Friday, August 10, 2007

If You Skip the Prewriting Stage, I Shall Haunt Your Nightmares

My marking is done, my comic is coloured and uploaded, and I am in a belligerent mood. Let's get ranting.

A note before I start in on the main rant: some people who read this blog have taken issue with the "that/which" post, mostly because, as they have noted, the conventions of formality in regards to this rule differ depending on whether you're in the UK or North America. North Americans tend to follow slightly stricter rules (yes, really) that the English see as nonsensical or depriving the language of nuance. According to one reader, UKers do not accept non-restrictive "that" (no one does), but they do accept restrictive "which" every once in a while. However, sticking with "that" for restrictive clauses and "which" for non-restrictive ones is not incorrect; it is simply not as "nuanced."

I'm going to have to side with the Non-Nuanced Club on this one, if only because my Philosophy of Learning to Write Well Enough That Your Profs Will Not Want to Kill You and Then Leap Despairingly from Their Office Windows rather depends on students internalising the strictest, most anal rules of formal grammar and structure inside and out. Learn the rules. Hate them as you're learning them. Rage against the rules while you're writing...but learn the damned things. Once you have pounded the "that/which" dichotomy, in its North American incarnation, into your head so completely that you will never, ever forget it and will probably actually have disturbing dreams about it until the day you die, you can choose to use "which" restrictively every once in a while if you really want to do so. By that point, you will understand why you are choosing "which" over "that"; you will not be choosing it because you have no idea which one is correct and are flinging words haphazardly at the page.

There we go. On to business:

One of the most maddening misconceptions about essay writing is that it is so formulaic that it involves little or no preparation. The stereotype of the frantic undergrad, snowed under by work, frantically scribbling out each essay the night before it is due is probably a pretty accurate one; hell, I'm a chronic night-before person myself. I'm not sure any of my grad-student friends aren't. There is, however, a difference between someone who writes an essay the night before it is due and someone who starts an essay the night before it is due. Writing is only the second stage of a three-stage process. If you want to produce something half decent, skipping two of the stages (as many do) is a bloody stupid idea.

Many students claim that they work better on the fly. They say that they write the body paragraphs first, in the process working out what the thesis is going to be; they then go back and cobble together an introduction. These people proudly proclaim that they don't need to prepare. Brilliant insights spring full-grown from their heads, and they jot them down, give the results a quick read-through, and hand the whole thing in. After all, every essay is structured in the same way, isn't it? How hard is it, really, to slot in topic sentences and support, sprinkle the conclusion with repetition, add a reference to the subject of the essay having been important since the dawn of time, and call it a night?

I would like to have these people in front of me right now. I would like to take them by the scruffs of their necks and rub their noses in their hideous, hideous essays. Then I would like to tell them about brainstorming. I would like to tell them about brainstorming very loudly, with claps of thunder punctuating my words.

Most chirpy and expensive essay guides call the stages of essay-writing "prewriting," "writing," and "postwriting." These names will do for now, though they are rather misleading for the simple fact that all of the stages involve writing. Prewriting is possibly the most neglected of the three. Outlining is taught in high school by the same well-meaning people who love the sandwich method; students are encouraged to detail their points and support carefully before they begin to write. There is absolutely nothing wrong with outlining--it is essentially a way of providing yourself with a map on the road to the Proving of the Thesis--but there is something wrong with starting with an outline: almost as much wrong as there is with starting with the essay itself. An outline is what you write once you know what your destination is. If you tackle it before that point, your map is going to contain a hell of a lot of blank space.

I like to tell unsuspecting undergrads that the essay-writing process is represented more or less accurately by the following diagram:

essay-writing diagram

Yes, it is three coloured triangles sitting on top of each other inside a black rectangle. I like to colour stuff in Photoshop; so sue me. What the diagram represents is the shape of the essay-writing process. The writer starts with a broad, general topic and must narrow it down to that point between the red bit and the blue bit: a point that represents the formulation of the thesis statement. In effect, prewriting and writing mirror one another; the writer works from the general (the gathering of evidence) to the specific (the thesis), then expands outward to the general (the presentation of evidence) again. The postwriting, or editing, stage mirrors the writing stage as the writer once more works backwards, examining the presented evidence for flaws and holes as she attempts to ensure that it supports the thesis.

Notice that all three triangles are the same size.

Yes, they are. Yes, you are going to have to spend time preparing to write. I don't care how strenuously you claim you don't need preparation. I don't care how bored brainstorming and outlining make you. In my hand I hold the world's smallest violin, and it is playing just for you. Essay-writing is work. Deal with it.


Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to take a hugely broad topic, find some way of constructing an argument out of it, and garner enough support for that argument that your readers do not think you are a freaking idiot. As I said earlier, one of the most important aspects of the thesis is its identity as a controversial statement: a statement that must be proven. During the prewriting stage, you need to find that thesis. If you start writing the essay without knowing exactly what you're arguing--and many do--you are going to end up with an unfocussed essay that wanders from point to point and may or may not make an attempt to pull itself together during the conclusion. Do not make the mistake of conflating prewriting and writing. The essential and often unacknowledged difference between them is as follows:

Prewriting is necessarily disorganised (in its early stages). Writing is necessarily organised (in all its stages).


Don't you tilt your head at me. Yes, prewriting is "disorganised." It has to be. An essay itself is a piece of written logic, but in order to get to the point where you can be successfully logical, you need to give yourself over to chaos. Writers who make the mistake of organising their thoughts too soon are missing out on the creative connections that arise from spontaneity. Eventually, you will reach a prewriting stage at which you will be forced to get organised, but it is important not to limit yourself right out of the gate.

Prewriting itself can take many forms. Most of them have names. The most commonly flogged by essay-writing guides are:

Brainstorming: the process of jotting down random thoughts in note form. With brainstorming, you start with a topic, not a thesis, and work your way towards a viable argument; however, you should not begin by telling yourself that you need to find a thesis right now. Rather, you should free-associate, writing down whatever comes to mind when you think about your topic. The more interesting aspects will eventually float to the top of your brainstorming, and your notes will become less and less random. They will effectively begin to organise themselves.

Freewriting: the process of giving yourself a set time in which to write, in complete sentences but not with close attention to grammar or structure, random thoughts about your topic. Freewriting is essentially brainstorming in paragraph form. If you're one of the aforementioned people who claims that you find your thesis while writing your essay, you may enjoy freewriting. The timed aspect of it is important; time limits create panic, and panic creates inspiration.

Looping: the process of taking your piece of freewriting, extracting the most interesting or unexpected point, and freewriting on it, then repeating the process until you arrive at a thesis statement. Looping is, again, slightly more controlled brainstorming. It imposes a small amount of structure on the chaos (i.e., you're always going to be pausing to look for your most interesting idea), and it is surprisingly effective.

Mind-mapping: the process of writing the topic or thesis in the centre of the page...then drawing several lines out from it and jotting down a point at the end of each one...then drawing several lines out from them for your sub-points. Note that mind-mapping is a very structured form of prewriting.

Branching: the same thing as mind-mapping, but starting at the top of the page and working downwards in what looks like an upside-down family tree.

Unfortunately, by sorting aspects of the process into categories, we kind of imply that all the different prewriting methods are created equal and are mutually exclusive: in other words, that someone who mind-maps doesn't have to brainstorm. Unfortunately, mind-mapping and branching, though two of the most satisfying-looking forms of prewriting, are also two of the most pointless if done alone. Prewriting is predicated on disorganisation; mind-mapping and branching are eminently organised. As they don't allow the writer much room to expand upon his thoughts (since points have to be kept short in order that they might all fit on a single page), these two methods are useful mostly for the purpose of organisation after the writer has arrived at the thesis. A writer who only mind-maps in the prewriting stage has often convinced himself that all he needs to do is organise his thoughts; he doesn't need to develop them.

That's right, Student Who Always Starts with Mind-Mapping Because It Is Pretty and Takes Little Effort: you are still missing a stage. Put down the multi-coloured sparkly pens and back away slowly.

Development is what happens with brainstorming and freewriting. It doesn't matter which you prefer. You may even find you invent your own methods; I have (more on that in a moment). What is important is to write ideas down. They don't all have to be relevant ideas. Many of them will not end up in the essay. During the brainstorming process, you are not consciously organising your thoughts; you are riffing on them. Brainstorming is the jazz of essay-writing. It does have a structure--the quest for the thesis--but it consists mostly of improvisation. Some of what comes out of this improvisation can be surprising.

Write everything down. Write down even ideas that seem stupid or tangential; then write down why they are stupid and tangential. Jump to conclusions about your topic, but go back and work through whether such a leap is plausible. Sometimes, intuitive reactions to a subject are profitable, albeit only if you can pause after the intuitive reaction and puzzle out how you reached it. Don't expect to find a thesis or even to narrow down your topic a bit until you have been writing for a while. Don't worry if a good argument doesn't leap out and smack you upside the head. Keep writing. If you figure you don't need to write--that it will be enough for you to think about the issue--stop deluding yourself and start bloody writing. You can write and think at the same time, and unlike thinking, writing always sticks around. You are more likely to remember your ideas when you write them down, even if you never glance at your notes again. You are also more likely to find yourself making connections and chasing unusual points of view.

Remember: you are looking for controversy. It doesn't have to be shocking controversy--you don't have to argue that cannibalism is the wave of the future--but it has to be an idea that others can dispute. One of the reasons many people feel they don't need to take many notes before they start writing is that their "arguments" are too straightforward. I call this variety of thesis the "sky-is-blue" argument. It generally goes something like this:

Person A: The sky is blue.

Person B: How do you know?

Person A: [Points up.]

Person B: I bow before your brilliance.

You can't write an argument about the sky being blue because the blueness of the sky is an observable fact. Writing an essay that "proves" that Nunavut is sparsely populated, Frodo has to take the Ring to Mordor, Kiefer Sutherland is the star of 24, dogs have cold noses, or William Shakespeare uses irony in Macbeth is completely bloody unnecessary. You may as well argue that you are writing an essay and end the pretence that you are saying anything important or interesting.

By brainstorming--by forcing yourself to put your thoughts down on paper in a non-formulaic manner--you are using the chaos of unstructured note-taking to dig out the controversy. One of the reasons immediate mind-mapping is a bad idea is that mind-mapping, like essay-writing itself, is structured. Forget structure for now. Write. Think. Be disorganised. Make mistakes. Go in wrong directions. Find the wrong directions and make sure you know what they are. Write until your hand hurts, then go for a walk and let your mind sort out what you have written. Order will begin to emerge; seemingly random ideas will connect up and send you off in directions you didn't know existed.

Once you have narrowed the topic a bit (not necessarily all the way), start thinking about not simply the argument you want to make but also the counter-arguments readers could, theoretically, throw back at you. It may help to think of an essay as one side of a debate. Your opponent--in this case, your reader--is going to be trying to trip you up. She will be looking for holes in your argument. The prewriting stage is where you want to plug these holes. Every time you write down a point, think of a fair counter-argument. An unfair counter-argument, or straw man, may make you feel better about your thesis, but it won't help you plug the holes in it. The straw man fallacy occurs when a writer sets up an unreasonable and unrealistic counter-argument and then enthusiastically whacks at it with a metaphorical stick. Someone arguing that pro-choicers are wrong because killing a nine-month-old fetus is murder has created a straw man; no sane pro-choicer would claim that a woman should be able to abort a full-term baby. Make sure that your imaginary opponent is sane.

You may even prewrite a debate with this imaginary opponent. I like this method, which none of the usual essay-writing guides mention, because it forces me to approach an issue from all sides instead of simply one. When preparing for my essays, I will often write my notes in the form of a conversation between me and a fiendishly intelligent opponent who tries to shoot down every point I make. As I defend myself from him, I delve deeper into my knowledge of the subject and dig up some hole-plugging arguments I would not have been able to discover without the threat of the counter-argument running through my notes. This imaginary opponent often helps me arrive at a thesis; he opposes me every step of the way (i.e., I oppose me every step of the way), and I battle through to a watertight argument that refutes every point he has made.

You will find your own methods; you don't have to follow the prescribed ones. You need to write, and you need to write relatively chaotically, but you don't need to Follow the Yellow Brick Road. Find a note-taking style that works for you. Do not skip the note-taking stage. Do not skip it. By the time you begin writing your essay, you should have not only a thesis but page upon page of thoughts on it and evidence to support it.

Tomorrow or the next day, I'll deal with the second, more structured part of prewriting: organisation. For many, this sub-stage takes the form of mind-mapping and/or outlining; others simply continue brainstorming, though more slowly and in a more focussed manner. Not everyone finds outlining useful, but organisation--in some form--is an essential part of the process.


Ester Macedo said...

Ok. I will try not to overdo the superlatives, so that I don't sound too much like a cheer leader. But just when I think the posts are so good they can't get any better, then another one comes up and trumps the others.

So I won't say anything. Just keep them coming.

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