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Academic Writing

Generating Ideas


Writing doesn't always have to happen in the boring, five-paragraph essay form! When we come to college, we will be asked to engage in a deeper, more critical form of writing that goes beyond the 5-paragraph essay mode that we learned in high school. While the five-paragraph essay is a good start to writing, we can take that model further and think of writing as rhetorical - writing has a purpose, and how we compose an essay depends a great deal upon the message we want to convey. The following are some other models you might use in writing an essay. Carefully consider your topic, and how you want to express your ideas in order to persuade your audience. These different models might help you better express your claim!

Within the five canons of classical rhetoric (Invention, Arrangement, Style, Memory, Delivery), the canon of Arrangement speaks directly to essay writing. Arrangement offers a Classical Oration style that can help you compose your argument. You can use the Classical Oration Model to help demonstrate the importance of your topic to the reader, and present your argument regarding the topic in a clear, organized, reasonable matter. There are six parts to the Classical Oration model; here is a brief summary of each element:

Exordium (Latin for "urge forward"): this is the introduction. Its goals include:

--Get audience's attention  (known as the "hook" introduction)

--Gain the good will of the audience through establishing your credibility (help them be willing to listen to your point of view)

--Introduce the topic and show relevance/immediacy (Why does this matter right now?)


--Offer a brief overview of the context of the argument


--Outline the arguments you're going to use to defend your claim


--Take each of your reasons one at a time and offer evidence to support it.

-- Spend a lot of time here - think about the organization of the arguments. You probably want to start off strong and end strong in your choice of arguments.


--Shows that you know a lot about your topic by addressing opposing viewpoints about your topic

--Be ready to discuss your own claim with repsect to these alternate points of view.


--Summarize your argument

--Suggest a plan of action for the audience

The Toulmin Model was developed by 20th century British philosopher Stephen Toulmin. Toulmin's main interest was moral reasoning, and how to develop practical and reasonable arguments through writing. The Toulmin model may be used when we want to present an argument from a logical standpoint. Toulmin did not focus as much on introductions and conclusions (as the classical oration model does); instead, he outlines the body of an essay through logical connections.

Claim: A controversial, debatable statement that is not immediately obvious to the reader

Reason #1: The first line of reasoning (argument) that backs up the claim

     Warrant: Connecting the first reason to the claim

     Evidence #1, #2, #3...: each of the reasons that support the claim

Reason #2: the second line of reasoning that backs up the claim

     Warrant: Connecting the second reason to the claim

     Evidence #1, #2, #3...: each of the reasons that support the claim

Use this for as many lines of reasoning that you have in the paper

Refutation Section:

     Objection #1: the first argument against your claim (your argument would focus on the reason, the warrant, the backing, or the evidence)

     Objection #2: the second argument against your claim

Like the Reason section of the essay, the Refutation section can go on as many points as you need.

Remember, this method doesn't include guidelines for an intro and conclusion. Your introduction would probably posit the Claim, while your conclusion would make sense of the Reasons and Refutations you have analyzed in the essay.

Rogerian argumentation was developed by a psychologist named Carl Rogers who was interested in helping people become more empathetic listeners.

When people "debate" a topic, oftentimes they are so busy talking over each other that they have difficulty actually hearing what the other is saying. (Sound familiar in our current political climate?) Rogers advocated that instead of loud and non-listening debate, that people attempt to become practice empathy in their communication lives - that we learn to be empathetic and listen to one another. In empathetic listening, one person listens to another and refrains from commenting until she has heard the speaker's position and tried to follow the speaker's line of reasoning. The listener does not pass judgment until she has heard and acknowledged the speaker's point of view. As opposed to modes of persuasion that focus on attacking the other party's point of view, Rogerian argumentation focuses on mutual understanding and respect for the other's point of view.

When we translate Rogerian argumentation to writing, the focus is on building a mutual respect and understanding between ourselves and our readers. Rogerian argument utilizes common beliefs and values held by both the writer and reader. Instead of "I win - you lose," Rogerian argumentation utilizes a "We both win" philosophy. This can be especially useful when trying to convince the reader of an emotional or controversial point of view.

A Rogerian argument does not have a set organization, but it does include the three following sections:

Exploring the Common Ground: A Rogerian argument begins by establishing a common ground that the writer and her audience might share. This may mean that the writer needs to expand her topic to a broader point, one she can agree upon with her audience. In this section, the writer tries to give credence to the audience's point of view, so that the audience understands the writer is treating their perspective respectfully.

Objection Position Statement: Once the writer has established a common ground with the reader, she can give an objective statement of her position. The writer should try to avoid attacking or superior language, or any other language that may suggest her point of view is superior to the reader's. In this section, the writer explores her point of view and places it within a particular context in an attempt to show her position is valid from a certain perspective. The writer also explains how her point of view differs from the audience's, and how her position may be considered valid.

Thesis: In the conclusion, the writer finally reveals her thesis. This thesis differs from the argumentative thesis typically seen in Toulmin or classical rhetoric because it tries to show that the writer has made concessions given her audience's point of view. By giving up some ground, the writer hopes to open up dialogue between two sides and for more persuasion to take place.

Narrowing Your Topic

Reducing your scope essentially means to narrow your focus.  Resist the urge to include everything; most times, professors are only looking for a few pages, not a book. 

How narrow is the scope of your paper?  Is it on an entire issue (gun control), or one or two aspects of your subject (gun control on college campuses)?  If you find yourself trying to cover everything in your paper, choose one or two specific elements you want to discuss, and circle them. 

From there, start to come up with examples that focus more on those specific elements of the topic, and less on the topic as a whole.


(Adapted from Rosenwasser and Stephen, 2009)

Study the wording of topics for unstated questions:

Take the time to think about how the assignment is worded in order to derive a more complex idea.  For example, the question “What sort of an identity does a particular rock band project?” seems to suggest a simple answer: “Green Day projects a punk identity.”  However, the wording of the question implies that there are deeper questions you need to articulate and answer before addressing this larger question. 


In other words, you need to define and understand the key terms with regards to how you want to address the prompt. In this case, what does “identity” mean?  How can a band “project” an identity? And more specifically, what is a "punk" identity?  By laying out questions such as these, by breaking down the language of the question and, in turn, questioning that language, you can engage the assignment on a deeper level.


Take a few minutes and jot down some questions relating to your assignment.  How do these questions function as idea-generators?

Suspect your first responses:  

This is where drafting is important – and something to think about for the next draft your write.  Our first responses are often superficial, obvious, and general.  Examine your first responses for the ways they are general and perhaps inaccurate, and consider the implications of these inaccuracies as a way into a new draft.


For example, look at the following paragraph:

Since the beginning of time, men and women have always had clear relationships. In the olden days, men hunted, while women cooked and took care of children. Nowadays, that relationship is more complex, as women's rights have recently been granted. Women can now do many things, such as work full-time, as well as take care of their families. However, more and more men are also taking on household duties. The women's movement has helped men become more understanding of women's roles and be more flexible in their own roles.


What are the general statements in this paragraph? What statements are historically inaccurate, or aren't clear enough to determine their accuracy? How might this paragraph be better composed, with more specific points?


Try this exercise with your own writing. Look at your introduction, for example, and question what you wrote. Is it too general? Can you narrow the focus a little more? What specific examples can you draw from to help you write a more specific paragraph?

What is “10 on 1?”

10 on 1 is an exercise in analyzing evidence developed by Dr. Jill Stephen and Dr. David Rosenwasser in their book Writing Analytically.  Rosenwasser and Stephen theorize that “making ten points about your most telling example (10 on 1) is a fruitful alternative to repeatedly pointing to a similarity among ten related examples (1 on 10)” (43).  What becomes at stake using 10 on 1 in analyzing evidence is depth, not breadth.  The more interesting claims you can make about your evidence and how it relates to your thesis, the more interesting your paper will be.  The number “10” does not always have to be reached in drawing conclusions about your example; “the important idea we intend 10 on 1 to communicate is that you should draw out as much meaning as possible from your best examples.”  By pushing your mind to create as many new and interesting claims as it can, you begin thinking more critically about your topic, drawing out the implications lying at the heart of your paper.


An Exercise in 10 on 1:

A good way to use 10 on 1 is with the first draft of a paper.  You have already chosen your examples; now you can explore them more fully and draw out the more interesting implications that you might be aware of, but unable to articulate as of yet.  This exercise will hopefully help you with thesis development, as well as being able to write more about your evidence…


First, write the main focus of your essay on a separate sheet of paper:

Now, take an example and make between 5 and 10 claims about your example. 

Things to think about:

v What does this example show about my thesis?

v How do I use this example in my paper?

v Is it clear to the reader what this example means?

v Why did I choose this example?