Writing Center
Need writing help or coaching?

Our writing coaches can help with any course assignment as well as any other type or project or application you are working on in your place of ministry. We work with you via email, by appointment, or during office hours. You can find us in the Schaff Library Conference Room or click below:
Writing Center Staff
    Before You Begin: Focus Your Topic
    The textbook practice:
    • State the thesis
    • Develop an outline
    • Write the first draft
    • Revise, edit, and rewrite
    • Polish the final draft
    When developing your thesis statement, strategic elements to consider are:
    • Definition of the specific audience
    • Definition of the exact purpose
    • Definition of your stance and voice as the writer
    • Facts, definitions, and concepts relevant to the topic (accepted and validated)
    • Perspectives by experts, analysis, and critics
    A thesis statement has the following characteristics:
    • A judgement, attitude, or opinion concerning the topic which will be developed in the paper
    • 8 to 15 words in a declarative voice
    • Placement somewhere in the introductory paragraph, usually near the end
    • A clear and distinct point of view
    Organization and Evaluation of Sources
    The quality and reliability of sources is always an issue, especially sources on the Internet. For theological purposes, it is always best to trust the peer-evaluated scholarly materials from writers and editors of recognized expertise. Journals, conference papers, databases, and books with extensive bibliographies are especially useful.

    Links to helpful tools for determining the usefulness and appropriateness of sources:
    Outlining
    The simple purpose of an outline is to organize and develop a map for the writing assignment showing the scope and sequence of the content, the focused purpose of the writing, the audience, and the logic. For the puposes of most theologcial writing, outlines develop the topic with explanation and analysis which leads to a logical conclusion. Headings must be parallel and coordinated throughout.

    Components of an outline:
    • Introduction: thesis statement within context paragraph
    • Body: Headings, subheadings, and details
    • Conclusion: Final paragraph with summation statement that ties the analysis/persuasive logic together
    Types of outlines:
    • Alphanumeric
    • Full sentence
    • Decimal
    For samples of outlines, see this document from the Purdue OWL.
    Further Organizational Strategies
    The following are frequently used strategies to efficiently and effectively develop the essay in a tightly organized fashion.
    • Definition - relevant and appropriate
    • Comparison/contrast
    • Relationship - cause/effect, time, consequences
    • Variation - change, varieties
    • Application - uses, implications
    • Analysis - relationship among components
    • Chronological
    • Spatial
    • Persuasive - support structure, discovery structure, pro-and-con structure
    • Use of transitions
    Slideshow Available
    Slides from "Organization & Outlining," a Hacks for Seminary & Beyond workshop, are available here in PowerPoint format (requires PowerPoint or compatible software) and printable PDF format.
     Organization & Outlining (PowerPoint) pptx 
     Organization & Outlining (printable PDF) pdf 
    Recording Available
    Watch the webinar recording of "Organization & Outlining," a Hacks for Seminary and Beyond workshop that took place on August 17, 2016.
     
    The recording will begin playing after you register.
    Method 1: Annotating a Text
    In the happy event of owning a text (never in a library book!), one can readily take rudimentary notes in the margins and on the end sheets. This traditional practice ensures comprehension of the text and allows for a ready reference review of the crucial elements at a later date.

    Note-taking abbreviations:
    • Questions (Q)
    • Analyses (A)
    • Main Ideas (MI)
    • Comparisons/Criticisms (C/C)
    • Ah Ha (!)
    • References (R)
    • Look Up (LU)
    • Definitions (D)
    • Criticisms (Cr)
    • Connections (Cn)
    "How to Mark a Book" is an interesting and engaging short essay on 'marking' a book. It is written by Mortimer Adler, a renowned man of letters and influential scholar of philosophy and rhetoric.
    Method 2: Note Cards
    Using the outline as an organizational guide, many writers of long research employ note-cards to assemble quotes, evidence, ideas, and insights from the resources that comprise the evidence for the major points of the paper. This system can be abbreviated with the use of the Roman numerals from the outline and the author's last name from the working bibliography.

    A sample research note card:

     
    Excursus: Note-taking and Quotations
    A crucial element of note-taking that is important to master is the taking and use of quotations. To use quotes inaccurately or worse, unethically, can result in serious and permanent damage to one's public reputation. Therefore students need to have an in-depth understanding of the types and uses of quotations in writing.
    • Quotations must be identical to the original, using a narrow segment of the source. They must match the source document word for word and must be attributed to the original author
    • Paraphrasing involves putting a passage from source material into your own words. A paraphrase must also be attributed to the original source. Paraphrased material is usually shorter than the original passage, taking a somewhat broader segment of the source and condensing it slightly.
    • Summarizing involves putting the main idea(s) into your own words, including only the main point(s). Once again, it is necessary to attribute summarized ideas to the original source. Summaries are significantly shorter than the original and take a broad overview of the source material.
    Some useful examples and exercises in developing paraphrases and summaries of main ideas and concepts are contained in the Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL) site.
    Method 3: Cornell Note-taking System
    This system, developed at Cornell University, is especially helpful for taking notes during a class or lecture.
    1. Divide the paper into three sections. 
      - Draw a dark orizontal like about 5 or 6 lines from the bottom. Use a heavy magic marker so that it is clear
      - Draw a dark vertical line about 2 inches from the left side of the paper from the top to the horizontal line.
    2. Document
      - Write course name, date, and topic at the top of each page
    3. Write notes
      - The large box to the right is for writing notes
      - Skip a line between ideas and topics
      - Don't use complete sentences. Use abbreviations whenever possible. Develop a shorthand of your own, such as using & for the word "and".
    4. Review and clarify
      - Review the notes as soon as possible after class
      - Pull out main ideas, key points, dates, and people, and write them in the left column
    5. Summarize
      - Write a summary of the main ideas in the bottom section
    6. Study the notes
      - Reread the notes in the right column
      - Spend most of your time studying the ideas in the left column and the summary at the bottom. These are the most important ideas and will probably include most of the information that will be tested.
    Click here for a PDF of the Cornell Note-taking System.
    Method 4: Dialectical Reading Log
    Reading logs are useful tools to keep organized notes of entire sources in one place.
     Reading Log Template docx 
    Slideshow Available
    Slides from "Note-taking & Note-taking Apps," a Hacks for Seminary & Beyond workshop, are available here in PowerPoint format (requires PowerPoint or compatible software) and printable PDF format.
     Note-taking (PowerPoint) pptx 
     Note-taking (printable PDF) pdf 
     Note-taking Apps (PowerPoint) pptx 
     Note-taking Apps (printable PDF) pdf 
    Recording Available
    Watch the webinar recording of "Note-taking & Note-taking Apps," a Hacks for Seminary and Beyond workshop that took place on August 31, 2016.
     
    The recording will begin playing after you register.
    Basic Notepad Apps
    There are a lot to choose from and your choice will probably be determined by the platform of your smartphone, tablet, or computer.
    Digital Notebook Apps
    These are more robust for storing and organizing large numbers of notes into notebooks. The two most popular apps in this category are:
    Mind Mapping Apps
    Taking notes using a mind map can really help visual and spatial learners recall information. It's fun, too!

    This article from Preaching Today, tells how one pastor uses mind mapping for sermon preparation.

    A few mind mapping applications to try:
    Getting Started
    Every academic writing assignment is a demonstration of the full range of reasoning and evidence organized with substantial analysis on the subject topic. The purpose is to persuade the reader that the conclusions of the writing are valid, useful, and appropriate.

    The use of templates gives the writer a map of effective writing to follow. In essence they afford the writer the opportunity to employ a concrete structure that includes a set of necessary elements:
    • Thesis
    • Point of view
    • Context
    • Body of evidence and resasoning
    • Persuasive conclusion
    The necessities for any academic essay:
    • Point of view - the writer's perspective and standing in relation to the topic. Examples: investigator, analyst, researcher, questioner, critic, etc. This should be clearly stated without excessive use of personal pronouns or reference to oneself.
    • Context - the setting including the history, creation, application, era, and up to date condition/existence, etc. of the issue or topic. This should be directly stated in non-biased language based on commonly agreed upon condition and reality based in fact.
    • Understanding of Audience - the reader/reactor for whom the paper is written. Typically an essay is directed toward the professor in a class, but in the case of an essay to be published in a journal, etc., the audience could be a specific group of scholars or interested individuals. This understanding may include explaining technical terms, giving clarification of assumptions, and specific diction.
    • Use of Examples and Illustrations - the affirmation of an assertion with logical, reasonable, and appropriate evidence. The use of examples should be readily understandable and easily verifiable from reputable sources.
    • Coherent and Logical Reasoning - the conscious process of developing an idea of point with analysis and evidence that is presented in an understandable and sound manner that is free of fallacies. The presence of a fallacy of reasoning will weaken the entire paper and negate the conclusion.
    • Outline - essential for an essay longer than 3 pages. An outline is the map of the entire essay illustrating the basic points, the analyses, and the conclusion, all in the proper sequence.
    • Problem/Question - all academic writing focuses on addressing a central problem or question. The entire essay is an organized study and conclusion addressing that question/problem.
    Basic Template

    Introduction

    The essay should begin with a sentence which presents the condensed and precise context of the problem. The introduction should include a clear expression of the author's stance and point of view regarding the problem. Finally there should be a clear and unequivocal statement of the attitude, opinion, or judgement regarding the problem.
    Some general rules for writing an introduction are:
    1. Contextualize background
    2. Introduce a problem
    3. Response to problem

    Body Structures

    Possible forms of the Body: separated into parts and paragraphs, where each part is a main point in the problem and each paragraph is one idea or one aspect of an idea.

    The Dialectical Plan
    1. Thesis
      1. defense of a certain point of view on the quesiton
      2. often the predominant point of view (the most common analysis)
    2. Antithesis
      1. Opposing arguments to the preceding argument which lead to a clear contradiction
      2. Perhaps a less common but still valid point of view on the problem
    3. Synthesis: Establish some nuanced truth in between the two arguments or overcome the initial contradiction by bringing in additional information.
    "Problem-Cause-Solution" Plan - This plan is self-explanatory. Introduce and define a problem, pinpoint its causes, and propose a solution.

    The Inventory Plan - For a rare case when a paper does not present a solution to a problem.
    1. Separate your argument into parts (in this case, two: pros and cons)
    2. Order your arguments within each part
    The Comparative Plan - in which reflection is born of the comparison of different facts or concepts. There are two rules for this type of paper: (1) Each element of comparison constitutes a section or "part" of the paper; (2) the opposition posed at the beginning of the paper should follow until the end of the piece.
    1. First part: first element of comparison (one point of view on an issue, for example)
    2. Second part: second element of comparison (an opposing point of view)
    3. Third part: Meditation of the facts presented in the first two parts.
    Explication-Illustration or Formula/Commentary Plan
    1. Explanation of the formula (definition, for example: "Explain the use of the word 'it' in Webster's Dictionary and comment on its significance.")
    2. Commentary on the formula
      1. Expansion: use a wider scope to analyze the results of this definition
      2. Proposed conclusion on the formula (does it work, is it problematic, how can it be changed?)

    The Conclusion

    A conclusion must be written in the spirit of synthesis and with logical rigor. Coming to the end of an argument, a conclusion must be concise and strong. If desired, it can situate the results or thesis in a more general sense. Many good conclusions suggest further research or pose a further question derived from the paper's conclusion or main idea. This gives legitimacy to the paper in suggesting that it is part of a larger body of work.
    Excursus: Logical Fallacies
    Logical fallacies are errors in reasoning. Learning to identify them and avoid them in your own writing is key to becoming a stronger writer.

    There are many types of logical fallacies. The website logicalfallacies.info is a great resource for learning more about them. Click below to download a handout developed from the information found on this website.
     Logical Fallacies Handout (MS Word) docx 
     Logical Fallacies Handout (PDF) pdf 
    Slideshow Available
    Slides from "Using Templates," a Hacks for Seminary & Beyond workshop, are available here in PowerPoint format (requires PowerPoint or compatible software) and printable PDF format.
     Using Templates (PowerPoint) pptx 
     Using Templates (printable PDF) pdf 
    Recording Available
    Watch the webinar recording of "Using Templates," a Hacks for Seminary and Beyond workshop that took place on Novemer 9, 2016.
     
    The recording will begin playing after you register.
    Overview
    Real writing begins not with the first draft of a text, but rather with the successive revisions and rewrites of that draft, each of which clarifies and refines the argument and message. The full set of processes and actions utilized in revision are what creates real writing that is lasting and memorable.

    First, as you contemplate revision, it's important to make the distinction among the following terms:
    • proofreading: the careful reading of text for grammar, spelling, and mechanics
    • editing: the process whereby the writer considers word choice, sentence variety, text length, and precision
    • revision: the process of "re-seeing" the work in its entirety, paying close attention to the thesis statement, argumentation, logic, evidence, conclusion, and impact
    Each of these elements is important to the success of the text, but the central and most important of the three is the process of revision. Successful writers such as E.B. White, Edith Wharton, Donald Murray, Mortimer Adler, and Nancy Sommers proclaim revision as the bedrock of effective writing. Each revision focuses and refines the message and the impact of the text. It's crucial to allow for ample time to undertake revision. Of course, this means finishing a first draft at least a day before it is due, preferable two days.

    Within the revision process, a writer achieves clarity, refined organization and effective messaging. To do this, a writer must step back from the paper and see it with an unbiased and fair reader's eye. This stance is not one of negatively judging/grading; rather, it is one of refining and polishing what is sound and effective and trimming what is unnecessary or repetitive.
    Tips for Revising a Text
    • Allow the text to rest at least 24 hours. This will bring a fresh and rested perspective to what is actually there, and to that which needs to be sharpened, reworked, or given stronger evidence.
    • Suspend the raging negative voice and the vaunting prideful spirit and read as if you are an open-minded, curious, and demanding reader, new to the topic.
    • Read the text aloud from a printed copy. The eye sees differently and more accurately in actual print. Your ear will discern rough patches and all repetitions.
    • Zero in on the introductory paragraph and especially the thesis statement, making sure that it clearly states the issue and the intent of the paper. This statement should be clear and unequivocal.
    • Read assuming that all explanations and analyses will be apprehended and considered by the reader; no paraphrasing or re-explanations are necessary.
    • First, look to make sure that there is ample and relevant information that is specific, accurate, and interesting. Not too much, and not too little.
    • Second, look for meaning in the information. Each piece of information must carry the reader toward meaning.
    • Third, look for evidence of audience and its engagement. All information should be understood and useable by the audience for which it was intended. Critical questions and exceptions should be anticipated and addressed.
    • Fourth, look at structure and logic to make sure that they are appropriate for the subject. Check the argument to eliminate fallacies and to strengthen unity. Make sure that one point follows from the point before it. Check for effective transitions between paragraphs.
    • Fifth, check for voice, the force which drives a piece of writing forward. It must "sound" like you in the most honest manner. Be as authentic and sincere as possible.
    Tips on Sentence Revision
    Practical advice for ensuring that your sentences are alive:
    • Use forceful verbs - replace long verb phrases with a more specific verb. For example, replace, "She argues for the importance of the idea," with, "She defends the idea."
    • Look for places where you've used the same word or phrase twice or more in consecutive sentences and look for alternative ways to say the same thing OR for ways to combine the two sentences.
    • Cut as many prepositional phrases as you can without losing your meaning. For instance, the following sentence, "There are several examples of the issue of integrity in Huck Finn," would be much better this way: "Huck Finn repeatedly addresses the issue of integrity."
    • Check your sentence variety. If more than two sentences in a row start the same way (with a subject followed by a verb, for example), then try using a different sentence pattern.
    • Aim for precision in word choice. Don't settle for the best word you can think of at the moment - use a thesaurus (along with a dictionary) to search for the word that says exactly what you want to say.
    • Look for sentences that start with "It is" or "There are" and see if you can revise them to be more active and engaging.
    Caveats
    As in any intellectual endeavor, controlling the variety of voices in one's head is important. If you have received feedback, whether from a peer or from a trusted source, be mindful that it is just that - the opinion of an individual on first reading of a rough draft. The writer must be careful to test praise to make sure it is warranted, put negative criticism under the light of logic and accuracy, and weigh any suggestion in light of the text as a whole.

    If you realize that you no longer agree with or support the thesis statement, by all means re-write it to "fit" what you have developed and conveys that about which you have a strong opinion. The same advice applies to an element of the argument or development. However, under no circumstance should you "hide" or disregard a point in direct conflict with your argument. Instead, report it and put it into the context of the argument in a full and fair manner. Not to do so leaves the entire paper's argument open to dismissal.

    Everyone recognizes and respects clarity and precision in writing. From our earliest experiences with written and oral communication, our ears and minds let the sound and meaning of words penetrate our hearts because they are the voice of reason and creativity. Essentially, they are the earliest, and for most, the central methods that produce meaning and by extension learning. The beauty of excellent writing is the fact that anyone and everyone values precision and lyricism and rhythm and image and sound and elegance. Revision, according to all the best and most respected writers, is the key process that creates excellence.
    Slideshow Available
    Slides from "Revising a Draft," a Hacks for Seminary & Beyond workshop, are available here in PowerPoint format (requires PowerPoint or compatible software) and printable PDF format.
     Revising a Draft (PowerPoint) pptx 
     Revising a Draft (printable PDF) pdf 
    Recording Available
    Watch the webinar recording of "Revising a Draft," a Hacks for Seminary and Beyond workshop that took place on January 18, 2017.
     
    The recording will begin playing after you register.
    Step 1: Research the Granting Institution, Person, or Foundation
    All contests are sponsored by groups with distinct core values that are hallmarked in the published materials as the mission statement, the strategic plan, and the profile. These values should be contained and illustrated within all components of the application. All applicants should be aware of the overall history and vision of the institution or individual and be able to address or at least nod to the impact of that vision. In addition, oftentimes the contests with website connections may have a profile or article on a previous recipient, sometimes with the winning essay. The time spent accessing these elements will enable to focus the full package properly.
    Step 2: Allocate the Proper Time to Draft, Revise, and Edit the Essay/Sermon/Response
    At least one week prior to the deadline for entry, a serious contestant should compose the first draft of the written component. Brainstorm or web the most important points that should be emphasized.

    In the draft mode, develop a strong thesis statement that conveys the most sincere and dynamic voice and commitment possible. Avoid the commonplace and the banal, but don't stun or shock. Conclude, don't summarize or state the obvious 'I want to win' sentiment. Good entries show a concrete benefit to a larger group beyond the individual. Good entries also are scrupulously honest and straight-forward without pandering.

    In the revision mode, read the essay as if you were part of the selection committee. (The committee does just that, read silently and aloud.) Eliminate choppy sentences, lists in sentence form, over-explanations and confessional ancedotes, linking and intransitive verbs, and lackluster diction. Ascertain that the essay 'sounds' like you in a formal and professional sense. A good revision whill sharpen the main p oints so that they are memorable as statements, not just of information, but as illustrated values in action. Use as many senses as possible for impact.

    In the final draft mode, make sure the font is Times Roman or Arial and the size is 12 point. Again read the draft, this time aloud, listening for rough spots in the flow of ideas and language. Again, check for 'voice.' Of absolute importance is keeping within the designated word limit.
    Step 3: Writing the Cover Letter or Email
    Several elements to remember in writing a cover letter or email are the following:
    • This is the initial contact a contestant has with the selection committee; the correspondence should be very professional and concise
    • The compliments to the institution or individual and salutations should be formal
    • The primary use for the award or prize should be at least alluded to if not explicitly stated
    • The letter should be a maximum of one page
    • The first paragraph should set your identity in the context relevant to the award and succinctly state why you are writing
    • Paragraphs 2-3 should establish precisely your qualifications and status as an applicant/contestant; if a resume is included, make sure this information supplements rather than repeats
    • Make sure that the use of the award and consequences of that use are referenced
    • The last paragraph should include any additional information about contacts; sincere thanks for consideration should be included.
    Slideshow Available
    Slides from "Writing for Academic Awards," a Hacks for Seminary & Beyond workshop, are available here in PowerPoint format (requires PowerPoint or compatible software) and printable PDF format.
     Writing for Academic Prizes (PowerPoint) pptx 
     Writing for Academic Prizes (printable PDF) pdf 
    Recording Available
    Watch the webinar recording of "Writing for Academic Awards," a Hacks for Seminary and Beyond workshop that took place on March 1, 2017.
     
    The recording will begin playing after you register.