For Places Besides College Where Good Quality Content Is Important
Some writing assignments in college do not require (much, if any outside) research and are meant to be primarily or purely original, where one gives one's own ideas about some particular subject. Other papers require explaining and/or analyzing an assigned reading such as a book or article. In some cases more than one work must be read and analytically compared or their conflicts critically discussed. A third kind of assignment combines the first two, requiring the student to analyze the ideas of one or more authors and then to give their own views about those ideas.
There are common crucial elements (over and above proper spelling, grammar, and technical format, which I am not going to discuss here) for writing all of these kinds of papers correctly. Understanding these elements is also imperative for being able to analyze assigned readings. Unfortunately these elements are not often taught in high schools or in grade schools, though they should be. I will address the separate issue of literary style at the close of this essay.
There are two things papers need (besides proper spelling, grammar, and technical formatting elements): (1) clarity, and (2) evidence that logically supports the points made. All of the above assignments require supporting evidence to be included so they are not simply expressions of mere, unsubstantiated, unreflective opinions.
(1) Examples provide concrete instances of what may otherwise be an abstract characterization that is unclear to the reader and difficult to grasp. More than one example is important to help prevent readers from focusing on an incidental or otherwise incorrect characteristic of your example and to show, when possible, the breadth of applicability of your idea.
For example, if I am trying to point out that there is an ambiguity in the statement that "the purpose of any economic system should be to give everyone the opportunity to become financially successful or wealthy", I might use the example that a lottery gives everyone the chance to become rich in the sense that any one person who enters can become rich, but that is different from saying that lotteries allow everyone who enters to actually become rich. And I might say that at the beginning of the baseball season, every team has a chance to win the World Series, but that still does not mean that they all, together, can become champions; it only means that no team is mathematically ruled out from getting into the playoffs by having already lost too many games to catch up. Similarly, if an economic system is said to allow everyone the opportunity to become financially successful or wealthy, that can mean one or a few people can become wealthy even though not many people can, or it can mean that the system is such that it is possible for everyone to be wealthy at the same time. The difference between these two meanings is immense.
(2) Restatement of an idea in different words helps eliminate ambiguities or vagueness that may accidentally plague one of the ways of stating the idea. Different ways of stating an idea may each be more meaningful to different readers. To restate that "there is an ambiguity in the statement that the purpose of any economic system should be to give everyone the opportunity to become financially successful or wealthy," I could say: There are at least two different senses in which everyone can have an opportunity to become financially successful or wealthy. One of these is for there to be the chance that all can become wealthy at the same time; another is for there to be the chance for one or a few, and only one or a few, to become wealthy in the system. Then I might go on to point out that what ought to be important for an economic system is that all people can succeed in it, not just that some can succeed even though the "some" could be anyone.
Or, suppose you hear, as I once heard, a speaker say, "The concept of the Trinity does not represent three different existences of God, but is three different instantiations of one essence." He then went on as though that were meaningful and clear. I asked for a clarification of what it meant for something to be "an instantiation of an essence" and what it meant to be "different instantiations of an essence." I believe he should have given such a clarification without having to be asked, because it should have been clear to him that such a statement could, by itself, be clear to no one else.
By the way, he seemed unable to explain it, which may have been why he had not tried. But, whether intentionally avoiding clarity or not, stating something complicated in only one way is not generally a good thing to do for your audience; and it is also not in your own best interest if you intend to be understood or if you are being evaluated by someone who is likely to know that the only way you have stated an idea does not make any sense. It is generally better for everyone for you to be clear than for you to be merely concise.
Most college freshmen (most people, actually) make the mistake of thinking what they feel is clear to them, is clear to the reader. And they think that if they see it as obviously true, the reader will also. Usually it is not clear, and often, it is not only not obvious, but is not true at all. It is crucial to give multiple examples and to expand on a point by restating it in different ways. This does three things: (1) it helps the reader more likely understand what you mean (no easy matter); (2) it helps make you more convincing (no easy matter); and (3) it helps you more likely see for yourself before you finish or submit your work any cases where you are mistaken or overgeneralizing. In this last regard, often you will come up with an example that you can see won't work without some sort of modification of the claim it is meant to illustrate or support, or you will come up with a restatement that you can see is false. In these cases you need to modify your claim or you need to explain the exceptions to it.
To some extent, how clear one needs to be depends on the intended audience. If one is writing for others with substantial background in the area, one does not need to explain as much as one does for an audience unfamiliar with the subject. However, sometimes apparent technical expertise can accidentally hide lack of understanding from one's self or from a group. It occurs sometimes that when an expert tries to explain something to a beginner, s/he will uncover gaps in his own knowledge or reasoning that are important to remedy. Sometimes the remedy will lead to new discoveries. Nobel laureate in physics, Richard Feynman, had the view that if he could not explain a principle of physics in a way that freshmen could understand it, then it was likely he did not understand the principle or the evidence for it as well as he thought he did. When my own children were going through elementary and middle school, as I tried to explain about math or grammar to them, it often turned out that the concepts in question were far more complex than they seemed. I ended up learning more about some of those things in trying to teach my children than I did when I studied them as a student. Some of the insights I gained were original. For examples, see the papers "More About Fractions Than Anyone Needs to Know," and "The Concept and Teaching of Mathematical Place-Value." So although writing for experts does not require giving the kinds of explanations writing for novices does, there may be something gained by experts writing (as though they were writing) to novices sometimes.
Providing Logical, Supporting Evidence
(1) Often it is not sufficient simply to give the evidence in support of a claim; one must also show what is wrong with the arguments that repudiate or oppose that claim. For if you argue for a point and disregard the evidence someone else has given against it, you have not done as much as you could to advance your claim. In a course or in a courtroom or anywhere else where your ideas are going to be evaluated and judged this is particularly important to keep in mind because if you do not try to refute the claims of your "opponents", it will appear either that you cannot or that you were not paying attention to them. Students who ignore arguments counter to their own, do so at peril to their grade.
(2) What I have said about explaining and giving evidence for points you are making also applies to the statements of evidence themselves. When you give a reason in support of some idea, often it is important to explain the reason (in the same way you explained the main point) and it is often important to give evidence that the reason itself is accurate. This may be true in regard to that evidence as well. So there may be a series of explanations and supporting arguments, some for the main points, some for the points that serve as evidence or reasons for those points, some for the evidence or supporting reasons for these points, and so on until one feels one has been as clear and supporting of all the different claims as is necessary or possible.
Evidence and Explanations Can Overlap
Writing Papers About Assigned Readings
The normal tendency for writers, especially for students, is to write down statements that are (or that seem) relevant to the points they want to make, but not necessarily to organize them in a pattern that makes the most sense collectively to a reader or that shows a reader how they relate to each other. Often there are logical gaps large enough that the reader cannot even notice that one statement is meant to be support for another, or to justify it. If one combines a logical gap with a spatial gap, it is almost impossible for anyone not already familiar with what you mean to be able to know what you mean. For example, if you say in one place that "education in private schools has many of the same flaws that education in public schools does," and then in two other places in your paper, far removed from this place, say things such as: (1) "Teachers and administrators in private schools have the same training as those in public schools" and then go on to talk about the training, and (2) "Private schools usually teach facts more effectively than public schools because the students are more receptive to memorizing them" the reader might not realize that each of those two numbered statements supports the first contention because what you had in mind is that the flaws that private and public schools have in common are (1) in large part determined by institutions that train teachers and administrators and by the current educational philosophies in the profession at large, which will affect equally the education in private and in public schools, and (2) that a flaw in both private and public education is a mistaken preoccupation with teaching and testing for facts instead of for understanding and reasoning, or for clarity and beauty of expression, and that this is a flaw which makes private schools only look better because their students are more amenable to learning facts. If that is what those two statements are intended to signify, then that must be made clear to the reader. It must be spelled out to the reader. Just making the statements does not show their logical significance or their purpose in being said. It makes it appear to the reader that you have made three distinct points that are not particularly related.
Therefore, in reading, one has to figure out what the work's main contention(s) is (are), and then figure out how and when the author is explaining or supporting them (whether that is how the author conceived of what s/he is doing or not). One also has to figure out which statements, if any, then explain or support the first tier of supporting statements, and which statements, if any, clarify or explain those. In doing this, one also has to see whether the work is giving evidence for its claims directly, or whether it is giving evidence against an alleged refutation of a claim - in essence, in this latter case, trying to oppose or negate the opposing view. When an author does not make clear his/her own logical organization of these things or does not even know what it is, it can be very difficult to tell which statements are meant to be central claims and which statements are meant to be supporting. It is often even difficult to tell in some cases which side of a claim the author is trying to maintain if you are not real careful about knowing whether you are reading the author's characterization of his/her position or a characterization of an opposing position that s/he is then going to rebut.
And, in writing, one must try to organize and present one's own work so that its logical structure helps the reader along instead of hindering understanding by merely presenting hundreds of separate statements that seem to have little pattern or coherence, or any clear relationship to each other.
Non-Structural Significance of Statements
Unfortunately there is a further difficulty for communication besides providing or recognizing structural signficance. The reader may not have, or be thinking of, the same relevant external or prior information available that the writer does, so the reader may not always understand what I will call here the "non-structural significance" of the points the author is making even though the reader understands their verbal meaning and understands their logical or structural place in the work. This is not just a problem in reading, but is also a common occurrence in spoken language. A person's saying to their spouse "I have a meeting tonight right after work" may have the (non-structural) significance of "you will therefore have to pick up the children from daycare and feed the dog." It does not just mean that s/he will be in a meeting. Even if the person restates the point in a different way, that does not necessarily impart the non-structural reason they are saying it. If they say "I have a meeting tonight right after work. So you know that means I won't be home until late," that still does not necessarily express the significance of saying it in order to ensure the kids are brought home and the dog fed. It is to some extent a restatement and partial clarification of the first sentence but it still does not express one of the intended most important reasons for conveying the information in either form.
For a more involved example, the ninth amendment of the Constitution of the United States states: "The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people." The meaning of this passage is that people have rights besides those which are specifically spelled out in the other sections of the Constitution, including the other amendments in the Bill of Rights. The significance of this seemingly simple statement, however, is vast, because in a country where justice is allegedly based on the rule of law, here is a Constitutional law which says that is not totally true - that there are some laws and some acts of government which would be unconstitutional even though there is no specific article or amendment in the Constitution proscribing them. They would be unconstitutional because they deny or disparage some unlisted, but nevertheless important, rights of the people. And the amendment was included in the original Bill of Rights in order to make certain that the federal government did not take the Constitution, and particularly the other amendments in the Bill of Rights, as a license to limit those rights that may accidentally not have been included by name or description. This means that in the United States justice is not solely intended by the founders to be controlled "merely" by written laws, but that in at least one regard basic moral rights are supposed to be considered to override laws or actions which attempt to restrict, invade, or deny them.
Another example. In physics, Newton's first law states a seemingly simple proposition, that objects in motion remain in motion in a straight line, and objects at rest remain at rest, unless either is acted upon by a force. The significance of that idea, however, is that one has to posit a force whenever any change in motion of any object from either rest or a steady velocity in a straight line is detected, and that detecting changes in a state of motion (or rest) of an object is then to detect a force -- even where no force is "felt" or directly perceived, and even though we cannot explain what the force "is" or how it operates to cause changes in motion. While the concept of force is intuitive, based on applying muscular effort to pushing, pulling, twisting, or throwing things, or being hit by them, that is not the sense of "force" in classical physics. In fact, it is not clear that a force is anything in classical physics other than a short-hand way of saying that under certain conditions there will be certain kinds of changes in the state of motion of certain things.
Moreover, before Newton, it was thought that for something to keep moving, it required having a constant force applied to it, and the question then was why something like a spear kept moving after it left your hand. What Newton's first law does is to say essentially that we aren't going to look at it that way any more and we aren't going to ask that question any more. From now on, we will assume once something starts moving, it will keep going in a straight line forever, unless something changes that. So now the question would have to be why the spear goes down into the ground instead of going on in the air until it sticks in something like a person or a tree trunk. The answer is "there must be a force or forces involved that keep the spear from continuing its flight rather than a force or forces that keep it going."
But none of this shows up in just the statement of Newton's first law by itself, just as none of the significance of the ninth amendment to the U.S. Constitution shows up in its statement alone. One of the ways I sometimes say this is: information often is not just intended to be information but is also intended to be a statement of the solution to a problem. But when readers or students do not even know there was a problem, it is almost impossible to realize the information is an intended solution and to see its signficance. In one's own writing, it is important therefore, when giving information to solve or resolve a conflict or problem, to articulate what the problem is in the first place that one is addressing.
And while it is not easy to know what the non-structural significance of a statement is if the author does not spell it out, it is important to understand that in any good writing, most statements do have some significance and one might need to think about or inquire what it might be. Often a start to discovering the non-structural significance of statements is knowing their structural significance because if something seems to be odd as a reason or an odd way to restate a main point, there is a good chance there is something more being portrayed than what you have so far understood. Focusing attention on the statement that seems odd will sometimes help you see something you have missed on the previous reading.
While it pertains to something that was spoken rather than written, an example of this occurred my freshmen year in college during second semester calculus. We were about to have a midterm, covering two textbook chapters, in the eighth week of a fifteen week semester when they announced that they were going to postpone the midterm until they covered the next chapter because, they said, the three chapters together made a better "unit". That struck me as odd because there was nothing similar about the first two chapters; there were a zillion equations to memorize in each of those two chapters, and none of them were related to each other. Trying to remember which equations applied to what things was very difficult. This became even more puzzling to me when the third chapter turned out to contain another bunch of unrelated equations. The midterm was going to be extremely difficult. They gave it at week twelve in the term. This just seemed really odd to me as I studied. Since my view of school at that time was that exams were some sort of contest between teachers and students, it never occurred to me to ask the teachers to explain in what way these three chapters were "a unit". But the question nagged at the back of my mind. The night before the exam, while I was taking a walk to clear the cobwebs from studying these equations for the millionth time, it occurred to me that maybe the bold print at the beginning of the first of the three chapters was not just there for layout design, but was somehow significant. It then struck me that what was stated in bold print might be a general principle of some sort. When I got back to my book, I saw that this was in fact the case, and that all the other equations could easily be derived from the first just by taking into account the relevant features of the specific situations in conjunction with the general principle. Solving the specific problems then was very easy. I felt like an idiot for not having seen it from the beginning. And I only felt lucky to see it the night before the exam instead of the night after, or never. But as it turned out, I was apparently the only person among the 1500 students taking the course who saw it at all. My score was nearly 30 points higher than the next highest score on an 84 point exam, and it was more than 50 points higher than the median score. The faculty was devastated that the exam scores were so low and did not understand where they had gone wrong in their teaching. Their mistake was, I believe, in not making clear the structural and the non-structural significance of that opening section of the first of the three chapters. And the bold print in the text had not sufficed to show any significance because all the chapters began with some amount of bold print, and it looked more like an artistic element than a logically meaningful one.
In good writing all, or nearly all, statements have at least a structural significance or purpose; and to understand the writing and to appreciate it, one generally needs to be able to appreciate not only the verbal meaning of each sentence individually but its structural place and purpose in the paper. Writers should also try to help their readers understand any non-structural significance of their statements.
Two Common Kinds of Exam Questions Where All This Is Particularly Relevant
The same applies to the second kind of exam question. The kind of question I have in mind here applies to a course where you may have read, studied, discussed, or been given lectures about, different topics or different sides of a given topic. The exam question will then often ask you to give your view about some issue which may have either been a central issue of some of the readings/lectures/discussions, or more likely, a subordinate issue germane in some way, often an important way, to the central issue. And although the teacher is asking you to give your own views about this, that is not quite all that is being asked. What you are really being asked is to state your views and to support them, showing that you also know what the readings, discussions, and lectures said about this, and how you used those ideas as a springboard to your own reflective and analytic thinking. The purpose of the question is to see you demonstrate (1) your knowledge of the authors' and your teacher's and classmates' arguments, and (2) your ability to go above and beyond what they say and to demonstrate analytical/critical thinking and good judgment about their points and about the issue. BOTH of those things are important to present in your exam answer.
There is one exception to this - analyzing and disagreeing with or refuting the teacher's views. While some teacher's appreciate your doing that when you have astute observations, most don't; so it is often not good to do from a self-preservation, grading standpoint, unless you think the teacher really can be objective about his own work. If the teacher has not played devil's advocate during the term and been supportive of anyone's attacking his/her positions, and if the teacher seems to have been pretty adamant about always being right, it is probably impolitic to critique in any unfavorable way his/her ideas even if they deserve it. Unfortunately this is one of those areas where wisdom is not wise to portray.
I want to give an example of the second kind of exam question. In a course at one college whose subject matter was the juxtaposition of church and state in America, in at least two of the readings, comments were made about the relationship between religion and materialism. One of the authors claimed materialism served to benefit America as a substitute for religious fervor by focusing the attention of government and citizenry on common economic development rather than divisive religious differences. The other author wrote about how religion was important in America because its focus on more essential spiritual and moral matters counterbalanced the American preoccupation with materialism. When assigned readings have these sorts of (apparently) conflicting ideas, there is a good possibility an exam question might ask for the ideas to be addressed -- but without mentioning they were addressed in the readings. That requires your being able to state the different views accurately, with the correct attributions of authorship, and then to suggest considerations that go beyond both, or that ideally even transcends both and resolves the discrepancy or conflict. If you only address the ideas without discussing the authors assigned, it will appear you did not read or attend to the assignments; if you only report what the assigned readings said, it will appear you only read them and did not think about them.
Quotations Are Not Normally Supporting Evidence
In most cases, however, quotations are stylistic contributions, not logically supporting contributions. My first assigned college paper required us to explain who the bravest character in Homer's Iliad was. I began with a quotation from George Washington about what constituted bravery in war and went on from there, thinking that covered it. The teacher's question was what reason there was to believe that Washington was correct in this case. At that time in my life, I assumed great soldiers knew about such things. Now I understand that may not always be true and that the concept of bravery was far broader than how one behaved in battle. What the teacher wanted to know was what I thought constituted bravery and why, and who in the Iliad then best conformed to my model of bravery and in what way.
There is a possible exception to quotations not being supporting evidence -- where a quotation comes from a well-documented and confirmed study and the quotation is about the empirical findings in the study. That is more likely to happen in the "hard" or natural sciences where research is replicated and scrutinized, than in those ("soft") sciences or other disciplines in which replication or scrutiny is not as meticulous or prevalent.
Style and Literary Artistry
If you have four totally different kinds of reasons for a point, you state the point, restate it at least once in different words or using an analogy or doing something to say it in a different way, and then you say something like "There are four different reasons to believe this: 1, 2, 3, 4." And then you go on to elaborate each of those reasons in as convincing a way as you can in subsequent paragraphs.
You also then have to put what is wrong with the opposing views if any have been given. So, if one of your authors, or if your teacher, or if someone in class has given a position that your position contradicts, you MUST explain why that person's position is wrong. You have to state what their position is and then show what is wrong with it. You CANNOT just ignore it, or it will appear you were not paying attention or that you don't care about conflicting evidence (the serious version of "my mind is made up; don't confuse me with the facts").
Again, the explanation of the logic of all this is in a short essay at http://www.akat.com/reasoning.htm. You really need to make sure you understand that essay. And you need to learn how to read any non-fiction in a way that allows you to see what the author's points (conclusions or main contentions) are and what his/her support/evidence for those points is -- what counts as arguments for the points, and what counts as arguments against the arguments that oppose his/her points.
Style and eloquence do not count for anything if they confuse either the logic or clarity of your presentation, but style and eloquence can count for a great deal if they enhance a clear and logical presentation. Style can add elegance, beauty, and/or power to a logical and clear presentation. At www.garlikov.com/teaching/style.html there are some famous speeches and passages shown in their normal form, along with paraphrasing that is intended to be faithful to the meaning but not to the poetry of the passages. You will see that meaning alone has none of the power that poetic eloquence can add to clear and logical prose. So if you are fortunate enough to be an individual blessed with eloquence and poetic gifts, by all means use them; but use them to enhance your clarity and logic, not to substitute for them.
No, sir, she has none. They are meant for us:
they can be meant for no other. They are sent over to bind and rivet upon
us those chains which the British ministry have been so long forging.
The battle, sir, is not to the strong alone; it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave. Besides, sir, we have no election. If we were base enough to desire it, it is now too late to retire from the contest. There is no retreat but in submission and slavery! Our chains are forged! Their clanking may be heard on the plains of Boston! The war is inevitable--and let it come! I repeat it, sir, let it come.
It is in vain, sir, to extenuate the matter. Gentlemen
may cry, Peace, Peace-- but there is no peace. The war is actually begun!
The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash
of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we
here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life
so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and
slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take;
but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!
October 30, 2000