Information Sheet #151

September 26, 2006


[In two of my classes last spring, the students kept on-line web logs, writing about topics raised by our reading/writing assignments.  While I have reservations about requiring students to “publish” their first-draft responses for all the world to read, the blog assignment proved productive for the majority of students–and some students have continued posting to their blogs. What follows are two abridged excerpts from my own spring-term blog that I used for discussing issues raised in the students’ postings.  –Bob Marrs]

In response to a posting about revising (and how surprising it is to discover that you can like a first draft but then you revise it and discover you like the new draft better) is this posting from Benvolio [a student’s self-chosen on-line pseudonym]: “It truly is a satisfying feeling to watch your paper improve and improve. My only question is: when is it done? If the writer can improve it continuously, when does the person realize that enough is enough. That further work is outweighed by the benefits of public viewing. I know for me, I never want to share, I just want to keep revising until perfection.” 

The French author Paul Valery asserted that “a poem is never finished, only abandoned.”  No matter how extensively we revise our texts, they are always incomplete, inviting more attention.  Our texts resist closure for a variety of reasons:

• In our compositions, we always leave out more than we capture.  We can always introduce more insights, clarify a fuzzy point, share something new we have just learned.

  We are always changing.  What satisfied me yesterday is no longer satisfying today.   I see the world in a new perspective.  The word “mother” had a mosaic of meanings yesterday, my mother dies, and suddenly the word acquires new shadows.

• We gain a new awareness of our readers–or our readers change–or the context for the composition changes.  One day you  thought you were writing an essay for a composition instructor; the next day you realize the piece is really for yourself; tomorrow you discover you want your father to read this piece, someone far more important than any teacher.

Of course, sooner or later, we must allow our texts to appear in public, we must publish them (certainly no accident the similarity of those two words “public” and “publish”).  Publication is inherently an abandonment, the text left to fare for itself without an escort to explain and defend it.


* * * * *

A student in class recently commented:  "And that is what I interpret the class to be--an investigation of the writing process."  Yep, I gotta agree.  I would simply add that consumed in this "writing process" is also the "reading process."  What intrigues me is how intimately intertwined are reading and writing.  When reading a text, we are inevitably rewriting it.  Reading this message, you are not memorizing it verbatim.  Instead you are translating my words into your own words.  In this process of textual reformation, my rambling paragraph becomes a neat sentence or two in your version, which in turns gets embedded or connected with other images and fragments from other experiences, other texts. When we are reading Nabokov, we are simultaneously practicing multiple writing tasks:  expanding our vocabulary, gaining new sensitivities for the possible rhythms of English sentences, acquiring a more attentive ear for images and allusions, etc.  And then, when we prepare to write, perhaps on a subject totally unrelated to Humbert Humbert, something of Nabokov’s prose--the voice or tone or vocabulary or sense of irony or a bit of phrasing--will sneak into our writing.  Rarely are we aware of these little evolutions in our literacy.  There are times in this class when we attempt to step back and reflect on how these evolutions may be occurring, but most of the changes we will miss.  The processes are too subtle and complex, embedded in a language acquisition/processing system over which we have surprisingly little conscious control.  Consider how as native speakers we learned English–listening and speaking, receiving and sending messages using an incredibly complex coding system--and we learned it with virtually no teaching, no formal lessons from professional pedagogues.  We master virtually all English grammatical constructions before the age of 3, well before we have started school.  Perhaps we're trying to determine in this class whether reading and writing skills are acquired in a comparable, mysterious process.  I personally think we will discover the answer is both "yes" and "no."  But then I don't think it's my job to teach you the answers.  It's not that we are taught how to read and write and think, but rather we learn how to read and write and think by reading and writing and thinking.  The issue in this class is you learning, not me teaching.

Checklist for Preparing Academic Papers

This checklist is a version of the checklist for students available on Coe’s WAC Web Site (  Faculty might consider adapting a more assignment-specific checklist to help students draft, revise, and edit their texts prior to submission.


______ 1. Assignment.  Do you understand the assignment and the kind of paper you are composing? Do you need to present data? analyze facts?  summarize information?  explain relationships? compare texts?

______ 2. Sources.  Are you expected to use outside sources?  Are you to work only from an assigned text?

______ 3. Evidence.  Do you know the kinds of evidence appropriate for this assignment? Must you provide quantitative data? Should you include opinions from scholars who have previously written on this subject?

______ 4. Readers.  Who is the paper’s audience? How much knowledge do your readers have of this topic? Can you assume your readers have read the same texts you have?  How much background information is required so readers will understand your paper?  Are you writing to inform? to argue? to explain? to mediate?

______ 5. Documentation.  What documentation style does your professor (and this academic discipline) expect for citing sources? MLA? APA? CBE? Chicago Manual of Style? End notes or foot notes or parenthetical citations? Do you need a Works Cited or Works Consulted bibliography?

______ 6. Time Management.  Have you given yourself enough time to give this paper the commitment it deserves? [Occasionally we do our best writing under the pressure of an impending deadline, but it should not be necessary to rely on such heroics for producing a paper. Better to rely on discipline and careful attention to detail than the magic of last-minute inspiration.]

______ 7. Quotations.  Have you used quotations to buttress your points, not to make your points? [To check this, read your paper without quotes and locate passages where the paper does not communicate effectively.] Is it clear how each quote fits in your paper? If you have quoted at length, have you discussed at length? Could long quotes be more effectively summarized or paraphrased? Are your quotes accurate, exactly matching the original text? If you have amended the quotes, do your ellipsis dots or brackets make it clear where and how the text has been modified?

______ 8.  Brainstorming.  Did you allow some time for brainstorming?  thinking?  generating ideas?  Did you do your brainstorming alone or with other people?

______ 9. Outline.  At some stage of the writing process, did you create an outline which maps the structure of this paper, making sure you have covered the main issues?  Is your coverage of the material in a sensible, understandable order?

______ 10. Arguments and Counter-arguments.  Have you provided sufficient examples and evidence to develop and support your argument, your primary thesis? Have you played the role of a devil's advocate, considering significant counter-arguments? Does your paper deal justly and fairly with those counter-arguments?

______ 11. Talking about Writing.  At some stage of writing the paper, did you share your writing with a peer, talk about the assignment or a draft with another student in the class, meet with a consultant in the Writing Center?

______ 12. Purpose.  Can a reader tell from the first or second paragraph what is the purpose of your paper?  [In first drafts, it is common for thesis statements to emerge in the concluding paragraphs. Thus, many papers can be improved by moving conclusions from the end to the beginning.  Even if you have decided to save your conclusion for the end (often a risky choice), it is important that your reader understand from the beginning what issues you are exploring, what questions you are trying to answer.]

______ 13. Compositional Organization.  Have you carefully considered the paper's structure and organization? Are your paragraphs in the best order to support your central argument? Will it be clear to the readers how each paragraph contributes to the development of the paper's main points?

______ 14. Paragraph Organization. Are your paragraphs focused, unified, and cohesive? Do they move from clearly stated points to passages which support and elaborate upon those points? Do you use paragraph breaks effectively? Do you have a series of short, choppy paragraphs that make the writing feel disjointed? Do you have any pages with no paragraph break?

______ 15. Transitions and Flow. Are there any passages where an additional sentence or a different transition would clarify the connections between ideas, paragraphs, or sentences? Is this a paper that would be helped by using sub-headings or graphics to assist readers in understanding your points?

______ 16.  Stylistic Editing.  Have you read your paper aloud and listened to the phrasing?  rhythm of the sentences?  use of repetition? [It is a good idea to read your paper aloud with a partner; the ear can often locate problems that the eye does not see.]

______ 17. Spelling. Have you consulted your spell-checker?  Have you used a dictionary for any flagged words? Read your paper to check for spelling errors that the spell-checker would never catch? [According to a spell-checker, the words in this sentence are spelled correctly: "If ewe wont two sea if hour spelling in this sentence is write yew knead only sum thyme and a spell check her.”]

______ 18. Mechanics. Have you proofread your final draft, reading from a paper copy? [Be alert for patterns of usage and construction errors.  As with stylistic editing, reading the paper aloud with a partner can be an invaluable technique for locating problematic passages.]

______ 19.  Accuracy.  Have you double-checked your citations, quotations, and references to make sure all necessary information is accurately presented in a consistent format?

______ 20.  Title Page.  In preparing your final copy, did you provide full information about your paper, including your name, course title, date of submission, and title of paper?  Are pages numbered in an appropriate format?

This checklist is based on a document developed by faculty at Marquette University and available at the following URL:

This website created and maintained by the Coe Writing Center. Copyright 2001.
Email Dr. Bob Marrs with any questions, comments or suggestions.