Script of questions to help writers who are not in love with writing.
Before you start writing an essay you need to boil down what you’re writing about. You need to have something to prove. This guide will be written as a series of questions that you will ask yourself or someone helpful will ask you; concentrate on the blue. It is repetitive on purpose. Good writing asks just a few questions over and over. Examples are in red.
Prewriting: What is my essay about in most basic terms? Possible answers: brothers, family, injustice, anything you decide you can prove. What do I want to prove? Possible answers: 1) Brotherly love is complicated. 2) Family isn’t only the traditional model. 3) The brave fight injustice.
The answer to this question is what you will come back to over and over and over again in the writing process. This will become your thesis; everything in your essay will revolve around this idea.
So I ask again, what do you want to prove… and do you have enough to prove to meet your body paragraph requirements? Each body paragraph must have something new to prove that relates to your topic. Your thesis should put all your ideas (2 if a 4 paragraph essay, 3 if a 5 paragraph essay) in one tight sentence. Two can be okay, but strive for one and don’t over complicate it. Simple thesis statements are often the most effective. If you’re using the idea of brothers (say for “The Scarlet Ibis” essay) and the idea of that relationship being complicated, you’ll need to figure out two specific things you intend to prove. Examples: 1) Siblings are the people one treats both the best and worst. (Related to The Bean Trees for a 3 paragraph essay) 2) Lou Ann, Taylor and the kids make family by sharing space and duties, bills and love.
By this time you should have created your thesis and have the idea for your topic sentences. Be aware, you haven’t actually written the first sentence of your essay yet. This is prewriting to guide everything you’re going to do later. I like to write an outline first, but there are many different methods. Basically before you can begin drafting or “writing your essay” you need to be able to answer these questions:
What do you intend to prove with this is essay, in general?
In body paragraph 1, what do you specifically intend to prove?
In body paragraph 2, what do you specifically intend to prove?
In body paragraph 3, what do you specifically intend to prove?
In the writing of your essay, you will ask yourself the question, “What am I proving?” at least 40 times if you’re doing your job right.
Next step: do you have enough evidence? I’ve written my answer in outline form.
What are you proving in general? (Written for “The Scarlet Ibis” Siblings are the people one treats both the best and worst.
What are you proving in paragraph 1? Brother is angry with Doodle and treats him cruelly.
What’s your evidence? Makes him touch coffin.
Pushes him to physical exhaustion.
What are you proving in paragraph 2? Brother loves Doodle and gives him his time and energy.
What’s your evidence? Teaches him to walk
Hangs out with him telling stories
After you’ve done all of this, you may write your essay.
I suggest that you begin by writing body paragraphs, but some like to write chronologically, so I’ll show you the steps that way, but know you can skip around after the above steps are done.
Introductory paragraphs begin with a hook. There are 5 hooks. Some work better for different kinds of essays or topics.
Hook #1=a question about your essay topic in general. DO NOT reference the author or the lit yet. If you’re using a question it should be an open ended question, not easily answered and may not include the word YOU. Example: What keeps siblings forgiving keep each other for all the injustices. The simple answer may be, “Mom”, but the real answer is deeper than that. Non-example: Do you have a brother? Have you ever been really mad at your brother or sister?After asking the question, you should attempt to answer it. Family is meant to a trusted constant; that can’t be true without slack given.
Hook #2=provocative statement; a statement meant to get a reaction. Example written for The Bean Trees on non-traditional families. Families without a father and mother, married and living in the same house are not families at all. This is a provocative statement, because it potentially invalidates or insults a lot of people who don’t live in the traditional family model. Always follow up provocative statements with an explanation or clarifying statement so you don’t sound like a racist or sexist or generally arrogant *&%#@. This may have been the thinking of many traditionalists fifty years ago, but with the uptick in single parenting, divorce and out gay couple, families may many configurations.
Hook #3=Statistic (fact with numbers) In the United States today, 53% of marriages end in divorce. Then explain how the statistic is relevant to your topic. It becomes increasingly less common for families to follow the traditional model of mother and father married with children living all under the same roof in the face of these numbers.
Hook #4= Anecdote or mini story. This one is the most difficult to pull off well. On the subject of siblings for “The Scarlet Ibis” essay. My brother bounced a golf ball off my head once, hard; I spit in his eye in retaliation. All of this over the fact that I was in charge of him getting his chores done; he’s lazy and I’m bossy. At the time, I would have sold him off without regret. Years later, over turkey and mashed potatoes at my table, we each look back on that moment and smile at each other. Tell why or how the story connects to your broader topic of siblings, brothers. That’s the brilliance of family and of time. Time softens the hurt, and family is a meant to always be there giving time the chance to dull the irritation.
Hook #5= Quote from somewhere famous and given credit. Find a quote that has to do with the general topic you’ve identified that your essay is about. Make sure that you understand the quote, because after you use it you’re going to explain what it means in simpler terms unless it’s already super simple. In that case, you’re going to link it to your general topic. “When you look at your life, the greatest happinesses are family happinesses.”--Joyce Brothers What does it mean?or Why does that matter? or Why should your reader care? Dr. Brothers is claiming that what we do as individuals matters to us less than what we share or accomplish together, especially with the people who share our lives long term.
For many the hardest part of an intro is the bridge between the hook and talking about the lit. Here, you introduce the topic of the essay in general terms without mentioning the book, its author or its characters. If your general topic is family, you can talk about the importance of family for a sentence or two. Whatever your topic, talk about it general terms for a sentence or two setting up for how this “stuff” or idea can be seen in the literature. If you’re writing about The Bean Trees and these women making their own unconventional family. Talk about how not all families look the same. Talk about what defines family. Family isn’t based on marriage or blood. or Family is about bonds, shared time and investment in the big and little events of each other’s lives. or Family are the ones who don’t run away when life gets gross.
Introduce the story, film, book--the lit. Ask: Who’s the author; what’s the title; who’s the main character and what does s/he want? Barbara Kingsolver writes a novel, The Bean Trees, about a young woman, Taylor, determined to get out of Kentucky before she gets knocked up and becomes the wife of a tobacco farmer. You have about 2 sentences left to tell all the important parts of the story. Pick the ones that relate to your essay topic. What’s the setting? What are basics the reader (you will assume has never read your lit) needs to know to get this story at its most basic level? Are there any characters that are critical to understanding the story and thus my essay? Name them. Taylor heads West; is given a child and makes a home in Arizona with the help of her new mentor and employer, Mattie and housemate, Lou Ann. What’s your general topic? How are you going to relate it to these characters or their actions? The story is full of irony and self-discovery as these three women piece together better lives for having each other’s help and support.
Thesis statement--the thing you decided at the very beginning you were going to prove. State it now. You’ve already written this. Copy it down in its home at the end of the intro. Before you move forward, look at your thesis and make sure you have distinctly different topics for your body paragraphs so things aren’t muddy. Ask: Based on your thesis, what will your body paragraphs be about? You should have a clear answer.
Without examples the questions to ask, in order, for an intro paragraph:
What are you proving in general? What is your topic? Which hook makes the most sense with your topic?
After writing your hook, if you’ve used a quote, have you explained what it means? If you’ve used a question: is it open ended; have you attempted to answer it?
How can you tie your hook into your general topic? Why did you pick that hook? Write a couple of sentences that transition you into talking about the lit.
Ask: Who’s the author; what’s the title; who’s the main character and what does s/he want? What’s the setting? What are basics the reader (you will assume has never read your lit) needs to know to get this story at its most basic level? Are there any characters that are critical to understanding the story and thus my essay? Name them. What’s your general topic? How are you going to relate it to these characters or their actions?
What’s the thesis I developed in my pre-writing? Copy it. Have you told your reader what your essay will be about in 1-2 sentences? Does it lay out what your body ¶s will be about?
Basics body ¶ formula, order of which can be changed once you’ve mastered it.
Ask yourself again, “What am I proving, overall?” so you are very clear of your focus. Look at your outline.
What did you say your first body paragraph was going to be about? If you haven’t shaped that into a sentence yet, now is the time. Don’t over-complicate. Simple is okay, sometimes best. Brother is angry with Doodle and treats him cruelly. This statement (your topic sentence) is what you must prove. Topic sentence is DONE! Next, evidence; this can be either a quote or a paraphrase. Again look at your outline. What did you say you’d use first to prove your topic sentence? Does it make more sense to write it as a quote or a paraphrase? Paraphrase is just what happened at a particular moment in the plot in your words, not the author’s. You must cite the page number(s) just like a quote, so it can’t be something general without specifics like Mattie is helpful to newcomers and refugees by helping them get across the border. This isn’t an event. Make it a moment rather than a giant chunk of the plot. Paraphrase that works: Mattie gives Taylor a cup of coffee on her first day in town and crackers and juice to Turtle (41-42). When using a quote as evidence, make sure you have your quote first, then circle back to set it up. A quote by itself almost never makes sense. If someone is speaking in the quote, ask who is talking to whom about what? That’s your set up. Brother surprises him by telling him that he is going to teach him to do what no one else thinks he can. “I am going to teach you to walk, Doodle”(192). Notice that my sample doesn’t exactly repeat what’s in the quote. If you’re using a quote that isn’t one person talking to another, but the narrator talking, ask what does the reader need to know to understand the quote? What background info would be helpful? During Doodle’s training process to make him normal, Brother forces him to do things that jeopardize his health. “I made him swim until he turned blue and row until he couldn’t lift an oar”(183). Next you ask Why? Why does this matter? Why does the character behave this way? How does it prove my topic sentence? If you are not the strongest writer or if you are someone who is getting help while writing, ask some combination of these questions 4-6 times. It often takes this long to get to good analysis. Once you think you have a good first CM, to get at the next CM ask again Why? CM#2 is just a continuation of thought for CM#1 just taking it further. Why does Brother make Doodle swim until he’s blue and row until he can’t lift an oar? Why does he do this? What am I meant to prove? Brother is angry with Doodle and treats him cruelly. So why does Brother do this? Brother is angry at Doodle for not being what he wants him to be. Why does that matter? Brother is determined to make Doodle into what he wants even if it hurts him, because his pride is more important than Doodle’s health or feelings. I could’ve stopped before the “because”, but it gives more “why” if I continue. I would use the same process if I were writing about The Bean Trees or anything else. “What am I proving, overall?” Taylor makes a non-traditional family when she moves in with Lou Ann and the kids. What’s your evidence? If using a quote ask who is talking to whom about what? or if the narrator is talking, what does the reader need to know to understand the quote? What background info would be helpful? Early in the book after the women move into together, Taylor struggles with their roles and the idea of them acting more like spouses than housemates, “Lou Ann reading magazines… and me coming home grouchy…We were like some family on a TV commercial, with names like Myrtle and Fred”(84-85). Next you ask Why? Why does this matter? Why does the character behave this way? How does it prove my topic sentence? Taylor was given a child, something she was running from, and now lives with this woman and they act like an instant family. Why does this matter? One has taken on the role of Dad and the other, Mom; it takes her awhile to warm to the idea that she has helped create this new family. How will you transition to your next piece of evidence? What are you going to use next to prove: Taylor and Lou Ann are family? Eventually she decides that this family is exactly what she wants. What’s your evidence? If using a quote ask who is talking to whom about what? or if the narrator is talking, what does the reader need to know to understand the quote? What background info would be helpful? She calls Lou Ann from the courthouse while waiting on Turtle’s adoption paperwork and is happy when Lou Ann tells her she likes their new living situation and isn’t leaving to go be with her ex or her new man (230). How does it prove my topic sentence? She had to work to keep Turtle; Why? the state threatened to take her away, and How does it prove my topic sentence? she could’ve gone back to being independent. Why does this matter? Taylor ends up making this life in Tucson that she loves though isn’t what she expected; How does it prove my topic sentence? she becomes a mother and is invested in her roommate. Conclusion sentence is the last step in this paragraph. If it has body paragraphs after it, your goal is to summarize the paragraph and transition to the next. Ask what was I proving? How can I tell the reader without using the same words in the topic sentence? What will I be writing about next? You will need to combine those two ideas what this paragraph was about and what the next one will be about. Love, attention and responsibility are the foundations of family which these two women show to each other and their kids. This is all I would say if it were the last body paragraph, but if you’re transitioning to another paragraph, there needs to be a push to the next topic. Lou Ann and Taylor care for each other and share responsibilities like family, but couldn’t function as effectively without Mattie. So who will my next ¶ be about? Mattie.
These questions will probably be the most useful part of this packet.
Without examples the questions to ask, in order, for a body paragraph:
(For Topic Sentence) What are you proving, overall?
(For Concrete Detail) What’s your evidence?
(For TLQ—to set up the evidence to be written before the evidence) Who is talking to whom about what? or what does the reader need to know to understand the quote? What background info would be helpful?
(For commentary pick best question for the situation) Why? Why does this matter? Why does the character behave this way? How does it prove your topic sentence?
Why does this matter? How does it prove your topic sentence?
How will you transition to your next piece of evidence?
What are you going to use next to prove?
What’s your evidence?
Who is talking to whom about what? or What does the reader need to know to understand the quote? What background info would be helpful?
How does it prove your topic sentence? Why? How does it prove your topic sentence? Why does this matter? How does it prove your topic sentence?
(For conclusion sentence) What were you proving? How can you tell the reader without using the same words in the topic sentence? What are you writing about next?
Conclusion paragraph Step 1
Restate your thesis in fresh words. What were you attempting to prove? Taylor, Lou Ann and Mattie come together to create a non-traditional family due to their investment in each other.
Further analysis, 2-3 sentences. Why do the characters (important to your thesis) behave the way they do? What do they want? What are they hoping to get, to prove? Taylor leaves her mother looking to be on her own and independent and ends up making a new family out of necessity when she was given a child. Without Mattie looking after her and acting as stand in mom, she wouldn’t have a good job, or anyone to ask for advice. In Lou Ann, she gets a best friend, childcare and someone to split the load of adult living. Out of convenience, poverty and connection, she makes a family for herself and new child with these women.
Take home message. What should the characters learn from the journey of the book? What should the reader take away? Is there a societal message to be taken from this lit? What does the author want the reader to think do as a result of reading the lit as it relates to the overall topic of your essay? Barbara disputes the idea that a family is only the nuclear model of mother, father, and children. She asserts through her characters that life is not necessarily linear. Stuff happens, and individuals must deal. Those who help, regularly, because they care, become family. Family is far more about investment and responsibility than blood.
Without examples the questions to ask, in order, for a conclusion:
What were you attempting to prove?
Why do the characters (important to your thesis) behave the way they do? What do they want? What are they hoping to get, to prove?
What should the characters learn from the journey of the book? What should the reader take away? Is there a societal message to be taken from this lit? What does the author want the reader to think do as a result of reading the lit as it relates to the overall topic of your essay?