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Hacking Writing / Research: How To


Image by Nick Morrison @nickmorrison

For the template, click here


Introduction


I have been helping people improve their writing for a long time. This template and the step-by-step instructions are the result of that work. The approach has been tested under a variety of circumstances. I hope it helps you. If you have ideas for improving it, please let me know. I keep updating as needs change and I learn more.


The template makes bad writing better. The more time you put in, the greater the results, but using these simple steps will make significant improvement with little effort. If you want to be a great writer you will have to spend the time to discover and refine your craft, but this template is not about becoming a great writer. This template is about constantly improving. If all you do is use the template to frame your work, your work will improve. Don’t expect that you’ll get an A or win a writing prize for using this the template, but you can count on progress.


Note: there is a section on using this approach for tests at the bottom of the page.


How to Use the Template

The template allows you to create a coherent document. You can use it for letters, memos and other kinds of writing. If you want to use it for research or professional writing you will need to consider the sections below on research and evidence. If you do not need research in your paper just skip down to the section on paragraphs.



How to Do It: Research

  • Use the rule of three: – three is the smallest number that can support connected meaning. That makes it logically powerful, intellectual engaging, and simple;

  • Some people say that essays are not creative; they are wrong. The five-paragraph structure is a set of fundamentals that will set you free if you master them, or help you be clearer with less work if you are inexperienced or just don’t care about essays as much as other areas of your work;

  • Study the material you are writing about, and mark or make lists of items you could use as examples. Pick anything that stands out, and don’t worry why, just mark it and keep going;

  • Sometimes during the process ideas or questions will emerge, note them

  • Once you’ve been working for a while stop and ask, “What stands out forme when I explore this material?”

  • Be precise. The idea you decide to develop needs to be focused enough to hold interest. Things like “women in Art” or “conflict in Film” are too broad to hold an argument. This is an area of interest, not a topic or question. Whenever you say something in an essay ask yourself, “is this about what I am studying, or could it be said about any number of topics?” If what you are saying is so general it could be about anything, you need greater focus;

  • Go back to the examples you marked or recorded. Do they connect to what you think of when you ask what stands out forme?

  • Do you have a question, or an idea about the text? If not, get one. (That may mean studying more, or going for a walk, or going to sleep and trusting that your brain will come up with something. If you studied the material your brain will do the work for you, so trust it, don’t force it. Be ready to take notes if you wake up in the middle of the night or get an idea while walking across campus. Remember that whenever you have a good idea one part of your brain will tell you, “I don’t need to record this; it’s such a good idea that I will remember it.” That part of your brain is a liar who wants to destroy you. Ignore it and make a quick note, draw an image or record a voice comment into your phone.)

  • Once you have your question or idea, test it with your examples. Does your idea or question connect to the evidence from your studies? If not, you need to keep going. Do not get frustrated, we get lots of great ideas, we are just waiting for one that can be supported by direct textual evidence in order to create a coherent essay;

  • Once you find a question or idea that really does connect to your evidence, look at the areas you marked or recorded and ask, “Are there three areas that could be used to support my idea or deepen my question? If not, go back to your material and find them, or get a new question / idea. (An idea that does not connect to your evidence is what’s called “unsupported”). If you have more than three, see if you can find three that are markedly more important, or try and mix some areas;

  • Once you have your question or idea, and you three areas of examples, rank the three areas from least to most interesting; least will be paragraph two, middle will be paragraph three, most will be paragraph four;

  • Now put your examples from your studies into three groups:

  1. Paragraph one examples;

  2. Paragraph two examples;

  3. Paragraph three examples.

  • Look at each cluster and determine which should be direct quotations and which should be paraphrases. In general, you will want two paraphrases and one quote per paragraph;

  • Pick three citations for each paragraph;

  • Take each set of three, and rank them from least to most significant; least will be your second sentence, middle your third, and most will be your fourth.


How to Do It: Evidence

  • Grab the template, and save it, then save a new version of it using the title for the project you want to work on;

  • Take your idea / question, and replace the first part of your title with it, leave the second part of the title for now;

  • Now grab your evidence:

  1. Replace the second sentence of your second paragraph with the first piece of evidence from your first area;

  2. Replace the third sentence of your second paragraph with your second piece of evidence from your first area;

  3. Replace your fourth sentence of your second paragraph with your third piece of evidence from your first area;

  4. Replace the second sentence of your third paragraph with the first piece of evidence from your second area;

  5. Replace the third sentence of your third paragraph with your second piece of evidence from your second area;

  6. Replace your fourth sentence of your third paragraph with your third piece of evidence from your second area;

  7. Replace the second sentence of your fourth paragraph with the first piece of evidence from your third area;

  8. Replace the third sentence of your fourth paragraph with your second piece of evidence from your third area;

  9. Replace your fourth sentence of your fourth paragraph with your third piece of evidence from your third area;

  • Hit save and celebrate, you’ve got all your evidence in place;

  • A note about your evidence: keep track of where your quotes come from in your source(s). When working on one source, you may not have to give direct notes about which page they are from, but often you will want to add a page number, or line number in the case of poetry, formulas or code, if it helps the reader follow up.

How to Do It: Paragraphs

  • Go to your second paragraph;

  • Look at what the template says;

  • See if you can see a path from the first sentence to the last;

  • Write your first sentence as an invitation to that path;

  • Write your final sentence as an explanation of that path;

  • Now, go to each example, and try to write a sentence that introduces us to that example and helps us understand how it is a necessary part of our journey. It can be tough to get these to sound smooth because you are blending your voice and that of someone else, so don’t worry if it sounds a little clunky at first;

  • Hit save, take a break, and celebrate;

  • Repeat for third paragraph;

  • Hit save, take a break, and celebrate;

  • Repeat for fourth paragraph;

  • Hit save, take a break and celebrate.

How to Do It: Conclusion

  • Go to your second paragraph and copy the final sentence, use it to replace the second sentence of your final paragraph;

  • Go to your third paragraph and copy the final sentence, use it to replace, the third sentence in your final paragraph;

  • Go to you fourth paragraph and copy the final sentence, use it to replace the fourth sentence in your final paragraph;

  • Read the instructions in the template for the first sentence of your final paragraph;

  • Rewrite your first sentence as if you are recounting an incredible adventure about your journey through the path of your essay;

  • Read the instructions in the template for the final sentence of your final paragraph;

  • Rewrite the final sentence of the template as if what you learned from your journey has left you inspired by a deeper understanding of the material, or with more questions that you want to consider;

  • Go back to your three copied sentences and rewrite them as part of your reflection on the amazing journey through your ideas, think of it as if you are telling the story of an extraordinary trip and how great it was to encounter evidence along the way that helped you and gave you deeper connection to the work;

  • Hit save, take a break and celebrate, you’ve got a conclusion.


How to Do It: Introduction

  • Take a moment to freak out about how weird it is that you write the first thing last, it’s what you have to do, but it always seems weird;

  • Go to your second paragraph and copy the first sentence, use it to replace the second sentence of your first paragraph;

  • Go to your third paragraph and copy the first sentence, use it to replace, the third sentence in your first paragraph;

  • Go to you fourth paragraph and copy the first sentence, use it to replace the fourth sentence in your first paragraph;

  • Read the instructions in the template for the first sentence of your first paragraph;

  • Rewrite your first sentence as if you are inviting people to join you on an incredible adventure on a path through your mind;

  • Read the instructions in the template for the last sentence of your first paragraph;

  • Rewrite the final sentence of the template as if you are speculating about what you might find or learn from this journey, use suspense about what you might find

  • Go back to your three evidence sentences in the middle of the paragraph and rewrite them as if you cannot wait to explore them to see if they will help you on your journey through your ideas;

  • Hit save, take a break and celebrate, you’ve got an introduction.


Ninja Level: Transitions and Title

  • Open the template and look at the instructions for the title, the first and last sentences of every paragraph, and for the finalsentence;

  • Open youressay;

  • Read your title, your first and last sentences of every paragraph and your concludingsentence;

  • Think about how all your ideasconnect;

  • Rewrite:

  1. The final sentence of paragraph one and the first sentence of paragraph two in order to make sure they connect. The final sentence must make us want to read the next sentence and the first sentence of the next paragraph must directly address thatdesire;

  2. The final sentence of paragraph two and the first sentence of paragraph three in order to make sure they connect. The final sentence must make us want to read the next sentence and the first sentence of the next paragraph must directly address thatdesire;

  3. The final sentence of paragraph three and the first sentence of paragraph four in order to make sure they connect. The final sentence must make us want to read the next sentence and the first sentence of the next paragraph must directly address that desire;

  4. The final sentence of paragraph four and the first sentence of paragraph five in order to make sure they connect. The final sentence must make us want to read the next sentence and the first sentence of the next paragraph must directly address that desire;

  • Think about how you have connected the path through your paper

  • Rewrite your conclusion so to capture the new energy you found in the transitions; there will not be a lot to do, it is about finding a few small improvements that take the paper to the next level

  • Rewrite your introduction so that it captures the power that is in your paper. You’ve taken the time to research it, think about it, build it, support it with evidence and then you went back to make sure that their path through your work is easy to follow: they are going to love this and you want to try and capture that with a real sense of invitation.

  • Go back to your title

  • Find some perfect phrase or quote from you source that can stand in for your idea in the first part of the title, paste it in;

  • Now, think about all the nuance you found in the work you have done, find a short phrase that helps explain that to your reader, paste it in;

  • Look at your title and think of it this way: the first part catches the reader, the second part explains what they will find if they join you. Rewrite accordingly;

  • You no longer need to hit save because at Ninja-level computers obey your thoughts;

  • Just kidding, hit save, take a break, and celebrate. You’re a ninja!


Ninja Level: Editing

  • If you get to this level, you might be a writer;

  • Recognize that if you want to pursue any career path that involves communicating information editing is the most important part;

  • Recognize that very few students or professors spend time on this level;

  • Recognize that’s why almost all essays suck;

  • Recognize that if you do not want to edit, there is a much easier way to complete this level: find another Ninja and ask them, “Hey can you read this?” It is hard to edit your own work. Offer to read other people’s papers if they will read yours. Repeat this tactic for the rest of your life;

  • If you can read your own work, look for repetition. If you keep using the same word, see if you can find another one, use a thesaurus if you have to;

  • See if you can eliminate words, the more precise the better;

  • Delete every use of the word“very”

  • Expand contractions;

  • Do not begin sentences with the word “This” unless is directly refers to something as in “This argument is famous,” rather than saying something like, “This proves…” This doesn’t prove anything. When you use this alone it is called a non-referential this, and it undercuts your flow;

  • Read your paper out loud and replace all words that you would never use; if you say “heretofore, whereas, or hence” in regular conversation you can use them, otherwise use language that makes sense coming from you.


Heavy Metal Rock Star Ninja Level: Leave your Mark

  • Your essay is now a perfect, poetic, expressive machine;

  • Go back in and add a few things that shake it up;

  • Add an extra sentence somewhere that allows you to expand one of your points;

  • Think back to your research and remember any examples that keep coming up in your mind but did not make it to the essay. See if they could spice up the intro or the conclusion and include them as an opener to those pieces (second sentence for first paragraph or first or second for final);

  • Think back to your research and find a quote that is amazing and tells the whole story (though in a hard to interpret way until you understand the whole piece) insert that as an opening quote before the formal body of the essay.


Neo Level: Beginning to Believe

  • Understand this pattern works for everything - you can divide any size project this way and adapt as you go;

  • Realize no one will tell you writing is easy because it's not. Improving writing is easy.


How to Do It: Tests

Students often ask how to use this approach for essays on tests or under a time crunch. The best idea is to remember the rule of three and the order of composition. When you start the test, read the question, pick three examples or areas of focus (see below for more on the rule of three and evidence) and leave the first page blank. Write your three areas, then your conclusion. Once you are done, go to the blank first page and write in your introduction explaining what you are going to write about and listing the three areas you will focus on along with something that connects to your conclusion.


If your test involves a certain body of content, you may be worried about remembering the references you may need. Try using a mnemonic – or memory device – such as a sentence that contains the first letters of all the terms you need to remember. Often, people will use a sentence that they can sing like a song, or that is a dirty poem. It sounds silly, but these kinds of sentences are easier for us to remember under pressure. Start out by listing all the key terms you need to know. Next, take the first letter of each and come up with a sentence that you can remember. When you start the test write that sentence into your exam book then use it to help you remember the key terms you need for the test.

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