American Studies Student Guide

Writing Guide

Set of guides for achieving clear, fair, and persuasive writing. It is a rather spare list designed to help you be your own editor. You can use it to refine your art of writing and in preparation for our discussion of your work. I have culled these suggestions from reading many papers (and effectively serving as students' first reader and prime editor), and I have come to think that it is better to put my suggestions for better writing in black and white at the beginning of the semester rather than only in red during the course of the semester. Numbers toward the right refer to pages in The Brief Handbook, 4th edition, edited by Laurie Kirszner and Stephen Mandell (Wadsworth, 2004), which elaborates on these suggestions and offers still more guidance for good writing.

  • thorough knowledge of the topic 
  • focused thesis, with a title to suit your purpose 1
  • persuasive arguments  
  • evaluation of facts: 
    • how?
    • why?
    • what are the implications?

  • ample examples and documentation 
  • one point for every paragraph 
  • smooth flow of ideas, and transitions: 
    • sentence to sentence
    • paragraph to paragraph
  • clear relation of parts 
  • thorough pursuit of ideas 
    • a. explanations until the whole idea is written
    • b. interpretations or demonstrations to back up opinions
  • introduction 
    • a. inform the reader of the theme
    • b. draw the reader into your viewpoint
    • c. raise a question or questions
  • conclusion 
    • a. summarize briefly
    • b. show an upshot of your point
    • c. offer an answer (or at least a response to your questions)

  • explanations
    • a. words that show relations of ideas, e.g., although, in addition, because ...
    • b. persons and things (at least briefly) identified
  • clarity
    • a. showing, in addition to telling
    • b. awkward language alert: spelling, mixed tenses, punctuation, faulty parallels, passive voice, sentence fragment ...
    • c. precise word choice (to say what you mean)
  • style
    • a. end choppy phrasing by combining, deleting, or elaborating
    • b. avoid repeated ideas or phrases by removing the repetition or by extending the argument

Becoming the best writer you can be is deceptively difficult but central to undergraduate education and at the root of being an educated person and empowered citizen in a democracy. Most students have heard about thesis statements and organization so many times that doing this work can seem elementary. Writing well is about more than mechanics (although it certainly needs those rules to build on); writing well emerges from clear thinking and will, in turn, help clarify your thinking and grow from clear thinking as well. The reasons behind the particular rules of writing are that these are ways of conveying your thoughts effectively to the reader. This may sound abstract, but it is really very practical. When college educators speak of preparing students with skills that they can apply to a variety of graduate school and work settings, writing is job 1. Thinking clearly and writing well are ground-floor skills that you can take anywhere and that will take you anywhere. And this is the ultimate goal of class time, your writing, and my grading: to help you do good work now and in the future.

The purpose of a reference is to allow other people to look at-or look up-your sources clearly. There are many different formats to use; the most important thing is to be clear and consistent. The Brief Handbook, 4th edition, edited by Laurie Kirszner and Stephen Mandell (Wadsworth, 2004), provides a good guide for both references within the text and in a works-cited list (pp. 179-205); and there are other good methods and standards. Here are a few basics (examples of a book, article, and web page)

Guide to Public Speaking

Speaker apprehension, or fear of public speaking, is normal and very widespread. Psychologists put it right up there with fear of snakes among common human fears! There are steps you can take to minimize any speaker apprehension you may have and even to make use of them to become a better speaker.

Speaking in public is not easy, but it does get easier over time and with experience. Doing is the best way to learn, and learning to do your best when speaking in front of a group is a skill that you can use in uncountable places for the rest of your life. --adapted from Beatriz Durán McWilliams, "Oral Communications 101"

  • Not only is this fear normal, but some of it is actually helpful because it is a way that attention gets focused and can energize you.
  • No one can see the way you feel at the start of public speaking unless you say or do something to show it. But at the very least, you need not be nervous about being nervous.
  • If the nervousness comes over you, you need to control yourself enough to begin; then, after you start, the tensions may dissipate.
  • It helps, therefore, to plan an introduction very carefully to relax you and your listeners. Have your opening lines down cold, but do not memorize the whole talk.
  • Before beginning, many people find it helpful to take a few deep breaths and clench their fists firmly; you may find your own "body signals" to stay calm and focused.
  • Once in front of the audience, pause for a few seconds, look in a responsive way at the people in front of you, and wait for them to give you their attention. This shows respect for them, and your responsiveness invites reciprocation.
  • Better than reading to your audience is to remember the main ideas and realize that if you are focusing on creating an understanding in your audience (and with them), you will find the exact words while speaking. This will allow a conversational style.
  • Concentrate on communicating your meaning and engaging in dialogue with your audience.
  • Use body, gesture, facial expression, and purposeful movement. This will not only help in your communication, but also it will ease any nervousness you may still be feeling.
  • While speaking, you can focus on individuals that seem particularly receptive. Try to pick out a few of these at different places, say on the left and right sides. As you speak to the whole audience, these few will be your anchors, and talking to them will reinforce the conversational style. Finding people in different parts of the room will keep your eyes sweeping over the whole audience rather than looking to one side and ignoring another.
  • As you look for individuals to talk to, their reactions (nods, smiles, frowns, etc.) will give you "real-time" feedback so you can make small adaptations to your message and clarify particular points, and all of this will reinforce your sincerity and the smoothness of your communication.
  • As with the introduction, have your conclusion down cold. This way, no matter what happens, you will have a strong ending. That is better than ending with "thank you" or "That's all."
  • When done, pause and stand in place for a few seconds; this shows your audience that you have enjoyed the exchange and feel poised enough to keep from having to run away back to your seat. This pause before questions also shows respect for the people in front of you because it gives them a chance to think before asking questions.

From the Classroom to the Writing

(in a way that will help you cope with the information glut)

  1. get an overview of the reading by carefully examining the introduction and layout; this can give you a good sense of the overall purpose of the writing
  2. once you have an overview, read in degrees: read some parts more carefully, some less
  3. look for examples to illustrate the overall theme

the three-legged stool; to stand up well, it needs all three legs

  1. Read assigned reading: if it is difficult to understand, at least read for familiarity.
  2. Listen in class for guides to understanding the reading: background information; key points in the reading; exchange of ideas (asking questions, discussing with teacher and students)
  3. review material: bring together what you had read before class and what you learned in class (often brief, but usually with a big payoff)

(much like steps in writing, and a good way to get ready for it)

  1. subject matter: what is being talked about?
  2. meanings: how, why, what are the implications?
  3. themes: what are the points of view and how are they built up?
  4. vocabulary: along the way, what are some special terms?

  1. On a regular basis, write a paragraph about the reading or about some project or event related to class.
  2. In class, usually at the end of the week, we will take class time to hear about your thinking on paper; often this will involve having each student pair up with another to talk about what they have written: read each other's work; ask questions about what you find
  3. Report to the group about a few key points

  1. reporting on a topic: this is in answer to basic "what" questions: what did you read; what happened in the reading; what did you learn? This has to do with observing.
  2. identifying the point: this is in answer to questions about the argument being presented: how did the author or the presentation arrange the facts to support a point of view? How or why did these facts happen? This has to do with interpreting what you have been observing.
  3. organizing your points: this is a matter of fleshing out what you have identified about the argument at hand: what are the pieces of the argument; how are those selected facts arranged to guide the reader to a particular point of view? This has to do with understanding what you have been interpreting.
  4. formulating your argument: this is a matter of assembling facts and arguments on a topic and presenting your own perspective on them: after weighing different factors, what do you think of this material; what is your judgment? This has to do with responding to what you have understood.

Stages of assignments: (and class time can help at each stage)

  1. non-graded journal entries: exchanges in class and with fellow students
  2. short papers, graded during the semester
  3. longer writing, graded, due later in the semester

Yes, if you can back it up. How? By creating evaluations based on a blending of your opinion with the facts and reasons that can support the opinion, you have of the subject at hand.

Your evaluation: at its best, it should combine

facts and reasons
writing based on this alone would be dry

writing based on this alone would be slanted