Archive | September, 2012

Short & Sweet: The Topic Outline

28 Sep

Now that we’ve discussed at length various prewriting strategies, let’s tackle the most formal of them all — the outline.

Since outlines are on the minds of IB folks (reminder: the outline is due Monday, October 15th), I’m going to tailor these posts to them; though, of course, the instructions are the same regardless of the content.

There are two basic types of outlines and today we’re going to go over the more basic of the two…

– Topic Outline

Most of you are probably familiar with outlines in general as well as topic outlines but let’s explain to be sure. (If you’re unsure of the format of an outline, check out this great link).

A topic outline is going to consist of key phrases/words for each heading as well as each sub-heading. Here’s a sample based on the Song of Solomon example I used for the brainstorming post a few days back (please ignore the erroneous margins – that’s WordPress, not me).

Thesis: The motif of flight in Song of Solomon represents a conflicted duality of abandonment and freedom.

I. Introduction

A. Flight motif in the novel

1. Flight as in abandonment

2. Flight as in freedom

B. Character analysis

1. Robert Smith

2. Milkman

3. Solomon

And so on and so forth until you’ve mapped out your entire paper in short phrases or even single words. The great thing about the topic outline is that it can really help you organize your thoughts in an easy and uncluttered way.

Now let’s say you’re, oh I don’t know, working on the Extended Essay and find that you’re drowning in information and are feeling stumped as to how to even separate all the different ideas you’ve read, never mind organizing them. No problem! A topic outline can easily help you here since, again, you’re dealing with basic ideas rather than fully fleshed out sentences.

Step 1. Write your research question at the top of your outline page. Woohoo, see I told you this was easy!

Step 2. Grab a separate piece of paper but keep your outline where you can see it. On this new piece of paper, go back to your pouch of prewriting strategies and choose the method that you like the best.

Write down the first 10-15 things that come to mind when you think about your research question. Keep glancing at your question to get inspired. Don’t worry if these ideas are going to make it to the outline or even your final essay. What we want to do at this stage is to get the ideas flowing. You’ve all read enough at this point in the game that this should be a pretty simple task.

Step 3. Once done, look for connections and then connect them with a line, dash, asterisks, whatever makes sense to you.

Step 4. Now that you’ve got your initial ideas narrowed down a bit, look at each grouping and ask yourself: How does this help answer my research question? If it doesn’t, write a b? next to it – it could be helpful for background material so you don’t want to discard it just yet. If it does help answer your research question, write a y next to it, as in yes this absolutely needs to be in your essay somewhere. 

Step 5. Take all of your statements and start looking for connections, patterns, etc. If it helps, re-write each one on an index card so you can move them around into different configurations.

Step 6. Write your outline. Once you’ve organized your y cards into place, all you should need to do at this point is type up your outline. Ta-da!

If you’d like help with your outline, come on in to the Writing Center! We’re here Mon-Fri 2:30-4:30pm. Sign up for an appointment in the Library (see the main counter) or email

Loop de Loop

27 Sep

Continuing the series on prewriting strategies, today’s post is about looping. This strategy is similar to brainstorming/free writing but with a slight tweak. Grab a piece of paper and let’s get to…

– Looping

Write the subject/topic at the top of the page. Set a timer and free write. I’d suggest setting it for 10 minutes max to get started. The most important thing about free writing is to keep your pen or pencil moving the entire time. Don’t censor, edit, criticize, over think; just write. Even if you find yourself writing things like “I don’t know what to write about” or “I’d rather be outside” or whatever, keep that pen a-moving. Ideas will come, trust me.

Once time is up, go over what you’ve just written and circle the ideas/thoughts that interest you the most. Now flip your paper over and write your first circled subject/topic at the top of the page. Set a timer and free write again.

Rinse and repeat until you’ve looped through all of your primary circled ideas.

Once done, you should have a few pages of thoughts. You may only keep a couple of them but this is a quick and easy way to generate a lot of ideas in a short amount of time.

If you’d like help looping, come on in to the Writing Center! We’re here Mon-Fri 2:30-4:30pm. Sign up for an appointment in the Library (see the main counter) or email

Mapping the Mind

26 Sep

Continuing the theme of the brainstorming post, let’s dive into another prewriting strategy – clustering or mind mapping.

This is a strategy that I’m sure many of you have done and, even if you haven’t, you’re undoubtedly familiar with the concept.

– Clustering/Mind Mapping

Write down your main idea/premise in the middle of a piece of paper and circle it. Go beyond the title of the novel, the name of the scientific formula, etc. For instance, gender roles in The Great Gatbsy is going to generate far more interesting connections than just plain ole The Great Gatsby.

(There are mind mapping programs out there but I really recommend sticking with pen and paper – besides the fact that it’s easier to capture your thoughts with pen, it’s so easy to “lose” a thought to a computer screen)

Now, just let the ideas flow. Write all the words/phrases that come to mind around your central circle. Just write. Do NOT edit yourself, do NOT worry about making connections just yet. All you want to do is write.

Once you feel good about what you’ve got down, start making connections. The first connection will be back to your central circle, of course, but look for connections between the sub-circles. Take a look at this for an example.

Not all clusters look alike either so don’t feel you have to follow some formula. Most mind maps start off looking like this but if the herringbone style makes more sense to you, go for it!

If you can’t figure out what to write about, try using a Venn diagram to compare and contrast your two top choices.

Use whichever type of cluster, mind map, diagram, spider map, etc. that works for you!

If you’d like help clustering, come on in to the Writing Center! We’re here Mon-Fri 2:30-4:30pm. Sign up for an appointment in the Library (see the main counter) or email

The Process of Invention

21 Sep

                                © Kimberly Vohsen

I’ve already posted about breaking down your assignment to ensure complete understanding so now let’s move to the next stage of the writing process – prewriting!

Prewriting is the writing you do before your actual writing. Clear as mud, right? Basically, it’s all the work you do in order to be prepared to sit and write your essay. This could be free writing, brainstorming, clustering, etc. A lot of students tend to pick one style and stick with it, which can be perfectly fine.

However, if you find yourself feeling stuck or bored or uninspired, stretch out and try a different approach. Who knows? Looping may bring about an idea that, perhaps, the journalist method would not.

I’ll spend a few posts going into detail for each strategy and, time permitting, provide some worksheets you can use. First up…

– Brainstorming

This is often what starts happening in your brain moments after you get the assignment. “Okay, I need to write a paper about a motif in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. Hmm, maybe flight? The novel starts with a guy thinking he can fly, then Milkman leaves Michigan, oh and, his great-grandpa Solomon escaped enslavement, so that’s another type of flight.” (Should you be lucky enough to be assigned Song of Solomon, I recommend NOT using this idea – it’s been written into the ground).

So, brainstorming (aka free writing) is taking all of those thoughts and writing them down. No organization, no censoring, no cohesion, no editing – just write down any and every thought that comes to mind.

Now, after a few minutes, you’re going to want to start editing yourself, which is the exact opposite point of this exercise. To prevent this from happening, I suggest setting a timer. Maybe start with 2 minutes, step away from your work for a few minutes, another 2 minutes, so on and so forth. This should keep the inner editor at bay.

This is where I plug the Writing Center. It is so much easier just to talk rather than to try to talk and write. You could be the faster typer in the US – your brain is a lot faster.

Reminder: To make an appt, fill out the appt book on the main counter in the Library or email me We’re here Monday-Friday 2:30-4:30pm. Whenever you need to brainstorm, come on in!

LearningExpress Library

20 Sep
“Where can you find software tutorials (for Microsoft or Adobe), practice tests (for citizenship or the SAT, GED, GRE and more), and career guidance, all in one location, for free? Try LearningExpress Library, available anywhere with your library card number and PIN.”
As if you needed another reason to get a library card…well, if you did, here’s a great one!

Understanding Your Assignment

19 Sep

Seems like a simple enough task, right? And it certainly can be as long as you take the time to break it down.

The assignment, more than an outline or brainstorming, is your first step in the writing process. Misinterpreting one thing or another could make any hard work you do after totally pointless, which could result in a bad grade!

Now that we’re done with the scarywarning! part of this post, let’s talk about how you can break an assignment down into its parts.

1) Read it.

– Revelatory, I know, but hear me out. Do not fall into the trap of skimming the assignment while in class, only to read it right before you start the work. Read the assignment ENTIRELY while still in class. Then ask your teacher about anything you do not understand.

2) The Basics.

– Highlight, Underline, or Circle — choose the method that feels right to you & do so to the following:

* Due Date — I recommend writing this down somewhere else, preferably a place you look at often.

* Formatting Requirements — font & font size, page length, etc.

* Content Requirements — aka “the meat” of the assignment. What is the purpose? Is outside research required? What is expected of me?

* Miscellaneous Requirements — for example, will you have to turn in a rough draft? Are extra points possible (say for visiting the Writing Center)? Anything else?

3) The Verbs.

Looking at the verbs used in the assignment will give you a good idea as to how to approach your writing. Check out this link for a handy reference guide for commonly used verbs.

4) What if I’m Still Unsure About Something?

Go to the source & contact your teacher. If that is not possible for whatever reason, come on in to the Writing Center and we can help you!

Follow these steps and you’re well on your way to writing a great paper.


UPDATE: Found a fantastic link that I wanted to be sure to share.

Lord of the Essays: The Fellowship of the Carefully Constructed Sentence

17 Sep

Boromir knows what he’s talking about, whether it be about Mordor or an opening sentence.

Need help crafting that perfect sentence, thesis statement, transitional sentence, etc.?

Then come on in to the Writing Center. Make an appointment in the Library (main counter) or via email

We’re here Monday – Friday 2:30-4:30pm.

Consider us part of your Fellowship!

/okay, that last bit was a bit hokey but you have to admit that’s a great version of a funny meme. Maybe not as good as this one but pretty good.

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