Tag Archives: composition

Citations, Opinions, and Varied Sentence Structure: Weaponry for Battling the Praxis Essays

In the height of examination season, tensions are heightened at the thought of composing copious amounts of essays, especially those that act as gatekeepers for potential career paths, such as the essay portion of the Praxis exams. Traditionally, these compositions are intended to demonstrate the writer’s ability to construct an intelligent argument, as well as provide personal insight into an issue in an academic, professional manner. In instances such as the Praxis exam, with a limited amount of composition time and the added stress of fretting over eventual scores, it is easy to let the anxiety influence the words that cross the page or screen. However, there are specific factors within these essays for which the judges will be searching, and keeping these essay characteristics in mind will enhance the writer’s potential to meet the criteria set before them.

Generally, the simpler of the two essays is that of the informative composition. This section of the essay portion of the exam will test the student’s abilities to provide information through the utilization of the sources that are provided. There won’t be too many sources from which to pull, so try to avoid worrying about the sheer mass of preparatory text that will need to be read before the composition starts. When it comes to the composing stages of this essay, it is imperative that the writer remember to:

  • Avoid brainstorming for too long.
    • This causes the writer to lose time and can be more distracting than helpful.
  • Keep the sources in conversation with one another.
  • Always use citations.
    • This applies to both essays.
  • Avoid providing personal opinions, unless the prompt calls for this specifically.
    • First person “I” is considered unprofessional in this setting.
  • Keep it informative. Argumentation and judgment should not appear in this essay.

The argumentative essay can be considered a challenge, but when considering the figurative checklist that applies to the composition of this type of text, the actual writing process can begin to transform into that of a map that is created by the writer. However, there are a few minor warnings as to providing personal opinion.

  • While these prompts might ask the writer to utilize their own opinion, the “I” should appear as sparingly as possible. Too much personal voice can make the piece sound too informal.
  • Anecdotes should apply completely to the topic at hand and not veer away in the form of a tangent. Essentially, they should only be used when absolutely necessary.
  • When compiling the reasons as to why the author believes a certain way, be sure to pick the most relevant to the topic and the most important. Trivial issues will hold little water in this argument.
  • Be sure to address the opposing issue. This should come near the end of the piece—somewhere just before the conclusion—which will give the writer enough time to refute the point before ending the paper properly.
  • Do not speak in a condescending fashion towards the opposing opinion.
  • As stated beforehand, ALWAYS USE CITATIONS.

While this may sound insignificant in the grand scheme of composition, the varying of sentence structure is incredibly important. The utilization of complex sentences will demonstrate a control over the craft, as well as present the information in a mature manner. Semicolons are a writer’s best friend! For general punctuation and structural regulations, be sure to remember:

  • Semicolons are used to separate independent clauses.
  • Commas should appear before conjunctions when they are being utilized to connect independent clauses.
  • Simple sentences can be effective, but only when used conservatively.

While these lists might appear to be disorienting, the best way to hone these skills is to practice these types of compositions. Example prompts can be found online; additionally, essays from varying levels of success can be accessed on official websites, such as ets.org. Be ready, future educators! Think of outlining these essays like that of a personal lesson plan!



Do Write in ‘That’ Tone of Voice: Questions to Ask about Audience and Tone

In a recent post, the Marshall University Writing Center Facebook page asserted that, “Writing transcends the traditional college paper assignment.” At the Writing Center, we mostly deal with the “traditional college paper,” but an awareness of tone and audience is often overlooked during the writing process whether or not the piece is for a class or for personal writing. We often see students that assume the audience is only ever going to be their professor and while that may be true in some cases, by considering a wider audience the quality of information present in an assignment or even a piece of personal writing improves dramatically.

            Who is Reading What You’re Saying?

Considering who is reading your writing may influence how you present information. Is it just a professor? If so, what requirements have they given for the assignment? Is this professor an expert in certain fields that you may discuss? How does the professor feel about informal language (more on that below) in a piece? Is this something you’re going to submit to a contest for a prize or a journal for publication? If so, what are their requirements? Do they have other articles you could reference? Does the contest have a theme? Knowing the answers to these questions can help focus not only the information you provide but also help determine the Tone of how you’re saying what you need to say—whether the assignment is informative, argumentative, an analysis, or even a creative piece.

            How Should You Say It?

Once you have an audience in mind, how to say what you want to with your writing becomes more apparent. Specific formats have individual conventions and requirements—the Modern Language Association (MLA) handbook is different from the American Psychological Association (APA) guide. While this may seem obvious, these considerations have a major impact on tone. For example, the MLA format allows for having yourself (an “I”) in the writing; it’s based in the English department and the conventions of the guide reflect that. It places an emphasis on narrative and authorship and that is reflected in the whole format. By contrast, the APA guide is based in psychology and scientific pursuits; it occludes the author as part of the larger narrative of science and fact-based research. The year, and therefore the relevance, of the article is paramount as it shows where in our understanding of a certain topic the reference falls. Additionally, the style of the citation and the specific assignment will impact the “how” of communicating your thesis or story. In some disciplines—particularly the sciences—a passive tone is preferred in relaying information:

The mixture was heated.


We heated the mixture.

The second sentence is in an active voice—something that is more accepted in creative and academic writing in the humanities. These small differences in tone can make a large difference in the presentation of an idea. Other things that may impact tone are the subject matter itself, whether literary devices like metaphor, simile, or puns are acceptable, whether or not contractions are allowed and other considerations that may or may not be part of the formal assignment sheet.

These considerations will help dictate the overall structure of an assignment or personal writing piece. By being aware of them, you can structure your own voice to the circumstances and write in “that” (the accepted) tone of voice.



What is an annotated bibliography?

The first time I was assigned an annotated bibliography, I panicked. What is an annotated bibliography? We have to have annotations for each source, but what is an annotation? I expressed my concerns to my professor, as I had never done an annotated bibliography before, but I had. Many of you have, also, you just don’t realize that you complete the steps of an annotated bibliography every time you research sources for a project or an academic paper.

Don’t become bogged down by the phrase “annotated bibliography.” It’s just a fancy, academic term that denotes a list of sources—bibliography—that are evaluated–annotations (Purdue OWL). If you’ve written an academic research-based paper or worked on anything that requires research, you know that sources can be any scholarly, peer-reviewed book, journal article, study, website, and the list goes on. Now, every time you read a possible source, just like trying to decide which presidential candidate to back, you have to evaluate it. The Purdue University Writing Center has lists three steps to every annotation: summarize, assess, and reflect (Purdue OWL).

In each annotation written in a paragraph format, you must be able to summarize the main argument—what is the author’s purpose? What are they trying to prove or get you to reflect upon? What are the main points of the article? If you cannot answer these questions, it’s either not an appropriate source or you have not read the source in its entirety. Many students that come in for help with annotated bibliographies at Marshall University’s Writing Center are discouraged, because so many sources are long and convoluted. At the beginning of your research, it’s okay to skim and flip through pages of articles, just to see if it could be a possible contender for your bibliography. Though, when you come to a decision, know that you must read more than the abstract or the first few pages to understand the author’s or authors’ purpose and point of view. That’s why it is vital to give yourself a stretch of time to find and read sources. Of the few times it is safe to make assumptions, it is safe to assume that your professor will expect that you have read a source in its entirety and have therefore, made a thoughtful decision.

I stand in the grocery store and compare one brand of granola bars over another, assessing the merits of each: How much does this brand cost compared to this one? How many bars are in each box? You must assess the source’s credibility, which is generally what you already do when you pick a source for any assignment, now you just have to write it out. Is the source from a credible author? Are there any glaring biases? Did I access this source from a credible location? (Purdue OWL). Before you go any further in your annotation, you must ask yourself that last question. So many students are discouraged because they look for sources through a Google search only, and it doesn’t benefit their assignment at all. Always, always, always use your school’s library resources first to search for scholarly, peer reviewed sources. Marshall University students pay for the Drinko Library’s journal subscriptions, articles, and books, so it’s a waste of money if you don’t use this great resource.

I think the last element of an annotation is the easiest: to evaluate its applicability to your assignment. How is the source going to work for me? How will source help me achieve the purpose of the assignment? This is where it helps to have a wide range of sources, so you can toss out the ones that don’t serve your purpose without any qualms. Just like a puzzle, don’t force certain pieces to fit where they cannot. You can’t take a quotation out of context and then write an annotation, because the non-applicability of the source becomes clear. This is where you also ask yourself if you have a variety of sources: (books, articles, websites, etc). Once you have a variety, your credibility increases because you can prove your point in different ways.

The format of the bibliography will vary, depending on the citation style you use. A few elements are uniform: each citation will need to be double spaced with a hanging indent, and generally each source is listed in alphabetical order by last name. The citation always appears before the annotation. Also, it is important to note that the annotation is not indented like a traditional paragraph.

Now, in all your newfound knowledge and wisdom in annotated bibliographies, go forth and write a rocking one! J


Writing “You”: A Guide to Becoming Your Own Writer

The permeating influence of fictional texts seep into the composition of the students that have consumed them, whether or not those students are aware of this phenomenon. Writers that consider themselves professionals are not exempt from this transaction of style either, given that many contemporary novels are consistently compared to those that came decades before them. While the urge to emulate the techniques of a favorite novelist or academic scholar will be increasingly overwhelming, the fact of the matter is that writing is, first and foremost, a remarkably personal act. In seeking to imitate the stylistic choices that have been utilized in other famous pieces of literature, the action of morphing the written word becomes almost second-hand, a reiteration of something else that has already been said in a similar format. Thus, the general rule of thumb when creating prose within the composition classroom is that of the following: write as your own self, not in a copy-and-paste arrangement that leaves little room for personal growth. The beauty of this particular course is that students have the ability to hone their writing skills that are unique to them (as well as obtain information on citing, formatting, etc.), and in many cases, the utilization of personal voice and experience can greatly influence a piece.

For example, I want to be F. Scott Fitzgerald, or rather, I want to write like F. Scott Fitzgerald. His prose is eloquent, yet tinged with sarcasm and poignant, political criticism that can only belong to that of an author that truly knows his topic and has lived his given subject matters. That being said, I’m a twenty-year-old, Caucasian female that has little to complain about besides the odd night wherein I have to decide whether to complete homework assignments or watch the next episode of Attack on Titan. Clearly, I am not equipped to handle the same aspects of life within my compositions. This doesn’t mean that I don’t have the ability to compose about a plethora of other topics, though, such as: drowning in collegiate financial debt, being a female in an age where feminine oppression is still pseudo-predominant, or losing a Wi-Fi connection and being unable to watch anime on Netflix.

However, this is not to completely discourage the influence that authors have upon impressionable students. In fact, students can discern a great deal about their own stylistic choices by experimenting with the structures that they find within their favorite texts. Fiction students are often encouraged to flip sentence structures and rewrite paragraphs from their favorite novels in exercises pertaining to the morphing of text. The identification with these pieces of writing should be seen as a relative first step in the process towards becoming a self-actualized writer.

The next stages of the process are slightly more ambiguous. As aforementioned, writing is a personal matter, and imitation will be honed in upon immediately. In a similar vein, following the precedent that has been set by others can be incredibly constricting when it comes to improving individual art formats. As cliché as it sounds, most refining will be spawned from the honing of skills and the eventual rebellion against the techniques that the writer has learned. In this way, writing is almost like that of a backwards cycle, given that so much of it hinges on the stylistic choices that are formulated by the twisting of specific restraints. No other field of study will encourage students to combat the rules that they are taught once said students have properly mastered them; it is almost as if composition professors are molding miniature, literary anarchists. For instance, students in varying forms of composition (personal statements, fiction pieces, etc.) are often warned against the onset of stereotypical and cliché statements, given that they can often contract from the content. However, in other such classrooms, such as that of the sciences or business-related fields, clichés and standards formats are encouraged. Thus, composition exists in a limbo-like stage wherein students are both asked to conform and rebel against given class constraints.

Within the Writing Center, I often hear, “I really don’t understand how this applies to me,” to which I generally reply, “That’s great!” While students are often confused by my response, I encourage them to analyze why it is that they feel this certain way. Compose a list of general thoughts and analyze them. How do they influence the product that the student has created? How is the student’s personal voice utilized? This exercise demonstrates that student reaction and experience within the composition classroom not only influence the student’s general opinion of the assignment, but also the final product that is submitted.



Keep At It

Why does this matter?

I frequently pose this question to my tutees after reading their papers, not as a means to question a perceived arbitrary assignment, but to invite elaboration and to dig beyond the surface of their assertions. I have tutored students from a variety of disciplines, and this issue is one I encounter most frequently—succinct points with little explanation. Fortunately, it is an easily fixable issue, one that can be answered with the aid of two simple questions: “Who is my audience?” and “So what?” Both questions help the tutee establish credibility, create rapport, and write a concise paper.

Often, I read tutees’ papers and find myself impressed with the conclusions they make. However, reasons as to why their conclusions are valid or plausible are sometimes missing. When I ask why their assertions are valid, the tutees are frequently able to articulate their reasons. Often, though, they do not convey their support in their papers due to a major misconception, specifically that their professor already understands their conclusions, therefore making further elaboration unnecessary.

As an English undergraduate student, I understand the struggle of juggling multiple writing assignments. I know what it is like to decide which paper takes precedence over the others, which means some papers receive better explanations, thus sometimes sacrificing the rhetorical soundness of my work. I once believed that a few of my similarly-minded professors simply understood what I meant, especially as I wrote about theories and social issues relevant to our mutual interests. I was wrong. I took my audience for granted, especially as I did not take the time analyze and elaborate my own statements. I simply assumed my audience knew what I meant.

Don’t ever assume.

When I ask a tutee for their paper’s audience, they often act as if it is a trick question, as if a question so simple has a more involved answer. Usually, the answer is easy—their professor. As the professor is the educated figure, they already know the topic at hand. They want to see if the student understands the concepts taught through lectures and readings. To prove this understanding, I tell my tutees to think of themselves as experts. As such, I tell the tutees to assume that their professors, the audience members, know nothing about their topics, which in turn encourages them to be as thorough in their explanations as possible. It is an exercise in understanding and comprehension. This push for explanation creates a tutoring mantra of sorts: Give them the facts. Make those assertions. Add support. Keep at it.

When in that mantra mindset, I remind tutees to ask themselves a key question: “So what?” This serves as a continuation of Keep at it. I worked with a tutee who wrote a poetry explication. The tutee made an interesting point about the usage of color in a rather minute detail and promptly noted this significance in their paper. However, they did not say why the color was significant. Rather, they stated it as fact, like what item featured the color, and moved on. Reading such an interesting statement, I wanted to know more. I asked why the color was significant, which led to a brainstorming session about the color’s higher meaning. Asking “So what?” creates a conversation, one where the tutee’s thoughts mingle with the both the text and their own thoughts. It kept the tutee working on the tasks at hand—dismantling the poem’s higher meanings and exhibiting their expertise.

As a tutor, this is the process I enjoy most—challenging tutees to think deeply about their assertions. I want them to think of their texts in a deeper context and to articulate their conclusions in nuanced and rhetorically sound ways. By pushing tutees to keep their audience in mind and to further elaborate, my intention is to make tutees go above and beyond. It is all about challenging them to do their very best.

For those interested, I find this site useful in helping my tutees with this elaboration endeavor: http://www.learnnc.org/lp/editions/few/685.



Writing a paper can be scary. Finding quality research can be daunting. For those of you who procrastinate, a due date can begin to haunt and horrify as you lie in bed late at night, wondering how you will relieve yourself of this nightmare. We, the tutors at the writing center, know it does not have to be this way, but it takes that first step of courage in the direction of others who know your struggles and who can provide you with the assistance you need to battle what seems like a monster of a paper. We want our tutees leaving a session with a whole new perspective on the writing process, shouting a famous quote from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: “Beware, for I am fearless and therefore powerful!” followed by an evil scientist laugh. And then, continue on to meet their deadlines with papers that flow from point to point and sentence to sentence, rather than one that is stitched together with random pieces much like the grotesque creature in Shelley’s novel. Basically, we are here to assist students with all of their writing demons, big or small, and make the writing process less intimidating for anyone brave enough to ask.

Not every paper is this big, unsurmountable task, and we at the writing center understand that. Sometimes, though, it is useful to have another brain and fresh set of eyes available to make sure all of your ideas are portrayed and organized most accurately and we are glad to help in this way. However, there are those writers who come into the center or submit a paper online with grammar and punctuation as their main concern for a research paper, but it turns out they are missing something important like a strong thesis statement. At times, writers want to focus on grammar and punctuation issues first, when really there are bigger problems to tackle. This is when we, the tutors, exclaim as we sterilize our tools and prepare to operate, “Don’t fret tutees! We can do this together!”

Every writer goes about the writing process differently. Some people like to make an outline before attempting a paper, while others like to sit down and start writing the paper immediately. Everyone has their own writing rituals and we get that. And just because you make an appointment at the writing center does not mean you have to present us with a polished, finished paper. Come in to brainstorm. Stop in to start your research. Sit down and make an outline so you can actually start your paper!

I had a nontraditional student the other day sign up for a face-to-face session because she was having trouble finding valuable research pertaining to her topic. She explained to me that through her search of the library’s databases, she couldn’t find anything remotely relevant, even using all the tactics she had learned about using keywords and other tricks to narrow her topic. I asked her, “Have you tried googling anything?” and her eyes grew wide with shock like she had just seen a ghost. She said her professor warned to stay clear of using Google when hunting for sources. I explained to her why I thought her professor said this and it is because some students use Google to acquire immediate sources rather than effective, scholarly ones. We did a little looking around on Google Search and found a book that could very well lead her in the direction of great sources. Within this book, we were able to identify its own reference page to many articles which related to her topic. We then took one of the articles and searched it through Marshall’s online database and there it was: full-text and all. With that, this student found her fears relieved of using Google the wrong way for a topic she thought she would never find credible sources for to begin with.

Assistance with research is only one service we provide at the writing center. Like I said earlier, a session could start out with grammatical errors as the main concern for a client, but end with the two of you identifying the main points of a paper in order to create a strong thesis. It is a mystery for tutors and tutees alike as to the direction a session will take, but a better paper and, ultimately, a better writer is always at the center of every tutor’s agenda. It is up to the writer, however, to be brave enough to sign up for that first session at whatever point they may be in the writing process and to remember Mary Shelley’s words regarding the beginning of an invention: “…it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void but out of chaos.”






Since the Beginning of Time, Introductions Have Been Killing Souls: A How-To on Tasteful Introductions

It’s that time of the semester where papers are running ramped and you have no idea how to even begin tackling them. I know; I’ve been there. I’m there now. And the number one daunting task that haunts the minds of young academic writers is this: the introduction.


Dun, dun, dun.


How do you even begin? What is this hook you speak of? My thesis goes where? All of these questions can be mind numbing while also trying to sort the jumbled mess of relevant arguments inside of your brain.


But introductions don’t have to be complicated. They don’t even have to be hated. In fact, they can become your favorite part to write in your essay. Allow me to show you.


Why All the Fuss?


Just as introductions are in face-to-face interactions, your essay’s introduction is the first impression that a reader receives from you. You can turn them off, or you can turn them on. Either way, readers will react to what you say in your first few opening lines. However, unlike face-to-face introductions, this particular introduction doesn’t have a second chance at getting the reader to like you.


Also, the introduction is your guide for the rest of your paper. You are mapping out the twists and turns that your words take, and with this guide, your reader won’t have to worry about getting lost. Because if you lose your reader, you have a chance of losing their interest. You don’t want to lose their interest.


That First Bite


The hardest part is beginning. Duh. Of course it is. Whether you’re the student that writes their introductions before they begin their papers, or the student that writes their introductions after their conclusions, those first few lines are a doozy.


Go ahead dive in, and don’t be afraid to rewrite your tentative introductions. You can always come back and revise later.


So take that first bite and begin brainstorming. Try free writing for five minutes on your topic. Think about the questions you are trying to answer in your paper. After the five minutes is up, go back through and highlight sentences that you believe would be useful, and you might even find that pesky hook you’ve been looking for.


Those Nasty Condiments: Gross!


Speaking of those pesky hooks, most people find this strategy to be a hard act to balance correctly. When trying to find a first line that is captivating, beginning writers struggle with performing the right moves and avoiding the wrong ones.


So here are some don’ts.


Don’t throw in empty words. When you are struggling to come up with a way to introduce your topic, it’s easy to ramble on about useless information to fill up white space. Instead, condense the rambling and focus on inserting more effective that could contribute to your topic.


Don’t use the Webster’s Dictionary. It seems cool, and even unique. It’s not. And in all actuality, it screams that you couldn’t find a more creative way to introduce your topic. Readers would rather see your own version of a terms definition, and they would rather see it in the body of the paper rather than the first line.


Don’t use cosmic statements. I understand the idea that you need to be dramatic to catch the reader’s attention. This is certainly not the way. Avoid the clichés that contain since the beginning of time, the dawn of man, human kind has always… They are ineffective and inaccurate. And most often, they fail to contribute to the thesis.


But Those Tasty Toppings, Eh?


So what exactly can we do to hook the reader? I might have just axed all of your go-to introduction hooks, and now you are frustrated because if you can’t write your introductions like your used to, then what can you do? Fortunately, I can help you with that.


So here are some dos.


Do ask an intriguing question. Get the reader to start thinking. If you can get them to pause and carefully consider what you’ve asked, then you have them hooked. Be careful, though, and make sure that it is thought provoking and that it doesn’t easily offend your prospective audience.


Do provide a descriptive image. Some might feel more comfortable in dabbling with creative writing that invites the reader to imagine a scene that is relevant to their topic. If you can successfully immerse the reader in well-written anecdote, you can successfully grab their attention.


Do provide a provoking quotation. Sometimes other’s words can work better than your own, but you have to know what quotations work best to achieve the desired response. If you are able to find a quote that is impactful and relates well to your argument, then by all means, use it! It is a much better use of a quote than the dictionary entry.


Don’t Forget the Main Ingredient


This would be your thesis. Your thesis is what tells the reader what you are arguing and what you plan to acknowledge in your paper. It’s the most important part of your essay because it brings about a clear idea of what the paper is about. It is how your reader will interpret the entire essay. It’s a big deal.


You want your thesis to come towards the end of your introduction. Give yourself some time to lead the reader to your thesis and use your hooks to gather their interest. You want it to appear naturally as opposed to throwing it in their face.


Also, use relevant questions that you will be answering in your paper. It encourages the reader to take up these questions and keep them in mind as they are reading your essay.


And finally, try to make it as clear as possible. You don’t want the reader to have to hunt for it; this loses their interest and only confuses them. You don’t have to come right out and say, “here is my thesis!” Rather, try saying, “I plan to argue that…”


Your thesis is the star of your introduction, so you should treat it as such.


The Taste-Tester


You can look at that annoying introduction until your eyes bleed, or you can hand it over to your friend and let their fresh eyes catch errors and provide feedback. Peer review has been consistently found to be a very useful tool in the writing process. You can spend hours writing and reviewing, and even reading helpful guides such as this, and still hit writer’s block head-on until your headache turns from a mild throb to a pulsing terror.


So pass it on. Have someone that you trust as a reader and writer to glance over your introduction. Have them explain to you what they think it is that you are trying to accomplish. Ask them to identify the thesis, and to give their honest opinion on your opening hook. If their answers match up yours, then you should be set! If they don’t, you now know what needs the most revision.


Now You’ve Got Yourself A Tasty Introduction


Do you feel like you can conquer those horrifying papers? I hope so. And maybe, just maybe, after enough time has passed and enough practice hours have been logged, you might come to love the introduction as much as I do.


And if not, at least now you can write one.