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Teaching Chapter 2
Shaping an Essay
We can readily speak of shaping an essay in terms of papier-mâché sculpture. The artist
begins with a framework, an idea of the overall shape of the sculpture, and then develops the
sculpture by layering strips of paper and shaping them into a discernible piece of art. Similarly,
prewriting offers many, though certainly not all, of the details the writer may choose from to
create layers of text that ultimately form the essay. Shaping an essay focuses on the framework
that the writer uses as a guide in incorporating, deleting, and placing details. The purpose of this
chapter is to offer advice about developing at least an initial or tentative overall shape for an
essay and then using it as a guide for writing.
Visual aids are one of the key features of Chapter 2. Many students are visually-oriented;
they are visual learners who need to see a concept in order to grasp it. We’ve incorporated
several visual structures as aids for such students. While some of these may seem elementary at
first, we ask that you and your students suspend disbelief until you’ve tried to use any or all of
Audience. Audience plays a key role in shaping an essay from the beginning of the
writing process, which we emphasize at the outset of this chapter by offering these three initial
questions involving writer, reader, and topic:
1. What do my readers already know about this topic?
2. What do I want them to know, understand, or learn from reading my writing?
3. Why do I want them to know this? These questions point toward purpose, so that the
writer has this key element of a piece of writing in mind from the start. Be sure to point
out to your students the tentative nature of audience early on in the process; later (in
Chapter 3) we’ll work more extensively with audience analysis.
Focus Statements. A focus statement is a tentative, speculative statement about the
writer’s initial thoughts about purpose; it derives from the three initial questions about audience.
Have your students write a focus statement for an essay; then, in their writing groups, have them
circulate these statements for their group members’ consideration. Each member should write
two to three questions evoked by the focus statement or topic. The writer may then use these
questions as generative; that is, looking at the questions potential readers want answered can help
the writer develop details that will answer them.
54 The Longwood Guide to Writing
Discovery Draft. In this chapter, we continue working with Marisol Vargas’s writing
process. To develop her freewriting (see Chapter 1) into an essay, Marisol wrote brief responses
to the initial audience questions, developed a focus statement, and then wrote a discovery draft
with her responses and statement as guides.
Having students write a discovery draft emphasizes that writing is a complex process that
is far more than a one-shot-draft enterprise. You may well find that they’ll be resistant at first,
but as they come to see their writing improve by working through several drafts, they’ll be more
inclined to take the time necessary for good writing to develop. Our way of dealing with resistant
students is to require submission of all materials, including a Discovery Draft, a draft for peer
review, and then a final draft. Students who do not engage multiple drafting do not get credit for
having completed the essay, and we have them rewrite, using a different topic. While this may
seem Draconian, we think it necessary to elicit our students’ best writing.
As you work through Marisol’s writing in this chapter, stress the tentative, exploratory
nature. Have your students consider these elements of the essay:
Introduction. How has Marisol opened her essay? How engaging is the introduction; that
is, how effectively does it catch the reader’s attention?
Paragraphing. How complex is Marisol’s paragraph structure? How effectively does
each paragraph support or develop her purpose?
Detail. What is the depth of detail in this draft?
Conclusion. How does Marisol conclude her essay? How effectively does she prepare the
reader for the statement she makes in the last paragraph?
As you work with Marisol’s essay, have your students point to one or two aspects of each
question that work well and others that need strengthening. Ask for specific advice from your
students on strengthening the paper. If your students don’t make this point, be sure to point out
the lack of descriptive detail in this draft. Marisol tells the reader a lot, but she doesn’t use
enough detail to make the event come alive. Bill uses the analogy of pop-up books to make this
point. Most students have read pop-up books, either as children or, for example, as babysitters
keeping their young charges entertained. When you turn the page on one of these books, a scene
literally pops up off the page to provide a three-dimensional representation of the text. The
writer’s words are all that he has to make a scene come to life; the detail he presents makes his
writing “pop up” for the reader.
Visual Aids. Why use such visual aids as those we present in Chapter 2? Gilbert Highet
offers an answer in the short passage we quote from Explorations (Oxford U Press, 1971):
“Every article ought to have a shape.” Student writing many times seems shapeless, a collection
of details without a discernible structure. Visual aids can help students see such structure.
Because some students are visual learners, using drawings can help them see the whole of
an essay and how it’s constituted by its parts. Drawings can also help make the task of writing
less formidable by helping students see it as a series of components that can be addressed one at
a time instead of a whole to be addressed all at once.
Have your students draw structures for several of the sample essays we provide. In our
discussion of Chapter 5, we’ve drawn a structure for Datus Proper’s “Dark Hollow” that you
may use as an example. Proper weaves a story back and forth, detailing a day’s fishing but
Teaching Chapter 2 Shaping 55
interjecting at key points a second narrative, that by Betty Cave. It’s in the retelling of Cave’s
story that Proper develops the significance of the situation he comes to understand from
encountering her. Have your students draw a structure for other sample readings, either using the
templates we’ve provided in Chapter 2 or developing their own.
Elements of an Essay. In our discussion of the elements of an essay, we’ve used parts of
several of the professional and student essays that we provide throughout the text. It may be
helpful for your students to read these essays to see the excerpted parts in context, though you
may want to have your students read not every essay for this discussion but one or two that you
think to be particularly effective.
Thesis sentences. Be sure to note that a thesis statement may appear just about anywhere
in an essay (at the beginning, near or in the middle, at the end) depending on the writer’s purpose
and that it may be written at any point in the writing process. Stress also that the thesis may
change as the essay develops. Throughout the semester, ask your students to identify the thesis
statement for each sample reading, remarking its placement in the essay and how effectively it
seems to have guided the writer. Note especially the writer’s stance on the topic or attitude
toward it and her reader as reflected by the thesis.
Introductions. In our discussion of introductions, we’ve given a brief analysis of the
openings from five of the sample essays we present in other chapters of our text. As you work
with these, focus on the job the introduction does: identifying the topic and (in many cases) the
writer’s particular stance on or attitude toward both topic and reader. Ask your students how
effective each introduction is and why. Note also that, like the thesis statement, the introduction
may be written at any point in the process, that in fact it is often written near the end of the
Paragraphs. Have your students discuss the role of a paragraph in an essay, stressing that
each paragraph is like a brick that joins with other bricks to form a whole wall or building. Note
that each paragraph develops some aspect of the writer’s purpose as expressed in the thesis
In working with the concept of cohesion, present your students with scrambled
paragraphs. Either as a handout or on an overhead, write the sentences of a paragraph as a list,
scrambling the original order. Have your students unscramble the sentences so that they create a
logical order for them. Have them defend their ordering, focusing on the clues inherent in the
sentences that tell them how the sentences relate to each other.
Conclusions. In our section on conclusions, we return to the five sample essays we
selected for discussion of introductions. Have your students respond to the questions we list early
in this section, focusing on how effective each conclusion seems and why.
Writer’s Block. All writers get stuck at one time or another. To help your students
understand writer’s block as something to expect but not necessarily to fear, talk about how and
why you get stuck when you write. Then talk about how you get unstuck. Have your students
add to the list of ways to beat writer’s block offered in the text block at the end of the chapter.
56 The Longwood Guide to Writing
RESPONSES TO EXERCISES
Select an essay in another chapter in this text, and look at its introduction. How effective is that
introduction? What does that introduction do for the reader? How well does it establish a
context for the essay it introduces?
The introduction of “The Myth of the Latin Woman: I Just Met a Girl Named
Maria” by Judith Ortiz Cofer (in Chapter 5) is very effective. The title is provocative
because of its use of “myth” followed by the “girl named Maria” line. The essay’s first
paragraph helps to explain the title, in that Cofer gives us an anecdote about a young
man who sang “Maria,” a song from the musical West Side Story. Cofer, whose maiden
name is Ortiz, apparently has distinctive Hispanic features, and the point of the anecdote
is that the young man, to the amusement of those around him and Cofer, stereotyped her
as a Maria, the female lead of the musical. Cofer gives the import of such stereotyping: “
. . . ‘Maria’ had followed me to London, reminding me of a prime fact of my life: you can
leave the island [Puerto Rico], master the English language, and travel as far as you
can, but if you are a Latina, especially one like me who so obviously belongs to Rita
Morena’s gene pool, the island travels with you.” The essay’s second paragraph is also
part of the introduction. In it, Cofer notes her resentment at this stereotyping. The rest of
the essay develops this idea of stereotypes, what Cofer labels the “cultural myth.” So the
introduction sets a good context for the essay that follows.
Select an essay in another chapter of this text and examine each paragraph of the body for its
topic sentence. What idea does the topic sentence imply that the paragraph will develop? How
well does the paragraph develop this idea? Where does the topic sentence appear? Is it where it
should be? If a given paragraph does not have a topic sentence, does it develop a topic idea
expressed in a preceding paragraph? If not, should it have its own topic sentence? Why or why
I used the essay “Mirror Image” to analyze the topic sentences. In the first
paragraph, Marisol is relating an argument effectively through the use of conversation,
and she develops it into the second paragraph, both through her description of body
language and lack of conversation. She also includes the thoughts she was having at the
time which back up the entire scenario. In the third paragraph, she presents the images
so that we can see them as she remembers them, and then she introduces one of the main
ideas of the essay, the food. In the fifth paragraph, the author develops her stereotypes
and prejudices, and in fact relates to the readers by relaying many of our own. The sixth
paragraph shows how Marisol has to take fruit out to the people, and in so doing, she has
to learn that they don’t deserve to be treated any differently from anyone else, or feared,
but instead treated as people. The topic sentences in the next three paragraphs all work
together to explain the one idea at hand, Marisol observing the people as people, and
sharing her food with them. This leads her to her final paragraphs, which detail
Marisol’s change of heart, her realization that these people are no different from her,
except that they live under different circumstances. They are still people and deserve
Teaching Chapter 2 Shaping 57
I think Marisol’s use of topic sentences is very obscure throughout much of her
essay, but this works to make her essay much more effective. Several areas of the essay
work together, and the topic sentence for one paragraph leads into several others as she
develops her ideas. In the ninth paragraph, the author puts her topic sentence as the first,
but in the tenth, it comes as the second sentence in the paragraph. The first few sets of
paragraphs come with a topic sentence that leads into several other paragraphs.
Select an essay in another chapter of this text and examine its paragraphs for unity and
coherence. Does each paragraph follow the direction established by its topic sentence? If a
particular paragraph does not contain a topic sentence, does it develop a topic idea, perhaps an
idea stated in a preceding paragraph? If so, how well does it develop that idea? Mark any
transitional words and phrases you have used. Are these appropriate? Why or why not? Mark any
repetition of key words and phrases. Are these appropriate? Why or why not?
“How Exhausting it is to Keep Up Appearances” (Kristina Geray, Ch. 7)
The final revision of this essay seems to follow a good sense of topic sentence/idea
and then development. I underlined each topic sentence in each paragraph, and a good
majority of them come at the beginning of each paragraph. There are some that come
later in the paragraph, but as in the paragraph on appearances, the main idea of being
miserable and hopelessly alone leads into the next paragraph on each of the characters
as being miserable. Sometimes the author uses the topic sentence as the second sentence
in the paragraph, instead of as the first, but it seems to work. She spends a lot of time
transitioning the readers to her new ideas. The third to last paragraph does not seem to
hold a topic sentence that continues the idea throughout the paragraph, but the last
sentence in the paragraph serves to delineate the topic idea, that of Nola’s ultimate
concern to not stand out in a crowd.
Some transitional words and phrases Kristina uses:
On the other hand This
Is shown time and time again What does show
Despite The most glaring example
At this point However
Several of these are repeated at different points throughout the essay, and they do
seem to work, although at times, the term “despite” gets a little repetitious. Each
example of transition works, because Kristina uses a style that allows her to work on the
idea throughout a couple of different paragraphs, developing her ideas to compare and
contrast between the mother and the girl.
Some terms are repeated, such as the “woman in black,” which gets a little
overused, but then again, the author does not allow herself any opportunity to use much
else, because she spends so little time developing this character. She instead spends the
58 The Longwood Guide to Writing
time working on the response the two main characters have to the bag lady. The other
repetition I noticed is the use of “despite,” which works, because it isn’t overused, but I
do think the author could have found another term at least once within the text.
Read the essays by Datus Proper and Judith Ortiz Cofer in Chapter 5 and draw a structure for
each. What did you draw? How effectively does your drawing represent the structure for each?
What do your drawings suggest to you about potential structures for your own writing?
[NOTE: See “Teaching Chapter 5” for a drawing of Proper’s essay]. Represent
the structure of Cofer’s as a string of pearls (p. 54). “The Myth of the Latin Woman”
begins with an anecdote about stereotypes. Cofer structures her essay as a string of
anecdotes, each one presenting a personal example of the stereotyping of Latina
women. Between anecdotes, she discusses the meaning of each and why the stereotype
presented in each won’t hold. The conclusion (the last two paragraphs) round out the
essay and brings us full circle, tying back to the introduction (¶s 1 and 2). In ¶ 1 Cofer
shows an example of thoughtlessness, and in ¶ 2 she tells of her resentment of such
thoughtlessness. In the conclusion, Cofer tells us about a poem she wrote “in which
[she] called all Latinas ‘God’s brown daughters.’ This poem is really a prayer of sorts,
offered upward, but also, through the human-to-human channel of art, outward. It is a
prayer for communication and for respect.”