Sunday, August 12, 2007

Organise Your Thoughts; Win Eternal Fame and Glory

I hate outlining. I never do it.

By stating this simple fact, I am not giving you permission to cry, "Ha-ha! Kem just told us that outlining was stupid!" and gambol victoriously off into the sunset. I don't think outlining is stupid. It doesn't work for me, but it does for many others. I use different methods of organising my thoughts. Which method you choose--or invent--doesn't matter. What does matter is that you do eventually put a curb on the chaos that is the brainstorming process. Disorder leads to creativity; order leads to logical reasoning predicated on creativity.

Both the disorganised and the organised stages of prewriting are essential to essay-writing preparations. Without the former, students tend to fall back on formula, organising "ideas" that remain entirely on the surface of the issue at hand. Without the latter, students end up with scattered papers that go off on tangents and just don't hold together in the end. You may find one or both of these stages boring, hoo. As I have said before, essay writing is work. Shortcuts exist, but if you take them, you may end up with a shoddy product.

Perhaps the best way to demonstrate the organisation stage of prewriting is with a concrete example. Let's say an evil prof decides to torture you by giving you the following topic:

Discuss the role of friendship in J. R. R. Tolkien's The Fellowship of the Ring.

The prof is evil because this topic is extremely broad. He may as well be saying, "Discuss the role of flowers in an alpine meadow." This prof is not spoon-feeding you beautifully worded "How?" questions; he is forcing you to narrow the topic down and find something interesting about it to discuss. Many students, seeing this topic, would panic and fall back upon the accursed sandwich format. Such a student might eventually end up with a "thesis" such as: "In The Fellowship of the Ring, friendship is important" or "In The Fellowship of the Ring, J. R. R. Tolkien demonstrates the role of friendship in the relationships between Frodo and Sam, Frodo and Aragorn, and Gandalf and Saruman." Why? How? Kill the bloody split thesis! You have a thousand words to make your point; you can't get away with vagueness. Narrow. The. Topic.*

Before I start in on the example proper, I should say that in what follows, I am going to be using ideas of my own about The Fellowship of the Ring. These ideas are, in fact, mine. They are not yours. If you like them and decide to use them in your essays, you are going to cite me. If you read them and find yourself thinking, "By golly...that's exactly what I was thinking about this novel!", you are still going to cite me. Your profs may take issue with you citing a blog. I would. I don't care. If you find ideas on the Internet, in printed material, or in your own grandmother's brain, they are not yours and must be cited, lest you be accused of plagiarism and cast from the hallowed halls of academe into a fiery chasm of doom. I'll be ranting on plagiarism eventually, but for now, let me simply say:

Don't freaking plagiarise.


Let's say that this is the first page of my notes on friendship in The Fellowship of the Ring:

  • Frodo & Sam (& Merry & Pippin?)
  • Bilbo & Gandalf?
  • what about Aragorn?--acts unfriendly at 1st--Bree
  • "All that is gold does not glitter" comes from common saying--"all that glitters is not gold"--why the reversal?
  • male bonding
  • Frodo & Sam are master & servant--is this "friendship"?--does their relationship transcend class structure?
  • Merry & Pippin show friendship through betrayal--hmm--& Sam
  • Gandalf?--true friend to Bilbo--shows this by intimidating him
  • Aragorn is a bully--scares the living daylights out of Frodo & co. in Bre
  • gold doesn't glitter = friendship disguised as betrayal and intimidation?
  • SARUMAN--disguises betrayal as friendship?
  • friendship gains strength from being hidden?--humble?--gold that doesn't glitter--Saruman glitters but isn't gold
  • in Tolkien's world, the humble is actually good--his approach to friendship: demonstration of this principle

Notice that I start with questions and seemingly random examples. The questions are not necessarily answered this early in the game; it is enough for me to jot them down so that I can, if necessary, answer them later. About halfway down the page, after the comment on Merry and Pippin showing friendship through betrayal, I begin to realise that I have found an aspect of the topic that interests me, and my notes focus on that aspect. They also return briefly one of the very early questions (the one centred on "All that is gold does not glitter") and attempt to answer it. I drop some of my first "chaotic" thoughts (on male bonding and the master/servant relationship): thoughts that are interesting but do not seem to have much to do with the idea of friendship as hidden or humble. By the end of the page, I am dealing with ideas that may very well turn into a working thesis.

I'm not finished. Stopping right after finding a possible thesis is a stupid thing to do. I have an idea but not really enough evidence to support it; what if a closer look at the evidence shows me that my idea doesn't hold up? Not all ideas do. Seizing on an early possible thesis and convincing yourself that it is the only possible thesis will sometimes get you into deep trouble. I have seen students cling disastrously to weak theses because they don't want to admit that there is not enough evidence to support them. No one likes having to go back to the beginning and start again from scratch, but sometimes the choice is between scrapping a weak thesis and earning a "D."

Imagine that my notes go on, getting more detailed and focussed as they do. Early questions are answered; new (related) questions are posed and examined. Eventually, several (yes, several) pages later, my thesis has taken a less tentative form, many tangents have been discarded, and some possible points and examples have emerged. The raw material of my essay is all down on the page. It needs to be organised.

This note-taking session, by the way, does not all have to take place on the same day. Ideas need time to mature and evolve. Write some notes, wait a day, read what you've written, and write some more. Think about your ideas as you are out for a walk. Bore your roommate by discussing aspects of the topic that puzzle you. Don't expect everything to come together in half an hour.

What you do at this point is up to you. I would continue taking notes, this time working forwards from the thesis instead of backwards towards it. What emerged probably wouldn't resemble my final essay all that closely, but it would echo it roughly in the manner in which the argument progressed. I would also think about the essay now and again--in the shower, while taking a walk--and in the process smooth out some of the rough bits in my argument. My thesis points would be emerging by now. I would not necessarily choose only three. In fact, I wouldn't choose the points at all; they would grow logically out of my thesis. I would end up with as many points as I needed.

You could use this method, which works for me. If it doesn't work for you, you have a couple of well-documented options:

Mind-mapping (or branching): I'm not fond of mind-mapping because, as I've said, some students use it as a substitute for brainstorming. I also have huge, sloppy writing, and I tend to reach the edge of the page a little too quickly. However, if you are a visual learner and have already brainstormed or freewritten your way to a thesis statement,** mind-mapping may help you figure out where all your ideas fit in relation to one another.

Write your thesis in the centre of the page. Do so in tiny letters. Do not bother with coloured sparkly pens. Circle the thesis.

Write your major ideas in the space around the thesis. Circle each one. Connect them to the thesis with lines. Put the damned coloured sparkly pens away.

Write sub-points (or, if you will, sub-sub-points) and examples in the space around each idea/thesis point. Circle each one. Connect them to the relevant major ideas with lines. Still no coloured sparkly pens.

Here's the clever bit:

Connect related points/sub-points/examples to one another with dotted lines or, if absolutely necessary, coloured sparkly pens.

If you don't do the thing with the dotted and/or coloured lines, I shall denounce you forever afterwards in the World of Academe. More importantly, you will be running the danger of presenting unconnected thesis points. Those dotted lines are essential because they force you to ensure that your points are connected. The act of creating these lines may even lead you to notice connections that you hadn't realised existed.

Outlining: Outlining is not a uniform process. Some people find that the following sort of thing works for them:

Thesis: [States thesis].
Point 1: A
Point 2: leads to B,
Point 3: which seems to contradict C.
Point 4: However, D clears everything up,
Point 5: and E clinches the matter.

Others like to detail every sub-point and example in detail. Some virtually compose their essays in note form in the outline; when they write the essay, they simply get rid of all the little dashes and fill in the missing articles. If you are a devotee of the tiny blue format above, you'll need to keep your detailed notes close at hand as you write your paper; the sparse approach is attractive, but it is also incomplete. If you prefer the obsessively anal approach, try not to get carried away. Professors do impose word limits. Make sure that you are, in fact, writing an outline for a (let us say) thousand-word paper, not a six-hundred-page critical text.

I don't care what your outline looks like. I don't care whether or not you have one. I don't care if you prepare for essay writing by stripping naked, painting yourself neon pink, and reciting your thesis points while rappelling down a cliff into a fjord in Norway.*** All I want is for you to spend some time thinking...and some time organising...and some time writing...and some time editing...and some time receiving "A"s. It isn't much, really. Indulge me.

So far, we've been speaking mostly in generalities. I tell you to "make connections" or to "go deeper," but some of you may be unclear as to what the hell I'm talking about. Go deeper into what? Make connections where? Be patient. In the next entry, I'm going to start on the second stage of essay composition: writing. I'll work through the essay section by section, beginning with the introduction; along the way, I'll look at what makes an argument work and what makes it fail. This exploration is going to be a long one, so don't look for all your questions to be answered immediately. I'll also eventually be going through this whole process again with different types of essays; at the moment, I'm discussing "the essay" as if there is only one kind. A comparison and a cause-and-effect paper are very different beasties and have very different rules associated with them.

Next time, I shall explain in detail why "Since the dawn of man, people have been writing poetry" is such a horrible first line that if I ever see it again--and I shall--I am going to scream, mash the offending essay into formless pulp with my bare hands, and go get a job at a doughnut shop.****

*Or. I. Shall. Never. Forgive. You.
**If you haven't, do. Now. Before you finish reading this document. For crying out loud.
***Though if such is the case, I do think that you may have other problems.
****No, you cannot have the last honey cruller. It's mine. Mine, I say. Preeeeccciiiooouussss...


Ester Macedo said...

Two points:

Point 1. I just found this mind-mapping software at I'd never done mind-maps before -- or even outlines -- and it completely blew my mind. As you say, mind-mapping helps with structure and organization: if you haven't done any brainstorming and freewriting, it won't help you much: it's like having folders and labels and nothing to put in them. But for someone like me that had tons of ideas and points to make, and no clear way to organize them, this really really helped. A lot. It did.

Point 2: If I'm ever rich and start a publishing house, and this hasn't appear in print yet, I want to publish it. You may keep your first born to yourself, but I hereby claim first dibs on the copyright to this stuff, should you ever contemplate selling it. I mean it. That's your chance for eternal fame and glory right there.

Lionel Abbott said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lionel Abbott said...

I totally agree with you that plagiarizing other work is a big NO-NO on thesis or dissertation writing! Worse, some have laws that can fine and arrest people for plagiarizing other work. It would be a good idea to work hard on your paper so that in the end, you can say that you really did your best.  

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