Beginning and Ending

Beginnings attract readers and give them some information about what's to come. When we get to the end of a text, we expect to be left with a sense of closure, of satisfaction—so endings are important, too. This chapter offers advice on how to write beginnings and endings.


How you begin depends on your  RHETORICAL SITUATION. Academic audiences generally expect your introduction to establish context, explaining how the text fits into some larger conversation, addresses certain questions, or explores an aspect of the subject. Most introductions also offer a brief description of the text's content, often in the form of a thesis statement. The following opening of an essay about "the greatest generation" does all of this:

Tom Brokaw called the folks of the mid-twentieth century the greatest generation. So why is the generation of my grandparents seen as this country's greatest? Perhaps the reason is not what they accomplished but what they endured. Many of the survivors feel people today "don't have the moral character to withstand a depression like that." This paper will explore the Great Depression through the eyes of ordinary Americans in the most impoverished region in the country, the American South, in order to detail how they endured and how the government assisted them in this difficult era.

—Jeffrey DeRoven, "The Greatest Generation: The Great Depression and the American South"

If you're writing for a nonacademic audience or genre—for a newspaper or a website, for example—your introduction may need to entice your readers through shared experiences, anecdotes, or some other attention-getting device.

Ways of Beginning

Explain the larger context of your topic

Most essays are part of an ongoing conversation, so you might begin by outlining the positions to which your writing responds.

State your thesis

Sometimes the best beginning is a clear  THESIS stating your position.

Forecast your organization

You might begin by briefly outlining the way in which you will organize your text.

Offer background information

If your readers may not know as much as you do about your topic, give them information to help them understand your position.

Define key terms or concepts

The success of an argument often hinges on how key terms are  DEFINED. You may wish to provide definitions up front.

Connect your subject to your readers' interests or values

You'll always want to establish common ground with your readers, and sometimes you may wish to do so immediately, in your introduction, as in this example:

We all want to feel safe. Most Americans lock their doors at night, lock their cars in parking lots, try to park near buildings or under lights, and wear seat belts.

—Andie McDonie, "Airport Security: What Price Safety?"

Start with something that will provoke readers' interest

Grab their attention with an eye-opening assertion.

Start with an anecdote

Sometimes a brief  NARRATIVE helps bring a topic to life for readers.

Ask a question

Instead of a thesis statement, you might open with a question about the topic your text will explore.

Jump right in

Occasionally you may wish to start as close to the key action as possible, especially in a profile or narrative.


Endings are important because they're the last words readers read. How you end a text will depend in part on your  RHETORICAL SITUATION. You may end by wrapping up loose ends, or you may wish to give readers something to think about. Some endings do both.

Ways of Ending

Restate your main point

Sometimes you'll simply  SUMMARIZE your central idea.

Discuss the implications of your argument

Sometimes you may want readers to connect your argument to other ideas or phenomena.

End with an anecdote

Maybe finishing a  NARRATIVE that was begun earlier in your text or adding one that illustrates the point you are making.

Refer to the beginning

One way to bring closure to a text is to bring up something discussed in the beginning; often the reference adds to or even changes the original meaning.

Propose some action

You may want to encourage readers to vote in a certain way, write a letter, protest an injustice, or take some other action.

Considering the Rhetorical Situation

Think about the message that you want to articulate, the audience you want to reach, and the larger context you are writing in.


Your purpose will affect the way you begin and end. If you're trying to persuade readers to do something, you may want to open with your thesis and end by calling for action.


How does your audience affect the way you begin and end? For example, is opening with an anecdote appropriate, or would a different strategy work better?


Does your genre require a certain type of beginning or ending?


What is your stance, and can your beginning and ending help you convey that stance?


Your medium may affect the way you begin and end. A Web text, for instance, may open with a home page, giving readers a choice of where to begin.

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Guiding Your Reader

When you write, you need to provide cues to help your readers navigate your text and understand the points you're trying to make. This chapter offers advice on guiding your reader and, specifically, on using titles, thesis statements, topic sentences, and transitions.


A title names a text and provides clues to the content. It also helps readers decide whether they want to read further. Always consider the  RHETORICAL SITUATION to be sure your title serves your purpose and appeals to your audience.

Some titles simply announce the subject of the text:

"Why Colleges Shower Their Students with A's"

Some titles provoke readers or otherwise entice them to read:

"Kill 'Em! Crush 'Em! Eat 'Em Raw!"

Sometimes writers add a subtitle to explain or illuminate the title:

Aria: Memoir of a Bilingual Childhood

In most instances, a title that helps you generate ideas and write. More often, though, a title is one of the last things you'll write, when you know what you've written and can craft a suitable name for your text.

Thesis Statements

A thesis—or main point—identifies the topic of your text along with the claim you are making about it. Here are four steps for moving from a topic to a thesis statement:

1. State your topic as a question

An idea such as "gasoline prices" may be a good topic, but it's not a thesis statement because it doesn't actually make a statement. A good way to begin moving from topic to thesis statement is to turn your topic into a question:

What causes fluctuations in gasoline prices?

2. Then turn your question into a position

A thesis statement is an assertion—it takes a stand or makes a claim. A relatively easy way of establishing a thesis is to answer your own question:

Gasoline prices fluctuate for several reasons.

3. Narrow your thesis

A good thesis is specific, guiding you as you write and showing your audience exactly what your essay will cover:

Gasoline prices fluctuate because of production procedures, consumer demand, international politics, and oil companies' policies.

A good way to narrow a thesis is to ask and answer  QUESTIONS about it, such as Why do gasoline prices fluctuate?

4. Qualify your thesis

Often, you need to acknowledge that your assertions may not be unconditionally true. In those cases, limit the scope of your thesis by adding to it such terms as may, probably, and often.

Gasoline prices very likely fluctuate because of production procedures, consumer demand, international politics, and oil companies' policies.

Thesis statements are typically positioned at or near the end of a text's introduction, to let readers know at the outset what is being claimed and what the text will be aiming to prove. However, a thesis doesn't necessarily forecast your organization, which may be more complex than the thesis itself.

Topic Sentences

Good paragraphs focus on a single point, which is summarized in a topic sentence. Usually, but not always, the topic sentence begins the paragraph:

Graduating from high school or college is an exciting, occasionally even traumatic event. Your identity changes as you move from being a high school teenager to a university student or a worker; your connection to home loosens as you attend school elsewhere, move to a place of your own, or simply exercise your right to stay out later. You suddenly find yourself doing different things, thinking different thoughts, fretting about different matters.

—Sydney Lewis, Help Wanted: Tales from the First Job Front

Sometimes the topic sentence may come at the end of the paragraph or even at the end of the preceding paragraph, depending on the way the paragraphs relate to one another. Other times a topic sentence will summarize or restate a point made in the previous paragraph, helping readers understand what they've just read.


Transitions help readers move from sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph. When you're  EDITING, make a point of checking transitions. Some common ones include because, also, although, however, next, for example, finally, eventually, as a result, and therefore.

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Analyzing Causes and Effects

Analyzing causes helps us think about why something happened, whereas thinking about effects helps us consider what might happen. Often we can only speculate about probable causes or likely effects, so we are generally  ARGUING for those we consider plausible or probable. This chapter will help you analyze causes and effects in writing—and to do so in a way that suits your rhetorical situation.

Determining Plausible Causes and Effects

Whenever you ask why something happened or what could happen, there will likely be several possible causes and effects. Obvious causes often will be less important than others that are harder to recognize. (Eating too much may be an obvious cause of being overweight, but why people eat too much has several less obvious causes, such as portion size and lifestyle.) Similarly, short-term effects are often less important than long-term ones. (A stomachache may be an effect of eating too much candy, but diabetes is a much more serious effect.)

 LISTING,  CLUSTERING, and  OUTLINING are useful processes for analyzing causes. And you might need to do some research to identify possible causes or effects and to find evidence. Also ask, which causes and effects are primary? Secondary? Which are most relevant to your  PURPOSE and  AUDIENCE?

Arguing for Causes or Effects

Once you've identified several possible causes or predictable effects, you need to  ARGUE that some are more plausible than others. You must provide convincing support for your argument because you cannot prove that X causes Y or that Y will be caused by Z; you can show only, with good reasons and appropriate evidence, that X is likely to cause Y or that Y will likely follow from Z.

As you present your argument, you will almost always need to qualify what you say about causes and effects—to say that something could explain (rather than saying it "explains") or that it suggests (rather than "shows"). Plausible causes and effects can't be proved definitively, so you need to acknowledge that your argument is not the last word on the subject.

Ways of Organizing an Analysis of Causes and Effects

Your analysis of causes and effects may be part of some other genre of writing, or you may write a text whose central purpose is to analyze causes or speculate about effects. Following are three common ways to organize such an analysis.

[Identify a cause and then discuss its effects]

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[Identify an effect and then trace its causes]

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[Identify a chain of causes and effects]

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Considering the Rhetorical Situation

Think about the message that you want to articulate, the audience you want to reach, and the larger context you are writing in.


Your purpose may be to analyze causes, but sometimes you'll have another goal that calls for such analysis.


How will analyzing causes help you reach your audience?


Does your genre require you to analyze causes?


What is your stance, and could analyzing causes or effects show that stance?


A drawing may help readers see how causes lead to effects.

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Much of the work you do as a college student calls upon you to read and write arguments. This chapter offers advice on some of the key elements of making an argument, from developing an arguable thesis and identifying good reasons and evidence that supports those reasons to building common ground and dealing with viewpoints other than your own.

Reasons for Arguing

We argue for many reasons, and they often overlap: to convince others that our position is reasonable, to influence the way they think, to persuade them to change their point of view or to take some sort of action. As a student, you make arguments continually: in class discussions, on essay exams, in responses to a blog. In all these instances, you are adding your opinions to some larger conversation, arguing for what you believe—and explaining why.

Arguing Logically: Claims, Reasons, and Evidence

The basic building blocks of argument are claims, reasons, and evidence that supports those reasons. Using these building blocks, we can construct a strong logical argument.


Good arguments are based on arguable claims—statements that reasonable people may disagree about. Certain kinds of statements cannot be argued:

  • Verifiable statements of fact.
  • Issues of faith or belief.
  • Matters of simple opinion or personal taste.

You may begin with an opinion: "I think wearing a helmet makes riding a bike more dangerous, not less." Then you could reframe your statement as a question—"Do bike riders who wear helmets get injured more often than those who don't?"—that may be answered as you do research and start to write. Your opinion or question should lead you to an arguable claim, however, one that could be challenged by another thoughtful person: Contrary to common sense, wearing a helmet while riding a bicycle increases the chances of injury, at least to adult riders.

Qualifying a claim

No matter what your topic, your argument will rarely be a simple matter of being for or against; in most cases, you'll want to qualify your claim—that it is true in certain circumstances, with these limitations, and so on. The following questions can help you qualify your claim.

  • Can it be true in some cases?
  • Can it be true at some times or under certain circumstances?
  • Can it be true for some groups or individuals?

Words for qualifying a claim include sometimes, often, usually, for the most part, it seems, and perhaps.

Drafting a thesis statement

Once your claim is focused and appropriately qualified, it can form the core of your essay's
 THESIS STATEMENT, which announces your position and forecasts the path your argument will follow. For example, here is a possible thesis for the "bike riders and helmets" topic: Contrary to common sense, wearing a helmet while riding a bicycle seems to increase the chances of injury, at least to adult riders in midwestern cities.


Your claim must be supported by reasons that your audience will accept. A reason can usually be linked to a claim with the word because:

Click to enlarge

To come up with good reasons, start by stating your position and then answering the question why?

CLAIM MP3 players harm society. Why?

REASON: (Because) They isolate users from other people. Why?

UNDERLYING REASON: Isolation from other people is bad.

As you can see, this exercise can continue indefinitely.


You may need to use several kinds of evidence to persuade your audience that your claim is true. Some of the most common types of evidence include facts, statistics, examples, authorities, anecdotes, scenarios, case studies, textual evidence, and visuals.

  • Facts are ideas that are proven to be true. Facts can include observations or scholarly research (your own or someone else's), but they need to be accepted as true.
  • Statistics are numerical data, usually produced through research, surveys, or polls. Statistics should be relevant to your argument, as current as possible, accurate, and from a reliable source.
  • Examples are specific instances that illustrate general statements. Examples can make a point come alive for your readers.
  • Authorities are experts on your subject. To be useful, authorities must be reputable, trustworthy, and qualified to address the subject. You should  EVALUATE any authorities you consult carefully and identify them in a  SIGNAL PHRASE in your text.
  • Anectodes are brief  NARRATIVES that your audience will find believable and that contribute directly to your argument. Anecdotes may come from your personal experience or the experiences of others.
  • Scenarios are hypothetical situations. Like anecdotes, "what if" scenarios can help you describe the possible effects of particular actions or offer new ways of looking at a particular state of affairs.
  • Case studies and observations feature detailed reporting about a subject. Case studies are in-depth, systematic examinations of an occasion, a person, or a group. Observations offer detailed descriptions of a subject.
  • Textual evidence includes  QUOTATIONS,  PARAPHRASES, and  SUMMARIES. Usually, the relevance of textual evidence must be stated directly, as excerpts from a text may carry several potential meanings.
  • Visuals can be a useful way of presenting evidence. Remember, though, that charts, graphs, photos, drawings, and other visual texts seldom speak for themselves and thus must be explained in your text.
  • Choosing appropriate evidence. The kinds of evidence you provide to support your argument depend on your  RHETORICAL SITUATION. If you're not sure what counts as appropriate evidence for your purpose audience, and genre, ask your instructor for guidance.

Convincing Readers You're Trustworthy

For your argument to be convincing, you need to establish your own credibility with readers—to demonstrate your knowledge about your topic, to show that you and your readers share some common ground, and to show yourself to be evenhanded in the way you present your argument.

Building common ground

Persuading your reader will be easier if you can identify some common ground, some values or experiences you and your audience share, as author Chet Raymo does:

Like most children, I was raised on miracles. Cows that jump over the moon; a jolly fat man that visits every house in the world in a single night; ... geese that lay golden eggs.

—Chet Raymo, Skeptics and True Believers: The Exhilarating Connection between Science and Religion

Incorporating other viewpoints

To show that you have carefully considered the viewpoints of others, including those who may agree or disagree with you, you should incorporate those viewpoints into your argument by acknowledging, accommodating, or refuting them.

Acknowledging other viewpoints

One essential part of establishing your credibility is to acknowledge that there are viewpoints different from yours and to represent them fairly and accurately. Rather than weakening your argument, acknowledging possible objections to your position shows that you've thought about and researched your topic thoroughly.

Accommodating other viewpoints

You may be tempted to ignore views you don't agree with, but in fact it's important to acknowledge those views, to demonstrate that you are aware of them and have considered them carefully. You may find yourself conceding that opposing views have some merit and qualifying your claim or even making them part of your own argument.

Refuting other arguments

Often you may need to refute other arguments and make a case for why you believe they are wrong. Are the values underlying the argument questionable? Is the reasoning flawed? Is the evidence inadequate or faulty?

When you incorporate differing viewpoints, avoid the  FALLACIES of attacking the person making the argument or refuting a competing position that no one seriously entertains. It is also important that you not distort or exaggerate opposing viewpoints.

Appealing to Readers' Emotions

Logic and facts, even when presented by someone trustworthy, may not be enough to persuade readers. Many successful arguments include an emotional component that appeals to readers' hearts as well as to their minds. Advertising, for instance, often works by appealing to its audience's emotions.

Keep in mind that emotional appeals can make readers feel as though they are being manipulated and, consequently, less likely to accept an argument. For most kinds of academic writing, use emotional appeals sparingly.

Checking for Fallacies

Fallacies are arguments that involve faulty reasoning. It's important to avoid fallacies in your writing because they often seem plausible but are usually unfair or inaccurate and make reasonable discussion difficult. Here are some of the most common fallacies:

  • Ad hominem arguments attack someone's character rather than addressing the issues. (Ad hominem is Latin for "to the man.") For example: "Jack Turner has no business talking about the way we run this city. He's lived here only five years and is just another flaky liberal."
  • Bandwagon appeals argue that because others think or do something, we should, too. For example: "67 percent of voters support laws permitting concealed weapons. You should, too."
  • Begging the question is a circular argument. It essentially supports an assertion with the assertion itself: "Affirmative action can never be fair because you cannot remedy one injustice by committing another."
  • Either-or arguments assert that there can be only two possible positions on a complex issue. For example, "Those who oppose our actions in this war are enemies of freedom."
  • False analogies compare things that resemble each other in some ways but not in the most important respects. For example: "Trees pollute the air just as much as cars and trucks do."
  • Faulty causality assumes that because one event followed another, the first event caused the second—for example, "Legalizing same-sex marriage in Sweden led to an increase in the number of children born to unwed mothers."
  • Hasty generalizations are conclusions based on insufficient or inappropriately qualified evidence. For example, a survey of twenty residents of Brooklyn would not be sufficient to draw conclusions about its population because Brooklyn has over two million people.
  • Slippery slope arguments assert that one event will inevitably lead to another, often cataclysmic event, but no evidence is given. For example: "If the state legislature passes this tax increase, it won't be long before all the corporations in the state move to other states and leave thousands unemployed."

Considering the Rhetorical Situation

To argue effectively, you need to think about the message that you want to articulate, the audience you want to persuade, the effect of your stance, and the larger context you are writing in.


What do you want your audience to do? To think something? To act? To change their minds?


Who is your intended audience? To what extent are they likely to agree or disagree with you? What kind of evidence are they likely to accept?


What genre will help you achieve your purpose?


What's your attitude toward your topic, and why? What argument strategies will help you to convey that stance?


What media will you use, and how do your media affect your argument?

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Classifying and Dividing

Classification and division are ways of organizing information: various pieces of information about a topic may be classified according to their similarities, or a single topic may be divided into parts. We might classify different kinds of flowers as annuals or perennials, for example. We might also divide a flower garden into distinct areas: for herbs, flowers, and vegetables. This chapter offers advice for classifying and dividing information for various writing purposes.


When we classify something, we group it with similar things. A linguist would classify French and Spanish and Italian as Romance languages, for example—and Russian, Polish, and Bulgarian as Slavic languages. In a hilarious (if totally phony) news story from The Onion. about a church bake sale, the writer classifies the activities observed there as examples of the seven deadly sins. The article categorizes the participants' behavior in terms of the sins, describing one parishioner who commits the sin of pride by bragging about her cookies, others who commit the sin of envy by envying the popularity of the prideful parishioner's baked goods (the consumption of which leads to the sin of gluttony).


Division is a way of breaking something into parts—and a way of making the information easy for readers to understand. See how this example divides children's ways of nagging:

James U. McNeal ... [divides] juvenile nagging tactics into ... major categories. A pleading nag is one accompanied by repetitions of words like "please" or "mom, mom, mom." ... Forceful nags are extremely pushy and may include subtle threats, like "Well, then, I'll go and ask Dad." ... Sugar-coated nags promise affection in return for a purchase and may rely on seemingly heartfelt declarations, like "You're the best dad in the world."

—Eric Schlosser, Fast Food Nation:
The Dark Side of the All-American Meal

Creating Clear and Distinct Categories

When you classify or divide, you need to create clear categories. These categories must also be distinct, so that no information overlaps or fits into more than one category, and they must include every member of the group you're discussing.

Highlight your categories

Sometimes you may want to highlight your categories visually to make them easier to follow. Eric Schlosser does that by italicizing each category: the pleading nag, the forceful nag, and so on. Other  DESIGN elements—bulleted lists, pie charts, tables, images—might also prove useful.

In some instances, you might even show categories visually—if you were classifying birds or hairdos or facial expressions, for example.

Considering the Rhetorical Situation

Think about the message that you want to articulate, the audience you want to reach, and the larger context you are writing in.


Your purpose for writing will affect how you classify or divide information.


What audience do you want to reach, and will classifying or dividing your material help them follow your discussion?


Does your genre call for you to categorize or divide information?


Your stance may affect the way you classify information.


Sometimes a pie chart or list is a good way to show categories.

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Comparing and Contrasting

Comparing things looks at their similarities; contrasting them focuses on their differences. It's a kind of thinking that we do constantly—for example, comparing Houston with Dallas or three paintings by Renoir. And once we start comparing, we generally find ourselves contrasting—Houston and Dallas have differences as well as similarities. Following is some advice on ways of comparing and contrasting things for various writing purposes and for your own rhetorical situations.

Most of the time, we compare obviously similar things: cars we might purchase, two versions of a film. Occasionally, however, we might compare things that are less obviously similar. For example, John McMurtry, an ex-football player, has compared football with war, arguing that the attraction football holds for spectators is based in part on its potential for violence and injury.

While such a comparison gets readers' attention, remember that the more unlikely the comparison, the more you might be accused of comparing apples and oranges. It's important, therefore, that the things we compare be legitimately compared.

Two Ways of Comparing and Contrasting

Comparisons and contrasts may be organized in two basic ways: block and point by point.

The block method

One way is to discuss separately each item you're comparing, giving all the information about one item and then all the information about the next item. Part of a report on Seattle and Vancouver, for example, compares the firearm regulations in each city using a paragraph about Seattle and then a paragraph about Vancouver.

The point-by-point method

The other way to compare things is to focus on specific points of comparison. A later part of the Seattle-Vancouver study compares the two cities' gun laws and how they're enforced, discussing each point one at a time. For example, the authors discuss one point—murder in the first degree—comparing the two cities; then they go on to capital punishment, again comparing the cities.

Using Graphs and Images to Present Comparisons

Some comparisons can be easier to understand if they're presented visually, as a chart, graph, or illustration. See how this chart shows comparative information about Vancouver and Seattle that can be easily understood at a glance and clearly categorized:

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—John Henry Sloan et al., "Handgun Regulations, Crime, Assaults, and Homicide: A Tale of Two Cities"

Using Figurative Language to Make Comparisons

Another way we make comparisons is with figurative language: words and phrases used in a nonliteral way to help readers see a point. Three kinds of figurative language that make comparisons are similes, metaphors, and analogies. A simile makes a comparison using like or as. When Robert Burns wrote that his love was "like a red, red rose," he was using a simile.

Metaphors make comparisons without such connecting words as like or as. Desert ecologist Craig Childs uses the metaphor "a gravy of debris" to help us understand the nature of water during a flood in the Grand Canyon:

Water splashed off the desert and ran all over the surface.... When water flows like this, it [is] a gravy of debris, snatching everything it finds.

—Craig Childs, The Secret Knowledge of Water

Analogies are extended similes or metaphors that compare something unfamiliar with something more familiar. Arguing that corporations should not patent parts of DNA whose function isn't yet clear, a genetics professor uses the familiar image of a library to explain an unfamiliar concept:

It's like having a library of books and randomly tearing pages out. You may know which books the pages came from but that doesn't tell you much about them.

—Peter Goodfellow, quoted in John Vidal and John Carvel, "Lambs to the Gene Market"

Considering the Rhetorical Situation

Think about the message that you want to articulate, the audience you want to reach, and the larger context you are writing in.


Is your purpose to compare two or more things, views, or texts?


Who is your audience, and will comparing your topic with a more familiar one help them to follow your discussion?


Does your genre require you to compare something?


How you compare two things—evenhandedly, or favoring one over the other, for example—will reflect your stance.


Sometimes you may wish to make comparisons visually.

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Defining something says what it is—and what it is not. As writers, we need to define any terms our readers may not know. And sometimes you'll want to stipulate your own definition of a word in order to set the terms of an  ARGUMENT. This chapter details strategies for using definitions in your writing.

Formal Definitions

Sometimes to make sure readers understand you, you will need to provide a formal definition. If you are using a technical term that readers are unlikely to know or if you are using a term in a specific way, you need to say then and there what the word means. This is necessary because most words have several dictionary meanings. The word stocks, for instance, has numerous definitions, including financial instruments, the basis for soups, and a wooden device used for punishment.

To write a formal definition
  • Use words that readers are likely to be familiar with.
  • Don't use the word being defined in the definition.
  • Begin with the word being defined; include the general category to which the term belongs and the attributes that make it different from the others in that category.

For example:

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Note that the category and distinguishing attributes cannot be stated too broadly; if they were, the definition would be too vague to be useful.

Extended Definitions

Sometimes you need to provide a more detailed definition. Extended definitions may be several sentences long or several paragraphs long and may include pictures or diagrams. Sometimes an entire essay is devoted to defining a difficult or important concept.

Abstract concepts often require extended definitions because by nature they are more complicated to define. There are many ways of writing an extended definition, depending in part on the term being defined and on your audience and purpose. Here are some of the methods that can be used for composing extended definitions of democracy.

Explore the word's origins

Where did the word come from? When did it first come into use? How has the meaning of democracy changed?

Provide details

What are the characteristics of democracy? What is it made of?

Compare it with other words

How is the concept of democracy like other similar things? How does it differ? What is it not like?
 COMPARE AND CONTRAST it. For example, how is a democracy different from a dictatorship or republic?

Give examples

Essayist E. B. White defines democracy by giving some everyday examples of considerate behavior, humility, and civic participation—all things he suggests constitute democracy:

It is the line that forms on the right. It is the don't in "don't shove." It is the hole in the stuffed shirt through which the sawdust slowly trickles; it is the dent in the high hat. Democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half of the time. ... Democracy is a letter to the editor.

—E. B. White, "Democracy"

Classify it

Often it is useful to divide or  CLASSIFY a term. The term democracy, for instance, could be divided into two types, representative democracy and direct democracy.

Stipulative Definitions

Sometimes a writer will stipulate a certain definition, essentially saying, "This is how I'm defining x." Such definitions are not usually found in a dictionary—but they are central to the argument the writer is making. Here is part of an example a Stanford law professor provides, a definition of "the democracy of everyday life":

Democracy, in this understanding of it, means simply treating people as equals, ... and resisting the temptation to respond to perceived slights. It also means protesting everyday instances of arbitrariness and unfairness—from the rudeness of the bakery clerk to the ... racism of those who vandalize the home of the first black neighbors on the block.

—Kathleen M. Sullivan, "Defining Democracy Down"

Considering the Rhetorical Situation

Think about the message that you want to articulate, the audience you want to reach, and the larger context you are writing in.


Would writing an extended or stipulative definition help you explain something?


What audience do you want to reach, and are there any terms your readers are unlikely to know?


Does your genre require you to define terms?


What is your stance, and do you need to define key terms to show that stance clearly?


In a speech, you might provide images of important definitions. In an electronic text, you may define terms by linking to an online dictionary definition.

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When we describe something, we indicate what it looks like—and sometimes how it sounds, feels, smells, and tastes. Descriptive details are a way of showing rather than telling—that the sky is blue, that the chemicals in the beaker have reacted and smell like rotten eggs. This chapter will help you think about the use of detail, about objectivity and subjectivity, about vantage point, about creating a clear dominant impression, and about using description to fit your rhetorical situation.


The goal of using details is to be as specific as possible, providing information that will help your audience imagine the subject or make sense of it. See, for example, part of Nancy Mairs's description of multiple sclerosis, a disease she has:

One may lose vision, hearing, speech, the ability to walk, control of bladder and/or bowels, strength in any or all extremities, sensitivity to touch, vibration, and/or pain, potency, coordination of movements....

In the past ten years, I have sustained some of these losses.... My left leg is now so weak that I walk with the aid of a brace and a cane.... I no longer have much use of my left hand.

—Nancy Mairs, "On Being a Cripple"

Mairs's list demonstrates, through specific details, how the disease affects sufferers generally and her in particular.

Sensory details help readers imagine sounds, odors, tastes, and physical sensations in addition to sights. In the following example, writer Scott Russell Sanders uses vivid sensory details as he recalls sawing wood as a child:

As the saw teeth bit down, the wood released its smell, each kind with its own fragrance, oak or walnut or cherry or pine.... No matter how weathered and gray the board, no matter how warped and cracked, inside there was this smell waiting, as of something freshly baked.... Even after a bath my skin would carry the smell, and so would my father's hair, when he lifted me for a bedtime hug.

—Scott Russell Sanders, The Paradise of Bombs

Whenever you describe something, you'll select from many possible details you might use. To focus your description, determine the kinds of details that are appropriate for your subject. They will vary, depending on your  PURPOSE. See, for example, how the details might differ in three different genres:

  • For a memoir about an event, you might choose details that are significant for you, that evoke the event's sights, sounds, and meaning.
  • For a profile, you're likely to select details that will reinforce the dominant impression you want to give.
  • For a lab report, you need to give certain specifics—what equipment was used, what procedures were followed, what exactly were the results.

Objectivity and Subjectivity

Descriptions can be written with objectivity, with subjectivity, or with a mixture of both. Objective descriptions attempt to be uncolored by personal opinion or emotion. Police reports and much news writing aim to describe events objectively; scientific writing strives for objectivity in describing laboratory procedures and results. Subjective descriptions, on the other hand, allow the writer's opinions and emotions to come through. A house can be described as comfortable, with a lived-in look, or as rundown and in need of a paint job and a new roof.

Vantage Point

Sometimes you'll want to describe something from a certain vantage point. Where you locate yourself in relation to what you're describing will determine what you can perceive (and so describe) and what you can't. You may describe your subject from a stationary vantage point, from which you (and your readers) see your subject from one angle only, as if you were a camera.

By contrast, you might describe a drive somewhere by using a moving vantage point, recounting what you see as you go from place to place.

Sometimes you may want to use multiple vantage points, to describe something from many perspectives.

Dominant Impression

With any description, your aim is to create some dominant impression—the overall feeling that the individual details add up to. The dominant impression may be implied, growing out of the details themselves. For example, Scott Russell Sanders's memory of the smell of sawdust creates a dominant impression of warmth and comfort: the "fragrance ... as of something freshly baked," a young boy "lifted ... for a bedtime hug." Sometimes, though, a writer will inform readers directly of the dominant impression, in addition to describing it. In an essay about Indiana limestone quarries, Sanders makes the dominant impression clear from the start: "they are battlefields."

The quarries will not be domesticated. They are not backyard pools; they are battlefields. Each quarry is an arena where violent struggles have taken place between machines and planet, between human ingenuity and brute resisting stone, between mind and matter.

—Scott Russell Sanders, The Paradise of Bombs

Organizing Descriptions

You can organize descriptions in many ways. When your description is primarily visual, you will probably organize it spatially: from left to right, top to bottom, outside to inside. If your description uses the other senses, you may begin with the most significant or noteworthy feature and move outward from that center, or you may create a chronological description of objects as you encounter them. You might even pile up details to create a dominant impression.

Considering the Rhetorical Situation

Think about the message that you want to articulate, the audience you want to reach, and the larger context you are writing in.


Your purpose may affect the way you use description. If you're arguing against a war, for example, you may need to describe the anguish of refugees from that war.


Who is your audience, and will they need detailed description to understand your main points?


Does your genre require description?


The way you describe things can help you convey your stance and show you to be objective (or not).


Your medium will affect the form of your description. In an electronic text, you can easily provide links to visuals and so may need fewer words.

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Dialogue is a way of including people's own words in a text. Memoirs and profiles often include dialogue, and many other genres do as well. This chapter provides brief guidelines for the conventions of paragraphing and punctuating dialogue and offers some good advice on how you can use dialogue effectively to suit your own rhetorical situations.

Why Add Dialogue?

Dialogue is a way of bringing in voices other than your own, of showing people and scenes rather than just telling about them. Most important, however, dialogue needs to contribute to your rhetorical purpose, to support the point you're making. For example, in a magazine profile of the Mall of America, David Guterson deliberately chooses words that capture the young shoppers' speech patterns:

Two pubescent girls in retainers and braces sat beside me.... They came, they said, from Shakopee—"It's nowhere," one of them explained. The megamall, she added, was "a buzz at first, but now it seems pretty normal. 'Cept my parents are like Twenty Questions every time I want to come here. 'Specially since the shooting."

—David Guterson, "Enclosed. Encyclopedic. Endured: The Mall of America"

Integrating Dialogue into Your Writing

There are certain conventions for punctuating and paragraphing dialogue:

  • Punctuating. Enclose each speaker's words in quotation marks, and put any end punctuation—periods, question marks, and exclamation marks—inside the closing quotation mark. You will sometimes need to add punctuation to reflect the rhythm and sound of the speech.
  • Paragraphing. When you're writing dialogue that includes more than one speaker, start a new paragraph each time the speaker changes.
  • Signal phrases. Sometimes you'll need to introduce dialogue with  SIGNAL PHRASES—"I said," "she asked," and so on—to clarify who is speaking. When the speaker is clear enough, you don't need signal phrases.


Interviews are a kind of dialogue, with different conventions for punctuation. When you're transcribing an interview, give each speaker's name each time he or she speaks, starting a new line but not indenting, and do not use quotation marks. Here are a few lines from an OnEarth magazine interview that science journalist Kevin Krajick conducted with Paul Anastas, professor of green chemistry at Yale:

Krajik: Many people assume chemists are evil—they inevitably cause pollution.

Anastas: People don't know we have the option of doing things green. They think that in order to have cars, computers, and other modern conveniences, we need to generate all kinds of nasty poisons. Green chemistry is disproving that myth every day.

—Kevin Krajik, "Q&A: Mastering the Molecule"

In preparing the interview for publication, Krajik had to add punctuation, and he probably deleted expressions such as um and uh. Krajik may also have moved parts of the interview around, to eliminate repetition and keep related subjects together.

Considering the Rhetorical Situation

Think about the message that you want to articulate, the audience you want to reach, and the larger context of your writing.


Your purpose will affect any use of dialogue. Do you want to bring a profile to life or add credibility to a report or argument?


Whom do you want to reach, and will dialogue help?


Does your genre require dialogue? If you're evaluating a literary work or writing a profile, dialogue can usually help you.


Can dialogue help you communicate your stance?


Your medium will affect the way you present dialogue. In an oral or electronic text, you might include actual recorded dialogue.

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Explaining Processes

When you explain a process, you tell how something is (or was) done—how a bill becomes a law—or you tell someone how to do something—how to throw a curve ball. This chapter offers examples and guidelines for explaining a process in a way that works for your rhetorical situation.

Explaining a Process Clearly

Whether the process is simple or complex, you'll need to identify its key stages or steps and explain them one by one, in order. Most often you'll explain a process chronologically, from start to finish.  TRANSITIONSfirst, next, then, and so on—show readers how the stages of a process relate to one another. Verbs indicate the actions that take place at each stage of the process.

Explaining How Something Is Done

All processes consist of steps, and when you explain how something is done, you describe each step, generally in order, from first to last. Here, for example, is part of an explanation of how French fries are made, from an essay published in the New Yorker:

Fast-food French fries are made from a baking potato.... The potatoes are harvested, cured, washed, peeled, sliced, and then blanched.... Blanching is followed by drying, and drying by a thirty-second deep fry, to give the potatoes a crisp shell. Then the fries are frozen until the moment of service, when they are deep-fried again, this time for somewhere around three minutes.

—Malcolm Gladwell, "The Trouble with Fries"

Explaining How to Do Something

In explaining how to do something, you are giving instruction so that others can follow the process themselves. A recipe in a cookbook is a good example of this kind of process explanation. First the writer lists the ingredients, in the order they are to be used. Then the writer gives a clear sequence of steps, telling us exactly what to do: heat, simmer, broil, and so on.

Explaining a Process Visually

Some processes are best explained visually, with diagrams or photographs. For example, a cookbook might explain the process of shaping dough into a bagel by giving the details in words and then showing us in a drawing how to do it.

Considering the Rhetorical Situation

Think about the message that you want to articulate, the audience you want to reach, and the larger context you are writing in.


Your purpose for writing will affect whether you explain how something is done or how to do something.


Will you need to provide background information? Will your audience be interested, or will you first need to interest them in the process?


Does your genre require you to explain a process? In a lab report, for example, you'll need to explain processes.


If you're giving directions for doing something, you'll take a "do this, then do that" perspective. If you're writing to entertain, you might take an amusing stance.


Your medium will affect the way you explain a process. On the Web, you may want to show an animation of the process.

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Narratives are stories. As a writing strategy, a good narrative can lend support to most kinds of writing. Whatever your larger writing purpose, make sure that any narratives you add support that purpose—and don't simply tell an interesting story. You'll also need to compose them carefully—to put them in a clear sequence, include pertinent detail, and make sure they are appropriate to your particular rhetorical situation.


When we write a narrative, we arrange events in a particular sequence. Writers typically sequence narratives in chronological order, reverse chronological order, or as a flashback.

Use chronological order

Often you may tell the story chronologically, starting at the beginning of an event and working through to the end.

Use reverse chronological order

You may also begin with the final action and work back to the first.

Résumés are one genre where we generally use reverse chronological order, listing—and narrating—the most recent jobs first and then working backward.

Use a flashback

You can sometimes put a flashback in the middle of a narrative, to tell about an incident that illuminates the larger narrative. Terry Tempest Williams does this while discussing the startling incidence of breast cancer in her family. In the midst of her essay, she recalls a dinnertime conversation with her father right after her mother's death from cancer, when she learned for the first time what caused all of the cancer in her family.

Use time markers

Time markers help readers follow a sequence of events. The most obvious time markers are those like Monday, March 3, that simply label the time, as the narrative entries in a diary, journal, or log might.

More often you will integrate time markers into the prose itself, using phrases such as early that night, after dinner, the next afternoon, and as the sun was setting.

Use transitions

Another way to help readers follow a narrative is with  TRANSITIONS, words like first, then, meanwhile, at last, and so on.

Including Pertinent Detail

When you include a narrative in your writing, you must decide which details you need—and which ones you don't need. For example, you don't want to include so much detail that the narrative distracts the reader from the larger text. You must also decide whether you need to include any background, to set the stage for the narrative. How much detail does your audience need? How much detail do you need to make your meaning clear? Can you jump right into the narrative, without setting the stage at all? Or does your audience need some background information in order to follow the story?

Opening and Closing with Narratives

Narratives are often useful as beginnings to essays and other kinds of writing. An interesting or pithy narrative can be a good way to get your audience's attention, as shown in the following excerpt from an introductory paragraph about the bubonic plague:

In October 1347,... Genoese trading ships put into the harbor of Messina in Sicily with dead and dying men at the oars.... The diseased sailors showed strange black swellings [which] oozed blood and pus.... The sick suffered severe pain and died quickly,... sometimes in twenty-four hours.... Everything that issued from the body—breath, sweat, blood from the buboes and lungs, bloody urine, and blood-blackened excrement—smelled foul.

—Barbara Tuchman, "This Is the End of the World: The Black Death"

Imagine how different the preceding paragraph would be if it weren't in the form of a narrative. Would it have gotten your interest?

Narrative can be a good way of ending a text, too, by winding up a discussion with an illustration of the main point.

Considering the Rhetorical Situation

Think about the message that you want to articulate, the audience you want to reach, and the larger context you are writing in.


Your purpose will affect the way you use narrative. For example, you might tell about a teenager who was injured in a car accident in order to persuade readers that seat belt use should be mandatory.


Do you have a narrative that will help your audience understand your topic or persuade them that your argument has merit?


Does your genre require you to include narrative? A memoir might be primarily narrative.


Do you have any stories that would help you convey your stance? A funny story, for example, can help create a humorous stance.


In a print or spoken text, you will likely be limited to brief narratives, perhaps with images. In an electronic text, you could link to full-length narratives or visuals on the Web.

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Reading Strategies

We read newspapers to learn about current events, cookbooks to find out how to make brownies, and textbooks to learn academic topics. We read short stories for pleasure and our own drafts to make sure they say what we mean. In other words, we read for many different purposes. This chapter offers strategies for reading with a critical eye—previewing a text, annotating, identifying meaningful patterns, and analyzing an argument.

Reading Strategically

Different texts require different kinds of effort. Some texts can be read fairly quickly, if you're reading to get a general overview. Most of the time, though, you need to read carefully, and you can't be in too much of a hurry. You'll likely need to skim the text for an overview of the basic ideas and then go back to read carefully. And then you may read the text again.

Previewing a Text

It's usually a good idea to start by skimming a text: read the title and subtitle, any headings, the first and last paragraphs, the first sentences of all the other paragraphs. Study any visuals. At this point, don't stop to look up unfamiliar words; just underline them and look them up later.

Considering the Rhetorical Situation


What is the purpose? To entertain? Inform? Persuade?


Who is the intended audience? If you are not a member of that group, you may need to look up unfamiliar terms or concepts.


Knowing the genre can help you anticipate key features.


Knowing the writer's stance affects the way you understand a text, whether you're inclined to agree, take it seriously, and so on.


If it's a print text, do you know anything about the publisher? If it's on the Web, who sponsors the site, when was it last updated? Do design elements highlight key parts of the text?

Thinking about Your Initial Response

It's usually good to read a text first just to get a sense of it. Some readers jot down brief notes about their first response, noting their reaction and thinking about why they reacted as they did. Ask yourself What are your initial reactions? and What accounts for those reactions?


Many readers annotate as they read: highlighting key words, phrases, sentences; connecting ideas with lines or symbols; writing comments or questions in the margin; noting anything that seems noteworthy or questionable. Annotate as if you're having a conversation with the author, and put your part of the conversation in the margin: "What's this mean?" "Where's evidence?" "Yes!"

What you annotate depends on your  PURPOSE or what you're most interested in. If you're analyzing an argument, you would probably underline any  THESIS STATEMENT and the  REASONS AND EVIDENCE that support it. If you are looking for meaningful patterns, you might highlight each pattern in a different color.

Annotating forces you to read for more than just the surface meaning, and it creates a record of things you may want to refer to.

There are some texts that you cannot annotate, of course: library books, materials you read on the Web, and so on. Then you will need to make notes elsewhere.

Playing the Believing and Doubting Game

One way to think about your response to a text is to  LIST or  FREEWRITE as many reasons as you can think of for believing what the writer says and then as many as you can for doubting it. First, look at the world from the writer's perspective. Then, write as if you doubt everything in the text. Developed by writing theorist Peter Elbow, the believing and doubting game helps you consider new ideas and question ideas you already have.

Thinking about How the Text Works: What It Says, What It Does

Whatever your purpose, a good way to think about a text's structure is by  OUTLINING it, paragraph by paragraph. If you're interested in analyzing its ideas, look at what each paragraph says; if, on the other hand, you're concerned with how the ideas are presented, pay attention to what each paragraph does.

What it says

Write a sentence that identifies what each paragraph says. Once you've done that for the whole text, look for patterns in the topics the writer addresses. Pay attention to the order in which the topics are presented. Also look for gaps. Can you see how the writer has arranged ideas and how that arrangement builds an argument or develops a topic?

What it does

Identify the function of each paragraph. Starting with the first paragraph, ask, What does this paragraph do? Does it introduce a topic? Provide background? Describe or define something? Entice me to read further? As you go through the text, you may identify groups of paragraphs that have a single purpose.


Summarizing a text can help you both to see the relationships among its ideas and to understand what it's saying. When you  SUMMARIZE, you restate a text's main ideas in your own words, leaving out most examples and other details.

Identifying Patterns

Look for notable patterns in the text: recurring words and their synonyms, repeated phrases and metaphors, and types of sentences. Some writers find it helps to highlight patterns in various colors. Does the author rely on any particular writing strategies?

Consider the kind of evidence offered: Is it more opinion than fact? Nothing but statistics? If many sources are cited, is the information presented in any predominant patterns: as  QUOTATIONS?  PARAPHRASES?  SUMMARIES? Are there repeated references to certain experts or sources?

In visual texts, look for patterns of color, shape, and line. In both verbal and visual texts, look for what isn't there that you would expect to find. Is there anything that doesn't really fit in?

If you discover patterns, consider what, if anything, they mean in terms of what the writer is saying. For example, what do they reveal about the writer's underlying beliefs or strategies of persuasion?

Count up the parts

This is a two-step process. First, you count things: words, phrases, or sentences that seem important. Or you might select a few typical paragraphs on which to focus. After you count, see what you can conclude about the writing.

  • Count words. Count one-, two-, three-syllable words, repeated words, active and passive verbs, prepositions, jargon or specialized terms.
  • Count sentences. Count the number of words in each sentence; the number of sentences in each paragraph; the number of simple sentences, compound sentences, fragments, repeated phrases, and so on.
  • Count paragraphs. Count the number of paragraphs and the average number of sentences per paragraph. Consider the position of the longest and shortest paragraphs. Find parallel paragraph structures.
  • Count images. List verbal or visual images, similes, metaphors, and other figures of speech.

What do your findings tell you about the text? What do certain words or images tell you about the writer—or about his or her stance? Do your findings suggest a strategy, a plan for your analysis?

Analyzing the Argument

All texts make some kind of argument, claiming something and then offering reasons and evidence as support for the claim. As a critical reader, you need to look closely at the argument a text makes. Here are some of the aspects of a text you'll need to consider when you analyze an argument:

  • What is the claim?
  • What support does the writer offer for the claim?
  • How evenhandedly does the writer present the issues?
  • What authorities or sources of outside information does the writer use?
  • How does the writer address you as the reader?
Check for fallacies

 FALLACIES are arguments that involve faulty reasoning. Be sure to question the legitimacy of such reasoning when you run across it.

Considering the Larger Context

All texts are part of ongoing conversations with other texts that have dealt with the same topic. An essay arguing for handgun trigger locks is part of an ongoing conversation about gun control, which is itself part of a conversation on individual rights and responsibilities. Whatever your reading goals, be aware that the larger context—or conversation—can help you better understand what you're reading. Here are some specific aspects of the text to pay attention to:

  • Who else cares about this topic? The texts you read will often reveal which people or groups are part of the conversation—and might be sources of further reading.
  • Ideas. Does the text refer to any concepts or ideas that give you some sense that it's part of a larger conversation?
  • Terms. Is there any terminology or specialized language that reflects the writer's allegiance to a particular group or academic discipline?
  • Citations. Whom does the writer cite? Do the other writers have a particular academic specialty, share similar political leanings?

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Taking Essay Exams

Essay exams present writers with special challenges. You must write quickly to show your instructor what you know about a specific topic. This chapter offers advice on how to take essay exams.

Considering the Rhetorical Situation

Think about the message you want to articulate, the audience you want to reach, and the larger context you are writing in.


In an essay exam, your purpose is to show that you have mastered certain material, and that you can analyze it in an essay.


Will your instructor be reading your exam, or a TA? What criteria will your audience use to evaluate your writing?


Does the essay question specify or suggest a certain genre? Look for key words such as argue, evaluate, or explain.


In an essay exam, your stance is usually unemotional, thoughtful, and critical.


Since essay exams are usually handwritten on lined paper or in an exam booklet, legible handwriting is a must.

Analyzing Essay Questions

Essay questions usually include key verbs that specify the kind of writing you'll need to do—argue a position, two texts, and so on. Following are some of the most common kinds of writing you'll be asked to do on an essay exam.

  •  ANALYZE: Break an idea, theory, text, or event into its parts and examine them.
  • Apply: Consider how an idea or concept might work out in practice.
  •  ARGUE/prove/justify: Offer reasons and evidence to support a position.
  •  CLASSIFY: Group something into categories.
  •  COMPARE/CONTRAST: Explore the similarities and/or differences between two or more things.
  • Critique: Analyze and evaluate a text or argument, considering its strengths and weaknesses.
  •  DEFINE: Explain what a word or phrase means.
  •  DESCRIBE: Tell about the important characteristics or features of something.
  • Evaluate: Determine something's significance or value.
  • Explain: Provide reasons and examples to clarify an idea, argument, or event.
  •  SUMMARIZE/review: Give the major points of a text or idea.
  • Trace: Explain a sequence of ideas or order of events.

Some Guidelines for Taking Essay Exams

Before the exam
  • Read over your class notes and texts strategically,  ANNOTATING them.
  • Collaborate by forming a study group that meets throughout the term.
  • Review key ideas, events, terms, and themes.
  • Ask your instructor about the form the exam will take. Working with a study group, write questions you think your instructor might ask, and then answer the questions together.
  • Warm up before the exam by  FREEWRITING for ten minutes or so.
During the exam
  • Scan the questions to determine how much each part of the test counts and how much time you should spend on it.
  • Read over the entire test before answering any questions. Start with the question you feel most confident answering.
  • Don't panic. Know how you first react to a testing situation.
  • Plan. Allow yourself time to make some last-minute changes before you turn in the exam. You can use that time to fill in gaps or reconsider answers you feel unsure about.
  • Jot down the main ideas you need to cover in answering the question, and number those ideas in order. Write the most important parts of your answers early on.
  • Turn the essay question into your introduction, like this:

    Question: How did the outcomes of World War II differ from those of World War I?

    Introduction: The outcomes of World War II differed from those of World War I in three major ways: World War II affected more of the world and its people than World War I,...

  • State your thesis explicitly, provide  REASONS and  EVIDENCE, and use  TRANSITIONS. Restate your main point in your conclusion.
  • Write on every other line and only on one side of each page. If you're typing on a computer, double space.
  • Go over your exam, looking for ideas that need elaboration and for errors.
After the exam

If your instructor doesn't return your exam, consider asking for a conference to go over your work.

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