I recall a time when I couldn’t write a thesis statement if my life depended on it. At the start of high school there wasn’t a paper assigned that I didn’t need an extension on — and it certainly wasn’t for a lack of trying. I just didn’t understand how to construct a thesis. I was comfortable with lab reports and fiction writing, but didn’t understand how organize or execute an academic argument. If you had told me then that I’d go on to tutor writing in college, I’d have called you crazy.
Then came Shelby Stokes — my 10th grade English teacher (and Wesleyan alumna). For every paper assingment, Ms. Stokes required a pre-write, the prototype for which she developed right here in Middletown.
The first step was a free-write exploring the subject of the essay prompt and how it developed throughout the text. Ms. Stokes required us to write in complete sentences. I found this step usually took me a surprising three pages. If I had trouble starting, a close reading of the assignment was a great place to get the ball rolling.
The second step was to re-read the text to collect evidence that helped chart this development or demonstrate its significance. Writing down pages numbers wasn’t enough — the process required you to write out the full quotations. Each piece of support had to be thoroughly evaluated for its meaning and significance to the text at large and the specific paper topic. While this step is specifically geared toward English papers, this process can be adapted to any course material. The key here is to analyze your source materials, whether it’s a novel, a film, academic journals, or a painting.
The third and final step is to develop a thesis for an informed reader. After working out all my thoughts and collecting all the quotes I’d need, I found approaching a thesis a lot less intimidating than trying to write it after just finishing a book. Yet, I still wasn’t producing meaningful thesis statements. It was then that Ms. Stokes told me the most important question to ask when formulating my argument: what do I have to say about what X author argues regarding ________?
Although I don’t write a formalized “Pre-Write” anymore, I have become far more aware of my process before I sit down to write an actual paper because of this engrained strategy. I’ve tried writing a draft cold, but I find it takes longer to write a paper this way when I account for the times I get stuck, and the final product is never as strong as when I take time to brainstorm and collect quotes.
I’m a strong advocate of this process-oriented approach to writing. Ultimately, the goal of academic writing is synthesis –organizing a mess of information in order to express clear meaning. I find the experience can be overwhelming, particularly when the stakes are high and an assignment is worth a large percent of your grade. Worrying about the finished product distracts from the real work of writing: the process of discovery.
While “writing perfectly” isn’t something I can just sit down and do, I now don’t have to wait for the stars to align in order to take my assignment to a dictionary and free-write for three pages. Any meaningful pre-writing process makes analytic writing easier by breaking it down into manageable sub-processes, thereby helping to tease out further complexity of thought. Making the complex clear is the ultimate goal, and gain, of the pre-writing process.
-By Zach Valenti ’12