Wednesday, January 30, 2013

- The Universal Language

Before humans learn to read words, they recognize symbols - also known as visual icons.

At one point my husband thought our two year old son Wyatt was some sort of a genius because he could frequently tell him when Sponge Bob was on the DirectTV channel guide.  I hated to burst his bubble and explain that Wyatt wasn't reading the listing of the show (but I did anyway).  Instead Wyatt was recognizing and interpreting the yellow, square, and happy image that is Sponge Bob.

As babies all four of my children were given infant stimulation toys (black and white soft/toddler proof pictures) and they would smile at the picture of a mom.  I remember how the children would often laugh and smile at the mom image, and say "ma, ma, ma."

At first I was annoyed that my offspring thought I looked like a somewhat nefarious character with extremely out of control swirly hair, but then realized that they were recognizing this as the universal symbol for mom.

When we found out my youngest son was partially deaf, we all resorted to pointing at images (while we slowly learned how to sign) in order to convey meaning.  If there wasn't an exact image available for references, we would attempt to draw our message to James - which was comical because I cannot even draw a stick attempts at art/communication usually resulted in frowns and heads shaking in dismay.

As children age and begin to learn their letters and step into reading, visuals are used less and less; all of a sudden children are all grown up and in college or the work force - analyzing words. Words, words, words.  Scholars spend lots of time reading articles and books, searching for meaning among the thousands of letters.  Pictures are greatly absent from most adult novels, and quite frequently from scholarly work as well.

It's not a wonder that it is this way because words are often thought of as symbols of logic whereas visuals are frequently relegated to the art category - serving as neat added bonuses. The visual can be compared to the Happy Meal Toy.  Sure the crappy toy makes the Happy Meal more fun - but without it it would still be a Happy Meal (although my 3 year old would beg to differ).

I find this all particularly surprising because in this virtual reality/cyber space world it seems as if we are surrounded by visuals, perhaps more now than ever before. So, then why aren't visuals used more in college papers?

Well, there are a ton of arguments about that.

One being that YOUR WORDS should be able to convey your message.

Which is true.
(Note how I capitalized "your words" even changing the font of my message is a visual cue that grabs a reader's attention).

If you are completely depressed now and feel as if visuals have been left behind by college papers and that you will never use them again, do not be dismayed - visuals have found a wonderful home in business/professional writing.

And that is because visuals are considered a universal language.

Typically in the business world decisions need to be made quickly.  Most business professionals do not have the time to read pages and pages of research findings.  Instead, a graph can quickly express research which leads to a decision being made and business being dealt with more rapidly.

Also, the world is growing ever closer.  Frequently people work together who do not speak the same language, and by using visuals in business reports workers are able to communicate in a language that does not depend on grammar and the alphabet.

Here are some neat facts I found about using visual aids in business documents:
  • Visuals arouse reader immediate interest
  • Visuals increase reader understanding by simplifying concepts
  • Visuals are especially important for non-native English speaking and multicultural audiences
  • Visuals emphasize key relationships
  • Visuals condense and summarize a large quantity of information into a relatively small space
  • Visuals are highly persuasive
There are rules that apply to using visuals - meaning you can't just slap a beautiful print on your report and hope it produces the desired effect.  To use visuals effectively people should remember the following bullet points:
  • Use them only for a specific purpose
  • Consider how a specific visual will help readers
  • Remember visuals are supposed to add to - and not take the place of - clearly written words
  • Use high quality images
  • Clearly label and identity the visual
  • Introduce the visual in your document before using it
The types of visuals vary vastly in professional writing.  Business professionals often use tables, pie charts, bar charts, line graphs, dot charts, radar graphs (which is kind of like a neat star shaped thing), time charts,  photographs, maps, flow charts, blue prints, and I could go on.... because there are really all kinds of options.

When using visuals a writer must make sure that they clarify rather than confuse an issue.  

For instance, if I suddenly found myself writing a blog about visuals in professional writing, I probably would not want to use an image like this:

Cute, and an attention grabber indeed, but probably not very useful (at least for this topic). 

If I was in a situation where I was writing a blog about the use and importance of visuals in professional writing/business world, I think that the perfect image to use to clarify my point would be this:

Would you like to know more about visuals in business writing?  Check out these helpful websites:
Technical WritingStrategic Business Writing, and here is a neat link to a PowerPoint Presentation designed by the Oklahoma State University Writing Center.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Who is Reading You?

Last week I blogged about the importance of understanding the writing assignment. I failed to consider one key aspect we should consider before beginning to write: Who Is Your Audience?

In order to figure out your audience, consider the assignment.

Writing instructions will sometimes include the purpose or the scenario for a paper topic. For example: a professor may ask his or her class to write a letter to a political figure, to "your future self," or to create an informative pamphlet for a certain demographic of reader.

However, many assignments will not directly list the identity of the audience. In most cases we assume our reader/s to be the instructor or our fellow classmates.

Beware: this assumption can be dangerous.

Students who automatically assume that their audience is the teacher and/or their classmates run the risk of missing the point of the assignment.  For example, if the professor assigns the class to write a informative pamphlet on smoking geared towards teenagers, then we should use language directed to them rather than the professor.

Using plain language in this scenario is a better choice.  The author of such a pamphlet must not use specialized jargon or complicated medical terms. The point of the assignment would be missed, and the student can be in jeopardy of receiving a lower grade.

There is more to consider than just language; consider content as well.

Oversimplifying the content can be another risk when considering the audience. Writers can be too vague when they believe their audience is just as informed on the subject matter as they are.  This is especially true when the audience is the professor or fellow students.

The trick here is to achieve a good balance. Don't over explain or understate.

Put yourself in the shoes of the audience. Ask yourself these questions:
  • What is the typical language style expected by your reader?
  • What will the reader want to know?
  • How much will they want or need to know about the topic?
  • What is the purpose or importance of the subject to your reader?

Friday, January 25, 2013

Analogies Part I

In Nonsense, Robert J. Gula spends a good amount of time discussing and evaluating the use of comparison both as a poetic feature of our language and as a logical feature of our language. I think there is enough material to justify at least two blog posts on the topic. This is the first. 

Gula begins chapter twelve by recognizing the benefits of having the linguistic and physical mechanisms capable of generating an almost infinite number of comparisons and contrasts: "Devices of comparison and contrast can aid us in expressing ourselves. They add vividness and richness to utterances, they are sometimes a way of making concrete an abstract idea, and they sometimes provide a means by which we can clarify a complex idea" (141).

Gula then uses his poetic knowledge to illustrate his point. He refers to an evocative comparison made by John Donne, the sixteenth century English poet. 

"[W]hen the poet John Donne compares two people in love to the legs of a drawing compass, his comparison allows him to concentrate a complicated thought into just a few lines [. . .]" (142).

In one regard, the legs of a drawing compass are individualized; they are detached from one another. This detachment allows the drawing compass to perform its intended function. Yet the legs of a drawing compass are not completely detached from one another. They share a common hinge. 

The image of a drawing compass's legs provides us with an concrete image of separation and unity. When two people are in love, they are still two individual people. One can fly to Miami; the other can fly to Helsinki. True, they are not constrained by something as tangible as a pair of handcuffs, yet  they do seem to be constrained in a more abstract way. The thoughts of each person for example may repeatedly cycle back to pictures and articulations of the beloved, thus constraining each's ability to effectively perform any task that requires an act of higher cognition. Each may be constrained emotionally by the absence of one's beloved. 

Thus, the balancing of separation and unity is nicely captured by the concrete image of a drawing compass. Donne's analogy is a creative achievement to be enjoyed.

Some creative achievements may not have the poetic excellence or the literary endurance of a lyric by John Donne. For those of you who are interested in the stock market, an event recently occurred--Apple Computer released its first quarter earnings results on Wednesday--that gave people a chance to create some charming colloquialisms. For example, I heard one person say that "Apple is sitting on a mountain of cash." 
I guess an image is helpful when you try and understand how big a pile of money 137 billion dollars actually is. 

I heard another person say, after the earnings report came out and the stock was down about ten percent, "Apple is a melting ice cube." 

This expression is, in my opinion, better than the previous example because it's less cliche, and it captures in a familiar image the bearish case against Apple Computer. Again, it may not have the longevity of a Donne poem, but comparing a stock that was once the darling of Wall Street to a melting ice cube is a analogy that I appreciate; it is a creative achievement that helps people understand a complex phenomenon. 

However, like other creative achievements that are properly enjoyed, analogies can be used immorally. 

According to Gula, "It is one thing to use an analogy to help convey an idea. It is another thing to argue by analogy or to use an analogy to form an inference or judgment. [. . .] Analogies are abused  when they try to claim similarity and to establish identity under the guise of merely suggesting that similarity" (142).

Gula then provides four examples to clarify the sorts of situations in which analogical reasoning is abused. I will explore the first one here and continue exploring the rest in next week's post. 

Suppose you are discussing with a colleague  your favorite chili recipe. "My grandfather's chili is the best I've ever had."
"Yeah," your colleague replies with a dismissive smirk. "That's because you've never had my recipe. For reasons of nostalgia and elderly respect, I know my chili can never surpass your grandfather's." Your colleague, smiling, then looks you in eye and says, "Parity, I think, would be impossible for you to dispute." 
"I doubt it."
"What's in your grandfather's chili? Tomato sauce? Chili Powder? Some cayenne? Garlic? Salt, pepper? Right?" The colleague nods, shrugs his shoulders. 
"Right. Well I put all that stuff in my chili so your grandfather's chili and mine would taste the same. Equally delicious."

Here we have a speaker claiming that because some object (a pot of his chili) contains several of the same ingredients that another object contains (a pot of grandpa's chili), they are identical in taste. But it seems like a pot of chili is too complex an object to be generalized in this fashion. Sure, the two recipes share some features, share some ingredients, but the conclusion that they will taste the same because of their shared ingredients would be fallacious. The similarity between the two pots of chili would need to be more comprehensively established before such a conclusion would be justified.    

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

WAC Spotlight: Writing an Abstract for the Natural Sciences

Last week a student came into the Writing Center seeking advice on an abstract.  My ears instantly perked up because I have now written many abstracts and thought I might be able to unload some expertise on a willing student.

Plus, due to the quiet nature of the beginning of a semester, it has been rather slow in the Writing Center.  I'm pretty sure I might have injured some of my fellow Writing Consultants in my mad dash to snag the session (sorry about that, Greg).

However, when the student showed me the abstract she had written, I quickly found myself in a state of dismay. Although the format was similar to what I was used to, the context was quite different.

Generally in the Humanities abstracts are written for these reasons: to submit a paper for a conference or to preface an article in a journal.  Abstracts are generally 250-500 words in length and contain a lot of phrases like:
  • This paper will explore the notion of identity construction in Lois Lowry's The Giver...
  • According to Johnny Come Lately, "Dystopia is becoming a popular genre..."
  • Although eating peaches may be desirous to some, it seems as if others are greatly dismayed by the slimy texture.
Abstracts in the Humanities often fall on the side of presumptions rather than definite outcomes, and can also include secondary source information in order to help support an argument the writer is making.  An abstract written for the humanities is usually very descriptive and also engaging, because it is what will get a paper selected for a conference or a journal.

A sciences - specifically Natural Sciences - abstract is very different, and all of a sudden I found my once cocky self full of woe and trepidation, worried that I would fail in assisting my student.

In the sciences an abstract is thought of as an extremely concise summary of a paper or project.  This abstract does not presume to know about a subject but indeed does know - it never says anything like, "This paper will explore the idea of...", it instead says, "The theory of relativity is proven in this paper."  

Actually, the abstract is the MOST important part of a scientific paper, and is usually written AFTER the paper/research has been compiled (in the English department an abstract is often written first, before the paper is written).

Here are some tips you should think of while writing an abstract for the Natural Sciences:
  • Never say "will be discussed...".
  • Refrain from using secondary sources and do not quote.
  • Your exact findings need to be included in this abstract (I know it feels as if you are giving away the good stuff early, but this is how it has to be).
  • Do not waffle.  Be concise and direct.
  • Word length is often dictated by the nature of a study, but 100-250 words is a common word length for scientific abstracts.
  • Start your Abstract out by telling your audience EXACTLY what you did and how you did it.
  • A great example sentence for an abstract goes something like this: "This study determined the impacts on migratory bird patterns by tagging and then mapping a selected group of Canadian Geese,and then Stella simulation software was used to model migratory dynamics."
Although an abstract written for the sciences is written after the paper has been penned, a helpful thing to do while writing the paper is to keep a running list of notes from each section you are writing.  Then when it's time to write the abstract, you have the key points from each section and can form a concise abstract more easily.

Similar to the introduction of a paper, an abstract is what hooks your reader. So, be exciting! Make that audience want to read your work!  Like if they don't read your paper, they might suffer loss of limb or something.

Don't use exclamation points though...that's just me being excited.  The sciences generally tends to shun the exuberant exclamation point (sigh).

And finally, one extremely interesting difference is that the last lines (or the conclusion) of your abstract should be able to flow into the opening of your paper - almost like a preface, but make sure you use different words than what you have written in your "real" introduction.

Want to know more about writing abstracts in the sciences?  Check out these links:

And of course, the Purdue Owl has an entire presentation on writing Scientific Abstracts that is incredibly helpful and can be found here.

Now I find myself waiting on pins and needles to assist a student writing a science abstract, and since I generally cringe at the mention of science, I'm not quite sure how I feel about this.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Understanding the Writing Assignment

Before we begin writing, or even begin thinking about writing an assignment, it is imperative that we absolutely understand the assignment. Without understanding the assignment a student risks great failure even after putting forth much effort.
For example:
In an undergraduate history class, an instructor assigned a paper in which the students had to argue whether or not the U.S. Colonies had legitimate reasons to start a revolution. Many students turned in papers discussing the accomplishments of the United States, arguing that had there not been a successful revolution the great nation we know today would not exist. These students all received failing grades. One student left the classroom crying.
In this situation, a large percentage of the class's student body misunderstood the writing assignment. The instructor asked for an argument constructing reasons that exemplified an understanding of the conflict leading up to the American Revolution. All facts concerning the United States post-revolution are irrelevant in such an argument.
Although one can assume many of the students put forth a considerable amount of effort in their work. because they did not understand the assignment, the work and effort could not be rewarded.
This situation is far more common than we may initially realize. To avoid it there are simple steps we must take.
The first is to keep the handout describing the assignment. Professors often go into great detail to explain and construct the assignment on handouts for students. Reading this handout and comprehending the instructions are essential. Any questions a student has must be asked as soon as possible. This will allow the student to begin to construct a paper that is in accordance with the assignment.
Any digression from the assignment, even in the preliminary stages of thinking about what to write, can be disastrous and can lead to unnecessary stress and last minute revisions.
We should also consider discussing the assignment with fellow classmates. Casual conversation about assignments is often the best way to discover how other students grasp the concept the teacher is describing. When we learn out peer's strategies in regards to the assignment, we often gain a better understanding of it. Often, through discussions such as these, students discover new approaches and questions to ask about the paper.
Anther approach we can take is to seek advice from the EIU Writing Center. There writing consultants can help writers brainstorm and work through problems writing assignments pose. This approach can provide students with much needed confidence as they begin to writing their paper.
We can also speak with the professor. This may be the best suggestion to consider. Once a professor is aware of our approach, he or she can offer suggestions to narrow the focus or pinpoint the direction we should follow. Conferencing with professors limits miscommunication and allows students to move ahead with the assignment in complete confidence.

LSM, Writing Assignments, & You

One of the books I read over winter break was psychologist James W. Pennebaker's The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us.

Prior to reading the book, I was familiar with his scholarship about therapeutic writing, which I wrote about last year in "The Power of Therapeutic Writing and Freewriting."

The Secret Life of Pronouns distills research he's done over the years, and it'll make you look at your own and others' language use more closely. I won't go into the big intellectual payoffs of the book because there are so many interesting things to say about his research that I could go on and on and on.

However, there's a specific section of Chapter 8: The Language of Love that directly connects to those of us who create writing assignments (professors) and those of us who write papers/documents in response to those writing assignments (students).

In "The Language of Love" chapter, Pennebaker has a section titled "Verbal Mimicking" where he introduces readers to the phenomenon of Language Style Matching: "The matching of function words is language style matching, or LSM. Analyses of conversations find that LSM occurs within the first fifteen to thirty seconds of any interaction and is generally beyond conscious awareness. Several studies suggest that LSM is apparent in some unlikely places" (200).

When I read about LSM, I thought back to the institution where I taught before EIU. I was in a meeting where someone in power, and I'll just call her Rhoda, had a certain hard-nosed way of talking about problems and solutions. In addition, Rhoda loved using the word "expeditiously." She used that term a lot.

As the meeting went on, some at the meeting picked up on using that word to please Rhoda. And then there were all kinds of people talking about doing all sorts of things expeditiously rather using than a simpler adverb, quickly.

I reckon it's fairly easy to see how LSM happens in your own meetings, your home, and elsewhere. Ponder on that, folks. 

But what I want to really hit on is how LSM happens with writing assignments because Pennebaker and other researchers tested LSM in this domain. 

They gave writing assignments that had "pompous instructions" and instructions that were "written in a chatty 'Valley girl' style" (201). The instructions had different styles, but they asked students to do the same task ~ give an example of cognitive dissonance and how that instance of cognitive dissonance was eventually solved.

So, to be clear here, this was the experiment:
  • Same writing task
  • Same instructions (essentially)
  • Two different styles ~ pompous & Valley girl
  • Different sets of students writing in response to the "same" instructions

I'm sure you can guess what happened: LSM in an "unlikely place."

Pennebaker describes the result: "The only difference was that students who received the pompous question answered in pompous ways and those who read the Valley girl instructions wrote in the same freestyle informal lingo. Because everyone responded to four different essay questions, each written in a different style, many students later reported not even noticing the writing styles at all" (201-02). 

Reading that section of the chapter made me reflect on my own writing assignments and the stylistic messages I'm sending because the writing prompts we give frame the responses we get from our students. 

To quote the "Valley girl instructions" in the experiment, "Like, it's [LSM] seriously happening ALL the time, you know??"

When crafting writing assignments, we not only have to clearly communicate what we want, what students need to do, who the audience is, and how we're going to evaluate their responses via rubric or criteria for evaluation, but we also have to pay attention to the style of our prompts.

If we write writing assignments that exemplify convoluted pompous windbaggery, we'll get it back. 

That's, like, you know, really bitchin' info. Totally tubular. OHMYGOD!

Friday, January 18, 2013

Begging the Question

You've probably heard this colloquial phrase before. Since many arguments have premises and conclusions that result in disputes between speakers, answering one question many times naturally leads to another. For example, take a look at the following exchange:

Q: "Sugar is a toxic substance that should be regulated by the government."

R: "What evidence do you have for believing that sugar is toxic? It doesn't seem toxic; people eat it everyday and nothing bad happens.

Q: "In the short term nothing bad happens. Long term effects are very bad. There's new research that suggests eating concentrated amounts of sugar, say, drinking a can of soda or even drinking a glass of fruit juice throws our digestive and neurological system into a state of confusion. From an evolutionary point of view, sugar and fiber are a package deal. Take away the fiber? Consume only the juice? We're getting massive infusions of sugar that our bodies can't cope with in a healthy manner."

R: "Maybe you're right. Maybe in the long run sugar is toxic for the human body. But that only begs the question: Should the government regulate every substance that is toxic in the long run for the human body?"

As I said mentioned earlier, it makes sense that the phrase beg the question is so common. Discussing one issue of contention, many times leads to another issue of contention, which then leads to another issue of contention. Despite its usefulness in everyday discourse, begging the question does have a more specific meaning in logic.

In logic, begging the question is also known as circular reasoning. According to Robert  J. Gula, "When an argument uses one of its premises as a conclusion, that argument is said to be circular" (110). The conclusion to an argument could also be referred to as a thesis. Basically, a conclusion or a thesis is the proposition that is being supported by other propositions. Take the following argument:

1. Michael Jordan won Defensive Player of the Year in 1988.
2. Michael Jordan won six NBA Finals MVP awards.
3. Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player ever.

1&2 support 3. Thus, 3 would be the conclusion of the reasoning chain. Because 1&2 support the conclusion, they would be the premises of the argument. The premises support the conclusion; they do not affirm it or restate it. To restate a premise or a collection of premises as the conclusion would be to commit the fallacy of circularity. To take our previous example as illustration:

1. Michael Jordan won Defensive Player of the Year in 1988.
2. Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player ever.
3. No basketball player was ever better than Michael Jordan.

Here we have a premise (1) that supports either (2) or (3). The problem is that (2) and (3) restate the same conclusion. What a speaker is interested in is why should a person believe that Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player of all time. (1) provides evidence to support such a belief. (2) simply affirms that the belief is true in words that are slightly different than (3).

Suppose a skeptical person is having a conversation with an acquaintance and is presented with (2). Suppose the skeptical person asks: "Why should a person believe that Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player ever?"
"Well," the acquaintance sips his beverage. "There are many reasons."
"Do you happen to have any on hand?"
"The most obvious reason I can provide is that no basketball player was ever better than Michael Jordan."

In this dialogue, the acquaintance has commit the fallacy of circularity with his last sentence. In an argument, premises and conclusions perform difference functions. Premises support a conclusion--of course, as arguments get more complex, one conclusion can be used to support another conclusion, but that's a topic for a different blog.

Using a premise to restate a conclusion using different words is not an acceptable form of reasoning.

Even when dealing with obvious truths like (2), a supporter of (2) must be ready to provide evidence if a skeptic asks for it. You may be stunned to find a skeptic, but they are out there. When you do find a skeptic, remember to keep your wits about you. Remember that (3) does not support (2), and (2) does not support (3).

The same logical rule holds when you write papers for your classes.   

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Fact of the Matter is....

...that you need an argument.

The word argument gives me a serious case of the heebie jeebies.  I was raised in an old fashioned home where we were taught never ever to argue.  Instead, we were told to smile politely and do as we were told,  even if we disagreed. If we disagreed, we were grounded.  Forever.  Actually, I think I still might be grounded for the great Smurfette fiasco of 1984...

Yes, my parents did end up raising extremely polite children, but they also ended up with children who are terrified of debating and arguing - which makes me wonder if I should perhaps be changing my major from English to basket weaving.

Because when doing many types of communicating, it is imperative that you have an argument. Otherwise you are just talking to talk, or writing to write and that makes me think of those evil Furbee dolls that have made a recent comeback.  Those things just talk and talk and talk. My little sister received one for Christmas back in the late 90s, and I think it's still talking, about what I'm not sure: moral of the story - don't be a Furbee!

But I digress.

Woe betide the student who writes a paper lacking an argument. Many "add comment" icons will be clicked by professors of all disciplines, and red marks will be made at the end of an introduction that is missing an argument or boasts a weak argument.

I will admit that when I first started writing I did not understand why an argument was necessary.  I thought, "Well, I just have this assignment to write...and information to give.  That's all I need."

Silly, silly, silly.

And probably a reason why I struggled reaching those 5-7 page length requirements.  'Cause it turns out that if you have a strong argument, thus a strong thesis statement, page length requirements are a walk in the park.

No foolin'.

This past semester I had the wonderful, and I truly mean that, opportunity to teach an Enlish 101 composition course at a local community college.  What troubled most of my students at the beginning of the semester was reaching those 4-6 pages I was forcing them to write (it was for their own good!).  Now I have been writing 16-20 page papers for quite awhile, so I couldn't help but laugh a little (inwardly of course) about the cries of despair my students were voicing over the page length requirement.

But I quickly stopped that inward giggle when I saw their first papers, and I understood exactly what the problem was.

They were writing their papers based on a simple fact, not an argument.

In the first unit my students were assigned a paper that had them choose an old Grimm's Fairy tale, analyze it, and then inform their audience whether the story was a positive moral tale for youth or one that should be quickly shooed back into the dark ages.

Here are some example thesis statements I saw in their papers:
  • Snow White is a classic fairy tale, but it has negative themes.
  • Hansel and Gretel is a sad story where children are abandoned and hope is lost.
What is wrong with those statements? Well, for starters, one of them is a total slam on Hansel and Gretel...

In all seriousness, each of these statements are simply facts.

Fact: Snow White is definitely a classic.  And indeed there are negative themes in that story (what with the Prince kissing the dead girl and all...).

Fact: Hansel and Gretel are definitely abandoned. There exists a feeling of hopelessness in that story (unless you think finding a candy house is hopeful...and you might have a solid good point there).

Although these are interesting facts, it would be very hard to write a good 4-6 page paper using these as thesis statements.  After all, your thesis statement is your bottom line and also your jumping off point.  Once you have a solid thesis statement, things fall into place much more easily. And a thesis statement is basically a fancy group of words that describe your very important argument.

The word 'argument', as defined by the OED, means "A statement or fact advanced for the purpose of influencing the mind" ('argument', n).

Did you see that?  A fact that has been advanced. So basically in order to build a solid argument, you need to unpack that fact.

And that is what I helped my students to do.

What we started out doing was writing as many facts down about the chosen fairy tales as we could.

The student who had chosen Snow White and had said that it had negative themes ended up writing a list like this:

Wicked Step-mother = a bad stereotype
Beauty is emphasized as being what makes a person important
Ostricization of the other
Strong Masculine themes abound - Prince kisses Snow and she awakes = A man saves the day

After reading through that list, I can never read or watch Snow White with whimsy again.  Now it has become a very depressing and dark tale for me.  And that is because my student combined all of those facts into a strong argument (and then a very strong paper).

Here is what she came up with:

Snow White, although considered a classic fairy tale and immortalized by Disney, is not the happy romantic tale everyone thinks it is and the story itself includes themes of banishment, discourages feminism, and includes a stereo-typical evil step-mother.  Although often read to children as a heart warming romantic story, Snow White instead impacts children negatively.

No, it's not perfect.  But I reckon it is a stronger argument than what she had written before, and when she revised her paper (because revision is cool, yo!) she not only reached her page limit...but this time while reading her paper I never once felt as if she was padding it to get to the 4-6.  She produced a solid, well written, and well organized paper.

So, from then on a lot of my students started writing fact sheets about their chosen topic. After those students, who were all so totally rad, had written down a bunch of facts they would string them together to form an argument.

If you are like me and the word argument sends you into fits of worry and nail biting, simply think of it as it is defined "a statement or fact advanced."  Unpack those facts and ask them to stay a while. Hang out with them a bit and see what you come up with.

Then put that strong argument together and remember that although arguing often has negative connotations, it shouldn't. It is necessary. Because your argument is what you think, and what you think is important...right?  Right.

Arguments are necessary.

So just smile and do it politely (or my dad is gonna ground you).