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Narration:  Relating Events

Narration traces the history of a new development or important features of a device, an event, an idea, or an individual.  A narrative relates a series of events.  The events may be real—as in histories or biographies—or imaginary, as in short stories and novels.  Much of academic writing calls for narratives. A narrative makes a point or has a purpose.  The point can be either stated or left unstated, but it always shapes the writing.  Some narratives simply tell what happened or establish an interesting or useful fact.  Most narratives, however, go beyond merely reciting events to delve into motives underlying events or offer lessons and insights.


Action plays a central role in narrative.  Some writing only suggests action, leaving readers to imagine it for themselves.  The narrative action must all relate to the main point—not merely chronicle a series of events.


Conflict and its resolution, if any, is crucial to a narrative since it motivates and often structures the action.  Conflict can be between two different ideas, an individual against another individual, an individual against a group or vice versa.  It can involve the individual against nature or two clashing impulses in one person’s head.

Point of View

Narrative writers may adopt either a first-person or third-person point of view.  In first-person narratives, the reader is more closely aligned with the narrator.  In third person narratives, the narrator remains unmentioned.

Key Events

Any narrative includes many separate events, enough to swamp your narrative boat if you try to pack them all in.  To avoid this outcome, identify and build your narrative around the events that bear directly on your purpose.  Include just enough secondary events to keep the narrative flowing smoothly, but treat them in sketchy fashion.


Dialogue animates many narratives, livening the action and helping to draw the reader into the story.  Written conversation does not duplicate real talk.  Real talk often includes repetition, irrelevant comments, and overuse of expressions.


Description:  Presenting Impressions

Description points out interesting or important features of a device, an event, an idea, or an individual.  Effective description creates sharply etched word pictures of objects, persons, scenes, events, or situations.  Sensory impressions—reflecting sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch—form the backbone of descriptive writing.  They should build toward some dominant impression that the writer wants to evoke. 

Dominant Impression

Skillful writers select and express sensory perceptions in order to create a dominant impression—an overall mood or feeling such as joy, anger, terror, or distaste.  This impression may be identified or left unnamed for the reader to deduce.  A verbal picture of a storm about to strike, for example, might be crafted to evoke feels of fear.

Vantage Point

You may write a description from either a fixed or a moving vantage point.  A fixed observer remains in one place and reports only what can be perceived from there.  A moving observer views things from a number of positions.  Whatever your vantage point, report only what would be apparent to someone on the scene.

Selecting Details

Effective description depends as much on exclusion as on inclusion.  Don’t try to pack every possible detail into your paper by providing an inventory of, for example, a room’s contents or a natural setting’s elements.  Such an approach shows only that you can see, not write.  Select details that deliberately point toward the mood or feeling you intend to create.

Arrangement of Details

Description, like any other writing, must have a clear pattern of organization to guide the reader and help you fulfill your purpose.  Often some spatial arrangement works, such as moving top to bottom, left to right, front to back, nearby to far away, or the reverse of these patterns.  Sometimes a description follows a time sequences, such as morning to evening, season to season, year to year.


Process Analysis:  Explaining How

Process analysis explains what a device or idea does or how it is used, how a procedure is carried out, or how a natural event takes place.  Process analysis frequently helps you meet the writing demands of your courses.  A political science instructor may ask you to explain how your state’s governor won nomination, or a biology instructor may wan an explanation of how bees find their way back to the hive.  Another instructor may call for directions relating to some process in your field:  analyzing a chemical compound, taking fingerprints, or obtaining a blood sample.  A process can be non-technical, historical, scientific, natural, or technical.

Kinds of Process Analysis Papers

Some process analysis papers offer directions for readers who will carry out the procedure.  Other papers detail procedures for audiences that will not perform them.  A process analysis paper directed at non-doers tells how a process is or was performed.  These papers can serve a wide range of purposes—for example, to satisfy popular curiosity; to point up the importance, difficulty or danger of a process; or to cast a process in a favorable or unfavorable light.  Such papers, although quite detailed, do not provide enough information for the reader to perform the task successful.


Illustration:  Making Yourself Clear

Illustration traces changes in meaning and defining abstract terms. Many classroom writing assignments use illustration.  A business student writing a paper on effective management can provide a better grasp of the topic by including examples of successful managers and how they operate.  A paper defining democracy for a political science course will be more effective if it offers examples of several democratic governments.  An explanation of irony for a literature course will gain force and clarity through examples taken from stories and poems.  Large numbers of examples might first be grouped into categories and the categories then arranged in a suitable order.

When brainstorming for examples to use, ask yourself, “What example(s) will work best with my audience?”  Then brainstorm each one for supporting details.

 Example 1                         

First supporting detail          

Second supporting detail          

Example 2                

First supporting detail

Second supporting detail  

   Example 3

First supporting detail

Second supporting detail

Present your examples in the body of your paper, keeping your purpose firmly in mind as you plan your organization.

Classification and division points out the different categories into which an item, an idea, or an event can be grouped. Our minds naturally sort information into categories.  Classification helps writers and readers come to grips with large or complex topics.  It breaks a broad topic into categories according to some specific principle, presents the distinctive features of each category, and shows how the features vary among categories.


Classification: Grouping Into Categories

Our minds naturally sort information into categories. Classification helps writers and readers come to grips with large or complex topics. It breaks a broad topic into categories according to some specific principle, presents the distinctive features of each category, and shows how the features vary among categories.

Comparison and Contrast:  Showing Relationships

Comparison distinguishes between an unfamiliar and a familiar item or idea.  When we compare, we examine two or more items for likenesses, differences, or both.  Any items you compare must share some common ground.  You cannot meaningfully compare a golfer with a car, any more than you can compare guacamole with Guadalajara.  Any valid comparison presents many possibilities.  Successful comparisons rest upon ample, well-chosen details that show just how the items under consideration are alike and differ.  Such support helps the reader grasp your meaning.

You can use either of two basic patterns to organize a comparison paper:  blocking or alternating.  The paper may deal with similarities, differences, or some combination of them.

The Block Pattern

The block pattern first presents all of the points of comparison for one item and then all of the points of comparison for the other.


                                                All specific points about Idea A

                                                All specific points about Idea B


The Alternating Pattern

The alternating pattern presents a point about one item, then follows immediately with a corresponding point about the other.

  First General Point  
    How Idea A relates to it
    How Idea B relates to it
  Second General Point  
    How Idea A relates to it
    How Idea B relates to it
  Third General Point  
    How Idea A relates to it
    How Idea B relates to it

The block pattern works best with short papers or ones that include only a few points of comparison.  The reader can easily remember all the points in the first block while reading the second.  For longer papers that include many points of comparison, use the alternating method.  Discussing each point in one place highlights similarities and differences.  The alternating plan also works well for short papers.

Using Analogy

An analogy, a special type of comparison, calls attention to one or more similarities underlying two different kinds of ideas that seem to have nothing in common.  While some analogies stand alone, most clarify concepts in other kinds of writing.  They follow the same organizational pattern as ordinary comparisons.  An analogy often explains something unfamiliar by likening it to something familiar.  Here is an example:

The atmosphere of earth acts like any window in serving two very important functions.  It lets light in, and it permits us to look out.

Conversely, an analogy sometimes highlights the unfamiliar in order to help illuminate the familiar.  The following paragraph discusses the qualities and obligations of an unfamiliar person, the mountain guide, to shed light on a familiar practice--teaching.

The mountain guide, like the true teacher, has a quiet authority.  He or she engenders trust and confidence so that one is willing to join the endeavor.  The guide accepts his leadership role, yet recognizes that success depends upon the close cooperation and active participation of each member of the group.  He has crossed the terrain before and is familiar with the landmarks, but each trip is new and generates its own anxiety and excitement.

Your readers must be well acquainted with the familiar item.  If they are not, the point is lost.  The items must have significant similarities.  The analogy must truly illuminate.  Overly ambitious analogies, such as one comparing a battle to an argument offer few or no revealing insights.  Over-extended analogies can tax the reader’s endurance.



Cause and Effect: Explaining Why

Cause and effect explains the origins and consequences of ideas, events, conditions, problems, and attitudes. Cause probes the reasons why actions, events, attitudes, and conditions exist.  Effect examines their consequences.  Causation is important to us because it can explain historical events, natural happenings, and the actions and attitudes of individuals and groups.

Several organizational patterns are possible for a causal analysis.  Sometimes a single cause produces several effects.  To explore a single-cause, multiple-effect relationship, construct an outline similar to this:

I.                    Introduction:  Identifies Cause

II.                 Body

A.     Effect Number 1
B.      Effect Number 2
C.     Effect Number 3

III.               Conclusion

Alternatively, you may discuss the cause after the effects are presented.  Several causes may join forces to produce one effect.  Here is how you might organize a typical multiple cause-single effect paper.

I.                    Introduction:  Identifies Effect

II.                 Body

A.     Cause Number 1
B.      Cause Number 2
C.     Cause Number 3

IV.               Conclusion

Sometimes discussion of the effect follows the presentation of the causes.  At times a set of events forms a causal chain, with each event the effect of the preceding one and the cause of the following one.  The following outline typifies the arrangement of a paper explaining a causal chain.

I.                    Introduction

II.                 Body

  A.     Cause
 B.     Effect
  C.    Cause
 D.     Effect

III.               Conclusion

Papers of this kind resemble process analysis, but process is concerned with how the events occur, cause and effect with how.

In many situations the sequence of causes and effects is too complex to fit the image of a chain.  Here is how you might organize a multiple-cause, multiple-effect essay.

I.                    Introduction

II.                 Body

 A.     Cause Number 1
 B.     Cause Number 2
 C.     Cause Number 3
D.     Effect Number 1
E.     Effect Number 2
F.     Effect Number 3

III.               Conclusion

In some situations, however, you might first present the effects, and then turn to the causes.

An effect rarely stems from a single cause.  Do not oversimplify and leave out numerous other factors that played important parts.

Don’t assume that because one event followed another the firs t necessarily caused the second.  One event may cause the next but before you come to your conclusion, make sure that you’re not dealing with mere chronology.

Do not confuse causes with effects. Young children declare that the moving tress make the wind blow.  Scan your evidence carefully in order to avoid such faulty assertions.


Definition:  Establishing Boundaries

To avoid puzzling and provoking your own readers, you will often need to explain the meaning of some term.  The term may be unfamiliar, used in an unfamiliar sense, or mean different things to different people.  Whenever you clarify the meaning of some term, you are defining.  When you define, you identify the features that distinguish a term, thereby putting a fence around it, establishing its boundaries and separating it from all others.  Sometimes a word, phrase, or sentence will settle a definition question.  Abstract terms—those standing for things we cannot see, touch, or otherwise detect with our five senses—often require extended definitions.  The same holds true for some concrete terms—those standing for actions and things we can perceive with our five senses.

Types of Definitions

Three types of definitions—synonym, essential definition, and extended definition—serve writers’ needs. 

Synonyms are words with very nearly the same meanings but because synonyms are not identical twins, using them puts a slightly different shade of meaning on a message.  Still, they provide an easy, convenient means of breaking communication logjams. 

Essential definition does three things: names the item being defined; places it in a broad category; and distinguished it from other items in that category.  Here are some examples:

Item Being Defined  Broad Category     Distinguishing Features
A howclah    is a covered seat      for riding on the back of an elephant
A voiceprint     is a graphical record  of a person’s voice characteristics
To parboil  is to boil meat, vegetables, fruits  until they are partially cooked

Make your essential definitions precise.  Avoid overly narrow definitions that unnecessarily restrict the meaning of the item being defined.

Extended definitions go beyond an essential definition and sometimes need an entire paragraph or page to explain a term.  Extended definitions are not merely academic exercises; they are fundamental to your career and your life.  A police officer needs to know what counts as reasonable grounds for search and seizure; an engineer must comprehend the meaning of stress, and all of us are concerned with the definitions of our basic rights as citizens.  Extended definitions are montages of other methods of development—narration, description, process analysis, illustration, classification, comparison, and cause and effect.  Often they define by negation: explaining what a term does not mean.  Evaluate what methods you might use to develop your definition.  Each method has its own set of special strengths.

Narration:  Tracing the history of a new development or important features of a device, an idea, an event or an individual.

Description:  Pointing out interesting or important features of a device, an event, an idea, or an individual.

Process Analysis:  Explaining what a device or idea does or how it is used, how a procedure is carried out, or how a natural event takes place.

Illustration:  Tracing changes in meaning and defining abstract terms.

Classification:  Pointing out the different categories into which an item, an idea, or an event can be grouped.

Comparison:  Distinguishing between an unfamiliar and a familiar item or idea.

Cause and Effect:  Explaining the origins and consequences of ideas, events, conditions, problems, and attitudes.

Negation:  Placing limitations on conditions and events and correcting popular misconceptions.

Examine your topic in light of this listing and select the methods of development that seem most promising.  Chart the methods you will use and then brainstorm each method to gather the details that will inform the reader.


Mixing the Writing Strategies

Writing strategies seldom occur in pure form.  Familiarize yourself with the individual strategies and use them as needed.


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