Tag Archives: structure

Make it match!

by Mackenzie Batten

Last year, I was given the task to explain parallel structure to my Teaching the Writing Process class. I found that it is a really crucial concept because it can seem simple to understand, but can actually get fairly complicated. My class and I found some basic ideas about parallel structure helpful, so I thought I would share them with the blog!

Parallel structure must be followed when writing lists by using the same pattern of words or phrases. This shows the reader that two or more ideas have the same level of importance. You could write:

Tony loves eating, playing and sleeping.

Tony loves to eat, to play, and to sleep.


Tony loves to eat, play, and sleep.

…And they would all be correct. The only time you run into trouble is if you mix and match them: 

Tony loves eating, to play and sleep.

One way I like to test to see if a list is parallel is by making each item on the list into its own sentence. Let’s use the following sentence as an example:

My mom taught me how to clean, how to read, and she instructed me on fish-feeding.

Now, to break the sentence up:

My mom taught me how to clean.

My mom taught me how to read.


My mom taught me she instructed me on fish-feeding.

While the first two sentences make grammatical sense, the last does not, so you would know that you need to rewrite that part of the sentence.

Here’s how that sentence could look:

My mom taught me how to clean, how to read, and how to feed my fish.


My mom taught me how to clean, read, and feed my fish.

If there is one thing to take out of this lesson, it is that CONSISTENCY IS KEY!


Mackenzie is a sophomore at Principia College. She is majoring in political science and economics and minoring in business administration. She hopes to go to law school after graduating from Principia.


Write the introduction last

by Samantha Bronkar

Writing an introductory paragraph can be daunting, especially if you try to write it first. Introductions are the first part of the paper, but they do not have to be the first part you write!

You could start by writing your introduction, but you may run into some obstacles, such as:

– not knowing how to introduce a paper you haven’t written yet
– not knowing how to handle a blank document
– not knowing which points you should include in the introduction, and which ones you should leave out

Before you begin to write, choose a working thesis or, in other words, a thesis that certainly may change. As you learn more about your topic, your thesis may become more complex, or you may decide to change your thesis entirely.

Because your initial thesis may change throughout the writing process, writing the introduction first may not be the best approach. If your thesis changes, you may have to rewrite your entire introduction.

Instead, write the body paragraphs—or the detailed argument—first. This process will take more time than writing your introduction, but it will allow you to build your argument fully and freely, without being limited by what you stated in your introduction. And it will save you time on your introduction when it’s time to write it!

Once you finish writing your body paragraphs, you are ready to write your introduction!  By the time you finish writing the body of your paper, you can decide what you feel are the most important points of your argument.

You can think of your introduction as a guide for the reader to understand the main points of your argument before moving into the body of your paper. Make sure to include essential background information and key points you will discuss in your argument, now that you know what they are.

Saving the introduction for last can also ensure that your conclusion matches your introduction. While they are not the same exact paragraph, they should identify the same main points. Once you’ve finished up your introduction, you’ve got a complete, unified draft!

Samantha Bronkar is a junior and will be in Prague next fall studying creative writing and visual art.

The last shall be first

by Anna-Zoe Herr

Want to know a simple way to make your wording pop? Pay attention to where you put your words in each sentence! A simple rule is to put the words that carry the most meaning at the end of your sentences.

Roy Peter Clark explains why this works in Writing Tools,* where he advises us that “for any sentence, the period acts as a stop sign. That slight pause in reading magnifies the final word.” That means the last word in every sentence stands out because there is a mental pause right after it. When chosen carefully, the last word in a sentence can provide a bridge to the next sentence, emphasize meaning, and even create a liveliness of tone. Clark calls this “emphatic word order,” which is a small edit for a writer, but a huge improvement for the written piece.

There are two things necessary in order to use emphatic word order when you write:

  1. Be clear what exactly you are writing about in the whole text.
  2. Be clear exactly what each sentence is saying and doing as part of the whole.

If we are very clear about our subject or argument, we often do emphatic word order intuitively; but in many cases we need to go back, play with each sentence, see how it fits into the whole paragraph, and determine what the important words are. With that understanding, when we rewrite the sentence, it can do miracles!

Here is an example:

“Today, some areas of science seem to have claimed to declare truth and error, a status only religion used to have. Therefore, science is as controversial a topic as it gets, for in our age it started knocking on the doors of individuals on a quest for a more accurate truth and has fallen onto the slippery slope of political power-play.”

Using the principles of emphatic word order, I could revise like this:

“Today, some areas of science seem to have claimed a status that only religion used to have: the right to declare truth and error. Therefore, science is as controversial a topic as it gets, for in our age it has fallen onto the slippery slope of political power-play, as well as knocking on the doors of individuals in a quest for a more accurate truth.”

When you look at the last words in these sentences, you can see that they carry the most weight.

The words we choose to put at the end of a sentence can change how readers interpret our intent, but if we understand our intentions, then we can use rhetorical strategies like emphatic word order  to express them in each sentence.

Anna-Zoë is a double major in global perspectives and studio art. She has studied in a university in Germany prior to coming to Principia, where she also studied to be a writing tutor. Next semester, she will be going on the Prague abroad to continue with more writing.

*Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer by Roy Peter Clark (2008)

Staying ahead of the curve

by Anna Tarnow

Bad news: getting better at writing is a lot of work. Good news: anyone can do it!

Being good (or even excellent) at writing is not some magical skill that some people have and others don’t. Good writing is the product of dedication and energy, just like pretty much every other skill. Some people may seem astronomically better at things, but they just have a lot of cumulative practice, which is something that anyone can have given time. And to me, at least, that’s encouraging! You can make serious progress just by working a little each day.

Here are some of my top strategies for long term improvement:

  1. Give your written work some percolation time (usually around a week, maybe two or three), and then come back to it. Notice odd quirks or repeated mistakes in your writing, make a list of them, and start checking for them every time you write.
  2. Use ctrl+f or cmd+f to search for words that you overuse. I used to write “really” in every other sentence, but I’ve learned to suppress that urge.
  3. Focus on structure, especially if you’re fresh out of high school, where structure is usually skimmed over. Each point should lead logically to the next, like a chain of stepping stones.
  4. Make sure you’re using the right word! People, myself included, will often throw in words that they don’t actually know to make themselves sound smarter. This is a trap because using the wrong word looks worse than using smaller words correctly.
  5. But do work to expand your vocabulary! There are plenty of apps that can help you do this. I like Magoosh’s products.
  6. And finally, find something you like to write about. Whether it’s complaining about politics, predicting the outcome of sports, or talking about MAC products, something in this world probably gets your gears spinning. So use that, and have fun!

Anna Tarnow is a senior majoring in English and enjoys working on the Pilot newspaper, where she is editor-in-chief.

A quote sandwich to remember

by Shamus Jarvis

When writing any research paper, there is a common temptation to incorporate numerous quotations into the paper with the expectation that a lot of external quotes, lacking interpretation, will lend authority to your argument. Unfortunately, an overabundance of quotes actually detracts from a writer’s thesis because the writer’s own voice becomes overshadowed by the various scholars that he or she is quoting in the paper. Although there is no specific rule regarding a maximum or minimum number of quotations a writer should include in each paragraph of a research paper, writers should endeavor to include original thought as much as possible and use quotations sparingly and judiciously.

In order to use quotations effectively to support your thesis, ensure that the following three elements accompany every source that you cite in your paper:

  1. a signal phrase to introduce the quote,
  2. the actual quotation, and
  3. explication that describes the significance of the quote.

Signal phrases allow you to transition smoothly from your own words to those of the person being quoted. These phrases set up the reader for the quotation by indicating who is being quoted and including any needed context for the quote. For example, if a writer wanted to include a quote from a particular speech, he or she might use the following signal phrase: In his 2014 State of the Union Address, United States President Barack Obama stated, “Opportunity is who we are. And the defining project of our generation is to restore that promise.”

Immediately following the quotation, the writer must include careful explication that illustrates the significance of the quote. Explication goes beyond mere summary and instead helps the reader understand how the quote relates to the writer’s thesis. Depending upon how important a quote is in the context of a paper, writers should devote at least one sentence to explication so that the reader understands how the quotation relates to the writer’s argument.

It might be helpful to think of integrated quotations as a sandwich, with the quotation nestled between a signal phrase and explication. The following is an example of an effective integrated quotation “sandwich”:  As Caryl Phillips acknowledges in his introduction to Heart of Darkness[Signal Phrase] “One of the great paradoxes of the novel is that while Marlow dislikes Kurtz for having abandoned all decent standards, he also admires this ivory trader for having had the courage to fearlessly explore his ‘dark’ side” (xiii). [Quote] Through the paradoxical nature of Marlow’s feelings toward Kurtz, Joseph Conrad effectively establishes Kurtz as an enigmatic figure whose ultimate submission to the forces of darkness accentuates the moral conflict between barbarism and civilization throughout the novella. [Explication]

Remember, all quotations should relate to the writer’s central claim and must be followed with explication so as not to distract from a writer’s own words. Signal phrase + Quotation + Explication = an effective integrated quotation.


Shamus is in his third year studying Theatre and English at Principia and looks forward to studying abroad in England for the fall semester. He will appear in the production of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale upon returning to campus in October.

Reading scholarly articles—demystified

by Clayton Harper

In order to be a good researcher, you must be a good reader, or at least a diligent and strategic one. Maybe this sounds obvious, but I’ve noticed that students struggle to use ideas from their research to strengthen the arguments in their writing and participate in demanding classroom discussions. Let me say a few things to address that.

Reading scholarly articles and academic sources is hard. Writers will often dress up simple ideas in complex language. Many will throw as much jargon at their readers as they can. Name-dropping can be frequent and disorienting. Some of this complexity is important to understand. Some of it is unnecessary.

In order to “get something” out of your sources, you must read as a writer. That means reading a scholarly article by identifying the elements you use yourself to write a paper. Generally, this means separating the content of an article into claims and evidence. Scholarly articles tend to be composed of claims, which are statements that argue a broad concept, trend, or  idea; and evidence, which includes specific examples that support or illustrate each claim. When you read, underline or note on a separate piece of paper (or a Word document, if you prefer working digitally) all the claims you find. Sometimes a paragraph contains only one claim. Sometimes there will be more. For the most part, though, an article has much more evidence than claims.

By focusing on the claims of an article, you will remember more of its content. When you read an article to understand its claims/evidence structure, the content will condense into a handful of main ideas. Now you understand what you have read, and it’s much easier to remember 5-10 general ideas than 25 pages of wordy stuff. If you can discipline yourself to do this, you may also remember important bits of evidence that are linked to each claim. And if you don’t, because you underlined or took notes as you read, you will know exactly where to look to refresh your memory.

Don’t be discouraged by the reading process. No one flies through this stuff nodding their head and walking away with complete comprehension. Good readers are workmanlike. They take sources one piece at a time and slowly assemble the larger picture from the bits they understand. Don’t get hung up on the desire to master a source. Do take the steps to extract something that is understandable and useful from what you read. That’s the point of research, isn’t it?

Clayton Harper is a creative writing major and writing tutor at Principia College. He never doodles during class and isn’t known to daydream about crazy adventures to write about later.

Line it out

by Carlie Sanderude

If I had to guess, I would say that most students think writing an outline before a paper is the biggest waste of time. Maybe that is a rather large generalization, but I think that a lot of students just jump into writing the paper itself because they want to get it done as fast as possible. But, in actuality, writing an outline will make the process much easier and less stressful! That’s why they’re my favorite, and I won’t write a paper without one.

So why is an outline useful? Isn’t it extra work? Nope.  Here’s why. Outlines

  • are the surest way to an organized paper. They allow you to clearly list the main topics that you want to cover in your paper and make sure that each topic connects back to your thesis.
  • allow you to present your material in a logical form. You can move ideas around to make sure that the logical progression of your paper works helps you prove your main idea.
  • really are helpful in just getting ideas down while you are in the pre-writing or research stages of your writing. Place information in the appropriate category within the outline and watch your paper grow while staying fully organized.

Okay, now how do you create an outline?

  1. Figure out what your thesis is and what you are trying to prove.
  2. Brainstorm all of the ideas that you might want to include in your paper.
  3. Place those ideas in a logical order. For some papers this might be chronological, while for others it might be more of a cause/effect idea or another organization scheme.
  4. Create main and sub headings from those ideas that will become your paragraph main ideas in your actual paper.
  5. Fill in the blanks with your information, research, and analysis!

The biggest benefit is that as soon as you fill in your outline, the paper is pretty much already written! Simply convert your bullet points in your outline to sentences (and don’t forget transitions, which will appear in another post one of these days).

All in all, outlines are great organizational tools, and they will always help ensure clarity and the logical ordering of your paper. An outline may make the overall writing process a tiny bit longer—but maybe not—and your organization will see major improvement in the end!

Carlie Sanderude is a senior at Principia College studying business administration and philosophy. She plays on the college’s soccer and tennis teams and has been a writing tutor for two years. This is her first ever blog post, so be gentle…

A problem-solving approach to introductions

by Shamus Jarvis

I find it helpful to think of writing as a vehicle for problem solving. But before I can offer a solution to any given problem, I have to first gain a reader’s attention; otherwise I have no audience that can respond to the solution that I provide. The most effective way to ensure that a paper will both engage a reader—be it a fellow student or a professor—and establish the foundation for any claim or solution that a writer will defend in the body of the paper is to provide an intriguing and thought provoking introduction. The late Joseph M. Williams, in Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace, insists that an introduction should include three primary components: shared context between the writer and the reader, a description of the problem, and the writer’s solution or claim.

By establishing a shared context with the reader, the writer explains why the reader is or will be affected by the problem presented within the paper. If the reader perceives that the given problem is unrelated to his or her own life, it is unlikely that that reader will be interested in reading about a solution to a problem that he or she does not perceive as a threat. The writer must convince the reader that he or she has something to gain or lose that is related to the central issue. This concept of gain and loss is related to a problem’s cost.

According to Williams, a problem is some event that is associated with a perceivable cost. If a condition, situation, or event has no cost, then no problem exists. Every problem has at least one or more consequence(s) that results in some unwanted or unintended result. Within a paper, it is important for the writer to present the consequences of an event in order to explain why that event should be recognized as a problem. As much as possible, the writer should endeavor to relate the consequences directly to the reader. Remember, if the reader believes that he or she has nothing at stake, there is no reason to continue reading. Imagine a reader asking, “So what?” after being presented with a problem. It is the writer’s job to answer the reader’s hypothetical inquiry in a way that clearly identifies the consequences of a problem and how they affect the reader.

Additionally, it is important for a writer to recognize whether he or she is attempting to solve a practical or a conceptual problem. When dealing with a practical problem, the writer will encourage the reader to execute a specific action that will either totally resolve or at least mitigate the problem. Conceptual problems often lack solutions that require specific actions. Instead, solutions are typically theoretical and require the reader to understand the larger context of the issue. Within the college environment, students are commonly asked to solve conceptual, rather than practical problems.

After the writer has presented a problem and its significant consequences or general cost to humanity, he or she should provide a solution or claim that addresses at least one of the problem’s consequences without introducing any additional ones. Obviously, the proposed solution should not magnify the intensity of the original problem. The solution or claim serves as the foundational point which the body of the paper will aim to support.

(Works Cited: Williams, Joseph M. Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace. 9th ed. New York: Pearson Longman,    2007. Print.)

Shamus Jarvis is a junior at Principia College studying theatre and English. Hear him sing aboard the Titanic on November 14, 15, and 16 in Cox Auditorium.