Tutor profile: Aaron B.
What are some reasons prewriting is important?
The most straightforward answer would be "it helps you organize your thoughts so you know what to write about," but let's say you already know what you're going to write about. Or at least you think you do. One common mistake often made by intermediate writers that are starting to become comfortable with the basic structure of academic writing but haven't yet mastered the fundamentals is a tendency to become overconfident and rush ahead without planning. They understand the basics of the five-paragraph essay--maybe they even find it a little over-simplistic and patronizing--and can easily outline the bulk of their paper in their head. Then they sit down to write, and what happens next is much worse than writer's block. Everything flows smoothly at first. They blow past the dreaded Blinking Cursor On A White Void and quickly find themselves sailing past the first page break. They have their thesis, they have their supporting paragraphs, and they've just begun their second body paragraph. Then things slow dramatically. Then suddenly, everything stops. It turns out the student *thought* they had it all figured out until they actually sat down to write and run into an unforeseen problem. Maybe one of their body paragraphs sounded easy to write about, but it turned out their ideas were too similar and blended together. Or maybe a position they felt strongly about relied on personal preference, rather than hard facts, more than they originally thought. Food writing is a great example of this, because taste is one of those things that feels rich and complex when we experience it, so we naturally assume it should be easy to write about. But as any food writer will tell you, even though food is one of the most common and important things in the world, it's extremely difficult to translate into words. Sure, you have all sorts of adjectives to help you out, but all this does is lure you into a false sense of security, as individual words are not a substitute for complete thoughts that naturally build upon each other. You'll go in thinking you know what to say, only to find yourself struggling with "Apples are great because they're crunchy, sweet, delicious.....flavorful....tasty....yummy.............." What makes this even worse than normal writer's block is that, at some point, you'll realize that 90% of what you've written is unsalvageable because your essay, at its core, simply does not work. You'll have to throw out most, if not all, of your progress, and start over from scratch with the fact that you just wasted several hours for nothing hanging over your head. Don't rush. Take your time. Plan ahead. Trust me, it's worth it.
What is "Subject-Verb-Object", and why is it so important?
If you boil writing down to its simplest components, you need two things: A verb and a noun. Something has to happen, and something has to do it. Although it's technically possible to write a sentence that's just a verb, in the real world, when we talk about actions, there's almost always something performing the action, and that action usually affects something else. That's where the "Subject" and "Object" parts of "Subject-Verb-Object" come in. The Subject is whoever or whatever performs the action, and the Object is whatever receives or is affected by the action. Because nouns are usually the first thing everyone learns in English class, a lot of people assume they're the most important part of speech, but that's not necessarily true. In most cases, your choice of verb will have a much bigger impact on the overall structure of your sentence, and one major example of that is how it affects the sentence's "voice." When we talk about "voice" in this case, we're not talking about the writer's tone or style, we're talking about the relationship between nouns and verbs. In the "Active Voice," the primary verb of the sentence is performed by the Subject; when it's performed by the Object, we call it the "Passive Voice." In the vast majority of your writing, you want to use the Active Voice as much as possible and the Passive Voice as little as possible. Why? Two reasons. First, it forces you to clumsily reword the sentence with all sorts of small helping verbs and prepositions to work around the fact that you assigned the action to the wrong noun. For example: Active Voice: "I invented the screen-door submarine." Passive Voice: "The screen-door submarine was invented by me." In both sentences, "invented" is our verb, I am the one doing the inventing, and the screen-door submarine is what "receives" the action of being invented. Notice how we have to add "was" and "by" for our sentence to work. It seems like a little thing, but it adds up quickly. The second problem is that it can conceal who or what is performing the action. Former President Ronald Regan gave us a terrific (and infamous) real-world example after being caught in a scandal, saying "Mistakes were made". Who made the mistake? You? Someone working for you? We never find out, because by linking the verb to the object, the subject is never identified. (Note: From my personal experience, usage of the Passive Voice is one of those things that drive teachers and editors bonkers, but it's also not the end of the world if it happens sparingly. Everyone slips into the passive voice now and then, and there are situations where the passive voice is actually preferable. It's not considered grammatically incorrect, but it's usually considered bad writing and should be avoided as much as possible.)
What is a thesis statement and why is it important?
Your thesis is, quite simply, the "point" of your essay. Your thesis statement is a short passage early on that both informs the reader to what you're going to argue and provides a brief preview of how you're going to argue it. The thesis is arguably the most important part of an essay to both the writer and the reader for several reasons. First, there's the basic fact that your thesis is the entire reason you're writing in the first place. Without a thesis, there's no purpose, just aimlessly talking in vague circles around a topic with no clear intent or goal. For many students, this is a major source of stress, confusion, and time wasted staring at a blank screen. Second, your choice of thesis dictates the content of your writing. The importance of this by itself is pretty straightforward, but the content of your essay *also* plays a huge (and sometimes subtle) role in how easy the subject will be to write about. An essay with a strong, clear thesis supported by solid reasoning will often write itself, but an essay with a weak thesis--one that's unclear or has little supporting evidence--will be much more difficult to finish because you'll lack a sense of direction. Third, a clear thesis is crucial for keeping your reader engaged, because the human attention span is hardwired to latch on to an ever-changing flow of ideas that progressively builds up to something greater than the sum of its parts. If you're aimlessly spinning your wheels with no real point just to fill up space, people will notice. But if you keep things moving and providing the reader with a small amount of suspense, they'll be hooked.