As we know, writing is a gradual process for students and teachers alike. There are certain conventions that represent good writing. So how do we get students to learn the basic skills of good, organized writing? How can we hold students accountable for the basic conventions of writing prose? Even though we use informal writing assignments to brainstorm a particular topic there are still conventions that represent a polished piece of writing found in a formal assignments. Students should learn the importance of an introductory paragraph, supporting arguments, topic sentences, the correct use of quotations and a concluding paragraph. Here, students should learn that there writing needs to take a certain shape in order for their ideas to be understandable by the reader. Teaching students to keep their reader in mind is another important part of the writing process.
When I assign written work, I stress the importance of the preceding conventions to help students become more effective and organized writers. For some students, English grammar conventions are difficult to decipher, but students can still learn the basics of rhetorical strategies so their writing takes a certain form that is easier to read. And because they are more organized, it will become easier for them to write, particularly when it comes to outlining their work. With an introduction and topic sentences in mind, students will be better equipped to build effective outlines. Of course, most of their brainstorming and informal writing assignments will help them with content. However, aiding students with the rhetorical structure of their argument will help with presentation.
By teaching students about the correct form and purpose of an introductory paragraph, students will have a foundation about what needs to follow in the rest of their writing. I tell students the introductory paragraph is like a “road map” to the rest of the paper. Here, students will strategically house a strong thesis statement. They should also include some of the main points that will be argued relating back to their thesis. The introductory paragraph should signal to the reader what is to come and why it is significant. I notice that students with a strong introductory paragraph have stronger conviction to their writing because they have organized their thoughts beginning with the introduction.
Topic sentences are equally important to the writing process. I tell students that a good topic sentence somehow connects the reader to their thesis. There should be a purpose in each topic sentence that reinforces their argument as they progress throughout the paper. Furthermore, good topic sentences serve two purposes. If students can construct good topic sentences, than they will be able to construct an effective outline that details their main argument. Rhetorically speaking, students will be able to reinforce each topic sentence with supporting arguments as they proceed through the paper. Topic sentences signal to the reader and writer the purpose and substance of the argument.
Importantly, students should learn how to use their sources effectively. Even though I teach political science, I still take time to inform students how to use quotations effectively including how to format them correctly. Oftentimes, I find that students use large block quotes without a lead in statement. And they never take the time to explain to the reader why that quotation was important to the argument. Also, using quotations in a paper should also be an exercise in paraphrasing. This can be difficult for students because in order to paraphrase effectively they will have needed to understand the content. I teach my students to use quotations strategically so that their argument becomes clearer to the reader.
Finally, students should be able to construct a proper concluding paragraph. I stress that students restate their thesis and their main supporting arguments. At this point in the writing process, students will be asked to think about the structure and content of their work. Does the paper do what it was initially intended to do? In addition to a reframing of the thesis and supporting arguments, students should add an extension statement in the conclusion. For example, the student might inquire or suggest what further research can be done on their topic. They may also cite why their particular topic is significant. In short, the concluding paragraph should reflect the introductory paragraph, but add an addition of what I like to call the “so what” factor. Students should ask themselves why their work was significant and then communicate that idea in their concluding paragraph.
Organization and structure in writing is an important skill for students to keep in their rhetorical toolbox. Many of these skills can be learned through informal writing assignments. They can brainstorm and focus on one or more of these areas. For example, a student can write a journal entry that has a focus on topic sentences. Or students can practice writing mock introductory paragraphs. Students should also have opportunities to incorporate outside sources into their writing which they can do in blog posts or journal writing. Students can learn that writing is easier when it takes a certain form. I like to think of it as a formula for good writing. It is still a part of the overall writing process and will help students write with purpose keeping their reader in mind.