Archive for February, 2012

Inclusion of Counter-Arguments

February 28, 2012

You’ve been assigned an essay in your English class that asks you to take several readings from the syllabus and use them to support your own personal writing philosophy.  Immediately you may think about how Stephen King’s nonfiction work is intriguing due to the transmission phenomena between the writer and the reader he labels Telepathy.  Then you think about Binyavanga Wainaina’s satirical piece “How to write about Africa” and praise the idea of deconstructing stereotypes that commonly appear in bad writing.  No matter what you’ve been assigned for your class readings it’s natural to gravitate to what you liked or what you agree with.  Since your task is to articulate a philosophy of writing inspired by other’s ideas, these ideas are essential to opening up a dialogue where your voice counts too.  But what if an author from the readings has an argument or idea about writing that you disagree with?  What do you do with their work?  Do you ignore them?

Many times it’s easier to work with writers and ideas that you agree with, but what are some of the perks of placing a voice in your work that is in conflict with you or other’s philosophies?

Let us start with a common philosophical concept:  one way to know what your writing philosophy entails is to also know what it does not entail.  That’s to say knowing what it isn’t will help define clearly what it is.  Ignoring criticism or skeptical counter-arguments can be a significant mistake.  It’s not a paradox to say your writing can be strengthened by listening to dissenting concepts and by giving them a fair hearing through explicit description.  In essence, placing a ‘naysayer’ in your text is a reinforcing juxtaposition that builds credibility for your persuasive argument by acknowledging and anticipating doubts and objections.

However, I should note that depending on the constraints of an assignment, logistically you may find that there is not much room for naysayers.  Please keep in mind that counter-arguments are more at home in larger research papers.  What’s important here is that you get the practice of incorporating counter-arguments into your work so that you are presenting a dialogue of debate rather than a one-sided set of claims in a vacuum.  However, never plant a counter-argument in a text just to do so, find one’s worth entertaining that can be disarmed.

You can make oppositional ideas work for you rather than against you by giving the reader convincing ideas or evidence that suggests different conclusions.  You will find that this approach is respectful to the reader’s intelligence as you present open-minded inquiry.  Another bonus is this practice gives you more to talk about and your assignment will have more depth (you will find it easier to fulfill the assignments minimum page length).

Remember to keep it all straight forward and be fair.  You may be tempted to quickly mention oppositions to your argument and in some cases mock them.  Simply tell the reader exactly what they are in detail and don’t waste your time being biased in your judgment of them because you can let your answers to these objections do the work necessary to persuade your reader.  Also, remember that you may not be able to wholly refute naysayers that have convincing or truth based arguments;  earnestly reject what’s wrong and acknowledge what’s right: “yes, but” or “yes and no.”

To give you a more well rounded understanding of counter-arguments take a moment to read an adaptation from The Academic Essay: A Brief Anatomy, for the Writing Center at Harvard University.


Hold the Homophone; Am I Doing This Right?

February 27, 2012


There are a bunch of those pesky words, homophones, that sound so similar that they are super easy to use incorrectly. Here is a quick rundown of some common ones, so you can know when to lie and when to lay (and all that good stuff).


Affect vs. Effect:

Affect (verb)—to do something that influences someone or something. Example: My dog’s death affected me deeply.


Effect (verb)—to make something happen. Example: Even small acts of kindness can effect great change.


Effect (noun)—a result or a reaction. Example: The special effects in that movie were stunning.


Its vs. It’s:

Its (adjective, possessive)—shows that something belongs to someone/something else. Example: The English Department shows its appreciation for students every semester by having a picnic.


It’s—a contraction of “it” and “is.” Example: It’s important to RSVP so your host will know how much food to prepare.


Lay vs. Lie

Lay, Laid (present, past verb)—to put or set something down. Example: You can lay the present on that table with the other gifts. She laid the present down on the table.

Lie, Lay (present, past verb)—for a person or creature to recline or rest in a horizontal position. Example: I think I will go lie down for a quick nap. Yesterday I lay down on the beach, sun tanning all afternoon.


Then vs. Than

Then (adverb)—after something has happened; next. Example: First I have to go to the grocery store; then I will go over to Mark’s house.


Than (conjunction/preposition) – used when comparing. Example: The vegetarian pizza was much better than the pepperoni.


There vs. Their vs. They’re

There (adverb)—used to describe a location. Example: Set your backpack down over there and come help me make some cookies.


Their (possessive adjective)—belonging to people, animals, or things. Example: May neighbors asked me to take care of their pets while they are out of town this weekend.

They’re—a contraction of “they” and “are.” Example: My neighbors said they’re going to bring me back a souvenir for taking care of the pets.


To vs. Too vs. Two


To—used with the basic form of a verb to make the infinitive. Example: He likes to read, to cook, and to enjoy the company of good friends.


To (preposition)—toward or in the direction of. Example: I went to bed late last night because I had to study for midterms.


Too (adverb)—more than is needed or wanted. Example: There is too much salt in the soup.


Too (adverb)—also. Example: Saundra and I will go to the movies with you too.


Two—number. Example: The recipe calls for two eggs and a cup of sugar, among other things.


You’re vs. Your


You’re—a contraction of “you” and “are.” Example: You’re going to tell me when I should come over, right?


Your (possessive adjective)—belonging to people. Example: Today, your cat jumped the fence and came to visit me.

Strategies for Becoming a Critical Thinker

February 27, 2012

To become an astute, credible writer, you need to gain the trust of your audience. To do this, you must first learn to think critically. Though this seems like a vague concept, critical thinking is at the core of all clear, concise, and well thought-out argumentation—the types of attributes which will help you succeed not only in writing a paper, but in your academic career overall. Below we have listed some of the main strategies for critical thinking.

  • The first step to becoming a good critical thinker is approaching something with an open mind. If you bring all of your preconceptions with you to a piece, you have an agenda. You will miss out on many of the subtleties (or blatant mistakes) of the argument.
  • Ask questions!!! Asking the right questions of an argument/ author can help you evaluate the information you have been given. For instance, if you are listening to a political speech, ask yourself what the agenda of that candidate is? Is it to win votes? Gain the support of a certain party? Or, you may be watching a commercial for painkillers that says they are doctor recommended. What kinds of doctors are recommending this medicine? Do they work for the pharmaceutical company?
  • Embrace your inner skeptic! This is not just about asking a lot of questions, and it is not about being cynical. Truly try to suspend previous biases you may have, and ask what is really going on when you see an argument laid out in front of you. Test the logic of the claim, rather than buying in to an emotional appeal!
  • Be okay with the uncertainty involved in becoming a critical thinker. Even if you do not have the answers, at least you are open to finding them out. Being okay with poking holes in any claim, rather than accepting it as fact, will help you approach the world with your eyes open. It will also give you the skills to test your own claim in a paper.

As you go forward, really ask yourself what the strengths and weaknesses of your argument are. Did you write your own biases into your paper, just to support your conclusion? Or, is your claim logically thought out and constructed? Subject your work to this process, and you are opening your mind, while also acting as your own self-advocate.

Don’t want to read this entire post? Click here for a link on critical thinking!

a knack for quoting

February 18, 2012

An effective (coherent and correspondent) argument is reliant upon your ability as a writer to bring others’ credible ideas, claims, and arguments together to form an open dialogue within your essay.  Moreover, the success of your own argument and its conclusions become reliant upon the introduction and analysis of these texts and the ideas they entail.  You need to think broadly about want to pull from various texts as your quotations; for example, your citations can range from hard numerical evidence to demonstrated facts to abstract philosophy and scholarly opinion.

What’s important to acknowledge when making an argument is that sometimes summary is simply not enough—you have to show us exactly what others have said concerning the topic(s).  It’s a misnomer to assume that quoting others is some sort of inherent weakness in your writing and ability to convey your own ideas, because in reality you’re showing the readers your knowledge of the subject(s) and topic(s) of which you’ve chosen to speak of.  You’re also bringing credibility and accuracy to your work by artfully using quotations.

Since it’s  important to find the proper range of quotations you should use for a given assignment or research paper, you’ll need to consistently evaluate the nature of your assignment and argument to make sure you’re not quoting too little or too much.  In the case of quoting too little you may feel like you do not want to revisit an author’s text because you can simply form your own way of describing, reconstructing, the author’s ideas.  The problem with this is two-part: first, there is no dialogue happening in your work, and second, the lack of direct support that comes from citing evidence is nowhere to be found.  If, on the other hand, you quote too much, you put yourself at risk of creating an essay that has little analysis, thus leaving no room for the essential goal of making yourself part of, and an extension to, the dialogue.

Another common mistake is assuming that the quote speaks for itself.  Each time you cite a source you cannot assume the reader is familiar with its rhetorical situation or the scholar.  In essence you have to frame each citation with an endpoint in mind that revolves around supplementing, furthering, your own argument or investigation.  Framing is important as it allows you to effectively introduce a voice into your work in such a way that allows the reader to understand why you value the quote and why this supports your own ideas.  Framing your quote by effectively bringing it into the text requires smooth and elaborated transitions (please see citation template link below).  Don’t let the quote spontaneously appear.  Remember that the quote has to be followed by correspondent analysis; don’t let the citations just dangle and then move on to another point. And also remember that your citation doesn’t do the work for you, but rather gives you the ability to do your work (assignment) as an academic writer.

Once again it’s important to bring in a quote for the purpose of furthering your argument, and not just showing the reader that you have read others’ work.  It should be noted that many times you will find a quote that seems to be great for what you imagine your essay will argue, will be, but as your essay and concepts co-evolve it no longer carries the weight that you need it to for your own rhetorical situation.  One thing to keep in mind as you piece together your thesis during the process of research and writing, you will notice changes in your evaluations and perspectives relative to the utility of the passages you’ve selected.  That’s to say that you need to choose your quotes wisely and be open to changes as your argument develops.

This link gives helpful beginner templates for framing your quotes on how to introduce, summarize, explain, and set up your analysis.