Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Writing an Essay is Engaging In Conversation

Now is the time of year when many students are wondering how they will turn a semester’s worth of knowledge and information into a term paper.

Collecting relevant information and sorting out irrelevant information is hard enough, but how does one write it all down? How does one go about dumping information from brain to paper?

The first lesson I learned when dealing with outside sources is that I needed them! And I needed a lot of them!

The second lesson I learned was that the bits of information I found, had to be correctly cited.

The third lesson I learned was that when I wanted to make any claim at all,  it is better when I can find a source to back me up.

This last lesson I always had trouble with, and I believe many students do. Having to support one’s claim through another author’s words seems a bit like having to hold a stranger’s hand in order to be taken seriously.  And seriously is how your professors want you to take the assignment.

Lately, within the last couple of years of writing essays, I have learned a new approach to using sources and information effectively. Instead of trying to find an authoritative voice (one that I will probably be unfamiliar with) to back up my claims in an essay, I can simply engage in a conversation with other educated voices. 

Thinking of an essay as engaging in a conversation is key!

Looking at sources as requirements to prove a point verses using them as engaging in a conversation may seem a bit like splitting hairs, but let me explain.

When a student perceives their sources as experts that they must rely on to accomplish a simple task in writing, it immediately diminishes their confidence as a writer. The student is supposed to embrace the role of the expert on the subject of the essay he or she is writing. At the same time he or she must ride on the shoulders of several other "real" experts in order to make a point, to get to the conclusion, and to get the grade. It doesn’t work. The flow and tone of the paper is disrupted, disjointed, and convoluted.

Instead, if a student views their sources as other sides of a conversation, then the essay has a far better chance of succeeding. Not only will the information be there, but the flow of the essay, the tone of the writer, and overall experience of the essay will improve.

Engaging in a conversation solves another problem with writing essays.

One of the most common difficulties with writing essays is staying engaged and focused.  Using sources in a one person conversation can feel like having a conversation with one’s own self on a single topic for several hours. The experience can be tiresome and exhausting.  However, the focus of an essay is more organic when the writer imagines the paper as a conversation. In other words, it won’t sound like someone talking to themselves. This approach also helps one consider the sources her or she wants to use, and how they might use them. For example: an author with views and information closely aligned to the main point of the essay becomes a friend used to engage in a collegiate conversation. The author with an opposing view becomes an easy target.

As a student views an essay as a conversation they are more likely to develop a provocative perspective as well. No one engages in a conversation in order to echo a peer. They engage in conversation because they have perspective no one has stated in the conversation.

This provocative perspective is the 'Gap' every essayist and professor wants to see in an essay. 

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