by Max Schulman
I spend most of my time at the Writing Center giving advice on a paper’s structure or clarity of ideas rather than simply proofreading. But if there are persistent stylistic or grammatical errors in a student’s work, I’ll usually point out an example after my more substantive comments.
And of these easily fixed technical and aesthetic issues, the one I see more often than anything else is the dreaded Wall of Text. It often shows up a page or two after the introduction, as the writer dispenses with background information and launches into a series of massive body paragraphs a page and a half in length. It’s great to have long, complex ideas; it’s not so great to unload them in uninterrupted torrents of verbiage.
What do I do to get rid of This Wall of Text?
Have someone else read it.
The benefit of having someone else read and critique your work is that it forces you to explain your ideas to someone not immersed in the ideas and subject matter that you’ve had filling your head for so long. This ideal of the intelligent layman reader may be something of an illusion in college courses where your professors write syllabi and assign paper topics. But it’s nevertheless helpful to keep in mind that you’re writing for a reader, not for yourself. And no reader, no matter how enthusiastic and well versed they may be in your subject, will be excited to see page-length blocks of unbroken text.
Break up your paragraphs.
Paragraph breaks exist for a reason. They help readers keep track of the main points and logical flow of an argument. They can mark the introduction of new ideas or new sections in a paper. A paragraph’s topic sentence naturally draws the reader’s eye and is a great tool to connect your ideas and relate detailed points back to your main thesis. This helps the reader understand your work as a coherent, well-constructed paper rather than an unconnected series of sentences.
Don’t limit your arguments to a single paragraph, especially if the paragraphs are getting long.
Some student writers seem to think that even the largest and most complicated argument should be fully contained in one paragraph. This is how they end up with gigantic blocks of text stretching from page to page, glazing over eyeballs and scaring off readers. This is an impulse to avoid: you shouldn’t be afraid to partition a point into its constituent sections if necessary. If you create effective transitions with your topic sentences, it will actually make it easier for the reader to follow the thread of your argument once it’s been broken up into more manageable chunks. When your paragraphs start to stretch towards a (double-spaced) page in length, it’s usually a sign that you should check them for natural subdivisions or places where they could be split.
As with anything in writing, these rules are not unbreakable. Some ideas do require more explanation than others and you shouldn’t forcibly split up a paragraph that doesn’t have a natural breakpoint. But more often than not, as a tutor, when I see a Wall of Text I’ll start reaching for my pen to scribble “TOO LONG—BREAK IT UP!”
If you are taking Expos this term, you may be writing a “lens” essay right about now. Check out this helpful post from our archives.
by Kenneth Mai
Your essay doesn’t flow. Add some transitions.
Those words – along with comments such as “Needs better transitions,” “Where’s the transition?,” or simply “TRANSITION!!!” – plague many a paper that may perhaps otherwise be brilliant.
See, it’s like this. Pretend that the many ideas you’re churning out within a paper are islands in the ocean. (That’s a metaphor! Sometimes metaphors work nicely in papers! ) Some islands are bigger than others. Some are closer to each other, whilst some may seem to be drifting off far away from all the others. Similarly, some ideas are smaller bits a cohesive whole, while others require a bit more effort to reel in. Your task is to gather these islands into a sort of kingdom that you rule. But in order to make sure that you have full control over everything, you need to connect the islands to each other. Now, it’s fine that each island isn’t directly connected to every other island, especially when they’re far enough away from each other to not really be related at all. But ultimately you want all the islands connected to make up a unified whole. So what do you do?
You build bridges!
In the context of writing a paper, these bridges are your transitions. You have two ideas that are related— islands that are close enough that you can build a bridge between them—but ultimately distinct. In order to help your readers across that gulf, then, you need to put in a transition.
But what exactly is a transition? Is it one of the sequential words – “first,” “second,” “finally,” etc. – that were the gold standard of midde school writing? Well…perhaps. But you have many more options now. The kind of transition you use depends on the relationship that you’re trying to build between two ideas, and those relationships can be quite complex. Transitions can be as short as a word or a couple of words to something as long as a sentence or even an entire paragraph. What’s important isn’t so much the shape of the transition as the underlying connection that is being made.
Here are a few useful types of transitions to keep in mind.
- Sequential Transitions: Here, we’re not talking so much about “first, second, third.” Rather, this kind of transition points more towards the ideas that logically follow each other. Words such as “therefore” or “then,” or phrases like “This indicates that…”, show a relationship between the ideas. These transitions are used when one idea is the premise on which the next idea depends or when the second idea comes as a deduction from the first.
Examples: Thus, Therefore, Then; It follows that, This indicates that, This implies that; From this we can see that, What this means is that…
- Comparative Transitions: Sometimes, it’s not so much that one idea is derivative of another, but rather that they share some sort of property. This is especially useful when the relationship between the two ideas isn’t obvious. This type of transition is useful in comparative essays (for obvious reasons) but also instrumental when you are using analogies to make a point about some sort of topic (such as talking about islands to make a point about transitions!)
Examples: Like, Also, Similarly; Just as, In the same vein; This idea can also be seen in…, A similar phenomenon is found in …
- Contrastive Transitions: There are times when you’re neither describing premise-conclusion relationships nor looking at similarities, but instead focusing on contrasts: “This author says this, but that author says that.” “This appears to be the case, but in reality, it’s something else.” These transitions are useful not only in compare-and-contrast essays, but also whenever you’re trying to debunk a claim or to show another side of an issue. These words can also help you to move on to an entirely different issue.
Examples: But, Though, However, Nevertheless/Nonetheless; Then again, On the other hand, At the same time; This ignores, It’s not…but rather, The difference between…and…is that…
- Summing Up Transitions: You’ve established an idea and thrown lots of brilliant evidence our way. Now what? In order to make sure your readers won’t miss important information, it’s a good idea provide the quick and dirty version of the ideas you just laid out before introducing your big, final insight.
Examples: Essentially, Basically, Ultimately; In short, In other words, That is to say; This boils down to, The main point is…
Ultimately, the goal of these tools is to bring a sense of cohesion to your paper by showing the logical progression of your thoughts; they’re signposts telling your reader which bridge to cross and what the two islands linked by that bridge have to do with each other. These signposts ought to be everywhere within your paper, moving your reader between phrases and sentences in addition to paragraphs or larger chunks. Sometimes multiple signposts are needed to guide a reader across the bridge, because of the complex relationship of those two ideas. The primary goal to keep in mind, though, is to make sure your reader has a smooth trip. That’s how you make your paper flow.
In my next post, I’ll offer some examples of transitional sentences and paragraphs.
by Christina Twicken
In this blog post, I pan for some nuggets of gold in the introductory paragraph of an influential essay written by famed scholar and philosopher Cornel West entitled “The Paradox of the Afro-American Rebellion.” Here is the paragraph:
The distinctive feature of Afro-American life in the 60s was the rise on the historical stage of a small yet determined petite bourgeoisie promoting liberal reforms, and the revolt of the masses, whose aspirations exceeded those of liberalism but whose containment was secured by political appeasement, cultural control and state repression. Afro-America encountered the modern American capitalist order (in its expansionist phase)—as urban dwellers, industrial workers and franchised citizens—on a broad scale for the first time. This essay will highlight the emergence of the black parvenu petite bourgeoisie—the new, relatively privileged, middle class—and its complex relations to the black working poor and underclass. I will try to show how the political strategies, ideological struggles and cultural anxieties of this predominantly white-collar stratum of the black working class both propelled the freedom movement in an unprecedented manner and circumscribed its vision, analysis and praxis within liberal capitalist perimeters.
I share this introduction with you because it teems with lessons by which to live. Here’s a breakdown of why this introduction is so intellectually and academically “on-point.”
- Begins with a hook which directly introduces the tension that the paper will explore (the black middle class’s complicated location within the ideologies and structures of liberalism)
- Moves to explicitly state [in the underlined region] the observations (evidence) that the essay will mobilize
- Employs the first person to directly indicate originality and contestability
- Offers a succinct thesis statement [in bold] which contains:
- A clear reason why this thesis is worth arguing (to identify and examine a paradox)
- An argumentative atmosphere (I could ostensibly come back at West and suggest an alternative vision of the paradox or perhaps a resolution to the paradox)
- An explicit allusion to the subject matter around which the analysis will be framed (political strategies, ideological structures, cultural anxieties…)
The best way to improve writing is to read good writing. Don’t go and copy West’s thesis (!), but mobilize him as a model for judging the writing you do. Does your introduction hit all of the bases? Does it have a topic? Does it outline the kind of evidence that the essay will use to prove its point? Does it explicitly state why such a presentation of evidence is important/revealing/inspiring/groundbreaking/original/unobvious/interesting?
 Cornel West, “The Paradox of the Afro-American Rebellion,” Social Text no. 9/10 (1 April 1984): 44.
By Daniel Gross
When you’re struggling to move forward in a paper, you can always move in reverse. Let’s say you have a draft, but you’re stuck. You’re not sure if the reader can follow each step of your argument. Now could be the time to swing by the Writing Center. But another option is a reverse outline, which is basically what it sounds like––an outline that comes after you’ve drafted an essay.
A reverse outline isn’t written on a separate sheet of paper. Instead, it’s scribbled in the margins of the draft. You write down the key points of your essay next to each paragraph. As you do, you start to see how the argument builds and shifts. It can be a versatile tool to illuminate your thesis, tighten your structure, and make things flow faster than Niagara. Let’s look more closely at what a reverse outline can do for you.
How is a reverse outline different from a regular outline?
Regular outlines are written before essays begin. “I. Introduction and thesis,” you might write, continuing: “II. Contextualize my topic.” Let’s pretend you’re arguing that the United Nations should protect the Arctic giraffe from dangerous oil drilling. Your outlined third paragraph might illustrate the problem you’re addressing by trying to show that the Arctic giraffe is in danger of extinction. Alternately, the third paragraph could show that the UN has a legal mandate to protect endangered species in general (which implies that you’ll later argue that the Arctic giraffe, as an endangered species, also merits protection).
One problem with this sort of outline is that it suggests that your ideas will be fixed before you start writing. But your essay structure can and should shift as you figure out what you’re really saying, which is why some writers don’t find outlines helpful. If you don’t outline before you write, you’ll still need to figure out if your structure is working. Is the reader following me? Is my structure logical? Does the essay flow?
That’s why we need reverse outlines.
How do I do a reverse outline?
Let’s pretend that based on my regular outline, I write the following three paragraphs after an introduction.
 In 1980, the United Nations intervened to protect the Hawaiian camel. Hawaiian camels had long been threatened by intensive pineapple harvests. When the local farmer collective introduced a plan to double their cultivated land, scientists argued that the plan would seriously affect local camel populations. The UN, responding to this news, suspended pineapple expansion through 2020.
 The Arctic giraffe lives along the temperate sea coast of Greenland. Thanks to their long necks, they thrive in the shallow waters of the continental shelf. Their heads, adorned with blue fur, rest just above the water to catch migrating fish which swim by.
 In the past 5 years, Arctic giraffe populations have fallen drastically. A June 2005 Nature paper, “Where have all the Arctic giraffes gone?,” raised a note of alarm in the scientific community. Its authors argued that oil drilling was to blame. Because drills produced destructive sound waves in the waters off Greenland, giraffes were adapting their behaviors by lifting their heads fully out of the water. Because these giraffes became significantly more conspicuous to passing fish, the scientists argued, these giraffes lost their main source of food.
Now I have my basic ideas down on paper, and I want to see if they make sense. Time for a reverse outline. We start with paragraph 2. What’s it about? It seems to give us a historical example in which the UN intervened, perhaps as a comparison to the case of the Arctic giraffe. We’ll assume that the introduction and its thesis told us the essay’s central claim––that the UN should protect Arctic giraffe species. With this in mind, we might scribble the following into the margin:
Illustrates historical case of UN species protection
For paragraph 3, we might try:
Introduces background of Arctic giraffe
For paragraph 4, we could write:
Shows that oil drilling may cause population loss
Now that we know the structure of these early paragraphs, we can re-examine the essay for clarity. First, we might ask: does a reader understand why it’s important that we know about the Hawaiian camel? The answer is probably not. Using the note we wrote––illustrates historical case of UN species intervention––we might write a topic sentence that makes the paragraph’s function more obvious, like: “The United Nations has historically protected species endangered by human behavior.” Now readers will understand that the paragraph is establishing precedent for the present case of the Arctic giraffe.
The function of paragraph 3 is more obvious, since it offers general information that relates to the species of interest. A different question is relevant, however: is this the best location for the paragraph? For instance, if this became paragraph 2, readers could be certain that the entire essay focuses on Arctic giraffes. But we’d also notice that the paragraph about Hawaiian camels wouldn’t make sense. As such, we might need to move the paragraph on Hawaiian camels to later in the essay. (Another question that we might want to address: does the reader know why background is important? If not, that might be worth mentioning).
Paragraph 4, finally, shifts the reader’s attention to the particular threat of oil drilling. It seems to lead up to the central claim that the UN should intervene to protect the Arctic giraffe. But does the reader realize the importance of this point? Because the entire argument hinges on the link between drilling and shrinking giraffe populations, we might want to highlight the point. A new topic sentence to start off paragraph 4 could address this, for instance: “Clear evidence has emerged that humans may be harming giraffe populations.” This makes the problem obvious and allows the following paragraph to address it.
What else can I do with a reverse outline?
A reverse outline for a complete essay has other advantages. Perhaps you notice that one paragraph doesn’t make sense in the context of its neighboring paragraphs. This tells you that the paragraph can be eliminated, or needs to be rewritten. Or perhaps two paragraphs have the same function in your reverse outline. Then you could differentiate the two to make sure you aren’t repetitive.
Or you might realize that your thesis and introduction don’t capture the breadth and shape of the essay that follows. Now that you see this, you can revise your opening lines to fit the essay you’re actually writing. In cases like this, you can see the real value of reverse outlines. Not only can they clarify points within paragraphs, they can provide the insights you need to clarify the very core of your argument.
If you won’t do it for the sake of your paper, do it for the Arctic giraffes.
Daniel Gross ’13 is an English concentrator and a public radio enthusiast.
Writing and Research, from Start to Finish: A Series of Workshops for the Undergraduate Writer
Sponsored by the Harvard College Writing Program
and the Harvard College Library
Getting Started: Locating and Evaluating Sources for Research Papers
Thursday, April 5
3:00-4:30 pm in the Lamont Forum Room, third floor, Lamont Library
An overview of the research landscape in the Harvard College Libraries. Find out about essential and efficient strategies for starting out on a research paper, including how to use the Harvard College Library’s vast online resources to locate credible sources and how to evaluate the sources you find.
Research Clinics: Hands-on Sessions for Students Writing Research Papers
Monday, April 9
3:00-4:30 pm in Room B-30, Lamont Library
Tuesday, April 10
3:00-4:30 pm in Room B-30, Lamont Library
Meet with Reference Librarians from Widener, Lamont and Cabot Libraries and representatives from the Writing Program for research tips and suggestions about finding sources for the research papers you are writing this spring. The Research Clinic is designed as an interactive session; please bring your laptop with you, as well as the assignments for any research papers you are working on.
From Research to Paper: Using Your Sources and Avoiding Plagiarism
Thursday, April 19
4:00-5:30 pm in the Lamont Forum Room, third floor, Lamont Library
Learn about how to integrate source material into your own paper and how to approach the research and writing process to avoid plagiarism. You’ll hear tips on how to determine the role each source may play in your argument, and how to summarize, paraphrase, and quote effectively.
Register for each workshop separately by sending your name, email address, and title of workshop that you wish to attend to firstname.lastname@example.org. Use “Writing Workshop” in your subject line.
Check out this very interesting series from the New York Times, in which writers talk about writing.
Reading Out Loud:
A Workshop for Writers
Thursday, March 22, 4:30-6:00 pm
Woodberry Poetry Room, Lamont Library
Ever felt nervous reading your poetry, stories, or essays aloud?
Come get tips from the experts. Elise Morrison, Associate Director
for Speaking Instruction at the Bok Center for Teaching and Learning,
conducts this workshop on public presentation for creative writers.
Bring a one- to two-page sample of your work and come
Brought to you by the Peer Speaking Tutor Program and Harvard Writers at Work
Free and open to the public
One of the most challenging processes in college writing is coming up with a question around which to frame an essay. Often, professors will write up an explicit prompt that students are expected to address—in which case most of the work is done for you. But, other times, especially in the humanities, students are expected to create a unique analytic question to frame their writing. Here’s some advice for how to deal with prompts in the humanities that look like this:
1. Write a crtitical analysis of one or more thinkers we’ve studied in this class.
2. Write a 5-7 page paper on a topic from the first half of the course.
These open-ended questions can leave students feeling like they have no clue where to start. Here I have listed some analytic questions intended to help you use the texts you study in class to find an interesting and contentious paper topic.
What do I think about the texts I’ve encountered?
- Was the text inspiring, challenging, illuminating, disenchanting, convoluted, radical, reactionary?
- Did this text change me? If it did, why? If it did not, why not?
- Did this text remind me of other texts I’ve encountered? Or was it wholly disparate?
What is the context of the text I’ve encountered?
- In what language was the text originally configured?
- When was the text created?
- How does the text make sense of the world? What is its ideology?
- Who is present in the text? Who is absent? What perspectives are included/excluded?
- Who is the audience? Who is addressed? Who is not addressed?
What is the author’s role?
- Does the author work within the confines of language? Does the author destroy language? Does the author reinvent language?
- Does the author know that the world is round?
- Is the author clear or tricky? Cynical or optimistic? Dry or elaborate? Serious or ironic? Is the author all of these things at once?
- Is the author more important than the reader? Is the author less imporant than the reader? Who is resposible for the impact of the text? Who is the artist: the writer or the reader?
What should I write about?
- How does this text envision Truth, God, Religion, Ethics, Evil, Goodness, Sex, Sexuality, Freedom, Power, Hope, the Future, the Past, the Present, Race, Gender, Class, Poverty, Wealth, Capitalism, War, Peace, Death, Self-consciousness?
- What are the merits of the text? What are the drawbacks?
- Do I agree with the secondary literature?
- How does this text interact with the status quo?
- Is this text still relevant today?
Is my introduction clear?
- Do I indicate the texts with which I am working?
- Do I describe my topic?
- Do I clearly state the astute observation I am making?
- Do I clearly state why it is that my astute observation is relevant and relevatory?
Happy thinking and writing!