It’s All About the Comma, Comma, Comma: A Not-So-Scary Approach to Comma Usage

I’ve found, in my writing career, that the number one source of mind numbing, grammatically frustrating, hair pulling terrors that await when structuring a sentence stem from a slight mark on the page. The comma.

In fact, as I’m writing this blog entry, a numerous amount of grammatical experts could sit around a large table and dissect my comma usage only to find that none would agree on the level of correctness in the judgement I had used in my comma placing. It’s hard to find a set rule to live by when the field of commas is based on preference.

So how exactly do you know when to insert the comma on the page, in the sentence? It seems to have become this guessing game of, when in doubt, slap it in there. Or, if there is a doubt, it doesn’t belong. I’ve heard both. And as a tutor, I find I spend a significant amount of time fixing the guessing game that developing writers, and even experienced writers, play in an attempt at knowing the comma and its correct usage.

In my own writing career, I’ve come to acknowledge a growth in my fondness for this particular grammatical feature. The power of this simple mark that cradles words amazes me just how much impact it can have on meaning, reading, and aesthetic appeal. The way it creates complexity and rhythm influenced my opinion in its favor.

However, I know that not everyone shares this passion for the usage of commas. And in an attempt at recruiting writers over to the comma side, I’ll try to inspire with a few simple steps that might allow you to find the comma process a bit easier and slightly more accessible.

Pause! In the Name of Commas.

There are mixed feelings about this method, and honestly, it goes back to preference. But when I teach the students that come in to the writing center about commas, I generally fall back on this simple explanation.

Read the sentence aloud. When you pause, there should be a comma.

Now, I know this doesn’t necessarily work every time, nor is it a strategy for every writer. If you constantly run out of breath in the middle of speaking, and you pause between wheezes, you might run into problems with this method.

Generally, in speech, we pause when there needs to be a comma. It happens naturally when we use introductory words before the main clause, or when we interject different thoughts in the midst of a complete sentence. It isn’t a perfect method, and it takes practice. But for a student just starting out in the art of comma usage, it helps.

-Comma-nds to Follow

As for specific rules in grammatically correct comma usage, I found that the Google Search Engine would generate more accurate and better explained results than my memory could. I ended up coming across Purdue Owl’s (https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/607/01/) section on comma rules to follow.

1. When combining separate independent clauses with the coordinating conjunctions, and, but, for, or, nor, so, yet, you need to slap that comma right in there before the conjunctions.

2. When it comes to clauses, phrases, or words before the main clause, I find that this is the easiest rule to live by, or at least, the easiest rule to pick up on. After the introduction of the sentence, you need to place a comma.

3. Make sure to surround clauses, phrases, or words in the middle of a sentence that is not essential in creating clarity in the sentence with commas. Place one commas before to show the beginning of the pause and one at the end to indicate the end of the pause.

4. I would say the series rule is perhaps the most well known rule when it comes to comma usage. Be sure to use commas to detach three or more words, phrases, or clauses when in sequence.

5. When using two or more coordinate adjectives that pertain to the same noun, you need to separate said adjectives with our lovely commas. However, be careful not to stamp the comma after the final adjective, or to use commas that with adjectives that contrast each other.

6. Set a comma near the end of the sentence when you come across a clear pause or shift, or when you find an opposing coordinating element.

7. Place commas to signify phrases at the end of the sentence that reference the beginning or middle of the same sentence. These phrases are known as free modifiers, and they should be able to be inserted anywhere within the sentence without causing puzzlement.

8. Attach commas to all geographical names, items in dates (except for the month and day), addresses (except the street number and name), and titles in names. I’ve found that it is rare that you’ll need to apply this rule, but it makes sense to acknowledge its existence.

9. Whenever you use a quote in the midst of a sentence, you’ll need to place a comma in between the main discourse and the quotation.

10. And finally, use commas wherever you find necessary to skirt around possible confusion or misreading. The pause method really helps here.

If commas are something that you really struggle with, or even slightly struggle with, try reading the rules before you begin in your writing. That way, they’ll be fresh in your mind.

Knowing the exact rules can help you become more confident in where you place the commas. Learn them, write them down, save the link I placed up above. In fact, just save this blog entry to reference when writing your papers. Once you’ve found that technique that helps you form a healthy habit of knowing when to place the commas, really dig deep in research and understand why you place commas where you do.

However, what I’ve found that has best helped me in knowing where to place commas is simply to write. The more you write, the more practice you’ll have in applying your comma knowledge, and the more natural you’ll be at knowing where the commas go. I’m not saying you’ll never mess up again; everyone messes up. It can’t be helped. But your errors will continue to appear less and less until finally, you will consistently create a work that is comma error free.

Use “Comma” Sense.

Take the knowledge you know and dive on in. Use your common sense and trust that you know what you’re doing. Learn the rules, use the suggestions that I offered to you, and free fall into comma bliss. Confidence is key not only in knowing where to place commas, but in writing in general.

If you mess up, that’s okay. Learn where you went wrong and remember for the next time you come across a similar situation. Commas aren’t scary, they aren’t daunting. They are simply misunderstood. Soon, with lots of practice, you can become a comma conquerer.

It’s quite the achievement.

– Hannah

Advertisements

Obliterating the Obfuscation: Understanding Academic Jargon

A common grievance with writing assignments is that the hardest part is getting started. However, sometimes the challenge begins even earlier. Often we struggle to get going because we don’t fully understand the tasks we are asked to perform in our writing.

You may have observed by this time in your higher education journey that there is a fairly particular vocabulary that college instructors draw from in assigning projects. A clear understanding of common academic terms can be the difference in completing an assignment successfully and falling short of the instructor’s requests.

For a deeper comprehension of “what the heck” your teacher is asking of you, I’ve compiled the following list of terms accompanied by “in-my-own-words” descriptions, commonly used in instructor discourse and found on assignment sheets and syllabi.

Evaluate/Access-You should consider not only the work or topic as a whole, but also the smaller elements that make up that work. Draw some sort of conclusion or implication out of what you are evaluating and discuss that in relation and based on it.

Analyze-Your instructor will expect you to go beyond a summary. He or she will want to see not only that you engaged with whatever you were asked to analyze, but also that you are interpreting its elements. Supporting examples are key in making analytical claims. Ask questions throughout your reading, researching, and composing process and then answer them with the texts.

Compare-You will most likely have two or more sources to draw comparisons among. The point in comparing two or more items is to show their connections (“contrast” is usually automatically implied, so your instructor will want you to show the differences as well.) The purpose in this task is for you to be able to make some sort of conclusion based on the comparison.

Survey-Your instructor wants you to ask and answer questions about a topic, but not necessarily in a literal sense. This is the approach to writing that you want to keep in mind as you explore and then compose. Write about your topic in a way that you are anticipating the questions other readers would ask by providing textual support.

Summarize-You will probably see less of this request now that you’re in college, however, this is oftentimes a component in a larger writing assignments. The key is to compose effectively, yet concisely. A good trick is to break the text you’re summarizing in to main points/sections (if headings are involved, those can provide a good outline for your summary), and then aiming to get one to two good sentences that represent that point or section.

Reflect– Your instructor will want you to go beyond summary here, too. He or she most likely wants to know your reaction to a certain topic or text. Try to express your thoughts and feelings by incorporating examples from your source or topic.

Research-You are expected to go beyond the reach of your own personal thoughts and opinions. Your instructor wants you to spend some time in the library, skimming reference books and surfing the scholarly databases. While there are definitely quality sources on the Internet, consider digging a little deeper than just using whatever links pop up first after a general Google search.

Synthesize-You will draw from multiple parts, sources, or topics in order to make one argument. Think of it as quilt making; you’re weaving together different materials along with your own inquiries and thoughts in order to make one product.

 

I hope this list has helped you review the meaning of some of those words your instructors use to assign your writing assignments. If there are terms that are not listed here that you come across in your syllabi or assignment sheets, don’t be afraid to ask one of us Writing Center tutors to clarify the meaning. There is no judgment in wanting to understand so that you can be successful in your writing performance.

-Amber

From Start to Finish

Dear Students Who Are Required to Write—

So. I was searching around this blog, looking for something worthwhile and new to say to help each and every one of you who need to crank out a paper that will, hopefully, get you a good grade. Everything here’s been indispensable . . . so far (I could easily stop that train cold right here). And, you know, I had this whole, sentimental thing typed up about how a music professor changed my life and taught me how to trust myself (true), and, then, we both lived forever in each other’s hearts because of music (weird).

I had it all ready to go, and then I thought: what am I doing, man? Who am I? I might as well start a Taylor Swift cover band; because, while that little essay wouldn’t’ve been untrue to my beautiful soul, nobody in their right mind would want to hear that. So, I decided to put that one back on the shelf, and, related, I sold my guitar and threw my special notebook into the river.

That brings me back to searching. And, just when I thought I’d never find it, something great happened: I realized that I was trying to write this thing. And I was (poorly) brainstorming. What’re you supposed to do when you’ve got three days to write a Formalist analysis of a T. S. Eliot poem? I have a couple suggestions:

Take a walk?

Ride a bike?

Eat everything on the planet Earth?

Whatever floats your boat.

Really, just take a step back. Give yourself a quick break, and, then, think about it. You’ll probably find it helpful to go have a conversation about it with a friend or several (or folks here at the writing center). Panicking is good motivation, but you’ll really find success when you can begin to think down different avenues or see it from other perspectives. Then, you need to get words on the page (a lot of them), and that’s the biggest hurdle for any writer writing anything forever and ever amen. So, forget your hang-ups. Just start writing something. Free-write if you need to. It really doesn’t matter. See where your brain takes you. Now, I’m sure you’ve heard: “writing is re-writing.”

So, when you’re all done, you’re totally not done. Be prepared to, if necessary, pull up a new, blank document (even if you didn’t just completely ramble out this paper) and write it all over again. I, oftentimes, start several new documents at various stages of the writing process so I can rewrite and restructure what’s there (which is usually a very scattered, very rough draft). For every ten pages I get down, I’ve usually written about 20 more that’re gone forever or assimilated in. There’re either plenty of things that can be condensed (because I’ve already said it once before in an essay or creative work, and it doesn’t need repeating) or conflated. Or moved around. Or a lot of things. Be aware, too, that reading your paper out loud, like a few of our other posts say, is almost always invaluable (in fact, a fellow tutor is reading this aloud right now, against my will, and it helps—no matter how much I want to choke him). I’ll catch more grammatical mistakes or confusing sentences that way than any other. The more I’ve reread this, the more I’ve almost restructured it entirely based on my continuing assessment of it.

And, remember, Microsoft Word is not always your friend. It will think a perfectly grammatical sentence is un-grammatical or vice versa. I can’t tell you how often it’s told me to use “its” instead of “it’s.” It underlined “it’s [it is] bar-none” in this blog, and I am super not wrong in that usage. It also wanted to make “whatever floats your boat” a question. Why, God? Am I asking somebody that the very intangible concept of “whatever” is what’s floating their boat? Did I reply to someone, clarifying, because I thought they might’ve said “goat?” Is this a strictly nautical question?

When it comes to spelling, Word’s bar-none; you can’t find a human alive who can beat it. But, sometimes, it’ll spell for you, perfectly, the way-wrong-est-word-to-use-ever in a particular sentence. That’s something that, sometimes, only you can fix. Misuse of a word happens to everyone, and, sometimes, we’re genuinely but incorrectly sure of a meaning, and we’ll need someone else to point it out. But, if you’ve ever not been sure of what a word means, you may’ve found yourself wondering: “How can I find out? Is there a place where I can go to see them all—like a word-zoo?” I probably (hopefully) don’t need to answer that. The point is, when in doubt, you can probably take the time to find out (and I’m sure many of you do). My point: don’t trust Word; ultimately, its main problem, for everything good that it is, is that it’s not a person with a human-brain like you and me. Your voice and your mind-in-critical-mode will usually help you structure and polish your work if you just keep at it until you’re satisfied.

Speaking—you’re in college, and I want you to make work that, in some way, makes you proud. Find something that satisfies you in everything you do. Is there a way you can take this topic and make it fun for you? Whenever possible, have passion in your life and your writing. You don’t always have to like the assignment to enjoy doing it. I (sometimes) like to challenge myself in some way, even if I don’t need to. I wanted to do my analysis of an Eliot prose-poem, as subtly and cleverly as I could, in the style of—wait for it—a prose-poem. Did it work out that way? Nope. Not at all. But it got words on the page, and I didn’t mind doing it so much.

So, to reiterate: clear your mind; talk to a friend (or yourself); forget your hang-ups and start throwing words onto the paper; revise, revise, revise; use your brain; have passion; and, finally, come and see us—we love to help you.

—Jackson

Communication in the Writing Center

So, you are working with a student, and the two of you are struggling to communicate. What can you, as a tutor, possibly do? I have found in my few weeks in the writing center that asking questions can help build understanding between a tutor and a student. Now, I am not saying you should interrogate the student, but there are quite a few options for you:

 

Don’t:

  • Aggressively ask why the student made this decision.
    • Why would you choose to do this instead of that?
  • Attack the student for not agreeing with your comments.
    • Why aren’t you changing that? Or how can you think your way is better than mine?

Do:

  • Inquire about the student’s decision.
    • What is this doing for the rest of your paper? What is it doing to help prove your argument?
  • Talk about why the student is doing a certain thing one way over another.
    • How does this help your argument? Or what compels you to do it this way? How does this method add to your paper?

 

As you can probably see, the don’ts list is malicious and judgmental, which is unnecessary in the writing center, while the dos list is more questioning and open, therefore more appropriate for writing centers. You don’t need to tell a student they are wrong or insult them; you need to work with the student to help them improve their papers as best they can. I think realizing the paper is the student’s might be the best way to approach the issue of trying to help a student make their paper understandable and clear because, while you are there to help, it isn’t your paper to tear apart any way you want to.

 

Another instance where asking questions can help is when I, as a tutor, get confused during a conversation with a student, I ask for clarification. What do I mean about getting confused? For example, if I am working with a student and bring up an issue of understanding what they are saying or where they are going with a statement or idea, and then the student tells me that the word, phrase, or sentence is correct or already good and I just don’t understand it. From here I ask: What does this word or this phrase mean? What is this section of text/ example/ idea adding to your text? I didn’t quite understand that, could you explain it again? Or in the instance that we are working on a thesis, what are you arguing? or what are you trying to say? can be very useful questions, as sometimes it is hard to understand what exactly a thesis should be when learning all the things you shouldn’t do when composing one.

 

Sometimes, I just don’t know what the student wants to focus on during the session. Maybe we have already covered the first issue they wanted discussed, or I feel like I am dominating the discussion with my concerns and not their concerns. In this instance, I try to pull back and ask: What would you like to work on? What do you want me to look at? Is there any specific section you had any questions or concerns about?

 

Also, it is much easier to change or alter an unclear explanation on the tutor’s part when you know what was not understood, but what can you do to try to make a student that you may only see once for this one short session comfortable, so they are not afraid to ask you questions? Look at the student when they are talking and as much as possible when you are talking to them, as this will make it apparent that you are paying attention and working with the student instead of at them. Angle your body toward your student. This will make you appear more open and once again attentive to the student and their ideas. Do what you can to make the student feel that the two of you are on equal footing. I am not suggesting that you make anything up, but, if the two of you are working on something that you did once struggle with, feel free to mention that. It not only shows where your knowledge of the topic was born from, but also helps build a common trait that can lead to communication.

 

However this does not always work or there is simply just not enough time to build a comfortable environment for easy communication. Because of these instances, I try to pay attention to the body language my student is exhibiting as, while I hope they are comfortable enough with me that they wouldn’t be intimidated to ask me questions, I want to be aware when something is not clicking or making sense to them. What should you look for to realize this is what is happening? This is a bit more complicated as there is no universal answer for how someone will react, but you can pay attention to your student and see if they aren’t reacting positively or if they are acting confused or unsure. These can help you realize if they don’t understand what you have said.

 

What do you do if what you have explained clearly makes no sense to your student? Sometimes, you can ask and see if your student understands any part of your explanation which would allow you to only have to explain a portion of what you have said instead of everything, but you can also pull back and try to explain your thoughts differently. I know that this is hard because it always seems after you have said something that there is no other possible way for you to explain it, but take a breath, attempt to erase the idea that there is no other possible way to say your explanation, and try again. There is another way. It is just a matter of figuring it out.

 

Now, of course, body language is not always possible, such as is the case with online tutoring. Here asking questions is even more important because your words will be compensating for the lack of body language and face to face communication, by which I mean the inflection of your voice and tone. With online tutoring, you should probably be asking more questions. Maybe try to stop once in a while and ask if what you are saying is making sense. More often than you would in person where you can gauge their reactions. This approach is unfortunately less useful when doing an online tutoring session where you look at the paper, but do not have direct contact with student. You can however use question to probe the student on where they could add content, explanations, or even clarity to hopefully assist the student that you are only speaking to indirectly. Ask: What are you saying here? Could you elaborate more? Do you have any evidence that could help back this up? These can help students see where they can work on their papers, even without having directly spoken to or physically having seen a tutor.

  • Andrea

Finding Your Own Style

If you are a student who has ever made an appointment with me in the writing center you’re familiar with the following comments: “wordy,” “passive voice,” and “awkward.” If you haven’t made an appointment with me in the writing center you’re still probably familiar with this kind of feedback. If these words are prevalent in your paper after an editing session you obviously have a problem with style; but what is style? When an instructor, or peer, tells you to work on style they are implying you could make your sentences stronger, clearer, shorter, and more effective. Now before you feel singled out and self conscious, every writer struggles with this at some point. Everyone has thought to themselves at some point, “I know what I’m trying to say, but I can’t find the words to say it.” If this applies to you no fear, after reading this article you will know how to “tighten up” your paper and work on your “word choice.”

Before we get too deep into this topic, it’s vital to understand that style is subjective, meaning that everyone has their own perspective on how they view style. For example, passive voice is often widely accepted in the field of science, but that same passive voice is frowned upon in the literary world; the same principle applies to instructors. Most professors prefer that students be straight forward. Although the fact is a sentence can be “wordy” and still be grammatically correct. In the same way there are major stylistic differences between disciplines, each professor will have their own subjective preferences. With all that being said, I’ll discuss a few key elements that are valuable to every writer in improving their writing and the first steps in discovering your own style.

The first thing on the list is learning to say what you mean. I cannot speak for everyone, but I for one am guilty of trying to “sound” intelligent. If this applies to you, it’s important to learn that “sounding” intelligent doesn’t get you A’s; but making an intelligent point does. It’s often the case that when doing research, our textbooks and sources are writing in a complex and complicated manner. If you try to mimic this style of writing in an attempt to “sound” intelligent your voice and argument is often lost. When attempting this you may use words that are not familiar with or completely understand how to use, in doing this you may misuse the word, or worse, your instructor may read your passage and think you’re plagiarizing. Rather than mimicking style and using big words to impress your instructor, use authentic cohesive and concrete arguments instead. If your audience can’t follow your point then what is the point in making it? Remember communication and being understood is the most important element to an argument/essay so write as straight forward as possible.

Also, you must always use the appropriate tone. For example, in this blog post I’m using a very open and conversational tone, which is accepted. But if I was writing an academic research paper or critical analysis my tone would be much more formal. It is very easy to write the way we speak. We often feel like a chatty or friendly paper reads better, this may be the case but it also takes away from the paper. Most instructors will not take kindly to using the words “awesome” or “cool” being used in your thesis or to explain a topic. On the other hand, you also don’t have to write conservatively using short choppy sentences, which are straight to the point. Just keep in mind when writing, your word choice shouldn’t distract the reader or take away from the subject.

Now that we have talked about ideas you should keep in mind when writing, I also want to address common mistakes I see in the writing center every day and how you can fix them on your own, before or after the session. “Wordiness” is often related back to tone. Most writers are trying to write like they speak and the result of that is using fillers. Fillers can be single words like: that, really, very, and things. Or fillers can be phrases such as: considering the fact, in reference to, at the same time as. Filler words occur in two settings; the first being, when we have a thought and have a problem putting that thought into words. The second setting is when you are trying to add fluff to a paper. Although the first is understandable both need to be eliminated because when this happens filler/fluff can slow your reader down because of its redundancy and may force the reader to skim your paper, which is not good. Thus the appropriate strategy is to look back over your rough draft, once you have your thoughts on the page, and attempt to reword/restructure sentences so that you’re saying the same thing with fewer words. This will make your ideas more concrete and cohesive.

Another problem I see is “weak verbs” or “passive voice.” When you see this on your paper you probably have too much filler between your noun and verb, subject and predicate, or actor and action. When your verb doesn’t follow your noun closely, it’s easy for the reader to lose the sense of whose doing what. Once again, if the reader can’t follow your thoughts your argument gets significantly weaker. When reading back over your paper make sure the action of the actor is apparent and easily identified. You can accomplish this by restructuring/reordering your sentence. The University of North Carolina Greensboro’s Writing Center handout (https://www.uncg.edu/eng/writingcenter/handouts/STRONG_AND_WEAK_VERBS.pdf) gives a specific example of how you can identify and correct weak or passive verbs:

Revised Sentence: New art galleries and two theaters offering live performances have lured a slightly older crowd downtown.

One active verb instead of the two passive verbs in the original:

Original Sentence: A slightly older crowd has been lured downtown by new art galleries, and live performances are now offered at two theaters.

Given these points you are now capable of improving your writing style. If you find that this is the biggest problem in your writing try to focus on one aspect of your paper at a time or you may feel overwhelmed. If you attempt to discover your style on your own and you notice you’re making the same mistakes bring multiple papers to the writing center so your tutor can identify the chronic problem. The best way you can identify these problems on your own is to read your paper aloud, a technique I often use, as well as my clients. Your ear will naturally pick up on redundancies and problem areas. When you’re reading and you lose your train of thought or get lost mark that area and bring it in for consultation.

 

-Andrew

Model Papers: A Jumping Off Point

So, you’ve received your first assignment of the semester, and even though your professor has given you a clear assignment sheet along with a rubric, you still just don’t know where to begin. Maybe you’re required to use a citation style that you’re not quite used to (Turabian, anyone?); maybe your assignment has a fancy title that you don’t really understand (what exactly is a rhetorical analysis?).

Well, never fear! Here at the Writing Center, we are always excited to help you at any stage of the writing process — even if the stage that you’re in is simply figuring out where to begin.

Sometimes, in addition to that assignment sheet and rubric, it helps to be able to reference a model paper. Once you see how someone else has completed your assignment, it can be much easier to figure out how to craft your own work.

To help you out as you work on your own, two of our tutors — Amber and Shannah — have compiled a list of links to model papers that utilize various citation styles, as well as model papers that demonstrate writing within multiple genres.

MLA Samples

English (1)

English(2)

Annotated Bibliography

Literary Analysis/Analyzing a Text

Personal Narrative 1

Personal Narrative 2

Research

Sample MLA Outline

APA Samples

Psychology & Social Science

Research

Medical

Annotated Bibliography

Nursing Practice

Business Proposal

Biology Lab Reports

Biology Lab Reports (2)

Chicago Samples

History

English

Annotated Bibliography

CSE Samples

Biology

AMA Samples

Sample Paper

Sample Citations

Turabian Samples

Turabian 1

Turabian 2

We hope that these model papers help you out as you’re working on your assignments! Are there any other helpful models on the internet that you’ve referenced while working on a paper? Let us know in the comments!

 

 

 

The Power of the Image: a Tool for Your Academic Writing

[This article is intended specifically for students writing in the Humanities and Social Science disciplines. While image is a powerful, effective tool for adding interest to academic writing, there are some disciplines, such as the technical science fields, where this advice might not be applicable.]

Imagine clicking away at your keyboard, you feel the confident pop of each button as your fingers depress from one to the next. You pause, but only for a second to take a sip from the steaming ceramic mug on your left—it invigorates you even more. You know exactly what you want to say because, for once, you aren’t stuck by the monotony of strictly structured, formulaic essays. Instead, you’re in a writing zone of your own creating, and though you, like every student before you, had to start with a prompt or an assigned topic, you are moving forward with ease. But how? Every other time you’ve sat down and toiled over how to begin, watching the digital clock in the bottom right hand of your screen inch closer and closer to midnight. Why is that you can so easily move through this essay? The answer is simple, in your introduction you used a creative writing technique known as Image that not only propelled you forward, but also added interest to your essay, setting you apart from your peers. Academic college life can be very cutthroat, especially when your program is competitive, but you want to be set apart from your peers. You want your professors to remember your essays, and employing powerful images in academic papers is one way to accomplish this difficult feat.

As a new college instructor and veteran writing center tutor, I have seen a thousand essays that begin with the same format—“Today I’m going to discuss the working conditions for children in Indonesia,” “My paper topic is why we should save the whales.” While these introductions are fine, they are a dime-a-dozen and do little to further your discussion, aside from plainly stating your topic. However, if you present your readers with a powerful, gripping image that sticks with them, it can be fodder for the rest of your essay and actually help you compose your paper.

Consider this introduction on the topic of child labor: “Her back is hunched over a sewing machine half her height and all of her weight. Each stitch brings her closer to the end of her twelve hour shift when she can return home to play with her little brothers. Her tiny, calloused fingers work their way over a neon pink Nike swoosh, a brand that she will never wear because her clothes came from the missionary workers who visited her village last year. She is hungry, but during her short break she did not have time to walk the five miles back to her home, instead she works patiently, ignoring the new blister forming on her palm. Stories such as this can be found all over Indonesia, and the most troubling part is that they key players are often children.”

An introduction such as this not only establishes what you will discuss throughout the paper, but it also hooks your reader in with vivid details and emotional investment in the story that you are about tell. By creating a narrative grounded in strong imagery as the basis of your topic, you have established a theme that you can carry throughout the rest of the essay. While the above introduction is a fictional story, basic research about the conditions of child laborers in Indonesia reveal elements of these harsh working conditions.

If you feel as though you are stuck in your writing process, you can return to this image to transition yourself from one topic point to the next. For example, if I began this essay with a description of working conditions, by returning to the image of the young girl running her finger of the Nike swoosh, I can then begin to discuss the popular American companies that actively use sweatshop labor. An imagistic introduction can pave the way for interesting, imagistic transitions and they are sure to impress your professors.

You might be wondering how to begin crafting an image filled introduction. This can be broken down into a few simple, easy to follow steps:

  1. Get comfortable with topic that you will be writing about. Are there any human subjects in this topic? What is the controversy? What is your perspective of the issue at hand? Can you anticipate how your readers will respond to this topic?
  2. Pick a side or perspective on this topic. If you believe in the stance that you are presenting, chances are you will have a stronger appeal to your readers because they will be able to tell that you care about it.
  3. Conduct basic research on the perspective in which you will write from. Being well informed when you begin to craft an image is crucial to your credibility. You want your readers to not only be hooked into your essay, but also trust you as a reliable narrator.
  4. Make a list of points that might further your emotional or intellectual appeal. Jotting down details and facts can be crucial in keeping your thoughts organized and in helping you include many details to strengthen your introduction.
  5. Begin small and work your way out. By starting your introduction with a brief descriptive sentence you can set a tone for your essay and give yourself a good base in which to begin.
  6. Don’t forget the adjectives. Remember School House Rock? Your introduction is an excellent place to unpack your adjectives. But remember, too much of a good thing can be very, very bad. Always use adjectives to supplement your essay, not guide it.
  7. Be Specific. Small details such as the “pink Nike swoosh” in our sample introduction add a level of authenticity to your paper. While I may not know that the Nike swoosh is pink, by saying that it is, I am giving my readers a specific item to envision. Specific details are so important.
  8. Show more, tell less. The biggest part of imagery is making sure that you show your readers what you want them to know. Think back to our example introduction, I could have said that I was going to discuss sweatshop labor, however, showing my reader an image of a young girl in a sweatshop has a much greater effect.

The technique of imagistic writing can transform your paper from dime-a-dozen quality to impressive ‘A’ paper material by hooking in your readers and making them want to read your work. Chances are, your professor has more than twenty-five papers to grade at any given time, if you can interest them with an imagistic introduction, the task of reading your paper could delight them. Every time a student turns in an essay that has strong images I am thrilled because their papers are generally more interesting to read. Instead of telling me why a topic is important they are showing why it is important. Stop toiling over academic essays, let your images guide them—it can give you a base to start from and even guide your transitions from topic to topic, and it will certainly set your paper apart from the mundane “Today I’m going to tell you about” topic sentence.

 

-Lauren T.