Write What Matters

Write What Matters

A modular open educational resource to support first-year writing courses in Idaho

Liza Long

Amy Minervini

Joel Gladd

MSL Academic Endeavors


Write What Matters

Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Write What Matters by Liza Long; Amy Minervini; and Joel Gladd is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

About This Book


Welcome to Write What Matters!

Have you ever wished for a comprehensive source that would steer you in the right direction through all of your reading and writing assignments? This text aims to be that kind of guide. We included lessons, examples, exercises, and definitions for many of the reading and writing-related situations that you will encounter in your first-year writing courses as well as other subject-specific classes that require writing.

This book was created as part of the 2020-2021 OPAL Fellowship for the Idaho State Board of Education. Co-editors Joel Gladd (College of Western Idaho), Liza Long (College of Western Idaho), and Amy Minervini (Lewis-Clark State College) are professors. Reviewer Jamaica Richer (University of Idaho) is a writing center director. All are OPAL Fellows.

This text was co-written and co-edited by college writing instructors with decades of experience teaching students who are entering the college reading and writing environment for the first time. Our interactive, multimedia text draws from a rich set of existing open educational resources, which were carefully curated with you in mind. In addition to you–students in first-year writing courses–other intended users include full-time and adjunct faculty at all Idaho colleges and universities, dual-credit teachers in Idaho, instructors at other institutions whose states have similar written communication competencies, and the casual user who just wants to brush up on  critical reading and writing skills.

Our Philosophy

We wanted our new text to work as a modular support for first-year writing course around the state of Idaho. Using the Idaho State Board of Education Written Communication (GEM 1) standards as our guide, we created a textbook that approaches writing and rhetoric by situation (exigency). We want our textbook to be useful to college composition instructors as a resource for a variety of writing tasks. The text is designed to allow instructors and students to choose the most useful content to support their learning. We believe this type of text fosters student-centered teaching as students learn to write what matters in a variety of academic and professional contexts.

Because we support Open Educational Resources (OER), our text represents a collaboration, reuse, and sharing of others’ Creative Commons licensed content. As much as possible, we have tried to create a text with diverse perspectives and writing styles.  Including work by multiple authors can provide a starting point for conversations in writing courses about how writing “actually works in the real world” (Wardle and Downs). We have also included writing prompts and student essays and will continue to add more resources in our ongoing revisions to reinforce and demonstrate the subjects we cover in this text. We invite you to be a part of that process by providing feedback as well as using, reusing, or remixing any of the materials in this text in accordance with the terms of their Creative Commons licenses.

How You Can Use This Text

This is a use-it-as-you-need-it kind of text. In other words, you don’t have to read every word from beginning to end, nor do we expect you to! Instead, skip around using the table of contents to find answers to your questions or to find practice exercises that will improve your reading and writing skills. You might find it useful to have this text with you as you’re planning or doing reading and writing assignments because confusion will happen, questions will come up, and we’re here to help when you need it most.

Write What Matters is designed to support, not replace, the writing instructor or writing center. Our hope is that instructors will use sections of the book that support their personal approaches to classroom instruction.  We aim to provide a useful resource for college instructors, support for part-time faculty and dual-credit teachers, and a guide for students who seek success in academic and professional writing.

How Our Text Is Organized

As mentioned in our philosophy statement, this text is loosely organized around the Seven General Education Skill Competency and Knowledge Objectives for the state of Idaho colleges and universities. According to the Idaho State Board of Education site, “Upon completion of the Written Communication component of General Education, a student will be able to

  1. Use flexible writing process strategies to generate, develop, revise, edit, and proofread texts
  2. Adopt strategies and genre that are appropriate to the rhetorical situation
  3. Use inquiry-based strategies to conduct research that explores multiple and diverse ideas and perspectives, appropriate to the rhetorical context
  4. Use rhetorically appropriate strategies to evaluate, represent, and respond to the ideas and research of others
  5. Address readers’ biases and assumptions with well-developed evidence-based reasoning
  6. Use appropriate conventions for integrating, citing, and documenting source material as well as for surface-level language and style.
  7. Read, interpret, and communicate key concepts in writing and rhetoric.

We recognize that while a few of these outcomes are self-contained, many of these competencies and objectives intersect and are addressed and integrated within various sections of our textbook.

The content of this textbook is aimed at helping students meet these learning objectives. This textbook contains 12 major sections:

    1. The Writing Process
    2.  Reading and Writing Rhetorically
    3. Essay Types
      1. Writing your story
      2. Writing to inform
      3. Writing to analyze
      4. Writing to evaluate
      5. Writing to persuade
      6. Writing for social change
      7. Writing to reflect
    4. Writing with Sources
    5. Addressing Bias and Stakeholder Claims
    6. Writing to Inquire: The Research Process
    7. Writing for Employment
    8. MLA and APA Documentation and Formatting
    9. Writing Basics
      1. What makes a good sentence
      2. Punctuation
      3. Word choice
      4. Help for English Language Learners
    10. Writing and Rhetoric Readings and Resources Collection
    11. Anti-Racist Readings and Resources
    12. Anti-Ableist Readings and Resources
    13. LBGTQIA+ Readings and Resources
    14. Feedback from you

The “Essay Types” section, which houses a number of chapters, is geared toward English 101 or similar foundational writing courses in which various modes are explored. The “Writing to Inquire” section is more appropriate for English 102 or similar inquiry or research-based writing courses. All other sections and chapters can be used for English 101 and 102 courses because these areas cover competencies that are essential to all types of academic writing. The primary content provided in each competency area has been integrated with both students’ and instructors’ cognitive load in mind. The latter part of the textbook contains supplementary readings that can be integrated as necessary to augment particular lessons or assignments. You may notice that the major part of the text you’re working within is identified at the top of the page. We hope this helps you to navigate between sections and subsections and to understand the relationships between them. When using this book in a modular fashion, instructors may link directly to the section of the book that applies to their instruction.

Gender and Gender-Neutral Language

As you read, you may notice that we use a variety of pronouns such as she/her, he/him, or they/them to refer to a person we’re discussing. Our goal is to represent all people, regardless of gender, and to do so in a balanced way. Therefore, in some paragraphs, we may designate “she” as the pronoun, while in others “he” will stand in for the person being written about. However, you’ll also come across “they” being used as a singular pronoun, which may be confusing at first. The pronoun “they” allows a single person to represent any gender, including those genders that aren’t accurately represented by “he” and “she.” It’s important to consider gender-neutral language in your own writing, so we wanted to make sure we modeled what that looks like in this text.

Culturally Relevant and Affirming

The rhetoric, lessons, examples, assignments, and readings include a range of perspectives and cultures in an effort to be inclusive. That said, if you come across a word, phrase, or sentiment that does otherwise, please do not hesitate to contact us so that we can make changes in our textbook. The Anti-Racist, Anti-Ableist, and LGBTQI+ readings and resources chapters provide content that will encourage critical thinking about issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion.  All four public colleges in Idaho identify inclusion, diversity, and equity as valued principles to uphold: Lewis-Clark State College, Idaho State University, University of Idaho, and Boise State University. Future iterations of this text will include Latinx resources.


Our textbook has been written with accessibility in mind. Instructors can upload the whole text to online learning systems, such as Blackboard, Canvas, and Google Classroom. However, we know that consistent WiFi is a problem in rural areas of our state, so the book can be downloaded in multiple formats including PDF and EPUB or MOBI files. It can also be accessed through text-to-speech readers provided through your learning institutions or other common text to speech tools, such as Read Aloud and Dragon. All videos have subtitles/closed captioning.

A Note about Citations

This text includes a combination of chapters using MLA and APA, maintaining a single format consistency within that particular chapter. Using MLA and APA mimics real-world writing in which both formats are used extensively. While you would never want to combine formats within one paper (stay consistent with just one format on a single paper), students should have knowledge of both formats that will be used throughout their college career.

A Note about Source Attribution

In addition to new content, this book draws on a variety of existing OER resources. Within each chapter there are sections written by Joel Gladd, Amy Minervini, and Liza Long, and authorial attributions are given. This book also contains other resources integrated under Creative Commons licenses. These open education resources (OER) include complete and remixed chapters and are enhanced with digital reading experience by including videos and visual reading features. Shared and remixed materials are denoted with attribution information when necessary in the shaded box at the bottom of those pages. This book was peer reviewed by Jamaica Richter. If you are interested in reviewing and/or contributing to this book, please reach out to us by using the feedback form at the end of the book.

Links and References in Online and Print Versions of This Text

The online text includes links, but we’ve used specific language to allow readers of the print version to find the same pages within the text or outside resources. For example, in the “Summarizing a Text” section, we mention an external text in this sentence: “In his essay, “Consider the Lobster,” writer David Foster Wallace asks readers to consider the ethical implications of feasting on lobsters. (You can find a copy of this essay online at Gourmet.com.)” If you’re using the print version of this text, you can find that David Foster Wallace essay by doing a web search using the title, author, and website like this: “consider the lobster david foster wallace gourmet.com.” If you’re looking for a page within this text that we’ve linked to, go to the Table of Contents, and look for the title of the relevant section there.

Note to teachers: Make sure you let students using the print version know this so they can access web resources.

Land Acknowledgement

We would like to acknowledge the traditional and ancestral lands of the Shoshone-Bannock, the Shoshone-Paiute, the Coeur d’Alene, the Kootenai, and the Nez Perce tribes on which we are teaching, learning and working today. The struggle for Indigenous rights is deeply connected to human rights. It is important that the stories and traditions from tribal nations are heard, celebrated, and protected.

Professional Acknowledgements

Co-editors: Joel Gladd, Liza Long, andAmy Minervini

Reviewers: Jamaica Ritcher and Ryan Witt

We would like to thank the following people/entities:

Jonathan Lashley, Associate Chief Academic Officer, Idaho State Board of Education

Open Pedagogy + Advocacy + Leadership in Idaho Fellowship

Apurva Ashok, Program Manager, Rebus Foundation

Lewis-Clark State College Humanities Department and administration

College of Western Idaho English Department and administration

University of Idaho Writing Center and administration

Rebus community

Pressbooks platform

About the Authors

Amy Minervini

I’m thrilled to be working for Lewis-Clark State College as an instructor in the Humanities Division. My passion is teaching rhetoric and composition courses (English 101 & English 102) and helping students to become stronger writers and critical thinkers. I also teach a content methods, intro to literature, and journalism course and am a strong advocate for our awesome student newspaper, The Pathfinder.  I graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature in 1997 and my Master of Arts in English Literature in 1999, both from University of Idaho. I also have minors in Spanish and journalism.

As a strong believer in lifelong learning, I more recently earned my post-baccalaureate degree from Lewis-Clark State College in secondary education with an English/Language Arts emphasis. My broadened knowledge base in pedagogy as well as the middle and high school student populations have helped me to better understand the strengths and challenges of incoming freshman at LCSC. A longtime resident of the Valley, I love spending time with my two kids and parents and exploring our beautiful corner of the world. I enjoy archery, golfing, tinkering with new technology, thrift shopping, and of course, surfing Netflix. There are risks and costs to action. But they are far less than the long range risks of comfortable inaction. –John F. Kennedy

Liza Long

I am an author, educator, and mother of four children, one of whom has bipolar disorder. My book, The Price of Silence: A Mom’s Perspective on Mental Illness (Hudson Street Press, 2014), was a “Books for a Better Life” award winner. My essays have appeared in USA Today, the Huffington Post, Psychology Today, Time.com, The Mighty, MindBodyGreen, Good Men Project, and Boise State University’s The Blue Review, among others. Since my essay “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother” went viral, I have appeared on the Today Show, Good Morning America, Erin Burnett Out Front, Anderson Cooper 360, Don Lemon, Dr. Oz, the Diane Rehm Show, NPR’s Weekend Edition, and other programs. I presented talks on children’s mental health and stigma at TEDx San Antonio in October 2013 and at the National Council for Behavioral Health in March 2016. I was featured in the Peabody award-winning HBO documentary A Dangerous Son in May 2018 and participated in the 2019 Columbine documentary, An American Tragedy.

I hold a B.A. in Classics from Brigham Young University (1994); an M.A. in Classics from the University of California, Los Angeles (1997), and an Ed.D. in Organizational Leadership from Argosy University (2016). My dissertation research focused on mental health advocacy and leadership strengths. I am an assistant professor of English at the College of Western Idaho and live in Eagle, Idaho. I am passionate about inclusivity and diversity and believe that education has the power to change lives for the better.

Joel Gladd

My B.A. is in English and Philosophy, from Wake Forest University (2004). I earned a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in Literary Studies (2013). In 2013, I began teaching at the College of Western Idaho, where I currently specialize in teaching Writing and Rhetoric and American Literature. My content expertise is in American literature, but I’m equally passionate about open access, open education, and inclusive teaching pedagogy. I consider digital tools such as the Pressbooks platform, Hypothesis, and H5P to be important components of inclusive pedagogy, rather than merely “ed-tech” add-ons. I see this open textbook, Write What Matters, as a living platform for engagement—for students, certainly, but also other teachers and professors.

Creative Commons Licensing

This book is licensed under a Creative Commons as CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0.

We wish you well on your academic journey, and we hope this first-year writing OER textbook supports you throughout your first college writing courses and beyond.

Sources for this page: The Word on College Reading and Writing by Carol Burnell, Jaime Wood, Monique Babin, Susan Pesznecker, and Nicole Rosevear is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License

English Composition by Contributing Authors is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Idaho State Board of Education Written Communication General Education Skill Competency and Knowledge Objectives


The Writing Process


This section introduces students to the writing process for college essay assignments. It can be read sequentially, beginning with Critical Reading and ending with Revise and Edit. A sequential reading pairs nicely with research-based academic essays, which is also covered by the parts Writing to Persuade and Writing to Inquire.

On the other hand, many of the following chapters can be read in isolation from the others to help with a particular assignment or stage within it. “Critical Reading” covers reading foundational strategies that apply to many assignments and even different courses. The three chapters on Drafting, as well as “Revise and Edit,” also apply to most academic essay writing situations.

While these chapters cover the basics of reading, pre-writing, drafting, and revision, they are not intended to prepare students for particular genres of writing assignments, such as how to draft an informative essay or a personal narrative. Those sections are covered separately, in other Parts of this textbook.

Visual of the writing process
The Writing Process. CC-BY-4.0.



Critical Reading


This chapter focuses on the importance of critical reading in the writing process.

Visual of the writing process
Critical Reading is the first part of the Writing Process. CC-BY-4.0.

I. How is reading for college different?

As you begin this chapter, you may be wondering why you need an introduction. After all, you have been writing and reading since elementary school. You completed numerous assessments of your reading and writing skills in high school and as part of your application process for college. You may write on the job, too. Why is a college writing course even necessary?

When you are eager to get started on the coursework in your major that will prepare you for your career, getting excited about an introductory college writing course can be difficult. However, regardless of your field of study, honing your writing skills—and your reading and critical-thinking skills—gives you a more solid academic foundation.

In college, academic expectations change from what you may have experienced in high school. The quantity of work you are expected to do is increased. When instructors expect you to read pages upon pages or study hours and hours for one particular course, managing your work load can be challenging. This chapter includes strategies for studying efficiently and managing your time.

The quality of the work you do also changes. It is not enough to understand course material and summarize it on an exam. You will also be expected to seriously engage with new ideas by reflecting on them, analyzing them, critiquing them, making connections, drawing conclusions, or finding new ways of thinking about a given subject. Educationally, you are moving into deeper waters. A good introductory writing course will help you swim.

Table 1.1 “High School versus College Assignments” summarizes some of the other major differences between high school and college assignments:

Table 1.1. High School vs. College Reading Assignments
High School  Reading Assignments College Reading Assignments
Reading assignments are moderately long. Teachers may set aside some class time for reading and reviewing the material in depth. Some reading assignments may be very long. You will be expected to come to class with a basic understanding of the material.
Teachers often provide study guides and other aids to help you prepare for exams. Reviewing for exams is primarily your responsibility.
Your grade is determined by your performance on a wide variety of assessments, including minor and major assignments. Not all assessments are writing based. Your grade may depend on just a few major assessments. Most assessments are writing based.
Writing assignments include personal writing and creative writing in addition to expository writing. Outside of creative writing courses, most writing assignments are expository.
The structure and format of writing assignments is generally stable over a four-year period. Depending on the course, you may be asked to master new forms of writing and follow standards within a particular professional field.
Teachers often go out of their way to identify and try to help students who are performing poorly on exams, missing classes, not turning in assignments, or just struggling with the course. Often teachers will give students many “second chances.” Although teachers want their students to succeed, they may not always realize when students are struggling. They also expect you to be proactive and take steps to help yourself. “Second chances” are less common.

This chapter covers the types of reading and writing assignments you will encounter as a college student. You will also learn a variety of strategies for mastering these new challenges—and becoming a more confident student and writer.

Throughout this chapter, you will follow a first-year student named Crystal. After several years of working as a saleswoman in a department store, Crystal has decided to pursue a degree in elementary education and become a teacher. She is continuing to work part-time, and occasionally she finds it challenging to balance the demands of work, school, and caring for her four-year-old son. As you read about Crystal, think about how you can use her experience to get the most out of your own college experience.

Exercise 1.1

Review Table 1.1 “High School versus College Assignments” and think about how you have found your college experience to be different from high school so far. Respond to the following questions:

  1. In what ways do you think college will be more rewarding for you as a learner?
  2. What aspects of college do you expect to find most challenging?
  3. What changes do you think you might have to make in your life to ensure your success in college?

II. Reading Strategies

Your college courses will sharpen both your reading and your writing skills. Most of your writing assignments—from brief response papers to in-depth research projects—will depend on your understanding of course reading assignments or related readings you do on your own. And it is difficult, if not impossible, to write effectively about a text that you have not understood. Even when you do understand the reading, it can be hard to write about it if you do not feel personally engaged with the ideas discussed.

This section discusses strategies you can use to get the most out of your college reading assignments. These strategies fall into three broad categories:

  1. Planning strategies. To help you manage your reading assignments.
  2. Comprehension strategies. To help you understand the material.
  3. Active reading strategies. To take your understanding to a higher and deeper level.

Planning Your Reading

Have you ever stayed up all night cramming just before an exam? Or found yourself skimming a detailed memo from your boss five minutes before a crucial meeting? The first step in handling college reading successfully is planning. This involves both managing your time and setting a clear purpose for your reading.

Managing Your Reading Time

Focus on setting aside enough time for reading and breaking your assignments into manageable chunks. If you are assigned a seventy-page chapter to read for next week’s class, try not to wait until the night before to get started. Give yourself at least a few days and tackle one section at a time.

Your method for breaking up the assignment will depend on the type of reading. If the text is very dense and packed with unfamiliar terms and concepts, you may need to read no more than five or ten pages in one sitting so that you can truly understand and process the information. With more user-friendly texts, you will be able to handle longer sections—twenty to forty pages, for instance. And if you have a highly engaging reading assignment, such as a novel you cannot put down, you may be able to read lengthy passages in one sitting.

As the semester progresses, you will develop a better sense of how much time you need to allow for the reading assignments in different subjects. It also makes sense to preview each assignment well in advance to assess its difficulty level and to determine how much reading time to set aside.

Setting a Purpose

The other key component of planning is setting a purpose. Knowing what you want to get out of a reading assignment helps you determine how to approach it and how much time to spend on it. It also helps you stay focused during those occasional moments when it is late, you are tired, and relaxing in front of the television sounds far more appealing than curling up with a stack of journal articles.Sometimes your purpose is simple. You might just need to understand the reading material well enough to discuss it intelligently in class the next day. However, your purpose will often go beyond that. For instance, you might also read to compare two texts, to formulate a personal response to a text, or to gather ideas for future research. Here are some questions to ask to help determine your purpose:

  • How did my instructor frame the assignment? Often your instructors will tell you what they expect you to get out of the reading:

    • Read Chapter 2 and come to class prepared to discuss current teaching practices in elementary math.
    • Read these two articles and compare Smith’s and Jones’s perspectives on the 2010 health care reform bill.
    • Read Chapter 5 and think about how you could apply these guidelines to running your own business.
  • How deeply do I need to understand the reading? If you are majoring in computer science and you are assigned to read Chapter 1, “Introduction to Computer Science,” it is safe to assume the chapter presents fundamental concepts that you will be expected to master. However, for some reading assignments, you may be expected to form a general understanding but not necessarily master the content. Again, pay attention to how your instructor presents the assignment.
  • How does this assignment relate to other course readings or to concepts discussed in class? Your instructor may make some of these connections explicitly, but if not, try to draw connections on your own. (Needless to say, it helps to take detailed notes both when in class and when you read.)
  • How might I use this text again in the future? If you are assigned to read about a topic that has always interested you, your reading assignment might help you develop ideas for a future research paper. Some reading assignments provide valuable tips or summaries worth bookmarking for future reference. Think about what you can take from the reading that will stay with you.

Improving Your Comprehension

You have blocked out time for your reading assignments and set a purpose for reading. Now comes the challenge: making sure you actually understand all the information you are expected to process. Some of your reading assignments will be fairly straightforward. Others, however, will be longer or more complex, so you will need a plan for how to handle them.

For any expository writing—that is, nonfiction, informational writing—your first comprehension goal is to identify the main points and relate any details to those main points. Because college-level texts can be challenging, you will also need to monitor your reading comprehension. That is, you will need to stop periodically and assess how well you understand what you are reading. Finally, you can improve comprehension by taking time to determine which strategies work best for you and putting those strategies into practice.

Identifying the Main Points

In college, you will read a wide variety of materials, including the following:

  • Textbooks. These usually include summaries, glossaries, comprehension questions, and other study aids.
  • Nonfiction trade books. These are less likely to include the study features found in textbooks.
  • Popular magazine, newspaper, or web articles. These are usually written for a general audience.
  • Scholarly books and journal articles. These are written for an audience of specialists in a given field.

Regardless of what type of expository text you are assigned to read, your primary comprehension goal is to identify the main point: the most important idea that the writer wants to communicate and often states early on. Finding the main point gives you a framework to organize the details presented in the reading and relate the reading to concepts you learned in class or through other reading assignments. After identifying the main point, you will find the supporting points, the details, facts, and explanations that develop and clarify the main point.

Some texts make that task relatively easy. Textbooks, for instance, include the aforementioned features as well as headings and subheadings intended to make it easier for students to identify core concepts. Graphic features, such as sidebars, diagrams, and charts, help students understand complex information and distinguish between essential and inessential points. When you are assigned to read from a textbook, be sure to use available comprehension aids to help you identify the main points.

Trade books and popular articles may not be written specifically for an educational purpose; nevertheless, they also include features that can help you identify the main ideas. These features include the following:

  • Trade books. Many trade books include an introduction that presents the writer’s main ideas and purpose for writing. Reading chapter titles (and any subtitles within the chapter) will help you get a broad sense of what is covered. It also helps to read the beginning and ending paragraphs of a chapter closely. These paragraphs often sum up the main ideas presented.
  • Popular articles. Reading the headings and introductory paragraphs carefully is crucial. In magazine articles, these features (along with the closing paragraphs) present the main concepts. Hard news articles in newspapers present the gist of the news story in the lead paragraph, while subsequent paragraphs present increasingly general details.

At the far end of the reading difficulty scale are scholarly books and journal articles. Because these texts are written for a specialized, highly educated audience, the authors presume their readers are already familiar with the topic. The language and writing style is sophisticated and sometimes dense.

When you read scholarly books and journal articles, try to apply the same strategies discussed earlier. The introduction usually presents the writer’s thesis, the idea or hypothesis the writer is trying to prove. Headings and subheadings can help you understand how the writer has organized support for his or her thesis. Additionally, academic journal articles often include a summary at the beginning, called an abstract, and electronic databases include summaries of articles, too.

Monitoring Your Comprehension

Finding the main idea and paying attention to text features as you read helps you figure out what you should know. Just as important, however, is being able to figure out what you do not know and developing a strategy to deal with it.

Textbooks, such as this one, often include comprehension questions in the margins or at the end of a section or chapter. As you read, stop occasionally to answer these questions on paper or in your head. Use them to identify sections you may need to reread, read more carefully, or ask your instructor about later. Many instructors pair readings with comprehension quizzes. If that’s the case, look at the quiz questions first (if possible), and use those as guides for how to train your attention.

Even when a text does not have built-in comprehension features, you can actively monitor your own comprehension. Try these strategies, adapting them as needed to suit different kinds of texts:

  1. Summarize. At the end of each section, pause to summarize the main points in a few sentences. If you have trouble doing so, revisit that section.
  2. Ask and answer questions. When you begin reading a section, try to identify two to three questions you should be able to answer after you finish it. Write down your questions and use them to test yourself on the reading. If you cannot answer a question, try to determine why. Is the answer buried in that section of reading but just not coming across to you? Or do you expect to find the answer in another part of the reading?
  3. Do not read in a vacuum. Look for opportunities to discuss the reading with your classmates. Many instructors set up online discussion forums or blogs specifically for that purpose. Participating in these discussions can help you determine whether your understanding of the main points is the same as your peers’.

These discussions can also serve as a reality check. If everyone in the class struggled with the reading, it may be exceptionally challenging. If it was a breeze for everyone but you, you may need to see your instructor for help.

As a working mother, Crystal found that the best time to get her reading done was in the evening, after she had put her four-year-old to bed. However, she occasionally had trouble concentrating at the end of a long day. She found that by actively working to summarize the reading and asking and answering questions, she focused better and retained more of what she read. She also found that evenings were a good time to check the class discussion forums that a few of her instructors had created.

Exercise 1.2

Choose any text that that you have been assigned to read for one of your college courses. In your notes, complete the following tasks:

  1. Summarize the main points of the text in two to three sentences.
  2. Write down two to three questions about the text that you can bring up during class discussion.

Taking It to the Next Level: Active Reading

Now that you have acquainted (or reacquainted) yourself with useful planning and comprehension strategies, college reading assignments may feel more manageable. You know what you need to do to get your reading done and make sure you grasp the main points. However, the most successful students in college are not only competent readers but active, engaged readers.

SQ3R Strategy

One strategy you can use to become a more active, engaged reader is the SQ3R strategy, a step-by-step process to follow before, during, and after reading. You may already use some variation of it. In essence, the process works like this:

  1. Survey the text in advance.
  2. Form questions before you start reading.
  3. Read the text, and filter the information according to the guiding questions.
  4. Recite and/or record important points during and after reading.
  5. Review and reflect on the text after you read.

Survey: Before you read, you survey, or preview, the text. As noted earlier, reading introductory paragraphs and headings can help you begin to figure out the author’s main point and identify what important topics will be covered. Simply paying attention to the title of the piece can provide important clues. However, surveying does not stop there. Look over sidebars, photographs, and any other text or graphic features that catch your eye. Skim a few paragraphs. Preview any boldfaced or italicized vocabulary terms. This will help you form a first impression of the material.

Question: Next, start brainstorming questions about the text, or carefully read any questions that have been provided to you by the instructor or textbook. What do you expect to learn from the reading? You may find that some questions come to mind immediately based on your initial survey or based on previous readings and class discussions. If not, try using headings and subheadings in the text to formulate questions. For instance, if one heading in your textbook reads “Medicare and Medicaid,” you might ask yourself these questions:

  • When was Medicare and Medicaid legislation enacted? Why?
  • What are the major differences between these two programs?

Although some of your questions may be simple factual questions, try to come up with a few that are more open-ended. Asking in-depth questions will help you stay more engaged as you read.

Read: The next step is simple: read. As you read, notice whether your first impressions of the text were correct. Are the author’s main points and overall approach about the same as what you predicted—or does the text contain a few surprises? Also, look for answers to your earlier questions and begin forming new questions. Continue to revise your impressions and questions as you read.

Recite/Record: While you are reading, pause occasionally to recite or record important points. It is best to do this at the end of each section or when there is an obvious shift in the writer’s train of thought. Put the book aside for a moment and recite aloud the main points of the section or any important answers you found there. You might also record ideas by jotting down a few brief notes in addition to, or instead of, reciting aloud. Either way, the physical act of articulating information makes you more likely to remember it.

Review & Reflect: After you have completed the reading, take some time to review the material more thoroughly. If the textbook includes review questions or your instructor has provided a study guide, use these tools to guide your review. You will want to record information in a more detailed format than you used during reading, such as in an outline or a list.

As you review the material, reflect on what you learned. Did anything surprise you, upset you, or make you think? Did you find yourself strongly agreeing or disagreeing with any points in the text? What topics would you like to explore further? Jot down your reflections in your notes. (Instructors sometimes require students to write brief response papers or maintain a reading journal. Use these assignments to help you reflect on what you read.)

Exercise 1.3

Choose another text that that you have been assigned to read for a class. Use the SQ3R process to complete the reading. (Keep in mind that you may need to spread the reading over more than one session, especially if the text is long.)

Be sure to complete all the steps involved. Then, reflect on how helpful you found this process. On a scale of one to ten, how useful did you find it? How does it compare with other study techniques you have used?

PHA Stragegy

Another active-reading strategy, developed by Liza Long, Ph.D., at the College of Western Idaho, simplifies the SQ3R process into three phases, or PHA: 1) Preview, 2) Highlight, 3) Annotate.


The first time you read the text, simply preview it. Skim the entire assignment, trying to get a sense for the content and level of difficulty. What is the main idea of the chapter? Are several concepts presented? Are they unfamiliar to you? Are the words difficult to understand? On a scale of 1-5, 1 being very easy, and 5 being very hard, rate the level of difficulty of the reading passage.

Very Easy Easy Moderate Difficult Very Difficult
1 2 3 4 5





This is the most time consuming phase of reading.

  • Make sure you are in a quiet place, free from distractions.
  • Have a highlighter, a pencil, or other instrument (post-it flags, etc.) ready to use.
  • Read each sentence closely. If something sticks out to you or seems important, highlight it. Similarly, if you are struggling to understand something, highlight that as well, perhaps using a “?” to note the difficult passage.
  • Look up any words that are unfamiliar in a dictionary.
  • Reading out loud or listening to an audio version of the text may help you with comprehension.

The third phase of reading is where you make connections and ask questions. You may want to make notes in the margin as you read, or you may use a separate piece of paper. For each passage, think about ways it might apply to what you are studying in your course.

  • Do you agree with what you are reading?
  • Does it remind you of previous things you have learned, either in this class or in another?
  • Do you have personal experience with the concepts discussed?
  • Do you need clarification or more information about a concept?

Other Active Reading Strategies

The SQ3R and Preview-Highlight-Annotate processes encompass a number of valuable active reading strategies: previewing a text, making predictions, asking and answering questions, and summarizing. You can use the following additional strategies to further deepen your understanding of what you read.

  • Connect what you read to what you already know. Look for ways the reading supports, extends, or challenges concepts you have learned elsewhere.
  • Relate the reading to your own life. What statements, people, or situations relate to your personal experiences?
  • Visualize. For both fiction and nonfiction texts, try to picture what is described. Visualizing is especially helpful when you are reading a narrative text, such as a novel or a historical account, or when you read expository text that describes a process, such as how to perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR).
  • Pay attention to graphics as well as text. Photographs, diagrams, flow charts, tables, and other graphics can help make abstract ideas more concrete and understandable.
  • Understand the text in context. Understanding context means thinking about who wrote the text, when and where it was written, the author’s purpose for writing it, and what assumptions or agendas influenced the author’s ideas. For instance, two writers might both address the subject of health care reform, but if one article is an opinion piece and one is a news story, the context is different.
  • Plan to talk or write about what you read. Jot down a few questions or comments in your notebook so you can bring them up in class. (This also gives you a source of topic ideas for papers and presentations later in the semester.) Discuss the reading on a class discussion board or blog about it.

As Crystal began her first semester of elementary education courses, she occasionally felt lost in a sea of new terms and theories about teaching and child development. She found that it helped to relate the reading to her personal observations of her son and other kids she knew.

Writing at Work

Many college courses require students to participate in interactive online components, such as a discussion forum, a page on a social networking site, or a class blog. These tools are a great way to reinforce learning. Do not be afraid to be the student who starts the discussion.

Remember that when you interact with other students and teachers online, you need to project a mature, professional image. You may be able to use an informal, conversational tone, but complaining about the work load, using off-color language, or “flaming” other participants is inappropriate.

Active reading can benefit you in ways that go beyond just earning good grades. By practicing these strategies, you will find yourself more interested in your courses and better able to relate your academic work to the rest of your life. Being an interested, engaged student also helps you form lasting connections with your instructors and with other students that can be personally and professionally valuable. In short, it helps you get the most out of your education.


This chapter has been adapted from Writing for Success, Chapter 1, CC-BY-NC-SA. Some sections from the chapter have been removed, and minor formatting adjustments were made. The sub-section within Active Reading, “PHA”, is original content by Liza Long, Ph.D.


Generate Ideas


The previous chapter, Critical Reading, suggested that college reading is often more intentional and highly targeted than other forms. In many courses, especially composition courses, much of the reading is embedded within a unit of the course that culminates in a major essay assignment. This chapter, Generate Ideas, assumes a student has been practicing critical reading strategies and has collected a number of ideas for the upcoming essay. Once they’re familiar with enough information about a topic and particular assignment, a student will be in the position to generate interesting ideas and develop a thesis statement.

Visual of the writing process
After reading texts critically, Generate Ideas comes next in The Writing Process. CC-BY-4.0.

In this chapter, you will follow a writer as they prepare a piece of writing. You will also be planning one of your own. The first important step is for you to tell yourself why you are writing (to inform, to explain, or some other purpose) and for whom you are writing. Write your purpose and your audience on your own sheet of paper, and keep the paper close by as you read and complete exercises in this chapter.

My purpose: ____________________________________________

My audience: ____________________________________________


If you think that a blank sheet of paper or a blinking cursor on the computer screen is a scary sight, you are not alone. Many writers, students, and employees find that beginning to write can be intimidating. When faced with a blank page, however, experienced writers remind themselves that writing, like other everyday activities, is a process. Every process, from writing to cooking, bike riding, and learning to use a new cell phone, will get significantly easier with practice.

Just as you need a recipe, ingredients, and proper tools to cook a delicious meal, you also need a plan, resources, and adequate time to create a good written composition. In other words, writing is a process that requires following steps and using strategies to accomplish your goals.

Effective writing can be simply described as good ideas that are expressed well and arranged in the proper order. This chapter will give you the chance to work on all these important aspects of writing. Although many more prewriting strategies exist, this chapter covers several: identifying your topic and asking questions, critical reading, freewriting, brainstorming, and mapping. Using the strategies in this chapter can help you overcome the fear of the blank page and confidently begin the writing process.

Identify Your Topic and Formulate Related Questions

In addition to understanding that writing is a process, writers also understand that identifying the topic (sometimes called the “scope”) for an assignment is an essential step. Sometimes your instructor will give you an idea to begin an assignment, and other times your instructor will ask you to come up with a topic on your own. A good topic not only covers what an assignment will be about but also fits the assignment’s purpose and its audience.

Add a line for topic to your worksheet:

My purpose: ____________________________________________

My audience: ____________________________________________

My topic: ____________________________________________

However, general topics, such as “mass media” or “happiness”, are so vague that it can be difficult to get started on a project. Many students have been given topical assignments before, such as “What does the word ‘freedom’ mean to you?” or “Write about ‘Love'”. Sometimes college applications ask students to write their personal essay sample based on a random topic that’s intentionally vague, because very broad topics allow students to go in nearly any direction they wish, a condition ripe for expressing voice. When writing within college courses, these kinds of open-ended topical assignments are much rarer. More often, an instructor will assign an essay and offer guiding questions; or, students in a research course will be tasked with formulating interesting questions to help drive original research. One way or the other, it’s incredibly important that a student clearly identifies pertinent questions as soon as possible in the writing process. Each stage is driven by asking and then attempting to answer clear questions.

Add a few related questions underneath your topic.

My purpose: ____________________________________________

My audience: ____________________________________________

My topic: ____________________________________________

Related questions: ____________________________________________


Freewriting is an exercise in which you write freely about any topic for a set amount of time (usually three to five minutes). During the time limit, you may jot down any thoughts that come to your mind. Try not to worry about grammar, spelling, or punctuation. Instead, write as quickly as you can without stopping. If you get stuck, just copy the same word or phrase over and over until you come up with a new thought.

Freewriting, and writing more generally, often comes easier when you have a personal connection with the topic you have chosen. Identifying personal experiences and observations that connect with your topic also cultivates voice, an important aspect of rhetorical persuasion.

You may also think about readings that you have enjoyed or that have challenged your thinking. Doing this may lead your thoughts in interesting directions.

Quickly recording your thoughts on paper will help you discover what you have to say about a topic. When writing quickly, try not to doubt or question your ideas. Allow yourself to write freely and un-selfconsciously. Once you start writing with few limitations, you may find you have more to say than you first realized. Your flow of thoughts can lead you to discover even more ideas about the topic. Freewriting may even lead you to discover another topic that excites you even more.


On the same worksheet as you started above, which identified the Purpose, Audience, Topic, and Related Questions, add a section below it titled “Freewrite”. Then freewrite about about your personal experience with the topic and related questions. Write without stopping, for 5 minutes. When freewriting, try to be specific. If you can recount specific experiences that happened at a certain time and location, even better. If you can’t, just write about whatever comes to mind.

My purpose: ____________________________________________

My audience: ____________________________________________

My topic: ____________________________________________

Related questions: ____________________________________________

5-Minute freewrite:

Critical Reading

The previous chapter, on Critical Reading, already emphasized the importance of reading in the writing process. It figures prominently in the development of ideas and topics. Different kinds of documents can help you choose a topic and also develop that topic. For example, a magazine advertising the latest research on the threat of global warming may catch your eye in the supermarket. This cover may interest you, and you may consider global warming as a topic. Or maybe a novel’s courtroom drama sparks your curiosity of a particular lawsuit or legal controversy.

After identifying the topic and related questions, critical reading is essential to its development. While reading almost any document, you evaluate the author’s point of view by thinking about their main idea and his support. When you judge the author’s argument, you discover more about not only the author’s opinion but also your own. If this step already seems daunting, remember that even the best writers need to use prewriting strategies to generate ideas.

In research-based essay assignments, the instructor of the course may ask you track your critical reading with an annotated bibliography. Annotated Bibliographies are covered in the Research Writing portion of this textbook.


The more you plan in the beginning by reading and using prewriting strategies, the less time you may spend writing and editing later because your ideas will develop more swiftly.

Divergent Prewriting Strategies

One of the fundamental aspects of creative thinking is the interplay between divergent and convergent thinking. Divergent thinking refers to the process of collecting and generating as many ideas as possible. It’s exploratory and can be playful. Similar to freewriting, divergent prewriting techniques allow the write to roam free. The most commonly utilized divergent strategies are brainstorming and idea mapping.


Brainstorming is similar to list making. You can make a list on your own or in a group with your classmates. Start with a blank sheet of paper (or a blank computer document) and write your general topic, issue, or debate questions across the top. Underneath your topic, make a list of related ideas or different responses to the question. Often you will find that one item can lead to the next, creating a flow of ideas that can help you narrow your focus to a more specific paper topic.


On the same worksheet as you started above, including the purpose, audience, topic, and related questions, now add a table with one or two guiding questions at the top. Then, in the space beneath each question, jot down as many responses as possible, based on any research you’ve done so far, as well as your personal experiences, observations, and hunches.

My purpose: ____________________________________________

My audience: ____________________________________________

My topic: ____________________________________________

Related questions: ____________________________________________

Brainstorming List:

  • [response 1]
  • [response 2]
  • [response 3]
  • [response 4]
  • [response 5]

In debate-driven assignments, such as an argument essay, the table might have two or three questions as the topic, corresponding to certain possible positions someone might take in response to an issue. The table should be adapted to your assignment needs.

Idea Mapping

Idea mapping allows you to visualize your ideas on paper using circles, lines, and arrows. This technique is also known as clustering because ideas are broken down and clustered, or grouped together. Many writers like this method because the shapes show how the ideas relate or connect, and writers can uncover unexpected connection. Using idea mapping, you might discover interesting connections between sources, ideas, other voices, and experiences that you had not thought of before.

To create an idea map, start with your general topic, guiding question or guiding in a circle in the center of a blank sheet of paper. Then write specific ideas around it and use lines or arrows to connect them together. Add and cluster as many ideas as you can think of.

The idea map example below is fairly basic. It begins with a general topic (mass media) and then expands into several different bubbles.

Idea Map example
Idea Map. From Writing For Success. CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0.

Notice the largest circle contains her general topic, mass media. Then, the general topic branches into two subtopics written in two smaller circles: television and radio. The subtopic television branches into even more specific topics: cable and DVDs. From there, the writer drew more circles and wrote more specific ideas: high definition and digital recording from cable and Blu-ray from DVDs. The radio topic led the student to draw connections between music, downloads versus CDs, and, finally, piracy.

From this idea map, the student saw they could consider narrowing the focus of her mass media topic to the more specific topic of music piracy.

Exercise 2.1

On the same worksheet as you started above, including the purpose, audience, topic, and related questions, now add space for an idea map, with your main topic, issue, or guiding question shown in the largest circle. From there, add as many circles as you can, based on any research you’ve done so far, as well as your personal experiences, observations, and hunches. Several free web apps are available for students to use as well, such as mindmup.com.

My purpose: ____________________________________________

My audience: ____________________________________________

My topic: ____________________________________________

Related questions: ____________________________________________

Idea Map:



Moving from Divergent to Convergent Thinking

The end of the idea generation stage should result in a variety of ideas you might want to use in your own essay. In a persuasive essay, for example, some of these ideas might eventually become voices you embed as counterarguments, and others might become evidence for a particular point. What matters is that you are able to collect as many ideas as possible, based on all of the resources you have at your disposal. The next stage in the writing process, Develop a Thesis, pivots from divergent to convergent thinking.

This chapter has been adapted from University of Minnesota’s Writing for Success, Chapter 8, “Apply Prewriting Models”, CC-BY-NC-SA. The chapter title has been changed, and sub-sections have been take out. The exercises have been added by the editors of this textbook.


Develop Thesis


The previous chapter, on Generating Ideas, emphasized the role of divergent thinking in the writing process. Before beginning a draft, it’s important to draw on a range of personal experiences and observations, as well as critical reading. Brainstorming techniques help collect all of these ideas into a single place. After brainstorming, a writer is ready for the convergent process of selecting the various information and ideas they wish to use in their essay. The goal of this selection process is to develop an overarching thesis statement that captures everything the writer wishes to say. This chapter focuses on that selection process, as well as how to formulate a clear and succinct statement. If this chapter is being used to help begin an essay draft, we recommend that a student first complete the exercises in the previous chapter. The previous chapter asked you to record a few things on a worksheet or document: your purpose and audience, the topic, and related questions. To help brainstorm fresh ideas, that chapter suggested a freewriting exercise, list-making, and/or “idea mapping. The brainstorming exercises should have provided you with possible supporting points for your working thesis statement.

diagram of the writing process
After generating ideas, “Develop Thesis” comes next in The Writing Process.

Why are thesis statements necessary?

Have you ever known a person who was not very good at telling stories? You probably had trouble following his train of thought as he jumped around from point to point, either being too brief in places that needed further explanation or providing too many details on a meaningless element. Maybe he told the end of the story first, then moved to the beginning and later added details to the middle. His ideas were probably scattered, and the story did not flow very well. When the story was over, you probably had many questions.

Just as a personal anecdote can be a disorganized mess, an essay can fall into the same trap of being out of order and confusing. That is why writers need a thesis statement to provide a specific focus for their essay and to organize what they are about to discuss in the body.

Just like a topic sentence summarizes a single paragraph, the thesis statement summarizes an entire essay. It tells the reader the point you want to make in your essay, while the essay itself supports that point. It is like a signpost that signals the essay’s destination. You should form your thesis before you begin to organize an essay, but you may find that it needs revision as the essay develops.

Elements of a Thesis Statement

For every essay you write, you must focus on a central idea. This idea stems from a topic you have chosen or been assigned or from a question your teacher has asked. It is not enough merely to discuss a general topic or simply answer a question with a yes or no. You have to form a specific opinion, and then articulate that into a controlling idea—the main idea upon which you build your thesis.

Remember that a thesis is not the topic itself, but rather your interpretation of the question or subject. For whatever topic your professor gives you, you must ask yourself, “What do I want to say about it?” Asking and then answering this question is vital to forming a thesis that is precise, forceful and confident.

A thesis is one sentence long and appears toward the end of your introduction. It is specific and focuses on one to three points of a single idea—points that are able to be demonstrated in the body. It forecasts the content of the essay and suggests how you will organize your information. Remember that a thesis statement does not summarize an issue but rather dissects it.

A strong thesis contains the following qualities:

Specificity. A thesis statement must concentrate on a specific area of a general topic. As you may recall, the creation of a thesis statement begins when you choose a broad subject and then narrow down its parts until you pinpoint a specific aspect of that topic. For example, health care is a broad topic, but a proper thesis statement would focus on a specific area of that topic, such as options for individuals without health care coverage.

Precision. A strong thesis statement must be precise enough to allow for a coherent argument and to remain focused on the topic. If the specific topic is options for individuals without health care coverage, then your precise thesis statement must make an exact claim about it, such as that limited options exist for those who are uninsured by their employers. You must further pinpoint what you are going to discuss regarding these limited effects, such as whom they affect and what the cause is.

Ability to be argued. A thesis statement must present a relevant and specific argument. A factual statement often is not considered arguable. Be sure your thesis statement contains a point of view that can be supported with evidence.

Ability to be demonstrated. For any claim you make in your thesis, you must be able to provide reasons and examples for your opinion. You can rely on personal observations in order to do this, or you can consult outside sources to demonstrate that what you assert is valid. A worthy argument is backed by examples and details.

Forcefulness. A thesis statement that is forceful shows readers that you are, in fact, making an argument. The tone is assertive and takes a stance that others might oppose.

Confidence. In addition to using force in your thesis statement, you must also use confidence in your claim. Phrases such as I feel or I believe actually weaken the readers’ sense of your confidence because these phrases imply that you are the only person who feels the way you do. In other words, your stance has insufficient backing. Taking an authoritative stance on the matter persuades your readers to have faith in your argument and open their minds to what you have to say. If you want to use the first person, phrases such as I argue  or I contend sound more authoritative.


Even in a personal essay that allows the use of first person, your thesis should not contain phrases such as in my opinion or I believe. These statements reduce your credibility and weaken your argument. Your opinion is more convincing when you use a firm attitude.

Exercise 3.1

On a separate sheet of paper, write a thesis statement for each of the following topics. Remember to make each statement specific, precise, demonstrable, forceful and confident.


  • Texting while driving
  • The legal drinking age in the United States
  • Steroid use among professional athletes
  • Abortion
  • Racism

Each of the following thesis statements meets several of the following requirements:

  • Specificity
  • Precision
  • Ability to be argued
  • Ability to be demonstrated
  • Forcefulness
  • Confidence
  1. The societal and personal struggles of Troy Maxon in the play Fences symbolize the challenge of black males who lived through segregation and integration in the United States.
  2. Closing all American borders for a period of five years is one solution that will tackle illegal immigration.
  3. Shakespeare’s use of dramatic irony in Romeo and Juliet spoils the outcome for the audience and weakens the plot.
  4. J. D. Salinger’s character in Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield, is a confused rebel who voices his disgust with phonies, yet in an effort to protect himself, he acts like a phony on many occasions.
  5. Compared to an absolute divorce, no-fault divorce is less expensive, promotes fairer settlements, and reflects a more realistic view of the causes for marital breakdown.
  6. Exposing children from an early age to the dangers of drug abuse is a sure method of preventing future drug addicts.
  7. In today’s crumbling job market, a high school diploma is not significant enough education to land a stable, lucrative job.


You can find thesis statements in many places, such as in the news; in the opinions of friends, coworkers or teachers; and even in songs you hear on the radio. Become aware of thesis statements in everyday life by paying attention to people’s opinions and their reasons for those opinions. Pay attention to your own everyday thesis statements as well, as these can become material for future essays.

Now that you have read about the contents of a good thesis statement and have seen examples, take a look at the pitfalls to avoid when composing your own thesis:

  • A thesis is weak when it is simply a declaration of your subject or a description of what you will discuss in your essay.

    Weak thesis statement: My paper will explain why imagination is more important than knowledge.

  • A thesis is weak when it makes an unreasonable or outrageous claim or insults the opposing side.

    Weak thesis statement: Religious radicals across America are trying to legislate their Puritanical beliefs by banning required high school books.

  • A thesis is weak when it contains an obvious fact or something that no one can disagree with or provides a dead end.

    Weak thesis statement: Advertising companies use sex to sell their products.

  • A thesis is weak when the statement is too broad.

    Weak thesis statement: The life of Abraham Lincoln was long and challenging.

Exercise 3.2

Read the following thesis statements. On a separate piece of paper, identify each as weak or strong. For those that are weak, list the reasons why. Then revise the weak statements so that they conform to the requirements of a strong thesis.

  1. The subject of this paper is my experience with ferrets as pets.
  2. The government must expand its funding for research on renewable energy resources in order to prepare for the impending end of oil.
  3. Edgar Allan Poe was a poet who lived in Baltimore during the nineteenth century.
  4. In this essay, I will give you lots of reasons why slot machines should not be legalized in Baltimore.
  5. Despite his promises during his campaign, President Kennedy took few executive measures to support civil rights legislation.
  6. Because many children’s toys have potential safety hazards that could lead to injury, it is clear that not all children’s toys are safe.
  7. My experience with young children has taught me that I want to be a disciplinary parent because I believe that a child without discipline can be a parent’s worst nightmare.

Writing at Work

Often in your career, you will need to ask your boss for something through an e-mail. Just as a thesis statement organizes an essay, it can also organize your e-mail request. While your e-mail will be shorter than an essay, using a thesis statement in your first paragraph quickly lets your boss know what you are asking for, why it is necessary, and what the benefits are. In short body paragraphs, you can provide the essential information needed to expand upon your request.

Formulating your thesis statement

When initially formulating a thesis statement, it will help to know that there are a few strategies to choose from.

Enumerative thesis

An enumerative thesis simply lists the main points of your essay. In a traditional five paragraph argument essay from high school, for example, students are taught to write a one-paragraph introduction and conclusion, and the three paragraphs in between should be devoted to three supporting ideas. In this scenario (which is crude and too formulaic for college argument essays), an enumerative thesis statement would include each of the three main points.

Umbrella thesis

In contrast to the list-making tendency of enumerative thesis statements, an umbrella thesis attempts to encompass all of the main points in a concise yet decisive statement.

Exercise 3.3

The previous chapter, “Generating Ideas,” asked you to record a few things on a worksheet or document: your purpose and audience, the topic, and related questions. To help brainstorm fresh ideas, the chapter also suggested a freewriting exercise, list-making, and “idea mapping. The brainstorming exercises should have provided you with possible supporting points for your working thesis statement. To get started on an early draft of your thesis statement, complete the following steps, on the same worksheet or as a separate document:

  1. Select all of the main points you wish to address in your essay. Depending on the type of essay you’re writing, you might have two, three, four, or even more ideas. In a persuasive essay, for example, you might first identify key pieces of evidence as well as the ideas (or points) they prove. But you might also want to select potential counterarguments and rebuttals for those points.
  2. Attempt an enumerative thesis by simply listing each of the main points you want to hit in your essay.
  3. Now develop a more concise umbrella thesis statement by simplifying all of those points into a single position or overarching idea.

Revising your thesis statement

Your thesis will probably change as you write, so you will need to modify it to reflect exactly what you have discussed in your essay. Your thesis statement begins as a working thesis statement, an indefinite statement that you make about your topic early in the writing process for the purpose of planning and guiding your writing.

Working thesis statements often become stronger as you gather information and form new opinions and reasons for those opinions. Revision helps you strengthen your thesis so that it matches what you have expressed in the body of the paper.

You can cut down on irrelevant aspects and revise your thesis by taking the following steps:

1. Pinpoint and replace all nonspecific words, such as peopleeverythingsociety, or life, with more precise words in order to reduce any vagueness.

Working thesis: Young people have to work hard to succeed in life.

Revised thesis: Recent college graduates must have discipline and persistence in order to find and maintain a stable job in which they can use and be appreciated for their talents.

The revised thesis makes a more specific statement about success and what it means to work hard. The original includes too broad a range of people and does not define exactly what success entails. By replacing those general words like people and work hard, the writer can better focus his or her research and gain more direction in his or her writing.

2. Clarify ideas that need explanation by asking yourself questions that narrow your thesis.

Working thesis: The welfare system is a joke.

Revised thesis: The welfare system keeps a socioeconomic class from gaining employment by alluring members of that class with unearned income, instead of programs to improve their education and skill sets.

A joke means many things to many people. Readers bring all sorts of backgrounds and perspectives to the reading process and would need clarification for a word so vague. This expression may also be too informal for the selected audience. By asking questions, the writer can devise a more precise and appropriate explanation for joke. The writer should ask himself or herself questions similar to the 5WH questions. (See Chapter 8 “The Writing Process: How Do I Begin?” for more information on the 5WH questions.) By incorporating the answers to these questions into a thesis statement, the writer more accurately defines his or her stance, which will better guide the writing of the essay.

3. Replace any linking verbs with action verbs. Linking verbs are forms of the verb to be, a verb that simply states that a situation exists.

Working thesis: Kansas City schoolteachers are not paid enough.

Revised thesis: The Kansas City legislature cannot afford to pay its educators, resulting in job cuts and resignations in a district that sorely needs highly qualified and dedicated teachers.

The linking verb in this working thesis statement is the word are. Linking verbs often make thesis statements weak because they do not express action. Rather, they connect words and phrases to the second half of the sentence. Readers might wonder, “Why are they not paid enough?” But this statement does not compel them to ask many more questions. The writer should ask himself or herself questions in order to replace the linking verb with an action verb, thus forming a stronger thesis statement, one that takes a more definitive stance on the issue:

  • Who is not paying the teachers enough?
  • What is considered “enough”?
  • What is the problem?
  • What are the results

4. Omit any general claims that are hard to support.

Working thesis: Today’s teenage girls are too sexualized.

Revised thesis: Teenage girls who are captivated by the sexual images on MTV are conditioned to believe that a woman’s worth depends on her sensuality, a feeling that harms their self-esteem and behavior.

It is true that some young women in today’s society are more sexualized than in the past, but that is not true for all girls. Many girls have strict parents, dress appropriately, and do not engage in sexual activity while in middle school and high school. The writer of this thesis should ask the following questions:

  • Which teenage girls?
  • What constitutes “too” sexualized?
  • Why are they behaving that way?
  • Where does this behavior show up?
  • What are the repercussions?

Writing at Work

In your career you may have to write a project proposal that focuses on a particular problem in your company, such as reinforcing the tardiness policy. The proposal would aim to fix the problem; using a thesis statement would clearly state the boundaries of the problem and tell the goals of the project. After writing the proposal, you may find that the thesis needs revision to reflect exactly what is expressed in the body. Using the techniques from this chapter would apply to revising that thesis.

Key Takeaways

  • Proper essays require a thesis statement to provide a specific focus and suggest how the essay will be organized.
  • A thesis statement is your interpretation of the subject, not the topic itself.
  • A strong thesis is specific, precise, forceful, confident, and is able to be demonstrated.
  • A strong thesis challenges readers with a point of view that can be debated and can be supported with evidence.
  • A weak thesis is simply a declaration of your topic or contains an obvious fact that cannot be argued.
  • Depending on your topic, it may or may not be appropriate to use first person point of view.
  • Revise your thesis by ensuring all words are specific, all ideas are exact, and all verbs express action.
The chapter above is adapted from University of Minnesota’s Writing for Success, Chapter 9, “Developing a Strong Thesis Statement,” CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0. An introduction has been added, the exercises have been modified, and the section “Formulating a Thesis Statement” has been added.




This chapter is about the importance of organizing a draft with a clear outline. This step is sometimes combined with the previous step in the writing process—developing a thesis statement. Some writers find it helpful to first jot down their main ideas in outline form, and then use that visual to help develop an overarching thesis statement. Ultimately, moving from thesis statement to outline is dynamic: writers often develop an initial hunch, work out the kinds through an outline, and then revise the thesis each point becomes more obviously structured. This chapter, “Organize,” will stress the importance of planning and structure in the writing process.

visual of the writing process
“Organize and draft” comes next in The Writing Process. CC-BY 4.0.

The Importance of Organization

Your prewriting activities and readings have helped you gather information for your assignment. The more you sort through the pieces of information you found, the more you will begin to see the connections between them. Patterns and gaps may begin to stand out. But only when you start to organize your ideas will you be able to translate your raw insights into a form that will communicate meaning to your audience.

When you write, you need to organize your ideas in an order that makes sense. The writing you complete in all your courses exposes how analytically and critically your mind works. In some courses, the only direct contact you may have with your instructor is through the assignments you write for the course. You can make a good impression by spending time ordering your ideas.

Order refers to your choice of what to present first, second, third, and so on in your writing. The order you pick closely relates to your purpose for writing that particular assignment. For example, when telling a story, it may be important to first describe the background for the action. Or you may need to first describe a 3-D movie projector or a television studio to help readers visualize the setting and scene. You may want to group your support effectively to convince readers that your point of view on an issue is well reasoned and worthy of belief.

In longer pieces of writing, you may organize different parts in different ways so that your purpose stands out clearly and all parts of the paper work together to consistently develop your main point.

Methods of Organizing Writing

The three common methods of organizing writing are chronological orderspatial order, and order of importance. You need to keep these methods of organization in mind as you plan how to arrange the information you have gathered in an outline. An outline is a written plan that serves as a skeleton for the paragraphs you write. Later, when you draft paragraphs in the next stage of the writing process, you will add support to create “flesh” and “muscle” for your assignment.

When you write, your goal is not only to complete an assignment but also to write for a specific purpose—perhaps to inform, to explain, to persuade, or for a combination of these purposes. Your purpose for writing should always be in the back of your mind, because it will help you decide which pieces of information belong together and how you will order them. In other words, choose the order that will most effectively fit your purpose and support your main point.

Table “Order versus Purpose” shows the connection between order and purpose.

Table 4.1 Order versus Purpose
Order Purpose
Chronological Order To explain the history of an event or a topic
To tell a story or relate an experience
To explain how to do or make something
To explain the steps in a process
Spatial Order To help readers visualize something as you want them to see it
To create a main impression using the senses (sight, touch, taste, smell, and sound)
Order of Importance To persuade or convince
To rank items by their importance, benefit, or significance

For an essay question on a test or a brief oral presentation in class, all you may need to prepare is a short, informal outline in which you jot down key ideas in the order you will present them. This kind of outline reminds you to stay focused in a stressful situation and to include all the good ideas that help you explain or prove your point.

For a longer assignment, like an essay or a research paper, many college instructors require students to submit a formal outline before writing a major paper as a way to be sure you are on the right track and are working in an organized manner. A formal outline is a detailed guide that shows how all your supporting ideas relate to each other. It helps you distinguish between ideas that are of equal importance and ones that are of lesser importance. You build your paper based on the framework created by the outline.


Instructors may also require you to submit an outline with your final draft to check the direction of the assignment and the logic of your final draft. If you are required to submit an outline with the final draft of a paper, remember to revise the outline to reflect any changes you made while writing the paper.

Topic and sentence outlines

There are two types of formal outlines: the topic outline and the sentence outline. You format both types of formal outlines in the same way.

  • Place your introduction and thesis statement at the beginning, under roman numeral I.
  • Use roman numerals (II, III, IV, V, etc.) to identify main points that develop the thesis statement.
  • Use capital letters (A, B, C, D, etc.) to divide your main points into parts.
  • Use arabic numerals (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, etc.) if you need to subdivide any As, Bs, or Cs into smaller parts.
  • End with the final roman numeral expressing your idea for your conclusion.

Here is what the skeleton of a traditional formal outline looks like. The indention helps clarify how the ideas are related.

  1. Introduction

    Thesis statement

  2. Main point 1 → becomes the topic sentence of body paragraph 1

  3. Main point 2 → becomes the topic sentence of body paragraph 2

  4. Main point 3 → becomes the topic sentence of body paragraph 3

  5. Conclusion


In an outline, any supporting detail can be developed with subpoints. For simplicity, the model shows them only under the first main point.

Formal outlines are often quite rigid in their organization. As many instructors will specify, you cannot subdivide one point if it is only one part. For example, for every roman numeral I, there must be a For every A, there must be a B. For every arabic numeral 1, there must be a 2. See for yourself on the sample outlines that follow.

Topic outlines

A topic outline is the same as a sentence outline except you use words or phrases instead of complete sentences. Words and phrases keep the outline short and easier to comprehend. All the headings, however, must be written in parallel structure.

Here is the topic outline that Mariah constructed for the essay she is developing. Her purpose is to inform, and her audience is a general audience of her fellow college students. Notice how Mariah begins with her thesis statement. She then arranges her main points and supporting details in outline form using short phrases in parallel grammatical structure.

Mariah's outline for her essay


Writing an Effective Topic Outline

This checklist can help you write an effective topic outline for your assignment. It will also help you discover where you may need to do additional reading or prewriting.

  • Do I have a controlling idea that guides the development of the entire piece of writing?
  • Do I have three or more main points that I want to make in this piece of writing? Does each main point connect to my controlling idea?
  • Is my outline in the best order—chronological order, spatial order, or order of importance—for me to present my main points? Will this order help me get my main point across?
  • Do I have supporting details that will help me inform, explain, or prove my main points?
  • Do I need to add more support? If so, where?
  • Do I need to make any adjustments in my working thesis statement before I consider it the final version?

Writing at Work

Word processing programs generally have an automatic numbering feature that can be used to prepare outlines. This feature automatically sets indents and lets you use the tab key to arrange information just as you would in an outline. Although in business this style might be acceptable, in college your instructor might have different requirements. Teach yourself how to customize the levels of outline numbering in your word-processing program to fit your instructor’s preferences.

Exercise 4.1

Using the working thesis statement you wrote in the previous chapter, “Thesis Statements,” and the results of your brainstorming from “Generating Ideas,” construct a topic outline for your essay. Be sure to observe correct outline form, including correct indentions and the use of Roman and arabic numerals and capital letters.


Please share with a classmate and compare your outline. Point out areas of interest from their outline and what you would like to learn more about.

Sentence Outlines

A sentence outline is the same as a topic outline except you use complete sentences instead of words or phrases. Complete sentences create clarity and can advance you one step closer to a draft in the writing process.

Here is the sentence outline that Mariah constructed for the essay she is developing.

An updated sentence outline


The information compiled under each roman numeral will become a paragraph in your final paper. In the previous example, the outline follows the standard five-paragraph essay arrangement, but longer essays will require more paragraphs and thus more roman numerals. If you think that a paragraph might become too long or stringy, add an additional paragraph to your outline, renumbering the main points appropriately.

Writing at Work

PowerPoint presentations, used both in schools and in the workplace, are organized in a way very similar to formal outlines. PowerPoint presentations often contain information in the form of talking points that the presenter develops with more details and examples than are contained on the PowerPoint slide.

Exercise 4.2

Expand the topic outline you prepared in the previous execise to make it a sentence outline. In this outline, be sure to include multiple supporting points for your main topic even if your topic outline does not contain them. Be sure to observe correct outline form, including correct indentations and the use of Roman and arabic numerals and capital letters.

Key Takeaways

  • Writers must put their ideas in order so the assignment makes sense. The most common orders are chronological order, spatial order, and order of importance.
  • After gathering and evaluating the information you found for your essay, the next step is to write a working, or preliminary, thesis statement.
  • The working thesis statement expresses the main idea that you want to develop in the entire piece of writing. It can be modified as you continue the writing process.
  • Effective writers prepare a formal outline to organize their main ideas and supporting details in the order they will be presented.
  • A topic outline uses words and phrases to express the ideas.
  • A sentence outline uses complete sentences to express the ideas.
  • The writer’s thesis statement begins the outline, and the outline ends with suggestions for the concluding paragraph.
This chapter is adapted from University of Minnesota’s Writing for Success, Chapter 8, “Outlining,” CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0.


Drafting Part 1: Getting Started


“Drafting Part 1: Getting Started” is the first installment of three chapters that focus on the drafting stage within the writing process. It includes some mental strategies for getting started and then walks the reader through a fictional student’s initial attempt at a rough draft. Draft Parts 2 and 3 offer other tips that are important to review before an initial draft, and we recommend that those chapters be read in conjunction with this one.

visual of the writing process
“Draft” comes next in The Writing Process. CC-BY 4.0.

Drafting is the stage of the writing process in which you develop a complete first version of a piece of writing.

Even professional writers admit that an empty page scares them because they feel they need to come up with something fresh and original every time they open a blank document on their computers. Because you have completed the first two steps in the writing process, you have already recovered from empty page syndrome. You have hours of prewriting and planning already done. You know what will go on that blank page: what you wrote in your outline.

Getting Started: Strategies For Drafting

This chapter will walk you through how to begin drafting a basic five-paragraph academic essay, a structure many students may be familiar with from their K-12 teaching. College essays move beyond the five-paragraph structure, but it’s a place we can start from.

A traditional five-paragraph essay contains an introduction, three body paragraphs, and a conclusion. If you are more comfortable starting on paper than on the computer, you can start on paper and then type it before you revise. You can also use a voice recorder to get yourself started, dictating a paragraph or two to get you thinking. In this lesson, Mariah does all her work on the computer, but you may use pen and paper or the computer to write a rough draft.

What makes the writing process so beneficial to writers is that it encourages alternatives to standard practices while motivating you to develop your best ideas. For instance, the following approaches, done alone or in combination with others, may improve your writing and help you move forward in the writing process:

  • Begin writing with the part you know the most about. You can start with the third paragraph in your outline if ideas come easily to mind. You can start with the second paragraph or the first paragraph, too. Although paragraphs may vary in length, keep in mind that short paragraphs may contain insufficient support. Readers may also think the writing is abrupt. Long paragraphs may be wordy and may lose your reader’s interest. As a guideline, try to write paragraphs longer than one sentence but shorter than the length of an entire double-spaced page.
  • Write one paragraph at a time and then stop. As long as you complete the assignment on time, you may choose how many paragraphs you complete in one sitting. Pace yourself. On the other hand, try not to procrastinate. Writers should always meet their deadlines.
  • Take short breaks to refresh your mind. This tip might be most useful if you are writing a multipage report or essay. Still, if you are antsy or cannot concentrate, take a break to let your mind rest. But do not let breaks extend too long. If you spend too much time away from your essay, you may have trouble starting again. You may forget key points or lose momentum. Try setting an alarm to limit your break, and when the time is up, return to your desk to write.
  • Be reasonable with your goals. If you decide to take ten-minute breaks, try to stick to that goal. If you told yourself that you need more facts, then commit to finding them. Holding yourself to your own goals will create successful writing assignments.
  • Keep your audience and purpose in mind as you write. These aspects of writing are just as important when you are writing a single paragraph for your essay as when you are considering the direction of the entire essay.

Of all of these considerations, keeping your purpose and your audience at the front of your mind is the most important key to writing success. If your purpose is to persuade, for example, you will present your facts and details in the most logical and convincing way you can for the intended audience. What looks like strong evidence to some audiences will seem weak or irrelevant to others.

Your purpose will guide your mind as you compose your sentences. Your audience will guide word choice. Are you writing for experts, for a general audience, for other college students, or for people who know very little about your topic? Keep asking yourself what your readers, with their background and experience, need to be told in order to understand your ideas. How can you best express your ideas so they are totally clear and your communication is effective?


You may want to identify your purpose and audience on an index card that you clip to your paper (or keep next to your computer). On that card, you may want to write notes to yourself—perhaps about what that audience might not know or what it needs to know—so that you will be sure to address those issues when you write. It may be a good idea to also state exactly what you want to explain to that audience, or to inform them of, or to persuade them about.

Writing at Work

Many of the documents you produce at work target a particular audience for a particular purpose. You may find that it is highly advantageous to know as much as you can about your target audience and to prepare your message to reach that audience, even if the audience is a coworker or your boss. Menu language is a common example. Descriptions like “organic romaine” and “free-range chicken” are intended to appeal to a certain type of customer though perhaps not to the same customer who craves a thick steak. Similarly, mail-order companies research the demographics of the people who buy their merchandise. Successful vendors customize product descriptions in catalogs to appeal to their buyers’ tastes. For example, the product descriptions in a skateboarder catalog will differ from the descriptions in a clothing catalog for mature adults.

Exercise 5.1

My purpose: ____________________________________________

My audience: ____________________________________________

Setting Goals for Your First Draft

A draft is a complete version of a piece of writing, but it is not the final version. The step in the writing process after drafting, as you may remember, is revising. During revising, you will have the opportunity to make changes to your first draft before you put the finishing touches on it during the editing and proofreading stage. A first draft gives you a working version that you can later improve.

Writing at Work

Workplace writing in certain environments is done by teams of writers who collaborate on the planning, writing, and revising of documents, such as long reports, technical manuals, and the results of scientific research. Collaborators do not need to be in the same room, the same building, or even the same city. Many collaborations are conducted over the Internet.

In a perfect collaboration, each contributor has the right to add, edit, and delete text. Strong communication skills, in addition to strong writing skills, are important in this kind of writing situation because disagreements over style, content, process, emphasis, and other issues may arise.

The collaborative software, or document management systems, that groups use to work on common projects is sometimes called groupware or workgroup support systems.

The reviewing tool on some word-processing programs also gives you access to a collaborative tool that many smaller workgroups use when they exchange documents. You can also use it to leave comments to yourself.


If you invest some time now to investigate how the reviewing tool in your word processor works, you will be able to use it with confidence during the revision stage of the writing process. Then, when you start to revise, set your reviewing tool to track any changes you make, so you will be able to tinker with text and commit only those final changes you want to keep.

Basic Elements of a First Draft

If you have been using the information in this chapter step by step to help you develop an assignment, you already have both a formal topic outline and a formal sentence outline to direct your writing. Knowing what a first draft looks like will help you make the creative leap from the outline to the first draft. A first draft should include the following elements:

  • An introduction that piques the audience’s interest, tells what the essay is about, and motivates readers to keep reading.
  • thesis statement that presents the main point, or controlling idea, of the entire piece of writing.
  • topic sentence in each paragraph that states the main idea of the paragraph and implies how that main idea connects to the thesis statement.
  • Supporting sentences in each paragraph that develop or explain the topic sentence. These can be specific facts, examples, anecdotes, or other details that elaborate on the topic sentence.
  • conclusion that reinforces the thesis statement and leaves the audience with a feeling of completion.

These elements follow the standard five-paragraph essay format, which you probably first encountered in high school. This basic format is valid for most essays you will write in college, even much longer ones. For now, however, Mariah focuses on writing the three body paragraphs from her outline.

The Role of Topic Sentences

Topic sentences make the structure of a text and the writer’s basic arguments easy to locate and comprehend. In college writing, using a topic sentence in each paragraph of the essay is the standard rule. However, the topic sentence does not always have to be the first sentence in your paragraph even if it the first item in your formal outline.


When you begin to draft your paragraphs, you should follow your outline fairly closely. After all, you spent valuable time developing those ideas. However, as you begin to express your ideas in complete sentences, it might strike you that the topic sentence might work better at the end of the paragraph or in the middle. Try it. Writing a draft, by its nature, is a good time for experimentation.

The topic sentence can be the first, middle, or final sentence in a paragraph. The assignment’s audience and purpose will often determine where a topic sentence belongs. When the purpose of the assignment is to persuade, for example, the topic sentence should be the first sentence in a paragraph. In a persuasive essay, the writer’s point of view should be clearly expressed at the beginning of each paragraph.

Choosing where to position the topic sentence depends not only on your audience and purpose but also on the essay’s arrangement, or order. When you organize information according to order of importance, the topic sentence may be the final sentence in a paragraph. All the supporting sentences build up to the topic sentence. Chronological order may also position the topic sentence as the final sentence because the controlling idea of the paragraph may make the most sense at the end of a sequence.

When you organize information according to spatial order, a topic sentence may appear as the middle sentence in a paragraph. An essay arranged by spatial order often contains paragraphs that begin with descriptions. A reader may first need a visual in his or her mind before understanding the development of the paragraph. When the topic sentence is in the middle, it unites the details that come before it with the ones that come after it.


As you read critically throughout the writing process, keep topic sentences in mind. You may discover topic sentences that are not always located at the beginning of a paragraph. For example, fiction writers customarily use topic ideas, either expressed or implied, to move readers through their texts. In nonfiction writing, such as popular magazines, topic sentences are often used when the author thinks it is appropriate (based on the audience and the purpose, of course). A single topic sentence might even control the development of a number of paragraphs.

Developing topic sentences and thinking about their placement in a paragraph will prepare you to write the rest of the paragraph.


The paragraph is the main structural component of an essay as well as other forms of writing. Each paragraph of an essay adds another related main idea to support the writer’s thesis, or controlling idea. Each related main idea is supported and developed with facts, examples, and other details that explain it. By exploring and refining one main idea at a time, writers build a strong case for their thesis.

How long should a paragraph be?

One answer to this important question may be “long enough”—long enough for you to address your points and explain your main idea. To grab attention or to present succinct supporting ideas, a paragraph can be fairly short and consist of two to three sentences. A paragraph in a complex essay about some abstract point in philosophy or archaeology can be three-quarters of a page or more in length. As long as the writer maintains close focus on the topic and does not ramble, a long paragraph is acceptable in college-level writing. In general, try to keep the paragraphs longer than one sentence but shorter than one full page of double-spaced text.


Journalistic style often calls for brief two- or three-sentence paragraphs because of how people read the news, both online and in print. Blogs and other online information sources often adopt this paragraphing style, too. Readers often skim the first paragraphs of a great many articles before settling on the handful of stories they want to read in detail.

You may find that a particular paragraph you write may be longer than one that will hold your audience’s interest. In such cases, you should divide the paragraph into two or more shorter paragraphs, adding a topic statement or some kind of transitional word or phrase at the start of the new paragraph. Transition words or phrases show the connection between the two ideas.

In all cases, however, be guided by what you instructor wants and expects to find in your draft. Many instructors will expect you to develop a mature college-level style as you progress through the semester’s assignments.

Exercise 5.2

To build your sense of appropriate paragraph length, use the Internet to find examples of the following items. Copy them into a file, identify your sources, and present them to your instructor with your annotations, or notes.

  • A news article written in short paragraphs. Take notes on, or annotate, your selection with your observations about the effect of combining paragraphs that develop the same topic idea. Explain how effective those paragraphs would be.
  • A long paragraph from a scholarly work that you identify through an academic search engine. Annotate it with your observations about the author’s paragraphing style.

Starting your first paragraph

Now we are finally ready to look over Mariah’s shoulder as she begins to write her essay about digital technology and the confusing choices that consumers face. As she does, you should have in front of you your outline, with its thesis statement and topic sentences, and the notes you wrote earlier in this lesson on your purpose and audience. Reviewing these will put both you and Mariah in the proper mind-set to start.

The following is Mariah’s thesis statement.

Everyone wants the newest and the best digital technology ,but the choices are many, and the specifications are often confusing

Here are the notes that Mariah wrote to herself to characterize her purpose and audience.

Mariah's notes to herself

Mariah chose to begin by writing a quick introduction based on her thesis statement. She knew that she would want to improve her introduction significantly when she revised. Right now, she just wanted to give herself a starting point.


Remember Mariah’s other options. She could have started directly with any of the body paragraphs.

You will learn more about writing attention-getting introductions and effective conclusions in a later chapter.

With her thesis statement and her purpose and audience notes in front of her, Mariah then looked at her sentence outline. She chose to use that outline because it includes the topic sentences. The following is the portion of her outline for the first body paragraph. The roman numeral II identifies the topic sentence for the paragraph, capital letters indicate supporting details, and arabic numerals label subpoints.

The roman numeral II identifies the topic sentence for the paragraph, capital letters indicate supporting details, and arabic numerals label subpoints.

Mariah then began to expand the ideas in her outline into a paragraph. Notice how the outline helped her guarantee that all her sentences in the body of the paragraph develop the topic sentence.

Outlines help guarantee that all sentences in the body of the paragraph develop the topic sentence.


If you write your first draft on the computer, consider creating a new file folder for each course with a set of subfolders inside the course folders for each assignment you are given. Label the folders clearly with the course names, and label each assignment folder and word processing document with a title that you will easily recognize. The assignment name is a good choice for the document. Then use that subfolder to store all the drafts you create. When you start each new draft, do not just write over the last one. Instead, save the draft with a new tag after the title—draft 1, draft 2, and so on—so that you will have a complete history of drafts in case your instructor wishes you to submit them.

In your documents, observe any formatting requirements—for margins, headers, placement of page numbers, and other layout matters—that your instructor requires.

Exercise 5.3

Study how Mariah made the transition from her sentence outline to her first draft. First, copy her outline onto your own sheet of paper. Leave a few spaces between each part of the outline. Then copy sentences from Mariah’s paragraph to align each sentence with its corresponding entry in her outline.

Continuing the First Draft

Mariah continued writing her essay, moving to the second and third body paragraphs. She had supporting details but no numbered subpoints in her outline, so she had to consult her prewriting notes for specific information to include.


If you decide to take a break between finishing your first body paragraph and starting the next one, do not start writing immediately when you return to your work. Put yourself back in context and in the mood by rereading what you have already written. This is what Mariah did. If she had stopped writing in the middle of writing the paragraph, she could have jotted down some quick notes to herself about what she would write next.

Preceding each body paragraph that Mariah wrote is the appropriate section of her sentence outline. Notice how she expanded roman numeral III from her outline into a first draft of the second body paragraph. As you read, ask yourself how closely she stayed on purpose and how well she paid attention to the needs of her audience.

Outline excerpt
Essay excerpt

Mariah then began her third and final body paragraph using roman numeral IV from her outline.

Outline excerpt
Essay excerpt

Exercise 5.4

Reread body paragraphs two and three of the essay that Mariah is writing. Then answer the questions on your own sheet of paper.

  1. In body paragraph two, Mariah decided to develop her paragraph as a nonfiction narrative. Do you agree with her decision? Explain. How else could she have chosen to develop the paragraph? Why is that better?
  2. Compare the writing styles of paragraphs two and three. What evidence do you have that Mariah was getting tired or running out of steam? What advice would you give her? Why?
  3. Choose one of these two body paragraphs. Write a version of your own that you think better fits Mariah’s audience and purpose.

Writing a Title

A writer’s best choice for a title is one that alludes to the main point of the entire essay. Like the headline in a newspaper or the big, bold title in a magazine, an essay’s title gives the audience a first peek at the content. If readers like the title, they are likely to keep reading.

Following her outline carefully, Mariah crafted each paragraph of her essay. Moving step by step in the writing process, Mariah finished the draft and even included a brief concluding paragraph. She then decided, as the final touch for her writing session, to add an engaging title.

Thesis Statement: Everyone wants the newest and the best digital technology, but the choices are many, and the specifications are often confusing. Working Title: Digital Technology: The Newest and the Best at What Price?

Writing Your Own First Draft

Now you may begin your own first draft, if you have not already done so. Follow the suggestions and the guidelines presented in this section.

Key Takeaways

  • Make the writing process work for you. Use any and all of the strategies that help you move forward in the writing process.
  • Always be aware of your purpose for writing and the needs of your audience. Cater to those needs in every sensible way.
  • Remember to include all the key structural parts of an essay: a thesis statement that is part of your introductory paragraph, three or more body paragraphs as described in your outline, and a concluding paragraph. Then add an engaging title to draw in readers.
  • Write paragraphs of an appropriate length for your writing assignment. Paragraphs in college-level writing can be a page long, as long as they cover the main topics in your outline.
  • Use your topic outline or your sentence outline to guide the development of your paragraphs and the elaboration of your ideas. Each main idea, indicated by a roman numeral in your outline, becomes the topic of a new paragraph. Develop it with the supporting details and the subpoints of those details that you included in your outline.
  • Generally speaking, write your introduction and conclusion last, after you have fleshed out the body paragraphs.
This chapter is adapted from University of Minnesota’s Writing for Success, Chapter 8, “Drafting,” CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0. Minor modifications have been made to the formatting, and some sentences have been added.

Drafting Part 2: Introductions


This chapter is the second of three devoted to the drafting stage of the writing process. It dives more into that stage by zooming in on the introduction to academic essays.

visual of the writing process
“Draft” comes next in The Writing Process. CC-BY 4.0.

Editor’s Introduction to the Chapter

Many students think of the introduction as a giant funnel: open by establishing the broader topic, then propose a thesis statement at the end that narrows the scope of the essay. For example, a “funnel” introduction about Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography and the American Dream would open with a general discussion of the American Dream and then propose how Franklin’s text relates to that idea.

The problem with the funnel approach is that it places the burden on the reader to fill in missing information. A reader who isn’t in the same course as the student may be confused about why the American Dream is being discussed at this point in time. The topic just floats there, timelessly. Why should we care about it?

Introductions crafted for specific readers will provide enough background information so the reader can better understand how the writer’s essay participates in a more meaningful situation or conversation. Rather than funneling ideas, situationally-attuned introductions practice a context-to-thesis strategy. As the chapter on context explains, introductions are where a text’s “context” typically shows up.

In the article below about introductions, Stacie Draper Weatbrook carefully unpacks why a context-to-thesis structure is important and how to begin crafting one yourself. First Year Writers should note, however, that what “context” means will vary depending on the rhetorical situation, and some introductions may not have a thesis statement at all. How to open an essay or article requires the same critical reading strategies that pertain to other aspects of rhetorical savviness, especially an awareness of basic genre conventions. An introduction to a persuasive essay will look very different from the opening to a reflective cover letter, partly because the purposes are different.

Drive for the Road Conditions; Write for the Reader Conditions

by Stacie Draper Weatbrook


You can’t drive the same way all the time. You start and stop when you’re in traffic, and you can go 80 mph or more on the open Interstates. When you’re driving in the mountains, you don’t take curves at 50 mph. Instead, you slow down to avoid careening off the cliffs. In the rain, you reduce your speed to avoid hydroplaning. When driving in the snow, you reduce your speed, you keep a big distance between your car and the other cars, and you don’t break quickly so your car doesn’t slide out of control.

I know a couple who had great conflicts in their marriage in one particular area: the husband’s driving. He drove fast. He followed the car in front of him much too closely. He didn’t plan ahead and merged at the last minute. The wife, anxious and nervous about driving anyway, found his aggressive driving style more than she could handle.

Finally one day, the wife told him, “You need to drive for the conditions, and right now the condition is me.” Instead of fuming, holding a grudge, or giving him the silent treatment, she was able to explain what she needed. Because he loves her and wants her comfort, he changed his way of driving.

This couple is my parents, and they will soon celebrate their 50-year anniversary.

Much like considering road conditions, writers consider the rhetorical situation: the writer, the purpose, and the reader. In writing, as in driving, writers need to adjust for the conditions, the audience.

Awareness of your audience should determine how you write. Even when writing to an audience that’s knowledgeable about the topic, always err on the side of clarity. In other words, slow down so you make sure your audience is with you.

Here are some tips to write for the conditions.

Start Slowly With an Introduction and Then Build Speed

When you drive, you start at 0 mph and build up speed. It’s the same with writing. Your writing is not about showing off how much you know by being cryptic and esoteric and leaving your audience to guess what you mean. Considering your rhetorical situation means recognizing your purpose and communicating it in a way your audience can follow. A simple introduction can do wonders to help the audience see the information and why it’s important. You’ve got to ease the reader into your essay. Your audience could have been watching reruns of The Office, buying dog food online, attending yoga class, or any number or random tasks before reading your paper. The point is, your reader, even if they are intensely familiar with your topic, or deeply interested in your progress as a writer, needs a starting place, so take a page out of The Sound of Music, and start at the very beginning.

a gif showing Maria playing guitar in a meadow surrounded by the Von Trappe children with the text,

Most of our public and private discourse comes as a reaction to an event or statement. In other words, writing takes place in the context of what others are saying about events, statements, and research. Graff and Birkenstein explain in their book They Say I Say that having a clear thesis is not enough; it is the writer’s responsibility to show the larger conversation (20). They explain:

When it comes to constructing an argument, we offer you the following advice: remember you are entering a conversation and therefore need to start with “what others are saying . . .” and then introduce your own ideas as a response. Specifically, we suggest that you summarize what “they say” as soon as you can in your text, and remind readers of it at strategic points as your text unfolds. (20–21)

As you write, think about the bigger picture and what “they” may be saying about your issue:

Was a law passed recently that made your topic more interesting to the public? Explain what the law is and why the public is concerned.
Were you asked to analyze an article for class? Tell the audience what the article is named, who wrote it, and what it’s about.
Did a current event happen recently to spark a debate? Explain that event.Could a story ease your audience into the subject? Capture their interest and tell a story.
Did someone recently say or post something publicly about the topic? Tell the audience what they said.

Give your audience enough background so they know what the issue is and why it’s important. At the same time, it’s essential to note that setting the context doesn’t mean overwhelming audiences with pages of explanations that leave the reader unsure of the paper’s purpose. When driving you don’t go 5 mph for the first ten minutes on the freeway just to warm up. Instead, you quickly build up speed so you can merge onto the freeway and get to your destination.

Here’s an example introduction from a paper about the causes of Celiac disease. Notice how it quickly gives context then asks a focusing question to set up the organization for the paper:

Twenty-five years ago most people had no idea what gluten was. Fast forward to today and you’re sure to have heard of it. Someone you know may be gluten intolerant or have been diagnosed with Celiac disease. Your local restaurant menus offer gluten-free options. Entire shelves in grocery stores are dedicated to products without wheat, barely, or rye, and the group of proteins, called gluten, that these grains contain. It seems over the past several years Celiac disease and gluten intolerance has been on the rise. What’s responsible for what seems to be an explosion in the increase of diagnosed cases of Celiac disease?

This introduction started with the idea that twenty-five years ago most people had no idea what gluten was, moved on to the idea that today you’re sure to have heard of it, and suggested maybe the audience knows someone with Celiac disease or has seen restaurant menus or offerings in the grocery store. Starting from the very basics (most people had no idea) and moving to the question What’s responsible for the increase in Celiac disease? ensures the audience can follow along.

This chapter is taken from the first part of Stacie Draper Weatbrook’s “Write for the Conditions: Help Your Audience ‘Hold On,‘” in Open English @ SLCC, CC-BY 4.0. The introduction has been added by the editors of Write What Matters.


Drafting Part 3: Paragraphing


This chapter is the third of three on the drafting stage. Previous chapters in The Writing Process have touched on different parts of an academic essay, especially the introduction. While intros are indeed paragraphs, they tend to have certain conventions (such as end an intro with a thesis statement) that make them unique. The bulk of the essay, on the other hand, is composed of body paragraphs. In the body of the traditional academic essay, a writer is expected to present their main ideas in the form of point-driven  paragraphs. This chapter, by Amy Guptill introduces students to that basic form of paragraphing.

visual of the writing process
“Draft” comes next in The Writing Process. CC-BY 4.0.


Back to Basics: The Perfect Paragraph

by  Amy Guptill


As Michael Harvey writes, paragraphs are “in essence—a form of punctuation, and like other forms of punctuation they are meant to make written material easy to read.”Michael Harvey, The Nuts and Bolts of College Writing, Second Edition (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 2013), 70. Effective paragraphs are the fundamental units of academic writing; consequently, the thoughtful, multifaceted arguments that your professors expect depend on them. Without good paragraphs, you simply cannot clearly convey sequential points and their relationships to one another. The purpose of this chapter is to highlight strategies for constructing, ordering, and relating paragraphs in academic writing. It could just as well be titled “Organization” because whether or not readers perceive a paper to be well organized depends largely on effective paragraphing.

Many novice writers tend to make a sharp distinction between content and style, thinking that a paper can be strong in one and weak in the other, but focusing on organization shows how content and style converge in deliberative academic writing. A poorly organized paper may contain insightful kernels, but a thoughtful, satisfying argument can’t take shape without paragraphs that are crafted, ordered, and connected effectively. On the other side, one can imagine a string of slick, error-free sentences that are somehow lacking in interesting ideas. However, your professors will view even the most elegant prose as rambling and tedious if there isn’t a careful, coherent argument to give the text meaning. Paragraphs are the “stuff” of academic writing and, thus, worth our attention here.

Key sentences (a.k.a. topic sentences)

In academic writing, readers expect each paragraph to have a sentence or two that captures its main point. They’re often called “topic sentences,” though many writing instructors prefer to call them “key sentences.” There are at least two downsides of the phrase “topic sentence.” First, it makes it seem like the paramount job of that sentence is simply to announce the topic of the paragraph. Second, it makes it seem like the topic sentence must always be a single grammatical sentence. Calling it a “key sentence” reminds us that it expresses the central idea of the paragraph. And sometimes a question or a two-sentence construction functions as the key.

Key sentences in academic writing do two things. First, they establish the main point that the rest of the paragraph supports. Second, they situate each paragraph within the sequence of the argument, a task that requires transitioning from the prior paragraph. Consider these two examples:

Version A:

Now we turn to the epidemiological evidence.

Version B:

The epidemiological evidence provides compelling support for the hypothesis emerging from etiological studies.

Both versions convey a topic; it’s pretty easy to predict that the paragraph will be about epidemiological evidence, but only the second version establishes an argumentative point and puts it in context. The paragraph doesn’t just describe the epidemiological evidence; it shows how epidemiology is telling the same story as etiology. Similarly, while Version A doesn’t relate to anything in particular, Version B immediately suggests that the prior paragraph addresses the biological pathway (i.e. etiology) of a disease and that the new paragraph will bolster the emerging hypothesis with a different kind of evidence. As a reader, it’s easy to keep track of how the paragraph about cells and chemicals and such relates to the paragraph about populations in different places.

By clearly establishing an essential point within its analytic context, a well written key sentence gives both you and your reader a firm grasp of how each point relates. For example, compare these two sets of key sentences, each introducing a sequential paragraphThis example is drawn from key points from Steven Epstein’s Impure Science: AIDS, Activism, and the Politics of Knowledge (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1996). An excellent read.:

Version A:

At the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, the cause of the disease was unclear. …
The cause of AIDS is HIV. …
There are skeptics who question whether HIV is the cause. …

Version B:

At the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, the cause of the disease was unclear, leading to a broad range of scientific speculation. …
By 1986 HIV had been isolated and found to correlate almost exactly with the incidence of AIDS. …
HIV skeptics, on the other hand, sought to discredit claims based on epidemiology by emphasizing that the pathogenesis of HIV was still unknown. …

Version A isn’t wrong per se; it just illustrates a lost opportunity to show the important connections among points. Both versions portray a process unfolding over time: initial uncertainty followed by a breakthrough discovery and then controversy. Even with the same substantive points, a person reading Version A would have to work harder to see how the material in the paragraphs connects. Readers experience Version B as clearer and more engaging.

Thinking of key sentences as sequential points in an argument reminds one that a key sentence doesn’t have to always be a single declarative one. Sometimes you need two sentences together to achieve the work of a key sentence, and sometimes a question or quotation does a better job than a declarative sentence in clarifying a logical sequence:

Version C:

At the beginning of the AIDS epidemic the cause was unclear. Virologists, bacteriologists, immunologists, and epidemiologists all pursued different leads, reflecting their particular areas of expertise…
If drug use, lifestyle, and “immune overload” didn’t cause AIDS, what did?…
“I’ve asked questions they apparently can’t answer,” claimed retrovirologist Peter DuesbergThis Duesberg quote is from Epstein, Impure Science, 112. who became an oft-quoted skeptical voice in media accounts of AIDS research in the mid-1980s. …

Version C is based on the same three sequential points as Versions A and B: (1) the cause of AIDS was initially unclear (2) HIV was accepted as the cause (3) lone dissenters questioned the claims. However, versions B and C have much more meaning and momentum, and version C, depending on the nature of the argument, features more precise and lively stylistic choices. Opening the second paragraph with a question (that then gets answered) carries forth the sense of befuddlement that researchers initially experienced and helps to convey why the discovery of HIV was a hugely important turning point. Using the self-glorifying Duesberg quote to launch the third paragraph makes the point about lingering skepticism while also introducing a portrait of a leading figure among the skeptics. While Version B is effective as well, Version C illustrates some of the more lively choices available to academic writers.

A last thing to note about key sentences is that academic readers expect them to be at the beginning of the paragraph. That helps readers comprehend your argument. To see how, try this: find an academic piece (such as a textbook or scholarly article) that strikes you as well written and go through part of it reading just the first sentence of each paragraph. You should be able to easily follow the sequence of logic. When you’re writing for professors, it is especially effective to put your key sentences first because they usually convey your own original thinking, which, as you’ve read here, is exactly what your instructors are looking for in your work. It’s a very good sign when your paragraphs are typically composed of a telling key sentence followed by evidence and explanation.

Knowing this convention of academic writing can help you both read and write more effectively. When you’re reading a complicated academic piece for the first time, you might want to go through reading only the first sentence or two of each paragraph to get the overall outline of the argument. Then you can go back and read all of it with a clearer picture of how each of the details fit in.I hesitate to add that this first-sentence trick is also a good one for when you haven’t completed an assigned reading and only have 10 minutes before class. Reading just the first sentence of each paragraph will quickly tell you a lot about the assigned text. And when you’re writing, you may also find it useful to write the first sentence of each paragraph (instead of a topic-based outline) to map out a thorough argument before getting immersed in sentence-level wordsmithing. For example, compare these two scaffolds. Which one would launch you into a smoother drafting process?:This example is from Katherine Giuffre, Communities and Networks: Using Social Network Analysis to Rethink Urban and Community Studies (Malden, MA: Polity, 2013).

Version A (Outline Of Topics):

I. Granovetter’s “Strength of weak ties”

a. Definition

b. Example—getting jobs

II. Creativity in social networks

a. Explanation

b. Richard Florida’s argument

III. Implications

a. For urban planners

b. For institutions of higher education

Version B (Key-Sentence Sketch):

The importance of networking for both career development and social change is well known. Granovetter (1973) explains that weak ties—that is, ties among acquaintances—are often more useful in job hunting because they connect job-seekers to a broader range of people and workplaces. …
Subsequent research in network analysis has shown that weak ties can promote creativity by bringing ideas together from different social realms. …
Richard Florida (2002) argues that cities would do well to facilitate weak ties in order to recruit members of the “creative class” and spur economic development. …
Florida’s argument can inspire a powerful new approach to strategic planning within colleges and universities as well. …

As you can see, emphasizing key sentences in both the process and product of academic writing is one way to ensure that your efforts stay focused on developing your argument and communicating your own original thinking in a clear, logical way.

Cohesion and coherence

With a key sentence established, the next task is to shape the body of your paragraph to be both cohesive and coherent. As Williams and BizupJoseph M. Williams.and Joseph Bizup. Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace 11th edition (New York: Longman, 2014), 68. explain, cohesion is about the “sense of flow” (how each sentence fits with the next), while coherence is about the “sense of the whole”.Ibid., 71. Some students worry too much about “flow” and spend a lot of time on sentence-level issues to promote it. I encourage you to focus on underlying structure. For the most part, a text reads smoothly when it conveys a thoughtful and well organized argument or analysis. Focus first and most on your ideas, on crafting an ambitious analysis. The most useful guides advise you to first focus on getting your ideas on paper and then revising for organization and wordsmithing later, refining the analysis as you go. Thus, I discuss creating cohesion and coherent paragraphs here as if you already have some rough text written and are in the process of smoothing out your prose to clarify your argument for both your reader and yourself.

Cohesion refers to the flow from sentence to sentence. For example, compare these passages:

Version A (That I Rewrote):

Granovetter begins by looking at balance theory. If an actor, A, is strongly tied to both B and C, it is extremely likely that B and C are, sooner or later, going to be tied to each other, according to balance theory (1973:1363).10 Bridge ties between cliques are always weak ties, Granovetter argues (1973:1364). Weak ties may not necessarily be bridges, but Granovetter argues that bridges will be weak. If two actors share a strong tie, they will draw in their other strong relations and will eventually form a clique. Only weak ties that do not have the strength to draw together all the “friends of friends” can connect people in different cliques.

Version B (The Original By Giuffre):

Granovetter begins by looking at balance theory. In brief, balance theory tells us that if an actor, A, is strongly tied to both B and C, it is extremely likely that B and C are, sooner or later, going to be tied to each other (1973:1363). Granovetter argues that because of this, bridge ties between cliques are always weak ties (1973:1364). Weak ties may not necessarily be bridges, but Granovetter argues that bridges will be weak. This is because if two actors share a strong tie, they will draw in their other strong relations and will eventually form a clique. The only way, therefore, that people in different cliques can be connected is through weak ties that do not have the strength to draw together all the “friends of friends.”Guiffre. Communities and Networks, 98.

Version A has the exact same information as version B, but it is harder to read because it is less cohesive. Each sentence in version B begins with old information and bridges to new information. Here’s Version B again with the relevant parts emboldened:

Granovetter begins by looking at balance theory. In brief, balance theory tells us that if an actor, A, is strongly tied to both B and C, it is extremely likely that B and C are, sooner or later, going to be tied to each other (1973:1363). Granovetter argues that because of this, bridge ties between cliques are always weak ties (1973:1364). Weak ties may not necessarily be bridges, but Granovetter argues that bridges will be weak. This is because if two actors share a strong tie, they will draw in their other strong relations and will eventually form a clique. The only way, therefore, that people in different cliques can be connected is through weak ties that do not have the strength to draw together all the “friends of friends.”

The first sentence establishes the key idea of balance theory. The next sentence begins with balance theory and ends with social ties, which is the focus of the third sentence. The concept of weak ties connects the third and fourth sentences and concept of cliques the fifth and sixth sentences. In Version A, in contrast, the first sentence focuses on balance theory, but then the second sentence makes a new point about social ties before telling the reader that the point comes from balance theory. The reader has to take in a lot of unfamiliar information before learning how it fits in with familiar concepts. Version A is coherent, but the lack of cohesion makes it tedious to read.

The lesson is this: if you or others perceive a passage you’ve written to be awkward or choppy, even though the topic is consistent, try rewriting it to ensure that each sentence begins with a familiar term or concept. If your points don’t naturally daisy-chain together like the examples given here, consider numbering them. For example, you may choose to write, “Proponents of the legislation point to four major benefits.” Then you could discuss four loosely related ideas without leaving your reader wondering how they relate.

While cohesion is about the sense of flow; coherence is about the sense of the whole. For example, here’s a passage that is cohesive (from sentence to sentence) but lacks coherence:

Your social networks and your location within them shape the kinds and amount of information that you have access to. Information is distinct from data, in that makes some kind of generalization about a person, thing, or population. Defensible generalizations about society can be either probabilities (i.e., statistics) or patterns (often from qualitative analysis). Such probabilities and patterns can be temporal, spatial, or simultaneous.

Each sentence in the above passage starts with a familiar idea and progresses to a new one, but it lacks coherence—a sense of being about one thing. Good writers often write passages like that when they’re free-writing or using the drafting stage to cast a wide net for ideas. A writer weighing the power and limits of social network analysis may free-write something like that example and, from there, develop a more specific plan for summarizing key insights about social networks and then discussing them with reference to the core tenets of social science. As a draft, an incoherent paragraph often points to a productive line of reasoning; one just has to continue thinking it through in order to identify a clear argumentative purpose for each paragraph. With its purpose defined, each paragraph, then, becomes a lot easier to write. Coherent paragraphs aren’t just about style; they are a sign of a thoughtful, well developed analysis.

The wind-up

Some guides advise you to end each paragraph with a specific concluding sentence, in a sense, to treat each paragraph as a kind of mini-essay. But that’s not a widely held convention. Most well written academic pieces don’t adhere to that structure. The last sentence of the paragraph should certainly be in your own words (as in, not a quote), but as long as the paragraph succeeds in carrying out the task that it has been assigned by its key sentence, you don’t need to worry about whether that last sentence has an air of conclusiveness. For example, consider these paragraphs about the cold fusion controversy of the 1980s that appeared in a best-selling textbookHarry Collins and Trevor Pinch, The Golem: What You Should Know About Science 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Canto, 1998), 58.:

The experiment seemed straightforward and there were plenty of scientists willing to try it. Many did. It was wonderful to have a simple laboratory experiment on fusion to try after the decades of embarrassing attempts to control hot fusion. This effort required multi-billion dollar machines whose every success seemed to be capped with an unanticipated failure. ‘Cold fusion’ seemed to provide, as Martin Fleischmann said during the course of that famous Utah press conference, ‘another route’—the route of little science.

In that example, the first and last sentences in the paragraph are somewhat symmetrical: the authors introduce the idea of accessible science, contrast it with big science, and bring it back to the phrase “little science.” Here’s an example from the same chapter of the same book that does not have any particular symmetryIbid., 74.:

The struggle between proponents and critics in a scientific controversy is always a struggle for credibility. When scientists make claims which are literally ‘incredible’, as in the cold fusion case, they face an uphill struggle. The problem Pons and Fleischmann had to overcome was that they had credibility as electrochemists but not as nuclear physicists. And it was nuclear physics where their work was likely to have its main impact.

The last sentence of the paragraph doesn’t mirror the first, but the paragraph still works just fine. In general, every sentence of academic writing should add some unique content. Don’t trouble yourself with having the last sentence in every paragraph serve as a mini-conclusion. Instead, worry about developing each point sufficiently and making your logical sequence clear.

Conclusion: paragraphs as punctuation

To reiterate the initial point, it is useful to think of paragraphs as punctuation that organize your ideas in a readable way. Each paragraph should be an irreplaceable node within a coherent sequence of logic. Thinking of paragraphs as “building blocks” evokes the “five-paragraph theme” structure: if you have identical stone blocks, it hardly matters what order they’re in. In the successful organically structured college paper, the structure and tone of each paragraph reflects its indispensable role within the overall piece. These goals—making every bit count and having each part situated within the whole—also anchor the discussion in the next chapter: how to write introductions and conclusions that frame—rather than simply book-end—your analysis.


  1. Michael Harvey’s The Nuts and Bolts of College Writing 2nd ed. (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 2013) is another short and affordable guide. His discussion of paragraphing is among the many gems in the book.
  2. Online resources from university writing centers offer a lot of great information about effective paragraphing and topic sentences. I especially admire this one from Indiana University, this one from Colorado State, and this one from the University of Richmond.
  3. In addition to Williams’ and Bizup’s excellent lesson on cohesion and coherence in Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace 11th ed. (New York: Longman, 2014), check out this site at George Mason University, this handout from Duke University, and this resource from Clarkson University.

Exercise 7.1

  1. Find a piece of academic writing you admire and copy down the first sentence of each paragraph. How well do those sentences reflect the flow of the argument? Show those sentences to other people; how clearly can they envision the flow of the piece?
  2. For each of the following short passages, decide whether they lack cohesion or coherence.A. The Roman siege of Masada in the first century CE, ending as it did with the suicide of 960 Jewish rebels, has been interpreted in various ways in Jewish history. History is best understood as a product of the present: the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of our complicated world. History lessons in elementary school curricula, however, rarely move beyond facts and timelines.B. Polar explorer Earnest Shackleton is often considered a model of effective leadership. The Endurance was frozen into the Antarctic ice where it was subsequently crushed, abandoning Shackleton and his 22-person crew on unstable ice floes, hundreds of miles from any human outpost. Two harrowing journeys by lifeboat and several long marches over the ice over the course of two Antarctic winters eventually resulted in their rescue. Amazingly, no one died during the ordeal.C. A recent analysis of a 1.8 million year-old hominid skull suggests that human evolutionary lineage is simpler than we thought. Homo erectus, a species that persisted almost 2 million years, lived in most parts of Africa as well as Western and Eastern Asia. Some scientists are now arguing that Homo erectus individuals varied widely in their body size and skull shape, a claim strongly supported by the recently analyzed skull. Thus, some other named species, such as Homo habilis and Homo rudolfensis are not separate species but instead regional variations of Homo erectus.
  3. Rewrite passages B. and C. above to make them more cohesive.


2 Etiology is the cause of a disease—what’s actually happening in cells and tissues—while epidemiology is the incidence of a disease in a population.

3 This example is drawn from key points from Steven Epstein’s Impure Science: AIDS, Activism, and the Politics of Knowledge (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1996). An excellent read.

4 This Duesberg quote is from Epstein, Impure Science, 112.

5 This sentence right here is an example!

6 I hesitate to add that this first-sentence trick is also a good one for when you haven’t completed an assigned reading and only have 10 minutes before class. Reading just the first sentence of each paragraph will quickly tell you a lot about the assigned text.

9 Ibid., 71.

13Ibid., 74.

This chapter is adapted from Amy Guptill’s Writing in College, “Back to Basics: The Perfect Paragraph,” CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0.


Peer Feedback, Revising, and Editing


Liza Long and Joel Gladd

In Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, he famously suggests that an important part of any writer’s toolkit is to create space between an initial draft and a later read. Some of his novel manuscripts would sit for months in a room before getting a fresh look. It takes time to achieve the right perspective.

Waiting that long isn’t practical for student writers, but it does suggest a certain mindset for thinking about early drafts. For the most part, powerful writing doesn’t emerge spontaneously from a writer’s mind in a fitful night of inspiration. Instead, experienced writer’s build critical distance into their writing process and view early drafts as something to be reworked.

This chapter offers suggestions to how to achieve such critical distance, as well as what it means to rework—or revise—a rough draft.

Diagram of The Writing Process
“Revise and edit” is the final draft of The Writing Process. CC-BY 4.0.

How to receive good feedback from other writers

This section on Peer Review has been adapted from Writing for Success, Chapter 8, CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0.

After working so closely with a piece of writing, writers often need to step back and ask for a more objective reader. What writers most need is feedback from readers who can respond only to the words on the page. When they are ready, writers show their drafts to someone they respect and who can give an honest response about its strengths and weaknesses.

You, too, can ask a peer to read your draft when it is ready. After evaluating the feedback and assessing what is most helpful, the reader’s feedback will help you when you revise your draft. This process is called peer review.

You can work with a partner in your class and identify specific ways to strengthen each other’s essays. Although you may be uncomfortable sharing your writing at first, remember that each writer is working toward the same goal: a final draft that fits the audience and the purpose. Maintaining a positive attitude when providing feedback will put you and your partner at ease. The box that follows provides a useful framework for the peer review session.

Using Feedback Objectively

The purpose of peer feedback is to receive constructive criticism of your essay. Your peer reviewer is your first real audience, and you have the opportunity to learn what confuses and delights a reader so that you can improve your work before sharing the final draft with a wider audience (or your intended audience).

It may not be necessary to incorporate every recommendation your peer reviewer makes. However, if you start to observe a pattern in the responses you receive from peer reviewers, you might want to take that feedback into consideration in future assignments. For example, if you read consistent comments about a need for more research, then you may want to consider including more research in future assignments.

Using Feedback from Multiple Sources

You might get feedback from more than one reader as you share different stages of your revised draft. In this situation, you may receive feedback from readers who do not understand the assignment or who lack your involvement with and enthusiasm for it.

You need to evaluate the responses you receive according to two important criteria:

  1. Determine if the feedback supports the purpose of the assignment.
  2. Determine if the suggested revisions are appropriate to the audience.

Then, using these standards, accept or reject revision feedback.

How to leave good feedback for other writers

by Joel Gladd

When other writers ask us to give feedback, it’s tempting to mimic what so many English instructors have done to our essays: go through the rough draft with a red pen in hand (literal or figurative), marking grammatical errors, and crossing out words and sentences. Peer review, in this manner, feels like flogging. The more criticisms we can offer, the better we feel about our comments.

As the author of the draft being reviewed, how does that kind of feedback feel? Were you motivated to excel? Did you feel empowered to move forward and hone your expertise as a burgeoning writer? Some might, but most feel the opposite. A entirely critical (in the negative sense) approach to peer review might make the reviewer feel good about themselves, but it only demotivates the author.

Leaving feedback that is constructive, on target, and empowering is a life skill. It’s not only something you’ll do in writing courses. Nearly all professional jobs require employees and administrators to review one another, usually on a fairly consistent basis. Here are some tips for practice helpful feedback.

Start by noticing

Eli Review offers a high-quality platform for doing peer reviews, and part of its framework is inspired by Bill Hart-Davison’s strategy of Describe – Evalute – Suggest, summarized by this short video:

Thumbnail for the embedded element "Describe - Evaluate - Suggest : Giving Helpful Feedback, with Bill Hart-Davidson"

A YouTube element has been excluded from this version of the text. You can view it online here: https://idaho.pressbooks.pub/write/?p=35

The Hart-Davison heuristic works in part because it encourages peer reviewers to begin by noticing what the writer is doing (or attempting to do). This first step aims to be as neutral as possible. Language that notices might sound something like:

Overall, I see that you’re arguing ___________. Your essay opens by ___________.You then ___________. Finally, the last few paragraphs of the essay ___________.

Feedback that notices accurately “says back” to the writer what’s happening in the draft. This saying-back allows them to see how their draft is being received, in comparison with what they thought  they were doing.

When evaluating, share criteria

The second move in Hart-Davison’s heuristic is to evaluate a draft by clearly sharing the criteria the peer reviewer is using. In a course, these criteria might be the course outcomes, or the more specific outcomes pertaining to that Unit. Perhaps an assignment expects a student to practice certain persuasive strategies; or, instead, an essay prompt might ask students to analyze something according to certain key concepts. The peer reviewer should read and offer feedback with those particular outcomes in mind. But there are also broader composition strategies that apply to nearly all writing situations. Writing for unity, coherence, cohesion, and style are important goals for all forms of writing. The second half of this chapter offers tips for tackling those areas.

Language that evaluates might sound something like this:

When reading your draft for coherence and cohesion, I notice a few areas that  feel unclear to me as a reader. On page 2, for example, ___________.

When making suggestions, remain constructive and ask questions

The final move in the Hart-Davison heuristic is to “make suggestions for success.” This is where a reader can begin to offer more targeted comments on what steps the writer can make to improve their draft. Even here, however, it’s important to think about how your feedback will be received. Tone matters. Notice the difference between the following two suggestions:

You make a lot of grammatical mistakes on page 3. Fix them.

I think I understand the main idea of your third paragraph, but it took me awhile to figure it out. Can you add a sentence or two earlier in the paragraph to make it more obvious?

The first example above sounds harsher. It’s also a little vague. As a writer, if I’m told I made a lot of grammatical mistakes, I’ll probably feel like I’m failing the English language more generally (that’s how it comes across). The second example avoids generalizing the identity of the writer because it’s highly targeted. The second example also has a more constructive tone because it frames the suggestion as a question rather than a demand (can you _______? vs. do __________!).

When completing your peer reviews, you don’t have to follow each stage of the Hart-Davison heuristic. Sometimes it might feel more appropriate to jump right to the Evaluation stage, for example. But your peer feedback should usually:

Peer feedback that does those three things, in one way or another, will result in better drafts and  help you become a more effective collaborator in whatever environment you’re in.

The remainder of this chapter will offer revision strategies that both writers and peer reviewers should use to read an early draft critically.

Revising and Editing: Five Steps for Academic Writing

by Liza Long

Have your ever been told to “revise” your paper or to “edit” a peer’s paper? What do these words mean? Just as writing is a process, effective revising and editing also involves several steps. If you focus on one step at a time and take a break between steps, you’ll be able to make sure that your paper includes all of the required elements in the right order and that your academic style is confident and competent.

Step One: Revise for Unity

When we talk about unity in academic writing, we mean that all of the parts of the paper are unified with the thesis statement. When you revise for unity, you’re making sure that you have a clear thesis statement and that every part of the paper clearly supports the thesis statement in some way. Here are some questions to ask yourself as you revise for unity:

Step Two: Revise for Adequate Support

In this step of the revision process, you’ll want to look at the ideas and sources (if required) that you use to support your thesis statement.

Here are some questions to ask yourself:

Step Three: Revise for Coherence and Cohesion (Flow)

Once you’ve determined that your paper has unity and that you included adequate support, you’ll need to check the coherence or “flow” of your essay. When we talk about coherence in writing, we mean that the ideas flow logically and are connected and organized. One easy way to check this is to read your paper out loud. Do you find yourself stopping and starting, or wondering how one paragraph connects to the next? You may need to include transitions and other cues to help the reader follow your good ideas. Here are some questions to ask yourself as you revise for coherence:

Step Four: Revise for Style

Once you’ve written an effective introduction, organized your paragraphs, and connected your ideas with transitional expressions, it’s time to focus on academic style. One common misconception is that academic style involves big fancy words and passive construction. Here is an example of what some students think of when we talk about academic style:

In the present instance, it must be construed that rhetorical constructs are most efficacious when these constructs elucidate the matter at hand.

And here is the same sentence written in plain English:

As we can see, rhetorical constructs are most effective when they clarify the point we are trying to make.

Remember that the goal of writing, first and foremost, is to communicate. It’s okay to use a fancy word once in a while (my own personal favorite is the verb ameliorate, which means “to make things better”). But in general, it’s best to eschew obfuscation (avoid unnecessarily difficult terms) when writing for an academic audience.

Here are a few things to look for as you revise for academic style:

Note: use a grammar checker as you revise for academic style. For example, the blue squiggly lines in Word’s grammar checker may indicate style problems.

Step Five: Edit for Mechanics/Format

All of us make minor grammar and spelling errors from time to time. And academic format can be tough at first, especially if your teacher requires a citation style that you aren’t used to. For example, I teach APA style in my rhetoric and composition classes because this is the citation and format style that most students will use in their majors. Here’s a quick checklist of things to look for in this final step of the revising and editing process:

As you can see, the editing and revising process is an important part of your overall writing process. By taking the time to focus on these five areas, you’ll ensure that your paper is polished and professional.

Building Self-Confidence in Writing



by A. J. Ortega


When we are good at something, we are also confident in doing it. Sometimes it is helpful to look at examples of people who are exceptional at something and figure out why they are so confident. As you read this article, you will examine a couple of popular examples of self-confidence, understand how to develop your own, and eventually use it become a more confident writer.


Write down a few things you are really good at. Don’t overthink it. Consider all avenues of your life and jot down a few things you do well, or exceptionally.


One of the most confident boxers was Muhammad Ali. In this short video clip from the documentary When We Were Kings, Muhammad Ali speaks at a press conference before fighting George Foreman. Remember that everything we study has context, so here is a little bit of history to preface the clip:

Now, with that context in mind, here’s the short video (the first 1:20):

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What stood out to you the most? Does Ali sound confident? Does it sound genuine? If so, what exactly in his brief speech demonstrates the idea of confidence?

Critical Thinking

What people typically take away from this, and what is perhaps most memorable and enjoyable, is the flowery language, funny rhymes, and playful attitude. Most of us think that is confidence. But, if we look closer and study the language, the more introspective Ali is revealed. The confidence is demonstrated when he says things like this:

Without those lines, Ali could be characterized as arrogant, pompous, or cocky. But, as we can see through his language, he actually admits his faults and shortcomings. He reflects and makes no excuses for losing a couple of times in his past. In fact, he uses this as fuel to improve and build his confidence. He wasn’t born confident. He calls himself “undeveloped” at one point. As we know, he becomes quite developed in a specific skill: boxing. And he won the fight against Foreman in spectacular fashion.


But what does this have to do with writing? Muhammad Ali was a boxer and this is English class, right? In order to see the connection a bit clearer, we have another video clip. This piece is by a soccer coach. Another athlete. It may seem off topic, but these are people with high-level skills. Soccer is a skill. Boxing is a skill. And writing is a skill. These are not merely talents or gifts. And, believe it or not, self-confidence is a skill.


This piece is a bit longer, a TEDxTalk that clocks in at about thirteen minutes but is worth every second. The title is “The Skill of Self-Confidence” by Dr. Ivan Joseph. In it, Dr. Joseph explains that, as a coach, he believes self-confidence can be trained.

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Of all the information that was in the TEDxTalk, what was the most helpful for you? Why?

Critical Thinking

While Dr. Joseph says he doesn’t use note cards and warns that his talk may go all over the place, he is very well-organized. In some ways, speeches like this are verbal essays. His thesis, or argument, is that self-confidence is a skill that can be developed. He gives us four ways to do this, along with personal examples:

As you can see, confidence can be developed and improved. These tips aren’t just about soccer or student athletes. This can be applied to a multitude of tasks, goals, skills, or hobbies.


Consider the list from the first writing prompts―the list of things you are good at. How did you get so good at them? Are you confident when you do them? Are you already using some of the methods from the TEDxTalk to develop your self-confidence in those things? (For example, if you listed that you are good at playing basketball, is it because of repetition? Maybe you practice at the YMCA every Saturday. Or maybe your coach corrected your wrist movement shooting a three-pointer and you interpreted the criticism in a way that would benefit you.)


First you saw a good example of self-confidence in boxer Muhammad Ali. Then you watched Dr. Ivan Joseph explain that self-confidence is a skill that can be developed, just like any other. Now we are ready to see some of this applied to the writing process. Despite the range of writing genres out there, several of the fundamental steps in the writing process are universal. You can observe this in essayists, poets, screenwriters, songwriters, reporters, and so on.


For this example, I want to share a video from The New York Times’ Diary of a Song series on YouTube. This episode focuses on English musician Ed Sheeran and his writing process as he came up with “Shape of You.” I actually don’t know a ton about him except his songs are everywhere. He holds all sorts of records for album sales and song downloads, and he’s an international star for his music. He’s won awards for his singing and songwriting. Even if it is not your type of music, generally, it is undeniable that Sheeran is prolific and successful. And he is, in part, a writer.

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In the video, how confident is Ed Sheeran when it comes to songwriting? From what you can tell, is it the same confidence he has as a singer? Does he exhibit any of the methods for building self-confidence from the TEDxTalk? Which ones? How effective do you think they are in his line of work? What about for English class?

Critical Thinking

On top of employing some of the strategies from the TEDxTalk, Ed Sheeran also reminds us of several parts of the writing process:

Sheeran has brainstorming sessions with his producers and co-writers. He even outlines the song with the beat and uses his vocal mumbling as placeholders. He drafts the song by trying lyrics, trying different lyrics, and then deciding which is better. He does revision through a type of peer review with his collaborators. He edits lyrics based on feedback.

It should be pointed out that this song was written quickly, which is unique. But with all of the practice he has at songwriting, and the confidence he’s built along the way, it should be expected that he is faster at writing a song than the average person. In other words, he’s put in the work, just like Muhammad Ali or Michael Jordan.

Even still, there are other writing tips to pick up from Sheeran’s process. For example, he even steps away from his work to play with Legos, which is imperative to big writing projects. This is why you need to take time on your writing projects—so you can get away and do something else for a while, which sometimes ignites a creative spark, or at least provides your mind a rest.


When learning the writing process, it is important to remember that you can build that skill with practice. Providing an opportunity to practice the writing process is part of what college English courses are supposed to do for you.

Similarly, the skill of self-confidence can also be developed. It isn’t an innate skill. It isn’t something you were just born with. Now you have examples of self-confidence from figures in sports and entertainment, but you also have some strategies to work on cultivating it for yourself. You can utilize this skill and continue to grow in your writing classes, subject courses, workplace, and beyond.

Open English @ SLCC by Christie Bogle is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Reading and Writing Rhetorically


The purpose of this section is to introduce students to the basics of reading and writing rhetorically. All reading and writing involve rhetorical moves, and understanding a few basic elements will help students become more intentional and critical.

By the end of this section, students should be able to understand and recognize concepts such as the rhetorical situation, context, audience, purpose, and genre. Later sections of the textbook shift from understanding to rhetorical generation. If “Reading and Writing Rhetorically” helps students think critically reading and writing assignments, later sections, such as “Writing Analytically,” “Writing to Inform,” and “Writing to Persuade” invite students to generate their own compositions. These later sections build on the rhetorical foundation of the current section while also introducing new strategies that are associated with particular genres of writing.

Introduction: What Is Rhetoric?


Chris Blankenship and Justin Jory

What is Rhetoric?

Rhetoric is a discipline built on the notion that language matters.  It’s a discipline that’s been around for over 2,500 years, and at different times, people who have studied it have been interested in different things. While their interests have led them to focus on different aspects of rhetoric, there are several common characteristics of rhetoric that modern readers and writers value.

Rhetoric is Communicative

It’s about conveying ideas effectively in order to promote understanding among people.

I.A. Richards, an early 20th-century philosopher, defined rhetoric as “the study of misunderstandings and their remedies.” Language is messy. It is difficult, contextual, and based on individual experience. We use language and privilege particular languages based on who we are, where we come from, and who we interact with. In essence, communicating with others is complicated and fraught with potential misunderstandings based on our experiences as individuals. Rhetoric gives you a way to work within the messiness of language. It helps writers think through the varied contexts in which language occurs, giving them a way to—ideally—effectively reach audiences with very different experiences.

Rhetoric is About Discovery

It’s about inquiring into and investigating the communication situations we participate in.

Aristotle defined rhetoric as “the faculty of discovering in any given case the available means of persuasion.” Often, the word “persuasion” is emphasized in this definition; however, the concept of “discovery” is also key here. In order to have ideas to communicate, we have to learn about the case—or situation—we’re commenting on. Kenneth Burke likened this process to a gathering in a parlor, where you arrive with a conversation already in progress. You have to actively listen to the conversation—carefully observe the situation you will participate in and the subject(s) that you will comment on—finding out the different participants’ positions and justifications for those positions before you can craft an informed opinion of your own. Rhetoric is a tool that helps you think through and research the situation as you prepare to communicate with others.

Rhetoric is about Doing Things

Jeff Grabill, a contemporary writing teacher, asks, “What are people doing when they are said to be doing rhetoric?” In response, he argues that rhetoric is a kind of work that creates things of value in the world. In other words, rhetoric creates attention to the world around us and particular people, places, and ideas in it. Paying attention to others around us helps us identify and make connections with others and their ideas, needs, and interests, and ultimately this can deepen our relationships with others. Importantly, connecting with others leads to action that alters the physical world around us, leading to the production of art and music, protests and performances, and even new buildings and spaces for people to conduct their lives. Understanding that rhetoric makes things can provide a reason to care about it and motivation to practice it.

Rhetoric is Systematic

One characteristic that influences each of the previous three is that rhetoric is systematic. It provides both readers and writers with a purposeful and methodical approach to communicating, discovering, and generating with language. It provides a set of skills and concepts that you can consistently use in order to critically think, read, research, and write in ways that allow you to achieve your communication goals. It’s important to realize, though, that rhetoric is not a one-size-fits-all formula. It’s not a series of steps that you follow the same way every time. Every communication situation is different, with different goals, contexts, and audiences, and thinking rhetorically is a flexible process that allows you to adapt to, as Aristotle put it, “any given situation.” You can think of rhetoric like a toolbelt. When using your tools, you don’t always use a tape measure first, then a hammer, then a screwdriver. In fact, you don’t always carry the same tools to different jobs. Depending on the job, you use different tools in different ways and in different orders to accomplish your task. Rhetoric is the same way.

Rhetoric is Transferable

Perhaps the most important part of rhetoric is that it’s transferable. Rhetoric isn’t just a tool that you use in English classes; thinking rhetorically is a way to methodically approach any writing situation that you may run across in your academic, professional, or personal lives. You use rhetorical analysis in the chemistry classroom to dissect complex equations and then to communicate that knowledge to others, just like you use it to decipher what a TV commercial is attempting to make you believe about a given service or product. You use persuasion to pitch business ideas just as you use it when constructing a resume. Considerations of audience are vital for Facebook posts as well as job interviews. Understanding genre helps you to create effective lab reports as well as office e-mails. Learning to think and write rhetorically can impact every area of your life. Rhetoric is everywhere that language is. And language is everywhere.

Works Cited

Aristotle. On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civic Discourse. Translated by George Kennedy. New York and London: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Burke, Kenneth. The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action. Berkley: University of California Press, 1941.

Grabill, Jeff. “The work of rhetoric in the commonplaces: An essay on rhetorical methodology.” JAC: A Journal of Composition Theory 34, no. 1 (2014): 247-267.

Richards, I.A. The Philosophy of Rhetoric. New York and London: Oxford University Press, 1936.

Open English @ SLCC by Chris Blankenship and Justin Jory is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.


Rhetoric and Genre: You’ve Got This! (Even if You Don’t Think You Do)


Tiffany Rousculp

It’s your first day of your first semester of college. You settle into an uncomfortable seat in a fluorescent-lit room, glance around at other students hypnotized by their phones, and wait for the teacher to begin. The LCD projector hums above as it warms to display the syllabus and the teacher begins to talk:

“Welcome to English Composition.  In this class, you’ll learn about rhetoric. We will learn how to use genre to navigate different writing situations …”

Hmm. You thought this was a writing class.

Rhetoric? Genre?

Am I in over my head?

Not to worry. You’re totally fine. You’re in the right place. These terms, rhetoric and genre, are words that may be unfamiliar to you, but you already know a lot about what they represent.

Rhetoric and genre are, at the same time, very simple and very complex concepts. There are other excellent readings in the Open English@SLCC collection that share their complexities with you, like Lisa Bickmore’s “Genre in the Wild” and Lynn Kilpatrick’s “Definitions, Dilemmas, Decisions”; but for now, let’s start simple. Let’s start with what you already know.

Pop Quiz: Rhetorical Analysis

Your friend, Noor, has been in a romantic relationship with Amor for the past two years. A few months ago, Noor moved to another city and, after trying to have a long-distance relationship, has decided to break up with Amor. Noor wants to break up in writing because they are scared that they won’t be able to go through with it in person (or over the phone) because Amor will talk them out of it. Noor still loves Amor and wants this to be as painless as possible for both of them.

What genre of writing should Noor use to break up with Amor? A. Instagram post B. handwritten letter C. scientific report D. email E. text F. business memo G. tweet (Twitter)

If you answered B or D, you are in agreement with nearly everyone else who has ever or who would ever take this quiz. (If you answered E, you’re probably from Generation Z, but let’s see what you think by the end of this reading. You might change your mind.)

Shows genre list again with checkmarks next to handwritten letter, email, and text with Gen Z in parentheses after text

That was a pretty easy Pop Quiz. And your response shows that you already are quite skilled at using rhetoric and genre. Sometimes encountering new words (i.e. vocabulary), like those found in a syllabus, can make you feel insecure or unsure of your abilities. That’s normal. There are steps we can take to move past those feelings so you can get started learning.

Understanding New Words: Rhetoric and Genre

First, let’s look at those words.


[REH · tr · uhk] Middle English: from Old French via Latin from Greek, ‘art of speaking or writing effectively’

At its most basic, in terms of reading, writing, and English composition classes, rhetoric is the analytical study of communication. In composition, that communication tends to consist of print, digital, visual, and sometimes audio documents and texts. (Rhetoric is also used to study spoken texts as well, but that tends to happen more in communication classes.) Rhetorical analysis asks you to examine texts in terms of purpose, author, audience, and context (or situation).


[ZHAAN · ruh] early 19th century: French, literally ‘a kind’

Genre is one element of rhetoric. Genre, in its most basic meaning, means “a type, or kind” of text. Texts can be described as, or categorized into, genres. The effectiveness or appropriateness of a specific genre of text depends on the situation in which it is occurring.

Next, let’s take these definitions to analyze how you came to your decision about what genre Noor should use to break up with Amor.

Thinking “rhetorically”

You may not believe this, but your brain conducted a instinctive rhetorical and genre calculation to come to your decision.  It may have only taken a second or two, but you and your brain sorted through all of the (implicit) elements of rhetoric to make a pretty solid decision on which was the most appropriate genre.

Here’s what your brain did, though not necessarily in this precise order.

Considering the entire situation: your brain noticed who the author was (Noor) and who the audience was (Amor), and what kind of relationship they had: romantic, long-term, now long-distance, and they still love each other. You noticed that the author had a specific purpose for writing: to break up.

Purpose: to break up. Pencil icon indicates Noor as the author and person icon indicates Amor as the audience

Then, your brain noticed that the author had another purpose (to make it as painless as possible). With this in mind, your brain eliminated public genres (Instagram posts or tweets) because it would be cruel to do something so private and emotional with another audience watching. The genre needs to fit the purpose.

purpose: to make it as painless as possible, genre list shows Instagram and Twitter crossed out

Your brain probably paused for a moment when it noticed the scientific report and the business memo genres because they were unexpected; you may have thought they were funny or strange, but then discarded them as realistic options.

genre list shows instagram, scientific report, business memo, and tweet crossed out

With three genres left, your brain re-analyzed the author’s purpose to look for possible ways to eliminate any of them. You noticed that the author was afraid that the audience would try to argue against the break-up. Knowing that having a real-time conversation is more likely in texting than through email (and impossible in handwritten letters), your brain turned to the final two options.

purpose: no arguing about it. List shows only handwritten letter or email are not crossed out.

So which one? A handwritten letter or an email?

Your brain likely went through another round of calculation: A handwritten letter may have felt more personal and caring, which would have been a good choice considering one of author’s purposes. But, a handwritten letter, in this digital era, could come across as more distant, which could feel cold and uncaring. Your brain may have wanted more information about the author and the audience, but the situation didn’t provide it.  Because of this, you may or may not have come to a strong decision on which genre was best to use.

Purpose: personal and caring. Checkmarks next to handwritten letter and email

Your brain did all of this, and it did so very, very quickly. Your brain is an extraordinary rhetorical analysis machine.

In academia, “rhetorical analysis” involves much more explicit maneuvers than the ones demonstrated in the pop quiz above, but they build on strategies we instinctually employee in everyday life. The terms rhetoric and genre, and others that often go along with them, can feel intimidating when you encounter them, and it will likely take some time for you to feel confident using them to analyze and produce your own. Until you get there, remember that your brain is already doing a form of rhetorical analysis work, all the time, whenever you are in a situation that involves communication. In a writing course, your task is to pay closer attention to it.

Take notice when you make a decision about your writing based on who you (author) are writing to (audience), or why you are writing (purpose), or the circumstances of your writing (context/situation), or what “type or kind” of writing you thought would be best to use (genre). You make dozens (or hundreds or thousands!) of large and small decisions each time you write, regardless of whether it’s an essay for a college class, a text to a friend, or a late-night journal entry to yourself. Your brain is doing the work. Watch closely and you’ll see.

Rhetoric? Genre?

You’ve got this. You really do.

Rhetoric & Genre: You’ve Got This!,” by Tiffany Rousculp is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.


The Rhetorical Situation


Justin Jory

What is the “Rhetorical Situation”?

The term “rhetorical situation” refers to the circumstances that bring texts into existence. The concept emphasizes that writing is a social activity, produced by people in particular situations for particular goals. It helps individuals understand that, because writing is highly situated and responds to specific human needs in a particular time and place, texts should be produced and interpreted with these needs and contexts in mind.

As a writer, thinking carefully about the situations in which you find yourself writing can lead you to produce more meaningful texts that are appropriate for the situation and responsive to others’ needs, values, and expectations. This is true whether writing a workplace e-mail or completing a college writing assignment.

As a reader, considering the rhetorical situation can help you develop a more detailed understanding of others and their texts.

In short, the rhetorical situation can help writers and readers think through and determine why texts exist, what they aim to do, and how they do it in particular situations.

Elements of a Rhetorical Situation


The writer (also termed the “rhetor”) is the individual, group, or organization who authors a text. Every writer brings a frame of reference to the rhetorical situation that affects how and what they say about a subject. Their frame of reference is influenced by their experiences, values, and needs: race and ethnicity, gender and education, geography and institutional affiliations to name a few.


The audience includes the individuals the writer engages with the text. Most often there is an intended, or target, audience for the text. Audiences encounter and in some way use the text based on their own experiences, values, and needs that may or may not align with the writer’s.


The purpose is what the writer and the text aim to do. To think rhetorically about purpose is to think both about what motivated writers to write and what the goals of their texts are. These goals may originate from a personal place, but they are shared when writers engage audiences through writing.


The exigence refers to the perceived need for the text, an urgent imperfection a writer identifies and then responds to through writing. To think rhetorically about exigence is to think about what writers and texts respond to through writing. As the previous chapter suggests, however, sometimes the exigence can be interpreted as giving rise to  the entire rhetorical situation.

Subject (or Message)

The subject refers to the issue at hand, the major topics the writer, text, and audience address.

Context & Constraints

The context refers to other direct and indirect social, cultural, geographic, political, and institutional factors that likely influence the writer, text, and audience in a particular situation.


Often considered a type of constraint, the genre refers to the type or form of text the writer produces. Some texts are more appropriate than others in a given situation, and a writer’s successful use of genre depends on how well they meet, and sometimes challenge, the genre conventions.

Visualizing the Rhetorical Situation

This image shows how the various elements of the Rhetorical Situation interact.

chart showing relationships between text, writer, subject, and audience and other rhetorical elements like exigence, purpose, and genre

 “The Rhetorical Situation”  by Justin Jory is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.


Reading College Assignments Rhetorically


Joel Gladd

When confronted with their first writing assignment, many feel puzzled, or even angry. “Why am I being asked to do _______? I’ll never write this kind of essay again!” Or, “Why are there so many requirements? I’ll never need to format an essay MLA once I’m in my real job.” To de-mystify these assignments and their requirements, it’s important to grasp the rhetorical concept of “context,” often referred to as the “rhetorical situation” or the “writing situation.” This chapter aims to provide a contextual foundation for understanding texts, speeches, and other forms of discourse commonly assigned to students. Understanding an assignment’s context has a huge pay-off: it not only de-mystifies many assignments, but also helps students to think critically about why an email drafted for a future boss should look different from an email to a friend or relative, or why it’s ok (and even encouraged) to use non-standard English when texting to friends but the same writing in a resume Cover Letter might get them rejected from a pool of job applicants. Understanding context, the rhetorical situation for your writing artifact, helps your writing matter more.

What is the Rhetorical Situation?

Birth of Venus
Fig. 1. Classical illustration of Athena emerging from the head of Zeus. Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain.

Before jumping into a rhetorical analysis of common writing assignments I want to provide a more general introduction to the idea of a rhetorical situation. Writing programs are increasingly expecting students to become rhetorically savvy, but students and even many instructors may not be aware of the how this happened and the different models for thinking about a “rhetorical situation.”

Lloyd Bitzer famously declared that “rhetoric is situational” in 1968.Philosophy & Rhetoric, Jan. 1968 (Vol. 1 No. 1), https://www.jstor.org/stable/40236733, p. 3. Writing artifacts don’t just burst forth from a rhetor’s head, Athena-like (Fig. 1). They take shape and inspiration from specific places and times. The texts we read and write have a certain flavor due to the distinct places, communities, and cultures within which they’re produced.

Since Bitzer’s “The Rhetorical Situation” was published, Writing Studies has increasingly focused on how to unpack this sense of embeddedness, what is commonly termed the context or the rhetorical situation.

As the excellent article “Backpacks vs. Briefcases: Steps toward Rhetorical Analysis” explains, there are two distinct models for understanding the rhetorical situation.

  1. Bitzer’s focus on context: Bitzer’s model focuses on the context that gives rise to a particular artifact, such as a speech, poem, or essay. He proposes three key terms to explain this context: exigence, audience, and constraints. The most confusing term for students is “exigence,” which is basically the problem or issue that spurs a speaker/writer (the “rhetor”) to act. Bitzer’s model is highly attuned to context and constraints. It allows us to focus on the extent to which any given artifact is limited and informed by key factors.
  2. Classical rhetorical triangle: Many students are taught the “rhetorical triangle” of writer, reader, and purpose. This second model helps writers focus more on the writer and purpose, and less emphasis is placed on contextual factors such as the exigence or genre constraints. Teachers who rely on this model usually include a visual of a triangle with Writer-Subject-Audience at the three points and then Purpose in the middle.

It’s possible to combine the two models above, such as we find in the following graphic (Fig. 2):

rhetorical situation
(Fig .2) Visual of the Rhetorical Situation. This model combines the classical emphasis on Writer-Subject-Audience with Bitzer’s focus on exigence and context.

What are the Rhetorical Appeals and how do they fit into the Rhetorical Situation?

It’s also important for students to understand that lessons about the rhetorical situation are often supplemented with other terms that help explain the persuasiveness of the argument or message, termed the “rhetorical appeals.” A separate chapter on the Persuasive Appeals will explain those in more detail, but for now it’s helpful to know that these additional rhetorical terms are commonly used to identify the different kinds of persuasion: logos (logic), ethos (credibility), pathos (emotion).

Lessons about the rhetorical situation focus on context, or the background that gives rise to a particular essay, poem, speech, etc. The same background can inspire many different artifacts. On the other hand, lessons focusing on the effectiveness of an argument or message often zoom in to consider a single artifact. For example, students who are asked to perform a rhetorical analysis of an essay or media artifact will usually spend most of their essay focusing on the rhetorical appeals and less time identifying the context (but that might also depend on the instructor).

An economic metaphor might be helpful here: in the writing cycle, the rhetorical situation (the context) is upstream from the artifact (the message or argument). When a speaker walks onto a stage and faces the audience, the rhetorical situation is everything that led up to that particular moment, including the occasion, the location, the beliefs of the audience, how much time the speaker has, and what the speaker aims to achieve. When the speaker actually delivers the speech, the rhetorical appeals then help analyze whether the speech is effective and why.

The rest of this chapter is an introduction to just the upstream part of the writing cycle, the rhetorical situation, as it pertains to college writing assignments. Whereas many articles and chapters tend to culminate in students analyzing a famous speech or essay, this chapter is tailored specifically for college students who are learning how to respond to college-level writing prompts. 

The chapter covers five key terms associated with writing situations that students will face in college:

I. Exigence: What issue needs to be addressed?

Simply put, the exigence of a rhetorical situation is the urgency, problem, or issue that a college assignment asks a student to respond to.

When Bitzer drew attention to the importance of context in “The Rhetorical Situation,” he pointed out that certain aspects of the situation invite “the assistance of discourse.”Ibid. p. 6. One of the his examples is air pollution: “The pollution of our air is also a rhetorical exigence because its positive modification—reduction of pollution—strongly invites the assistance of discourse producing public awareness, indignation, and action of the right kind.”Ibid. p. 7. Within a given context, certain elements or phenomena will provoke a call to action from discourse.

Some college assignments ask a student to brainstorm, research, and clearly articulate their own exigence and then respond to it. Other assignment prompts will provide a student with a pre-defined exigence and ask them to respond to or solve the problem using the skills they’ve been practicing in the course.

When analyzing texts or creating their own, students should be able to specify the particular urgency their discourse is responding to. It’s precisely this urgency that the text aims to take up and respond to, at the right time and place (kairotically). In thesis-driven academic essays, the exigence is usually clarified at the beginning, as part of the introduction.

The separate chapter on “Exigence” offers more details about this important rhetorical term.

Exigence and Introductions

In academic essays, students should consider the following questions when drafting a contextually-informed introduction. Note that your response to these questions will vary depending on the course and writing assignment.

  • What ambiguity, issue, or threat is being addressed?
  • Where is this issue located: in a text (appropriate for a literary analysis essay)? among a group of specialists? among a group of reporters?
  • Do you intend to simulate specialized expertise (usually appropriate for upper-level courses)? Or is your text aimed at a wider readership (more appropriate for a writing course)?

II. Purpose: How will the exigence be addressed?

One straightforward way to understand the purpose of a rhetorical situation is in terms of the exigence: the purpose of a essay, presentation, or other artifact is to effectively respond to a particular problem, issue, or dilemma. Traditionally, three broad categories have been proposed for thinking about a text’s purpose:

Here are some rhetorical situations where the exigence and purpose are clearly defined. The last situation is specific to college courses:

Exigence 1: I need to write a letter to my landlord explaining why my rent is late so she won’t be upset.

  • Purpose of the letter = persuade the landlord it’s ok to accept a late payment

Exigence 2: I want to write a proposal for my work team to persuade them to change our schedule.

  • Purpose of the proposal = persuade the team to get the schedule changed

Exigence 3: I have to write a research paper for my environmental science instructor comparing solar to wind power.

  • Purpose of the research paper = inform the audience about alternative forms of energy;
  • Secondary purpose: persuade/demonstrate to the science instructor you’re learning the course content

The difference between Exigence 1 and Exigence 3 above may initially cause some confusion. Exigence 1, the letter about the late rent payment, happens in the “real world.” It’s an everyday occurrence that naturally gives rise to a certain rhetorical situation and the purpose seems obvious. When moving to Exigence 3, the writing situation feels more complex because the student is learning about things supposedly “out there,” in the “real world,” but the purpose has multiple layers to it because it’s part of a college course. On the surface, the purpose of the research essay is obviously to inform the reader; but since the assignment is given within an outcomes-driven science course, the student is also attempting to convince the instructor that they’re actually learning the course outcomes.

The example of Exigence scenario 3 shows how college assignments sometimes differ from other writing situations. As WAC Clearinghouse explains in its page, “What Should I Know about Rhetorical Situations?”, a contextual appreciation of a text’s purpose helps a student appreciate why they’re given certain assignments. In a typical composition course, for example, students are often tasked with responding to particular scenarios with their own persuasive or creative ingenuity, even though they’re not expected to become experts on the topic. Until they enter high-level or graduate-level courses, students are mostly expected to simulate expertise.

When this simulation happens, we can consider an assignment and the student’s response as having two distinct purposes. The first is obvious; the second is often hidden.

Purpose 1: Ostensive Purpose. On the surface, the ostensive purpose of the assignment might be to solve a problem (anthropogenic climate change, the rise of misinformation, etc.) and persuade an academic audience their solution is legitimate, perhaps by synthesizing research. Depending on the topic and assignment criteria, a student might pretend to address a specialized audience and thereby simulate a position of authority (a type of ethos), even if they haven’t yet earned the credentials. Essays often signal the simulated context in the introduction, where a writer might summarize an ongoing conversation within a specialized community their essay is responding to.

Purpose 2: Hidden Purpose. When simulating expertise, instructors and students should also take into account the actual context of the writing assignment prompt: it’s given to the student as part of a college writing course. The outcomes for that course shape the kinds of assignments an instructor chooses, as well as how they’re assessed. The contextually-informed purpose is therefore the writing competency the student is expected to demonstrate (develop a thesis, provide support, synthesize research, write with sources, etc.) for a particular instructor within a particular institution. 

The second, outcomes-based purpose doesn’t replace the ostensive purpose of the essay. Instead, it’s better to appreciate the fact that college writing assignments can have multiple purposes. The more attuned a student is to why they’re being tasked with certain assignments, the more their writing will matter, both for them and others.

It also helps if instructors make it clear to students why they’re given certain tasks, particularly those that won’t appear in future courses. All writing simulations stretch a student to practice certain techniques that do transfer, but students rightly become frustrated when this contextual information is not obvious.

III. Audience: Who will help respond to the exigence?

As with the section on purpose above, audience has a straightforward relation to the exigence: it’s the reader, listener, or viewer whom the author expects to help solve the problem.

This rhetorical attunement to an audience should help students better appreciate why writing programs emphasize the importance of writing for readers. Journaling and some creative writing situations might have an audience of just one (you, the writer), but most rhetorical situations expect the writer to craft their message in such a way that it appeals to the intended audience.

Writing with an intended audience in mind is one of the trickiest constraints a writer will face. It also impacts everything in a writing course, from the assignments themselves to the peer review process. Although there are many different types of audiences, it can help to lump them into three very broad categories:

Each of these communities are defined more carefully below.

Writing within formal communities

When students are expected to simulate expertise on a topic and address a specialized community, they’re writing within a “discipline” or “field of study.” Writing artifacts produced within that field tend to sound the same, circulate within a certain hierarchy, and are housed by specific institutions. The uniqueness of each field of study (a type of context) often fosters academic jargon. You may have noticed that peer-reviewed academic articles look very similar and are more difficult to read than popular news articles. That’s because peer-reviewed articles are published from within and for highly specific writing communities who share a similar vocabulary and disciplinary knowledge with tightly controlled conventions. A contextual appreciation of an article’s audience allows a specialist to say much more about certain things (a molecular biologist can explain the shape of a protein fold very precisely) and less about other things (the same biologist doesn’t need to explain what a protein compound is). Community-as-context helps a writer better understand how to communicate with their intended audience.

Even when students aren’t expected to simulate expertise, professors often ask them to submit writing samples that adhere to certain conventions, such as MLA or APA Style. In this way, higher education fosters a culture that the cultural psychologist Michele Gelfand would categorize as relatively “tight.” The tightness of academic culture impacts stylistic requirements (MLA, APA, etc.) as well as what “appropriate grammar” looks like.

Michele Gelfand’s “The Secret Life of Social Norms” offers a helpful framework for thinking critically about the “tightness” of academic culture.

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Writing within informal communities

Depending on a student’s background, the vast quantity of their experience with writing on a daily basis might be for an informal audience, such as a family member, close friend, or significant other. But even very informal writing situations, such as texting a friend, sending an email to a family member, or crafting a social media post place certain expectations on the writer/rhetor. These more informal writing situations may or may not have codes of conduct attached to them. They often appear to emerge spontaneously, as unstated contracts between the parties. Certain unsaid codes of conduct determine what you can and cannot say to a parent vs. a group of friends, for example. However, there tend to be fewer rules governing these situations than the formal writing situations, and they’re usually not articulated anywhere. The rules are almost never explicitly enforced by a governing body or institution. Writers within these situations usually feel spontaneous, natural, and authentic.

The basic distinction between informal and formal writing communities helps explain why college assignments often feel so unnatural and difficult.

Writing within a dominant culture

When moving from informal to formal writing situations, some writing practices will feel similar. If we scale up from formal and informal writing communities, we can also recognize the extent to college professors and social media readers alike tend to evaluate writing and speech according to the standards of the dominant culture, especially in countries like the United States. The sociological understanding of behavioral conventions as cultural norms is useful here. Historically, many U.S. academic institutions have penalized deviations from standard English in order to maintain a particular standard that only began to be heavily codified in America in the early nineteenth-century. As a result, dialects such as Black English or Spanglish tend to be seen as sub-standard within this broader cultural context that higher education takes for granted (the chapter “Style and Linguistic Diversity” offers more information about this cultural back-history to standard English). Phrases like “appropriate grammar” should be understood contextually, as belonging to a particular culture, even if it’s dominant. Conventions don’t drop down from the sky.

Some cultural norms carry over into professional workplace environments, especially formal ones (e.g., conflation of “clear writing” with standard English), but others may not (MLA or APA formatting are not required in many workplace environments). Understanding the broader cultural context within which “stylistically appropriate” writing is produced should help a student become even more intentional about the choices they make when writing for the intended audience. It should also lead to more awareness about how to evaluate the writing within their community. When participating in peer review, for example, a student who’s aware of the cultural context undergirding requirements such as “appropriate grammar” may adopt a more nuanced tone in their revision feedback, especially when responding to the writing of peers who come from non-dominant cultures.

Are cultural norms arbitrary? There’s an increasing push towards recognizing the costs associated with evaluating writing according to the standards of a single culture. Sometimes a writer might choose to deviate from a cultural norm in order to better serve the purpose of the rhetorical situation. When making this decision, however, the writer will need to anticipate the effect their culturally-deviant discourse will have within their specific community as well as how it might be assessed. Sometimes conventions do need to be disrupted or nudged in a certain direction.

On the other hand, some conventions do help create consistency and fairness. The renewed interest in “civic discourse” and the codification of inclusive or bias-free language by professional and academic institutions suggests that many writing communities are adopting new guidelines even as they reject or modify old ones. MLA, APA, and other official styles continue to be maintained and updated in order to foster collaboration and communication within academic disciplines. Formal communities have many rules. Successful writers are the ones who practice the lifelong art of constrained optimization.

Some instructors may tolerate or even encourage deviance from certain cultural norms, e.g., by inviting students to code-switch in an assignment. Others may emphasize that standard English tends to operate as the norm in most professional contexts and therefore expect composition students to demonstrate basic proficiency in all of their assignments.

Increasingly, students and professional workers alike are expected to remain highly attuned to the demands of diverse audience and adaptable within their communities.

IV. Constraints

Constraints place limits on the rhetor/writer/speaker. They’re part of the context that helps explain why a completed artifact looks, sounds, or feels the way it does, given the particular limitations of the situation, audience, and speaker. A constraint might be the kind of speech a rhetor is asked to deliver (a eulogy vs. wedding toast), also known as genre. But a constraint might also refer to assignment criteria, such as how many pages an essay and must and how much time a student has to write it.

Below we’ll look more closely at two very different limitations: genre and physical constraints.

Genre Constraints

Lisa Bickmore’s chapter “Genre in the Wild” offers an excellent and highly thorough introduction to the concept of genre. For the purposes of this chapter, I will just highlight a few things.

First, the idea of genre in college writing situations is useful because it will help you think more deliberately about how the finished artifact (your essay, speech, project, etc.) should appear. One of the most common anxieties or frustrations students in a writing course have is what their essay should ultimately look like. Some instructors provide highly detailed models, including templates for every part of the essay. Others simply state something like: “write a persuasive essay about x,” and students are expected to figure out the details of what a persuasive essay looks like on their own. When a student asks the instructor for an example of what the finished artifact looks like, they’re looking for the genre—the particular form an artifact is expected to take, which is usually shaped by conventions associated with that writing situation.

Genre helps explain why a Young Adult novel looks similar to but different from a John le Carré spy novel. It also helps explain why chemistry lab reports look very different from informative reports written for an English course. As Bickmore explains, genre is “an act of language … that behaves in typical or characteristic ways, which we can observe in repeated or persistent situations.”

A rhetorical (contextual) appreciation for the importance of genre will stress the importance of the writing situation within specific college courses. It will help to recognize that a college essay written for one course may look very different from another course. For example, what a “persuasive essay” means may not be exactly the same for your PHIL 101 and ENGL 102 courses.

How can students become less anxious about what their essay should look like? Some courses (especially writing courses) should provide detailed training and instructions for the genre. In courses where a particular instructor doesn’t provide much support, I suggest two things. First, see if they’ve provided a sample somewhere. If not, ask them for one, or try to find one online or from students who have previously taken the course (it’s not cheating if you’re looking for the form of the assignment). Second, pay close attention to an assignment’s requirements. Some courses and instructors will be vague, suggesting the genre may not have as many rules associated with it; others may be very specific, even including a detailed outline for each part.

You’ll quickly find out “in the real world” that genre is highly relevant to success! Workplace environments have many different genre expectations, and it’s often the case that employees are asked to write things they’re unfamiliar with. The more practice you have with identifying a task’s genre and the conventions associated with it, the more successful you’ll be at your job. Even getting a job requires familiarity with genre⁠—the resume!

Physical Constraints

The material constraints and affordances of a writing space are also key factors of any rhetorical situation. Here, context can be understood in terms of material and spatial limitations. Writing artifacts don’t just appear out of nowhere. They take shape within buildings and spaces. Physical and digital spaces have certain constraints that limit how a text takes shape, what it looks like, and how it should be assessed.

The relatively new field of Disability Studies has pointed out that many physical settings assume the writer is neurotypical and able-bodied. Those with disabilities and neuroatypical students often face additional hurdles within academic culture. A typical classroom setting, for example, assumes the average student does not have ADHD, dyslexia, severe anxiety, or any of the other invisible disabilities (although the push for a more inclusive pedagogy is beginning to change this). When an instructor gives a writing prompt and expect students to complete it in thirty minutes, the quantity of words produced and particular form of the text may reflect the tension between the constraints of that classroom and the particular abilities or disabilities of the writers.

How physical constraints shape writing habits: The material aspect of writing plays a crucial role in why some writers become more successful practitioners than others. Forming life-long writing habits largely comes down to appreciating what kinds of behaviors work within a given space, given your own limitations and abilities. There’s no perfect time and place to write. There are only tactics and strategies that work for certain individuals in certain spaces. The more a writer becomes attuned to their writing contexts, the more strategic they can become.

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Joel Gladd

What is Exigence?

Exigence is a rhetorical concept that can help writers and readers think about why texts exist. You can use the concept to analyze what others’ texts are responding to and to more effectively identify the reasons why you might produce your own. Understanding exigence can lead to a better sense of audience and purpose, as well: When you know why a text exists, you will often have a clearer sense of whom it speaks to (audience) and what it seeks to do (purpose).

The rhetorical concept of exigence, sometimes called exigency, is attributed to rhetorical scholar Lloyd Bitzer. In his essay, “The Rhetorical Situation,” he identifies exigence as an important part of any rhetorical situation. Bitzer writes, exigence is “an imperfection marked by urgency … a thing which is other than it should be.” It is the thing, the situation, the problem, the imperfection, that moves writers to respond through language and rhetoric. Bitzer claims there can be numerous exigencies necessitating response in any given context but there is always a controlling exigency—one that is stronger than the others.Philosophy & Rhetoric, Jan. 1968 (Vol. 1 No. 1), https://www.jstor.org/stable/40236733, pp. 6-8.

If the rhetorical situation involves concepts such as audience, purpose, and genre, we can visualize the relationship between exigence and those other rhetorical concepts as one of cause and effect: the exigence gives rise to  the rhetorical situation. In other words, all rhetorical situations response to a particular need or urgency. It’s what motivates the rhetor to act.

The exigtence gives rise to the rhetorical situation.

As John Mauk and John Metz explain in “Inventing Arguments:

An exigence may be something as direct and intense as a power outage, which might prompt an official to persuade everyone to ‘stay calm’ or to ‘assist those in need.’ An exigence may be more subtle or complex, like the discovery of a new virus, which might prompt medical officials to persuade the public how to change its behavior. Exigence is part of a situation. It is the critical component that makes people ask the hard questions: What is it? What caused it? What good is it? What are we going to do? What happened? What is going to happen?

Another way to think about the relationship between exigence and other elements of rhetoric (especially the purpose) is in terms of problem and solution: an exigence is a problem that demands a solution. All rhetorical situations are particular, inventive solutions to a pressing issue.

Exigence and Kairos

Some experts of rhetoric have pointed out the link between kairos, an appeal to timeliness, and exigence.Keith Grant-Davie, "Rhetorical Situations and Their Constituents," Rhetoric Review, Spring 1997 (Vol. 15 No. 2), https://www.jstor.org/stable/465644, p. 268. A conference speech might be a response to an invitation, for example, or a political speech might be proposing a certain policy in response to a recent act of terrorism. Or, a paper or speech might be prompted by something extraordinary that’s about to happen, if certain steps aren’t taken now, such as those related to climate change.

Questions related to exigence

This chapter, “Exigence” by Joel Gladd, is remixed from “Exigence” by Justin Jory is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.




Monique Babin, Carol Burnell, Susan Pesznecker, Nicole Rosevear, Jaime Wood

What is Purpose?

Often, you’ll know your purpose at the exact moment you know your audience because they’re generally a package deal:

How Do I Know What My Purpose Is?

Sometimes your instructor will give you a purpose like in the third example above, but other times, especially out in the world, your purpose will depend on what effect you want your writing to have on your audience. What is the goal of your writing? What do you hope for your audience to think, feel, or do after reading it? Here are a few possibilities:

This chapter is from Introduction to Writing in College, “Purpose,” by Monique Babin, Carol Burnell, Susan Pesznecker, Nicole Rosevear, and Jaime Wood, CC-BY 4.0.




Justin Jory

What is the Audience?

Audience is a rhetorical concept that refers to the individuals and groups that writers attempt to move, inciting them to action or inspiring shifts in attitudes and beliefs. Thinking about audience can help us understand who texts are intended for, or who they are ideally suited for, and how writers use writing to respond to and move those people. While it may not be possible to ever fully “know” one’s audience, writers who are good rhetorical thinkers know how to access and use information about their audiences to make educated guesses about their needs, values, and expectations—hopefully engaging in rhetorically fitting writing practices and crafting and delivering useful texts. In short, to think about audience is to consider how people influence, encounter, and use any given text.

Addressed vs. Invoked Audiences

Audience can refer to the actual and imagined people who experience and respond to a text. In their essay, “Audience Addressed/Audience Invoked,” Lisa Ede and Andrea Lunsford explain the difference between actual and imagined audiences, what they call addressed and invoked audiences.

Addressed audiences are the “actual or intended readers of a text” and they “exist outside the text” (167). These audiences are comprised of actual people who have values, needs, and expectations that the writer must anticipate and respond to in the text. People can identify actual audiences by thinking about where and when a text is delivered, how and where it circulates, and who would or could encounter the text.

On the other hand, invoked audiences are created, perhaps shaped, by a writer. The writer uses language to signal to audiences the kinds of positions and values they are expected to identify with and relate to when reading the text. In this sense, invoked audiences are imagined by the writer and, to some degree, are ideal readers that may or may not share the same positions or values as the actual audience.

Related Questions

Additional Readings

Audience, an entry in the Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms, by Richard Nordquist

Consider Your Audience, an entry in Writing Commons, by Joe Moxley

What to Think About When Writing for a Particular Audience, entry in Writing Commons, by Amanda Wray

Works Cited

Ede, Lisa and Andrea Lunsford. “Audience Addressed/Audience Invoked: The Role of Audience in Composition Theory and Pedagogy.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 35, no. 2, (May, 1984): 155-171.

Audience,” by Justin Jory is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.



This chapter, by Lisa Bickmore, demonstrates the importance of genre within a given rhetorical situation. The separate chapter on “Context” suggests that the idea of context informs all other aspects of the rhetorical situation, including audience, purpose, and genre. Here, Bickmore explains the contextuality and situatedness of a text’s genre by using the term “ecosystem.” We can read ecosystem and context as interchangeable terms.

Genre in the Wild: Understanding Genre Within Rhetorical (Eco)Systems

by Lisa Bickmore

Let’s begin by imagining the world—the worlds, rather—in which you write. Your workplace, for instance: you might take messages, or write e-mails, or update records, or input orders, or fill out a variety of forms.

Or what about your educational world? You likely write in response to all kinds of assignments: lab reports, research papers, short summaries, observations, even, sometimes, short narratives. Sometimes you might write a short message in Canvas or via e-mail to your instructors. You may also have financial aid forms to fill out or application materials for programs or for transfer institutions to complete.

What about your world outside of school or work? Do you, occasionally, write a Facebook post, or a tweet, or a Snapchat story? Do you repost other people’s articles and memes with your own comments? How about texts or e-mails to friends and acquaintances? You might also be a writer of what we sometimes label as creative texts—you might write songs or song lyrics, or poems, or stories.

The names of the things you write—e-mails, messages, record or application forms, order forms, lab reports, field observations, applications, narratives, text messages, and so on—can be thought of as individual compositions, large or small, that happen incidentally in the course of other activity. But another way to think of these compositions is as predictable and recurring kinds of communication—in a word, genres.

What is Genre?

The term genre means “kind, sort, or style” and is often applied to kinds of art and media, for instance, sorts of novels, films, television shows, and so on. In writing studies, we find all sorts of written genres, not just ones that you might classify as artistic (or creative).

Genre is a word we use when we want to classify things, to note the similarities and differences between kinds of writing. But we don’t identify genres solely by their formal markers. For instance, memoranda use a specific sort of header, and lab reports typically have commonly used section headings. But it’s not the header that makes a memorandum a genre (or subgenre); it’s not the section headings that make a lab report a genre (or subgenre). In other words, the formal features or markers don’t define the genre, although they are often helpful signals. Rather, it’s a situation in which the memorandum or the lab report typically recurs, and it’s also the fact that such situations seem to call repeatedly for a kind of writing that answers the needs of that situation. We begin to classify a kind of writing as a genre when it recurs frequently enough and seems to perform the same functions in recurring situations.

Here’s a definition: “A genre is a typified utterance that appears in a recurrent situation. A genre evolves through human use and activity to be a durable and usable form for carrying out human communicative intentions in fairly stable ways.” This definition might feel a little knotty, so let’s break it down.

typified characteristic, typical
utterance any act of language — written or spoken
recurrent happens again and again
Two-cell comic strip showing a cat and rabbit discussing the meaning of genre.
Comic: The Rhetorical Cat Does Genre

So a genre is an act of language—for our purposes here, mostly acts of writing, in particular—that behaves in typical or characteristic ways, which we can observe in repeated or persistent situations.

For students, classrooms are recurrent situations, if you think about it—while the events that occur in a classroom on any given day might differ in their details from another day, in their overall configuration, the activities of a classroom are remarkably similar over time. We might expect, in a recurrent situation, to observe, then, recurring types of communication. A teacher writes on the board; students might take notes. A teacher hands out an assignment; students respond to the assignment. Genres take their shape in recurrent situations because the communications that occur in recurrent situations tend to be remarkably similar.

Charles Bazerman, writing in Naming What We Know, says that we can see genre as

habitual responses to recurring socially bounded situations. Regularities of textual form [like the header on a memorandum or the section heads in a lab report] most lay people [i.e. not experts] experience … [are] the structural characteristics of genres [as they] emerge from … repeated instances of action and are reinforced by institutional power structures.

In other words, if you work in an office, you probably write memos, using whatever the prescribed form is in your workplace. You, as a writer in that situation, don’t precisely choose that genre, nor its formal characteristics—in a way, the situation chooses those for you, and all the people who are doing similar work to you use the same genre, in much the same way, and probably have been doing so for quite some time. This is part of what we mean when we say that genre lives in the recurrent situation—in offices, in labs, in all kinds of institutional settings. Bazerman highlights the institutional nature of genre when he says, “Genres are constructions of groups, over time, usually with the implicit or explicit sanction of organizational or institutional power.” Individual writers in institutional settings usually have somewhat limited choices when it comes to genre.

Still, writers who are really at home in a particular writing setting use genres with a great deal of fluency. As we’ve said, the genre is built into the writing situation—when you’re at home in a writing situation, the genre is simply part of your accustomed toolset, and you know very well which tool to use. But all of us are writers in multiple settings, in some of which we may be very comfortable, and in others of which we may have to do a little more thinking and prospecting—looking about, sizing up what might be the best choices for the situation, including choices about genre. In these cases, simply knowing that there are genres—typical ways of using language that recur in the situation—can help a writer assess how to respond, and to figure out what genres are typically used in that situation.

When a writer decides or intuits that a particular genre is called for by the situation, he or she takes up the genre and uses it to frame a written response to the situation. So, for instance, when a scientist has gathered enough experimental data, she will probably write some sort of report of the findings. When the Supreme Court has heard oral arguments on a particular case, eventually they will write a ruling, and often a dissent. The scientist doesn’t have to figure out whether she’ll write a report or if she’d rather write a song lyric. The Supreme Court justice writing for the majority knows that she will not write a haiku. In each instance, the situation calls for a particular genre. The writer in the situation knows this. So the writer takes up the genre and uses it to respond.

Each time a writer takes up a genre, the writer reaffirms, in a way, the stable features of the genre. But the writer also—perhaps in minuscule ways—might adapt and reshape the genre, which potentially shifts the genre’s stability. For instance, the proposal genre typically requires you to define a problem, often in a fair amount of detail, as well as provide a very well-reasoned solution, with evidence that supports the solution’s feasibility and desirability. Without these moves, what you write simply won’t be a proposal. But as you consider how you might define the problem, it occurs to you that a brief story, followed by an analysis and some data, might illuminate the problem better than a presentation of dry statistical data alone. Not everyone who writes a proposal will choose to use narrative—the narrative strategy is a way that you might imagine your audience and that audience’s response, aiming for a livelier and more engaged response.

To sum up: sometimes when you write, the genre is a choice that’s already made for you. But there are also times when you’ll have opportunities to decide upon the genres you’ll use to write in the world, and often this will be true in the writing classes you take. This requires some critical imagination and research on your part—imagining the writing situation, and the genres that might respond well in that situation. Thus, genres are both stable and to some degree fluid and evolving, just as human communication itself is both predictable and unpredictable.

Knowing about genre can provide powerful insight into how writing works in the world. We know from a fair amount of empirical study that writers learn to use genres best within contexts where they use the genres regularly—the genres in use within a particular locale will become part of the toolset writers within those locales pick up to do their work there. But even in your writing courses, you should start to become more aware of the genres that are built into the settings in which you currently find yourself—school, work, public life—as well as genres that are at work in other settings you want to be a part of.

The Genre Does Not Stand Alone: Genre Sets and Systems

Sometimes, despite what we’ve described above about the ways that genres are dependent upon contexts and situations for their meaning, it can seem as if a genre is a thing all on its own, especially when we’re learning about a particular genre. It can seem that what you’re supposed to learn is how to approximate the genre, and you hope that by observing and then imitating the genre features, you’ll produce writing that behaves like the genre. Often students cast about for a formula, thinking that a genre can be understood simply almost as a template. Let’s say you’re learning about the report genre. You learn that it typically has an informational purpose. You look at a few reports, and it seems like they often have headings and they often have graphs or charts. You forge ahead, trying in your draft to bring in as many of these kinds of features as you can. But do graphs and headings alone make a piece of writing a report?

One thing an approach like this—looking at the genre as a formulaic, standalone artifact—does not show very well is how the genre actually functions in an environment. Charles Bazerman, a scholar and researcher in writing studies who has spent a good deal of his academic life looking into the ways that genres work, talks about something called “genre sets,” which are a “collection of types of texts someone in a particular role is likely to produce.” For instance, to use Bazerman’s example, “If you find out a civil engineer needs to write proposals, work orders, progress reports, quality test reports, safety evaluations, and a limited number of other similar documents, you have gone a long way toward identifying the work they do.” You might think about the kinds of texts you are called upon to produce in one of your typical writing settings—for instance, a classroom. You produce, for instance, notes on classroom presentations, drafts, feedback on other students’ work, responses to readings, records of your research, e-mails to classmates and instructors, and so on. The collection of texts you list would be the genre set for you as a student.

Beyond the texts you produce, though, lies a network in which your texts are situated. So, for instance, students in a college class will produce notes, drafts, exams, assignments, e-mails to the instructor, and so on. The instructor has a different but intersecting set of texts: syllabi, assignments, e-mails to the class or responses to student e-mail queries, comments on drafts and final assignments, exam questions, and so on. Beyond the classroom, instructors also read and interpret policies, write assessment plans and reports, and so on. Each person acting within the system of college is part of a situated and intersecting set of texts, which Bazerman calls a genre system.

Let’s imagine a little theoretical genre system—Social Media World:

This image alludes to the multiple kinds of digital texts, activities, and people we interact with as social media writers.
Graphic: The Genre System in/of Social Media World

The genre system I’ve sketched out above depends on several intersecting elements: the things you write, the things you read, the things you circulate and the things your network circulates, and also on your comments and re-posts. The particular network doesn’t matter so much, although it will shape the specifics about what you write and how you respond. But in social media, your genre system is always partly what you do, and partly what other people who are in your network do. It’s even partly what people outside your direct sphere do—like the coders who design, and redesign, the social media platforms you use and participate in, and whose design decisions affect how you participate.

Anis Bawarshi thinks of these situated and intersecting sets of genres as forming a rhetorical ecosystem. In “The Ecology of Genre,” Bawarshi uses the example of a patient medical history form, the form that people fill out when they go to a doctor’s office. You’ve probably filled one out yourself. Typically, this form asks for specific information about the patient, such as physical statistics, “prior and recurring physical conditions, past treatments, and, of course, a description of current physical symptoms.”

Bawarshi notes that the medical history portion of the document is usually followed by insurance information, and a “consent-to-treat statement,” as well as a legal release. All of these parts of the form, put together, mean that the patient medical history form (or PMHF) genre “is at once a patient record and a legal document.” Bawarshi thinks that this genre is like a habitat—a place that sustains the creatures that live in it and really sets the living conditions for those creatures. The patient medical history form, like a habitat, shapes the way individuals “perceive and experience a particular environment”—i.e. the physician’s office. He also suggests that the PMHF, like any single genre, “does not function in an ecological vacuum”; rather, it is one of a number of genres that work together to create a whole “biosphere of discourse.”

It’s perhaps helpful, as you learn about particular genres, to think about how the genre at hand might fit into larger genre sets and systems—or even ecologies, and how genres shape the ways we interact, live, and work with each other. As Bazerman notes, any system of genres is also a part of the system of activity happening in any writing situation. This means that understanding the genres operating in any setting will also help you to understand better what happens in that setting—how people work together, how they solve problems, how they communicate, certainly, but also how they get work done.

How do People Learn About the Genres in a Particular Setting?

As we discussed above, when we learn about genres as a part of a writing curriculum, it can seem like we’re describing formulas for writing instead of the situations that shape and give rise to the genres. You, as a student writer, can feel a little bit like you’re just learning an advanced sort of conceptual formatting. When you use genres in their natural settings—when you’re using the genres that are a part of your workplace, or when you’re exchanging writing with people you know well, in ways you’re comfortable with—all that situation and situatedness blooms back to life, and your ability to write competently and fluently in the genres that are part of your writing environment will have greater consequence because you’ll be better at it. So it’s worth considering: how do you learn how to use the genres that function in your particular writing environment with greater competence and fluency?

It’s like doing field work: you bring your wits and your gear and you figure it out by observing and jumping in. This is where a writing class can be very helpful, helping you to attune yourself to a writing situation, to cues that will guide you in assessing expectations, conventions, and possible responses. In other words, your writing course can teach you about genre, but even more, it can teach you how to be sensitive to genre, the sets, systems, and ecologies in operation in a new writing situation, and how to more capably participate in the work going on in that situation. Your writing class teaches you how to learn the genres in a new setting.

So Am I Just a Robot?

In The Terminator—the first (and arguably the best) one—there’s a great, brief scene in which the terminator-borg is holed up in his room. Someone knocks on the door. His borg-brain runs through possible responses—some are neutral, others reasonably polite, and others expletive-rude. He chooses the expletive, which for the moment is effective—the door knocker leaves.

With all this genre knowledge you’re developing, are you just a little worried that you’re basically going to be a borg, scrolling through your limited options in a nano-second, the choices all but made for you?

You might appreciate Charles Bazerman’s thoughts on this: “the view of genre that simply makes it a collection of features obscures how these features are flexible in any instance or even how the general understanding of the genre can change over time, as people orient to evolving patterns.” For instance, Bazerman goes on, “Students writing papers for courses have a wide variety of ways of fulfilling the assignment, and may even bend the assignment as long as they can get their professor … to go along with the change.” In other words, genres evolve and change over time, and each user taking up a genre takes it up just a little bit differently. Genres help writers get things done: they are durable text-types that people use repeatedly for similar communicative acts. Knowing about genres, being sensitive to the genres that are a part of a particular situation, and becoming a capable user of those genres makes you a more flexible and adaptable writer.

Works Cited

Anis Bawarshi, “The Ecology of Genre.” In Ecocomposition: Theoretical and Pedagogical Approaches. Ed. Christian R. Weisser and Sidney I. Dobrin. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 2001.

Charles Bazerman, “Speech Acts, Genres, and Activity Systems: How Texts Organize Activity and People.” In What Writing Does and How It Does It: An Introduction to Analyzing Texts and Textual Practices. Ed. Charles Bazerman and Paul Prior. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2004.

Charles Bazerman, “Writing Speaks to Situations Through Recognizable Forms.” In Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies. Ed. Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth Wardle. Boulder, Colorado: Utah State University Press, 2015.

James Cameron, director. The Terminator. John Daly and Derek Gibson, producers. Orion Pictures, 1984.

Genre in the Wild: Understanding Genre Within Rhetorical (Eco)Systems,” by Lisa Bickmore, is taken from OPEN English SLCC, CC-BY 4.0.


Persuasive Appeals


Rhetoric, as the previous chapters have discussed, is the way that authors use and manipulate language in order convey a message to an audience. Once we understand the rhetorical situation out of which a text is created, we can look at how all of those contextual elements shape the author’s creation of the text.

Whereas the previous chapters focus primarily on the rhetorical situation, the next few chapters focus on the classical appeals (or proofs), which are ways to classify authors’ intellectual, moral, and emotional approaches to getting the audience to have the reaction that the author hopes for. These appeals allow writers to communicate more or less persuasively with the audience.

Rhetorical appeals include ethos, pathos, logos, and kairos. These are classical Greek terms, dating back to Aristotle, who is traditionally seen as the father of rhetoric. To be rhetorically effective (and thus persuasive), an author must engage the audience in a variety of compelling ways, which involves carefully choosing how to craft his or her argument so that the outcome, audience agreement with the argument or point, is achieved.

As a previous chapters explained, the Rhetorical Situation can be visualized as triangulating relating three main elements: Writer, Subject (or Message), and Audience. Three of the Rhetorical Appeals (logos, pathos, and ethos) can be mapped onto that triangle in the following way:


Logos, pathos, and ethos can be represented as distinct corners of a triangle, but it’s important to emphasize the sameness and interconnectedness of that triangle. Just as the message, audience, and writer all contribute to the final product, the rhetorical appeals are mutually reinforcing and intertwined. In the chapter, “Moving Your Audience: Ethos, Pathos, and Kairos,” John D. Ramage, et al’s Writing Arguments shows how the following logical proof can be communicated in different ways:

Claim: People should adopt a vegetarian diet.

Reason: Because doing so will help prevent cruelty to animals caused by factory farming.

Here are the various examples they provide:

  1. People should adopt a vegetarian diet because doing so will help prevent the cruelty to animals caused by factory farming.
  2. If you are planning to eat chicken tonight, please consider how much that chicken suffered so that you could have a tender and juicy meal. Commercial growers cram the chickens so tightly together into cages that they never walk on their own legs, see sunshine, or flap their wings. In fact, their beaks must be cut off to keep them from pecking each other’s eyes out. One way to prevent such suffering is for more and more people to become vegetarians.
  3. People who eat meat are no better than sadists who torture other sentient creatures to enhance their own pleasure. Unless you enjoy sadistic tyranny over others, you have only one choice: become a vegetarian.
  4. People committed to justice might consider the extent to which our love of eating meat requires the agony of animals. A visit to a modern chicken factory—where chickens live their entire lives in tiny, darkened coops without room to spread their wings—might raise doubts about our right to inflict such suffering on sentient creatures. Indeed, such a visit might persuade us that vegetarianism is a more just alternative.

The coldest, most straightforward formulation of the argument is found in version 1. Argument 2 sounds more informal, in part because it uses the second person “you,” but also because it pleads with the reader by appealing to their imagination. Concrete imagery is one type way to practice pathos. Argument 3 uses the emotionally charged language of pathos again, but now enhanced by a kind of moral superiority over the reader. The phrase, “People who eat meat are no better than,” splits the audience into those whose morals align with the writer and those who don’t. By drawing attention to the writer’s character, it draws on ethos. However, as Ramage, et al point out, most readers find Argument 3 the most off-putting. It’s a poor, unpersuasive use of ethos.

Argument 4 practices ethos better, especially when communicating to an audience that expects civil conversation. Argument 4 also uses ethos by appealing to the reader’s values (“committed to justice”). Finally, by briefly mentioning at “visit to a modern chicken factory,” this version of the argument also taps into the reader’s imagination, a type of pathos.

The persuasiveness of Argument 4 shows how logos, pathos, and ethos aren’t easily separated into discrete elements that a writer drops in one sentence at a time. The same sentence or passage can practice logos, pathos, and ethos all at once. When going back to analyze the how the passage works, a critical reader can use the individual rhetorical terms to analyze its persuasiveness.

Logos: Appeals to logic and reasoning

Logic. Reason. Rationality. Logos is brainy and intellectual, cool, calm, collected, objective.

When an author relies on logos, it means that he or she is using logic, careful structure, and objective evidence to appeal to the audience. An author can appeal to an audience’s intellect by using information that can be fact checked (using multiple sources) and thorough explanations to support key points. Additionally, providing a solid and non-biased explanation of one’s argument is a great way for an author to invoke logos.

For example, if I were trying to convince my students to complete their homework, I might explain that I understand everyone is busy and they have other classes (non-biased), but the homework will help them get a better grade on their test (explanation). I could add to this explanation by providing statistics showing the number of students who failed and didn’t complete their homework versus the number of students who passed and did complete their homework (factual evidence).

Logical appeals rest on rational modes of thinking, such as

Pathos: Appeals to emotion and imagination

When an author relies on pathos, it means that he or she is trying to tap into the audience’s emotions to get them to agree with the author’s claim. An author using pathetic appeals wants the audience to feel something: anger, pride, joy, rage, or happiness.  For example, many of us have seen the ASPCA commercials that use photographs of injured puppies, or sad-looking kittens, and slow, depressing music to emotionally persuade their audience to donate money.

Pathos-based rhetorical strategies are any strategies that get the audience to “open up” to the topic, the argument, or to the author. Emotions can make us vulnerable, and an author can use this vulnerability to get the audience to believe that his or her argument is a compelling one.

Pathetic appeals might include

When reading a text, try to locate when the author is trying to convince the reader using emotions because, if used to excess, pathetic appeals can indicate a lack of substance or emotional manipulation of the audience. See the links below about fallacious pathos for more information.

Ethos: Appeals to values and image

Ethical appeals have two facets: audience values and authorial credibility/character.

On the one hand, when an author makes an ethical appeal, he or she is attempting to tap into the values or ideologies that the audience holds, for example, patriotism, tradition, justice, equality, dignity for all humankind, self preservation, or other specific social, religious or philosophical values (Christian values, socialism, capitalism, feminism, etc.). These values can sometimes feel very close to emotions, but they are felt on a social level rather than only on a personal level. When an author evokes the values that the audience cares about as a way to justify or support his or her argument, we classify that as ethos. The audience will feel that the author is making an argument that is “right” (in the sense of moral “right”-ness, i.e., “My argument rests upon that values that matter to you. Therefore, you should accept my argument”). This first part of the definition of ethos, then, is focused on the audience’s values.

On the other hand, this sense of referencing what is “right” in an ethical appeal connects to the other sense of ethos: the  author. Ethos that is centered on the author revolves around two concepts: the credibility of the author and his or her character.

Credibility of the speaker/author is determined by his or her knowledge and expertise in the subject at hand. For example, if you are learning about Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, would you rather learn from a professor of physics or a cousin who took two science classes in high school thirty years ago? It is fair to say that, in general, the professor of physics would have more credibility to discuss the topic of physics. To establish his or her credibility, an author may draw attention to who he or she is or what kinds of experience he or she has with the topic being discussed as an ethical appeal (i.e., “Because I have experience with this topic –  and I know my stuff! – you should trust what I am saying about this topic”). Some authors do not have to establish their credibility because the audience already knows who they are and that they are credible.

Character is another aspect of ethos, and it is different from credibility because it involves personal history and even personality traits. A person can be credible but lack character or vice versa. For example, in politics, sometimes the most experienced candidates – those who might be the most credible candidates – fail to win elections because voters do not accept their character. Politicians take pains to shape their character as leaders who have the interests of the voters at heart. The candidate who successfully proves to the voters (the audience) that he or she has the type of character that they can trust is more likely to win.

Thus, ethos comes down to trust. How can the author get the audience to trust him or her so that they will accept his or her argument? How can the the author make him or herself appear as a credible speaker who embodies the character traits that the audience values?

In building ethical appeals, we see authors

  • Referring either directly or indirectly to the values that matter to the intended audience (so that the audience will trust the speaker)
  • Using language, phrasing, imagery, or other writing styles common to people who hold those values, thereby “talking the talk” of people with those values (again, so that the audience is inclined to trust the speaker)
  • Referring to their experience and/or authority with the topic (and therefore demonstrating their credibility)
  • Referring to their own character, or making an effort to build their character in the text

When reading, you should always think about the author’s credibility regarding the subject as well as his or her character. Here is an example of a rhetorical move that connects with ethos: when reading an article about abortion, the author mentions that she has had an abortion. That is an example of an ethical move because the author is creating credibility via anecdotal evidence and first person narrative. In a rhetorical analysis project, it would be up to you, the analyzer, to point out this move and associate it with a rhetorical strategy.

When writers misuse logos, pathos, or ethos, arguments suffer

Above, we defined and described what logos, pathos, and ethos are and why authors may use those strategies. Sometimes, using a combination of logical, pathetic, and ethical appeals leads to a sound, balanced, and persuasive argument. It is important to understand, though, that using rhetorical appeals does not always lead to a sound, balanced argument.

In fact, any of the appeals could be misused or overused. When that happens, arguments can be weakened.

To see how authors can overuse emotional appeals and turn-off their target audience, visit the following link from WritingCommons.orgFallacious Pathos.

To see how ethos can be misused or used in a manner that may be misleading, visit the following link to WritingCommons.orgFallacious Ethos

Kairos appeals

Literally translated, kairos means the “supreme moment.”  In this case, it refers to appropriate timing, meaning when the writer presents certain parts of her argument as well as the overall timing of the subject matter itself.  While not technically part of the Rhetorical Triangle, it is still an important principle for constructing an effective argument. If the writer fails to establish a strong kairotic appeal, then the audience may become polarized, hostile, or may simply just lose interest.

If appropriate timing is not taken into consideration and a writer introduces a sensitive or important point too early or too late in a text, the impact of that point could be lost on the audience. For example, if the writer’s audience is strongly opposed to her view, and she begins the argument with a forceful thesis of why she is right and the opposition is wrong, how do you think that audience might respond?

In this instance, the writer may have just lost the ability to make any further appeals to her audience in two ways: first, by polarizing them, and second, by possibly elevating what was at first merely strong opposition to what would now be hostile opposition.  A polarized or hostile audience will not be inclined to listen to the writer’s argument with an open mind or even to listen at all.  On the other hand, the writer could have established a stronger appeal to Kairos by building up to that forceful thesis, maybe by providing some neutral points such as background information or by addressing some of the opposition’s views, rather than leading with why she is right and the audience is wrong.

Additionally, if a writer covers a topic or puts forth an argument about a subject that is currently a non-issue or has no relevance for the audience, then the audience will fail to engage because whatever the writer’s message happens to be, it won’t matter to anyone.  For example, if a writer were to put forth the argument that women in the United States should have the right to vote, no one would care; that is a non-issue because women in the United States already have that right.

When evaluating a writer’s kairotic appeal, ask the following questions:

Exercise 4: Analyzing Kairos

In this exercise, you will analyze a visual representation of the appeal to Kairos. On the 26th of February 2015, a photo of a dress was posted to Twitter along with a question as to whether people thought it was one combination of colors versus another. Internet chaos ensued on social media because while some people saw the dress as black and blue, others saw it as white and gold. As the color debate surrounding the dress raged on, an ad agency in South Africa saw an opportunity to raise awareness about a far more serious subject: domestic abuse.

Step 1: Read this article (https://tinyurl.com/yctl8o5g) from CNN about how and why the photo of the dress went viral so that you will be better informed for the next step in this exercise:

Step 2: Watch the video (https://youtu.be/SLv0ZRPssTI, transcript here) from CNN that explains how, in partnership with The Salvation Army, the South African marketing agency created an ad that went viral.

Step 3: After watching the video, answer the following questions:

  • Once the photo of the dress went viral, approximately how long after did the Salvation Army’s ad appear? Look at the dates on both the article and the video to get an idea of a time frame.
  • How does the ad take advantage of the publicity surrounding the dress?
  • Would the ad’s overall effectiveness change if it had come out later than it did?
  • How late would have been too late to make an impact? Why?


Parts of this chapter are from Melanie Gagich & Emilie Zickel’s A Guide to Rhetoric, “Rhetorical Appeals: Logos, Pathos, and Ethos Defined,” CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0; “The Appeal to Kairos” is from Let’s Get Writing!, “Chapter 2 – Rhetorical Analysis,” by Elizabeth Browning.

Media: “Aristotle’s Rhetorical Triangle

Thumbnail for the embedded element "Aristotle's Rhetorical Triangle"

A Vimeo element has been excluded from this version of the text. You can view it online here: https://idaho.pressbooks.pub/write/?p=58



Reading Rhetorically, or How to Read Like a Writer


Liza Long

By Liza Long

As with any skill, writing rhetorically begins with reading rhetorically. But what exactly do we mean by rhetoric? Reading rhetorically is really just reading like a writer. When you read rhetorically, you are joining the conversation with the writer as an active, engaged, and critical participant. This type of reading is not a strategy like active reading or a formula that we can apply to every text. Instead, reading rhetorically is a habit of mind that life-long learners work to adopt. This habit of mind will help you engage with texts–from social media posts to peer-reviewed journal articles and everything in between–instead of passively consuming them. Rhetorical reading will make you a better thinker and a better writer.

Interrogating the Rhetor/Author

Rhetorical reading begins with asking questions about the rhetor, or the speaker. Essentially, reading rhetorically is reading critically, starting with a critical interrogation of the text’s author, where we ask ourselves a series of questions about the writer, their worldview, and their intentions.

In the approach below, I have used the Greek philosopher Aristotle’s elements of argument to help us think about the rhetor, or author of a text. These same elements of argument (also called Classical Argument) are also used by writers, as we will see in later chapters.

Here are some questions we can ask about the rhetor:

Ethos (Character):

Pathos (Emotion):

Logos (Reason)

Let’s combine the questions we asked above into a checklist that you can use as you read a text:

  1. So what? Who cares? What questions does the text address? Why are these questions important? What types of people or communities/organizations care about these questions?
  2. Who is this text written for? Who is the intended audience? Am I part of this audience or an outsider?
  3. How does the author support their thesis? What types of evidence are used? Personal experience? Facts and statistics? Original observations, interviews, or research?
  4. Do I find this argument convincing? Whose views and counterarguments are omitted from the text? Is the counterargument or counterevidence addressed or ignored?
  5. How does the author hook the intended reader’s interest and keep the reader reading? Does this hook work for me? For example, the author may use emotion (pathos), authority or character (ethos), or reasons and evidence (logos) to introduce the argument.
  6. How does the author make themselves seem credible to the intended audience? Is the author credible for me? Are the author’s sources reliable?
  7. Are this author’s basic values, beliefs, and assumptions similar to or different from my own? Do the author and I share the same worldview or do we have different perspectives?
  8. How do I respond to this text? What are my initial reactions? Do I agree, disagree, or both? Has the text changed my thinking or made me reconsider my position in any way?
  9. How will I be able to use what I have learned from the text in my own writing? Think about the type of writing assignment where this source might be useful, and how you would use it.

Now, let’s practice. Here’s a passage from Ta Nehisi Coates’s National Book Award winning book Between the World and Me, written in the form of a letter from the African American public intellectual and author to his 15-year-old son. As you read the following passage, keep the questions above in mind. You may want to jot down notes and use active reading strategies.

Americans believe in the reality of “race” as a defined, indubitable feature of the natural world. Racism—the need to ascribe bone-deep features to people and then humiliate, reduce, and destroy them—inevitably follows from this inalterable condition. In this way, racism is rendered as the innocent daughter of Mother Nature, and one is left to deplore the Middle Passage or the Trail of Tears the way one deplores an earthquake, a tornado, or any other phenomenon that can be cast as beyond the handiwork of men.

But race is the child of racism, not the father. And the process of naming “the people” has never been a matter of genealogy and physiognomy so much as one of hierarchy. Difference in hue and hair is old. But the belief in the preeminence of hue and hair, the notion that these factors can correctly organize a society and that they signify deeper attributes, which are indelible—this is the new idea at the heart of this new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white.

These new people are, like us, a modern invention. But unlike us, their new name has no real meaning divorced from the machinery of criminal power. The new people were something else before they were white—­Catholic, Corsican, Welsh, Mennonite, Jewish—­and if all our national hopes have any fulfillment, then they will have to be something else again. Perhaps they will truly become American and create a nobler basis for their myths. I cannot call it. As for now, it must be said that the process of washing the disparate tribes white, the elevation of the belief in being white, was not achieved through wine tastings and ice cream socials, but rather through the pillaging of life, liberty, labor, and land; through the flaying of backs; the chaining of limbs; the strangling of dissidents; the destruction of families; the rape of mothers; the sale of children; and various other acts meant, first and foremost, to deny you and me the right to secure and govern our own bodies.

Ta Nehisi Coates, excerpt from Between the World and Me, Penguin Randomhouse, 2015, https://www.penguinrandomhouse.ca/books/220290/between-the-world-and-me-by-ta-nehisi-coates/9780812993547/excerpt

Interrogating the Reader (Yourself)

Think about the types of arguments we see on the Internet today. Are people reading each other’s tweets and posts rhetorically? Are they responding as if they are using rhetorical skills to listen? Or are they using rhetorical skills to win?


Style and Linguistic Diversity


Students may see the term “style” scattered throughout their writing courses. It shows up in course outcomes and rubrics. It also appears in this textbook, when introducing students to the basics of APA and MLA Style. The term is little bit slippery. In the chapter “Peer Feedback, Revising, and Editing,”  Liza Long offers the following tips when revising for style:

Here are a few things to look for as you revise for academic style:

  • Academic (formal) tone—no “you” or “one” because these pronouns are broad and vague (but “I/we” are fine)​
  • Appropriate language​
  • Clichés and colloquial language​
  • Sentence variety (simple, compound, complex)​
  • Author voice ​
  • Active vs. passive construction​
    I wrote the paper. YES!​
    The paper was written by me. NO!​

These are excellent suggestions, but certain phrases such as “appropriate” vs. “colloquial” language raise the question of what’s suitable for an academic audience.

These expectations are often interpreted to mean that students should practice “standard American English.” All other non-standard dialects, such as Black English or certain types of Southern slang, are viewed as inappropriate because they’re “lesser than” the standard.

The purpose of this chapter is to introduce students to a more nuanced and contextually-informed conversation about style, especially as it relates to standard English (also called standard American English, abbreviated SAE). Writing for an academic audience does often mean students will sound more formal and less like everyday speech, but it’s a mistake to view the latter, non-standard forms of writing and speech as lesser than academic communication.

Dash that Oxford Comma! Prestige and Stigma in Academic Writing

by Christie Bogle

The Comma Comma

Once upon a time, way back in the third grade, Mrs. MaGee told me never to put a comma before the “and” in my lists. She said that the “and” means the same thing as a comma.

And so I never did. I wrote “balls, bats and mitts.”

Years later, another teacher told me that I should always put a comma before the “and” in my lists because it clarifies that the last two items in my list are not a set. He said to write “Amal, Mike, Jose, and Lin.”

Logic told me that the third-grade teacher was right because, if the last two in the list were a set, the “and” would have come sooner as “balls and bats and mitts” or “Amal, Mike, and Jose and Lin.” But that is also just odd. What if I really did mean to have two sets? Now I felt like I had to write “Balls. Also, bats and mitts.” It felt like juggling. If this is confusing, I’m pretty sure that I’ve made my point. These rigid rules felt so awkward! Things I can say effortlessly outloud are, all of a sudden, impossible on paper. Who wrote these rules?

That’s actually a valid question. Who did write them? Novices to the study of language sometimes imagine that language started back in a day when there were pure versions of all the world languages that younger and lazier speakers continue to corrupt, generation after generation. They imagine a perfect book of grammar that we should all be able to reference. Nothing about that scenario is actually true.

History of English Grammar

So, why and how did we get all those rules? Way back around the 1700s, we finally started to get some books written about the structure of language, specifically for teaching. These, even then, were vastly different from the work being done by linguists in the field who were interested in marking language as it is, not how they thought it should be. As time went on, people introduced writing rules that originated in other languages, like Latin, and imposed them on English. These misapplications have followed us into modern times. Many of the guidebooks for writing are filled with these exceptions to the natural ways that English once worked. They include, surprisingly, the rule against double negatives (“we don’t need no stinking badges!”) and other standard prohibitions against language that was quite normal long ago (and still is in non-standard varieties of English).

Some more of those gems include “never say ‘I’ in an essay,” “don’t use passive voice,” and “don’t start a sentence with ‘and’ or ‘but.’” We can sprinkle in the Latin rule, “don’t split infinitives” (think Star Trek‘s “to boldly go”) and unnecessary restrictions like “adverbs go after the verb, not before.” These rules have interesting histories but the history doesn’t necessarily support their persistence. In fact, most of them can be dismissed as simple preferences of some dead white guy from centuries ago. They don’t obey any rule of logic, though some obey a system from a different language that has no application in English.

A great example is the double negative. In the 1700s the location of the royalty and their dialects determined what was “correct.” The south of England used double negatives but the north of England (where royalty lived) did not use them. Something so simple as location dictated what went into the books. Then in 1762, Robert Lowth wrote Short Introduction to English Grammar and relegated the southern usage to “uncultivated speech” instead of what it really is, which is an emphasis on the negative point being made. The American usage that developed from before Lowth’s writing is retained today in many dialects, but famously so in Southern varieties and African American Vernacular English (AAVE).

“Grammars,” Not Grammar

What is happening here? Am I arguing that grammar rules are okay to break sometimes? I am taking up an argument that seems to be at an academic impasse. Linguists believe that there is more than one grammar. We say “grammars.” Stephen Pinker, a cognitive psychologist, offers his take on this phenomenon in an article for The Guardian called “Stephen Pinker: 10 ‘Grammar Rules’ It’s Okay to Break Sometimes.” He characterizes the debate between descriptive and prescriptive grammarians like this:

Prescriptivists prescribe how language ought to be used. They uphold standards of excellence and a respect for the best of our civilisation, and are a bulwark against relativism, vulgar populism and the dumbing down of literate culture. Descriptivists describe how language actually is used. They believe that the rules of correct usage are nothing more than the secret handshake of the ruling class, designed to keep the masses in their place. Language is an organic product of human creativity, say the Descriptivists, and people should be allowed to write however they please.

His point is that some think that every rule of grammar is worth preserving lest the language devolves out of existence. Others believe that the actual use of the language (any language) and the natural changes that occur are a good thing. Sometimes, as is the case with the double negative, before the rule against it was made, people used “incorrect” phrases all the time. So, the argument about preserving rules and allowing change is kind of mixed up. Pinker describes the conflict experts have, but it’s even more complicated by the history.

Still, I reference Pinker because he is a cognitive psychologist that studies both linguistics and composition. Even more importantly, he is also a best-selling author of nonfiction. Pinker has made boring and dry topics like linguistics and neuroscience feel easy, even to the average reader. That’s a kind of magic that I want to bottle and sell. So, I look to him on matters of writing. Pinker and I agree that when it comes to grammar, it should be addressed with the goal of being understood, not of being “right.”

Navigating the rules of grammar is not just hard for those that speak in “dialects” (or different grammars) of English. It is hard even for those who grew up in a middle-class culture speaking a relatively standard form called Standard American English (SAE). Those born into families and communities speaking SAE struggle with the rules like these:

And so forth.

Even your professors make common speech errors. Try my favorite test. See how many times members of college faculty say “there’s” when they should have said “there are.” No one speaks like a textbook.

One of my favorite debates, because it is so utterly pointless, is of the Oxford comma. This phenomenon is the one I opened with. Do you always or never put a comma before the “and” in the list? The Oxford comma is the one that says “yes, always.” I was taught “no, never.” So, who wins?

John McWhorter pleads a case that I buy. He says neither side wins. In his article “Should we give a damn about the Oxford comma?” he argues that “to treat the failure to use the Oxford comma as a mark of mental messiness is a handy way to look down on what will perhaps always be a majority of people attempting to write English.” And that is a key argument for me. Much of what we do when looking down our nose at particular errors is to demonstrate disdain for our differences on the page. In fact, for the rest of this document, let’s not call them “errors.” Let’s call them “varieties of speech/writing.”

Stigma and Prestige

As frustrating or embarrassing it is to be called to the carpet for your variety of speech, these grammar scuffles are mere annoyances when they occur between English speakers of the same general class, race, and economic status. However, when we approach minority English language speakers and English language learners, we pass into a new territory that borders on classism and racism.

To understand this, you must understand the terms stigma and prestige. These terms apply to a number of sociological situations. Prestige is, very simply, what we grant power and privilege to. Remember the history of the double negative from the 1700s? The book taught that single negation is a mark of prestige.

On the other hand, stigmatized varieties of English are those that people try to train you out of using. If you were raised in the Appalachian region of America, you may have some varieties of speech that other people dislike and hope you will lose. Things like “y’all” and “a-” prefixes on “a huntin’ and a fishin’” are discouraged; some think it means the speaker is uneducated. By being negated, double negatives became stigmatized.

This distinction is “classist” because it assumes characteristics and abilities based on a person’s variety of speech. It may sound strange, but speech is not a mark of intellect or ability. One famous example is of Eudora Welty, a renown Appalachian author. A story is told that during her stay in a college dormitory she was passed over by the headmistress for opportunities to have tickets to plays and cultured events. When she confronted the headmistress about the oversight, she explained that she had doubted Welty’s interest in the theater because of her accent. Of course, now, Welty is an honored and prestigious author. Her variety of speech did not affect her ability to produce effective writing that communicates to her audience.

Some varieties of English are stigmatized because they represent racial minority speech patterns, even though they are legitimately home-grown American English. How many of us can easily hear and understand what is culturally Black English, Spanglish, or Chicano English, but know that those varieties won’t go into your next essay for History 1700?

Students learning English, or even just Standard American English, will vary in their ability to represent prestigious language patterns, even though what they write or say is generally understood. For example, people from India may have grown up speaking a different variety of English. The same is true for some people from Hong Kong when it was a British holding. British English with a Chinese accent was their standard, and they struggle to be understood in America.

So, for multilingual and/or multivariety speakers, one challenge of writing is the expectation that they will sound as narrowly experienced in language as monolingual speakers. This is what Lippi-Green called standard language ideology. It’s the practice of prestige and stigma. It is a rather bizarre sort of prestige to value evidence of less experience, but that’s exactly what unaccented language is. A middle- to upper-class white American who travels nowhere and learns nothing of consequence can still sound perfectly prestigious merely by speaking their natural English variety. We actually prefer (or privilege) the appearance of ignorance.

There are a rare few that can perfectly compartmentalize languages. Linguistic geniuses (I use that term loosely) exist—those who can sound perfectly natural in several varieties or languages. It is an ability that only the teensiest percentage of people with just the right exposure, talent, age, and experience will ever achieve. The rest of us can increase our range of speech and writing contexts, but our own idiosyncrasies will always exist, and we will be (unnecessarily) embarrassed by them.

What Teaching Experts Know

Teaching professionals continue to debate how to teach in a way that combats linguistic stigma and shifts toward preferring linguistic diversity. From the CCCC’s Students’ Right to Their Own Language (SRTOL) circa 1974, we read:

We affirm the students’ right to their own patterns and varieties of language—the dialects of their nurture or whatever dialects in which they find their own identity and style. Language scholars long ago denied that the myth of a standard American dialect has any validity. The claim that any one dialect is unacceptable amounts to an attempt of one social group to exert its dominance over another. Such a claim leads to false advice for speakers and writers, and immoral advice for humans. A nation proud of its diverse heritage and its cultural and racial variety will preserve its heritage of dialects. We affirm strongly that teachers must have the experiences and training that will enable them to respect diversity and uphold the right of students to their own language.

So, since before many of your teachers were born, an international body of composition instructors has acknowledged that students have a right to their own language. Ever since then, the struggle to maintain a standard and find ways to work with differences have played out in the profession. Today, we have experts in the field that suggest utilizing “vernacular speech” (that’s your everyday speech) to improve the quality of writing, to a point. Peter Elbow writes in his book Vernacular Eloquence: What Speech Can Bring to Writing about the ways that we can utilize spoken, everyday language as a way of improving the readability of text and ease the writing process.

Steven Pinker (you know—the one whose writing skill we should bottle and sell), like Peter Elbow, believes a more conversational tone in writing can improve its quality. He says that there are ways of scientifically assessing clarity and ease for readers. For example, this type of research takes on the debate of whether or not a typist should place one or two spaces after periods. It may seem trivial, but it’s a debate that has lasted since word processors were programmed to intelligently space punctuation. Researchers strapped people down in front of a computer screen and measured eye movement while reading to settle the debate. Much to my surprise, it turns out that two spaces are easier to read than one (Johnson).

What You, the Student, Should Know

I don’t know if I would always go so far as to do scientific experimentation on readers in order to make writing decisions, but choosing rules that make things easier feels like a really good idea, doesn’t it? The New SRTOL document authors argue, “it is one thing to help a student achieve proficiency in a written dialect and another thing to punish him for using variant expressions of that dialect.” So, in modern times, teachers want you to recognize and utilize a standard in writing without punishing your speech. You want to learn how to do the same with yourself and others.

However useful it is to accept variations in classroom English, there are, in fact, varieties of English that are native to the United States (not spoken anywhere else) that are not so easy to understand. Some examples are Louisiana’s Cajun creole and Hawai’ian Pidgin creole. Theorists that give nods of approval to teaching within varieties they understand may not be addressing a large enough group of English varieties. If we are suggesting a student use their native language ways to improve readability, sometimes the student’s writing will be unintelligible to the teacher and peers. It’s a whole different job to have everyone learn new languages in your composition class.

I assume that when CCCCs composed these sentences, “Language scholars long ago denied that the myth of a standard American dialect has any validity…We affirm strongly that teachers must have the experiences and training that will enable them to respect diversity and uphold the right of students to their own language,” they were being sincere, but it might be a stretch. Your teachers are not experts on every variety of English or the many creoles. Neither are you. There is still a way to manage the goals we have.

The updated version of the Students’ Right to Their Own Language makes a request of teachers when they say, “Since English teachers have been in large part responsible for the narrow attitudes of today’s employers, changing attitudes toward dialect variations does not seem an unreasonable goal, for today’s students will be tomorrow’s employers.” English faculty have continued to teach SAE (also called Educated American English or EAE) in one part because it’s what the rest of the country thinks that educated writers should use for speech and writing. So, even though teachers accept that the standard is a myth, we find the standard useful and the prestige/stigma problem lingers because we continue to use it. This is where you—the students—can help. Let’s revisit the value that standard language has and the work it does.

One of the undeniable benefits of a standard is that it is a lingua franca. This term roughly means “the language everyone shares.” With so many variations of English, it is just clearer to write in one variety than to learn them all. This different idea of a standard is about ease and convenience, not prestige. Teaching within one standard is a system-wide rhetorical choice to be understood by the largest audience possible. Ignoring what that should be and focusing on what that is seems like a better way of determining what we call the standard. So, most of us aim for a sort of amalgam of language that is acceptable to most people without sticking rigidly to arbitrary rules.

Lose the ‘Tude

What you, the students, probably want to know is how to write. The more important point that I hope you will walk away with is this: STROL says, “The attitudes that [you] develop in the English class will often be the criteria [you] use for choosing [your] own employees,” (emphasis mine). So, what you learn about writing in English class follows you as you make choices and impacts your options in the economy, but so do your attitudes about language and people. Spencer Kimball is often credited with this admonition, “Love people, not things; use things, not people.” I would apply a similar sentiment to language.

As a student, you expect to leave school with more skills and greater flexibility. In that spirit, seeking diversity in your language education makes sense. As you become our future employers and employees, you will inherit the opportunity to reject stigma toward linguistic diversity.

You can do so by accepting these simple facts (adapted from Rosina Lippi-Green’s “Linguistic Facts of Life”):

  • Language is complex and diverse.
  • Language is not a moral marker.
  • Language is not an intellectual marker.
  • Language serves to communicate between people.
  • Language changes.

By embracing these facts, you can feel less shame or stigma in your own language and others’. If you accept language differences as natural, you might choose to expose yourself to and understand more languages and varieties. You will write aiming to be understood by a majority of readers for convenience, not for fear of judgment.

So, fine, Oxford Comma when you wanna—but dash linguistic stigma.

AAVE – Why Do People Say “AX” Instead of “ASK”?

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Spanglish is a Language Too! | Alondra Posada

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 Works Cited

Conference on College Composition and Communication. Students’ Right to Their Own Language. www.ncte.org/library/NCTEFiles/Groups/CCCC/NewSRTOL.pdf.

Elbow, Peter. Vernacular Eloquence: What Speech Can Bring to Writing. Oxford Press, 2012.

Johnson RL, et al. “Are two spaces better than one? The effect of spacing following periods and commas during reading.” Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics. 2018ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29691763 .

Lippi-Green, Rosina. “Chapter 1: Linguistic Facts of Life.” 1997. English with an Accent. people.cas.sc.edu/dubinsk/LING240/readings/Lippi-Green.1997.Chapter1.English.with.an.accent.pdf

McWhorter, John. “Should we give a damn about the Oxford comma?” CNN. March 19, 2017. www.cnn.com/2017/03/19/opinions/oxford-comma-ambiguity-opinion-mcwhorter/index.html

Pinker, Stephen. “10 ‘grammar rules’ it’s okay to break sometimes.” The Guardian. August 15, 2014. www.theguardian.com/books/2014/aug/15/steven-pinker-10-grammar-rules-break

—. “African American English Is Not Improper English.” YouTube Channel, General Turner. Sep 22, 2015.  youtu.be/kUiziVEoi1s

—. “On Standard English and Myths.” YouTube Channel, Grammar Revolution Movie. Nov 4, 2014. youtu.be/jbHpGlvmp9A

—. “Linguistics, Style and Writing in the 21st Century – with Steven Pinker.” YouTube Channel, The Royal Institution. Oct 28, 2015. youtu.be/OV5J6BfToSw

—. as cited in Radio Boston. September 30, 2014. www.wbur.org/radioboston/2014/09/30/pinker-harvard-writing

Dash That Oxford Comma!“, by Christie Bogle is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted. The editors of this textbook have added an introduction to the reading.




Liza Long

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This section is adapted from “Metadiscourse” by Conrad Van Dyk, licensed CC BY NC SA 4.0


Even if you’ve only ever written a single essay–or even a line of an essay–you’ll be familiar with metadiscourse and the challenge it presents. Metadiscourse is a fancy word for the language we use to frame our ideas:

In this example of metadiscourse, the phrase "nice shirt" is framed with the words "I've got to say."

It’s hard to write without using metadiscourse. For instance, anytime you indicate a change in direction, you end up using expressions like however, or on the other hand.  These transitional expressions are examples of metadiscourse.

Use too much of this kind of language and your prose will seem stilted and dry; use too little and the reader will be lost in a jungle of disconnected observations. When used appropriately, metadiscourse can frame your ideas effectively.


The word metadiscourse consists of two parts. The word discourse means communication or debate. The prefix meta comes from Greek and means about. In other words, metadiscourse refers to the language we use to talk about our regular communication. When your friends comment on a meme that is self-referential, for example, they may say “That’s so meta!

In short, metadiscourse is writing about writing. Metadiscourse is important because it allows us to give direction and relate the various parts of our essay to each other and to the whole.

Here’s how one scholar defines metadiscourse:

Essentially metadiscourse embodies the idea that communication is more than just the exchange of information, goods or services, but also involves the personalities, attitudes and assumptions of those who are communicating. (Hyland 3)

In other words, your choice of metadiscourse affects your writing style. It affects how readers perceive you as a person and as a writer.


Here’s a sample essay introduction filled with metadiscourse:

When comparing two pieces of literature, there are many different aspects that a person can analyze. When we take a closer look at Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass or C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe we see that this is true. For example, Lewis shares a Christian message, whereas Pullman promotes an atheist worldview. In this essay, I will demonstrate that these themes come up especially in relation to lying. Whereas Lewis condemns Edmund for being a liar, Pullman makes his heroine, Lyra, an accomplished liar and praises her for it.

Clearly this paragraph is very self-referential. The writer constantly reminds us that literary analysis involves comparison, analysis, close reading, and argumentation. Much of this language is redundant, and we could easily do with a shorter version:

Philip Pullman wrote The Golden Compass in part because he hated C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. Whereas Lewis shares a Christian message, Pullman promotes an atheist worldview. We see this especially when it comes to lying. Lewis condemns Edmund for being a liar, but Pullman makes his heroine, Lyra, an accomplished liar and praises her for it.

The revised version is more direct. By minimizing the frame we can focus on the picture.

The point, then, is that metadiscourse should be used judiciously. Some writing instructors go overboard and launch a crusade against metadiscourse, deleting as much self-referential language as they can. Instead, the challenge is to find a happy medium, where your metadiscourse makes the reading process smooth and easy.


Using metadiscourse effectively starts with finding your own voice. Writers often struggle to decide what pronouns to use (or whether to use them at all). Let’s review whether it’s acceptable to use “I” and “we” in academic writing.

Using “I”

I can’t tell you how often students have come to me and said “But my teacher told me never to use ‘I’ in my essay.” While such advice may be well-meant, it has the unfortunate effect of making the act of writing seem somehow impersonal and distant, as if essays have to be composed in a different language.

Now it is true that “I” is often redundant. If you’re writing a book review and you open with “I think that Slade House was a gripping read” you could just as well say “Slade House was a gripping read.”  The reader will assume that the statements on the page are your opinion.

Despite these caveats, using “I” is not forbidden, and is often preferred because it allows you to write actively instead of passively. The first person voice is particularly useful when you’re distinguishing your ideas from those of others (they say/I say):

Whereas Sarah Jones argues that … I would suggest that …

I agree with Michael Smith that …

The first person pronoun is also useful for indicating shifts in your argument:

I will argue that …

Having seen that … , I think we can safely conclude that …

Even if you later decide to delete some of those “I’s,” they will have helped you to get your ideas on paper, and that’s a good thing.

Royal We

Another pronoun that tends to confuse writers is “we.” Here’s how to use “we” without sounding pompous.

First, avoid using the “royal we,” where “we” is just a grander way of saying “I”:

We will argue that …

As we have demonstrated …

Unless you are coauthoring a piece of writing, this use of “we” is not advisable.

On the other hand, you can use “we” if you’re actually referring to multiple individuals:

In our study group we found that …

As we examine the evidence, we will see …

Notice that in the second example “we” refers to the writer and the reader(s). This use of the pronoun can be an effective way of making your audience feel part of the process.


Much of essay writing consists of learning to use metadiscourse properly. It’s about discovering your own voice, of developing your writing personality.

At first the tendency will be to do too much, to start every sentence with a transitional word (thereforethus, etc.), or to add unnecessary modifiers (e.g., essentially). Then the pendulum might swing the other way, and you feel self-conscious every time you write “I will argue,” or “we will see.”

But in the end you’ll find the right style for you, and that’s really all that matters.

Writing to Narrate and Describe


Stories are powerful ways to connect writers with readers. In this section, we will look at how stories can be used both in narrative essays and as components of other genres. We will all look at the related rhetorical mode of description.

Introduction to Writing Your Story


Liza Long

The Power of Story

“Tell me a story.” From children’s bedtimes to corporate boardrooms, stories have power to shape our dreams and fuel our imaginations. In his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind, the historian Noah Yuval Harari argues that stories are what make us human: “Humans think in stories, and we try to make sense of the world by telling stories.”

Every culture around the world tells stories. These stories are a way to share ideas, experiences, beliefs, and cultural traditions. Stories teach, inspire, and create community.

Reflection: Think about a story that matters to you. This could be a fictional story like a favorite book or a movie, or it real story like a family story or something that happened to you or a friend or someone you admire. Write a paragraph summarizing the story. Share your summary with a small group of peers. What purpose does your story serve? Does it inform? Persuade? Entertain? How do your readers connect with your story?

WHY Stories matter

Words have power. Liza Long, an English professor at the College of Western Idaho and one of the authors of this book, learned firsthand how powerful stories can be when she shared an essay about her struggles to parent a child who had mental illness after the tragic elementary school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut in 2012. The essay, published by Boise State University’s The Blue Review under the title “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother,” went viral. One person who read the essay was Representative Tim Murphy (R-PA), a member of the U.S. Congress tasked with investigating the causes of Newtown and proposing ways to prevent future tragedies. Murphy reached out to Long, who testified about the urgent need for mental healthcare services at a March 2013 House Energy and Commerce Committee Forum, “After Newtown.”

Although many other experts shared their experiences, it was Long’s personal story of a sweet, kind, bright little boy who had been sent to jail four times because of his illness that really caught lawmakers’ attention. Four years later, in 2016, the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act passed the House with a vote of 422 for and 2 against. Elements of this bill, including the creation of a new Assistant Secretary of Mental Health position, were incorporated into the bipartisan 21st Century Cures Act signed into law by President Obama in 2019. (For more ideas about writing for social change, see here—link to Writing for Social Change chapter).

“I thought I was alone,” she said when interviewed about the impact of her essay. “I soon learned that millions of other people were living my story.”

Long’s experience shows that powerful, well-told stories can connect our writing to our audience. Stories can be used in a variety of writing contexts—as stand-alone narratives that entertain, as “hooks” for persuasive essays, and as ways to illustrate concepts in essays written to inform.

What Is A Story?

What is a story? Stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. We call this time order (or chronological order). Sometimes a story may use a flashback or skip around in time, but most stories follow a narrative arc, described by the 19th-century German novelist Gustave Freytag in five stages:

Writers may be more familiar with these terms from studying short stories or novels. However, the same narrative arc applies to effective nonfiction stories. The journalist’s questions—who, what, when, where, how, and why—are useful to developing a story arc.

Key Characteristics of Narrative Writing

Essay Types within this Chapter

“You Will Never Believe What Happened!” Stories We Tell


By Ron Christiansen

After a long day at work or school, my family informally tells stories about their day—my wife and I chat before our kids emerge to be fed or a teenager at the kitchen counter hangs out and talks while my wife or I finish up dinner preparation.We all tell stories. For humor. For clarifying our view of the world. For asserting our identity. As Thomas Newkirk, a composition scholar, argues in Minds Made for Stories, story is an “embodied and instinctive mode of understanding” (23). Telling stories is one way we use language as a resource to create and build relationships. When we use language to recount events in our life, we are deliberately utilizing strategies in order to enact a particular type of response to our words. In effect, again relying on Newkirk, “Narrative is there to help us ‘compose’ ourselves when we meet difficulty or loss.” Literally, we compose (write) ourselves into being while also composing (calming or settling) ourselves into a particular view of the world.

Most days I commute thirty minutes from Davis County to the SLCC Redwood Campus. One evening several years ago, I couldn’t wait to get home so I could tell my wife about an experience I was still trying to process …

“I was driving on the freeway and a guy started riding my bumper for no reason. I was in the middle lane going five over the speed limit. Can you believe that? What an ass! He wouldn’t back off so finally I moved over to the right,” I said.
“You should be careful out there,” my wife interjected.
“But guess what? The jerk moved over and continued to ride my bumper. I tapped on the brakes. Then―and by this time I was fuming―he pulled alongside me. In my mind I interpreted this as an aggressive move.
“Can you imagine what happened next? He starts pointing at the car not me. I’m still thinking he is being aggressive but then I can tell he is probably pointing at my tire and looks concerned. I pull over and sure enough my back tire is almost completely flat.”
“Are you serious?” said my wife.
“Yeah. Man, I was so stupid.”

As the storyteller here, I subconsciously attempted to engage my wife, the listener, by a variety of means. It seems these techniques are learned at an early age and often employed without much reflection. In fact, I wasn’t fully aware of the techniques I’d used until I stepped back and analyzed the story for this essay.

One technique I used was to amp up the emotional quality, inviting the listener to come along for the ride: “Can you believe that? … Guess what? … But can you imagine what happened?” I also played with genre by starting off with one kind of story, a can-you-believe-what-a-jerk-other-people-are story, a victim story, but then switched to an ironic tale of misunderstanding where I, the storyteller, turned out to be the jerk.

We are naturally rhetorical beings who attempt to engage those around us through narrative—we shape the events in our life so they have a plot, characters, conflict, and some sort of resolution. This means each of you already has a deep rhetorical understanding of how to engage an audience even if you have never heard the word rhetoric nor ever imagined you were using moves or strategies [see the chapter “What is Story” for more on this].

We also use stories to communicate our values to others. Recently standing in the line with two loaves of bread, some milk, and a carton of eggs, I overheard this conversation between what I assume was a young couple—they had a child with them, probably around two. The young woman led off with this question …

“Do you remember Diane from my work?”
“Yeah, the one who had two babies in two years, right?”
“Yes. So guess what?”
“She’s giving them up for adoption?”
“No, silly … she’s pregnant again. But this time she is carrying a baby for some forty-something-year-old woman in California who couldn’t get pregnant. She’s crazy. That’s all I can say. Wacko.”
“No way.”
“Yes way. And, get this, I found out that the woman from California stopped by the office last week. Barb said you could see her thong when she bent down to pick up her bag. She was wearing designer jeans and carrying some sort of Gucci or whatever purse. I mean can you imagine that? She’s just buying a child. It’s like going to the supermarket down the baby aisle and picking one off the shelf.”

Can you see how this story was shaped by the values of the storyteller and assumptions about the audience’s values? Can you imagine how someone with different values or beliefs might have told a very different story about this same surrogate? Note how the word surrogate itself shifts the point of view: a surrogate mother indicates a formalized role created to serve rather than a crazy woman simply trying to make money.

Your turn to analyze:

  1. How does the storyteller attempt to engage the audience?
  2. What details are mentioned and why?
  3. What’s left out?
  4. What values are communicated by the story?

Stories are our attempts to make sense of the world. We narrate our experience in order to connect with others and validate our own experience and self-worth. We shape our identity through these stories. As Julie Beck, senior associate editor at The Atlantic, in “Life’s Stories” explains, “A life story is written in chalk, not ink, and it can be changed.” Beck then uses Jonathon Adler, a psychologist, to expand on this idea: “You’re both the narrator and the main character of your story. … That can sometimes be a revelation—‘Oh, I’m not just living out this story, I am actually in charge of this story.’” From this perspective, stories allow us to be actors or agents, constructing our story to fit our sense of how the world works. There’s now even a discipline called narrative psychology that explores this notion.

Therefore, when we tell stories to family or friends after a long day, absolute accuracy is not what is valued [see “Is That a True Story?” for more on memoirs and truth]. Instead, we pick out particular details that highlight how we have constructed the event. In the telling, our own identities are solidified as we re-experience the event, carving out a space for it in our psyche and, hopefully, the psyches of friends and family whom we want to see us in particular ways. This is just one example of how we are already rhetorical beings long before we enter a writing class.

Your turn to create:

  1. Name two or three stories you have told to someone in the last few days.
  2. Why did you tell the story?
  3. How did you attempt to engage the audience?
  4. What values were communicated through the story?

Finally, if story serves these vital social and identity functions in our everyday lives, then it is only natural that story would play a significant role in all kinds of writing through engaging our readers, communicating and shaping values, and illustrating how we see the world working.

Stories are important at every level of writing and rhetoric, including:

These uses of story are not incidental; they are the foundation on which the appeals of these rhetorical encounters are built. [See “Adding the Storyteller’s Tools to Your Writer’s Toolbox” for specific examples of how to use stories in other genres.]

Yet claiming that stories are used in all kinds of writing almost goes without saying, right? I mean we all know, if we pause to think about it, that different genres use stories. A more compelling claim is, as Newkirk argues, that “narrative is the deep structure for all good sustained writing” (23).

So, yes, we all tell stories with a purpose. They are a form of action, of entering and living in the world. Possibly you’ve never thought about story in quite this way but we assume it’s not too surprising. What might be more surprising is that this deep structure of story in our lives can also be found in traditional academic writing, researched arguments, and even scientific studies when there is no obvious “story” or vignette present. For more on this see “Rhetorical Stories.” En fin, maybe “academic” writing is not as different as we might imagine from the stories we tell each day to the people we love.

Works Cited

Beck, Julie. “Life’s Stories.” The Atlantic, The Atlantic Monthly Group. 10 Aug. 2015. Web. 3 Feb. 2016.

Newkirk, Thomas. Mind Made for Stories: How We Really Read and Write Informational and Persuasive Texts. Portsmouth: Heinemann, 2014. Text.

Open English @ SLCC by Ron Christiansen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.



This morning, as I was brewing my coffee before rushing to work, I found myself hurrying up the stairs back to the bedroom, a sense of urgency in my step. I opened the door and froze—what was I doing? Did I need something from up here? I stood in confusion, trying to retrace the mental processes that had led me here, but it was all muddy.

It’s quite likely that you’ve experienced a similarly befuddling situation. This phenomenon can loosely be referred to as automatization: because we are so constantly surrounded by stimuli, our brains often go on autopilot. (We often miss even the most explicit stimuli if we are distracted, as demonstrated by the Invisible Gorilla study)

Automatization is an incredibly useful skill—we don’t have the time or capacity to take in everything at once, let alone think our own thoughts simultaneously—but it’s also troublesome. In the same way that we might run through a morning ritual absent-mindedly, like I did above, we have also been programmed to overlook tiny but striking details: the slight gradation in color of cement on the bus stop curb; the hum of the air conditioner or fluorescent lights; the weight and texture of a pen in the crook of the hand. These details, though, make experiences, people, and places unique. By focusing on the particular, we can interrupt automatization. We can become radical noticers by practicing good description.There is a school of writing based on this practice, termed остранение by Viktor Shklovsky, commonly translated into English as “Art as Technique.” 1925. Literary Theory: An Anthology, 2nd ed.

In a great variety of rhetorical situations, description is an essential rhetorical mode. Our minds latch onto detail and specificity, so effective description can help us experience a story, understand an analysis, and develop more nuance within a critical argument. Each of these situations requires different kinds and levels of description.

First Year Writing courses often dedicate at least some space to practicing description because 1) it’s employed in nearly all academic genres and disciplines, and 2) it requires a level of specificity and an attunement to detail that’s foundational to many other writing situations. It’s rare that a student will be penalized for being too specific. The opposite is usually the case. As Ken Macrorie explains in “The Poisoned Fish,” by the time students reach college they’ve often learned to race through writing assignments by deploying an academic jargon he calls “engfish,” a strange dialect that sounds fancy but doesn’t say much at all, precisely because it’s so general, abstract, or aloof from reality. An early emphasis on rich description can serve as writing salve.

Objective vs. Subjective Description

One of the traditional ways of thinking about the rhetorical nature of description is to distinguish between “objective” and “subjective” descriptions. In early 20th-century textbooks, such as F.V.N. Painter’s Elementary Guide to Literary Criticism, we get the following definitions:

Objective: “Objective description portrays objects as they exist in the external world. It points out in succession their distinguishing features.”

Subjective: “Subjective description notes the effects produced by an external object or scene on the mind and heart. The eye of the writer is turned inward rather than outward; he brings before us the thoughts, feelings, fancies that are started within his soul.”(Athenaeum Press: Boston, 1903), pp. 85-86.

Although a bit crude, this distinction has stuck around. We can still find this framework in contemporary textbooks such as Mark Connelly’s Get Writing: Sentences and Paragraphs. Connelly provides the following example:

Objective: “The LTD 700 is a full-size sedan that seats six adults and gets 17 mpg. The base price is $65,000 and includes a GPS system, overhead DVD player, and power seats.

Subjective: “The LTD 700 is a gaudy, boxy throwback to the gas-guzzlers of the 1970s. It is grossly overpriced and laden with the high-tech toys spoiled consumers love to flaunt in front of their loser friends.”3rd edition (Boston: Cengage Learning, 2014), p. 59.

Both examples include basic details that classify them as “descriptive discourse,” but the second one contains more emotional language that more obviously reflects the judgments and values of the speaker.

Why would a writer choose to write more objectively or subjectively?

As with other rhetorical modes, what description looks like depends on the genre and purpose. It’s highly situational. We expect to find more objective-sounding descriptions in medical and law enforcement texts. A subjective description would look out of place in a medical textbook. But in personal stories, memoirs, and other more creative writing situations, objective descriptions would seem odd. Academic writer’s must carefully consider the purpose of their writing, as well as the conventions associated with the genre: is the assignment asking them to explore and communicate their subjective response to certain objects and experiences, or is it asking for a rigorously antiseptic account of the facts?

The first technique below will help you begin practicing specificity, which is important for all forms of descriptive writing. The subsequent techniques will help students practice more complex and subjective forms of description, including “thick description,” experiential language, and constraint-based scene descriptions.

Building Specificity

Activity courtesy of Mackenzie Myers

Good description lives and dies in particularities. It takes deliberate effort to refine our general ideas and memories into more focused, specific language that the reader can identify with.

A taxonomy is a system of classification that arranges a variety of items into an order that makes sense to someone. You might remember from your biology class the ranking taxonomy based on Carl Linnaeus’ classifications, pictured here.

To practice shifting from general to specific, fill in the blanks in the taxonomy below. After you have filled in the blanks, use the bottom three rows to make your own. As you work, notice how attention to detail, even on the scale of an individual word, builds a more tangible image.

More General General Specific More Specific
(example): animal mammal dog Great Dane
1 organism conifer Douglas fir
airplane Boeing 757
2 novel Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
  clothing blue jeans
3 medical condition respiratory infection the common cold
school college
4 artist pop singer
structure building The White House
5 coffee Starbucks coffee
scientist Sir Isaac Newton

Compare your answers with a classmate. What similarities do you share with other students? What differences? Why do you think this is the case? How can you apply this thinking to your own writing?

Thick Description

Thick description as a concept finds its roots in anthropology, where ethnographers seek to portray deeper context of a studied culture than simply surface appearance.  In the world of writing, thick description means careful and detailed portrayal of context, emotions, and actions. It relies on specificity and rich milieu to engage the reader.

Consider the difference between these two descriptions:

The market is busy. There is a lot of different produce. It is colorful. vs. Customers blur between stalls of bright green bok choy, gnarled carrots, and fiery Thai peppers. Stopping only to inspect the occasional citrus, everyone is busy, focused, industrious.

Notice that, even though the description on the right is obviously longer, the word choice is more specific. The author names particular kinds of produce, along with specific adjectives, which sharpens the image. Further, though, the words themselves do heavy lifting—the nouns and verbs are descriptive too! “Customers blur” both implies a market (where we would expect to find “customers”) and also illustrates how busy the market is (“blur” implies speed), rather than just naming it as such.

Finally, rather than just referring to the “market” and “produce,” the second description interweaves customers, market architecture, and different kinds of produce. It’s buzzing with activity and different actants. As Norman K. Denzin explains, thick description “presents detail, context, emotion, and the webs of social relationships that join persons to one another.”qtd. in Joseph G. Ponterotto's "Brief Note on the Origins, Evolution, and Meaning of the Qualitative Research Concept 'Thick Description,'" The Qualitative Report (Vol. 1 No. 3) (Sept. 2006), p. 540. It is, in other words, highly contextual.

Effective thick description is rarely written the first time around; it is re-written. As you revise, consider that every word should be on purpose.

“Thick Description” Workshop

To practice a form of thick description, follow these steps:

  1. Choose an object you’re familiar with, and begin by listing as many objective details as possible. Practice specificity using the taxonomic method.
  2. Next, rewrite the description from Step 1, but now include details related to place and time. Give a setting.
  3. Finally, rewrite the description from Step 2, but show how individual actors (such as yourself) interact with the object.

Micro-Ethnography Workshop

An ethnography is a form of writing that uses thick description to explore a place and its associated culture. By attempting this method on a small scale, you can practice specific, focused description.

Find a place in which you can observe the people and setting without actively involving yourself. (Interesting spaces and cultures students have used before, include a poetry slam, a local bar, a dog park, and a nursing home.) You can choose a place you’ve been before or a place you’ve never been. The point here is to look at a space and a group of people more critically for the sake of detail, whether or not you already know that context.

As an ethnographer, your goal is to take in details without influencing those details. In order to stay focused, go to this place alone and refrain from using your phone or doing anything besides note-taking. Keep your attention on the people and the place.

Spend a few minutes taking notes on your general impressions of the place at this time.

  • Use imagery and thick description to describe the place itself.
  • What sorts of interactions do you observe? What sort of tone, affect, and language is used?
  • How would you describe the overall atmosphere?

Spend a few minutes “zooming in” to identify artifacts—specific physical objects being used by the people you see.

  • Use imagery and thick description to describe the specific artifacts.
  • How do these parts contribute to/differentiate from/relate to the whole of the scene?

After observing, write one to two paragraphs synthesizing your observations to describe the space and culture. What do the details represent or reveal about the place and people?

Imagery and Vivid Description

Strong description helps a reader experience what you’ve experienced, whether it was an event, an interaction, or simply a place. Even though you could never capture it perfectly, you should try to approximate sensations, feelings, and details as closely as you can. Your most vivid description will be that which gives your reader a way to imagine being themselves as of your story.

Imagery is a device that you have likely encountered in your studies before: it refers to language used to “paint a scene” for the reader, directing their attention to striking details.

Here are three examples:

Bamboo walls, dwarf banana trees, silk lanterns, and a hand-size jade Buddha on a wooden table decorate the restaurant. For a moment, I imagined I was on vacation. The bright orange lantern over my table was the blazing hot sun and the cool air currents coming from the ceiling fan caused the leaves of the banana trees to brush against one another in soothing crackling sounds. (Anonymous student author, 2017. Reproduced with permission from the student author.):

The sunny midday sky calls to us all like a guilty pleasure while the warning winds of winter tug our scarves warmer around our necks; the City of Roses is painted the color of red dusk, and the setting sun casts her longing rays over the Eastern shoulders of Mt. Hood, drawing the curtains on another crimson-grey day. (Anonymous student author, 2017. Reproduced with permission from the student author.)

Flipping the switch, the lights flicker—not menacingly, but rather in a homey, imperfect manner. Hundreds of seats are sprawled out in front of a black, worn down stage. Each seat has its own unique creak, creating a symphony of groans whenever an audience takes their seats. The walls are adorned with a brown mustard yellow, and the black paint on the stage is fading and chipped. (Ross Reaume, Portland State University, 2014. Reproduced with permission from the student author).

You might notice, too, that the above examples appeal to many different senses. Beyond just visual detail, good imagery can be considered sensory language: words that help me see, but also words that help me taste, touch, smell, and hear the story. Go back and identify a word, phrase, or sentence that suggests one of these non-visual sensations; what about this line is so striking?

Imagery might also apply figurative language to describe more creatively. Devices like metaphor, simile, and personification, or hyperbole can enhance description by pushing beyond literal meanings.

Using imagery, you can better communicate specific sensations to put the reader in your shoes. To the best of your ability, avoid clichés (stock phrases that are easy to ignore) and focus on the particular (what makes a place, person, event, or object unique). To practice creating imagery, try the Imagery Inventory exercise and the Image Builder graphic organizer in the Activities section of this section.

Vivid Description Workshop

Visit a location you visit often—your classroom, your favorite café, the commuter train, etc. Isolate each of your senses and describe the sensations as thoroughly as possible. Take detailed notes in the organizer below or use a voice-recording app on your phone to talk through each of your sensations.

Sense Sensation




















Now, write a paragraph that synthesizes three or more of your sensory details. Which details were easiest to identify? Which make for the most striking descriptive language? Which will bring the most vivid sensations to your reader’s mind?

Description Exercises for Story-Telling

This activity is a modified version of one by Daniel Hershel.

This exercise asks you to write a scene, following specific instructions, about a place of your choice. There is no such thing as a step-by-step guide to descriptive writing; instead, the detailed instructions that follow are challenges that will force you to think differently while you’re writing. The constraints of the directions may help you to discover new aspects of this topic since you are following the sentence-level prompts even as you develop your content.

  1. Bring your place to mind. Focus on “seeing” or “feeling” your place.
  2. For a title, choose an emotion or a color that represents this place to you.
  3. For a first line starter, choose one of the following and complete the sentence:

4. After your first sentence, create your scene, writing the sentences according to the following directions:

5. Read over your scene and mark words/phrases that surprised you, especially those rich with possibilities (themes, ironies, etc.) that you could develop.

6. On the right side of the page, for each word/passage you marked, interpret the symbols, name the themes that your description and detail suggest, note any significant meaning you see in your description.

7. On a separate sheet of paper, rewrite the scene you have created as a more thorough and cohesive piece in whatever genre you desire. You may add sentences and transitional words/phrases to help the piece flow.

Image Building for Stories

This exercise encourages you to experiment with thick description by focusing on one element of your writing in expansive detail. Read the directions below, then write your responses as an outline on a separate piece of paper.

1. Identify one image, object, action, or scene that you want to expand in your story. Name this element in the big, yellow bubble.

2. Develop at least three describing words for your element, considering each sense independently, as well as emotional associations. Focus on particularities. (Adjectives will come most easily, but remember that you can use any part of speech.)

3. Then, on the next page, create at least two descriptions using figurative language (metaphor, simile, personification, onomatopoeia, hyperbole, etc.) for your element, considering each sense independently, as well as emotional associations. Focus on particularities.

4. Finally, reflect on the different ideas you came up with.

5. Repeat this exercise as desired or as instructed, choosing a different focus element to begin with.

6. Choose your favorite descriptors and incorporate them into your writing.

If you’re struggling to get started, check out the example on the pages following the blank organizer.


This section is adapted from EmpoWord: A Student-Centered Anthology & Handbook for College Writers by Shane Abrams https://open.umn.edu/opentextbooks/textbooks/empoword-a-student-centered-anthology-handbook-for-college-writers, licensed CC BY NC. The editors of this textbook have modified the introduction, the section “Objective vs. Subjective Description” has been added, “Thick Description” has been revised, and the chapter as a whole has been re-organized.



A personal narrative is a true story about some aspect of a writer’s life. Just as each of your individual life experiences are diverse, the parameters of personal narratives are also varied; they can concentrate on an event, an incident, a person, an idea, and so on. No matter what type of personal narrative you are asked to write for your class, each is bound to one central rule, as nonfiction writer Lee Gutkind explains, “This is the pledge the writer makes to the reader – the maxim we live by, the anchor of creative nonfiction: ‘You can’t make this stuff up!’”

The following is excerpted from Shane Abrams’s book, EmpoWord: A Student-Centered Anthology and Handbook for College Writers, which addresses three primary components of a personal narrative: vivid detail, well-told story, and reflection. The reading offers valuable exercises on each narrative element as well as samples of student work. Following the excerpt, you will find additional suggested readings and videos to help you in writing your own personal narratives.

Narration is a rhetorical mode that you likely engage on a daily basis, and one that has held significance in every culture in human history. Even when we’re not deliberately telling stories, storytelling often underlies our writing and thinking:

What makes for an interesting, well-told story in writing? In addition to description, your deliberate choices in narration can create impactful, beautiful, and entertaining stories.


characterization the process by which an author builds characters; can be accomplished directly or indirectly.

dialogue – a communication between two or more people. Can include any mode of communication, including speech, texting, e-mail, Facebook post, body language, etc.

dynamic character – a character who noticeably changes within the scope of a narrative, typically as a result of the plot events and/or other characters. Contrast with static character.

epiphany – a character’s sudden realization of a personal or universal truth. See dynamic character.

flat character – a character who is minimally detailed, only briefly sketched or named. Generally less central to the events and relationships portrayed in a narrative. Contrast with round character.

mood – the emotional dimension which a reader experiences while encountering a text. Compare with tone.

multimedia / multigenre – terms describing a text that combines more than one media and/or more than one genre (e.g., an essay with embedded images; a portfolio with essays, poetry, and comic strips; a mixtape with song reviews).

narration – a rhetorical mode involving the construction and relation of stories. Typically integrates description as a technique.

narrative pacing – the speed with which a story progresses through plot events. Can be influenced by reflective and descriptive writing.

narrative scope – the boundaries of a narrative in time, space, perspective, and focus.

narrative sequence – the order of events included in a narrative.

plot – the events included within the scope of a narrative.

point-of-view – the perspective from which a story is told, determining both grammar (pronouns) and perspective (speaker’s awareness of events, thoughts, and circumstances).

round character – a character who is thoroughly characterized and dimensional, detailed with attentive description of their traits and behaviors. Contrast with flat character.

static character – a character who remains the same throughout the narrative. Contrast with dynamic character.

tone – the emotional register of the text. Compare with mood.


Plot Shapes and Form

Plot is one of the basic elements of every story: put simply, plot refers to the actual events that take place within the bounds of your narrative. Using our rhetorical situation vocabulary, we can identify “plot” as the primary subject of a descriptive personal narrative. Three related elements to consider are scope, sequence, and pacing.

The term scope refers to the boundaries of your plot. Where and when does it begin and end? What is its focus? What background information and details does your story require? I often think about narrative scope as the edges of a photograph: a photo, whether of a vast landscape or a microscopic organism, has boundaries. Those boundaries inform the viewer’s perception. In this example, the scope of the left photo allows for a story about a neighborhood in San Francisco. In the middle, it is a story about the fire escape, the clouds. On the right, the scope of the story directs our attention to the birds. In this way, narrative scope impacts the content you include and your reader’s perception of that content in context.

The way we determine scope varies based on rhetorical situation, but I can say generally that many developing writers struggle with a scope that is too broad: writers often find it challenging to zero in on the events that drive a story and prune out extraneous information.

Consider, as an example, how you might respond if your friend asked what you did last weekend. If you began with, “I woke up on Saturday morning, rolled over, checked my phone, fell back asleep, woke up, pulled my feet out from under the covers, put my feet on the floor, stood up, stretched…” then your friend might have stopped listening by the time you get to the really good stuff. Your scope is too broad, so you’re including details that distract or bore your reader.  Instead of listing every detail, you should consider narrowing your scope, focusing instead on the important, interesting, and unique plot points (events).

You might think of this as the difference between a series of snapshots and a roll of film: instead of twenty-four frames per second video, your entire story might only be a few photographs aligned together.

It may seem counterintuitive, but we can often say more by digging deep into a few ideas or events, instead of trying to relate every idea or event.

The most impactful stories are often those that represent something, so your scope should focus on the details that fit into the bigger picture. To return to the previous example, you could tell me more about your weekend by sharing a specific detail than every detail. “Brushing my teeth Saturday morning, I didn’t realize that I would probably have a scar from wrestling that bear on Sunday” reveals more than “I woke up on Saturday morning, rolled over, checked my phone, fell back asleep, woke up, pulled my feet out from under the covers, put my feet on the floor, stood up, stretched….” Not only have you foregrounded the more interesting event, but you have also foreshadowed that you had a harrowing, adventurous, and unexpected weekend.

Sequence and Pacing

The sequence and pacing of your plot—the order of the events and the amount of time you give to each event, respectively—will determine your reader’s experience. There are an infinite number of ways you might structure your story, and the shape of your story is worth deep consideration. Although the traditional forms for narrative sequence are not your only options, let’s take a look at a few tried-and-true shapes your plot might take.

You might recognize Freytag’s Pyramid from other classes you’ve taken:

Gustav Freytag is credited with this particular model, often referred to as “Freytag’s pyramid.” Freytag studied the works of Shakespeare and a collection of Greek tragic plays to develop this model in Die Technik des Dramas (1863).


  1. Exposition: Here, you’re setting the scene, introducing characters, and preparing the reader for the journey.
  2. Rising action: In this part, things start to happen. You (or your characters) encounter conflict, set out on a journey, meet people, etc.
  3. Climax: This is the peak of the action, the main showdown, the central event toward which your story has been building.
  4. Falling action: Now things start to wind down. You (or your characters) come away from the climactic experience changed—at the very least, you are wiser for having had that experience.
  5. Resolution: Also known as dénouement, this is where all the loose ends get tied up. The central conflict has been resolved, and everything is back to normal, but perhaps a bit different.

This narrative shape is certainly a familiar one. Many films, TV shows, plays, novels, and short stories follow this track. But it’s not without its flaws. You should discuss with your classmates and instructors what shortcomings you see in this classic plot shape. What assumptions does it rely on? How might it limit a storyteller? Sometimes, I tell my students to “Start the story where the story starts”—often, steps A and B in the diagram above just delay the most descriptive, active, or meaningful parts of the story. If nothing else, we should note that it is not necessarily the best way to tell your story, and definitely not the only way.

Another classic technique for narrative sequence is known as in medias res—literally, “in the middle of things.” As you map out your plot in pre-writing or experiment with during the drafting and revision process, you might find this technique a more active and exciting way to begin a story.

In the earlier example, the plot is chronological, linear, and continuous: the story would move smoothly from beginning to end with no interruptions. In medias res instead suggests that you start your story with action rather than exposition, focusing on an exciting, imagistic, or important scene. Then, you can circle back to an earlier part of the story to fill in the blanks for your reader.

Using the previously discussed plot shape, you might visualize it like this:



You can experiment with your sequence in a variety of other ways, which might include also making changes to your scope: instead of a continuous story, you might have a series of fragments with specific scope (like photographs instead of video), as is exemplified by “The Pot Calling the Kettle Black….” Instead of chronological order, you might bounce around in time or space, like in “Parental Guidance,” or in reverse, like in the video “21.” Some of my favorite narratives reject traditional narrative sequence.

I include pacing with sequence because a change to one often influences the other. Put simply, pacing refers to the speed and fluidity with which a reader moves through your story. You can play with pacing by moving more quickly through events, or even by experimenting with sentence and paragraph length. Consider how the “flow” of the following examples differs:

The train screeched to a halt. A flock of pigeons took flight as the conductor announced, “We’ll be stuck here for a few minutes.” Lost in my thoughts, I shuddered as the train ground to a full stop in the middle of an intersection. I was surprised, jarred by the unannounced and abrupt jerking of the car. I sought clues for our stop outside the window. All I saw were pigeons as startled and clueless as I.

I recommend the student essay “Under the Knife,” which does excellent work with pacing, in addition to making a strong creative choice with narrative scope.



The position from which your story is told will help shape your reader’s experience, the language your narrator and characters use, and even the plot itself. You might recognize this from Dear White People Volume 1 or Arrested Development Season 4, both Netflix TV series. Typically, each episode in these seasons explores similar plot events, but from a different character’s perspective. Because of their unique vantage points, characters can tell different stories about the same realities.

This is, of course, true for our lives more generally. In addition to our differences in knowledge and experiences, we also interpret and understand events differently. In our writing, narrative position is informed by point-of-view and the emotional valences I refer to here as tone and mood.

point-of-view (POV): the perspective from which a story is told.

This is a grammatical phenomenon—i.e., it decides pronoun use—but, more importantly, it impacts tone, mood, scope, voice, and plot. (For the sake of brevity, the author has not included here a discussion of focalization, an important phenomenon to consider when studying point-of-view more in-depth.)

Although point-of-view will influence tone and mood, we can also consider what feelings we want to convey and inspire independently as part of our narrative position.

tone: the emotional register of the story’s language.

What emotional state does the narrator of the story (not the author, but the speaker) seem to be in? What emotions are you trying to imbue in your writing?

mood: the emotional register a reader experiences.

Sometimes tone and mood align, and you might describe them using similar adjectives—a joyous tone might create joy for the reader. However, they sometimes don’t align, depending largely on the rhetorical situation and the author’s approach to that situation. For instance, a story’s tone might be bitter, but the reader might find the narrator’s bitterness funny, off-putting, or irritating. Often, tone and mood are in opposition to create irony: Jonathan Swift’s matter-of-fact tone in “A Modest Proposal” is satirical, producing a range of emotions for the audience, from revulsion to hilarity.

What emotions do you want your reader to experience? Are they the same feelings you experienced at the time?

A Non-Comprehensive Breakdown of POV

Pronoun Use Definition Examples
1st person Narrator uses 1st person pronouns (I/me/mine or us/we/ours) Can include internal monologue (motives, thoughts, feelings) of the narrator. Limited certainty of motives, thoughts, or feelings of other characters. I tripped on the last stair, preoccupied by what my sister had said, and felt my stomach drop.
2nd person Narrator uses 2nd person pronouns (you/you/your) Speaks to the reader, as if the reader is the protagonist OR uses apostrophe to speak to an absent or unidentified person Your breath catches as you feel the phantom step.


O, staircase, how you keep me awake at night.

3rd person limited Narrator uses 3rd person pronouns (he/him/his, she/her/hers, they/they/theirs) Sometimes called “close” third person. Observes and narrates but sticks near one or two characters, in contrast with 3rd person omniscient. He was visibly frustrated by his sister’s nonchalance and wasn’t watching his step.
3rd person omniscient Narrator uses 3rd person pronouns (he/him/his, she/her/hers, they/they/theirs) Observes and narrates from an all-knowing perspective. Can include internal monologue (motives, thoughts, feelings) of all characters. Beneath the surface, his sister felt regretful. Why did I tell him that? she wondered.
stream-of-consciousness Narrator uses inconsistent pronouns, or no pronouns at all Approximates the digressive, wandering, and ungrammatical thought processes of the narrator. But now, a thousand empty⎯where?⎯and she, with head shake, will be fine⎯AHH!

Typically, you will tell your story from the first-person point-of-view, but personal narratives can also be told from a different perspective; I recommend “Comatose Dreams” to illustrate this at work. As you’re developing and revising your writing, try to inhabit different authorial positions: What would change if you used the third person POV instead of first person? What different meanings would your reader find if you told this story with a different tone—bitter instead of nostalgic, proud rather than embarrassed, sarcastic rather than genuine?

Furthermore, there are many rhetorical situations that call for different POVs. (For instance, you may have noticed that this book uses the second-person very frequently.) So, as you evaluate which POV will be most effective for your current rhetorical situation, bear in mind that the same choice might inform your future writing.


Building Characters

Whether your story is fiction or nonfiction, you should spend some time thinking about characterization: the development of characters through actions, descriptions, and dialogue. Your audience will be more engaged with and sympathetic toward your narrative if they can vividly imagine the characters as real people.

Like description, characterization relies on specificity. Consider the following contrast in character descriptions:

My mom is great. She is an average-sized brunette with brown eyes. She is very loving and supportive, and I know I can rely on her. She taught me everything I know. In addition to some of my father’s idiosyncrasies, however, he is also one of the most kind-hearted and loving people in my life. One of his signature actions is the ‘cry-smile,’ in which he simultaneously cries and smiles any time he experiences a strong positive emotion (which is almost daily). Excerpt by an anonymous student author, 2016. Reproduced with permission from the student author.

How does the “cry-smile” detail enhance the characterization of the speaker’s parent?

Characterization graphic

The word character appears in a large middle circle. Moving clockwise, there are 4 smaller circles around it. The topic circle says Description; the circle on the right side says Thoughts/Internal Monologue. The bottom circle says Speech/Dialogue while the circle on the left side says Actions/Behaviors.

character graphic

To break it down to process, characterization can be accomplished in two ways:

Thinking through these questions will help you get a better understanding of each character (often including yourself!). You do not need to include all the details, but they should inform your description, dialogue, and narration.

Round characters… are very detailed, requiring attentive description of their traits and behaviors. Your most important characters should be round: the added detail will help your reader better visualize, understand, and care about them.
Flat characters… are minimally detailed, only briefly sketched or named. Less important characters should take up less space and will therefore have less detailed characterization.
Static characters… remain the same throughout the narrative. Even though all of us are always changing, some people will behave and appear the same throughout the course of your story. Static characters can serve as a reference point for dynamic characters to show the latter’s growth.
Dynamic characters… noticeably change within the narrative, typically as a result of the events. Most likely, you will be a dynamic character in your personal narrative because such stories are centered around an impactful experience, relationship, or place. Dynamic characters learn and grow over time, either gradually or with an epiphany.


Thanks to Alex Dannemiller for his contributions to this subsection.

dialogue:communication between two or more characters.

Think of the different conversations you’ve had today, with family, friends, or even classmates. Within each of those conversations, there were likely preestablished relationships that determined how you talked to each other: each is its own rhetorical situation. A dialogue with your friends, for example, may be far different from one with your family. These relationships can influence tone of voice, word choice (such as using slang, jargon, or lingo), what details we share, and even what language we speak.

As we’ve seen above, good dialogue often demonstrates the traits of a character or the relationship of characters. From reading or listening to how people talk to one another, we often infer the relationships they have. We can tell if they’re having an argument or conflict, if one is experiencing some internal conflict or trauma, if they’re friendly acquaintances or cold strangers, even how their emotional or professional attributes align or create opposition.

Often, dialogue does more than just one thing, which makes it a challenging tool to master. When dialogue isn’t doing more than one thing, it can feel flat or expositional, like a bad movie or TV show where everyone is saying their feelings or explaining what just happened. For example, there is a difference between “No thanks, I’m not hungry” and “I’ve told you, I’m not hungry.” The latter shows frustration, and hints at a previous conversation. Exposition can have a place in dialogue, but we should use it deliberately, with an awareness of how natural or unnatural it may sound. We should be aware how dialogue impacts the pacing of the narrative. Dialogue can be musical and create tempo, with either quick back and forth, or long drawn out pauses between two characters. Rhythm of a dialogue can also tell us about the characters’ relationship and emotions.

We can put some of these thoughts to the test using the exercises in the Activities section of this chapter to practice writing dialogue.

Choosing a Medium

Narration, as you already know, can occur in a variety of media: TV shows, music, drama, and even Snapchat Stories practice narration in different ways. Your instructor may ask you to write a traditional personal narrative (using only prose), but if you are given the opportunity, you might also consider what other media or genres might inform your narration. Some awesome narratives use a multimedia or multigenre approach, synthesizing multiple different forms, like audio and video, or nonfiction, poetry, and photography.

In addition to the limitations and opportunities presented by your rhetorical situation, choosing a medium also depends on the opportunities and limitations of different forms. To determine which tool or tools you want to use for your story, you should consider which medium (or combination of media) will help you best accomplish your purpose. Here’s a non-comprehensive list of storytelling tools you might incorporate in place of or in addition to traditional prose:

•           Images

•           Poetry

•           Video

•           Audio recording

•           “Found” texts (fragments of other authors’ works reframed to tell a different story)


•           Illustrations

•           Comics, manga, or other graphic storytelling

•           Journal entries or series of letters

•           Plays, screenplays, or other works of drama

•           Blogs and social media postings

Although each of these media is a vehicle for delivering information, it is important to acknowledge that each different medium will have a different impact on the audience; in other words, the medium can change the message itself.

There are a number of digital tools available that you might consider for your storytelling medium, as well.

Video: Storytelling with Robyn Vazquez

Vazquez, Robyn. Interview with Shane Abrams. 2 July 2017, Deep End Theater, Portland, OR


Idea Generation: What Stories Can I Tell?

You may already have an idea of an important experience in your life about which you could tell a story. Although this might be a significant experience, it is most definitely not the only one worth telling. (Remember: first idea ≠ best idea.)

Just as with description, good narration isn’t about shocking content but rather about effective and innovative writing. In order to broaden your options before you begin developing your story, complete the organizer on the following pages.

Then, choose three of the list items from this page that you think are especially unique or have had a serious impact on your life experience. On a separate sheet of paper, free-write about each of your three list items for no less than five minutes per item.

List five places that are significant to you (real, fictional, or imaginary)






List three obstacles you’ve overcome to be where you are today




List three difficult moments – tough decisions, traumatic or challenging experiences, or troubling circumstances




List ten people who have influenced your life in some way (positive or negative, acquainted or not, real or fictional)








List ten ways that you identify yourself (roles, adjectives, or names)











Idea Generation: Mapping an Autobiography

This activity is a modified version of one by Lily Harris.

This exercise will help you develop a variety of options for your story, considered especially in the context of your entire life trajectory.

First, brainstorm at least ten moments or experiences that you consider influential—moments that in some way impacted your identity, your friendships, your worldview—for the better or for the worse. Record them in the table on the next page.

Then, rate those experiences on a degree of “awesomeness,” “pleasurability,” or something else along those lines, on a scale of 0 – 10, with 10 being the hands down best moment of your life and 0 being the worst.

Next, plot those events on the graph paper on the page following the table. Each point is an event; the x-axis is your age, and the y-axis is the factor of positivity. Connect the points with a line.

Finally, circle three of the events/experiences on your graph. On a clean sheet of paper, free-write about each of those three for at least four minutes.

10 Most influential Moments

Your age Event, moment, or experience Awesomeness Factor (0-10)































Experimenting with Voice and Dialogue

Thanks to Alex Dannemiller for his contributions to this subsection.

Complete the following three exercises to think through the language your characters use and the relationships they demonstrate through dialogue. If you’ve started your assignment, you can use these exercises to generate content.

The Secret

1) Choose any two professions for two imaginary characters.

2) Give the two characters a secret that they share with one another. As you might imagine, neither of them would reveal that secret aloud, but they might discuss it. (To really challenge yourself, you might also come up with a reason that their secret must be a secret: Is it socially unacceptable to talk about? Are they liable to get in trouble if people find out? Will they ruin a surprise?)

3) Write an exchange between those characters about the secret using only their words (i.e., no “he said” or “she said,” but rather only the language they use). Allow the secret to be revealed to the reader in how the characters speak, what they say, and how they say it. Pay attention to the subtext of what’s being said and how it’s being said. How would these characters discuss their secret without revealing it to eavesdroppers? (Consider Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” as a model.)

4) Draw a line beneath your dialogue. Now, imagine that only one of the characters has a secret. Write a new dialogue in which one character is trying to keep that secret from the other. Again, consider how the speakers are communicating: what language do they use? What sort of tone? What does that reveal about their relationship?

The Overheard

1) Go to a public space and eavesdrop on a conversation. (Try not to be too creepy—be considerate and respectful of the people.) You don’t need to take avid notes, but observe natural inflections, pauses, and gestures. What do these characteristics imply about the relationship between the speakers?

2) Jot down a fragment of striking, interesting, or weird dialogue.

3) Now, use that fragment of dialogue to imagine a digital exchange: consider that fragment as a Facebook status, a text message, or a tweet. Then, write at least ten comments or replies to that fragment.

4) Reflect on the imaginary digital conversation you just created. What led you to make the choices you made? How does digital dialogue differ from real-life dialogue?

Beyond Words

As you may have noticed in the previous exercises, dialogue is about more than just what the words say: our verbal communication is supplemented by inflection, tone, body language, and pace, among other things. With a partner, exchange the following lines. Without changing the words, try to change the meaning using your tone, inflection, body language, etc.

a B
“I don’t want to talk about it.” “Leave me alone.”
“Can we talk about it?” “What do you want from me?”
“I want it.” “You can’t have it.”
“Have you seen her today?” “Why?”

After each round, debrief with your partner; jot down a few notes together to describe how your variations changed the meaning of each word. Then, consider how you might capture and relay these different deliveries using written language—what some writers call “dialogue tags.” Dialogue tags try to reproduce the nuance of our spoken and unspoken languages (e.g., “he muttered,” “she shouted in frustration,” “they insinuated, crossing their arms”).

Using Images to Tell a Story

Even though this textbook focuses on writing as a means to tell stories, you can also construct thoughtful and unique narratives using solely images or using images to supplement your writing. A single photograph can tell a story, but a series will create a more cohesive narrative. To experiment with this medium, try the following activity.

1) Using your cell phone or a digital camera, take at least one photograph (of yourself, events, and/or your surroundings) each hour for one day.

2) Compile the photos and arrange them in chronological order. Choose any five photos that tell a story about part or all of your day.

In 2014, a friend of mine recorded a one-second video every day for a year, creating a similar kind of narrative — One Second Everyday 2014

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Example Student Essays

Under the Knife

Essay by Joey Butler, Portland Community College, 2016. Reproduced with permission from the student author.

The white fluorescent lights mirrored off the waxed and buffed vinyl flooring. Doctors and nurses beelined through small congregations of others conversing. Clocks were posted at every corner of every wall and the sum of the quiet ticking grew to an audible drone. From the vinyl floors to the desks where decade old Dell computers sat, a sickly gray sucked all the life from the room. The only source of color was the rainbow circle crocheted blanket that came customary for minors about to undergo surgery. It was supposed to be a token of warmth and happiness, a blanket you could find life in; however, all I found in the blanket was an unwanted pity.

Three months ago doctors diagnosed me with severe scoliosis. They told me I would need to pursue orthopedic surgery to realign my spine. For years I endured through back pain and discomfort, never attributing it to the disease. In part, I felt as if it was my fault, that me letting the symptoms go unattended for so long led it to become so extreme. Those months between the diagnosis and the surgery felt like mere seconds. Every day I would recite to myself that everything would be okay and that I had nothing to worry about. However, then minutes away from sedation, I felt like this bed I was in—only three feet off the ground—would put me six feet under.

The doctors informed me beforehand of the potential complications that could arise from surgery. Partial paralysis, infection, death, these words echoed throughout the chasms of my mind. Anxiety overwhelmed me; I was a dying animal surrounded by ravenous vultures, drool dripping awaiting their next meal. My palms were a disgusting swamp of sweat that gripped hard onto the white sheets that covered me. A feeling of numbness lurked into my extremities and slowly infected its way throughout my body.

The vinyl mattress cover I was on felt like a porcelain toilet seat during a cold winter morning. It did not help my discomfort that I had nothing on but a sea blue gown that covered only the front and ankle high socks that seemed like bathroom scrubbers. A heart rate monitor clamp was tightly affixed onto my index finger that had already lost circulation minutes ago. The monitor was the snitch giving away my growing anxiety; my heart rate began to increase as I awaited surgery. Attached to the bed frame was a remote that could adjust almost every aspect of the bed. I kept the bed at an almost right angle: I wanted to be aware of my surroundings.

My orthopediatrician and surgeon, Dr. Halsey, paced in from the hallway and gave away a forced smile to ease me into comfort. The doctor shot out his hand and I hesitantly stuck out mine for the handshake. I’ve always hated handshakes; my hands are incredibly sweaty and I did not want to disgust him with my soggy tofu hands. He asked me how my day was so far, and I responded with a concise “Alright.” Truth was, my day so far was pretty lackluster and tiring. I had woken up before the birds had even begun to chirp, I ate nothing for breakfast, and I was terrified out of my mind. This Orthopedic Surgeon, this man, this human, was fully in charge of the surgery. Dr. Halsey and other surgeons deal with one of the most delicate and fragile things in the world—people’s lives. The amount of pressure and nerves he must face on an everyday basis is incredible. His calm and reserved nature made me believe that he was confident in himself, and that put me more at ease.

An overweight nurse wheeled in an IV with a bag of solution hooked to the side. “Which arm do you prefer for your IV?” she inquired.

Needles used to terrify me. They were tiny bullets that pierced through your skin like mosquitos looking for dinner, but by now I had grown accustomed to them. Like getting stung by a bee for the first time, my first time getting blood taken was a grueling adventure. “Left, I guess,” I let out with a long anxiety-filled sigh.

The rubber band was thick and dark blue, the same color as the latex gloves she wore. I could feel my arm pulse in excitement as they tightly wrapped the rubber band right above my elbow.

“Oh, wow! Look at that vein pop right out!” The nurse exclaimed as she inspected the bulging vein.

I tried to distract myself from the nurse so I wouldn’t hesitate as the IV was going in. I stared intently at the speckled ceiling tiles. They were the same ones used in schools. As my eyes began to relax, the dots on the ceiling started to transform into different shapes and animals. There was a squirrel, a seal, and a do—I felt pain shock through my body as the IV needle had infiltrated into my arm.

Dr. Halsey had one arm planted to the bottom end of the bed frame and the other holding the clipboard that was attached to the frame. “We’re going to pump two solutions through you. The first will be the saline, and the second will be the sedation and anesthesia.” The nurse leaned over and punched in buttons connected to the IV. After a loud beep, I felt a cooling sensation run down my arm. I felt like a criminal, prosecuted for murder, and now was one chemical away from finishing the cocktail execution. My eyes darted across the room; I was searching for hope I could cling to.

My mother was sitting on a chair on the other side of the room, eyes slowly and silently sweating. She clutched my father’s giant calloused hands as he browsed the internet on his phone. While I would say that I am more similar to my mother than my father, I think we both dealt with our anxiety in similar ways. Just like my father, I too needed a visual distraction to avoid my anxiety. “I love you,” my mother called out.

All I did was a slight nod in affirmation. I was too fully engulfed by my own thoughts to even try and let out a single syllable. What is my purpose in life? Have I been successful in making others proud? Questions like these crept up in my mind like an unwanted visitor.

“Here comes the next solution,” Dr. Halsey announced while pointing his pen at the IV bags. “10…,” he began his countdown. “7…,” Dr. Halsey continued the countdown.

I’ve enjoyed my life. I’ve had my fun and shared many experiences with my closest friends. If I’m not remembered in a few years after I die, then so be it. I’m proud of my small accomplishments so far.


Although I am not the most decorated of students, I can say that at least I tried my hardest. All that really mattered was that I was happy. I had hit tranquility; my mind had halted. I was out even before Dr. Halsey finished the countdown. I was at ease.

Teacher Takeaways

 “I like how the scope of the narrative is specifically limited to the hours leading up to the surgery. That shifts the focus on the author’s anticipation and anxiety, rather than the surgery itself. This essay also successfully employs slow, deliberate pacing in each section, reflecting that sense of anticipation and anxiety. However, at some points this slow pacing results in minute descriptions of details that don’t clearly advance the narrative, making the essay feel bloated at times and diminishing the effectiveness of those sections where the pacing is more appropriate.”

– Professor Dunham

This chapter is from Lewis-Clark’s Something to Say, “Writing Project One: Process of Writing a Personal Narrative”

“This I Believe” Essay


The History of ‘This I Believe’

by Tanya Matthews

This I Believe is an exciting media project that invites individuals from all walks of life to write about and discuss the core beliefs that guide their daily lives. They share these statements in weekly broadcasts on NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered.

The series is based on the 1950’s radio program This I Believe, hosted by acclaimed journalist Edward R. Murrow. Each day, some 39-million Americans gathered by their radios to hear compelling essays from the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt, Jackie Robinson, Helen Keller and Harry Truman as well as corporate leaders, cab drivers, scientists and secretaries — anyone able to distill into a few minutes the guiding principles by which they lived. Their words brought comfort and inspiration to a country worried about the Cold War, McCarthyism and racial division.

Eventually, the radio series became a cultural phenomenon. Eighty-five leading newspapers printed a weekly column based on This I Believe. A collection of essays published in 1952 sold 300,000 copies — second only to the Bible that year. The series was translated and broadcast around the globe on the Voice of America. A book of essays translated into Arabic sold 30,000 copies in just three days.

[The NPR series This I Believe can be read and heard here. In addition, the website and organization This I Believe houses thousands of essays written by famous people, such as the ones mentioned above, and everyday people like you and me.]

As a college student in 2020, you are faced with turbulent politics, socioeconomic issues, and ethical dilemmas that will challenge you to take a stand and contribute to the local, national, and global conversation around you. The purpose of this writing task is not to persuade you to agree on the same beliefs. Rather, it is to encourage you to begin the much more difficult task of developing respect for beliefs different from your own. Fifty years ago, Edward R. Murrow’s project struck such a chord with millions of Americans. It can do so again today…with you.

Video Resources for Generating Ideas

Dan Gediman on Writing a “This I Believe Essay”

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Read Cecelia Munoz’s essay “Getting Angry Can Be a Good Thing” referred to in the previous video here.

“This I Believe” Essay with Animation

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“This I Believe” Essay Ideas

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Prewriting Activity

1) Analyze Others’ Statements

Consider the following statements, written in response to the question What Have You Learned About Life? Highlight any sentences that resonate with you. Talk about them with a partner or group, explaining why.
1. I’ve learned that when I wave to people in the country, they stop what they are doing and wave back. – Age 9
2. I’ve learned that if you want to cheer yourself up, you should try cheering someone else up. – Age 14
3. I’ve learned that although it’s hard to admit it, I’m secretly glad my parents are strict with me. – Age 15
4. I’ve learned that if someone says something unkind about me, I must live so that no one will believe it. – Age 39
5. I’ve learned that there are people who love you dearly but just don’t know how to show it. – Age 42
6. I’ve learned that you can make someone’s day by simply sending them a little note. – Age 44
7. I’ve learned that the greater a person’s sense of guilt, the greater his or her need to cast blame on others. – Age 46
8. I’ve learned that no matter what happens, or how bad it seems today, life does go on, and it will be better tomorrow. – Age 48
9. I’ve learned that regardless of your relationship with your parents, you miss them terribly after they die. – Age 53
10. I’ve learned that making a living is not the same thing as making a life. – Age 58
11. I’ve learned that life sometimes gives you a second chance. – Age 62
12. I’ve learned that whenever I decide something with kindness, I usually make the right decision. – Age 66
13. I’ve learned that it pays to believe in miracles. And to tell the truth, I’ve seen several. – Age 75
14. I’ve learned that even when I have pains, I don’t have to be one. – Age 82
15. I’ve learned that every day you should reach out and touch someone. People love that human touch—holding hands, a warm hug, or just a friendly pat on the back. – Age 85
16. I’ve learned that I still have a lot to learn. – Age 92

2) Compose Your Own Statement

Write down a sentence that expresses what YOU have learned about life. Maybe it is similar to one of the statements above; maybe it’s completely different. Whatever it is, write it down.

3) Freewrite

Now free-write about your sentence. Include at least two examples / experiences that you have had that support why you think this way.

Personal Statement/Philosophy: ______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
Why do you believe in this statement? ______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
Name two experiences that you had that would support the statement:
What does this say about yourself or your personality? _________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
After your life experience, how have you come to the conclusion that this should be your statement? How have your beliefs changed, if at all? ____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
How has the event effected your relationship with a person, place, or object? _________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
How does your statement apply to you today? (How you view yourself & society)


Sample #1: America’s Beauty Is in Its Diversity

written by Alaa El-Saad,  high school student,  as heard on NPR’s Tell Me More (2009)

America is built on the idea of freedom, and there is no exception for Muslim women. I believe in the freedom of religion and speech. But mostly, I believe it’s OK to be different, and to stand up for who and what you are. So I believe in wearing the hijab.

The hijab is a religious head covering, like a scarf. I am Muslim and keeping my head covered is a sign of maturity and respect toward my religion and to Allah’s will. To be honest, I also like to wear it to be different. I don’t usually like to do what everyone else is doing. I want to be an individual, not just part of the crowd. But when I first wore it, I was also afraid of the reaction that I’d get at school.

I decided on my own that sixth grade was the time I should start wearing the hijab. I was scared about what the kids would say or even do to me. I thought they might make fun of me, or even be scared of me and pull off my headscarf. Kids at that age usually like to be all the same, and there’s little or no acceptance for being different.

On the first day of school, I put all those negative thoughts behind my back and walked in with my head held high. I was holding my breath a little, but inside I was also proud to be a Muslim, proud to be wearing the hijab, proud to be different.

I was wrong about everything I thought the kids would say or even do to me. I actually met a lot of people because of wearing my head covering. Most of the kids would come and ask me questions—respectfully—about the hijab, and why I wore it.

I did hear some kid was making fun of me, but there was one girl—she wasn’t even in my class, we never really talked much—and she stood up for me, and I wasn’t even there! I made a lot of new friends that year, friends that I still have until this very day, five years later.

Yes, I’m different, but everyone is different here, in one way or another. This is the beauty of America. I believe in what America is built on: all different religions, races and beliefs. Different everything.

Sample #2: The Essentials to Happiness

written by Alexxandra Schuman, high school student, as heard on The Bob Edwards Show (2013)

As a child, I was generally happy; singing and dancing to my favorite songs; smiling and laughing with my friends and family. But as far back as second grade, I noticed a “darkness,” about me. I didn’t enjoy engaging in many things. I didn’t relate to my peers in elementary school because they appeared so happy, and I didn’t have that ability to achieve happiness so easily.

In middle school things in my life began to get even worse. I began withdrawing from everything I once enjoyed; swimming, tennis, family. I hated going to sleep knowing I had to wake up to another day. I was always tired. Everything was horrible. Finally, midway through eighth grade, I was told I had a chemical imbalance; diagnosed with clinical depression and put on medication. It took months for me to feel the effects of the medication.

When I began to feel happy again, is when I realized that I had to take the responsibility for getting better myself, rather than relying on medication and therapy alone. Aristotle said, “To live happily is an inward power of the soul,” and I believe that this quote describes what I had to do to achieve happiness. Happiness is a journey. Everyone seems to need different things to be happy. But I believe people are blinded from what truly makes one happy.

Growing up, we’re encouraged to be successful in life; but how is success defined? Success and happiness are imagined now as having a lot of money. It is so untrue. Recently I went to Costa Rica and visited the small town of El Roble. I spent the day with a nine-year old girl named Marilyn. She took me to her house to meet her parents. It was obvious that they were not rich; living in a small house with seven children. The house was cluttered but full of life. Those who have decided that success and happiness comes from having money and a big house would be appalled at how utterly happy this family from El Roble is. People say that seeing things like that make you appreciate what you have, but for me, it made me envy them for being so happy without all the things I have.

“The essentials to happiness are something to love, something to do, and something to hope for,” a quote from William Blake sums up what I believe people need to realize to be truly happy in life. People need love; I feel they need their family and their friends more than anything in the world. People need work to do, something to make them feel they are making a difference in the world. People need to know that more good is to come in the future, so they continue to live for “now” instead of constantly worrying about the bad that could come. And most importantly people need to know that happiness is not something that happens overnight. Love and hope is happiness.

Sample #3: Find a Good Frog

written by Delia Motavalli, high school student, as heard on The Bob Edwards Show (2013)

I believe in finding a good frog. It seems that all throughout childhood, we are taught to look for a happily ever after. “And they all lived happily ever after”; isn’t that the conclusion to many children’s films? When I was a kid I always thought of that as magical; but now really it just seems unrealistic. And it teaches us that what we want is a fairytale like they have in the storybooks. We all want to be Cinderella who gets swept off her feet by the hot prince; we want to live in the royal castle, right? But I don’t think that’s necessarily a good thing for us to seek. Now I’m not saying I believe in being pessimistic, but I do believe in being realistic; it’s something I got from my mom.

My mother and I always have our best conversations in the rain. We sit in the car, neither of us wanting to brave the rain to get to the house. So we sit. We watch droplets race down the windshield, listen to the rain strike the roof of her little blue Honda, and feel the heater on full-blast rushing at our feet (just the way we like it). I don’t know why, but sitting in the car, we always talk more than normal. There was one rainy day when my mom told me something that is going to stick with me forever. Earlier that day she and my dad had been arguing about something; I can’t remember what. So she said, “Don’t spend your life looking for Prince Charming. Instead, find yourself a really good frog.”

At the time, I found this thought really disheartening. Who wants to think that you’ll never find Prince Charming? You’ll never get to be Cinderella? Another thought that struck my mind: if my mom says there’s no Prince Charming, then what’s my dad? A frog? I asked her, and she replied with, “Of course! If he were Prince Charming, he wouldn’t snore, would be able to cook, and we would never argue. But you know what? He’s a damn good frog.” Of course, being young, I didn’t think of the meaning behind what she was saying. I was too busy thinking of it literally, visualizing my mom as a princess and my dad in frog form.

But a few years later, I understand the value of my mom’s words. You can’t expect everything to be perfect. Let’s be completely honest; if you wait your whole life for your prince with flowing hair, statuesque features, and a white horse, you’re going to be lonely. I think that the point of finding a good frog is you accept something that’s great, flaws and all. It’s so easy to be picky. You can find the one tiny thing that’s wrong, and that one tiny thing is what you can’t get your mind off of. But in life, we can’t afford to wait years in vain for perfection. So I think that a good frog, an amazing frog, the best frog you can find is what we’re really looking for in this world. Don’t laze through life waiting for a happily ever after, because I don’t think you’ll be very happy with the outcome.

Examples from the ‘This I Believe’ Website

Be Cool to the Pizza Dude by Sarah Adams

They Lived Their Faith by Charles Henry Parrish

Returning to What’s Natural by Amelia Baxter-Stoltzfus

The Birthright of Human Dignity by Will Thomas

Remembering All The Boys by Elvia Bautista

I Am Still The Greatest by Muhammad Ali

A Goal Of Service To Humankind by Anthony Fauci

My Life Is Better by Abraham

Give Me a Waffle by Brenda

The Little Things by Sophie Crossley

You can also browse thousands more This I Believe essays by theme.

Prefer to Listen to Get Inspiration?

Check out This I Believe’s Podcast Series

4) Drafting

Assignment Guidelines + Suggestions and Tips for Drafting

1. While the examples you’ve been given can serve as a model, it is essential that each of you write about a personal belief or philosophy that you feel strongly about.
2. Tell a story. Personal experiences are the corner stone of a good essay. Your story doesn’t have to be a heart breaker or even a major event, but it must be something that has affected how you think, feel, and act.
List your personal experiences that you intend to use as evidence below:
3. Be concise. Avoid repetition. This essay should be between 500 – 650 words. When read aloud, it should take roughly four minutes.
4. Name your belief. It is essential that you can name your belief in a sentence or two. Focus on one belief only.
This is your thesis. Write it here:
5. Be positive. Avoid preaching or persuading. You aren’t trying to change the way others think or act. Write about what you believe, not what you don’t believe.
6. Use the first person. Speak for yourself. Avoid using we or you.
7. Let your voice shine. Use language that sounds like you. Read it aloud as your revise. Keep making changes until your essay sounds like you and captures the essence of your belief.

5) Peer Review

Once you have written your first draft, arrange for your essay to be edited by a peer, using the following Peer-Editing Checklist:
Writer’s Name: ________________________________________________
Peer Editor’s Name: ________________________________________________
Use your PENCIL or PEN (NOT red or green) to make corrections. Remember, this essay is a work in progress. You are not done writing! Look for ways to improve what you’ve already written.
Tick each step if it has been completed.
_____ 1. Read the paper backwards, one sentence at a time. Check for spelling errors.
Use a dictionary, a friend, or a spell checker to find the correct spelling.
_____ 2. Check for capitalized proper nouns and the first word of each sentence.
_____ 3. Skip a line between each paragraph.
_____ 4. Every sentence should have end punctuation.
_____ 5. Check commas. Are they only used for compound sentences, a list of items, an introductory word or phrase, direct address, setting off interruptions, separating adjectives, or in dates? Do you need to add commas? Make sure you do not have commas separating complete sentences (i.e. comma splice errors that create run-on sentences).
_____ 6. Apostrophes are used only for contractions and to show ownership.
_____ 7. The use of more complex punctuation (dashes, hyphens, semi-colons, parentheses, etc.) is done correctly.
_____ 8. Have you used commonly mixed pairs of words correctly? Check these: they’re/their/there, your/you’re, it’s/its, a/an, to/too/two, are/our/hour, and others.
_____ 9. Read the paper backwards one sentence at a time. Check for sentence fragments and run-ons and correct them.
_____ 10. Did you stay in present tense (such as is, am, do, take, know, etc.) or past tense (such as was, were, did, took, knew, etc.) throughout the entire essay?
_____ 11. Did you stay in first person (I, me, my, we, us, our) or third person (he, him, she, her, they, them, their) throughout the entire essay?
_____ 12. Was there adequate use of specific details and sensory details? Were the details clear and relevant to the statement?
_____ 13. Is the overall purpose/philosophy clear?
_____ 14. Does the conclusion make you go, “Wow!” “Cool!” “I never thought about it that way,” or any other similar reaction?
Other suggestions for the overall content of the piece:

6) Rubric

possible grading rubric for This I Believe essay

This I Believe by Tanya Matthews is licensed by CC-BY-SA


Storytelling Memorability: 6 Keys for Success


Writing that is simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional, and story-based will stick with your audience longer.

By Nikki Mantyla

On a Thursday night in January 2016, Jerry Seinfeld performed solo to a sold-out audience at Abravanel Hall in Salt Lake City. Over 2,700 people filled the long sloping rectangle of the main floor and the three rounded tiers of gold-leafed balconies lining its sides. Eighteen-thousand Bohemian crystals glimmered from enormous square chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. From the far back wall, two spotlights followed the legendary comedian back and forth across the stage as he paced inside their circle, telling his jokes. One of the spotlights smoothly drifted right or left as needed. The other wasn’t working so well.

Seinfeld stepped out of the faulty beam numerous times. He ignored it, continuing his set like a pro and doing what he does best: making people laugh. But an underlying tension increased the longer the problem went on. Adults fidgeted in their cushioned seats and muttered to their neighbors. If the jerky spotlight had been staged, Seinfeld would have referred to it by now. Whether the cause was malfunctioning equipment or the ineptitude of an operator, the issue should’ve been solved thirty minutes ago. It was detracting from the act.

Finally, Seinfeld made a choice to say something. He stopped and gestured at the back wall, asking, “What’s the deal with the spotlight? I’m sixty-one years old! How hard can it be? Look, I’ll tell you what I’ll do: I’ll face the direction I’m going to walk.”

The tangent bounced with Seinfeld’s characteristic high- and low-pitched cadence, sending the already amused audience into louder peals. After an exaggerated turn, he slowly lifted his foot and stepped forward, waiting for the spotlight to join him. When the beam lurched again despite his overt cue, Seinfeld threw up his arms like, “Really?” Everyone roared. Tension released into belly-deep laughter. Tears formed, stomachs cramped, lungs gasped. What had been distracting was now hilarious. He’d transformed the malfunction into a successful gag and a memorable part of the show.

As writers, we need to learn such alchemy in order to do things, be things, and make things in the world. Comedians like Jerry Seinfeld are masters of language, and that mastery allows them to make whole careers out of words and gestures that do something special: generate laughs. We can likewise harness the power of language to transform our writing situations into audience gold, whether we are creating impromptu wisecracks or funeral elegies, factual reports or fantastical stories. Any type of writing can be more effective if it catches and holds the attention of its audience—in other words, if it succeeds at being memorable.

How? Authors Chip and Dan Heath (one brother a Stanford professor, the other a teacher and textbook publisher) give a useful acronym in their book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. They say memorable ideas are

Examining these keys for “SUCCESs” via Seinfeld’s spotlight fiasco provides a lens for considering the ways language/writing can be a resource for doing more and being heard and making a contribution that’s remembered.

Key Takeaways

Stories can be used in any kind of writing. In Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, Chip and Dan Heath give a simple model writers can follow using the S.U.C.C.E.S(s) acronym.

Simple: The writing should focus on a single core idea.

Unexpected: The writer can lead with a surprising fact that catches the reader’s interest. Some writing instructors call this unexpected element a “hook” because a surprising element can catch readers’ interest.

Concrete: Abstract ideas can be difficult for readers to grasp. Writers should use imagery, description, and concrete examples to help the reader visualize the story.

Credible: While in fiction, a good story can include all kinds of supernatural or fantastical, in nonfiction writing, writing should be believable.

Emotional: Connecting readers to a single individual case can be more effective than burying them with specifics. For example, researchers have shown that people are more likely to donate to a single person than to an entire region.

Story-based: Stories can move readers to action. In an argument essay, for example, a writer could consider starting and ending the essay with a story that connects the reader to the issue.


Consider the simplicity of Seinfeld’s response. He stopped. He focused his gaze at the origin of the spotlight. He took a direct approach. And he kept it concise. He could have gone into a drawn-out rant, venting anger instead of appealing to the audience. Instead, he kept his grievance simple and funny.

We can’t always be brief, but we can stay focused. Notice how the first four paragraphs of this article give only details relevant to the spotlight story. The anecdote avoids digressions about the weather or other parts of the show or the charity the ticket money supported. It sticks to only what’s needed to make the story stick with the audience. We can do the same in any genre. Selecting and maintaining a simple focus ties everything into one tidy, memorable package.


It’s also important to know that comedy thrives on irony—or in other words, the unexpected. The more unpredictable the punchline, the bigger the laughs.

“I’m sixty-one years old!” was unexpected on two levels. First, what did that have to do with a defective spotlight? Juxtaposition, in which you compare things that seem unrelated, can be a great tool for creating irony. Second, in American culture, we don’t expect an older person to blurt out his age, which doubled the element of surprise.

But how much does unexpectedness matter outside of comedy? We might be surprised. The human brain is programmed to dismiss what it already understands but perk up when startled by something new. Awareness of that unfamiliar thing might improve chances of survival, so our minds snap to attention. Writers who incorporate the unexpected in strategic ways—with a shocking statistic in a report or a fresh take on a classic recipe or an unheard-of position on a controversial subject—are more likely to hook their audience. Without such surprise, our chances of being memorable are low.


Masters of language also recognize that all external input comes in five tangible forms: sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell. The mind connects concrete input, such as a citrusy scent, to previous knowledge, like Grandma’s grapefruit trees, while abstract ideas often vaporize.

By gesturing at the spotlight and emphasizing his turn and step, Seinfeld gave the audience features to see. Written descriptions do that too: gold balconies, crystal chandeliers, adults fidgeting in cushioned seats. The marvel of language is that it can conjure images in our minds even without pictures and let us hear things even when the words are read silently, like how the direct quotes make Seinfeld’s voice come alive. The same is true with the other senses. For example, mentioning stomachs cramping and lungs gasping invites us to feel the audience’s physical response.

When instructors say, “Show, don’t tell,” this is what they mean. Telling is weaker because it gives a secondhand report: how it was a classy concert hall where nobody would expect crappy equipment, how Seinfeld griped about the spotlight, how everyone thought it was really funny. On the other hand, showing with concrete details means readers experience firsthand input and draw their own stronger conclusions.

What about when writers aren’t telling a story? Regardless of genre, concrete ideas are easier for people to grasp. We might not comprehend a blue whale’s thirty-meter length, but tell us that’s more than two school buses and we can picture it. It’s better to make details tangible.


What about the biggest aspect in Seinfeld’s favor—his reputation? The audience came because they love him, and they were prepared to laugh at anything he said. But even people who aren’t famous can still use credibility to their advantage.

One way is to borrow fame, as this article does by showcasing a celebrity. Take advantage of any impressive sources. Was the study done by Harvard? Is the quote from a renowned authority? Mention those bragging rights the way this article drops “legendary comedian” into the first paragraph and credits a Stanford professor and a textbook publisher for the SUCCESs acronym. Don’t just bury that validity in the citations at the end.

Writers can also buy cred by touting their own expertise: experiences with the topic, relevant places they’ve worked or volunteered, observations that sharpened their perspective, surveys or interviews they’ve done, classes they’ve taken, even their age. Being a sixty-one-year-old über-successful comedian is impressive, and maybe being an eighteen-year-old college newbie or a thirty-five-year-old returning student will affect the audience’s opinion too. Weigh possible credentials against the writing situation and include ones that will give it the best boost.


Seinfeld used emotion when he asked the spotlight person, “How hard can it be?” He gave voice to everyone’s frustrations, as if speaking collectively.

Projecting emotion is important but tricky. Good writers don’t want to overdo it, and they don’t want to use fallacious or unethical approaches, such as fear mongering. Done well, emotional appeals can have a powerful lingering effect. We recall how entertaining a comedian was even after we forget the jokes. We relive the wave of pity from a photo we saw of a shelter dog. We revisit the excitement of a thrilling solution we read in a recent proposal. Emotions last.

Aim for the kind of vibe that best fits the audience and purpose, and find effective ways to solicit those emotions. Choose details that summon the right mood, just as gold leaf and Bohemian crystals convey the classy feel of Abravanel Hall. Pick words that match the seriousness or humor, like how the spotlight “lurched” and everyone “roared.” Add colors, photos, or other visuals that correspond, such as Seinfeld’s memorably amusing snapshot above—perfect for an article about memorability via comedy.


Most crucially of all, tell a story. It’s one of the best ways to appeal to emotion—and appeal to humans. Think how quickly a sad story can make the audience teary or a silly one can make them laugh. Think how closely people listen when a story is told.

Some people assume storytelling is only for memoirs or fiction writing or movies, but in reality, stories are everywhere. This instructional article employed the story about Seinfeld to make several points, and even Seinfeld’s short bit follows a story shape:

HOOK ― stops, gestures at the back
CONFLICT ― “What’s the deal with the spotlight?”
COMPLICATIONS ― “I’m sixty-one years old! How hard can it be?”
EPIPHANY ― “Look, I’ll tell you what I’ll do: I’ll face the direction I’m going to walk.”
CLIMAX ― exaggerated turn and step
RESOLUTION ― spotlight jerks, audience roars

The best story type for each piece of writing will depend on its situation and purpose and audience, but using miniature stories like the spotlight tale can be a great method for highlighting a writer’s subject in a memorable way. Writers also use the story-arc sequence—hook the audience, spell out the conflict, outline complications, reveal an epiphany, stage a climax, and grant resolution—in all kinds of genres to engage readers with the tension of waiting for resolution. Audiences love it, just as Seinfeld’s audience melted into laughter.

[For more on integrating story techniques, check out “Adding the Storyteller’s Tools to Your Writer’s Toolbox,” “Movies Explain the World of Writing,” or “The Narrative Effect.”]


The twitchy spotlight never improved during that January show. Its glow continued to bumble across the stage like an intoxicated firefly. But as far as Seinfeld and his audience were concerned, the situation had been resolved by converting it into humor.

That’s the power of language to do things, be things, and make things in the world. That’s the power our writing can have when we master language/writing as a resource.

[For even more insight, check out the Heath brothers’ book Made to Stick.]

Works Cited

Heath, Chip and Dan Heath. Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. New York: Random House, 2007.

Your Hero’s Journey: Telling Stories that Matter


Liza Long

Your Hero’s Journey: Telling Stories that Matter

By Liza Long

I teach a popular online course at the College of Western Idaho called “Survey of World Mythology.”[1] Every semester, my students start the course thinking that they are going to learn about Zeus, Hera, and maybe Thor—and in all fairness, Thor is why I initially wanted to teach the course.

About three weeks in, we get to the part where I introduce Jesus as just one of many examples from world religions of the “dying god” archetype, and there’s the delicious sound of young minds being blown. “What? We’re reading Christian scriptures as myths?” Well, yes.

Stories, wherever they come from, have power. Stories can shape our cultures—and our individual stories can shape our values and our sense of meaning in a world that might otherwise feel like pure chaos.

A possibly spurious[2] quote attributed to British novelist John Gardner famously asserts that there are only two basic stories in the entire world: the hero’s journey, and a stranger walks into town.  Today, we’re going to talk about the first kind of story.

In my world mythology class, I spend an entire unit on the hero’s journey. This universal archetype, a story that exists across all world cultures, was described by anthropologist Joseph Campbell in his seminal 1949 work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. The book heavily influenced George Lucas—so I guess we have Campbell to thank for Star Wars (well, at least the good movies, the ones that you all know as four, five, and six)[3].

What is it about the hero’s journey that makes it such a powerful story for pretty much every human being?

Joseph Campbell outlines 17 stages of his monomyth[4]—but we’ll be here all day if we try to get through all of them, and I know some of you have a life outside of class. So I’d like to focus on just three elements of the hero’s journey and consider how these elements apply to the stories we are telling about ourselves in the world, right now:

Let’s Start with Answering the Call.

Here you are, minding your own business. Maybe you’re working a desk job. Maybe you are surrounded by small children who are continually asking you “why?” and demanding peanut butter and honey sandwiches. Maybe you’re a modern day Jonah, preaching to people who comfortably agree with you, your Facebook friends, your book club group, your liberal or conservative friends.

Suddenly, everything changes. The telephone rings. An email hits your inbox. You see a social media message from a long-lost high school friend.

Campbell says that the call to adventure is:

to a forest, a kingdom underground, beneath the waves, or above the sky, a secret island, lofty mountaintop, or profound dream state; but it is always a place of strangely fluid and polymorphous beings, unimaginable torments, super human deeds, and impossible delight. The hero can go forth of his own volition to accomplish the adventure, as did Theseus when he arrived in his father’s city, Athens, and heard the horrible history of the Minotaur; or he may be carried or sent abroad by some benign or malignant agent as was Odysseus, driven about the Mediterranean by the winds of the angered god, Poseidon. The adventure may begin as a mere blunder… or still again, one may be only casually strolling when some passing phenomenon catches the wandering eye and lures one away from the frequented paths of man.”[5]

When did the call come to you? How did you answer?

If you’re like me, the call has come many times, and I’ve answered in different ways. Sometimes I’ve been like Jonah—Run away! Sometimes I’ve proudly crossed the thresholds and stormed the barricades. But my most important calls have been the last kind Campbell describes—the calling by accident. When an anonymous blog I wrote about parenting a child who had a then undiagnosed mental illness, titled “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother,”[6] went suddenly viral in 2012, I wanted to run away. But I answered the call. I put my name on the story and told our family’s truth about just how hard it is to raise a child who has mental illness, without a village to support us.

Think for a moment about an accident in your life that in hindsight, changed everything. What truths do you need to tell?

Next, let’s look at the Belly of the Whale.

This idea comes straight from the Judeo-Christian tradition and the story of Jonah and the whale. I think it’s important to remember that, like Jonah, whether or not we accept the call, we can and probably will still end up in the fish’s belly at some point in our lives.

But it’s not as bad as you think. In fact, Campbell describes the image as one of rebirth. He says:

The hero… is swallowed into the unknown and would appear to have died. This popular motif gives emphasis to the lesson that the passage of the threshold is a form of self-annihilation. Instead of passing outward, beyond the confines of the visible world, the hero goes inward, to be born again.[7]

The belly of the whale is where we have to do the hard work that accepting the call requires of us. I suspect that it’s where many of us are right now.

According to NBC News:

Across America today, rates of depression and anxiety are rising dramatically. A 2018 Blue Cross study found that depression diagnosis rates had increased by 33% since 2013—and that’s for people who have health insurance. Our teenagers are especially hard hit, with experts blaming everything from social media to video games to the loss of community.[8]

In the belly of the whale, we are alone, and we feel helpless. Do you feel helpless right now? Does the endless and exhausting news cycle—children in cages, women’s reproductive rights under threat, journalists murdered, migrant caravans—feel overwhelming to you?

I think that collectively, what we’re really experiencing is a cultural belly of the whale. We wanted something different for our country, and for ourselves. We wanted the American Dream, but now we just have to pay the bills, and we are tired.

That’s why we have to learn to write and revise our stories. We’ll be reborn, and we’ll tell the tale. But right now, we may not know what the meaning of this story is, to ourselves, to our communities, or to our nation. Rebirth isn’t easy.

Finally, let’s look at the Ultimate Boon and Freedom to Live.

The ultimate boon is that grand meaning of life that we are searching for—but it may not turn out to be what we think it will be.

In fact, sometimes we don’t know what the meaning is until we sit down later, like Tolkien’s Bilbo Baggins, to tell our story of “There and Back Again.” The act of telling may in itself help us to discover what the story’s point is.

Campbell says:

What the hero seeks through his intercourse with [the gods and goddesses] is therefore not finally themselves, but their grace, i.e., the power of their sustaining substance. This is the miraculous energy of the thunderbolts of Zeus, Yahweh, and the Supreme Buddha, the fertility of the rain of Viracocha, the virtue announced by the bell rung in the Mass at the consecration, and the light of the ultimate illumination of the saint and sage.[9]

Ultimately, I think what the story of Jonah and the Whale tells us is that we can run but we can’t hide from our calling, so we may as well find some ultimate boon in it. For me, that boon is the freedom to live without fear

What are you afraid of?

Whether we admit it or not, first and foremost, the greatest fear for most of us is the fear of death.

Campbell’s hero conquers death by understanding that, as the Latin poet Ovid wrote in his Metamorphoses, “Nothing retains its own form; but Nature, the greater renewer, ever makes up forms from forms…. Nothing perishes in the whole universe; it does but vary and renew its form.’ Thus the next moment is permitted to come to pass.”[10]

In other words, fear not: Death is change, not end. This is the point of most major stories about endings and beginnings, and for the hero, this knowledge is the ultimate freedom.

But now, a warning! We have to be careful how we use our stories.

This impulse to tell stories can be a powerful force for good—but also for evil. As one example, the Nazis were really good at telling stories that gave life meaning—at the expense of 14-year old Anne Frank and six million other innocent people. Stories—especially overly simplified ones–can be dangerous. Don’t think for a minute that it can’t happen here.

In her popular TED talk, “The Danger of a Single Story,”[11] Nigerian author and feminist Chimamanda Ngoze Adichie observes:

The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story. . . . The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.[12]

Do you tell yourself stories that contain stereotypes? I know I do.

The Atlantic Monthly’s psychology editor, Julie Beck, makes the same point in her article, “Life’s Stories.” She writes:

The redemption story is American optimism—things will get better!—and American exceptionalism—I can make things better!—and it’s in the water, in the air, and in our heads. This is actually a good thing a lot of the time. Studies have shown that finding a positive meaning in negative events is linked to a more complex sense of self and greater life satisfaction.

The trouble comes when redemption isn’t possible. The redemptive American tale is one of privilege, and for those who can’t control their circumstances, and have little reason to believe things will get better, it can be an illogical and unattainable choice. There are things that happen to people that cannot be redeemed.[13]

In other words, we need to understand that our story is not the only story—and that the stories we hear about others, maybe even about people on the opposite side of the political spectrum, are also not the whole story, or the only story.

Listening to others’ stories, especially stories from marginalized people, is at least as important as telling our own, maybe more—and social media doesn’t make it easy to listen and learn. We have to look for what psychologists refer to as disconfirming information—stories that challenge our assumptions about the way the world works.

This brings me to the last point I want to make.

We Need to Revise and Retell Our Stories

Sometimes we don’t know the meaning of our stories until years later. Sometimes we have to rewrite our old stories to accommodate a new narrative. This task—telling stories that matter—is not accomplished in a single draft. It is, in fact, the work of a lifetime.

Julie Beck notes that how we tell, revise, and retell our stories affects who we are and how we see ourselves. She writes,

In telling the story of how you became who you are, and of who you’re on your way to becoming, the story itself becomes a part of who you are…. Storytelling, then—fictional or nonfictional, realistic or embellished with dragons—is a way of making sense of the world around us.[14]

What are the themes of your hero’s journey? What calls have you answered? Would you answer them differently today?

Finally, if you’ve found the ultimate boon and the freedom to live, congratulations! Also, I’m sorry. Ten years ago, I thought I had everything figured out, too, and I was pretty smug about it. Spoiler alert: I didn’t have it all figured out, and now I enjoy the freedom of not having all the answers.

Fortunately, as Beck says,

A life story is written in chalk, not ink, and it can be changed. Whether it’s with the help of therapy, in the midst of an identity crisis, when you’ve been chasing a roadrunner of foreshadowing towards a tunnel that turns out to be painted on a wall, or slowly, methodically, day by day—like with all stories, there’s power in rewriting.[15]

In the end, there’s no right or wrong story, no best path. There’s your story. How will you answer the call? How will you escape the belly of the whale? What will you tell us about freedom to live when you return from your journey? The story may change 1000 times, and the hero may have 1000 faces, but in the end, your hero’s journey is just that: yours. Tell, retell, and most importantly, live your truth.


[1] I will be teaching ENGL 215: Survey of World Mythology in the spring of 2019 if you’re interested! More information about the course can be found here: https://catalog.cwidaho.cc/course-descriptions/engl/

[2] For a history of this quote and its attribution, see https://quoteinvestigator.com/2015/05/06/two-plots/

[3] For more information on how Campbell influenced Lucas, see this link: https://www.starwars.com/news/mythic-discovery-within-the-inner-reaches-of-outer-space-joseph-campbell-meets-george-lucas-part-i

[4] Here’s a link to the Joseph Campbell Foundation, where an overview of his life and work can be found https://www.jcf.org/

[5] Campbell, Hero with a Thousand Faces, p. 48

[6] Link to the viral essay at The Blue Review here: https://thebluereview.org/i-am-adam-lanzas-mother/ and to my blog here: www.anarchistsoccermom.blogspot.com

[7]Campbell, Hero with a Thousand Faces, p. 77

[8]Statistics on depression from https://www.nbcnews.com/health/health-news/major-depression-rise-among-everyone-new-data-shows-n873146

[9] Campbell, Hero with a Thousand Faces, p. 155

[10] Ovid Metamorphoses, quoted in Campbell, Hero with a Thousand Faces, p. 209

[11] The link to Adichie’s TED talk is here: https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story  .

[12] The quote was taken from this transcript: https://ngl.cengage.com/21centuryreading/resources/sites/default/files/B3_TG_AT7_0.pdf

[13] Julie Beck’s article, “Life’s Stories,” can be found here: https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/08/life-stories-narrative-psychology-redemption-mental-health/400796/

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

“Your Hero’s Journey” by Liza Long is licensed CC BY 4.0

Personal Narrative Assignments


Descriptive Personal Narrative                

To synthesize what you’ve learned about description, narration, and reflection, you will write a personal narrative. This is generally a nonfiction, prose essay (similar to a memoir), but your instructor might provide additional guidelines in regard to genre, media, approach, or assessment standards.

Your task is to identify an influential place, event, or person from your life experience about which you can tell a story. Then, you will write a narrative essay that relates that story and considers the impact it had on you, your worldview, and/or your life path. Using model texts in this book as exemplars, you will tell a story (narrate) using vivid description and draw out meaning and insight using reflection.

As you’ll evaluate below, descriptive personal narratives have a variety of purposes. One important one is to share a story that stands in for a bigger idea. Do not be worried if you don’t know the “bigger idea” yet, but be advised that your final draft will narrate a focused, specific moment that represents something about who you are, how you got here, what you believe, or what you strive to be.

Literacy Narrative

Think about your experience reading and writing. Did you want to learn, or was it simply expected of you? Did you in any way teach yourself, or did you learn from a schoolteacher or a relative? What book or other text has been significant to you? Is there a particular writing or reading task that you found challenging?  Write a literacy narrative, reflecting on a significant moment in your writing and/or reading experience. This experience can be from childhood or from the more recent past. As you write, keep in mind the following key features of a literacy narrative: vivid detail, well-told story, some indication of the narrative’s significance.

Be sure to apply the concepts you learn in class to your writing.

Before you begin, consider your rhetorical situation:

















How will this influence the way you write?









How will this influence the way you write?






















How will this influence the way you write?





How will this influence the way you write?





Writing a Personal Narrative

By E. Anderson

This writing project was originally used in conjunction with The Slave Narrative of Frederick Douglass. Note that this is not an entire lesson plan, but a segment that includes a basic rubric.  

Getting Started SlideRocket

This presentation walks students through the process of writing a personal narrative. It introduces and defines the essential characteristics of personal narratives. The following items are reviewed with regard to writing personal narratives:


Personal Narrative Basic Rubric

Grading Criteria for Personal Narrative
Max Score Description
–/3 (Focus) Personal narrative has a narrative effect. (A narrative effect is the main point of your story—the moral, the message, or the insight you offer.)
–/3 (Development) Personal narrative has details and depth. The setting is used to immerse the reader into the narrative. Narrative focuses on one or two key scenes.The rest of the story is filled in using a method of summary.
–/3 (Organization) Narrative has a clear exposition, conflict, and resolution.
–/5 (Style) Narrative shows, not tells; uses expensive words; uses sensory details; active, not passive; uses figurative language; consistent point of view
–/3 (Mechanics) Personal narrative is free of glaring mechanical and grammatical errors (comma splices, sentence fragments, punctuation, capitalization,run-on sentences, etc.)
–/4 Personal Narrative exhibits quality work.
–/4 (Appearance) Personal narrative is approximately 3 pages, double spaced, titled,12 point font, and written in a Google doc that gives instructor editing rights.

Pre -Writing

You are going to be doing a fast write to brainstorm/pre-write for your personal narrative. Recall that a personal narrative is a personal story that you share with your audience in order to make a point or to convey a message. The strongest and most poignant personal narratives often result from writing about something ordinary. You may write about the common, but make it uncommon.When thinking about writing a personal narrative remember that it is not just what happens but what you, the author, makes of what happens.

Here are some questions to review before you begin your personal narrative free-write.

Allow students to use an online timer for their freewrite.  HERE is a link to one of many online timers.

Peer Editing

This type of peer editing was originally meant to be used in a discussion thread format in an online course. However, these are the questions that peer editors were specifically asked to address in detail. (This was in addition to grammatical and mechanical errors.)

What was the NARRATIVE EFFECT? (Recall that the narrative effect is the main point of the story–the moral, the message, or the insight that the writer offers.)

Find an element of STYLE that the writer used well. (show, not tell, sensory language, diction, figurative language, point of view, expressive words, etc.)

Name one thing that the writer could do to improve this personal narrative.

Self Editing

Students were asked to (1) read their personal narrative out loud and (2) use paperrater.com.  This is a free web tool that proofreads, checks grammar and offers writing suggestions.

Student Samples

HERE is one student sample of a personal narrative. You will notice that it has an additional rubric at the end.

Professional Narrative Essay Examples


Personal Narratives by Professional Writers

More Examples of Personal Narratives

Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives – The DALN is an open public resource made up of stories from people just like you about their experiences learning to read, write, and generally communicate with the world around them.

I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother

by Liza Long

A young boy holds a butterfly. The boy has an undiagnosed mental illness.
The author’s son, age 7. Image used by permission.

Three days before 20 year-old Adam Lanza killed his mother, then opened fire on a classroom full of Connecticut kindergartners, my 13-year old son Michael (name changed) missed his bus because he was wearing the wrong color pants.

“I can wear these pants,” he said, his tone increasingly belligerent, the black-hole pupils of his eyes swallowing the blue irises.

“They are navy blue,” I told him. “Your school’s dress code says black or khaki pants only.”

“They told me I could wear these,” he insisted. “You’re a stupid bitch. I can wear whatever pants I want to. This is America. I have rights!”

“You can’t wear whatever pants you want to,” I said, my tone affable, reasonable. “And you definitely cannot call me a stupid bitch. You’re grounded from electronics for the rest of the day. Now get in the car, and I will take you to school.”

I live with a son who is mentally ill. I love my son. But he terrifies me.

A few weeks ago, Michael pulled a knife and threatened to kill me and then himself after I asked him to return his overdue library books. His 7 and 9 year old siblings knew the safety plan — they ran to the car and locked the doors before I even asked them to. I managed to get the knife from Michael, then methodically collected all the sharp objects in the house into a single Tupperware container that now travels with me. Through it all, he continued to scream insults at me and threaten to kill or hurt me.

That conflict ended with three burly police officers and a paramedic wrestling my son onto a gurney for an expensive ambulance ride to the local emergency room. The mental hospital didn’t have any beds that day, and Michael calmed down nicely in the ER, so they sent us home with a prescription for Zyprexa and a follow-up visit with a local pediatric psychiatrist.

We still don’t know what’s wrong with Michael. Autism spectrum, ADHD, Oppositional Defiant or Intermittent Explosive Disorder have all been tossed around at various meetings with probation officers and social workers and counselors and teachers and school administrators. He’s been on a slew of antipsychotic and mood altering pharmaceuticals, a Russian novel of behavioral plans. Nothing seems to work.

At the start of seventh grade, Michael was accepted to an accelerated program for highly gifted math and science students. His IQ is off the charts. When he’s in a good mood, he will gladly bend your ear on subjects ranging from Greek mythology to the differences between Einsteinian and Newtonian physics to Doctor Who. He’s in a good mood most of the time. But when he’s not, watch out. And it’s impossible to predict what will set him off.

Several weeks into his new junior high school, Michael began exhibiting increasingly odd and threatening behaviors at school. We decided to transfer him to the district’s most restrictive behavioral program, a contained school environment where children who can’t function in normal classrooms can access their right to free public babysitting from 7:30-1:50 Monday through Friday until they turn 18.

The morning of the pants incident, Michael continued to argue with me on the drive. He would occasionally apologize and seem remorseful. Right before we turned into his school parking lot, he said, “Look, Mom, I’m really sorry. Can I have video games back today?”

“No way,” I told him. “You cannot act the way you acted this morning and think you can get your electronic privileges back that quickly.”

His face turned cold, and his eyes were full of calculated rage. “Then I’m going to kill myself,” he said. “I’m going to jump out of this car right now and kill myself.”

That was it. After the knife incident, I told him that if he ever said those words again, I would take him straight to the mental hospital, no ifs, ands, or buts. I did not respond, except to pull the car into the opposite lane, turning left instead of right.

“Where are you taking me?” he said, suddenly worried. “Where are we going?”

“You know where we are going,” I replied.

“No! You can’t do that to me! You’re sending me to hell! You’re sending me straight to hell!”

I pulled up in front of the hospital, frantically waiving for one of the clinicians who happened to be standing outside. “Call the police,” I said. “Hurry.”

Michael was in a full-blown fit by then, screaming and hitting. I hugged him close so he couldn’t escape from the car. He bit me several times and repeatedly jabbed his elbows into my rib cage. I’m still stronger than he is, but I won’t be for much longer.

The police came quickly and carried my son screaming and kicking into the bowels of the hospital. I started to shake, and tears filled my eyes as I filled out the paperwork — “Were there any difficulties with… at what age did your child… were there any problems with.. has your child ever experienced.. does your child have…”

At least we have health insurance now. I recently accepted a position with a local college, giving up my freelance career because when you have a kid like this, you need benefits. You’ll do anything for benefits. No individual insurance plan will cover this kind of thing.

For days, my son insisted that I was lying — that I made the whole thing up so that I could get rid of him. The first day, when I called to check up on him, he said, “I hate you. And I’m going to get my revenge as soon as I get out of here.”

By day three, he was my calm, sweet boy again, all apologies and promises to get better. I’ve heard those promises for years. I don’t believe them anymore.

On the intake form, under the question, “What are your expectations for treatment?” I wrote, “I need help.”

And I do. This problem is too big for me to handle on my own. Sometimes there are no good options. So you just pray for grace and trust that in hindsight, it will all make sense.

I am sharing this story because I am Adam Lanza’s mother. I am Dylan Klebold’s and Eric Harris’s mother. I am James Holmes’s mother. I am Jared Loughner’s mother. I am Seung-Hui Cho’s mother. And these boys—and their mothers—need help. In the wake of another horrific national tragedy, it’s easy to talk about guns. But it’s time to talk about mental illness.

According to Mother Jones, since 1982, 61 mass murders involving firearms have occurred throughout the country. Of these, 43 of the killers were white males, and only one was a woman. Mother Jones focused on whether the killers obtained their guns legally (most did). But this highly visible sign of mental illness should lead us to consider how many people in the U.S. live in fear, like I do.

When I asked my son’s social worker about my options, he said that the only thing I could do was to get Michael charged with a crime. “If he’s back in the system, they’ll create a paper trail,” he said. “That’s the only way you’re ever going to get anything done. No one will pay attention to you unless you’ve got charges.”

I don’t believe my son belongs in jail. The chaotic environment exacerbates Michael’s sensitivity to sensory stimuli and doesn’t deal with the underlying pathology. But it seems like the United States is using prison as the solution of choice for mentally ill people. According to Human Rights Watch, the number of mentally ill inmates in U.S. prisons quadrupled from 2000 to 2006, and it continues to rise — in fact, the rate of inmate mental illness is five times greater (56 percent) than in the non-incarcerated population.

With state-run treatment centers and hospitals shuttered, prison is now the last resort for the mentally ill — Rikers Island, the LA County Jail and Cook County Jail in Illinois housed the nation’s largest treatment centers in 2011.

No one wants to send a 13-year old genius who loves Harry Potter and his snuggle animal collection to jail. But our society, with its stigma on mental illness and its broken healthcare system, does not provide us with other options. Then another tortured soul shoots up a fast food restaurant. A mall. A kindergarten classroom. And we wring our hands and say, “Something must be done.”

I agree that something must be done. It’s time for a meaningful, nation-wide conversation about mental health. That’s the only way our nation can ever truly heal.

God help me. God help Michael. God help us all.

This essay, originally published at The Anarchist Soccer Mom, is licensed CC BY NC  ND 4.0. Liza Long is an Assistant Professor of English at the College of Western Idaho. Her book, The Price of Silence: A Mom’s Perspective on Mental Illness, was a 2014 “Books for a Better Life” winner. Liza’s essays have appeared in USA Today, Time.com, Huffington Post,  MindBodyGreen, and other places. She blogs on children’s mental health issues at 1in5Minds.org. 

Student Narrative Essay Examples


The Pot Calling the Kettle Black…

Essay by an anonymous student author, 2017. Reproduced with permission from the student author.

“You aren’t acting normal,” my dad said with a dopy, concerned look on his face. He was a hard-working, soft and loving man. He was smaller than my mother, physically and figuratively. She sat beside him. She had a towering stature, with strong, swimmers’ shoulders, but she was hunched often. She didn’t really have eyebrows, but she didn’t need them. She had no problem conveying emotion on her face, especially negative ones.

“What’s wrong?” my mother asked. She took my hand frantically. Not the way one might take someone’s hand to connect with or comfort them. She needed reassurance more than I did.

My parents were sitting across from me on cushioned, bland-colored chairs in my dad’s office, while I sat on a rickety, torturous wooden chair. My dad’s office generally utilized natural light due to the expansive glass windows that allowed the light to drown the room, enclosing us in the chamber. I felt like an inmate being prepped for lethal injection. The weather was particularly gray and dismal. Perhaps it was the ambiguous, gray, confusing feelings I was breathing through. My parents had somewhat regular “interventions” to address my somewhat regular (sometimes public) emotional breakdowns, my self-medicating habits, and my general shitty attitude.

This week in particular, I had purposely destroyed two of my mother’s collectible horses. She had a maniacal obsession for them. She also maniacally collected sunflower artwork, which was the one obsession, of many, I found endearing. My old babysitter noted at one point there were 74 collectible horses in the house. After my outburst, there were 72.

I could see behind my parents, through the glass-paned door, my two younger sisters were secretly observing the altercation from the dining room, hiding under the table. They were illuminated by the ominous weather, which was also watching in on the dismal conversation through the windows. I was envious, jealous even, of my spectating sisters. My sisters didn’t have overflowing, excessive emotions. They didn’t have emotions that were considered “excessive.” I felt like an offender being put at the stocks: my parents were the executioners, and my sisters were the jesters.

“I’m angry.”

“What about?” my dad asked, puzzled. “Did someone do something to you?”

“Honey, were you—” my mother looked to my dad, then concealed her mouth slightly with the other hand, “raped?”

I couldn’t help but raise my voice. “No, Mom, I wasn’t raped, Jesus.” I took a moment to grind on my teeth and imagine the bit I was chomping at. Calm, careful, composed, I responded. “I’m just angry. I don’t feel—”

“What don’t you feel?” She practically jumped on me, while yanking my imprisoned hand toward her. She yanked at my reins.

“I don’t feel understood!” My mind was bucking. I didn’t know why I needed to react by raising my voice. It felt instinctive, defensive. Shouting forcefully, I jerked my hand away from her, but it remained in her clutches. I didn’t feel satisfied saying it, though what I said was the truth.

“What are you talking about?” my dad asked mournfully. I knew he felt betrayed. But he didn’t understand. He didn’t know what it’s like for things to be too much. Or to be too much. My dad looked at me longingly, hoping I would correct what I had said. He looked lost, incapable of understanding why I was doing what I was doing. My mother interjected, cutting off my dad’s hypnotic, silent cry for connection.

“You’re crazy!” she said, maintaining eye contact. My mother then let go of my hand, flipped it back to me. She reclined in her chair, retracting from me and the discussion entirely. She crossed her legs, then her arms. She turned her head away, toward the glass windows, and (mentally) left.


I was and am not “too much.”

I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at 18 years old.


I had just stepped off a squealing MAX line onto a broken sidewalk slab, gnarled from tree roots, when I felt my phone buzz rhythmically.

“I need you to come to the hospital. Mom had a little accident.” My dad’s voice was distant and cracking, like a wavering radio signal, calling for help.

“What’s going on? Is she okay?” I asked while making my way to campus.

“Where are you?” He wasn’t going to tell me anything over the phone. Adrenaline set in. I let him know I was downtown and headed to campus, but that I would catch a Lyft to wherever they were. “We’re at Milwaukie Providence. How soon can you get here?

“I’ll let you know soon.” My assumption was that my parents had been in an argument, my mother left the house in a rage, and crashed her car. She’d been an erratic driver for as long as I could remember, and my parents had been arguing more than usual recently, as many new “empty-nesters” do. The lack of information provided by my dad, however, was unsettling. I don’t really recall the ride to the hospital. I do remember looking over the river while riding from the west to east side of town. I remember the menacing, dark clouds rolling in faster than the driver could transport me. I remember it was quick, but it was too much time spent without answers.

When I arrived at Providence, I jumped out of the sedan and galloped into the lobby of the emergency room like a race horse on its final lap. My younger sister and Dad were seated on cushioned, bland-colored chairs in the waiting room. There were expansive glass windows that allowed the light to drown the room. The weather was particularly gray and dismal. Perhaps it was the ambiguous, gray, confusing feelings I was breathing through. I sat down beside my dad, in a firmer-than-anticipated waiting room chair beside him. He took my hand frantically. He took it in the way one might take someone’s hand to connect with or comfort them. He needed reassurance more than I did.

“Where did she get in the accident?” I asked.

My sister, sitting across from me with her head in her knees, looked up at me with aquamarine, tear-filled eyes. She was staring through me, an unclouded window. “Mom tried to kill herself.”

“What?” My voice crescendoed from a normal volume to a shriek in the span of a single word. My mind felt like it was bucking. I grabbed at my hair, pulling it back tight with my spare hand. The tears and cries reared, no matter how hard I yanked my mane.

“We got in another argument this morning, and she sent me a message saying she didn’t want to be in pain anymore. She told me to tell you girls she’s sorry. I’m so sorry.” I’d never seen my dad cry before; I didn’t know he could. I didn’t know his tears would stream like gushing water from a broken dam. He looked lost, incapable of understanding why she was doing what she was doing. I looked from my dad to my sister to my hands. One hand remained enveloped by my dad’s gentle palm. At this point in life, I had not yet learned to be gentle with myself, or others. I cut off my dad’s hypnotic, silent cry for connection.

“She’s crazy!” I let go of my dad’s hand, flipped it back to him. I reclined in the

chair, retracting from the situation entirely. I crossed my legs, then my arms. I turned my head away, toward the glass windows, and (mentally) left.


“Crazy” is a term devised to dismiss people.

My mother was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at 50 years old.

Teacher Takeaways

“This essay makes excellent use of repetition as a narrative strategy. Throughout the essay, terms and phrases are repeated, generally with slight alterations, drawing the reader’s attention to the moment in question and recontextualizing the information being conveyed. This strategy is especially powerful when used to disclose the separate diagnoses of bipolar disorder, which is central to the narrative. I also appreciate the use of dialogue, though it mostly serves an expository function here. In itself that’s effective, but this narrative would be strengthened if that dialogue could serve to make some of the characters, especially the mother, more rounded.”

– Professor Dunham

My College Education

The following essay, “My College Education” is from Chapter 15.2 – Narrative Essay, Writing for Success, University of Minnesota Libraries.

The first class I went to in college was philosophy, and it changed my life forever. Our first assignment was to write a short response paper to the Albert Camus essay “The Myth of Sisyphus.” I was extremely nervous about the assignment as well as college. However, through all the confusion in philosophy class, many of my questions about life were answered.

I entered college intending to earn a degree in engineering. I always liked the way mathematics had right and wrong answers. I understood the logic and was very good at it. So when I received my first philosophy assignment that asked me to write my interpretation of the Camus essay, I was instantly confused. What is the right way to do this assignment, I wondered? I was nervous about writing an incorrect interpretation and did not want to get my first assignment wrong. Even more troubling was that the professor refused to give us any guidelines on what he was looking for; he gave us total freedom. He simply said, “I want to see what you come up with.”

Full of anxiety, I first set out to read Camus’s essay several times to make sure I really knew what was it was about. I did my best to take careful notes. Yet even after I took all these notes and knew the essay inside and out, I still did not know the right answer. What was my interpretation? I could think of a million different ways to interpret the essay, but which one was my professor looking for? In math class, I was used to examples and explanations of solutions. This assignment gave me nothing; I was completely on my own to come up with my individual interpretation.

Next, when I sat down to write, the words just did not come to me. My notes and ideas were all present, but the words were lost. I decided to try every prewriting strategy I could find. I brainstormed, made idea maps, and even wrote an outline. Eventually, after a lot of stress, my ideas became more organized and the words fell on the page. I had my interpretation of “The Myth of Sisyphus,” and I had my main reasons for interpreting the essay. I remember being unsure of myself, wondering if what I was saying made sense, or if I was even on the right track. Through all the uncertainty, I continued writing the best I could. I finished the conclusion paragraph, had my spouse proofread it for errors, and turned it in the next day simply hoping for the best.

Then, a week or two later, came judgment day. The professor gave our papers back to us with grades and comments. I remember feeling simultaneously afraid and eager to get the paper back in my hands. It turned out, however, that I had nothing to worry about. The professor gave me an A on the paper, and his notes suggested that I wrote an effective essay overall. He wrote that my reading of the essay was very original and that my thoughts were well organized. My relief and newfound confidence upon reading his comments could not be overstated.

What I learned through this process extended well beyond how to write a college paper. I learned to be open to new challenges. I never expected to enjoy a philosophy class and always expected to be a math and science person. This class and assignment, however, gave me the self-confidence, critical-thinking skills, and courage to try a new career path. I left engineering and went on to study law and eventually became a lawyer. More important, that class and paper helped me understand education differently. Instead of seeing college as a direct stepping stone to a career, I learned to see college as a place to first learn and then seek a career or enhance an existing career. By giving me the space to express my own interpretation and to argue for my own values, my philosophy class taught me the importance of education for education’s sake. That realization continues to pay dividends every day.

Model Student Essay

Innocence Again

Imagine the sensation of the one split second that you are floating through the air as you were thrown up in the air as a child, that feeling of freedom and carefree spirit as happiness abounds. Looking at the world through innocent eyes, all thoughts and feelings of amazement. Being free, happy, innocent, amazed, wowed. Imagine the first time seeing the colors when your eyes and brain start to recognize them but never being able to name the shade or hue. Looking at the sky as it changes from the blackness with twinkling stars to the lightest shade of blue that is almost white, then the deep red of the sunset and bright orange of the sun. All shades of the spectrum of the rainbow, colors as beautiful as the mind can see or imagine.

I have always loved the sea since I was young; the smell of saltiness in the air invigorates me and reminds me of the times spent with my family enjoying Sundays at the beach. In Singapore, the sea was always murky and green but I continued to enjoy all activities in it. When I went to Malaysia to work, I discovered that the sea was clear and blue and without hesitation, I signed up for a basic diving course and I was hooked. In my first year of diving, I explored all the dive destinations along the east coast of Malaysia and also took an advanced diving course which allowed me to dive up to a depth of thirty meters. Traveling to a dive site took no more than four hours by car and weekends were spent just enjoying the sea again.

Gearing up is no fun. Depending on the temperature of the water, I might put on a shortie, wetsuit or drysuit. Then on come the booties, fins and mask which can be considered the easiest part unless the suit is tight—then it is a hop and pull struggle, which reminds me of how life can be at times. Carrying the steel tank, regulator, buoyancy control device (BCD) and weights is a torture. The heaviest weights that I ever had to use were 110 pounds, equivalent to my body weight; but as I jump in and start sinking into the sea, the contrast to weightlessness hits me. The moment that I start floating in the water, a sense of immense freedom and joy overtakes me.

Growing up, we have to learn the basics: time spent in classes to learn, constantly practicing to improve our skills while safety is ingrained by our parents. In dive classes, I was taught to never panic or do stupid stuff: the same with the lessons that I have learned in life. Panic and over-inflated egos can lead to death, and I have heard it happens all the time. I had the opportunity to go to Antarctica for a diving expedition, but what led to me getting that slot was the death of a very experienced diver who used a drysuit in a tropic climate against all advice. He just overheated and died. Lessons learned in the sea can be very profound, but they contrast the life I live: risk-taker versus risk-avoider. However, when I have perfected it and it is time to be unleashed, it is time to enjoy. I jump in as I would jump into any opportunity, but this time it is into the deep blue sea of wonders.

A sea of wonders waits to be explored. Every journey is different: it can be fast or slow, like how life takes me. The sea decides how it wants to carry me; drifting fast with the currents so that at times, I hang on to the reef and corals like my life depends on it, even though I am taught never to touch anything underwater. The fear I feel when I am speeding along with the current is that I will be swept away into the big ocean, never to be found. Sometimes, I feel like I am not moving at all, kicking away madly until I hyperventilate because the sea is against me with its strong current holding me against my will.

The sea decides what it wants me to see: turtles popping out of the seabed, manta rays gracefully floating alongside, being in the middle of the eye of a barracuda hurricane, a coral shelf as big as a car, a desert of bleached corals, the emptiness of the seabed with not a fish in sight, the memorials of death caused by the December 26 tsunami—a barren sea floor with not a soul or life in sight.

The sea decides what treasures I can discover: a black-tipped shark sleeping in an underwater cavern, a pike hiding from predators in the reef, an octopus under a dead tree trunk that escapes into my buddy’s BCD, colorful mandarin fish mating at sunset, a deadly box jellyfish held in my gloved hands, pygmy seahorses in a fern—so tiny that to discover them is a journey itself.

Looking back, diving has taught me more about life, the ups and downs, the good and bad, and to accept and deal with life’s challenges. Everything I learn and discover underwater applies to the many different aspects of my life. It has also taught me that life is very short: I have to live in the moment or I will miss the opportunities that come my way. I allow myself to forget all my sorrow, despair and disappointments when I dive into the deep blue sea and savor the feelings of peacefulness and calmness. There is nothing around me but fish and corals, big and small. Floating along in silence with only the sound of my breath—inhale and exhale. An array of colors explodes in front of my eyes, colors that I never imagine I will discover again, an underwater rainbow as beautiful as the rainbow in the sky after a storm. As far as my eyes can see, I look into the depth of the ocean with nothing to anchor me. The deeper I get, the darker it turns. From the light blue sky to the deep navy blue, even blackness into the void. As the horizon darkens, the feeding frenzy of the underwater world starts and the watery landscape comes alive. Total darkness surrounds me but the sounds that I can hear are the little clicks in addition to my breathing. My senses overload as I cannot see what is around me, but the sea tells me it is alive and it anchors me to the depth of my soul.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said: “The lover of nature is he whose inward and outward senses are truly adjusted to each other; who has retained the spirit of infancy even into the era of manhood.” … In the presence of nature, a wild delight runs through the man in spite of real sorrows….” The sea and diving have given me a new outlook on life, a different planet where I can float into and enjoy as an adult, a new, different perspective on how it is to be that child again. Time and time again as I enter into the sea, I feel innocent all over again.

Essay by Chris Chan, Portland State University, 2014. Reproduced with permission from the student author.

Resource Videos



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Personal Narratives as Videos

Writing to Inform


Introduction to Informative Writing


Amy Minervini


By Amy Minervini


Exposition is writing that explains, informs, or describes. This type of writing is also known as the informative mode in that the main objective is not to narrate a story or persuade readers of something but rather to convey factual information, including observations and personal/others’ experiences. However, when writing an expository essay, you can include elements from other modes (storytelling, analysis, writer impressions, persuasion, etc.) although these would be secondary aims or even implied. The expository composition is a practical, authentic kind of writing that can stand on its own or serve as the foundation for your more developed research essays.

Key Characteristics

Expository writing generally exhibits the following:

Essay types within this Chapter

Introduction to the General Expository Essay

The following is excerpted from Crystle Bruno’s Commonsense Composition 3.1 Expository Essay

The main aim of an expository essay is to provide an effective explanation of a topic. While a descriptive essay strives to describe a subject or a narrative essay seeks to show personal growth, an expository essay tries to explain a topic or situation. Thus, expository essays are written as if the writer is explaining or clarifying a topic to the reader. Since an expository essay is trying to clarify a topic, it is important that it provides the categories or reasons that support the clarification of the paper. Moreover, these categories and reasons also provide the framework for the organization of the paper.

Components of the expository essay as the parts of a house.

Much like the categories are essential to clarifying the topic, organization is the key to any well-developed essay. When composing your essay, think of its organization as a house, with each component of an essay representing a major part of a house. Just as the foundation provides support on which a house can be built, a thesis represents the foundation upon which to build an essay. The introductory paragraph then functions as both the door and framework for an expository essay. Like a house door, the introductory paragraph must allow the reader to enter into the essay. Additionally, just as walls are built upon the framework of a house, the body paragraphs of an essay are organized around the framework or organizational scheme, presented in the introductory paragraph. The body paragraphs, much like the walls of a house, must be firm, strong and complete. Also, there must always be as many body paragraphs as the framework of the introductory paragraph indicates otherwise your essay will resemble a house that is missing a wall. Finally, an essay must include a conclusion paragraph that tops off the essay much like a roof completes a house. As the roof cements the structure of the house and helps hold the walls in place, the conclusion paragraph must reiterate the points within your body paragraphs and complete an essay.

Although the overall organization of an expository essay is important, you must also understand the organization of each component (the introductory, body and conclusion paragraphs) of your essay. The chart below identifies the essential parts of each component of your essay, explaining the necessary information for each type of paragraph. While the guidelines listed below may feel constrictive, they are merely meant to guide you as a writer. Ultimately, the guidelines should help you write more effectively. The more familiar you become with how to organize an essay, the more energy you can focus on your ideas and your writing. As a result, your writing will improve as your ability to organize your ideas improves. Plus, focusing your energy on your argument and ideas rather than the organization makes your job as a writer more exciting and fun.

Introductory Paragraph:

Body Paragraphs:

Concluding Paragraph:

Introductory Paragraphs

A strong introductory paragraph is crucial to the development of an effective expository essay. Unlike an argumentative essay which takes a stand or forms an opinion about a subject, an expository essay is used when the writer wishes to explain or clarify a topic to the reader. In order to properly explain a topic, an expository essay breaks the topic being addressed into parts, explains each component in relation to the whole and uses each component to justify the explanation of the topic. Thus when writing an introductory paragraph, it is crucial to include the explanation or clarification of the topic and the categories or components used to produce this explanation.

Introductory Paragraph:

Since the success of the paper rests on the introductory paragraph, it is important to understand its essential components. Usually, expository papers fail to provide a clear explanation not because the writer’s lacks explanations or clarifications but rather because the explanations are not properly organized and identified in the introductory paragraph. One of the most important jobs of an introductory paragraph is that it introduces the topic or issue. Most explanations cannot be clarified without at least some background information. Thus, it is essential to provide a foundation for your topic before you begin explaining your topic. For instance, if you wanted to explain what happened at the first Olympic Games, your introductory paragraph would first need to provide background information about how the first games happened. In doing so, you ensure that your audience is as informed about your topic as you are and thus you make it easier for your audience to understand your explanation.

Below is a table describing and explaining the main jobs of the introductory paragraph.

Introductory paragraphs introduce the topic and suggest why it is important.

Example: An analysis of the essay exam results of the new English class shows that the new class format promotes close reading and better essay organization.

This sentence tells the reader both that the topic of the paper will be the benefits of the new English class and that the significance of these benefits is the improvement of close reading and essay organization.

Introductory paragraphs outline the structure of the paper and highlight the main ideas.

Example: Considering the results of the High School Exit Exam, it is apparent that school curriculum is not properly addressing basic math skills such as fractions, percentages and long division.

This sentence indicates that main ideas (fractions, percentages and long division) of the essay and indicates the order in which they will be presented in the body paragraphs.

Introductory paragraphs state the thesis.

Example: California high schools will require all students to take a resume and cover letter writing workshop in order to better prepare them for employment.

This thesis statement indicates the explanation of the paper.

In addition to introducing the topic of your paper, your introductory paragraph also needs to introduce each of the arguments you will cover in your body paragraphs. By providing your audience with an idea of the points or arguments you will make later in your paper, your introductory paragraph serves as a guide map, not only for your audience but also for you. Including your main sub-points in your introduction not only allows your audience to understand where your essay is headed but also helps you as a writer remember how you want to organize your paper. This is especially helpful if you are not writing your essay in one sitting as it allows you to leave and return to your essay without forgetting all of the important points you wanted to make.

             Things to always do               Things to never do
  • Capture the interest of your reader.
  • Introduce the issue to the reader.
  • State the problem simply.
  • Write in an intelligible, concise manner.
  • Refute any counterpoints.
  • State the thesis, preferably in one arguable statement.
  • Provide each of the arguments that will be presented in each of the body paragraphs.
  • Apologize: Do not suggest that you are unfamiliar with the topic.

Example: “I cannot be certain, but…

  • Use sweeping generalizations.

Example: “All men like football…

  • Use a dictionary definition.

Example: “According to the dictionary, a humble person is…

  • Announce your intentions: Do not directly state what you will be writing about.

Example: “In the paper I will…


Most importantly, when writing an introductory paragraph, it is essential to remember that you must capture the interest of your reader. Thus, it is your job as the writer to make the introduction entertaining or intriguing. In order to do so, consider using a quotation, a surprising or interesting fact, an anecdote or a humorous story. While the quotation, story or fact you include must be relevant to your paper, placing one of these at the beginning of your introduction helps you not only capture the attention or the reader but also introduce your topic and argument, making your introduction interesting to your audience and useful for your argument and essay.

Body Paragraphs

In an expository essay the body paragraphs are where the writer has the opportunity to explain or clarify his or her viewpoint. By the conclusion paragraph, the writer should adequately clarify the topic for the reader. Regardless of a strong thesis statement that properly indicates the major sub-topics of the essay, papers with weak body paragraphs fail to properly explain the topic and indicate why it is important. Body paragraphs of an expository essay are weak when no examples are used to help illuminate the topic being discussed or when they are poorly organized. Occasionally, body paragraphs are also weak because the quotes used complicate from rather than simplify the explanation. Thus, it is essential to use appropriate support and to adequately explain your support within your body paragraphs.

In order to create a body paragraph that is properly supported and explained, it is important to understand the components that make up a strong body paragraph. The bullet points below indicate the essential components of a well-written, well-argued body paragraph.

Body Paragraph Components

Just as your introduction must introduce the topic of your essay, the first sentence of a body paragraph must introduce the main sub-point for that paragraph. For instance, if you were writing a body paragraph for a paper explaining the factors that led to US involvement in World War II, one body paragraph could discuss the impact of the Great Depression on the decision to enter the war. To do so, you would begin with a topic sentence that explains how the Great Depression encouraged involvement in the war because the war effort would stimulate certain aspects of the economy. Following this sentence, you would go into more detail and explain how the two events are linked. By placing this idea at the beginning of the paragraph, not only does your audience know what the paragraph is explaining, but you can also keep track of your ideas.

Following the topic sentence, you must provide some sort of fact that supports your claim. In the example of the World War II essay, maybe you would provide a quote from a historian or from a prominent history teacher or researcher. After your quote or fact, you must always explain what the quote or fact is saying, stressing what you believe is most important about your fact. It is important to remember that your audience may read a quote and decide it is indicating something entirely different than what you think it is explaining. Or, maybe some or your readers think another aspect of your quote is important. If you do not explain the quote and indicate what portion of it is relevant to your clarification, than your reader may become confused or may be unconvinced of your explanation. Consider the possible interpretations for the statement below.

Example: While the U.S. involvement in World War II was not the major contributor to the ending of the Great Depression, the depression was one of the primary motives for entering the war.

Interestingly, this statement seems to be saying two things at once – that the Great Depression helped spark involvement in the war and that World War II did not end the depression alone. On the one hand, the historian seems to say that the two events are not directly linked. However, on the other hand, the historian also indicates that the two events are linked in that the depression caused U.S. involvement in the war. Because of the tension in this quotation, if you used this quote for your World War II essay, you would need to explain that the significant portion of the quote is the assertion that links the events.

In addition to explaining what this quote is saying, you would also need to indicate why this is important to your explanation. When trying to indicate the significance of a fact, it is essential to try to answer the “so what.” Image you have just finished explaining your quote to someone and they have asked you “so what?” The person does not understand why you have explained this quote, not because you have not explained the quote well but because you have not told him or her why he or she needs to know what the quote means. This, the answer to the “so what,” is the significance of your paper and is essentially your clarification within the body paragraphs. However, it is important to remember that generally a body paragraph will contain more than one quotation or piece of support. Thus, you must repeat the Quotation-Explanation-Significance formula several times within your body paragraph to fully explain the one sub-point indicated in your topic sentence. Below is an example of a properly written body paragraph.

Example of an expository body paragraph paired with an explanation of its parts.

Conclusion Paragraph

The conclusion paragraph of an expository essay is an author’s last chance to create a good impression. Hence, it is important to restate the thesis statement at the beginning of the paragraph in order to remind the reader of your topic and explanation. Since it is at the end of the paper, the conclusion paragraph also should add a sense of closure and finality to the clarification of the paper. It is important to re-emphasize the main idea without being repetitive or introducing an entirely new idea or subtopic. While you can conclude your conclusion paragraph by suggesting a topic for further research or investigation, do not make this question the focus of the paragraph. Thus, you should briefly and concisely reiterate the strongest clarifications of the paper, reminding the reader of the validity of your thesis or explanation and bringing closure to your paper.

Concluding Paragraph:


Things to always do                            Things to never do
  • Rework your introduction or thesis statement.
  • Include a brief summary of the main idea.
  • Use overused phrases.
  • Be concise.
  • Example: “In summary…” or “In conclusion…
  • Provide a sense of closure.
  • Announce what you have written in the body of the essay
  • Example: “In this paper I have emphasized the importance of…
  • Apologize.
  • Example: “Although I do not have all the answers…
  • Make absolute claims.
  • Example: “This proves that the government should…


You may feel that the conclusion paragraph is redundant or unnecessary; However, do not forget that this is your last chance to explain the significance of your argument to your audience. Just as your body paragraphs strive to present the significance of each fact or quote you use, your conclusion paragraph should sum up the significance of your argument. Thus, you should consider making a bold statement in your concluding paragraph by evoking a vivid image, suggesting results or consequences related to your argument or ending with a warning. Through using these components, you not only make your conclusion paragraph more exciting, but you also make your essay and your argument, more important.

 Review Questions

What are three of the main purposes of an introductory paragraph?

  1. What should you never do in an introductory paragraph?
  2. How should you refute counterpoints?
  3. What is the formula for a well-argued body paragraph?
  4. What should you include in a conclusion paragraph? What should never include in a conclusion paragraph?
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Process (“How To”)


[Author removed at request of original publisher]

13 min read

Addresses Idaho Competency and Knowledge Objective #2 : Adopt strategies and genre that are appropriate to the rhetorical situation

Learning Objectives

  1. Determine the purpose and structure of the process analysis essay.
  2. Understand how to write a process analysis essay.

The Purpose of Process Analysis in Writing

The purpose of a process analysis essay is to explain how to do something or how something works. In either case, the formula for a process analysis essay remains the same. The process is articulated into clear, definitive steps.

Almost everything we do involves following a step-by-step process. From riding a bike as children to learning various jobs as adults, we initially needed instructions to effectively execute the task. Likewise, we have likely had to instruct others, so we know how important good directions are—and how frustrating it is when they are poorly put together.

Writing at Work

The next time you have to explain a process to someone at work, be mindful of how clearly you articulate each step. Strong communication skills are critical for workplace satisfaction and advancement. Effective process analysis plays a critical role in developing that skill set.

Exercise 1

On a separate sheet of paper, make a bulleted list of all the steps that you feel would be required to clearly illustrate three of the following four processes:

  1. Tying a shoelace
  2. Parallel parking
  3. Planning a successful first date
  4. Being an effective communicator

The Structure of a Process Analysis Essay

The process analysis essay opens with a discussion of the process and a thesis statement that states the goal of the process.

The organization of a process analysis essay typically follows chronological order. The steps of the process are conveyed in the order in which they usually occur. Body paragraphs will be constructed based on these steps. If a particular step is complicated and needs a lot of explaining, then it will likely take up a paragraph on its own. But if a series of simple steps is easier to understand, then the steps can be grouped into a single paragraph.

The time transition phrases covered in the Narration and Illustration sections are also helpful in organizing process analysis essays (see Table 10.1 “Transition Words and Phrases for Expressing Time” and Table 10.2 “Phrases of Illustration”). Words such as first, second, third, next, and finally are helpful cues to orient reader and organize the content of essay.


Always have someone else read your process analysis to make sure it makes sense. Once we get too close to a subject, it is difficult to determine how clearly an idea is coming across. Having a friend or coworker read it over will serve as a good way to troubleshoot any confusing spots.

Exercise 2

Choose two of the lists you created in Note 10.52 “Exercise 1” and start writing out the processes in paragraph form. Try to construct paragraphs based on the complexity of each step. For complicated steps, dedicate an entire paragraph. If less complicated steps fall in succession, group them into a single paragraph.

Writing a Process Analysis Essay

Choose a topic that is interesting, is relatively complex, and can be explained in a series of steps. As with other rhetorical writing modes, choose a process that you know well so that you can more easily describe the finer details about each step in the process. Your thesis statement should come at the end of your introduction, and it should state the final outcome of the process you are describing.

Body paragraphs are composed of the steps in the process. Each step should be expressed using strong details and clear examples. Use time transition phrases to help organize steps in the process and to orient readers. The conclusion should thoroughly describe the result of the process described in the body paragraphs. See an example of a process analysis essay below from https://open.lib.umn.edu/writingforsuccess/chapter/15-6-process-analysis-essay/.

How to Grow Tomatoes from a Seedling

Growing tomatoes is a simple and rewarding task, and more people should be growing them. This paper walks readers through the main steps for growing and maintaining patio tomatoes from a seedling.

The first step in growing tomatoes is determining if you have the appropriate available space and sunlight to grow them. All tomato varieties require full sunlight, which means at least six hours of direct sun every day. If you have south-facing windows or a patio or backyard that receives direct sunlight, you should be able to grow tomatoes. Choose the location that receives the most sun.

Next, you need to find the right seedling. Growing tomatoes and other vegetables from seeds can be more complicated (though it is not difficult), so I am only discussing how to grow tomatoes from a seedling. A seedling, for those who do not know, is typically understood as a young plant that has only recently started growing from the seed. It can be anything from a newly germinated plant to a fully flowering plant. You can usually find tomato seedlings at your local nursery for an affordable price. Less than five dollars per plant is a common price. When choosing the best seedling, look for a plant that is short with healthy, full leaves and no flowers. This last point tends to be counterintuitive, but it is extremely important. You do not want a vegetable plant that has already started flowering in the nursery because it will have a more difficult time adapting to its new environment when you replant it. Additionally, choose a plant with one strong main stem. This is important because the fewer stems that a tomato plant has, the more easily it can transport nutrients to the fruit. Multiple stems tend to divide nutrients in less efficient ways, often resulting in either lower yields or smaller fruit.

Once you have found the right seedlings to plant back home, you need to find the best way of planting them. I recommend that you plant your tomatoes in containers. If you have the space and sunlight, then you can certainly plant them in the ground, but a container has several advantages and is usually most manageable for the majority of gardeners. The containers can be used in the house, on a patio, or anywhere in the backyard, and they are portable. Containers also tend to better regulate moisture and drain excess water. Choose a container that is at least 10 inches in diameter and at least 1 foot deep. This will provide sufficient room for root development.

In addition to the container, you also need the appropriate soil mixture and draining mechanisms. For the best drainage, fill the bottom of your container with 2 or 3 inches of gravel. On top of the gravel, fill ¾ of the container with soil. Choose a well-balanced organic soil. The three main ingredients you will find described on soil bags are N-P-K—that is, nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Without going into too much detail about the role of each element in plant growth, I will tell you that an average vegetable will grow fine in a 10-5-5 mixture. This ratio, too, will be easy to find at your local nursery.

Once you have the gravel in the bottom of the container and the soil on top, you are ready to transplant the tomato. Pick up the tomato in the plastic container it comes in from the nursery. Turn it upside down, and holding the stem between your fingers, pat the bottom lightly several times, and the plant should fall into your hand. Next, you should gently break up the root ball that formed in the nursery container with your hands. Be gentle, but be sure to rip them up a bit; this helps generate new root growth in the new container. Be careful not to damage the roots too much, as this could stunt the growth or even destroy the plant altogether.

Next, carve out a hole in the soil to make space for the plant. Make it deep enough to go about an inch higher than it was previously buried and wide enough so all the roots can comfortably fit within and beneath it. Place the seedling in the hole and push the removed soil back on top to cover the base of the plant. After that, the final step in planting your tomato is mulch. Mulch is not necessary for growing plants, but it can be very helpful in maintaining moisture, keeping out weeds, and regulating soil temperature. Place 2–3 inches of mulch above the soil and spread it out evenly.

Once the mulch is laid, you are mostly done. The rest is all watering, waiting, and maintenance. After you lay the mulch, pour the plant a heavy amount of water. Water the plant at its base until you see water coming through the bottom of the container. Wait ten minutes, and repeat. This initial watering is very important for establishing new roots. You should continue to keep the soil moist, but never soaking wet. One healthy watering each morning should be sufficient for days without rain. You can often forego watering on days with moderate rainfall. Watering in the morning is preferable to the evening because it lessens mold and bacteria growth.

Choosing to grow the patio variety of tomatoes is easiest because patio tomatoes do not require staking or training around cages. They grow in smaller spaces and have a determinate harvest time. As you continue to water and monitor your plant, prune unhealthy looking leaves to the main stem, and cut your tomatoes down at the stem when they ripen to your liking. As you can see, growing tomatoes can be very easy and manageable for even novice gardeners. The satisfaction of picking and eating fresh food, and doing it yourself, outweighs all the effort you put in over the growing season.

Exercise 3

Choose one of the expanded lists from Note 10.54 “Exercise 2”. Construct a full process analysis essay from the work you have already done. That means adding an engaging introduction, a clear thesis, time transition phrases, body paragraphs, and a solid conclusion.

Key Takeaways

  • A process analysis essay explains how to do something, how something works, or both.
  • The process analysis essay opens with a discussion of the process and a thesis statement that states the outcome of the process.
  • The organization of a process analysis essay typically follows a chronological sequence.
  • Time transition phrases are particularly helpful in process analysis essays to organize steps and orient reader.



Introduction to the Profile

by Kate Geiselman, Sinclair Community College

The purpose of a profile is to give the reader new insight into a particular person, place, or event. The distinction between a profile and, for example, a memoir or a biography is that a profile relies on newly acquired knowledge. It is a first-hand account of someone or something as told by the writer. You have probably read profiles of famous or interesting people in popular magazines or newspapers. Travel and science publications may profile interesting or unusual places. All of these are, in effect, observation essays. A curious writer gathers as much information as s/he can about a subject, and then presents it in an engaging way. A good profile shows the reader something new or unexpected about the subject.

Dialogue, description, specific narrative action, and vivid details are all effective means of profiling your subject. Engage your reader’s senses. Give them a sense of what it’s like to be in a particular place. Try to show your reader what’s behind the scenes of a familiar place or activity, or introduce them to someone unique.

A profile is not strictly objective. Rather than merely reporting facts, a profile works to create a dominant impression. The focus of a profile is on the subject, not on the writer’s experience. However, the writer is still “present” in a profile, as it is s/he who selects which details to reveal and decides what picture they want to paint. It is the writer’s job to use the information and writing strategies that best contribute to this dominant impression, which was a concept discussed in the narrative introduction as well.

Above all, a profile should have a clear angle. In other words, there should be an idea or purpose guiding it. Why do you think your subject is something other people will be interested in reading about? What is the impression you hope to convey? The answer to these questions will help you discover your angle.

Writing Strategies for Profiles

Conducting research


The best way to conduct research about your subject is to observe it firsthand. Once you have decided on a topic, you should spend some time gathering information about it. If you decide to profile a place, pay a visit to it and take notes. Write down everything you can; you can decide later whether or not it’s relevant. If you have a smartphone, take pictures or make recordings to refer to later. Most people think of observing as something you do with your eyes, but try to use of all of your senses. Smells, sounds, and sensations will add texture to your descriptions. You may also spend time observing your subject at his/her work or in different contexts. Again, write everything down so you don’t forget the key details. Remember, it’s the specific details that will distinguish the great profiles from the merely proficient ones.

If you choose to profile a person, you will want to conduct an interview with him/her. Before doing so,
plan what you are going to ask. You probably have a good idea of why this person will be a good subject
for a profile, so be sure your questions reflect that. Saying “tell me about yourself” is unlikely to get your
subject talking. Saying, “tell me what it was like to be the first person in your family to go to college,”
will get a much more specific answer.

Organizing your profile
Once you have gathered all of your information, it’s time to start thinking about how to organize it. There are all different ways to write a profile, but the most common organizational strategies are chronological, spatial, and topical. Most profiles are some combination of the three.

Chronological order is presenting details as they happened in time, from start to finish. A chronological profile of a person might talk about their past, work up to their present, and maybe even go on to plans for the future. A chronological profile of an event might begin and end when the event itself does, narrating the events between in the order they happened. If you’re profiling a place, a chronological profile might begin with your first impressions arriving there and end with your departure. The advantage to writing in chronological order is that your writing will unfold naturally and transition easily from start to finish. The disadvantage, though, is that strict chronological order can get tedious. Merely recounting a conversation or experience can be dry, and can also pull focus from the subject onto the writer’s experience.

Spatial organization is presenting information as it occurs in space or by location. This is a great choice if you’re writing about a place. Think of it as taking your reader on a tour: from room to room of a house, for example. For an event, you might move your reader from place to place. If you are writing about a concert, for instance, you might describe the venue from the outside, then the seating area, then the stage. Spatial organization can even work for a person, depending on your focus. Try profiling a person at home, work, and school, for example.

Topical organization is just what it sounds like: one topic at a time. Think first of what you want to say about a person or place and organize details and information by subject. A profile of a person might talk about their home life, their work, and their hobbies. A topical profile of a place might focus on the physical space, the people who inhabit it, its historical significance, etc. Look at the information you gather from observation and/or interviewing and see if any topics stand out, and organize your paper around them. Most profiles are some combination of chronological, spatial, and topical organization. A profile might begin with a chronological narrative of a hockey game, and then flashback to provide some background information about the star player. Then it might go on to talk about that player’s philosophy of the sport, returning to the narrative about the game later on. As you read the sample essays, notice how the
writers choose details and arrange them in order to create a specific impression.

Using description
Vivid descriptions are key in a profile. They immerse your reader in the subject and add texture and depth to your writing. However, describing something is more than deploying as many adjectives as possible. In fact, the best descriptions may not have any adjectives at all. They rely instead on sensory detail and figurative language. Sensory detail is exactly what it sounds like: appealing to as many of the reader’s senses as possible. Adjectives can be vague, and even subjective. Think about this example:

“My grandmother always smelled good.”

What does good mean? What does good smell like? Do we even agree on what kinds of things smell good? Instead, try this:

“My grandmother always smelled good: like Shalimar, Jergen’s lotion, and menthol cigarettes.”

Now your reader knows much more. Perhaps they are even familiar enough with those scents that they can imagine what that combination would smell like. Moreover, you have delivered some emotional information here. Not every reader would agree that the smell of cigarettes is “good,” but perhaps that smell is comforting to you because you associate it so strongly with someone you care about. Of course, smell is not the only sense you can appeal to. Sights, sounds, temperatures and tastes will also enliven your writing.

Figurative language can add depth and specificity to your descriptions. Use metaphors, similes, comparisons and images creatively and purposefully. Consider the following:

“She was so beautiful.”

“Beautiful” just doesn’t tell us much. It is, like “good,” both vague and subjective. We don’t all have the same standards of beauty, nor is beauty one particular quality. Try a comparison instead:

“She was so beautiful that conversation stopped every time she entered a room.”

True, we don’t know much about what she looks like, but we do know that nearly everyone finds her striking.

Similes (comparisons using like or as) are not only efficient, but are also more vivid than adjectives. Compare these two sentences:

“He was short and muscular.” vs. “He was built like a bulldog.”


Write With Clarity

by Joseph M. Moxley, Writing Commons

Considering point of view
Because a profile is a first-hand account, you will need to consider point of view carefully. Many profiles are written entirely in third person. Others use first person. Different instructors may have different expectations, so be sure to consult your assignment guidelines to see what your options are. In a third-person profile, the writer is not “present” in the writing. S/he does not refer to his/her own actions or use first-person pronouns, but is more of an objective observer or “fly on the wall.” Most journalistic profiles are written from this point of view. The advantage of using third person is that it places your subject firmly at the center of your paper. In a first-person profile, the writer is an active participant, sharing his/her observations with the reader. First person narration closes the distance between writer and reader and makes the subject feel more personal. On the downside, it can pull focus from your subject. If you use first person, be sure you’re not intruding on your subject too much or making the piece about you.

From: The First Person By Fredrik deBoer, Writing Commons

Using appropriate verb tense
Often, profiles will be written in present tense. This gives the reader the sense that s/he is “there,” experiencing the subject along with the writer. Present tense lends a sense of immediacy and intimacy that past tense may not. It may also help the writer stay focused on the “here and now,” rather than reflecting on the past, as s/he might in a memoir. Other times, writers may need to shift tenses to talk about previous events or background information. Be sure to use verb tenses carefully, shifting only purposefully, correctly, and when the subject demands it. You can read more on tense shifts here.

Finding a topic and an angle
Virtually anything can be the subject of a profile. What matters is that you have something to say about it. People are an endless source of material; everyone has a story. Make a list of people you know who

– have lived through important historical events: war, the civil rights era, the Depression, etc.
– have been through challenging experiences: survived a major health crisis, difficult childhood, etc.
– have an unusual job or hobby, or special talent or skill.
– have unique personalities: they are eccentric, funny, selfless, energetic, artistic, etc.

Places can be equally interesting. Consider a local establishment, a natural wonder, a festival or celebration, a landmark, a museum, a gathering place, etc. What makes that place interesting and worth visiting? What makes it special or noteworthy?

Don’t just think about what you want to write about; instead, think about what you want to say about it. Why is it interesting to you, and why might your audience find it worth reading about?

Student Paper Rationale

For an assignment to write a profile essay, Joshua Dawson described his purpose and audience: “This essay is about my grandmother and how she overcame the hardships of life. [. . .] The purpose of this essay is to show how a woman can be tough and can take anything life throws at her. I hope the essay reaches students who have a single parent and those who don’t know what a single parent goes through.” Joshua showed a clear idea of what he wanted his essay to do.

Sample profiles
As you read the sample profiles provided or linked in this chapter, consider the following:
What dominant impression is the writer trying to convey?
How effectively does the writer use sensory detail and figurative language?
What is the writer’s point of view (first person, third person, or mixed)?
How is the profile organized (chronological, spatial, topical, or some combination thereof)?
What tense does the writer use, and what effect does this have?

Profile Example

The following profile was excerpted from pp. 64- 68: Girard, Rosemary, “The professional writer’s many personae: Creative nonfiction, popular writing, speechwriting, and personal narrative” (2015). Senior Honors Projects, 2010-current. 109. https://commons.lib.jmu.edu/honors201019/109


Joseph Larson, who surprised everyone but himself

Sometimes in life we think we have drive. Then we hear stories like *Joseph Larson’s. *Name has been changed for privacy

If you happen to catch Joseph Larson grabbing his double shot espresso every morning, he looks much like the suit-and-tie, briefcase-in-hand worker we expect to brush elbows with some of the government’s most influential employees.

Every morning, he makes the fifteen-minute walk from his home in Northern Virginia to the metro station and commutes on the Orange and Green Lines to Washington, D.C. I’ve made a similar Arlington-to-Washington commute during rush hour, observing the hard-faced, overtired, overachieving men and women in suits whom I’d like to offer a smile and a cup of strong coffee. But something tells me Larson would catch my eye. Even if I weren’t aware of his profession, something about the quizzical, concentrated, and analytical way he was reading the newspaper might tip me off: he’s a lawyer.

But he’s not the guy with an earpiece in, swiping and tapping his iPhone screen. He’s the kind of man who—perhaps by his legal training, but more likely because of his inherent disposition—pensively absorbs information; the kind of man who, on a daily basis, makes critical legal decisions, yet is far beyond the intellectual limits of taking one’s self too seriously.

One thing I wouldn’t guess about Larson by my metro observation, though, is this: he is a high school dropout. Without a high school diploma, or even a GED, to his name, Larson climbed himself out of a broken family, an abandoned home, and a completely “adult” life thrust upon him at the shy age of ten years old.

Growing up in the Los Angeles basin, Larson spent the first ten or eleven years of his life in what he described vividly as a typical one-story, single-family house in the foothills of the San Bernadino mountains. He fondly recalled running barefoot and shirtless through the orange and lemon groves surrounding his house, basking in the 70s-and-sunny atmosphere of Southern California.

Larson described himself as a great student who enjoyed performing well and achieving good grades. “At the start of the year in second grade they gave me some tests and sent me to a third grade class,” he explained. But being a year younger and physically smaller than his classmates, Larson felt socially removed from his peers (he joked that, standing about 5’5” now, he was small to begin with). “I spent a lot of time in the library at recess instead of on the playground. I read a lot and was a bit reclusive.”

Still today, there’s something quite reserved yet so present about his demeanor—the type of person who often lets the extroverts of the world do the talking, but, when prompted, could shock any loudmouth to silence with his quick wit and unwavering knowledge on a subject of anyone’s choosing.

At about the same time that his home life became shaken, his time spent at school grew a bit rockier as well. “I remember around sixth grade being unwilling to accept authority that I felt was unjust,” he described. “I mostly got along with teachers, but there were a couple of really insecure, bullying types, and I really didn’t accept that well.”

As Larson read about and studied education, he became increasingly convinced that the school system he belonged to was flawed. “I was openly critical of some of my teachers’ methods, which landed me in the principal’s office,” he admitted. “I remember telling one poor science teacher in middle school that he was wasting our time.”

Behind the series of disagreements between Larson and his teachers, however, was a childhood falling apart at its seams. “My parents were really smart and loving people, and we had a very close family until I was about ten or eleven years old,” Larson said. “At that point, my family began to fall apart. My poor mother had a very rough time of it, and I ended up taking care of her while she went through a very difficult self-destructive stage after my father left.”

Larson revealed that while his mother did wind up marrying a nice guy, it only followed after a couple remarriages and various failed relationships. Amid these unsteady relationships, however, the men his mother kept as company were neither friendly nor accepting of having Larson around. He and his mother lost contact for quite a while. His relationship with his father wasn’t much better. “My father was mostly absent after that point in my life,” Larson said. “He tried to stay in touch, and I know he really loved me and my sister, but he was busy living his life, so we didn’t spend much time together.” His older sister, likewise, had a difficult time adjusting to the family’s new dynamic and lived with her boyfriends in the years following.

“My family house was vacant, as my father had left and my mother had moved out, and I actually lived there alone for a while, until the house was sold as a part of their divorce and I had to find another place to sleep,” Larson explained. “It was just as well, as the house kind of gave me nightmares—I’m sure just remnants of the family I had lost.”

Surprisingly, Larson remained confident, self-sufficient, and found various jobs as he tackled his newfound independence as a youngster. He didn’t get into trouble and seemed satisfied with the freedom he acquired, kept an emotional distance from others, and grew a hard shell.

Still, the combination of his battered home life and his resistance to the school system culminated in his decision to leave high school. “I gradually came to the realization when I got to high school that I had better things to do than sit in a classroom. I had really read a lot about education at that point, and became convinced that I could pretty much learn what I needed to learn in other ways,” he said.

So, he stuck out his sophomore year, got straight As to prove he could handle the work, and then dropped out.

“This was absolutely perfect for me at the time, since I really was living from one friend’s apartment floor to the next, and loved the anonymity. It was really liberating, and I was perfectly happy to move on,” Larson recalled. “It was insanely easy for a kid that age, at that time, to kind of disappear into the suburban landscape.”

Hearing Larson’s viewpoints toward formal education at the time is reminiscent of a California-bred, more put-together, Will Hunting—minus the attitude and the bitterness. It seemed clear to Larson that learning was a matter beyond the confines of structured education; no matter if he maintained enrollment at an institution, his desire to learn would naturally crop up in all aspects of his life.

After leaving high school, Larson made his living from a variety of small jobs— everything from dishwashing, bussing tables, cooking fast food, painting houses, and working as a tech in animal hospitals. He explained that he never spent money on anything other than food, so these jobs were sufficient.

Describing himself as having long hair and dressing poorly, Larson became a “hippie” and protested the Vietnam War at a young age. “I was fascinated by the counterculture, and read a lot,” Larson remembered. Still a lover of literature, Larson read everything “from Ginsburg’s poetry (‘Howl’) to Ken Kesey (‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’) to Thoreau’s ‘Walden’ and pretty much everything written by Hermann Hesse.” He often hitchhiked to get around, and made trips to the San Francisco area as it was a “Mecca” for hippies at the time.

It wasn’t until he was about seventeen that he truly acknowledged the wounds he’d never healed. After attending a self-development course, Larson was able to tap into deep seated feelings about those turbulent years. Surprised at his own grief after years of independence, he admitted, “I was shocked to find that I was heartbroken by the loss of my happy family and cried and cried about it at the training. I had a chance to grieve the loss, finally, which I think helped me move on.”

Despite his resistance to formal education in his early years, Larson was still an academic at heart. Soon, he grew bored of his life without the thrill of education in it, so he enrolled in several courses at the local community college as well as the local State Polytechnic University (Cal Poly Pomona). Meanwhile, Larson landed a job in a lab at the City of Hope where he assisted in lab work on animals for human disease research. “The doctors in the lab took an interest in me and encouraged me to get a degree,” he said. “I applied to the University of California at San Diego and was shocked to find I got in.”

At UCSD, Larson studied Linguistics and fell in love with it. He also enrolled in a French class, which led to him studying abroad. Describing himself as an opportunist, Larson discovered that he could get a student loan and spend a year in France during his junior year without working. After graduating from UCSD, he soon attended American University for law school.

Larson recalled a conversation he had with the registrar at American University about his lack of a high school degree or GED. “I remember the registrar looking at my transcript and noting, shocked, that I never graduated from high school. I remember asking if that was going to be a problem, but she just said, ‘No, I just haven’t ever seen this before!’”

What is perhaps most notable about Larson is the normalcy with which he treats his road to success and his forgiveness of the situation he was tossed into. “I think everyone has adversity and challenges,” Larson said. “I loved the freedom I had as a youngster. I think it gave me a great deal of confidence, and I had some amazing experiences.”

Speaking to his humility and compassion, Larson actually attributed much of his success to his family. Remembering his early childhood fondly, Larson feels grateful for the love his family showed him in his early years. Being rooted in such a solid foundation was key when Larson was forced to make difficult choices later on.

Although it may not have been the easiest path, Larson was always confident in his ability to rise out of life’s challenges. “There was the occasional reality check, those times grilling burgers with a jerk for a boss, or loading trucks late at night, which would motivate me,” he said. “I always knew I would do more than those jobs, and those tough realities are just the thing to motivate a person to move on.”

There seems to be something intrinsically laced in Larson’s character that drives him to success and is fueled by a love for learning—something beyond motivation and the often shallow push from parents to succeed, which Larson lacked anyway in his formative years. Looking at his background on paper, I’d expect to find Larson, at worst, drug addicted and alone. At best, still cooking fast food and struggling to make ends meet. But seeing the challenges he’s faced as opportunities, Larson doesn’t see that there were any other options: he had to succeed.

In his own California-roots fashion, Joseph Larson takes time to absorb and study the world around him. He has an appreciation for those who have chosen to live life differently, and he values the family and life he now has. He’s been given the opportunity to decide what he wanted to do and who he wanted to be, and so he invites others to do the same.

“What motivates us ultimately to do what we do, to me, is still a big mystery,” he said.

This speaks to Larson’s enigmatic self as well. He had every opportunity to fail, was the thought that pervasively and dogmatically prodded at my mind. And yet, with tenacity that is difficult to fathom, he picked up the pieces his family left behind and, without a blink, proved he had every tool to succeed.

When the necktie comes off, it drags with it all stereotypical assumptions we might have conjured about this metropolitan man. It’s anyone’s game as to what Larson is up to once he steps out of lawyer mode (although, if it’s trivia or crossword puzzles, I’ve been warned not to challenge him). Often, he’s tending to the various animals for which he couldn’t refuse a place in his home. He’s watching the Washington Nationals game over dinner. He’s putting that suit and tie back on for a night at The Shakespeare Theatre in DC. He’s listening to everything from Native American flute music to Neil Young. Or, he is—after multiple hip replacements on both sides—running and training for his next marathon.

Amid the surprises and the proved-everyone-wrongs, perhaps only three things are certain about Joseph Larson: his love of learning, his love of life, and that double shot espresso.

The following profile examples are under copyright but can be accessed through the links:

English Composition at Sinclair, Sinclair Community College English Department




[Author removed at request of original publisher]

Learning Objectives

  1. Determine the purpose and structure of the definition essay.
  2. Understand how to write a definition essay.

The Purpose of Definition in Writing

The purpose of a definition essay may seem self-explanatory: the purpose of the definition essay is to simply define something. But defining terms in writing is often more complicated than just consulting a dictionary. In fact, the way we define terms can have far-reaching consequences for individuals as well as collective groups.

Take, for example, a word like alcoholism. The way in which one defines alcoholism depends on its legal, moral, and medical contexts. Lawyers may define alcoholism in terms of its legality; parents may define alcoholism in terms of its morality; and doctors will define alcoholism in terms of symptoms and diagnostic criteria. Think also of terms that people tend to debate in our broader culture. How we define words, such as marriage and climate change, has enormous impact on policy decisions and even on daily decisions. Think about conversations couples may have in which words like commitment, respect, or love need clarification.

Defining terms within a relationship, or any other context, can at first be difficult, but once a definition is established between two people or a group of people, it is easier to have productive dialogues. Definitions, then, establish the way in which people communicate ideas. They set parameters for a given discourse, which is why they are so important.


When writing definition essays, avoid terms that are too simple, that lack complexity. Think in terms of concepts, such as hero, immigration, or loyalty, rather than physical objects. Definitions of concepts, rather than objects, are often fluid and contentious, making for a more effective definition essay.

Writing at Work

Definitions play a critical role in all workplace environments. Take the term sexual harassment, for example. Sexual harassment is broadly defined on the federal level, but each company may have additional criteria that define it further. Knowing how your workplace defines and treats all sexual harassment allegations is important. Think, too, about how your company defines lateness, productivity, or contributions.

Exercise 1

On a separate sheet of paper, write about a time in your own life in which the definition of a word, or the lack of a definition, caused an argument. Your term could be something as simple as the category of an all-star in sports or how to define a good movie. Or it could be something with higher stakes and wider impact, such as a political argument. Explain how the conversation began, how the argument hinged on the definition of the word, and how the incident was finally resolved.


Please share with a classmate and compare your responses.

The Structure of a Definition Essay

The definition essay opens with a general discussion of the term to be defined. You then state as your thesis your definition of the term.

The rest of the essay should explain the rationale for your definition. Remember that a dictionary’s definition is limiting, and you should not rely strictly on the dictionary entry. Instead, consider the context in which you are using the word. Context identifies the circumstances, conditions, or setting in which something exists or occurs. Often words take on different meanings depending on the context in which they are used. For example, the ideal leader in a battlefield setting could likely be very different than a leader in an elementary school setting. If a context is missing from the essay, the essay may be too short or the main points could be confusing or misunderstood.

The remainder of the essay should explain different aspects of the term’s definition. For example, if you were defining a good leader in an elementary classroom setting, you might define such a leader according to personality traits: patience, consistency, and flexibility. Each attribute would be explained in its own paragraph.


For definition essays, try to think of concepts that you have a personal stake in. You are more likely to write a more engaging definition essay if you are writing about an idea that has personal value and importance.

Writing at Work

It is a good idea to occasionally assess your role in the workplace. You can do this through the process of definition. Identify your role at work by defining not only the routine tasks but also those gray areas where your responsibilities might overlap with those of others. Coming up with a clear definition of roles and responsibilities can add value to your résumé and even increase productivity in the workplace.

Exercise 2

On a separate sheet of paper, define each of the following items in your own terms. If you can, establish a context for your definition.

  1. Bravery
  2. Adulthood
  3. Consumer culture
  4. Violence
  5. Art

Writing a Definition Essay

Choose a topic that will be complex enough to be discussed at length. Choosing a word or phrase of personal relevance often leads to a more interesting and engaging essay.

After you have chosen your word or phrase, start your essay with an introduction that establishes the relevancy of the term in the chosen specific context. Your thesis comes at the end of the introduction, and it should clearly state your definition of the term in the specific context. Establishing a functional context from the beginning will orient readers and minimize misunderstandings.

The body paragraphs should each be dedicated to explaining a different facet of your definition. Make sure to use clear examples and strong details to illustrate your points. Your concluding paragraph should pull together all the different elements of your definition to ultimately reinforce your thesis. See Chapter 15 “Readings: Examples of Essays” to read a sample definition essay.

Exercise 3

Create a full definition essay from one of the items you already defined in Note 10.64 “Exercise 2”. Be sure to include an interesting introduction, a clear thesis, a well-explained context, distinct body paragraphs, and a conclusion that pulls everything together.

Key Takeaways

Writing for Success by University of Minnesota is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.



[Author removed at request of original publisher]

Learning Objectives

  1. Determine the purpose and structure of the illustration essay.
  2. Understand how to write an illustration essay.

The Purpose of Illustration in Writing

To illustrate means to show or demonstrate something clearly. An effective illustration essay clearly demonstrates and supports a point through the use of evidence.

The controlling idea of an essay is called a thesis. A writer can use different types of evidence to support his or her thesis. Using scientific studies, experts in a particular field, statistics, historical events, current events, analogies, and personal anecdotes are all ways in which a writer can illustrate a thesis. Ultimately, you want the evidence to help the reader “see” your point, as one would see a good illustration in a magazine or on a website. The stronger your evidence is, the more clearly the reader will consider your point.

Using evidence effectively can be challenging, though. The evidence you choose will usually depend on your subject and who your reader is (your audience). When writing an illustration essay, keep in mind the following:

  • Use evidence that is appropriate to your topic as well as appropriate for your audience.
  • Assess how much evidence you need to adequately explain your point depending on the complexity of the subject and the knowledge of your audience regarding that subject.

For example, if you were writing about a new communication software and your audience was a group of English-major undergrads, you might want to use an analogy or a personal story to illustrate how the software worked. You might also choose to add a few more pieces of evidence to make sure the audience understands your point. However, if you were writing about the same subject and you audience members were information technology (IT) specialists, you would likely use more technical evidence because they would be familiar with the subject.

Keeping in mind your subject in relation to your audience will increase your chances of effectively illustrating your point.

Tip:  You never want to insult your readers’ intelligence by over-explaining concepts the audience members may already be familiar with, but it may be necessary to clearly articulate your point. When in doubt, add an extra example to illustrate your idea.

Exercise 1

On a separate piece of paper, form a thesis based on each of the following three topics. Then list the types of evidence that would best explain your point for each of the two audiences.

  1. Topic: Combat and mental health

    Audience: family members of veterans, doctors

  2. Topic: Video games and teen violence

    Audience: parents, children

  3. Topic: Architecture and earthquakes

    Audience: engineers, local townspeople

The Structure of an Illustration Essay

The controlling idea, or thesis, belongs at the beginning of the essay. Evidence is then presented in the essay’s body paragraphs to support the thesis. You can start supporting your main point with your strongest evidence first, or you can start with evidence of lesser importance and have the essay build to increasingly stronger evidence. This type of organization is called order of importance.

The time transition words listed in  Table 10.1 “Transition Words and Phrases for Expressing Time” are also helpful in ordering the presentation of evidence. Words like first, second, third, currently, next, and finally all help orient the reader and sequence evidence clearly. Because an illustration essay uses so many examples, it is also helpful to have a list of words and phrases to present each piece of evidence. Table 10.2 “Phrases of Illustration” provides a list of phrases for illustration.

Table 10.1 Transition Words and Phrases for Expressing Time

after/afterward as soon as at last before
currently during eventually meanwhile
next now since soon
finally later still then
until when/whenever while first, second, third

Table 10.2 Phrases of Illustration

case in point for example
for instance in particular
in this case one example/another example
specifically to illustrate

Tip:  Vary the phrases of illustration you use. Do not rely on just one. Variety in choice of words and phrasing is critical when trying to keep readers engaged in your writing and your ideas.

Writing at Work: In the workplace, it is often helpful to keep the phrases of illustration in mind as a way to incorporate them whenever you can. Whether you are writing out directives that colleagues will have to follow or requesting a new product or service from another company, making a conscious effort to incorporate a phrase of illustration will force you to provide examples of what you mean.

Exercise 2

On a separate sheet of paper, form a thesis based on one of the following topics. Then support that thesis with three pieces of evidence. Make sure to use a different phrase of illustration to introduce each piece of evidence you choose.

  1. Cooking
  2. Baseball
  3. Work hours
  4. Exercise
  5. Traffic


Please share with a classmate and compare your answers. Discuss which topic you like the best or would like to learn more about. Indicate which thesis statement you perceive as the most effective.

Writing an Illustration Essay

First, decide on a topic that you feel interested in writing about. Then create an interesting introduction to engage the reader. The main point, or thesis, should be stated at the end of the introduction. Gather evidence that is appropriate to both your subject and your audience. You can order the evidence in terms of importance, either from least important to most important or from most important to least important. Be sure to fully explain all of your examples using strong, clear supporting details. See a sample illustration essay below that takes the form of a letter:

Letter to the City

To: Lakeview Department of Transportation

From: A Concerned Citizen

The intersection of Central Avenue and Lake Street is dangerous and demands immediate consideration for the installation of a controlling mechanism. I have lived in Lakeview my entire life, and during that time I have witnessed too many accidents and close calls at that intersection. I would like the Department of Transportation to answer this question: how many lives have to be lost on the corner of Central Avenue and Lake Street before a street light or stop sign is placed there?

Over the past twenty years, the population of Lakeview has increased dramatically. This population growth has put tremendous pressure on the city’s roadways, especially Central Avenue and its intersecting streets. At the intersection of Central Avenue and Lake Street it is easy to see how serious this problem is. For example, when I try to cross Central Avenue as a pedestrian, I frequently wait over ten minutes for the cars to clear, and even then I must rush to the median. I will then have to continue to wait until I can finally run to the other side of the street. On one hand, even as a physically fit adult, I can run only with significant effort and care. Expecting a senior citizen or a child to cross this street, on the other hand, is extremely dangerous and irresponsible. Does the city have any plans to do anything about this?

Recent data show that the intersection of Central Avenue and Lake Street has been especially dangerous. According to the city’s own statistics, three fatalities occurred at that intersection in the past year alone. Over the past five years, the intersection witnessed fourteen car accidents, five of which were fatal. These numbers officially qualify the intersection as the most fatal and dangerous in the entire state. It should go without saying that fatalities and accidents are not the clearest way of measuring the severity of this situation because for each accident that happens, countless other close calls never contribute to city data. I hope you will agree that these numbers alone are sufficient evidence that the intersection at Central Avenue and Lake Street is hazardous and demands immediate attention.

Nearly all accidents mentioned are caused by vehicles trying to cross Central Avenue while driving on Lake Street. I think the City of Lakeview should consider placing a traffic light there to control the traffic going both ways. While I do not have access to any resources or data that can show precisely how much a traffic light can improve the intersection, I think you will agree that a controlled busy intersection is much safer than an uncontrolled one. Therefore, at a minimum, the city must consider making the intersection a four-way stop.

Each day that goes by without attention to this issue is a lost opportunity to save lives and make the community a safer, more enjoyable place to live. Because the safety of citizens is the priority of every government, I can only expect that the Department of Transportation and the City of Lakeview will act on this matter immediately. For the safety and well-being of Lakeview citizens, please do not let bureaucracy or money impede this urgent project.


A Concerned Citizen


Exercise 3

On a separate sheet of paper, write a five-paragraph illustration essay. You can choose one of the topics from Exercise 1 or Exercise 2 or choose your own.

Key Takeaways
An illustration essay clearly explains a main point using evidence.
When choosing evidence, always gauge whether the evidence is appropriate for the subject as well as the audience.
Organize the evidence in terms of importance, either from least important to most important or from most important to least important.
Use time transitions to order evidence.
Use phrases of illustration to call out examples.

Key Takeaways

  • An illustration essay clearly explains a main point using evidence.
  • When choosing evidence, always gauge whether the evidence is appropriate for the subject as well as the audience.
  • Organize the evidence in terms of importance, either from least important to most important or from most important to least important.
  • Use time transitions to order evidence.
  • Use phrases of illustration to call out examples.

Summary Writing


What is a Summary?

A summary is a comprehensive and objective restatement of the main ideas of a text (an article, book, movie, event, etc.)  Stephen Wilhoit, in his textbook A Brief Guide to Writing from Readings, suggests that keeping the qualities of a good summary in mind helps students avoid the pitfalls of unclear or disjointed summaries.  These qualities include:

Neutrality – The writer avoids inserting his or her opinion into the summary, or interpreting the original text’s content in any way.  This requires that the writer avoids language that is evaluative, such as: good, bad, effective, ineffective, interesting, boring, etc. Also, keep “I” out of the summary; instead, summary should be written in grammatical 3rd person (For example: “he”, “she”, “the author”, “they”, etc).

Brevity – The summary should not be longer than the original text, but rather highlight the most important information from that text while leaving out unnecessary details while still maintaining accuracy.

Independence – The summary should make sense to someone who has not read the original source.  There should be no confusion about the main content and organization of the original source.  This also requires that the summary be accurate.

By mastering the craft of summarizing, students put themselves in the position to do well on many assignments in college, not just English essays.  In most fields (from the humanities to the soft and hard sciences) summary is a required task.  Being able to summarize lab results accurately and briefly, for example, is critical in a chemistry or engineering class. Summarizing the various theories of sociology or education helps a person apply them to his or her fieldwork. In college, it’s imperative we learn how to summarize well because we are asked to do it so often.

College students are asked to summarize material for many different types of assignments. In some instances, summarizing one source is often the sole purpose of the entire assignment. Students might also be asked to summarize as just one aspect of a larger project, such as a literature review, an abstract in a research paper, or a works consulted entry in an annotated bibliography.

Some summary assignments will expect students to condense material more than others. For example, when summary is the sole purpose of the assignment, the student might be asked to include key supporting evidence, where as an abstract might require students to boil down the source text to its bare-bones essentials.

What Makes Something a Summary?

When you ask yourself, after reading an article (and maybe even reading it two or three times), “What was that article about?” and you end up jotting down–from memory, without returning to the original article to use its language or phrases–three things that stood out as the author’s main points, you are summarizing. Summaries have several key characteristics.

You’re summarizing well when you

Summaries are much shorter than the original material—a general rule is that they should be no more than 10% to 15% the length of the original, and they are often even shorter than this.

It can be easy and feel natural, when summarizing an article, to include our own opinions. We may agree or disagree strongly with what this author is saying, or we may want to compare their information with the information presented in another source, or we may want to share our own opinion on the topic. Often, our opinions slip into summaries even when we work diligently to keep them separate. These opinions are not the job of a summary, though. A summary should only highlight the main points of the article.

Focusing on just the ideas that best support a point we want to make or ignoring ideas that don’t support that point can be tempting. This approach has two significant problems, though:

First, it no longer correctly represents the original text, so it misleads your reader about the ideas presented in that text. A summary should give your reader an accurate idea of what they can expect if we pick up the original article to read.

Second, it undermines your own credibility as an author to not represent this information accurately. If readers cannot trust an author to accurately represent source information, they may not be as likely to trust that author to thoroughly and accurately present a reasonable point.

How Should I Organize a Summary?

Like traditional essays, summaries have an introduction, a body, and a conclusion. What these components look like will vary some based on the purpose of the summary you’re writing. The introduction, body, and conclusion of work focused specifically around summarizing something is going to be a little different than in work where summary is not the primary goal.

Introducing a Summary

One of the trickier parts of creating a summary is making it clear that this is a summary of someone else’s work; these ideas are not your original ideas. You will almost always begin a summary with an introduction to the author, article, and publication so the reader knows what we are about to read. This information will appear again in your bibliography, but is also useful here so the reader can follow the conversation happening in your paper. You will want to provide it in both places.

In summary-focused work, this introduction should accomplish a few things:

So, for example, if you were to get an assignment asking you to summarize Matthew Hutson’s Atlantic article, “Beyond the Five Senses,” an introduction for that summary might look something like this:

In his July 2017 article in The Atlantic, “Beyond the Five Senses,” Matthew Hutson explores ways in which potential technologies might expand our sensory perception of the world. He notes that some technologies, such as cochlear implants, are already accomplishing a version of this for people who do not have full access to one of the five senses. In much of the article, though, he seems more interested in how technology might expand the ways in which we sense things. Some of these technologies are based in senses that can be seen in nature, such as echolocation, and others seem more deeply rooted in science fiction. However, all of the examples he gives consider how adding new senses to the ones we already experience might change how we perceive the world around us.

However, you will probably find yourself more frequently using summary as just one component of work with a wide range of goals (not just a goal to “summarize X”).

Summary introductions in these situations still generally need to

Presenting the “Meat” (or Body) of a Summary

Again, this will look a little different depending on the purpose of the summary work you are doing. Regardless of how you are using summary, you will introduce the main ideas throughout your text with transitional phrasing, such as “One of [Author’s] biggest points is…,” or “[Author’s] primary concern about this solution is….”

If you are responding to a “write a summary of X” assignment, the body of that summary will expand on the main ideas you stated in the introduction of the summary, although this will all still be very condensed compared to the original. What are the key points the author makes about each of those big-picture main ideas? Depending on the kind of text you are summarizing, you may want to note how the main ideas are supported (although, again, be careful to avoid making your own opinion about those supporting sources known).

When you are summarizing with an end goal that is broader than just summary, the body of your summary will still present the idea from the original text that is relevant to the point you are making (condensed and in your own words).

Since it is much more common to summarize just a single idea or point from a text in this type of summarizing (rather than all of its main points), it is important to make sure you understand the larger points of the original text. For example, you might find that an article provides an example that opposes its main point in order to demonstrate the range of conversations happening on the topic it covers. This opposing point, though, isn’t the main point of the article, so just summarizing this one opposing example would not be an accurate representation of the ideas and points in that text.

Concluding a Summary

For writing in which summary is the sole purpose, here are some ideas for your conclusion.

When your writing has a primary goal other than summary, your conclusion should

Summary Template

Here is a basic summary template for use with any text (article, video, chapter, textbook, etc.) that you are reading and need to briefly summarize in your own words for yourself or for your readers. Use the tips when inserting information from the article that you have read into the template to make filling in the blanks much easier. Feel free to change any wording that you think needs modifying or that sounds ineffective in your final version. The summary essay rubric that follows is correlated to this template so that you can use it as a checklist.


In “Title of Article,” a (state year) adaptation/excerpt/chapter/article from Publication where it appeared, Author (first and last name) argues/explains/describes/ outlines/highlights that Thesis (main point of article) in your own words. First, he/she/ they claim(s) first supporting point. For instance, specific example from the text to illustrate this point (can be paraphrase or quote). Next, he/she/they examine(s) second supporting point. For example, specific example from the text to illustrate this point (can be paraphrase or quote). Third, he/she/they suggest(s) third supporting point. For instance, specific example from the text to illustrate this point (can be paraphrase or quote). To conclude he/she/they state(s) sum up the conclusion (may be a solution, a forecast for the future, etc.)


Sample Summary Essay Rubric

Criteria Outstanding Sufficient Needs Work
Identification of organization (full title first; acronym later); author’s full name & title of piece & publisher/publication; title is in quotation marks (not italics) and print publication is in italics (not quotation marks); after first mention, author or speaker’s last name or acronym is appropriate. __/15 points
Overarching purpose/point of article identified along with main points and a few important details. __/30 points
Your opinion is left out (explicit or implied through word choice); any opinion is attributed clearly to the author of the piece or speakers/experts within it. __/20 points
You paraphrase information in your own words and have a clear understanding of the information from the piece. ___/20 points
Adherence to mechanics and grammar rules that do not distract the reader; APA or MLA citation provided in proper format. __/15 points
Total: ___/100 points

This chapter is adapted from A Guide to Rhetoric, Chapter 5.1, “Writing Summaries,” by Melanie Gagich, CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0.

Sample Writing Assignments


Process Analysis



The purpose is to define a term, concept, or idea. You will typically lay the foundation with a dictionary definition (denotative) of the word but will move out to an extended definition (connotative). You are using a combination of the literal and implied meanings of a word or idea in addition to historical information to help readers understand the topic more effectively. You usually define a term or concept that is complex in nature or that can be misconstrued. Legal, business, and scientific terms or concepts typically work well for essays such as these. For example, take the term manslaughter; the literal and implied meanings can help to understand this sometimes misinterpreted crime. The definition paper can stand on its own or an abbreviated version can serve as part of a larger argumentative, analytical, or research paper.



This prompt comes from: https://resources.instructure.com/courses/5/pages/summary-essay-prompt . This prompt could be easily modified by changing out the topic of digital literacy to another one of your choice. Whether working with popular articles or scholarly ones, summary writing is a key component of reading comprehension, setting up a foundation for a larger issue, and research.

“Digital literacy” may be a new term for you, but it’s probably not a new concept.  Our personal and academic lives are being transformed by online content, and not everyone has the same innate level of skill at determining what and how to use this content.

Our first essay asks to you to summarize one of 3 short articles from the library library on the topic of digital literacy.  (These articles can be found in the weekly modules.)  The objectives of this assignment are to:


Writing to Analyze


Introduction to Analysis Writing


Amy Minervini


by Amy Minervini

Analysis is the process of digging deeper into what we read, see, and hear. This skill is used both in academic writing and in everyday life. In-depth exploration helps us to more effectively understand issues in society and our daily lives, including but not limited to the articles and books we read, the videos we watch, the brands and ads that influence our buying habits, and the songs we listen to. We can analyze authors, subjects, issues, images, and texts of all kinds using various methods of analysis. This chapter will introduce you to rhetorical and visual analysis, text and literary analysis, and cause and effect (another form of analysis).

Key Characteristics

Analysis writing generally exhibits the following:

Essay Types within this Chapter

“Overview” by Amy Minervini is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License


Rhetorical Analysis


Note: This chapter builds on the rhetorical concepts introduced in the section, Reading and Writing Rhetorically.

What Is “Rhetorical Analysis”?

Rhetoric: The art of persuasion

Analysis: Breaking down the whole into pieces for the purpose of examination

Unlike a straightforward summary, a rhetorical analysis does not only require a restatement of ideas; instead, you must recognize rhetorical moves that an author is making in an attempt to persuade his or her audience to do or to think something. In the 21st century’s abundance of information, it can sometimes be difficult to discern what is a rhetorical strategy and what is simple manipulation; however, an understanding of rhetoric and rhetorical moves will help you become more savvy with the information surrounding you on a day-to-day basis. In other words, rhetorical moves can be a form of manipulation, but if one can recognize those moves, then one can be a more critical consumer of information rather than blindly accepting whatever one reads, sees, hears, etc.

The goal of a rhetorical analysis is to explain what is happening in the text, why the author might have chosen to use a particular move or set of rhetorical moves, and how those choices might affect the audience. The text you analyze might be explanatory, although there will be aspects of argument because you must negotiate with what the author is trying to do and what you think the author is doing. As Edward P.J. Corbett observes, rhetorical analysis “is more interested in a literary work for what it does than for what it is” (qtd. in Nordqvist).

One of the elements of doing a rhetorical analysis is looking at a text’s rhetorical situation. The rhetorical situation is the context out of a which a text is created.

Another element of rhetorical analysis is simply reading and summarizing the text. You have to be able to describe the basics of the author’s thesis and main points before you can begin to analyze it.

To do rhetorical analysis, you will connect the rhetorical situation to the text. You will go beyond summarizing and instead look at how the author shapes his or her text based on its context. In developing your reading and analytical skills, allow yourself to think about what you’re reading, to question the text and your responses to it, as you read. Use the following questions to help you to take the text apart—dissecting it to see how it works:

Once you have done this basic, rhetorical, critical reading of your text, you are ready to think about how the rhetorical situation–the context out of which the text arises–influences certain rhetorical appeals (logos, pathos, ethos) that appear in it.


Linked in this textbook is Laura Bolin Carroll’s essay. Click here to read Caroll’s essay: Backpacks vs. Briefcases: Steps Toward Rhetorical Analysis

Professional Examples of Rhetorical Analysis

Hooks, Bell. Cultural Criticism & Transformation. video. LCSC Library

Kilbourne, Jean. 20 Oct 2015. “Jesus is a Brand of Jeans.” The Humanist.

Kilbourne, Jean. Killing Us Softly video series. LCSC Library.

Kilbourne, Jean. Deadly Persuasion video series. LCSC Library.

Meslin, Dave. 2010. Antidote to Apathy. TED Talk.

Literary Analysis


Literary Analysis

Learning Objectives

Why Should I Write About Literature?

You might be asking yourself why you should bother writing about something you’ve read. After all, isn’t creative writing more fun, journalistic writing more interesting, and technical writing more useful? Maybe, but consider this: writing about literature will let you exercise your critical thinking skills like no other style of writing will. Even if you don’t want to pursue a career involving literature, you can use critical thinking and analysis in any field from philosophy to business to physics. More than being able to think critically, you need to be able to express those thoughts in a coherent fashion. Writing about literature will allow you to practice this invaluable communication skill.

“Okay,” you say, “that’s all good and well. But hasn’t anything I have to say about a story already been said? So what’s the point, then?” When you write your paper, you might end up saying something that has been discussed, argued over, or proposed by literary critics and students alike. However, when you write something, you present a point of view through your unique voice. Even if something has been said about a book many times, you can add something new to that discussion. Perhaps you can state an idea in simpler terms, or you want to disagree with a popular viewpoint. Even if you’re writing to an instructor’s prompt, your voice will make the paper unique.

So How Do I Start?

To many of us, writing a response to something we’ve had to read sounds more than a little daunting. There are so many things to examine and analyze in a book, play, or poem. But before you decide that writing about writing just isn’t for you, think about this–you already have many of the skills you need to write a good response to literature.

How many times have you heard about someone who watched a horror movie and yelled, “Don’t go into the basement!” at the potential victim. Or maybe you’ve listened to a song and thought about how the lyrics described your life almost perfectly. Perhaps you like to jump up and cheer for your favorite team even if you’re watching the game from home. Each time you do one of these things, you are responding to a something you’ve seen or heard. And when you read a book, you likely do the same thing. Have you ever read anything and sympathized with or hated a character? If so, you’ve already taken your first step in responding to literature.

However, the next steps are a little harder. You need to be able to put your response into writing so other people can understand why you believe one thing or another about a book, play, or poem. In addition, writing an essay based on how a story makes you think or feel is only one of many ways to respond to what you read. In order to write a strong paper, you will need to examine a text both subjectively and objectively. If you only write about your personal reaction to a book, there won’t be much to support your argument except your word alone. Thus, you will need to use some facts from the text to support your argument. Rather than trying to evaluate every nuance of a text all at once, you should start with the basics: character and plot. From there, you can examine the theme of the work and then move on to the finer points such as the writing itself. For instance, when determining how you want to analyze a piece of literature, you might want to ask yourself the following series of questions.

Questions to consider when writing about literature.

Of course, answering these questions will only start you in your analysis. However, if you can answer them, you will have a strong grasp of the basic elements of the story. From there, you can go on to more specific questions such as “How does symbolism help illustrate the theme?” or “What does the author say about the relationships between characters through the dialogue he gives them?” However, before you can start answering detailed questions like these, you should look at the basic elements of what you’re reading.

The Basics of Literature

Before you dive straight into your analysis of symbolism, diction, imagery, or any other rhetorical device, you need to have a grasp of the basic elements of what you’re reading. When we read critically or analytically, we might disregard character, plot, setting, and theme as surface elements of a text. Aside from noting what they are and how they drive a story, we sometimes don’t pay much attention to these elements. However, characters and their interactions can reveal a great deal about human nature. Plot can act as a stand-in for real-world events just as setting can represent our world or an allegorical one. Theme is the heart of literature, exploring everything from love and war to childhood and aging.

With this in mind, you can begin your examination of literature with a “Who, What, When, Where, How?” approach. Ask yourself “Who are the characters?” “What is happening?” “When and where is it happening?” and “How does it happen?” The answers will give you character (who), plot (what and how), and setting (when and where). When you put these answers together, you can begin to figure out theme, and you will have a solid foundation on which to base your analysis.

You will also want to keep an author’s tone in mind as you read. Tone is the attitude writing can take towards its subject or audience. For instance, writing can be informal, formal, sarcastic, or playful. These are just a few examples of tone. When trying to figure out a story’s tone, ask yourself how the writing is actually put together. Does the author use diction, or the overall word choice, to convey a specific tone? For instance, is there any reason to say “joyful” instead of “happy” or “seething” instead of “angry”?

The following table provides examples of the same scene written in different tones. Pay special attention to the italicized words.

Joyful Unhappy
The sound of their revelry rang throughout the town. The sun gleamed brightly on the parade, and colorful streamers floated through the air like dazzling rainbows. The noise of the cacophony shrilled throughout the town. The sun glared harshly on the parade, and colorful streamers rained through the air like falling debris.

In addition, ask yourself if the author use unusual syntax— the order in which the sentence is put together grammatically? (Look at “money is the root of all evil” versus “the root of all evil is money.” Does each sentence imply something different to you?) Keeping tone, diction, and syntax in mind will help in your analysis of literature.

With that said, we should always look at every aspect of these elements, from the most basic to the most complex when we read. Thus, this chapter will begin by giving you a broad overview of character, plot, setting, and theme then provide some examples of how you can use these elements to illustrate some of the more complex ideas in a story.


You are probably already adept at identifying the characters of a story, but there are some terms that will be helpful in your literary analysis. Keep in mind that characters aren’t necessarily people. They can be animals, divine beings, personifications, etc.

One of the most important terms you will use is conflict. Conflict occurs between two opposing sides in a story, usually centering on characters’ values, needs, or interests. A conflict can be internal or external. Internal conflict takes place within an individual, such as when a character is torn between duty to his family and duty to the state. External conflict occurs when two individuals or groups of individuals clash. A struggle between a character and his best friend is an example of an external conflict.

By examining the conflict, we can determine the protagonist and antagonist. The protagonist is the focal point of the conflict, meaning that he or she is the main character of the story. All the action in a story will revolve around its protagonist. In addition, a story that contains a series of conflicts can contain several protagonists–no story is limited to just one. The antagonist is the character who stands in opposition of the protagonist. The antagonist is the other half of the conflict. Remember that an antagonist doesn’t have to be a person–it can be a nation, a group, or even a set of ideas.

Sometimes, the protagonist can take the form of the antihero. The antihero is a protagonist who does not embody traditional “heroic” values. However, the reader will still sympathize with an antihero. For instance, a protagonist who is a scoundrel is an antihero, as a traditional hero would embody virtue.

In addition to the protagonist and antagonist, most stories have secondary or minor characters. These are the other characters in the story. They sometimes support the protagonist or antagonist in their struggles, and they sometimes never come into contact with the main characters.

Authors use minor characters for a variety of reasons. For instance, they can illustrate a different side of the main conflict, or they can highlight the traits of the main characters. One important type of minor character is called a foil. This character emphasizes the traits of a main character (usually the protagonist) through contrast. Thus, a foil will often be the polar opposite of the main character he or she highlights. Sometimes, the foil can take the form of a sidekick or friend. Other times, he or she might be someone who contends against the protagonist. For example, an author might use a decisive and determined foil to draw attention to a protagonist’s lack of resolve and motivation.

Finally, any character in a story can be an archetype. We can define archetype as an original model for a type of character, but that doesn’t fully explain the term. One way to think of an archetype is to think of how a bronze statue is made. First, the sculptor creates his design out of wax or clay. Next, he creates a fireproof mold around the original. After this is done, the sculptor can make as many of the same sculpture as he pleases. The original model is the equivalent to the archetype. Some popular archetypes are the trickster figure, such as Coyote in Native American myth or Brer Rabbit in African American folklore, and the femme fatale, like Pandora in Greek myth. Keep in mind that archetype simply means original pattern and does not always apply to characters. It can come in the form of an object, a narrative, etc. For instance, the apple in the Garden of Eden provides the object-based forbidden fruit archetype, and Odysseus’s voyage gives us the narrative-based journey home archetype.


Before you can write an in-depth explanation of the themes, motives, or diction of a book, you need to be able to discuss one of its most basic elements: the story. If you can’t identify what has happened in a story, your writing will lack context. Writing your paper will be like trying to put together a complex puzzle without looking at the picture you’re supposed to create. Each piece is important, but without the bigger picture for reference, you and anyone watching will have a hard time understanding what is being assembled. Thus, you should look for “the bigger picture” in a book, poem, or play by reading for plot.

A plot is a storyline. We can define plot as the main events of a book, short story, play, poem, etc. and the way those events connect to one another. Conflicts act as the driving forces behind a plot.

A plot has several main elements: inciting incident, exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and dénouement. These elements often appear in the order listed here, but you should be aware that some works deviate from this form.

A diagram of the components of a basic plot

Inciting Incident: This is the event that sets the main conflict into motion. Without it, we could have no plot, as all the characters would already be living “happily ever after,” so to speak. Most stories contain many conflicts, so you will have to identify the main conflict before you can identify the inciting incident. Remember, the inciting incident and conflict are two separate things—the inciting incident is a moment in a story that starts the main conflict. For instance, a person throwing the first punch can be considered the inciting incident to the conflict of a long fistfight. In addition, the inciting incident can happen before a story takes place, in which case it is related to the reader as a past event.

Exposition: This is the part of the story that tells us the setting. We find out who the main characters are and where the story takes place. The exposition also hints at the themes and conflicts that will develop later in the story. Exposition can take place throughout a story as characters reveal more about themselves.

Rising Action: The rising action is comprised of a series of events that build up to the climax of the story. It introduces us to secondary conflicts and creates tension in the story. You can think of the rising action as the series of events that make the climax of the story possible.

Climax: The climax has often been described as the “turning point” of a story. A good way to think of it is the incident that allows the main conflict of a story to resolve. The climax allows characters to solve a problem. It take many forms, such as an epiphany the protagonist has about himself, a battle between the protagonist and antagonist, or the culmination of an internal struggle.

Many stories actually have smaller climaxes before the main one. Like the main climax, these are turning points in the story. These sub-climaxes can be minor turning points in the main conflict that help build and release suspense during the rising action. They can also be the main turning points for secondary conflicts within a story. You might diagram a plot containing sub-climaxes and a main climax like this:

A diagram of a complex plot, or a plot that contains sub-climaxes.

Falling Action: The events that take place after the climax are called the falling action. These events show the results of the climax, and they act as a bridge between the climax and the dénouement.

Dénouement: The word dénouement comes from the French “to untie” and the Latin “knot,” which gives us an indication of its purpose. It serves as the unraveling of a plot–a resolution to a story. In the dénouement, the central conflict is resolved. However, conflicts aren’t always resolved. Some stories leave secondary conflicts unsettled, and a rare few even leave doubt about the resolution of the main conflict. The dénouement can also leave the story and characters in the same state they were in before the story began. This often occurs when an epilogue tells the reader that all the conflicts in the story have been resolved. Thus, we can see the dénouement as a kind of mirror to the exposition, showing us the same situation at both the beginning and end of a story.


If a story has characters and a plot, these elements must exist within some context. The frame of reference in which the story occurs is known as setting. The most basic definition of setting is one of place and time. You want to ask yourself “Where and when does the story take place?” Gone With the Wind, for example, takes place in Georgia during the American Civil War. Setting can be very important in discovering and highlighting the mood, or the general feeling we get from a story. (Note: Be careful not to mix up mood and tone, as they are not the same thing. Mood is the feeling we get from a story; tone is a way of getting that feeling across.) For instance, Edgar Allan Poe portrays a very dark, oppressive setting in “The Fall of the House of Usher,” which makes the reader share the narrator’s feelings of confinement and depression. In addition, the house in Poe’s story can be seen as a kind of internalized setting. In this kind of setting, an aspect of the story external to a character represents the character’s internal development. For instance, the cracked face of the house can be said to represent the cracked minds of the Usher siblings.

Setting doesn’t have to just include the physical elements of time and place. Setting can also refer to a story’s social and cultural context. There are two questions to consider when dealing with this kind of setting: “What is the cultural and social setting of the story?” and “What was the author’s cultural and social setting when the story was written?” The first question will help you analyze why characters make certain choices and act in certain manners. The second question will allow you to analyze why the author chose to have the characters act in this way.


Finally, you must examine theme in your basic analysis of literature. Theme is the unifying idea behind a story. It connects the plot points, conflicts, and characters to a major idea. It usually provides a broad statement about humanity, life, or our universe. We can think of theme, in its most basic definition, as the message the author tries to send his or her readers.

One thing you should remember about theme is that it must be expressed in a complete sentence. For instance, “discrimination” is not a theme; however, “genetic modification in humans is dangerous because it can result in discrimination” is a complete theme.

A story can have more than one theme, and it is often useful to question and analyze how the themes interact. For instance, does the story have conflicting themes? Or do a number of slightly different themes point the reader toward one conclusion? Sometimes the themes don’t have to connect– many stories use multiple themes in order to bring multiple ideas to the readers’ attention.

So how do we find theme in a work? One way is to examine motifs, or recurring elements in a story. If something appears a number of times within a story, it is likely of significance. A motif can be a statement, a place, an object, or even a sound. Motifs often lead us to discern a theme by drawing attention to it through repetition. In addition, motifs are often symbolic. They can represent any number of things, from a character’s childhood to the loss of a loved one. By examining what a motif symbolizes, you can extrapolate a story’s possible themes. For instance, a story might use a park to represent a character’s childhood. If the author makes constant references to the park, but we later see it replaced by a housing complex, we might draw conclusions about what the story is saying about childhood and the transition to adulthood.

Reading Exercise

Now that you’ve learned the basics of reading literature, read the following short story. Keep an eye out for plot, character, setting, tone, mood, and theme.


by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Young Goodman Brown came forth at sunset into the street at Salem village; but put his head back, after crossing the threshold, to exchange a parting kiss with his young wife. And Faith, as the wife was aptly named, thrust her own pretty head into the street, letting the wind play with the pink ribbons of her cap while she called to Goodman Brown.

“Dearest heart,” whispered she, softly and rather sadly, when her lips were close to his ear, “prithee put off your journey until sunrise and sleep in your own bed to-night. A lone woman is troubled with such dreams and such thoughts that she’s afeard of herself sometimes. Pray tarry with me this night, dear husband, of all nights in the year.”

“My love and my Faith,” replied young Goodman Brown, “of all nights in the year, this one night must I tarry away from thee. My journey, as thou callest it, forth and back again, must needs be done ‘twixt now and sunrise. What, my sweet, pretty wife, dost thou doubt me already, and we but three months married?”

“Then God bless you!” said Faith, with the pink ribbons; “and may you find all well when you come back.”

“Amen!” cried Goodman Brown. “Say thy prayers, dear Faith, and go to bed at dusk, and no harm will come to thee.”

So they parted; and the young man pursued his way until, being about to turn the corner by the meeting-house, he looked back and saw the head of Faith still peeping after him with a melancholy air, in spite of her pink ribbons.

“Poor little Faith!” thought he, for his heart smote him. “What a wretch am I to leave her on such an errand! She talks of dreams, too. Methought as she spoke there was trouble in her face, as if a dream had warned her what work is to be done tonight. But no, no; ‘t would kill her to think it. Well, she’s a blessed angel on earth; and after this one night I’ll cling to her skirts and follow her to heaven.”

With this excellent resolve for the future, Goodman Brown felt himself justified in making more haste on his present evil purpose. He had taken a dreary road, darkened by all the gloomiest trees of the forest, which barely stood aside to let the narrow path creep through, and closed immediately behind. It was all as lonely as could be; and there is this peculiarity in such a solitude, that the traveller knows not who may be concealed by the innumerable trunks and the thick boughs overhead; so that with lonely footsteps he may yet be passing through an unseen multitude.

“There may be a devilish Indian behind every tree,” said Goodman Brown to himself; and he glanced fearfully behind him as he added, “What if the devil himself should be at my very elbow!”

His head being turned back, he passed a crook of the road, and, looking forward again, beheld the figure of a man, in grave and decent attire, seated at the foot of an old tree. He arose at Goodman Brown’s approach and walked onward side by side with him.

“You are late, Goodman Brown,” said he. “The clock of the Old South was striking as I came through Boston, and that is full fifteen minutes agone.”

“Faith kept me back a while,” replied the young man, with a tremor in his voice, caused by the sudden appearance of his companion, though not wholly unexpected.

It was now deep dusk in the forest, and deepest in that part of it where these two were journeying. As nearly as could be discerned, the second traveller was about fifty years old, apparently in the same rank of life as Goodman Brown, and bearing a considerable resemblance to him, though perhaps more in expression than features. Still they might have been taken for father and son. And yet, though the elder person was as simply clad as the younger, and as simple in manner too, he had an indescribable air of one who knew the world, and who would not have felt abashed at the governor’s dinner table or in King William’s court, were it possible that his affairs should call him thither. But the only thing about him that could be fixed upon as remarkable was his staff, which bore the likeness of a great black snake, so curiously wrought that it might almost be seen to twist and wriggle itself like a living serpent. This, of course, must have been an ocular deception, assisted by the uncertain light.

“Come, Goodman Brown,” cried his fellow-traveller, “this is a dull pace for the beginning of a journey. Take my staff, if you are so soon weary.”

“Friend,” said the other, exchanging his slow pace for a full stop, “having kept covenant by meeting thee here, it is my purpose now to return whence I came. I have scruples touching the matter thou wot’st of.”

“Sayest thou so?” replied he of the serpent, smiling apart. “Let us walk on, nevertheless, reasoning as we go; and if I convince thee not thou shalt turn back. We are but a little way in the forest yet.”

“Too far! too far!” exclaimed the goodman, unconsciously resuming his walk. “My father never went into the woods on such an errand, nor his father before him. We have been a race of honest men and good Christians since the days of the martyrs; and shall I be the first of the name of Brown that ever took this path and kept—”

“Such company, thou wouldst say,” observed the elder person, interpreting his pause. “Well said, Goodman Brown! I have been as well acquainted with your family as with ever a one among the Puritans; and that’s no trifle to say. I helped your grandfather, the constable, when he lashed the Quaker woman so smartly through the streets of Salem; and it was I that brought your father a pitch-pine knot, kindled at my own hearth, to set fire to an Indian village, in King Philip’s war. They were my good friends, both; and many a pleasant walk have we had along this path, and returned merrily after midnight. I would fain be friends with you for their sake.”

“If it be as thou sayest,” replied Goodman Brown, “I marvel they never spoke of these matters; or, verily, I marvel not, seeing that the least rumor of the sort would have driven them from New England. We are a people of prayer, and good works to boot, and abide no such wickedness.”

“Wickedness or not,” said the traveller with the twisted staff, “I have a very general acquaintance here in New England. The deacons of many a church have drunk the communion wine with me; the selectmen of divers towns make me their chairman; and a majority of the Great and General Court are firm supporters of my interest. The governor and I, too—But these are state secrets.”

“Can this be so?” cried Goodman Brown, with a stare of amazement at his undisturbed companion. “Howbeit, I have nothing to do with the governor and council; they have their own ways, and are no rule for a simple husbandman like me. But, were I to go on with thee, how should I meet the eye of that good old man, our minister, at Salem village? Oh, his voice would make me tremble both Sabbath day and lecture day.”

Thus far the elder traveller had listened with due gravity; but now burst into a fit of irrepressible mirth, shaking himself so violently that his snake-like staff actually seemed to wriggle in sympathy.

“Ha! ha! ha!” shouted he again and again; then composing himself, “Well, go on, Goodman Brown, go on; but, prithee, don’t kill me with laughing.”

“Well, then, to end the matter at once,” said Goodman Brown, considerably nettled, “there is my wife, Faith. It would break her dear little heart; and I’d rather break my own.”

“Nay, if that be the case,” answered the other, “e’en go thy ways, Goodman Brown. I would not for twenty old women like the one hobbling before us that Faith should come to any harm.”

As he spoke he pointed his staff at a female figure on the path, in whom Goodman Brown recognized a very pious and exemplary dame, who had taught him his catechism in youth, and was still his moral and spiritual adviser, jointly with the minister and Deacon Gookin.

“A marvel, truly, that Goody Cloyse should be so far in the wilderness at nightfall,” said he. “But with your leave, friend, I shall take a cut through the woods until we have left this Christian woman behind. Being a stranger to you, she might ask whom I was consorting with and whither I was going.”

“Be it so,” said his fellow-traveller. “Betake you to the woods, and let me keep the path.”

Accordingly the young man turned aside, but took care to watch his companion, who advanced softly along the road until he had come within a staff’s length of the old dame. She, meanwhile, was making the best of her way, with singular speed for so aged a woman, and mumbling some indistinct words—a prayer, doubtless—as she went. The traveller put forth his staff and touched her withered neck with what seemed the serpent’s tail.

“The devil!” screamed the pious old lady.

“Then Goody Cloyse knows her old friend?” observed the traveller, confronting her and leaning on his writhing stick.

“Ah, forsooth, and is it your worship indeed?” cried the good dame. “Yea, truly is it, and in the very image of my old gossip, Goodman Brown, the grandfather of the silly fellow that now is. But—would your worship believe it?—my broomstick hath strangely disappeared, stolen, as I suspect, by that unhanged witch, Goody Cory, and that, too, when I was all anointed with the juice of smallage, and cinquefoil, and wolf’s bane.”

“Mingled with fine wheat and the fat of a new-born babe,” said the shape of old Goodman Brown.

“Ah, your worship knows the recipe,” cried the old lady, cackling aloud. “So, as I was saying, being all ready for the meeting, and no horse to ride on, I made up my mind to foot it; for they tell me there is a nice young man to be taken into communion to-night. But now your good worship will lend me your arm, and we shall be there in a twinkling.”

“That can hardly be,” answered her friend. “I may not spare you my arm, Goody Cloyse; but here is my staff, if you will.”

So saying, he threw it down at her feet, where, perhaps, it assumed life, being one of the rods which its owner had formerly lent to the Egyptian magi. Of this fact, however, Goodman Brown could not take cognizance. He had cast up his eyes in astonishment, and, looking down again, beheld neither Goody Cloyse nor the serpentine staff, but his fellow-traveller alone, who waited for him as calmly as if nothing had happened.

“That old woman taught me my catechism,” said the young man; and there was a world of meaning in this simple comment.

They continued to walk onward, while the elder traveller exhorted his companion to make good speed and persevere in the path, discoursing so aptly that his arguments seemed rather to spring up in the bosom of his auditor than to be suggested by himself. As they went, he plucked a branch of maple to serve for a walking stick, and began to strip it of the twigs and little boughs, which were wet with evening dew. The moment his fingers touched them they became strangely withered and dried up as with a week’s sunshine. Thus the pair proceeded, at a good free pace, until suddenly, in a gloomy hollow of the road, Goodman Brown sat himself down on the stump of a tree and refused to go any farther.

“Friend,” said he, stubbornly, “my mind is made up. Not another step will I budge on this errand. What if a wretched old woman do choose to go to the devil when I thought she was going to heaven: is that any reason why I should quit my dear Faith and go after her?”

“You will think better of this by and by,” said his acquaintance, composedly. “Sit here and rest yourself a while; and when you feel like moving again, there is my staff to help you along.” Without more words, he threw his companion the maple stick, and was as speedily out of sight as if he had vanished into the deepening gloom. The young man sat a few moments by the roadside, applauding himself greatly, and thinking with how clear a conscience he should meet the minister in his morning walk, nor shrink from the eye of good old Deacon Gookin. And what calm sleep would be his that very night, which was to have been spent so wickedly, but so purely and sweetly now, in the arms of Faith! Amidst these pleasant and praiseworthy meditations, Goodman Brown heard the tramp of horses along the road, and deemed it advisable to conceal himself within the verge of the forest, conscious of the guilty purpose that had brought him thither, though now so happily turned from it.

On came the hoof tramps and the voices of the riders, two grave old voices, conversing soberly as they drew near. These mingled sounds appeared to pass along the road, within a few yards of the young man’s hiding-place; but, owing doubtless to the depth of the gloom at that particular spot, neither the travellers nor their steeds were visible. Though their figures brushed the small boughs by the wayside, it could not be seen that they intercepted, even for a moment, the faint gleam from the strip of bright sky athwart which they must have passed. Goodman Brown alternately crouched and stood on tiptoe, pulling aside the branches and thrusting forth his head as far as he durst without discerning so much as a shadow. It vexed him the more, because he could have sworn, were such a thing possible, that he recognized the voices of the minister and Deacon Gookin, jogging along quietly, as they were wont to do, when bound to some ordination or ecclesiastical council. While yet within hearing, one of the riders stopped to pluck a switch.

“Of the two, reverend sir,” said the voice like the deacon’s, “I had rather miss an ordination dinner than to-night’s meeting. They tell me that some of our community are to be here from Falmouth and beyond, and others from Connecticut and Rhode Island, besides several of the Indian powwows, who, after their fashion, know almost as much deviltry as the best of us. Moreover, there is a goodly young woman to be taken into communion.”

“Mighty well, Deacon Gookin!” replied the solemn old tones of the minister. “Spur up, or we shall be late. Nothing can be done, you know, until I get on the ground.”

The hoofs clattered again; and the voices, talking so strangely in the empty air, passed on through the forest, where no church had ever been gathered or solitary Christian prayed. Whither, then, could these holy men be journeying so deep into the heathen wilderness? Young Goodman Brown caught hold of a tree for support, being ready to sink down on the ground, faint and overburdened with the heavy sickness of his heart. He looked up to the sky, doubting whether there really was a heaven above him. Yet there was the blue arch, and the stars brightening in it.

“With heaven above and Faith below, I will yet stand firm against the devil!” cried Goodman Brown.

While he still gazed upward into the deep arch of the firmament and had lifted his hands to pray, a cloud, though no wind was stirring, hurried across the zenith and hid the brightening stars. The blue sky was still visible, except directly overhead, where this black mass of cloud was sweeping swiftly northward. Aloft in the air, as if from the depths of the cloud, came a confused and doubtful sound of voices. Once the listener fancied that he could distinguish the accents of towns-people of his own, men and women, both pious and ungodly, many of whom he had met at the communion table, and had seen others rioting at the tavern. The next moment, so indistinct were the sounds, he doubted whether he had heard aught but the murmur of the old forest, whispering without a wind. Then came a stronger swell of those familiar tones, heard daily in the sunshine at Salem village, but never until now from a cloud of night. There was one voice of a young woman, uttering lamentations, yet with an uncertain sorrow, and entreating for some favor, which, perhaps, it would grieve her to obtain; and all the unseen multitude, both saints and sinners, seemed to encourage her onward.

“Faith!” shouted Goodman Brown, in a voice of agony and desperation; and the echoes of the forest mocked him, crying, “Faith! Faith!” as if bewildered wretches were seeking her all through the wilderness.

The cry of grief, rage, and terror was yet piercing the night, when the unhappy husband held his breath for a response. There was a scream, drowned immediately in a louder murmur of voices, fading into far-off laughter, as the dark cloud swept away, leaving the clear and silent sky above Goodman Brown. But something fluttered lightly down through the air and caught on the branch of a tree. The young man seized it, and beheld a pink ribbon.

“My Faith is gone!” cried he, after one stupefied moment. “There is no good on earth; and sin is but a name. Come, devil; for to thee is this world given.”

And, maddened with despair, so that he laughed loud and long, did Goodman Brown grasp his staff and set forth again, at such a rate that he seemed to fly along the forest path rather than to walk or run. The road grew wilder and drearier and more faintly traced, and vanished at length, leaving him in the heart of the dark wilderness, still rushing onward with the instinct that guides mortal man to evil. The whole forest was peopled with frightful sounds—the creaking of the trees, the howling of wild beasts, and the yell of Indians; while sometimes the wind tolled like a distant church bell, and sometimes gave a broad roar around the traveller, as if all Nature were laughing him to scorn. But he was himself the chief horror of the scene, and shrank not from its other horrors.

“Ha! ha! ha!” roared Goodman Brown when the wind laughed at him.

“Let us hear which will laugh loudest. Think not to frighten me with your deviltry. Come witch, come wizard, come Indian powwow, come devil himself, and here comes Goodman Brown. You may as well fear him as he fear you.”

In truth, all through the haunted forest there could be nothing more frightful than the figure of Goodman Brown. On he flew among the black pines, brandishing his staff with frenzied gestures, now giving vent to an inspiration of horrid blasphemy, and now shouting forth such laughter as set all the echoes of the forest laughing like demons around him. The fiend in his own shape is less hideous than when he rages in the breast of man. Thus sped the demoniac on his course, until, quivering among the trees, he saw a red light before him, as when the felled trunks and branches of a clearing have been set on fire, and throw up their lurid blaze against the sky, at the hour of midnight. He paused, in a lull of the tempest that had driven him onward, and heard the swell of what seemed a hymn, rolling solemnly from a distance with the weight of many voices. He knew the tune; it was a familiar one in the choir of the village meeting-house. The verse died heavily away, and was lengthened by a chorus, not of human voices, but of all the sounds of the benighted wilderness pealing in awful harmony together. Goodman Brown cried out, and his cry was lost to his own ear by its unison with the cry of the desert.

In the interval of silence he stole forward until the light glared full upon his eyes. At one extremity of an open space, hemmed in by the dark wall of the forest, arose a rock, bearing some rude, natural resemblance either to an alter or a pulpit, and surrounded by four blazing pines, their tops aflame, their stems untouched, like candles at an evening meeting. The mass of foliage that had overgrown the summit of the rock was all on fire, blazing high into the night and fitfully illuminating the whole field. Each pendent twig and leafy festoon was in a blaze. As the red light arose and fell, a numerous congregation alternately shone forth, then disappeared in shadow, and again grew, as it were, out of the darkness, peopling the heart of the solitary woods at once.

“A grave and dark-clad company,” quoth Goodman Brown.

In truth they were such. Among them, quivering to and fro between gloom and splendor, appeared faces that would be seen next day at the council board of the province, and others which, Sabbath after Sabbath, looked devoutly heavenward, and benignantly over the crowded pews, from the holiest pulpits in the land. Some affirm that the lady of the governor was there. At least there were high dames well known to her, and wives of honored husbands, and widows, a great multitude, and ancient maidens, all of excellent repute, and fair young girls, who trembled lest their mothers should espy them. Either the sudden gleams of light flashing over the obscure field bedazzled Goodman Brown, or he recognized a score of the church members of Salem village famous for their especial sanctity. Good old Deacon Gookin had arrived, and waited at the skirts of that venerable saint, his revered pastor. But, irreverently consorting with these grave, reputable, and pious people, these elders of the church, these chaste dames and dewy virgins, there were men of dissolute lives and women of spotted fame, wretches given over to all mean and filthy vice, and suspected even of horrid crimes. It was strange to see that the good shrank not from the wicked, nor were the sinners abashed by the saints. Scattered also among their pale-faced enemies were the Indian priests, or powwows, who had often scared their native forest with more hideous incantations than any known to English witchcraft.

“But where is Faith?” thought Goodman Brown; and, as hope came into his heart, he trembled. Another verse of the hymn arose, a slow and mournful strain, such as the pious love, but joined to words which expressed all that our nature can conceive of sin, and darkly hinted at far more. Unfathomable to mere mortals is the lore of fiends. Verse after verse was sung; and still the chorus of the desert swelled between like the deepest tone of a mighty organ; and with the final peal of that dreadful anthem there came a sound, as if the roaring wind, the rushing streams, the howling beasts, and every other voice of the unconcerted wilderness were mingling and according with the voice of guilty man in homage to the prince of all. The four blazing pines threw up a loftier flame, and obscurely discovered shapes and visages of horror on the smoke wreaths above the impious assembly. At the same moment the fire on the rock shot redly forth and formed a glowing arch above its base, where now appeared a figure. With reverence be it spoken, the figure bore no slight similitude, both in garb and manner, to some grave divine of the New England churches.

“Bring forth the converts!” cried a voice that echoed through the field and rolled into the forest.

At the word, Goodman Brown stepped forth from the shadow of the trees and approached the congregation, with whom he felt a loathful brotherhood by the sympathy of all that was wicked in his heart. He could have well-nigh sworn that the shape of his own dead father beckoned him to advance, looking downward from a smoke wreath, while a woman, with dim features of despair, threw out her hand to warn him back. Was it his mother? But he had no power to retreat one step, nor to resist, even in thought, when the minister and good old Deacon Gookin seized his arms and led him to the blazing rock. Thither came also the slender form of a veiled female, led between Goody Cloyse, that pious teacher of the catechism, and Martha Carrier, who had received the devil’s promise to be queen of hell. A rampant hag was she. And there stood the proselytes beneath the canopy of fire.

“Welcome, my children,” said the dark figure, “to the communion of your race. Ye have found thus young your nature and your destiny. My children, look behind you!”

They turned; and flashing forth, as it were, in a sheet of flame, the fiend worshippers were seen; the smile of welcome gleamed darkly on every visage.

“There,” resumed the sable form, “are all whom ye have reverenced from youth. Ye deemed them holier than yourselves, and shrank from your own sin, contrasting it with their lives of righteousness and prayerful aspirations heavenward. Yet here are they all in my worshipping assembly. This night it shall be granted you to know their secret deeds: how hoary-bearded elders of the church have whispered wanton words to the young maids of their households; how many a woman, eager for widows’ weeds, has given her husband a drink at bedtime and let him sleep his last sleep in her bosom; how beardless youths have made haste to inherit their fathers’ wealth; and how fair damsels—blush not, sweet ones—have dug little graves in the garden, and bidden me, the sole guest to an infant’s funeral. By the sympathy of your human hearts for sin ye shall scent out all the places—whether in church, bedchamber, street, field, or forest—where crime has been committed, and shall exult to behold the whole earth one stain of guilt, one mighty blood spot. Far more than this. It shall be yours to penetrate, in every bosom, the deep mystery of sin, the fountain of all wicked arts, and which inexhaustibly supplies more evil impulses than human power—than my power at its utmost—can make manifest in deeds. And now, my children, look upon each other.”

They did so; and, by the blaze of the hell-kindled torches, the wretched man beheld his Faith, and the wife her husband, trembling before that unhallowed altar.

“Lo, there ye stand, my children,” said the figure, in a deep and solemn tone, almost sad with its despairing awfulness, as if his once angelic nature could yet mourn for our miserable race.

“Depending upon one another’s hearts, ye had still hoped that virtue were not all a dream. Now are ye undeceived. Evil is the nature of mankind. Evil must be your only happiness. Welcome again, my children, to the communion of your race.”

“Welcome,” repeated the fiend worshippers, in one cry of despair and triumph.

And there they stood, the only pair, as it seemed, who were yet hesitating on the verge of wickedness in this dark world. A basin was hollowed, naturally, in the rock. Did it contain water, reddened by the lurid light? or was it blood? or, perchance, a liquid flame? Herein did the shape of evil dip his hand and prepare to lay the mark of baptism upon their foreheads, that they might be partakers of the mystery of sin, more conscious of the secret guilt of others, both in deed and thought, than they could now be of their own. The husband cast one look at his pale wife, and Faith at him. What polluted wretches would the next glance show them to each other, shuddering alike at what they disclosed and what they saw!

“Faith! Faith!” cried the husband, “look up to heaven, and resist the wicked one.”

Whether Faith obeyed he knew not. Hardly had he spoken when he found himself amid calm night and solitude, listening to a roar of the wind which died heavily away through the forest. He staggered against the rock, and felt it chill and damp; while a hanging twig, that had been all on fire, besprinkled his cheek with the coldest dew.

The next morning young Goodman Brown came slowly into the street of Salem village, staring around him like a bewildered man. The good old minister was taking a walk along the graveyard to get an appetite for breakfast and meditate his sermon, and bestowed a blessing, as he passed, on Goodman Brown. He shrank from the venerable saint as if to avoid an anathema. Old Deacon Gookin was at domestic worship, and the holy words of his prayer were heard through the open window. “What God doth the wizard pray to?” quoth Goodman Brown. Goody Cloyse, that excellent old Christian, stood in the early sunshine at her own lattice, catechizing a little girl who had brought her a pint of morning’s milk. Goodman Brown snatched away the child as from the grasp of the fiend himself. Turning the corner by the meeting-house, he spied the head of Faith, with the pink ribbons, gazing anxiously forth, and bursting into such joy at sight of him that she skipped along the street and almost kissed her husband before the whole village. But Goodman Brown looked sternly and sadly into her face, and passed on without a greeting.

Had Goodman Brown fallen asleep in the forest and only dreamed a wild dream of a witch-meeting?

Be it so if you will; but, alas! it was a dream of evil omen for young Goodman Brown. A stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not a desperate man did he become from the night of that fearful dream. On the Sabbath day, when the congregation were singing a holy psalm, he could not listen because an anthem of sin rushed loudly upon his ear and drowned all the blessed strain. When the minister spoke from the pulpit with power and fervid eloquence, and, with his hand on the open Bible, of the sacred truths of our religion, and of saint-like lives and triumphant deaths, and of future bliss or misery unutterable, then did Goodman Brown turn pale, dreading lest the roof should thunder down upon the gray blasphemer and his hearers. Often, waking suddenly at midnight, he shrank from the bosom of Faith; and at morning or eventide, when the family knelt down at prayer, he scowled and muttered to himself, and gazed sternly at his wife, and turned away. And when he had lived long, and was borne to his grave a hoary corpse, followed by Faith, an aged woman, and children and grandchildren, a goodly procession, besides neighbors not a few, they carved no hopeful verse upon his tombstone, for his dying hour was gloom.

Review Questions

  1. Write a 10-minute freewrite about your subjective view of “Young Goodman Brown.” Some questions you might want to consider: Did the story hold you in suspense, or did you find the plot predictable? What did you think of the ending? What did you think of Hawthorne’s style of writing? What is Hawthorne saying about the society in which Goodman Brown lives? What is Hawthorne saying about Goodman Brown?
  2. Sketch a diagram of the plot of “Young Goodman Brown,” labeling the inciting incident, exposition, rising and falling action, climax, sub-climaxes, dénouement, and resolution. 2a. What point did you choose as the climax of “Young Goodman Brown” and why? 2b. Do you think “Young Goodman Brown” has several sub-climaxes, or are his encounters with the townspeople just part of the rising action? Explain your reasoning.
  3. What conflicts does Goodman Brown encounter? Are they internal conflicts, external conflicts, or both? Explain your reasoning.
  4. We know that Goodman Brown is the protagonist of the story. However, who is the antagonist? Is there more than one?
  5. What is the setting of “Young Goodman Brown”? 5a. Does the story have an internalized setting? If so, what is it and who internalizes it? 5b. What is the mood of “Young Goodman Brown”?
  6. List some possible themes in “Young Goodman Brown.” Remember, a theme is expressed in a sentence, not in one or two words. 6a. Are there any motifs in “Young Goodman Brown” to reinforce the themes you listed? What are they?



Subjective Reading
Paying attention to the feelings a story gives you when you read it. When you read subjectively, you follow your intuition about characters and plot points.
Objective Reading
Paying attention to the character, plot, setting, theme, diction, and syntax when you read a story and using these elements to analyze that story.
The attitude writing can take towards its subject or audience. Tone generally applies to specific sentences or paragraphs, not to the text as a whole.
The word choice used throughout a text.
The order in which a sentence is put together grammatically.


A person participating in, or alluded to, in the action of a story. Characters can also be animals or inanimate objects.
The main problem in a story. It is tension in a story between two or more characters, groups, things, or events.
Internal Conflict
Conflict that takes place within an individual, such as a conflict of morals or of emotions.
External Conflict
Conflict that takes place outside an individual, such as a war or feud.
The main character(s) of a story. The events of a story focus on the protagonist(s).
The character(s), thing(s), event(s), or group(s) that stands in opposition to the protagonist(s).
A protagonist who does not embody traditional heroic values.
Secondary/Minor Character
Characters in the story who are not the protagonist(s) or antagonist(s).
A character type that has been repeated in literature throughout history.


The set of events that make up a story.
Inciting Incident
The event that sets off the main conflict in a plot.
Parts of the story that tell us about setting and main characters and hit at theme and possible conflicts.
Rising Action
The series of events in a plot that build up to the climax.
The turning point of the story; it is the incident that allows the story to resolve.
Falling Action
The events in a story that take place between the climax and the dénouement.
The point in the story at which the central conflict is resolved.


The frame of reference in which the story takes place. This includes place, time, and social/cultural context.
The general feeling the reader gets from the story.
Internalized Setting
When an aspect of the story external to a character represents the character’s internal development.


The unifying idea or ideas behind a story. Theme usually provides a broad statement about humanity, life, or our universe and should be expressed in a complete sentence.
Recurring elements in a story which points to a theme. Motifs can be objects, sounds, statements, etc.


Nathaniel Hawthorne, “Young Goodman Brown.” From “Mosses from an Old Manse and Other Stories,” http://www.gutenberg.org/


Visual Rhetoric



This chapter will describe visual rhetoric and its related fields of study so that you will be able to recognize how visual media is employed to achieve a rhetorical effect.

Below is a graphic display in the lobby of a building. The display attempts to visualize the key values of an organization using visual rhetoric. As you can see, some of the instances work well (“Teamwork”) while others don’t quite achieve the desired effect. For example, what does a gazebo dock have to do with accountability? What could the author have used instead?

Our Values sign


Visual rhetoric is a special area of academic study unto its own. It has a long history in the study of art and semiotics (the study of symbols) and it has kinship to the classical study of oral rhetoric such as persuasive speeches and legal arguments.

For the purpose of our studies, we will define the phrase “visual rhetoric” as the means by which visual imagery can be used to achieve a communication goal such as to influence people’s attitudes, opinions, and beliefs. The study of visual rhetoric, therefore, is to ask the question, “How do images act rhetorically upon viewers?” (Hill, C. A., & Helmers, M., 2012, p. 1).

The techniques of visual rhetoric align with the classic pillars of rhetoric:

  • Ethos –  An ethical appeal meant to convince an audience of the author’s credibility or character.
  • Pathos –  An emotional appeal meant to persuade an audience by appealing to their emotions.
  • Logos –  An appeal to logic meant to convince an audience by use of logic or reason.


One of today’s most familiar uses of visual rhetoric are the memes you see in social media. Memes, in an incredibly concise and penetrating way, are able to punctuate a dialogue or issue with “likes” and shares calculating a somewhat blunt measure of their popularity.

An example of a popular meme as documented by the KnowYourMeme.com website.

From KnowYourMeme.com: “Success Kid, sometimes known as I Hate Sandcastles, is a reaction image of a baby at a beach with a smug facial expression. It has been used in image macros to designate either success or frustration. In early 2011, the original image was turned into an advice animal style image macro with captions describing a situation that goes better than expected.” © KnowYourMeme.com All Rights Reserved

So if memes are a common part of your daily communication, it is a good entry point for describing the capability of visual rhetoric.

    Read     Purdue OWL: Visual Rhetoric Overview

This brief resource will show a graphical representation of visual rhetoric in relation to other disciplines plus some references to other research.

    Read     The American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) – Visual Rhetoric: An Introduction for Students of Visual Communication

This article provides an overview of visual rhetoric as a body of knowledge within visual literacy and graphic design.


In this section, we will describe the areas of foundation knowledge that surround the principles of visual rhetoric.


Before describing the principles of visual rhetoric, it is important to fully understand the traditions of rhetoric in speaking and writing. The video below describes the foundation elements of rhetoric – logos, pathos, and ethos (logic, emotion, and credibility).


As described in the Introduction chapter, visual imagery is analogue, meaning that it is analogous to, or bears a similarity to, that which it represents. Authors use the power of analogy to create a symbolic message.

In the example below (figure 1), we see a poster used during Word War I portraying a fierce gorilla symbolizing a terrifying German enemy while the draped bare chested woman symbolizes the spirit of American liberty. The poster is intended to convey the idea that, unless you enlist in the U.S. Army, the German Kaiser’s rabid soldiers would eventually land on American soil.


propaganda poster of terrifying gorilla world war I
Fig. 1 – “WWI Recruitment Poster” – Public Domain license via Wikimedia Commons

A reasonable person would know that there really wasn’t any risk of an actual gorilla landing on the shores of United States who would, in one hand, scoop up a helpless woman to carry around while he whacked things with his club. Still, the rhetorical effect contributed to a larger communication strategy at the time to foster an effort to increase recruitment. This was achieved through the use of overt symbolic references to real objects combined with dramatic composition techniques (the gorilla’s feet standing on top of the word “America”, bold typefaces, blood colors, stormy green skies, and urgent text).

The study of symbols, metaphors, expressions, and signs to represent ideas, emotions, action, and information is the discipline called semiotics. Semiotics extends to other realms of communication such as color coding, art, graffiti, universal codes for public spaces, and even to the wordless assembly instructions of a piece of IKEA furniture (see figure 2).

IKEA guy
Fig. 2 – “IKEA Guy” © IKEA All Rights Reserved

Techniques of visual rhetoric include using symbolic references to elicit a reaction from your audience. So as you select some kind of imagery as part of your visual communication, you would be employing the psychological language of symbolism to achieve your effect.

Key Takeaway #1

Using images as symbols for ideas, expressions, ideologies, and other entities is an effective way to promote your message.


Language: Linguists study language in both its written and spoken form including its historical, cultural, anthropological, and political backgrounds. As described in the Introduction chapter, written language is produced in the form of a code (the alphabet). Words, as a code for a specific meaning in the dictionary, are often insufficient in conveying the intended meaning of a message unequivocally. If you have ever experienced the awkwardness of an email message or social media post that was misinterpreted by others in the worst possible way, you are familiar with this phenomenon.

The cause of this problem is rooted in the complexity of conveying a message in a medium that is too lean to punctuate how the message is to be interpreted. An example would be the difference between sending a letter to one’s beloved versus saying the same words in person. The beloved’s interpretation of the same message in the form of a letter could be different than if it were conveyed face-to-face even if the same words were used. The absence of non-verbal cues in the letter could cause a certain sarcastic or humorous passage to be errantly perceived as an insult.

Famed linguist Gregory Bateson (1968) described how a message is segmented into “content” and “relationship”. While the content could be described as the literal meaning of words as decoded by the lexicon of our language, the relationship portion of a message is the part that cues the receiver about how that message is to be taken as.

It is the author’s challenge to account for the audience’s need for both meaning and interpretation.

Discourse: We use language as the basis of human discourse, which is defined as “the production of knowledge through language” (Hall, 1997, p. 44). Hall’s inclusion of the word “production” supposes that knowledge is a process of human construction: As we communicate, we are constructing a shared sense of truth and reality while forming the contours of a social world. Our social world “… is the overall outcome of our joint processes of social – specifically, communicative – construction” (Couldry, N., 2018, p. 18).

As you construct messages through the use of oral, written, and visual media, you are, in essence, creating a shared understanding – a reality – through a social process communication.

Key Takeaway #2

You will be challenged to compose messages so that they are interpreted by your audience as you intended to create a shared sense of reality.


The traditional study of rhetoric, as the prior video describes, is the study of communication in the art of persuasion. The term visual rhetoric suggests that there is kinship with traditional oral rhetoric and written rhetoric, but in a different (visual) form.

For example, in the print ad below for Pinnacle Bank, the visual element has nothing to do with banking, but has everything to do with persuading the viewer that the bank has ethos, or credibility, with respect to the individuals or businesses they are appealing to. To the audience, the selection of a farm image is intended to recognize the audience’s perspective, interests, traditions, and livelihood so that it promotes feelings of trust, connection, and mutual understanding, even though the occupations of banker and farmer couldn’t be more different.


Nebraska Bank
© Pinnacle Bank – All Rights Reserved

In the example below, we see an effort to appeal to both emotion (pathos) and logic (logos) in the famous “Morning in America” TV ad from the 1984 presidential election. The emotional elements are triggered through the use of the wedding scene and the flag raising scene. The logical element, expressed in the narrator’s voiceover, is presented in the form of economic statistics and reinforced by a question that asks why we would want to return to the conditions that preceded president Reagan’s first term in office.

Thumbnail for the embedded element "Ronald Reagan TV Ad: "Its morning in america again""

A YouTube element has been excluded from this version of the text. You can view it online here: https://idaho.pressbooks.pub/write/?p=896

Below is a “making of the TV ad” feature (4:00) created by RetroReport.org that describes the communication strategy behind the making of the “Morning in America” TV ad. This ad is recognized as one of the most effective political ads in American history.Pay close attention at about 2:10 into the video as the producer describes the wedding scene as a rhetorical device and how the perception of the ad was received by the public, even though the ad contained no policy or political stances. As you can see, visual media can have a powerful effect on how a message is received.
Thumbnail for the embedded element "Morning in America: Political Ads That Changed the Game | Retro Report"

A YouTube element has been excluded from this version of the text. You can view it online here: https://idaho.pressbooks.pub/write/?p=896




Not all visual information in media is intended for a rhetorical purpose. In deconstructing visual media, you will be challenged to distinguish between visual imagery that is purposeful and imagery that has no particular purpose other than decoration. In the example below, the globe image, by itself, does not elevate the information on the slide to a higher level of meaning. Removing the image of the globe would not take away from the meaning of the other information.

This is an example of a slide where the image does not promote a rhetorical effect. It is purely decorative.

decorative example


In the example below, we see another version of the same slide where a different image is used for a rhetorical effect. In this case, the intended message is extended beyond the literal meaning of the words in the bullet list. The audience gets the sense that the entities served by this corporation are not just those listed, but that they embrace a spirit of diversity and inclusion. The effect of this strategy should be that prospective clients of all backgrounds are welcome to do business with this organization.

diverse corporate environment



Visual rhetoric draws upon the rhetorical traditions found in oral and written rhetoric and operates to achieve the same effect on human perception. Human’s communicate using a combination of codes, symbols, analogies, and discourse to form a shared reality.

The author of visual media will need to account for the audience’s need for both information and how that information is intended to be taken as within a larger communicative context.


Bateson, G. (1968). Information and codification: A philosophical approach. In J. Ruesch, & G. Bateson (Eds.), Communication: The social matrix of psychiatry (pp. 168–211). New York, NY: Norton.

Couldry, N., & Hepp, A. (2018). The mediated construction of reality. John Wiley & Sons.

Hall, S. (1997). The work of representation. In S. Hall (Ed.), Representation: cultural representations and signifying practices (pp. 15-64). London: SAGE Publications in association with The Open University.

Hill, C. A., & Helmers, M. (Eds.). (2012). Defining visual rhetorics. Routledge.

Film Analysis


What this handout is about

This handout provides a brief definition of film analysis compared to literary analysis, provides an introduction to common types of film analysis, and offers strategies and resources for approaching assignments.

What is film analysis, and how does it differ from literary analysis?

Film analysis is the process in which film is analyzed in terms of semiotics, narrative structure, cultural context, and mise-en-scene, among other approaches. If these terms are new to you, don’t worry—they’ll be explained in the next section.

Analyzing film, like analyzing literature (fiction texts, etc.), is a form of rhetorical analysis—critically analyzing and evaluating discourse, including words, phrases, and images. Having a clear argument and supporting evidence is every bit as critical to film analysis as to other forms of academic writing.

Unlike literature, film incorporates audiovisual elements and therefore introduces a new dimension to analysis. Ultimately, however, analysis of film is not too different. Think of all the things that make up a scene in a film: the actors, the lighting, the angles, the colors. All of these things may be absent in literature, but they are deliberate choices on the part of the director, producer, or screenwriter—as are the words chosen by the author of a work of literature. Furthermore, literature and film incorporate similar elements. They both have plots, characters, dialogue, settings, symbolism, and, just as the elements of literature can be analyzed for their intent and effect, these elements can be analyzed the same way in film.

Different types of film analysis

Listed here are common approaches to film analysis, but this is by no means an exhaustive list, and you may have discussed other approaches in class. As with any other assignment, make sure you understand your professor’s expectations. This guide is best used to understand prompts or, in the case of more open-ended assignments, consider the different ways to analyze film.

Keep in mind that any of the elements of film can be analyzed, oftentimes in tandem. A single film analysis essay may simultaneously include all of the following approaches and more. As Jacques Aumont and Michel Marie propose in Analysis of Film, there is no correct, universal way to write film analysis.

Semiotic analysis

Semiotic analysis is the analysis of meaning behind signs and symbols, typically involving metaphors, analogies, and symbolism.

This doesn’t necessarily need to be something dramatic; think about how you extrapolate information from the smallest signs in your day to day life. For instance, what characteristics can tell you about someone’s personality? Something as simple as someone’s appearance can reveal information about them. Mismatched shoes and bedhead might be a sign of carelessness (or something crazy happened that morning!), while an immaculate dress shirt and tie would suggest that the person is prim and proper. Continuing in that vein:

Symbols denote concepts (liberty, peace, etc.) and feelings (hate, love, etc.) that they often have nothing to do with. They are used liberally in both literature and film, and finding them uses a similar process. Ask yourself:

Again, the method of semiotic analysis in film is similar to that of literature. Think about the deeper meaning behind objects or actions.

Narrative structure analysis

Narrative structure analysis is the analysis of the story elements, including plot structure, character motivations, and theme. Like the dramatic structure of literature (exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution), film has what is known as the Three-Act Structure: “Act One: Setup, Act Two: Confrontation, and Act Three: Resolution.” Narrative structure analysis breaks the story of the film into these three elements and might consider questions like:

Consider again the example of Frozen. You can use symbolism and narrative structure in conjunction by placing the symbolic objects/events in the context of the narrative structure. For instance, the first appearance of the gloves is in Act One, while their abandoning takes place in Act Two; thus, the story progresses in such a way that demonstrates Elsa’s personal growth. By the time of Act Three, the Resolution, her aversion to touch (a product of fearing her own magic) is gone, reflecting a theme of self-acceptance.

Contextual analysis

Contextual analysis is analysis of the film as part of a broader context. Think about the culture, time, and place of the film’s creation. What might the film say about the culture that created it? What were/are the social and political concerns of the time period? Or, like researching the author of a novel, you might consider the director, producer, and other people vital to the making of the film. What is the place of this film in the director’s career? Does it align with his usual style of directing, or does it move in a new direction? Other examples of contextual approaches might be analyzing the film in terms of a civil rights or feminist movement.

For example, Frozen is often linked to the LGBTQ social movement. You might agree or disagree with this interpretation, and, using evidence from the film, support your argument.

Some other questions to consider:

Mise-en-scene analysis

Mise-en-scene analysis is analysis of the arrangement of compositional elements in film—essentially, the analysis of audiovisual elements that most distinctly separate film analysis from literary analysis. Remember that the important part of a mise-en-scene analysis is not just identifying the elements of a scene, but explaining the significance behind them.

Audiovisual elements that can be analyzed include (but are not limited to): props and costumes, setting, lighting, camera angles, frames, special effects, choreography, music, color values, depth, placement of characters, etc. Mise-en-scene is typically the most foreign part of writing film analysis because the other components discussed are common to literary analysis, while mise-en-scene deals with elements unique to film. Using specific film terminology bolsters credibility, but you should also consider your audience. If your essay is meant to be accessible to non-specialist readers, explain what terms mean. The Resources section of this handout has links to sites that describe mise-en-scene elements in detail.

Rewatching the film and creating screen captures (still images) of certain scenes can help with detailed analysis of colors, positioning of actors, placement of objects, etc. Listening to the soundtrack can also be helpful, especially when placed in the context of particular scenes.

Some example questions:

Writing the film analysis essay

Writing film analysis is similar to writing literary analysis or any argumentative essay in other disciplines: Consider the assignment and prompts, formulate a thesis (see the Brainstorming Handout and Thesis Statement Handout for help crafting a nuanced argument), compile evidence to prove your thesis, and lay out your argument in the essay. Your evidence may be different from what you are used to. Whereas in the English essay you use textual evidence and quotes, in a film analysis essay, you might also include audiovisual elements to bolster your argument.

When describing a sequence in a film, use the present tense, like you would write in the literary present when describing events of a novel, i.e. not “Elsa took off her gloves,” but “Elsa takes off her gloves.” When quoting dialogue from a film, if between multiple characters, use block quotes: Start the quotation on a new line, with the entire quote indented one inch from the left margin. However, conventions are flexible, so ask your professor if you are unsure. It may also help to follow the formatting of the script, if you can find it. For example:

ELSA: But she won’t remember I have powers?
KING: It’s for the best.

You do not need to use quotation marks for blocked-off dialogue, but for shorter quotations in the main text, quotation marks should be double quotes (“…”).

Here are some tips for approaching film analysis:


New York Film Academy Glossary
Movie Outline Glossary
Movie Script Database
Citation Practices: Film and Television

Works Consulted

We consulted these works while writing the original version of this handout. This is not a comprehensive list of resources on the handout’s topic, and we encourage you to do your own research to find the latest publications on this topic. Please do not use this list as a model for the format of your own reference list, as it may not match the citation style you are using. For guidance on formatting citations, please see the UNC Libraries citation tutorial.

Aumont, Jacques, and Michel Marie. L’analyse Des Films. Paris: Nathan, 1988. Print.
Pruter, Robin Franson. “Writing About Film.” Writing About Film. DePaul University, 08 Mar. 2004. Web. 01 May 2016.

“Film Analysis.” The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License


Cause and Effect


[Author removed at request of original publisher]

Learning Objectives

  1. Determine the purpose and structure of cause and effect in writing.
  2. Understand how to write a cause-and-effect essay.

The Purpose of Cause and Effect in Writing

It is often considered human nature to ask, “why?” and “how?” We want to know how our child got sick so we can better prevent it from happening in the future, or why our colleague a pay raise because we want one as well. We want to know how much money we will save over the long term if we buy a hybrid car. These examples identify only a few of the relationships we think about in our lives, but each shows the importance of understanding cause and effect.

A cause is something that produces an event or condition; an effect is what results from an event or condition. The purpose of the cause-and-effect essay is to determine how various phenomena relate in terms of origins and results. Sometimes the connection between cause and effect is clear, but often determining the exact relationship between the two is very difficult. For example, the following effects of a cold may be easily identifiable: a sore throat, runny nose, and a cough. But determining the cause of the sickness can be far more difficult. A number of causes are possible, and to complicate matters, these possible causes could have combined to cause the sickness. That is, more than one cause may be responsible for any given effect. Therefore, cause-and-effect discussions are often complicated and frequently lead to debates and arguments.


Use the complex nature of cause and effect to your advantage. Often it is not necessary, or even possible, to find the exact cause of an event or to name the exact effect. So, when formulating a thesis, you can claim one of a number of causes or effects to be the primary, or main, cause or effect. As soon as you claim that one cause or one effect is more crucial than the others, you have developed a thesis.

Exercise 1

Consider the causes and effects in the following thesis statements. List a cause and effect for each one on your own sheet of paper.

  1. The growing childhood obesity epidemic is a result of technology.
  2. Much of the wildlife is dying because of the oil spill.
  3. The town continued programs that it could no longer afford, so it went bankrupt.
  4. More young people became politically active as use of the Internet spread throughout society.
  5. While many experts believed the rise in violence was due to the poor economy, it was really due to the summer-long heat wave.

Exercise 2

Write three cause-and-effect thesis statements of your own for each of the following five broad topics.

  1. Health and nutrition
  2. Sports
  3. Media
  4. Politics
  5. History

The Structure of a Cause-and-Effect Essay

The cause-and-effect essay opens with a general introduction to the topic, which then leads to a thesis that states the main cause, main effect, or various causes and effects of a condition or event.

The cause-and-effect essay can be organized in one of the following two primary ways:

  1. Start with the cause and then talk about the effects.
  2. Start with the effect and then talk about the causes.

For example, if your essay were on childhood obesity, you could start by talking about the effect of childhood obesity and then discuss the cause or you could start the same essay by talking about the cause of childhood obesity and then move to the effect.

Regardless of which structure you choose, be sure to explain each element of the essay fully and completely. Explaining complex relationships requires the full use of evidence, such as scientific studies, expert testimony, statistics, and anecdotes.

Because cause-and-effect essays determine how phenomena are linked, they make frequent use of certain words and phrases that denote such linkage. See Table 10.4 “Phrases of Causation” for examples of such terms.


Table 10.4 Phrases of Causation

as a result consequently
because due to
hence since
thus therefore

The conclusion should wrap up the discussion and reinforce the thesis, leaving the reader with a clear understanding of the relationship that was analyzed.


Be careful of resorting to empty speculation. In writing, speculation amounts to unsubstantiated guessing. Writers are particularly prone to such trappings in cause-and-effect arguments due to the complex nature of finding links between phenomena. Be sure to have clear evidence to support the claims that you make.

Exercise 3

Look at some of the cause-and-effect relationships from Note 10.83 “Exercise 2”. Outline the links you listed. Outline one using a cause-then-effect structure. Outline the other using the effect-then-cause structure.

Writing a Cause-and-Effect Essay

Choose an event or condition that you think has an interesting cause-and-effect relationship. Introduce your topic in an engaging way. End your introduction with a thesis that states the main cause, the main effect, or both.

Organize your essay by starting with either the cause-then-effect structure or the effect-then-cause structure. Within each section, you should clearly explain and support the causes and effects using a full range of evidence. If you are writing about multiple causes or multiple effects, you may choose to sequence either in terms of order of importance. In other words, order the causes from least to most important (or vice versa), or order the effects from least important to most important (or vice versa).

Use the phrases of causation when trying to forge connections between various events or conditions. This will help organize your ideas and orient the reader. End your essay with a conclusion that summarizes your main points and reinforces your thesis. See below to read a sample cause-and-effect essay:

Effects of Video Game Addiction

Video game addition is a serious problem in many parts of the world today and deserves more attention. It is no secret that children and adults in many countries throughout the world, including Japan, China, and the United States, play video games every day. Most players are able to limit their usage in ways that do not interfere with their daily lives, but many others have developed an addiction to playing video games and suffer detrimental effects.

An addiction can be described in several ways, but generally speaking, addictions involve unhealthy attractions to substances or activities that ultimately disrupt the ability of a person to keep up with regular daily responsibilities. Video game addiction typically involves playing games uncontrollably for many hours at a time—some people will play only four hours at a time while others cannot stop for over twenty-four hours. Regardless of the severity of the addiction, many of the same effects will be experienced by all.

One common effect of video game addiction is isolation and withdrawal from social experiences. Video game players often hide in their homes or in Internet cafés for days at a time—only reemerging for the most pressing tasks and necessities. The effect of this isolation can lead to a breakdown of communication skills and often a loss in socialization. While it is true that many games, especially massive multiplayer online games, involve a very real form of e-based communication and coordination with others, and these virtual interactions often result in real communities that can be healthy for the players, these communities and forms of communication rarely translate to the types of valuable social interaction that humans need to maintain typical social functioning. As a result, the social networking in these online games often gives the users the impression that they are interacting socially, while their true social lives and personal relations may suffer.

Another unfortunate product of the isolation that often accompanies video game addiction is the disruption of the user’s career. While many players manage to enjoy video games and still hold their jobs without problems, others experience challenges at their workplace. Some may only experience warnings or demerits as a result of poorer performance, or others may end up losing their jobs altogether. Playing video games for extended periods of time often involves sleep deprivation, and this tends to carry over to the workplace, reducing production and causing habitual tardiness.

Video game addiction may result in a decline in overall health and hygiene. Players who interact with video games for such significant amounts of time can go an entire day without eating and even longer without basic hygiene tasks, such as using the restroom or bathing. The effects of this behavior pose significant danger to their overall health.

The causes of video game addiction are complex and can vary greatly, but the effects have the potential to be severe. Playing video games can and should be a fun activity for all to enjoy. But just like everything else, the amount of time one spends playing video games needs to be balanced with personal and social responsibilities.

Online Cause-and-Effective Essay Alternatives

Lawrence Otis Graham examines racism, and whether it has changed since the 1970s, in The “Black Table” Is Still There:

Robin Tolmach Lakoff discusses the power of language to dehumanize in From Ancient Greece to Iraq: The Power of Words in Wartime:

Alan Weisman examines the human impact on the planet and its effects in Earth without People:


Exercise 4

Choose one of the ideas you outlined in Note 10.85 “Exercise 3” and write a full cause-and-effect essay. Be sure to include an engaging introduction, a clear thesis, strong evidence and examples, and a thoughtful conclusion.

Key Takeaways

  • The purpose of the cause-and-effect essay is to determine how various phenomena are related.
  • The thesis states what the writer sees as the main cause, main effect, or various causes and effects of a condition or event.
  • The cause-and-effect essay can be organized in one of these two primary ways:

    1. Start with the cause and then talk about the effect.
    2. Start with the effect and then talk about the cause.
  • Strong evidence is particularly important in the cause-and-effect essay due to the complexity of determining connections between phenomena.
  • Phrases of causation are helpful in signaling links between various elements in the essay.


Cause and Effect in Writing for Success by University of Minnesota is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 unless where otherwise noted.

Sample Writing Assignments


Sample Writing Assignments

Curated by Amy Minervini

Rhetorical Analysis

Assignment borrowed from: https://canvas.santarosa.edu/courses/15110/pages/rhetorical-analysis-essay-prompt


Write a 4-page rhetorical analysis (analysis of the argument) of the assigned text.  You will need to complete two different tasks: (1) summarize the text’s argument and (2) explain how the text’s argument is put together.


In the summary section, you will need to first introduce the text you will be analyzing.  Then you will summarize what the text argues, noting the central claims and key evidence.

The analysis section of the paper should take up the majority of the 4 pages.  Here you are trying to analyze and explain how the argument was put together (which rhetorical strategies it uses).  How are those strategies meant to impact the reader?  In other words, how do the strategies attempt to influence the reader’s thoughts and feelings?  How do the strategies relate to and support the overall argument?  

You will need a thesis that identifies the argumentative strategies you will discuss.  Here is a sample thesis: “Author X’s argument is mainly dependent on emotional appeals, and he uses detailed description and narration to support those emotional appeals.”  For this thesis, you would then need to go on and explain and give examples of different emotional appeals that use description and narration from the text.

You need to decide which aspects of the argumentative strategy you want to focus on.  It would be impossible for you to explain all of the argumentative features of a text in 2-3 pages, so focus on the strategies that are most interesting or obvious to you, or that you think are most important to the success of the argument.  You could explain the author’s use of any one of the following rhetorical strategies and concepts we’ve discussed so far in class:

Again, rather than trying to address everything on the list above, which would be impossible, discuss what you think the text’s most important or notable rhetorical features are.  

Textual Analysis

Assignment borrowed from: https://gcccd.instructure.com/courses/20188/pages/essay-1-prompt-read-carefully


We began our journey with “language” this semester with a couple short articles about Growth Mindset and a writing assignment targeting core academic literacy skills. College-level reading and writing can be intimidating for students because it is seen as difficult, an exclusive club to which not many people are invited. However, I would argue that once students understand the “moves,” or common practices, in academic writing, they can be successful scholars.

With this assignment, we introduce the foundational idea that academic writing is a “conversation” between scholars. In other words, intellectual writing is almost always produced in response to other texts, and does not exist as personal responses to random topics. Writing is a social, ongoing, and conversational act.


The purpose of this assignment is to:

  1. Read and respond to a college-level text.
  2. Compose college-level writing.
  3. Produce an academic summary of an article.
  4. Respond to a topic with an original argument.


1.     Use active/critical reading strategies to produce accurate, concise summaries of college level/academic texts.

2.     Synthesize researched material from multiple texts to create and support an argument in response to a prompt. Draw direct evidence from texts in support of claims and analyze how that evidence supports the claim.

3.     Utilize the various phases in the writing process—prewriting, writing revision, and proofreading—to produce clear, articulate, well-supported, well-organized essays.

4.     Avoid plagiarism by properly citing quoted, summarized, and paraphrased material using MLA format.




Compose an essay, between 900-1200 words in length (about 4 pages NOT counting the Works Cited page), which answers the following question:

Is the idea of growth mindset the most effective/important way to improve our education system and student success? 

More Specifically:

Literary Analysis

Assignments borrowed from: https://www.voorhees.k12.nj.us/cms/lib/NJ01000237/Centricity/Domain/2766/WW-V—Novel-Packet.pdf and Copyrighted by Holt, Rinehart, and Winston

Choose your own issue for your literary analysis of a novel, or use one of the following prompts:

Think of a novel in which the main character’s profession is integral to the story. What is the author trying to tell you about the character through the character’s profession? How would the story change if you put the character in another, very different profession? Write a literary analysis explaining what the character’s work says about him or her. Present your analysis to a group of career-minded students.

Select a novel that centers around events at a school. Write a literary analysis explaining how the setting affects the tone and the point of view of the story. Share your analysis with fellow students.

Select a character such as Huck Finn, Reverend Dimmesdale from The Scarlet Letter, or another character from a novel you know. List in chronological order the actions of the character. What do the actions reveal about the character? Do the character’s actions fit together, or do they contradict each other? Write an analysis of the character; be sure to include paraphrases or quotations from the text to support your analysis. Present your findings to a group of students interested in psychology.

Physicists think of time as a fourth dimension, coloring how we perceive the world around us. Similarly, the way time is manipulated in novels affects our perceptions of the present moment of the story. Think of a novel in which time is manipulated: Scenes may be rushed or elongated (for example, an entire novel that takes place over the course of a few hours or a battle scene that seems to flash by in mere moments), or the writer may use flashbacks to take us back in time. Write a literary analysis about how time is manipulated in a novel. Present your findings to a group of students interested in science.

Most novels are set in specific places and historical periods that are central to the theme of the novel—for example, The Red Badge of Courage, The Grapes of Wrath, and countless others. Select a novel that is set in a historical period familiar to you. Identify the important historical details that the writer includes to bring the novel to life, and write a literary analysis explaining how those details relate to the theme. Present your analysis to group of students interested in history.

Image/Visual Analysis

Assignment borrowed from: https://phpmysql.howardcc.edu/Instructors/ENGL121/2017/08/visual-analysis-assignment-idea-jeff-moore/

In this essay, you will choose a movie poster to analyze rhetorically, arguing for at least two of the rhetorical strategies outlined in the rhetorical triangle (ethos, logos, and pathos) used in the poster, and at least two additional visual rhetorical strategies. Put another way, you will be using two of the rhetorical strategies to discuss at least three visual elements from the poster of your choice. While you are free to choose a movie poster you feel would be interesting to discuss, you’ll also want to be certain that there is enough content to write about, and that you can identify at least two rhetorical features within it. For example, the movie poster from Titanic, seen below, can be said to rely heavily on pathos, but there are other rhetorical strategies at play (this is followed by an example of how to cite a movie poster on your Works Cited page):