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Archive for the month “February, 2015”

Recognizing and Using Rhetorical Devices

Hannah Cunningham, Consultant

As students, we all have to do a fair amount of writing, in a variety of disciplines. And we’ve all sought for new and interesting ways to phrase our thoughts. The way we word our arguments has a massive impact on how our readers perceive not just our arguments, but also us as writers. Careful use of word choice or syntax can also help in making our words or arguments memorable, as well as persuasive. Clearly, how we state our thoughts is as important as the thoughts themselves. But how do we go about doing it well?

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Part of the answer lies in rhetoric. “Rhetoric” refers to the art of making a persuasive argument, using specific (and sometimes very specialized) types of sentences, referred to as “rhetorical devices.” I know—this all sounds so vague and abstract. However, a look at popular culture reveals that many of these rhetorical devices are not only familiar, but are well-known pieces of our cultural heritage. Many of our favorite movies and television shows use rhetorical devices so often that we may not even notice. The list of rhetorical devices is immense, so I’ll offer a few of the more interesting ones, as well as examples that may be very familiar to you.

Anastrophe: This term seems formidable, but many people are familiar with the device itself. Anastrophe refers to inverting the standard order in which words are typically found in sentences. Anyone who has seen the Star Wars movies (or even people like me, who haven’t seen them but are familiar with them) has heard quite a bit of anastrophe from the little green guy—er, Yoda. The phrase “The chosen one the boy may be” is a prime example of anastrophe. Anastrophe is best used sparingly, but can make a topic sentence or a closing statement stand out.

Chiasmus: The root of this word means “cross,” and that’s what the device does. For this device to work successfully, you need a sentence with two clauses. The “crossing” occurs in the second clause, when you reverse the order of the elements in the first sentence. Confusing, I know, but it actually becomes pretty simple if you have an example. Bart Simpson of The Simpsons used chiasmus amusingly when he said “Priceless like a mother’s love, or the good kind of priceless?” He’s being a brat, but his use of chiasmus is spot-on. The word “priceless” begins the first clause, and occurs at the end of the second, while the opposing ideas “a mother’s love” and “the good kind” also switch places. Chiasmus can be very useful when making a persuasive argument, particularly a call to action; if you want to know just how effective, recall JFK saying, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”

Commoratio: I can’t tell you that I know how to pronounce this word, but its definition is pretty simple: repetition of an idea with different wording. It becomes absurd fairly quickly, so use it carefully, but it can be an effective device, particularly in an opening statement. The animated show Family Guy used commoratio when the peg-legged and –armed fisherman, Seamus, tells Peter, “If it’s fish you want, Pelican’s Reef is where you’ll find them. I’ve seen fish there. More fish than you could possibly imagine. Fish as far as the eye can see. Lots and lots of fish, I guess would be the main bullet point of this presentation.” Clearly, Family Guy is using commoratio to the point of absurdity, but you can use it carefully to gain your audience’s attention—or to make them laugh.

Epanelepsis: This device describes the act of beginning and ending a sentence or phrase with the same word. Viewers of the old Kevin Smith film Chasing Amy heard epanelepsis when Ben Affleck’s character, Holden McNeil, said, “Alyssa from last night Alyssa?” His use of epanelepsis even impressed his friend Hooper, who commented, “How do you begin and end a sentence with the same word like that? You got skills.” This device can be useful when emphasizing the repeated word, although it’s important to use this device sparingly so that your paper doesn’t become too repetitious.

Litotes: This is your basic understatement, usually with the word “not.” Dozens of easy examples exist, such as “He’s not unlike his father,” or “The weather lately has been not tropical.” But for many of us, the most memorable example may be the Sorting Hat in the first Harry Potter movie, Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone. When the Sorting Hat is trying to decide in which house to place Harry, it says, “Hmm, difficult. VERY difficult. Plenty of courage, I see. Not a bad mind, either.” That last sentence proves that the Sorting Hat, in addition to thinking up each year’s opening song, also had time to study rhetorical devices such as litotes. Litotes can be useful when supporting an argument, but be wary of overusing it; it begins to sound sarcastic fairly quickly.

Metanoia: This is another one I can’t pronounce, but I hear it often in television shows. Metanoia refers to qualifying a statement mid-sentence to emphasize the sentence’s point. Barney Stinson, the loveable rogue on the show How I Met Your Mother, uses metanoia fairly frequently, particularly when making his over-the-top arguments. In this case, Barney uses metanoia to insist on receiving a fist bump: “Until my fist gets the respect it deserves – nay, demands – it will not yield. It. Will. NOT! Yield.” This rather powerful device is probably best used in a conclusion, to leave your audience with a strong statement at the end of your paper.

Polysyndeton: This weird-looking word actually just refers to having a conjunction before each item in a list. Usually, conjunctions (particularly “and”) only occur before the last item in a list. Viewers of The Simpsons have seen polysyndeton from the character of Professor Frink, the excitable mad scientist of Springfield. In one episode, Frink says, “Oh, sorry I’m late. There was trouble at the lab with the running and the exploding and the crying when the monkeys stole the glasses off my head.” The sentence is both comical, and a perfect example of polysyndeton. In your papers, you may not want to reference monkeys stealing your glasses, but you may very well use polysyndeton to emphasize every item in a list.

These are just a few of the hundreds of rhetorical devices available for your use. Take a glance through a website that lists rhetorical devices and then watch your favorite show or movie. See how many examples you can pick up.

Strategies for Reading and Writing about Sources

Taylor Gathof, Consultant

February is flying by and we’ve reached that point in our courses where we’re frequently asked to read, respond to, and write about sources. Sometimes, we are required to read and write about sources we’ve been given in class; other times, we must head to the library (or the library database) and find additional sources to read and write about. We encounter assignments that ask us to write both short and longer papers using sources. However, even when writing a short paper with 3 or 4 sources, writing about sources can be tough. As a student and writing center consultant, I’ve experienced and seen how writing with and about sources can, and often does, leave one saying “I’m not sure how all of these sources fit together” and wondering “What should I say about this (or each) source?” Don’t be discouraged, though, because there are strategies that can help you work through such questions!

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Oftentimes, when we are given a writing assignment that asks us to incorporate or respond to sources, our initial impulse is to start writing the paper and read/incorporate our sources as we go—it is a writing assignment after all, right? In my experience as a student, though, this strategy didn’t always work, especially when I was asked to incorporate upwards of 5 sources and make complex arguments in response to said sources. In taking on longer and larger writing projects as an undergraduate junior and senior, I discovered the usefulness of reading and writing about sources before I began writing a paper. By reading all of my sources and writing down my responses to and thoughts about each source, I found that I had a much easier time seeing how one source related to another and organizing all of my information. Also, I found that this strategy helped me spend less time re-reading sources, thus allowing more time for me to focus on the task of writing.

Here are three ways that you can record your responses to and thoughts about your sources:

  • Annotated Bibliography: An annotated bibliography is similar to a bibliography (a list of sources in a particular style such as APA, MLA, etc.), except that in an annotated bibliography you write a brief summary and evaluation and/or analysis of each source. Often, instructors will require students to write annotated bibliographies as part of a research paper or project. Even if your instructors do not require an annotated bibliography, writing your responses to and thoughts about sources in this way can be extremely useful and valuable because it will save you time in the long run: not only will you have written a useful summary and analysis of a source that can perhaps be incorporated into your paper, but you will also have your bibliography completed! 
  • Reading Journal: A reading journal is basically a journal in which you track your responses to the readings and sources you encounter and can be either paper or electronic. This style is more laid back and less formal than an annotated bibliography, but you will still want to be doing some summarizing, evaluating, and analyzing for each source. I find reading journals particularly useful for a class in which I will be required to write essays and papers about the assigned readings. By keeping a reading journal, I am able to 1) be prepared to discuss readings in class each day, 2) add useful class notes to my existing notes, and 3) use these notes to pick a topic to write about and compare/contrast sources when it’s paper-writing time.
  • Blog: A blog can be used in a similar way to a reading journal and, again, is less formal and more relaxed than an annotated bibliography. What I find most interesting, useful, and fun about blogs is that they can be shared. For example, in a class concerned with representations of women in media and culture, I was required to keep a blog in which I responded to class readings and sources that I uncovered on my own. We were allowed to make the blog private, but I chose to make mine public. I didn’t anticipate what happened next: people actually responded to my blog posts. This may sound scary, but it was actually incredibly helpful. Readers would often comment on what they liked about my analysis and evaluations, pose questions that I had not thought of, and offer additional sources that proved useful.

Now that you have some strategies for recording your responses to and thoughts about your sources, here are some questions to get you writing about your sources:

  • What is the purpose of this source? What is the main argument?
  • How does the author achieve this purpose or support his/her argument?
  • What types of evidence is the author using?
  • Has anything been left out, overlooked, or neglected in this source?
  • Do I find this source persuasive? Why or why not?
  • Is this source credible? Why or why not?
  • How does this source compare to my other sources?
  • How does this source contribute to my argument?

All of these questions will not always be necessarily relevant or apply to your sources, and there are many other great questions that you can ask about sources. The important thing is to ask the same questions of each source and write down your answers: this strategy will provide a solid foundation on which to write your paper.

Happy writing, friends!

Using the Thesis Statement to Your Advantage

Bobby Rich, Consultant

The thesis statement is the keystone of a paper: a solid thesis statement holds everything together, but without one, your paper can fall apart pretty easily. Because of this, developing a strong thesis statement is of high importance, and, as I’m sure many students are aware, the phrase “strong thesis statement” often appears at the top of many grading rubrics. So, you know it is a necessary thing, but…

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What is it thesis statement, anyway?

The thesis statement can be an intimidating thing for many writers. At its most basic, a thesis statement is an explicit statement of argument. The majority of papers written in college are not simply restating information, they are assessing information, analyzing it, and making an argument about what the information means. A thesis is not a statement of raw opinion, rather, it is a strong assertion about how something should be interpreted, intended to apply to the general understanding of that thing, not just your own. Yes, to a degree the thesis statement is personal, but it is not a statement of simply individual taste or feeling; it is a statement of educated interpretation, based on the research you have done, and the knowledge base you are pulling from, stemming from critical thinking. If I’m having a conversation with a friend, and I say, “Marvel comics are the best,” they might as “Why?” and I might respond, “Because they’re the best!” That, unfortunately, is just pure opinion, and won’t do much to convince my friend of that point. In fact, that claim really isn’t arguing anything, it is just a flat statement. If I want to convince them, I need to argue; I need to present an argument in a way that will then allow me to readily back it up with facts, like: “I argue that Marvel is currently producing the best comic books on the market, because they exhibit a clear sense of social awareness and dedication to incorporating diversity in their publications.” From there, I can begin to elaborate on my points. Not only does that set me up to make my argument, but it makes discussion possible, which is necessary to a good argument. If I just state my raw opinion, there is no room for discussion; my friend would only be able to agree or disagree.

Alright, but why do I need one?

Organization, for both the reader and the writer. I like to think of the thesis statement as a kind of organizational tool or outline, built into the paper I’m writing. For the reader, it serves the purpose of saying, “Here is what I am going to tell you in this paper, here is how all the evidence I present is tied together, and here is what I want you to be paying attention to.” Without that sort of statement, the evidence you provide can seem random and disconnected, which can confuse the reader. The thesis statement should create a sort of focal point for the reader, and a sense of perspective to put the evidence against; it should guide them through the paper. For you, the writer, a strong thesis statement will have a similar effect, and will help you keep track of what you’re doing. As you go through your paper, you can refer back to your thesis statement and think “Okay, so, is it clear how the point I just made relates back to my thesis? Will the reader get the connection? Have I made the connection?” This will help you keep your paper from becoming jumbled or disorganized, which is definitely a good thing.

How do I develop one?

Again, think of it as an organizational tool. Ask yourself questions like, “What problem do I perceive in this evidence? What do I see connecting the evidence? What kind of solution can I provide?” That will get you started. Then you want to think about where you can take the argument, what sort of order you need for your evidence, and what the most central point is. Your thesis statement doesn’t need to say every single thing you will do in your paper; it needs to provide a jumping off point for your writing to follow from, and you want it to be easily linkable to the points you make in your paper at any given time.

When do I develop one?

This will depend, more or less, on your discipline of study. For example, in English, if you are writing about literature, your thesis can kind of shift and change as you work through your piece. It may not be finalized and solid until after your first draft; on the other hand, in philosophy, you might find it necessary to have your thesis statement more strongly developed from the beginning, in order to prevent confusion or contradiction as you work through your argument. Regardless, it is best to begin thinking about and attempting to formulate your thesis as you research your topic; doing so will, as above, allow you to keep everything organized better as you go through the writing process, which will not only make for a stronger paper, but will make it easier on you as you write. Try keeping a log of your reactions to the sources you read. Your reactions do not have to be fully hashed-out, but keep notes of problems you perceive, questions you have, and potential solutions. Thinking about your thesis up front will save you work later.

Whatever discipline you may be writing in, the next time you have a paper due, try thinking of your thesis statement as an organizational tool, and develop it along those lines: for ease of use. It could just make the writing process an overall smoother, more confident experience.

Fighting Back Against “Writer’s Block”

Joanna Englert, Writing Consultant

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It’s February: it’s cold, the days are short, and there’s another holiday that gives cause for eating too much chocolate. Hard as you might wish, chances are your assignments don’t go on hold for the cold weather and short days. And with so much time indoors, it might be hard to find inspiration for that research essay on climate change or that memoir you keep meaning to get to, i.e., you might be struck by that fear-inducing nuisance known as writer’s block. Trust me, you’re not alone. We all know it: that blank page as empty as the branches outside, that trashcan filled with crumpled sheets of scribbles, and that forehead-to-the-desk sense of hopelessness. But don’t fear—you CAN get it done! I, too, have fought the battle against writer’s block, and with a few things in mind, I’ve learned it’s absolutely beatable. So, below are some of the most helpful tips I’ve discovered for breaking down the writer’s block wall and getting that paper done. Hope they help you as much as they’ve helped me!

1. Just Write!

The golden rule for overcoming writer’s block is simple: write. You might be thinking, easier said than done. I know, I know. But when I say write, I mean write anything. Anything! A stream-of-consciousness journal entry, a limerick about your cat, your favorite recipe for chocolate chip cookies. Again, anything. Then, move on to writing something for your paper. Whether it’s the beginning, the middle, the end, or an outline, just remember that getting words down on paper, regardless of how good or bad they are at first (revision exists for a reason!), is progress. A lot of the time, just writing will get your creativity flowing and can remove some of the pressure to get the perfect idea down for your paper. It’s easier to go back and revise than to aim for perfection the first time around!

2. Quiet Those Distractions

Back away from technology for a minute. Shut down those computers, put that phone out of reach somewhere in the basement, turn off the TV, Spotify, etc., and just give yourself a moment of quiet to sit, reflect, and think. It may help clear your head and get you focused!

3. Find a Comfortable Spot

Virginia Woolf was on to something when she wrote A Room of One’s Own. To write, it truly helps to place yourself in a comfortable environment. For me, my favorite space is on my bed with nothing short of ten pillows, tea or coffee appropriately by my side, my cat on my lap, and my favorite moleskin notebook at hand. Want to get out of the house? (Because sometimes I just NEED to get out.) Find your favorite coffee shop and settle into a cozy spot in the corner. Coffee, quiet music and mumbling, space to spread out your work—trust me, it helps. At the very least, you’ll be able to devote brain power to your paper rather than to how uncomfortable you are!

4. Pace Yourself

One of the most helpful tips someone shared with me is to schedule working time and break time. Adopting the idea of writing anything, work for twenty-five minutes, and then enjoy a five or ten minute break. This gives you a chance to relax (and if you’re like me, reward yourself with that omnipresent Valentine’s chocolate) and an incentive to work.

5. Sleep On It

Okay, so this obviously doesn’t work if you’re in crunch-time mode, but if you give yourself the leisure of starting early, you can conquer writer’s block by stepping away and forgetting about it for a bit. Believe it or not, your mind knows you’ve been thinking about your topic. Even if you’re not consciously focused, your mind is working on it. You’d be surprised how something may just come to you if you step away and let it. In fact, if you’re really committed, keep a notebook and pen by your bed. Some of my ideas for creative writing or paper topics have come to me just before falling asleep. If you don’t have to get out of bed, you’re more likely to jot things down then!

6. Talk It Out

For some people, talking through a project is the best way to organize ideas and get creative juices flowing. As it happens, we at the Writing Center are happy to talk through your papers with you, so be sure to come and see us at any stage in your writing process!

Now that you’ve made it through this article, I hope these tips help you as much as they’ve helped me. So, dodge the weather, curl up with a notebook and some chocolate, and get going. Happy writing, everyone! (And be sure to stop by and see us at the Writing Center!)

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