One of the main complaints I hear from my students is “I can’t write three to five pages!”

Well, no.  Not the way most of them write.  Most of what I see coming into my class is no more fleshed out than an outline, not really an essay.  So, what’s the secret?  The secret is in thorough development.

Development is actually really simple.  It’s a paragraph level writing tool, unlike focus and organization, which are more overall tools.  Good development is made up of claims, evidence, and elaboration.

Your claim is your paragraph’s topic sentence.  For that, you need to go back to your thesis statement–your overall clam with reasons.  Those reasons form the topic sentences for the main body paragraphs.  You may have a subclaim or two to flesh out, but your main topic sentence is one of the reasons listed in your thesis statement.  Start your paragraph with a sentence or two making your claims.  Then, you move on to your evidence.

So, what kind of evidence do you need?  That depends.  There’s hard evidence, and soft evidence.  Hard evidence consists of facts, figures, and statistics.  Basically, you find a lot of this either by having a lot of technical knowledge on the topic you’re writing about, or you do research to find it (more on finding reliable sources in a future post).  Soft evidence is anecdotes–stories from your experience, or from other people’s.  Hypothetical examples also fit in soft evidence.  Most of the time, you’ll need both kinds of evidence to truly convince your readers.  You’ll need about three to six sentences of hard or soft evidence per paragraph (and it’s best to combine both).  Then, you elaborate on your evidence.

What do I mean by elaborate on the evidence?  Well, how often do you say something to someone else that you think proves a point, only to have them come to a completely different conclusion?  You can easily avoid that in writing by explaining, in eight to ten sentences interspersed between your evidence, exactly how your bits of evidence illustrate the initial claim you made in your paragraph’s topic sentence.  Walk your readers through the logic chain that you see connecting your evidence to your claims.

So, altogether, each paragraph will have between one and three sentences of claim, three to six sentences of evidence, and six to ten sentences of elaboration on your evidence.  Do you see a pattern?  You need approximately twice as much evidence as claim, and about twice as much elaboration as evidence.  Each paragraph needs between ten and twenty sentences.

That means a single paragraph will be at least half to three quarters of a page long, double-spaced.  And with full development on three main points, you’ve got a much stronger paper that meets the minimum requirement easily, if you’re writing for a class, and clearly makes your point even if you’re not.


More on organization…

When I write a paper, or a story, or a novel, the very first thing I decide on is the order everything is going to go in.  And the very first step I take in completing a paper, or a story, or a novel is to create a basic outline.  First A, then B, then C.

Outlining your work before you start it has a few, major advantages.  First, you are better able to stay focused.  Second, your outline keeps your points organized.  Last, but not least, it speeds the writing process.  If you use an outline, you have your topic sentences and some of the rest already done.  All you have to do is fill in the detail.

Right now, I’m working on revising a textbook I wrote for my Composition I class.  The original textbook was  written for an online class where I’d have minimal interactions with students (mostly because I only know when they need something if they actually ask…which the majority don’t do).  I thought about it, and realized that some of the main complaints I had when I’d used a Blackboard enhanced course to contain worksheets and stuff was that my students didn’t know where to find stuff, didn’t know how to use Blackboard, and didn’t want to bother with trying to learn how to use it without help.  So, my first chapter in my textbook was how to use the features in Blackboard that they’d need.

Second, I wanted to discuss the type of writing we’d be doing–expository–and why we’d be starting with that, and how to do it.  I outlined it…then used the outline as bolded headers for them to use to find things quickly.

After that came the assignment chapters.  I usually started out with questions: Why are we writing this paper?  What goes into it?  How is it organized?  I used those as my outline, and my section headers.  Then, I wrote answering the questions.

Yes, I can reuse a lot of the stuff from my previous draft; however, a lot of it will need to be scrapped, and one of the assignments just isn’t going to work in a classroom setting.  Because of that, I’m going to have to substitute a different assignment–which means outlining and writing at least one new chapter.

To recap: outline your work before you start.  It makes everything easier and smoother.

How to write: Organization

Organization is important.  Very important.  It’s closely related to focus, since your thesis statement also helps create and maintain your organization, and clues your readers into what you’re doing with your paper by giving them a road map to your points.

It also helps your focus: by staying organized, it’s easier to stay focused.

I usually focus hard on teaching organization and focus.  Each is fairly simple to understand, and there are only a few things to remember about each.  Organization carries two major pitfalls: keep similar points together, and keep your body paragraphs’ main points in the same order you have them in your thesis statement.

One of my standard assignments for my Freshman Composition I courses is an analysis paper.  They have to analyze whether something is a good or bad example of something else.  Because the example paper they have analyzes whether someone is making a good argument by using the criteria of good use of ethos (appealing to the audience through the author’s credibility), pathos (appeal through audience emotions), and logos (appeal through the use of facts, figures, and logic), many of my students do the same.  The article I discuss is a little complicated–the writer is very credible in the subject he’s writing about, and makes excellent use of the appeal to the audience’s emotions, but does a lousy job with using enough facts and figures to back up his argument.  So, that’s how my thesis statement reads:

William Raspberry uses ethos and pathos quite well in his essay “What’s Love Got to Do With It?”; however, his use of logos leaves a lot to be desired.

Unfortunately, many of them looked at the order of the rhetorical parts (ethos, pathos, logos), and didn’t see that I’d kept like with like: what Raspberry did well vs. what he didn’t.  That led to some problems.  Some of the students wrote about other arguments–and some of those other arguments didn’t do well, or did poorly with pathos.  And their thesis statements and body paragraphs had it splitting the paragraphs analyzing what the writer did right with the single paragraph of what the writer did wrong.  Which, in turn, is jarring, and leaves the reader with the impression that the essay was badly written.  Keep like with like.

The other problem is that many of the rest didn’t use their thesis statement as their framework for writing: they had their points in one order in the thesis statement, but had the body paragraphs in a different order.  I actually had one student go fully backwards–their first body paragraph’s main point was the last point listed in their thesis statement.

To recap, the two main things to keep in mind with organization are these: keep similar points together (did well in X and Y, but badly in Z), and make sure your paper’s body paragraphs follow the order outlined in your thesis statement.

If you stay focused, and follow the proper organization, you’re halfway there with what you need to know to write well.  Sadly, it takes most of a semester for me to convince most of the students I get coming through my classes that yes, it really is that simple.


So, you’ve chosen your purpose: to inform.  And your topic: say you want to write about your dog.  Now, you need to decide what to focus on.  Do you want to inform people of the benefits of having the same kind of dog you do?  Great!  Let’s talk about that.

Your dog is a great dog–I’m absolutely certain of that.  I mean, my dog is a great dog.  She’s calm, even-tempered, not mean in the slightest.  She’s territorial, but can tell friend from stranger (and doesn’t go batshit insane when it’s a friend).  She’s a great little dog–a Scottish Terrier.

But…she’s stubborn.  She’s not easy to train because, while she does want to do things that make her family happy, she also wants to do things she wants to do.  She yanks on the leash, and if her front feet are on the ground, she can jerk hard enough to pop my wrist, elbow, and shoulder, and yank me off balance.

So…focus.  My purpose is to inform readers of what a great dog a Scottish Terrier is.  My focus should be on her good points: that she’s got a great temperment, is very smart, isn’t huge or hyper, and takes minimal grooming.  Yes, I probably should mention her bad points, but shouldn’t dwell on them.  They should kind of be glossed over.  Otherwise…I could end up complaining about the dog’s bad behavior, and turning my audience off of getting a Scotty dog.

How do you stay on focus?  Easy: have a good, strong thesis statement that includes your reasons.  Those listed reasons can easily be turned into topic sentences for your main body paragraphs.  My paper about my Scotty would have a thesis statement that read like this:

A Scottish Terrier is a great dog for a family because they’re even tempered, not too big or hyper if you have a small space, and don’t take much grooming.

My reasons would be used later as topic sentences for body paragraphs, helping me avoid the whole focus pitfall of telling my audience what a great choice a Scotty is, but spending the whole paper complaining about how stubborn she is, and what a pain she can be to take care of–even though that’s not what I think at all.

To recap: focus is important.  If you lose sight of what you want to write about, not only will your audience have no clue what you’re trying to say, but also might be convinced of the opposite of what you intended.  Your thesis statement is an important part of helping you maintain the focus you wanted.