they are going to be loose and disconnected—both in the writer’s mind and in the reader’s consciousness. If the paragraph has been planned purposefully, the information relates up—you just need to make those relationships clearly evident. There are several techniques and strategies you can use to do this:
Develop things completely enough that connections can be understood and processed.
Here is a paragraph full of loose, independent pieces:
With additional information, the pieces become meaningful and the connections become clear.
The relationship of the pieces is in the notches and indentations. Transitional words and phrases express these relationships.
Here’s the sample revised paragraph again. This time the notches (a.k.a. transitions) are highlighted rather than the extensions.
It’s sort of like repeating colors or other thematic elements as a key to understanding the way parts fit into a picture.
You don’t have to read the paragraph again, just look at what is highlighted this time.
Strategies and techniques for improving organization and coherence in your writing are like strategies and techniques involved in most other craft and skill areas; they may seem a little artificial and somewhat overwhelming at first, but they become easier and more natural as you practice them. As principles of visual design, techniques for a musical instrument, or movements applied in athletic skills gradually become part of the way you deal with the materials, the organization and coherence strategies gradually become an unconscious (or at least semiconscious) part of the way you do informational writing.
Work out your organization through your outline before starting to draft. Doing this allows you to double check your thinking before you begin putting things into final word choice, and it takes off the strain of struggling with what you are going to say so you can put your full efforts into how you want to say it.
Yes, you’ll come to new insights as you draft, and you’ll want to shift a few things around and incorporate new ideas and conclusions. Deeper and more creative application of material is one of the benefits of the language process. But you can handle changes more easily and naturally if you have basic control.
Let yourself draft fairly freely. If you’re aware of the need for topic sentences and transition, these things will come fairly naturally as you write, since you have worked out the relationships previously and are able to think in terms of them. Get a friend, spouse, or coworker to read over your draft—or sections of it—to tell you where there are gaps. Your spouse is in a completely different major?—that’s fine, preferable in fact. Someone closely related to your area of study may mentally fill in the gaps for you. An outsider who is grappling with your meaning will notice them. Be sure you choose someone who will be critically honest with you.
Don‘t get too tensed up. Lay out your materials, take a deep breath, and get to work.
This content is provided to you freely by BYU Open Learning Network.
Access it online or download it at https://open.byu.edu/apa/crafts_puzzles.