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Looking for Essays and Assignments!

posted: 5.2.11 by archived

In today’s blog post, instead of offering something, I’m going to ask for something. What a rip-off, I know!

I am the coauthor, with John Ruskiewicz, of How to Write Anything with Readings. We’re currently working on the second edition of the book, along with a special electronic version.  We’re reaching out to instructors and to students—whether you have used the book or not.

We’re looking for additional assignments and student essays, and hope you might be willing to share some of the teaching materials you have used, along with some of the student work from your classes. Here are the specific types of assignments we need:

  • Profiles
  • Letters to the Editor
  • Abstracts
  • Speeches
  • Blog Posts
  • Podcasts/Webcasts
  • Brochures
  • Pamphlets
  • User Documentation/Instructions
  • Process/How To
  • Mission Statements
  • Business Memos
  • Progress Reports
  • Poster Presentations

Also, we’d like student essays in the following genres: Causal Analyses, Reports, Literary Analyses, and Rhetorical Analyses.

If a student essay is included in the new editions, Bedford/St. Martin’s can pay the teacher and the student $100 each. We can also offer $50 for any syllabi that we use. We won’t be able to use all of the content we receive, but will try to use as much as possible.

Our goal here is twofold: help one another become even better teachers, and reward excellent teachers and students. We’re eager to see both your assignments and your students’ work.

Thanks in advance for any materials you can share. If you have any questions just let me know.  You can e-mail materials to me at

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Writing About Food

posted: 2.5.10 by archived

In the readings section for How To Write Anything, there are several essays that examine food: food as site of family or cultural tradition, food science and economics, and even reviews of food.  I like reading and talking about food and I find students do, too.

So I thought I’d borrow some ideas from the book and create a few short prompts to share some ways we might assign food-oriented writing assignments.

Narrative: Personal Food History

Choose one important dish that has been passed along in your family or your culture.  Do some research: Ask the cooks you know to tell you more about the dish; try to find out a bit about the history of its ingredients and their cultural significance; compare this recipe to versions of the dish in other cultures.  You might use Internet resources such as,, or Finally, reflect on what you’ve learned and write about it.  What does the cultural history of what you eat say about who you are?

If you want some examples to share with students, try The American Cookbook Project, “a forum for sharing food stories. People from across the country are invited to share their favorite recipes and memories associated with this dish. This is not simply an online cookbook but a collection of memories and recollections of great meals from the past.”

Research Paper: Where Does Your Food Come From?

Create a food map.  Choose ingredients for a small meal and then do some research to find out where your food has come from. If you can find company names, you should be able to do some Internet research.  Then, find out what you can about how and where some of the key ingredients in your meal were produced. Use what you know about how and where your food was produced to ground an evaluation or review of your meal in the facts about its production.

Michael Pollan’s blog for the NY Times might be a resource that you assign for reading and discuss with students to prepare for this assignment.

Students also might be interested in the Factory Farm Map, sites like Local Harvest, or a Food Miles Calculator.

Review: Food Critic

You can write your review of a restaurant, or you can review a food product that you buy from the supermarket.  In either case, you’ll need to spend a small amount of money on your primary research: Buy a meal or purchase the product.  As you eat, make sure that you take lots of notes: observe sensory details, record dialogue (if appropriate), and so on.  As you write your review, try to recreate the experience of eating for your reader—be objective and give lots of thick description.  You can have an opinion, but try to balance your opinion so that your reader can also make up her or his own mind based on the information you provide.

McSweeney’s has fun and unconventional examples of food reviews, and more standard reviews can be found at the New York Times site, or the Web home for Gourmet magazine.

Proposal: New Food Ideas

This is a more creative assignment that asks you to write about a new food idea.  Be inventive: What food do you make for yourself that everyone should try?  What new food technology would you like to see?  What new combinations would make great recipes?  What is the future of food?  Then think about what the positive impact might be of this new food, as well as the challenges you might face in creating it.  What do you need to do to make this food a reality, and then to get others to eat it?  Write a proposal that supports your idea.

And then, just for fun, here is a video about NOT writing about food, featuring Cookie Monster.

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Categories: Assignment Idea, Critical Reading, How to Write Anything, Jay Dolmage, Writing Process
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Encouraging Academic Honesty

posted: 12.11.09 by archived

As the fall semester draws to a close, I thought it might be useful to post about plagiarism and academic honesty.  This is a time of year that I like to have some final discussions about the issue, to prepare writing students  to fully understand the rules of citation and the standards of honesty in academic discourse as they leave my class.

So I want to share a couple of things.

First of all, I follow the lead of scholars like Rebecca Moore Howard, who warn against the tendency to become a plagiarism police officer.  I always hope to get students to think critically about plagiarism themselves. So I’ve created a list of scenarios or “case studies” for class discussion.  The majority of these scenarios aim for the gray areas in discussions about plagiarism.  Here are two examples:

“You have been citing from two books by an author named Clark.  When you rewrite the essay, you add in several more quotes from your notes.  But you have returned both Clark books to the library.  You can’t remember which quotes came from which book, and your notes are no help.  In fact, you realize that much of the time, you didn’t even write down page numbers beside the quotes and information you need to use.  So you add the new citations, and you guess the page numbers and work as best you can.”

Wikipedia quotes from a book.  You use the quote in your paper and you cite the book and not Wikipedia, making it look like you read the book.”

The goal in discussing these scenarios is not to clearly dictate to students what is right and wrong, but rather to try to realistically discover actual writing scenes and tough decisions, and then to have students animate them with ethical questions.  Students are given the responsibility to decide what the rules should be.

I am attaching the entire list of scenarios here as a file you can download.

I like to cut each scenario out, fold the slips of paper and put them in a hat.  In groups of three or four, students pull a scenario and discuss it as a group before presenting to the rest of the class on their conversation: Was their scenario an example of plagiarism?  If so, what should a student do differently to ensure academic honesty?

One other fun activity to do with these scenarios is to give each group several slips of paper.  In each group, ask the students to organize the scenarios they have based on degrees of honesty, from most honest to most dishonest.  Then, as a whole class, work to arrange ALL of the scenarios according to this scale.  This can lead to interesting discussions and negotiations.

I have also discussed these scenarios in the graduate Composition Pedagogy class I teach to first-year graduate student teachers at WVU.  In this class, following discussion of these scenarios, we have worked together to generate a more comprehensive “academic honesty contract” for our writing students.  I will attach an example of this contract, authored by the English 609 students at West Virginia University here for you to download.

This contract, as you’ll see, goes beyond the agreement that “I won’t plagiarize.”  It covers a lot of the gray areas, so that there is less doubt about how to ethically approach citation and plagiarism issues.

In your own writing classes, you could use discussions of the scenarios to generate your own “academic honesty contract” with your students.  I ask my own writing students to sign the contract and submit it with all of the final drafts of their essays.

Good luck with the end of the semester!

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Stasis, Movement, and "A Place to Stand"

posted: 12.1.09 by archived

In the spirit of recent posts by Barclay Barrios and Traci Gardner that described secret formulae and favorite lessons, I thought I would write about an activity that has become a favorite of mine.

I have used this activity to introduce the idea of stasis.  In argument theory stasis means a “stand,” from the Greek “standing still.”  In rhetoric, stasis calls for the rhetor to consider key questions that might clarify an issue.  In this way, a “stand” also calls for us to decide what might make an audience move in one direction or another.  When we are in a state of stasis, we might be sitting on the fence, we might be “standing still,” but we are also perhaps curious about where we might move next.  When we identify stases we see where and why people take a stand on an issue, why they disagree, and what might make them change their minds. The Sophists taught that identifying stasis was the best way to understand where an argument should begin.

I like to talk about stasis when teaching argument because I think stasis theory sometimes nicely frames the way I feel about an issue, and the way students may feel too: We aren’t sure yet exactly where we weigh in, we don’t have a “side,” but we are interested in knowing why others take a stand on the issue.  Looking for stasis is a way to value the process of questioning, exploring, and researching the aspects of an issue that lead people to argue or act.

Stasis theory and teaching based on it doesn’t devalue having a strong opinion or taking a strong stance.  Instead, this approach looks at why people take such stands, and what questions and arguments lead to changes in position.

Okay, so the above definition may still leave many wondering what exactly stasis is.  Maybe I haven’t defined it very well!  Or maybe it is just a tricky concept to explain.  Because of this, I try to illustrate the concept through active learning.  If you have an open classroom, then you’ll need to move some desks and chairs; I’ve also moved into the hallway to do this activity if I’ve needed more room.

I choose an issue that is contentious—but not totally divisive.  Issues like year-round schooling, or a four-day workweek might be good examples (the death penalty might not be the best issue for this activity).  Then, I ask students to arrange themselves in the space according to their opinions: take a “stand.”  If you are for year-round schooling, stand to the left of the room (or hall); if you are against it, stand to the right.  If you are really against it, move all the way to the farthest right; stand near the middle if you don’t have much of an opinion yet.  Then, each student states why they are standing where they are standing—what aspect of the issue makes them stand where they are?  Other students can then move if this reasoning makes them change their own position. If I say that I am against year-round schooling because I loved all of the freedom and I learned so much from just playing during my summers as a kid, this opinion may sway some classmates to move over in my direction, or it might not.  Another student might say that he or she is against year-round schooling because children forget much of what they have learned from year-to-year.  This may or may not cause others to move.  We can pay attention to small positional differences, too—why are we just slightly to the left or right of one another?

In this way, as a group, we see what the key questions are, and we see how opinions are formed and altered.  The “debate” is embodied through our movements.  We come to see where an argument begins, and what makes people form opinions.  Whether we call this stasis or not, this is an interesting way to reveal the complexity of an issue, and set students up to identify this complexity when they choose their own issues to research and write about.

Later, once students have begun working on their own research or argumentative essays, they can workshop their topics through this “place to stand” activity—the whole class can again occupy a range of positions, and the student can list key questions, considerations, and viewpoints while the class responds by moving and putting the issue into action.

If you want to go further with this activity, you could also use the true classical categories for stasis analysis. Dorinda Fox (in an awesome blog on comedy and rhetoric) also has excellent analyses of Chris Rock’s and George Carlin’s uses of stasis, for further reading.  Helen Foster’s article in Composition Forum also looks at how stasis theory can be used in the contemporary classroom.

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The Good, The Bad, and Paula Abdul

posted: 11.12.09 by archived

Many of us assign “evaluation” essays in our writing classes.  These can be smaller assignments in which students are asked to evaluate a text or event, or they could be longer more sustained evaluations; we might assign movie reviews, or collaborative policy evaluations.  But even if we don’t assign “evaluations” explicitly, the skills of summarizing, assessing, and critiquing are important for all writers, and so there is usually some form of evaluative writing in any composition class if we look hard enough.  For this post, I want to suggest a research strategy, a teaching tip, and an in-class activity that I have used in the past to introduce and practice evaluation.

Research Strategy: Find The Worst Evaluation

Obviously, students have access to hundreds of evaluations online, just as they have access to hundreds of texts for evaluation.  These resources can be beneficially used in the writing classroom, so long as students don’t feel overwhelmed by the amount of opinion that can be found online.  One activity that can reinforce students’ authority to speak, and can help them understand what a good evaluation is, is to ask students to find the worst evaluations that they can online (hint: YouTube video reviews are great place to start).  It is shocking how many online evaluations—found on blogs, but even on reputable sites devoted to reviewing cultural texts—offer very little practical information to the reader.  A great in-class discussion can revolve around enumerating the ways an evaluation can be “bad”—lack of specificity, readily-apparent personal bias, and so on.  These “bad” evaluative qualities can then be contrasted with a list of goals for writing good evaluations.

Teaching Tip: Video Evaluations

As mentioned above, for every YouTube video online, there are several (to several hundred) video responses.  Generally, these aren’t good examples of reasoned, intelligent criticism. But these responses exist because it is increasingly easy to create them.  Any computer with a camera prepares the user to create a quick response and post it.  If you have the technology, you can do so in your classes.  This could be a pre-writing activity, to record a student’s initial, off-the-cuff ideas about a product or text, as YouTube users do (though hopefully with a bit more thought).  Or, the final product of this assignment could be a carefully organized, composed, revised, and polished video evaluation.  This could even be posted to YouTube.

Activity: American Idol Evaluations

One of the reasons that the television show American Idol is so popular (and also, perhaps, one of the reasons it is also disliked) is that the judges on the show fall into predictable roles.  One judge is mean and terse, one judge is generous and emotional, and one judge offers real, constructive, musical feedback.  (Of course, I am referring here to the pre-Kara DioGaurdi Idol judges; it has yet to be seen how the new roles will shake out now that Paula is leaving and Ellen is joining.  You can rest assured that your students will have their own theories about the new roles, and this is good—they can help with this activity, then.)  The three (or four) roles work well together, because they seem to balance one another out.  When pre-writing for an evaluation, students might be asked to write, or deliver an evaluation orally, from each of these three perspectives.  This activity allows students to recognize a range of possible views and values.  It also can help students begin to write when they feel they haven’t yet found an evaluative voice.

Also, consider that of the original three American Idol judges, one speaks with a British accent and a snotty, elevated tone, one speaks in clichés, and one speaks in slang. These could be seen as exaggerated “high,” “middle,” and “low” styles.  Students could experiment with writing reviews in these three different styles as well, before they finally decide on which is best for them, based on their focus and the audience they want to reach.

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"Remixing Research"

posted: 10.26.09 by archived

The upcoming 2010 College Composition and Communication Conference theme is “The Remix: Revisit, Rethink, Revise, Renew” (the conference will be held March 17-20, in Louisville, Kentucky). As Gwendolyn Pough explains in the call for papers for the conference, “Whether it’s taking the old and making it fresh and new or taking the current and giving it a different spin, to remix a thing is to try and make it better.”

In this post, I want to suggest ways that we can remix student perspectives on research.  I want to talk about student research strategies, specifically online strategies—and share some ideas for how students can use unconventional research techniques to end up with excellent search results.

Steering Through Wikipedia, Instead of Steering Clear

Generally, if we don’t tell students to avoid Wikipedia as a research source, this is the first place they will go.  They may gather research that is much too general or that is not reliable.  Worse, they might plagiarize directly from Wikipedia, or write an essay that sounds like one long paraphrase of a Wikipedia article.  One way to address this is to lie down right in the lion’s den—to actually start research with Wikipedia.

A Wikipedia entry is itself a remix of all of the general knowledge about an issue.  But each Wikipedia article also includes all of the material that has been used to make this remix.  For instance, at the bottom of most lengthy Wikipedia entries, you can find a list of “Notes and References” and resources for “Further Reading.”  For instance, the entry on “Global Warming,” as of October 2009, had 180 “Notes and References.”  Students can sort through these references and divide them according to their assumed reliability and authority, and you can help them see that some sources are more useful and acceptable than others—and you can show them why.  Many “Notes and References” and resources for “Further Reading” lead students directly to very reliable full-print texts that they can access to jump-start their own research.

CQ Researcher: Reliable Reports

CQ Researcher is like Wikipedia‘s reliable cousin.  When writing a researched or argumentative paper, it is important to find a topic and then narrow this topic down so that you can create a manageable and unique focus or question. CQ Researcher is a great place to start this work.

You can access CQ Researcher online, and many libraries also have access to additional CQ Researcher content through subscription.  CQ creates elaborate reports about relevant topics like Wikipedia, except only the most reliable authorities are cited.  Information is also organized (or “remixed”) in a way that encourages students to move from the general to the specific.  Every CQ report has the following sections: Introduction; Overview; “The Issues” Subheadings; Background; Current Situation; Outlook; Pro / Con; Chronology; Short Features; Footnotes / Bibliography; Contacts; About the Author; Document Citation. The “Subheadings” on the issues surrounding the topic often make good focused research questions. The “Short Features” section usually discusses side issues to the topic at hand and can offer more potential research questions. The “Pro / Con” section presents two essays, each arguing one side of an issue.

Students can also use the “Bibliography and Footnotes” section to get started on research; many of the sources are linked to online full-text articles.

H2O Playlists

The Harvard Law School has created this site as a space where people can create and share a form of research remix, the “playlist.”  According to the site, an “H2O Playlist is a series of links to books, articles, and other materials that collectively explore an idea or set the stage for a course, discussion, or current event.”

Much like the list of references, footnotes, or the bibliography in an essay, or on a site like Wikipedia or CQ Researcher, a playlist gathers resources that can help an audience to better understand a topic.  But instead of using references in a secondary way—to support writing—the playlist puts the research first, acknowledging that we can gather links to a wide range of interesting materials, and that this gathering is itself a creative intellectual act.

Students can search through existing playlists on this site to do their own research for a paper.  For instance, a playlist on “Remix Culture” gathers key articles, but also video, music, applications, and other media.  Students might also be asked to generate their own playlists as part of a larger research assignment, or as a research assignment that stands alone.

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What Did You Do On Your Summer Vacation?

posted: 10.2.09 by archived

As I wrote in my last post, for many college writers, the personal narrative assignment is the first prompt they are given in writing class. It can also be a difficult assignment to teach, write, and respond to. But like many teachers, I feel that the positive goals of this assignment outweigh some of its negative entailments.

I want to prove to students that everyone has a story to tell, and that they don’t have to be famous to have an interesting narrative. I also want to show them that there are many ways to write a personal narrative. My goal in choosing readings for How To Write Anything: A Guide and Reference with Readings was to showcase this diversity. And the book’s companion Web site offers even more models. Another one of my favorite sites is StoryCorps, a huge repository of audio files of people telling personal narratives. Hearing these stories can inspire students, and it can also show them that there are many ways to tell a personal narrative.

I have also experimented with changing the prompt for the personal narrative altogether, and asking instead for students to write in unique alternative genres that are personal, but that ask for different forms of self-research, self-exploration, and self-reflection. One possibility is an autoethnography: This assignment borrows its methodology from anthropology and asks students to view themselves from without—think of the perspective of the Lindsey Lohan character in Mean Girls. Or students can write a personal narrative that focuses on one particular theme, like the popular literacy narrative assignment. I currently teach a multi-genre personal narrative, in which students put their story together through multiple genres: letters, pictures, diary entries, maps, and so on. As composition scholars such as Julie Jung have shown, this approach moves students away from the traditional forward march of the 5-paragraph essay and engages them in important rhetorical thinking about the best genres to express their ideas. Finally, I’d love to try assigning students a multi-vocal personal narrative, in which they have to try to narrate their own stories from multiple perspectives, imagining an important moment in their life from several different points of view.

I think these approaches and alternative assignments can really encourage originality and discourage plagiarism. I also think they can revive an old standard assignment while focusing on the important goals we have for this writing. Please post your own ideas here, too, in the comments section. What strategies do you have for teaching the personal narrative? How have you altered this assignment?

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Categories: Assignment Idea, How to Write Anything, Jay Dolmage, Rhetorics, Teaching Advice
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Enough About Me, Tell Me Something About You…

posted: 9.18.09 by archived

For many college writers, the personal narrative assignment is the first prompt they are given in writing class. As Robert Connors wrote in 1987,

“From the 1890’s through today, personal writing assignments have remained central to the teaching of composition. Almost every writing course includes personal writing, most start with it, and many concentrate on it.  Personal writing is not only widely assigned, but is widely accepted by students.”

One of the main goals of a personal narrative assignment is, simply, fluency. We want to get students to feel comfortable writing. So we ask them to begin by writing about themselves. The assignment can also serve an important social function in a writing classroom. Each essay allows the students to introduce themselves to you (their teacher) and to their peers. Sharing this writing allows students to learn from and about one another.

There are, however, some disadvantages to this classic assignment as well. For instance, when I say that the personal narrative assignment is popular and common, I am also speaking to teachers who have read thousands of these papers in their careers (or just this week). We can readily recognize the recurrent sub-genres of this form of student writing: from conversion narratives to stories of athletic triumph. Often, a personal narrative reads like a prose résumé or the treatment for a predictable Hollywood movie. It can be difficult to push students to write a personal essay that contains “genuine” reflection or critical thinking.

It is possible that the impetus for reflection or critical thinking calls for a difficult gymnastic — many students simply aren’t yet comfortable thinking critically about themselves. Many students may feel they don’t have enough distance from an experience to write about it. Others might not see their life as interesting enough to share. For many students, this assignment is simply too close to one of the most high-stakes forms of writing they have been asked to do in their lives: the college entrance essay. And so the genre doesn’t really feel new, and maybe it feels fraught to them.

Of course, none of these explanations should dissuade us from encouraging students to do this writing. There is too much to gain. I feel we need creative ways to critically engage the personal.

So I’ve developed alternative lessons and assignment ideas to help move students beyond predictable and clichéd narratives and toward more engaging writing.

Here are a few assignments to get students started:

  • Dialogue: Ask students to re-create an important conversation from their past.
  • Adjectives: Ask students to compile a list of adjectives that best describe them, and then use these words in a poem or short story.
  • Character Sketches: Ask students to describe important people in their lives (and perhaps to draw them).
  • Artifacts: Ask students to describe or draw pictures of key objects from their past (a baseball glove, a tree in their backyard, a bike), tell the story of the object to the class, and then write this story down.
  • Story Board: Ask students to draw several scenes from their past, describe the sequence between these key scenes, and then write this description down.
  • Playlist/Mix Tape: Ask students to choose a song that has deep personal meaning to them, or that was the “soundtrack” to an important moment or period in their life. Then listen to the song and freewrite, allowing the song to call up memories.

I find these in-class activities can spur students to “enter” their own lives from different angles. In my next post, I’ll look at some of the ways the entire assignment of a personal narrative can be redesigned.

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Categories: Drafting, How to Write Anything, Jay Dolmage, Rhetorics, Writing Process
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