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The Two-Page Paper

Assignment: We want you to write a 2 page essay that develops fully an interesting, insightful, tightly focused argument* that engages two texts you've read and/or talked about thus far. Your essay should provide the reader with clear support and with argumentation that fully justifies your conclusions, and it should be written in a style that is both felicitous and sophisticated. Its argument should be both complex and clear.

"I don't know what you want; I don't know what you're looking for" -- If by this statement you mean: "I don't know what specific content, in what specific form, you want," the answer is: "we don't either." There is no magic formula, no single right reading, no set model for a great essay. Having said that, here's what we don't want: Don't simply repeat what we said in lecture or class -- we already know what we said in class; we're the ones who said it. We want to hear what you think; what your ideas are.
Feel free, however, to take something we said in class and explain it further or expand on its implications, using your own reading or experience for support.

Most Important: At any and all of the process below, help is available if you need it. Talk to your TA (during office hours, not the night before the paper is due), check out the Undergraduate Writing Center (FAC 211; take this description with you), or visit the UT Learning Center (Jester).

The one thing you must do in your essays:
  • Make a connection using two texts studied – put “this and that together” – and explain both the details and the significance of that connection (Note: one of these "texts" can be a detailed rendering of personal experience)
Other things you can do in your essays:
  • Locate yourself in a conversation (from section, from lecture, from your reading, from life)

  • Agree with a writer and extend his or her ideas with your own examples

  • Ask a question, then answer it

  • Reconstruct a “light bulb moment” you had while reading

What you CANNOT do:

  • "Disagree" with an author and go off on a rant

  • Analyze a single text

How to get started:

  • Go to your reading journals, and find the point in your reading that engaged you the most. (Note: if the point that engaged you the most was something said in class or in lecture, go back to your journal and find out what you originally said about it. If it is a point you missed or misread, look back at the work and figure out why you missed or misread it. Use the left-hand page to write down what you discover.)

  • Look back in the text and find out what was said there that made you say what you said. Does the text actually say what you say it says? Do you still agree with what you wrote originally? Why or why not? What would you write in your journal now?

  • When you've settled on a statement you can live with, you need to ask yourself "is this simply a statement of fact?" (for example, does it merely repeat what gets said in the text or retell an incident that occurs in the text?) or does it in some way provide a commentary or present an opinion on the text? Another way to think about this step is to ask yourself does my argument make explicit something that I see as implicit either in this text or between two texts? Keep thinking about this point in the text until you can formulate an argument that provides some commentary or opinion.

  • Now you need to ask yourself two vital questions: what is my argument? and why is it important?

    Remember, your essay should be an individual, not a personal, response to the reading. You might think the protagonist in "Mr. & Mrs. Elliott" is a twit (and he might be), but a good paper will explore why his being a twit is important (to an idea of masculinity exemplified in another story, to Nabokov's idea of the author as teacher, etc.). You might personally disagree with Frost about the importance of metaphor, but why is your disagreement important?

  • Reread the entire text and find all of the evidence that led you to this conclusion. Begin also to think about how and why you came to the conclusion you did. You should also look for evidence that might contradict or work against your argument.

  • Keep asking yourself those two vital questions: what is my argument? and why is it important? Write and re-write your response until you can articulate a clear answer to these questions in two or three sentences. You do not necessarily need to write these statements explicitly in your essay, but it should be clear to a reader of your essay what your argument is and why you think it is important. Remember, if you can't clearly explain to someone exactly what your argument is (and why it's important), odds are that a reader won't know what it is either.

  • Ask yourself, "is this an argument I can make in two pages?" If not, narrow your focus. You probably can't say much in two pages about all of "Education by Poetry," but you might be able to develop a nice argument about the Self-Belief in that space.

  • Repeat the above process until you've arrived at what you think is a workable argument with a reasonable amount of support to back it up.

  • Now you need to ask yourself the most important question in writing, "who is my audience?" Your audience, of course, is your TA, and you can assume that your TA has read the text you're talking about but has not formulated any opinions or conclusions about it. You need to show your audience the evidence and support that led you to your conclusions and explain how and why you came to the conclusions you did. Just because you assert something (no matter how strongly you assert it) doesn't mean that your audience will be convinced of your assertion. Just because you read a certain line in a certain way doesn't mean that your audience will read it in exactly the same way. Make sure that your argument doesn't rest on assumptions that your audience may not share or that you haven't clearly articulated. You have to convince your audience that your argument is a sound one.

  • "What is the most effective way to present my argument?" There are as many answers to this question as there are writers of essays and arguments to be argued. Still, here are some general tips:

    • Write in a style and voice that is easy, natural, and clear. You're not a 17th century scholar; don't try and sound like one.
    • Say what you mean and mean what you say. This might sound simple, but it's the hardest thing to make your writing do.
    • Present your argument in a clear, coherent order. Don't jump from point to point without telling your audience where you're going.

Remember: Writing is a process. It involves thinking, reading, writing, rereading, rethinking, and rewriting. Like a work of art (which it is), it is never finished; only abandoned. It's a grueling, painful thing, especially when we have to throw away something that we've already written, but it's the only way we can really know what we think and communicate that thinking to others.

Finally, here are a few rules on "How to Write" from Colson Whitehead.

Format: First and final drafts must be typewritten or word-processed. Use a title page with the following information: your name, your TA's name, course and unique #, date, paper number, and paper title. Use space-and-a-half for the text of the paper, with 1 inch margins all the way around the text. Use only 10 or 12 pt. plain fonts (Times 12 or Geneva 10 are good models). Do not justify on the right hand side. Please staple the pages together. Do not use Headers or Footers with your name in them and do not put the title on the 1st page of the text.

Computers are available at the Student Microcomputer Facility (SMF, or "Smurf,") on the 2nd floor of the Flawn Academic Center (FAC), also known as theUndergraduate Library (UGL). You should get a user account with the SMF as soon as you can.

Become familiar with computing resources. Some departments provide computer labs; check with your advisor. There is also a list of computer locations (and other student resources) in The Student Guide to First-Year Writing, 3rd edition; eds. Englund, Sheryl and Shannon Prosser (available at local bookstores).

Scholastic dishonesty: Turning in work that is not your own, or any other form of scholastic dishonesty, will result in a major course penalty, including possible failure of the course. A report of the incident will be made to the Office of the Dean of Students. Do not use editing services other than those offered by the Undergraduate Writing Center (FAC 211) or the UT Learning Center, where approved tutors are trained to help you resolve your own problems so that all your writing reflects what you have learned. If you have any questions about your work, talk to your TA or check out the Academic Integrity Site at Student Judicial Services and the Statement on Scholastic Responsibility at the DRW.

You are not expected to use any sources or research for your papers, but if you do, you must provide your TA with photocopies or printouts of all sources you use. If you have any questions about the use you are making of sources for your assignments, see your TA before you turn in the paper. And here's some suggestions for the Appropriate Use of Wikipedia.

Complaints: Bring any questions you have to your TA first. Questions about grades must be presented in writing within one week. You should state your claim and provide reasons for it. Complaints or concerns will be resolved in a meeting with me (Bremen), you, and your TA.

By the way, here's what an argument is not; some sample essays; the exercise on "Writing an Argument" that we went through in lecture with "
The Revolutionist"; and some logical fallacies, courtesy of Sheridan Baker's Practical Stylist. And (ouch) conservative columnist David Brooks takes Harriet Miers to task for her inability to "write clearly and argue incisively."

Here's the Two-Page Paper Grading Guide, a Paper Proposal worksheet, and some more guidance on
how to write an argument from Purdue University's Online Writing Lab, along with advice from Dartmouth's Writing Program and Harvard's Writing Center.

*As Michael Palin says in the Monty Python video, an argument is "an intellectual process." It's "a connected series of statements intended to establish a proposition." Does your argument:

  • Attempt to answer (or at least to explore) a challenging intellectual question?

  • Is the point you're making one that would generate discussion and argument, or is it one that would leave people asking, "So what?"

  • Is your argument too vague? Too general? Should you focus on some more specific aspect of your topic?

  • Does your argument deal directly with the topic at hand, or is it a declaration of your personal feelings?

  • Does your argument indicate the direction of your essay? Does it suggest a structure for your paper?

  • Does your introductory paragraph define terms important to your argument?

  • Is the language in your argument vivid and clear?

Finally, if you're still having trouble getting started, here's a great piece that answers the question, Where Do Sentences Come From? and another entitled, "The Essay, an Exercise in Doubt."

The Two Page Paper Checklist

In descending order of importance, consider these questions:

1. Can you easily determine what is the argument here and why is it important?

2. Does the essay maintain a consistent focus on that argument or does it stray off its stated or implied purpose?

3. Is the development of the argument clear, purposeful, and substantial?
Clear: you can see a progression from one point to the next
Purposeful: each paragraph has a discernible function in developing that argument
Substantial: sufficient support and explanation is shown to the reader

4. Does the writer maintain coherence between paragraphs? between sentences?

5. Do individual sentences convey their meaning clearly?

6. Are individual words used properly? Are they le mot juste? (For example, how many times--and in how many forms--do you use the verb "to be"?)

7. Search for “this,” “it,” “is,” “was,” and “were”: clarify any ambiguous pronoun references and make verbs more active and precise.

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