2010 - Participants - Papers
From Expressive to Transactional Writing: A “Walk-Through” Exercise Randall Martoccia Department of English
Among the many writing problems students confront, one of the most common is a poor concept of paper structure. Students are often aware of their problems with structure but have received little instruction in organizing—aside from high-school lessons on the five-paragraph essay. By the way, college teachers tend to despise blind adherence to this form, believing it does to thought what the bonsai technique does to trees. Most college students find out early in their college career how little use the five-paragraph form is when dealing with more complex papers. In a poll I conducted just before a paper deadline last year, students voted that “paper structure” was their area of greatest concern. “Paper structure” even edged out “writing concisely” and “avoiding plagiarism.” Poor conception of structure manifests itself in many ways: paragraphs are wildly unfocused, having a different topic in each sentence; introductory material shows up too late; and related information winds up in different paragraphs. One especially nagging problem is the tendency of writers of research papers to organize their essays according to sources rather than topics. The exercise described here addresses this organizational problem.
When conducting research in preparation for writing research papers, students often become overwhelmed with the information they find. Many of them also procrastinate, leaving themselves no choice but to skip steps in the writing process. Skipping the planning and organizational steps of the process can be crippling for students. The problem I mentioned earlier—structuring according to sources not topics—is a result of students missing the step between note-taking and drafting. Using an exercise that simulates this step—call it the categorizing of information—can be an effective way to address the problems caused by lack of thoughtful categorizing.
This categorizing activity addresses what John C. Bean calls Data Dump writing. Here Bean describes this kind of writing: “Data dump writing […] has no discernable structure. It reveals a student overwhelmed with information and uncertain what to do with it” (23). While one could argue that papers organized according to sources do have a kind of structure to them, “dumping” seems a suitable label for this kind of writing since it ignores the conceptual relationships between ideas. According to Bean, Jean Piaget would likely consider source-structured writing a result of concrete-operational reasoning. Students who reason in this way may be able to organize information in simplistic ways, but they tend not to think abstractly (Bean 24-25).
Other students who might be able to recognize the underlying relationships between ideas in their research do not always give themselves the opportunity to so. Technology enables students to cut-and-paste information straight from a source into their paper. By doing so, students skip the note-taking step in the research-paper process. “By not taking notes,” Bean writes, “students are less apt to reflect on their reading or make decisions in advance about what is or is not important” (204). Moreover, the note-taking and the categorizing stages work together to reveal what is or is not related. When these steps are skipped and similarities are ignored, superficially related ideas may end up in the same paragraph while more closely related ideas may be at opposite ends of the paper.
The activity described below is meant to simulate the categorizing step in the writing process that immediately follows note-taking—but is often passed over due to students’ increased use of technology. The handout consists of paraphrases and quotations from an actual paper. I essentially disassembled an MLA-formatted paper and re-sorted the information according to the sources. In the paper, of course, the information was arranged according to topics. The purpose of presenting the information organized by source is to present students with a mass of facts, quotations, and ideas—a clump of material similar to what they soon will be dealing with as their research progresses. At some point their notes will be organized according to sources.
Here’s the handout: