Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Essential Skills for Using Quoted Passages in Your Middle or High School Essay (U.S. Format)

Whenever you write a literary analysis essay, it is assumed that you will use quoted material from the literature you are examining. The way you choose what to include, skillfully include it, and properly take the reader to the next idea determines the effectiveness of the quote in your essay as a whole.

First, choose the example from your source that helps demonstrate, clarify, or exemplify the point you are making in the essay. If your topic is Kay Thompson’s representation of a little girl’s typical behavior, you will want to choose effective references to Eloise’s actions. Here is an example:
as Eloise does. Thompson gives her protagonist, who lives with her parents in a New York City hotel, a conversational tone and the attitudes of a normal child of six: “I am a city child. I live at The Plaza. There is a lobby which is enormously large with marble pillars and ladies in it and a revolving door. . . . I am a nuisance in the lobby. Mr. Salomone said so. He is the manager” (8-11), Eloise explains in a chatty manner. By showing us the world through a small girl’s eyes, with her extremely honest observations on it, Thompson helps the reader remember what it is like to be young; she also blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah.
When incorporating prose quotations into your paragraph, remember that there are essentially two types, “snippet” quotes of less than a full independent clause, usually included for the vibrant language or phrasing, and “full” quotes that include an entire idea, often more. Full quotes can be introduced with a comma or a colon. As you become a more skilled writer, you will be freer to use quoted material in a few other ways, but for now, you may do any of the following three: snippet; formally introduced quote with a comma; or formally introduced quote with a colon. Here are examples of each:

Snippet: Eloise’s exuberant antics extend through a full day, with the final pages indicating that she is getting ready for bed and that she hopes to “pour a pitcher of water down the mail chute” tomorrow (65).

Note that, when you use snippets, you should punctuate the sentence the same way you would if the snippet were just a regular part of your sentence.
Formal, comma:
reasons for halitosis. In Your Disgusting Head, the authors explain, “Your breath smells bad because you’ve been eating food that smells bad” (10). One co-writer, Dr. Doris Haggis-on-Whey adds, “When you put your nose to certain foods, they might not initially smell bad . . . . But what causes the apple, once in your mouth, to smell not-so-good?”(10). It is in determining the answer to this latter question that the explanation for this social problem becomes clearer. They write, “The fact is that the bad smell comes from you” (10).

Note that when the quoted passage is an independent clause or more in length, it begins each time with a capitalized letter.
Formal, colon:
See first Eloise example above—there, a colon introduces the quotation.

See: Thompson, Kay. Eloise.

Haggis-on-Whey, Dr. Doris and Mr. Your Disgusting Head.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Literature: Writing about Theme

Discussions of literature nearly always turn to the question, "So what is the author's theme?"

One point worth stopping to consider is that there are usually at least two themes apparent in any work.

Another way to ask this question is, "What does the author seem to be saying about human nature?"

Answers to such questions need careful framing. It's not the same to state a theme as to identify the "moral of the story," since "morals" are provided in fables, not standard fiction. So avoid language that involves "should, must, always" etc. or sounds like it is giving advice to the reader. Instead, here is a method for coming to an understanding of what at least one theme may be, in a given work.

1. Ask yourself what are the conflicts? Who is in battle? In the case of a short story that involves mostly an internal struggle, look at what parts of the character are in opposition.

2. How could each of these combatants be characterized in a concept noun?

3. Who/what wins the conflict?

4. What framing language will help you explain this? "The author indicates that humans . . ." or "The author speaks of . . . " are sometimes useful starters for this part.

5. Often, the easiest way to express the theme involves use of a cliché . If this is the case, it's an intermediate step, but move onto your own language for a rendition of that idea in original language.

Let's try it with "The Sniper," by Liam O'Flaherty.

1. One of the unnamed protagonist's conflicts is his struggle not to die at the hands of his opponent, who is positioned on the roof across the street.

2. Our sniper represents Life and to him, his opponent represents Death.

3. A clichéd version of this: Kill or be killed.

4. "The author speaks of the need in wartime to kill others if one wants to stay alive."

A second conflict he faces is internal and grows from the broader conflict.

1. He must kill another human being, someone he might well know, and this horrifies him.

2. On one hand he is Survival, and the other he is Humaneness (I feel this is different from the idea represented by Humanity).

3. A cliché may not exist for this one. I often point out that a broad theme in literature is "War is hell." That is too broad here though.

4. "The author addresses the inevitable split a soldier feels in a war zone: to protect his own life and yet to preserve all human life in general. In order to live, he must do things to others that would never otherwise be acceptable in his moral code."

Try this 4-step process and see if you can then explain an author's theme more clearly. Happy writing!

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Effective Quoting Skills: Part II

Quoting significant passages from a source requires that a writer be on top of several requirements and details. In fact it actually includes, to some degree, use of the other two methods for incorporating others' ideas and words, summarizing and paraphrasing. They can, of course, also be used separately at different times, as can a direct snippet quote.

So one needs to understand what is different about these three techniques.

Summarizing means to provide the gist of a piece of writing. It's much shorter than the original and covers the main ideas only. An entire article, story, play, or novel might be summarized, or just a smaller component part of it.

Paraphrasing is a sort of translation into one's own terms what someone else has said. In using sources from earlier eras in the English language, it may well include real translation. It is also restating the information another way.

Summarizing requires restraint and a representation of the big picture. Articles in professional journals begin with an "abstract" that corresponds directly to the summary. It provides readers with just enough information to know whether this particular research report or article provides information relevant to the reader's interests and professional area of expertise.

Paraphrasing requires a responsibility to fairly represent the source material without leaving out anything or confusing the information. It is approximately the same length as the original it restates.

Here is a summary of the short story, "Charles," by Shirley Jackson.

The narrator only slowly grasps that her son, newly started in kindergarten, has been having trouble adjusting to the changes in his life, and that he is dealing with his stress by misbehaving in school. His creation of an imaginary friend, named Charles, provides him with a way to explain what has happened at school so that his parents don't punish him. Various clues along the way show the reader what is happening more clearly than the narrator sees it, and only in the ironic ending does she suddenly realize that Laurie is the child who has been causing so much trouble in his class.

Clearly, this is an overview of the story's thrust and focus. Nearly all the specifics of the narrative are missing, but the main idea has been clearly explained.

Here is a paraphrase of a short passage from the story.

First the original:
"The day my son Laurie started kindergarten he renounced corduroy overalls with bibs and began wearing blue jeans with a belt; I watched him go off the first morning with the older girl next door, seeing clearly that an era of my life was ended, my sweet-voiced nursery-school tot replaced by a long-trousered, swaggering character who forgot to stop at the corner and wave good-bye to me.

A paraphrased representation of this passage:
On his first day of school, Laurie refused to wear his formerly typical outfit of corduroy overalls and insisted on denim pants and a belt. He went off happily to school with the girl from next door, and I realized then that his babyhood was over: the little boy who spoke sweetly had become a big kid who insisted on different clothes and acted confident, even a little cocky. He didn't even even stop to wave goodbye to me when he got to the corner.

Note the important differences between the original and the paraphrased version:
1. Nearly all important words--nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs--have been changed.
2. The information is provided in a similar order but the parts of speech are not in the same order. Many students believe that to paraphrase is to pull one word, insert a synonym, repeat a few more times, and that's it. No, the syntax of the sentences must not be the same. That qualifies as plagiarism.
3. The punctuation, the divisions of each sentences, can vary from the original, as long as all the information shows up in the paraphrase.

For more information on summary skills, see this site.

For more on paraphrasing, go here.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Effective Quoting Skills: Part I

Everyone knows that quoting from an outside source provides evidence and examples for an effective essay. Quotation serves a vital role in the process, yet its two siblings, summarizing and paraphrasing, play just as important a part. As a writer of essays, you need the ability to do all three, and to know when each is required. This blogpost explains aspects of effective quotation.

The Basics

You will either quote small "snippets" of another source or formally introduced sections of at least an independent clause in length. With snippets, you incorporate them into the framework of your own sentence and use the exact punctuation you would if the words were your own. With formal quotes, you ready the reader for what's coming, providing information and background that makes the quoted material clear.


Snippet quoting (refers to the short story "Charles," by Shirley Jackson):
Jackson, in describing Laurie's actions, mentions that he "yelled all the way up the hill" and that his voice was "raucous" (Jackson 1*)

Formally-introduced major quotation:
Jackson introduces irony when she characterizes the parents' lack of awareness of Laurie's deception. The narrator and Laurie's father discuss their concerns about the negative influences the misbehaving boy may be having on their child: “Do you think kindergarten is too unsettling for Laurie? . . . this Charles boy sounds like such a bad influence,” his mother worries (Jackson 1). Her husband's reply ironically reflects their total obliviousness about what Laurie is actually doing: “Bound to be people like Charles in the world. Might as well meet them now as later,” he says (Jackson 1).

*For the purpose of demonstrating quotation skills, I am only listing the citation in a rudimentary way, to avoid complication. The actual page number listed will always depend on what source you use, and repeated references to the same author/page will usually be indicated after the first reference with the term Ibid, which means "in the same place."

The Importance of Leading In and Out of a Quotation
For snippet quoting, your own comments usually provide all the explanation that is needed so that the snippet makes complete sense. However, with a formally introduced quote, you need to both prepare the reader beforehand and move forward to interpretation afterward.

Evel Knievel and the Motorcycle Jump**
Stunt motorcyclist Evel Knievel was famous for finding longer and longer obstacles to propel himself over, atop his stunt bike. He and his crew set up elaborate ramps before and after the obstacles that would ensure he both crossed completely and landed safely on the other side. When he didn't, and he often didn't, he was injured in the resulting crash. Fortunately, he lived to the ripe old age of 69.

What does all this have to do with quotation incorporation? What Evel did is akin to what a writer does when placing quoted material in an essay. First, build a ramp up that will guide your reader safely across the quoted passage, and then on the other side, build a ramp down that gets the reader back to your main point and on to the next point. Without preparing your reader with context and background, you fail to "ramp up." Without a transition out that interprets the quote's implications, you fail to guide your reader down, and the lack of a ramp results in a terrible crash. Be kind to your readers! Use adequate ramps!

**I owe my colleague, Mark Gelineau, a huge thank-you for introducing me to this metaphor. It works so well!

Next: Paraphrasing and summarizing, and the role each plays in the use of direct quotation, as well as in citing source materials more indirectly.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Aagh! It's a timed essay!

When most people think of timed writings, sometimes also called "day essays" or "in-class essays," their stomach performs strange gymnastic maneuvers. Writing under pressure might be one of the least favored forms of exam known to humankind. However, as always, there are tips and tricks for breaking the process down that can help students feel more prepared and less worried. Here are some of those:

1. If you are typing your essay, ask your instructor if you can also open a timer that helps you keep track of your remaining time. This is available on the gadget at the top right of this blog. Set it for the total number of minutes remaining in your class period, or as your instructor indicates.

2. When you receive the topic/prompt, if you do not have time to think about it overnight, but must begin writing now, read through the question and sketch out a quick idea of structure. Ask the teacher any questions you have about the nature of the question and your plan to write about it, so that you will stay within the bounds of the assignment. Some teachers and all standardized test proctors refuse to answer these questions, but as you are becoming more familiar with the timed writing, you can probably ask your teacher a question or two.

3. Assess how much time you will have for these stages of the writing:

reading prompt and brainstorming, pre-writing, listing ideas, etc.

writing the intro and conclusion paragraphs (unless it is a one-paragraph paper)

writing each body paragraph

carefully re-reading it for grammar and content mistakes

Since you have--by definition--a limited span of time, you need to budget it carefully. Most of it should go to the body paragraphs and proofreading. However, you need to plan adequately and frame the writing with an intro and conclusion for effective results.

So, if your class period is 50 minutes, try to give 5 minutes or so to the reading/planning; 5 minutes to the intro; 15 minutes per body paragraph; 3 minutes to the conclusion; and 5-7 minutes to self-editing for mistakes.

As you can see, this will be tight! Setting up the timer may be the best way to monitor your progress; however, take heart!--you also may find yourself needing less and less planning time as you become accustomed to the type of writing your instructor expects.

Now, a suggestion most of you will not find enticing: Practice this at home. When you have an hour, set yourself up on the computer, use your timer, and begin working on one of these topics:

1. Which is more important, talent or effort?
2. What are the two most important qualities in a friend?
3. What two places should everyone visit?
4. Should PE be a required course?
5. What season is your favorite?
6. What are the benefits of having a pet?
7. What are the benefits and drawbacks of the internet?
8. What are the most important qualities in a leader?
9. To paraphrase, Mark Twain once said that someone who will not read has no advantages over someone who cannot read. Do you agree?
10. Is year-round school preferable to the standard 9-month plan?

When you are practicing timed writings, keep these benefits in mind:
*You will benefit from learning to budget your time.
*You will be better prepared for real writing situations if you are surprised by the topic. Sometimes, ask someone to choose one for you.
*You do not have to stand behind your words as if they were sworn testimony in court. Just write something sensible if you find yourself getting "blocked."

As you finish writing, put a sensible title on the essay. Do not do this first! It's easier when you know what you are summing up.

To effectively proofread, you need to take four steps--correct any repeated first words in a paragraph (N2SSWTSW); spell check and grammar check effectively; use "edit/find" to locate Nasty No-Nos and remove/replace them; slowly read the essay aloud to yourself (or in your head), touching each word as you say it, to verify that you removed edited out words and put in all the words you intended.

Ideally, you will find your stomach feeling less and less queasy on timed writing days as you become more experienced and expert at writing in this high-pressure mode.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Write Powerfully With Verbs!

If you've ever thought that something you needed to read was total drudgery, perhaps it lacked effective verbs*. Verbs constitute, arguably, the most important words in a sentence, and without powerful, precise verb choices, prose feels pallid, wimpy, and dull to read. Use meaningful verbs! Then, construct your sentences using the verbs actively, and you will keep your reader's attention even more completely.

*Or alternatively, perhaps it was Moby Dick. If so, you have my deepest sympathies.

"To be" or not "to be"
As you check the last draft of something to present or turn in for review, take ten minutes to skim it for words such as is, am, are, was, were, has, have, had. These words originate from two verb infinitives, "to be" and "to have." Though the occasional "is" may be exactly what you need as you make a statement, we tend to overuse it. Similarly over-used, "have" creates the same problems. At times, you need one of these words in a verb phrase as a helping verb, such as "is winning" or "has tried," but if that word stands alone as the verb in that part of the sentence, revise the sentence. It can require you to rearrange the order a bit, but the effort will pay off.

Read the following passage:

I am from Buffalo, and I was sixteen the first time I ever left New York state. We were in the car one day when I had a realization that I will only have one life, and this is it. I was certain that the most important thing I have is the will to improve my options by becoming a college student. Now I am a senior at Podunk University.

Aside from some repetitive language, the main problem with these sentences is their lack of precision and conciseness. Not only "to be" and "to have" forms water it down, but a "verbish" thing, a gerund, "becoming," is also nearly as weak as "to be." So another verb to keep out of your writing as often as possible is "to become." But what do you write instead? you ask.

From Buffalo, I left New York state for the first time at age sixteen. While riding in the car one day, I realized that I only have this one life, and that I wanted to improve my options by going to college. Now I attend Podunk University and will graduate this year.

With the exception of one "have," stronger verbs replace the weak ones. This sentence reads as bolder and more action-oriented. You may wonder about those "verbish" sounding words, actually called "verbals," such as "riding," in this latter version. These are, as mentioned before, not actual verbs, but ones whose form changed to serve in other parts of speech. They are either participial, gerund, or infinitive. When even the verbals come from strong verb sources, this adds additional power to your phrasing.

Active and Passive Voice
The typical sentence pattern in English is Subject followed by Verb, followed by Direct Object or other material; this leads to active voice, in which the subject is easily identified. For some situations, people tend to reverse or otherwise mess with this order to be vague about the identity of the subject. This can lead to passive voice. For example, let's say that Klezmer kicks the dog. His mother comes in after hearing the yelp, and says, "What happened?" If Klezzie answers, "The dog got kicked," he may stay out of trouble.

Realistically, we have incorporated a great deal of passive voice into our cultural language, particularly in the governmental and political realms, and for much the same reason as Klezmer used it. We all recognize the "Mistakes were made" model for avoiding responsibility. Look carefully at this sentence--its order is reversed, and then some.

"Mistakes" is actually the direct object of the verb "were made." AND THERE IS NO SUBJECT IN THE SENTENCE AT ALL! Clearly no one is to blame. The dog situation echoes this. Mom now knows that Buffy received the action of kicking but there is no do-er in the statement to put into a good, long time-out.

A second form of passive voice includes the agent of action (often vaguely described) but puts it after the verb in a "by" construction: "Mistakes were made by my staff." "The dog was kicked by a little boy." Even then, we see demonstrated some effort to cloud perceptions, but--more important for our purposes--stylistically, the sentence galumphs along, and the out-of-order syntax jars the reader.

Admittedly, there are certain occasions when avoiding passive voice renders an idea ridiculous, and when, therefore, using passive voice suffices. Even so, assume that you need to use active voice, S + V + DO (etc.), because you probably do!

*%#! Expletives Lead to Missing Subjects too
In English we use a few constructions called "expletives." These are not words that should be erased from top-secret taped conversations, but rather set-ups that allow general ideas' expression. The two most common are "There is/are" or "It is," and their past tense forms. Here is such a sentence:

There are a number of ways to skin a cat, but the method I use most frequently is much like that for skinning rabbits; moreover, it is important to make sure that the knife is sharp.

Note that the resulting abomination--ah, I mean, creation--also leads to an "is" verb; it is quite wordy too. But alas, another Writing Wizards blogpost will have to address that.

So, to recap, nearly always, your writing will convey your ideas directly and effectively when you start with the actual subject and then use the verb. Use strong verb choices in sentence patterns that include the agent of action before its verb/action. Your writing will improve, and you will find yourself standing just a little taller.