Chapter 4: Educate Yourself About Your Topic

Many student writers treat a writing assignment like it’s a mild cold, something to ignore as long as possible then suffer through as quickly as possible so that it won’t interfere with any weekend plans. When it can’t be put off a moment longer, they jump to the first obvious idea that comes to mind and crank out an essay without a second thought, or sometimes a first thought. These students don’t care about learning anything new. They just want to be finished. I’ve had students actually brag to me that they never spend more than forty-five minutes on an essay.

My dear student writers, please stop bragging about how little time you invest in your professor’s class. Your professors might outwardly scoff at such bravado, but inwardly they groan with groans too deep for words.

More importantly, please understand each writing assignment is in fact a generous invitation from your professor to spend quality time with a new topic. Instead of giving you a lousy multiple-choice exam that will be graded by a machine, your professor has generously assigned your class an essay. She has enough optimism left over from grad school to hope that at least a few of you will take this opportunity to discover new ideas for yourselves, to develop an understanding that will live beyond this assignment and probably your time in college.

Later that day, while the math and psychology professors stand around the Scantron machine, yukking it up as the machine grades midterms, your writing professor will be loading up a painfully heavy briefcase with essays and taking them home to read at a small desk in the laundry room while the rest of the family watches television or sleeps. It’s a sacrifice of love, student writer, and your professors are willing to make that sacrifice because they care about your education.

Most of this book focuses on the “share your idea” part of the writing process that you read about in Chapter 3 — sticking to one main idea, explaining your idea in detail, and so on. But the college essay that you share is really just a byproduct of the more important work of educating yourself about a topic.

So before we work on how to share your ideas, we’ll first look at how to educate yourself about your topic. We’ll start with strategies for getting to know the topic and then look at how to use questions to narrow your focus and consider more detailed information.

Step 1: Get to Know Your Topic

You begin the process of self-education by getting to know your topic. It’s like your professor is playing matchmaker. She looks at the topic. She looks at you. The writing assignment is how she says, “You should really spend some time with this topic. I think this could go somewhere.”

With most classes, you’ve already started to gather information about your topic by the time you receive a writing assignment because you’re in a class that teaches you about this and related topics. If you’re taking American history, for example, you might be given a new topic to write about — Benjamin Franklin in Paris, for example — but you’ve been learning about a lot of related topics from those Revolutionary times, so you’re not completely unfamiliar with Franklin, Paris, or the relationship of the French and United States governments.

What you already know gives you a few ideas about where you can gather more specific information about Franklin in Paris. But if you’re not sure where to start, you also have a handy resource just standing there, idly, at the front of the classroom. Raise your hand, thank your professor for the assignment — in a sincere voice — and then ask for a few starting points for your research.

You have a couple of goals for this first step of self-education. One is to get a general sense of this topic as a whole. What is included here? How long was Franklin in Paris? Where did he live? What was he doing all that time? A second and more important goal is to look for the interesting subtopics. Keep an eye out for anything that makes you curious to learn more because you soon have to narrow your focus to a subtopic and study that subtopic focus more closely. It might as well be a subtopic that interests you, right?

In addition to talking to your professor, a good way to get to know your topic is to use general reference works. These publications are written by experts for an audience of non-experts. The experts are scholars who have studied this topic already and have an understanding about its size and makeup. The non-experts are you, students.

General encyclopedias attempt to briefly explain everything. That’s a starting point. Topical encyclopedias focus on one part of everything — religion, history, zoology, and so on. They give you slightly more detailed information. Textbooks are another option as you’re getting started. They provide an overview of topics and explain technical terms. They’re also good at presenting the debatable issues within your topic — any of which might become a good subtopic for deeper study.

The Internet is home to many useful reference works, too, but you can’t just visit two or three websites and assume that you’ve mastered the topic. You’ve only scratched the surface of the topic, and what you’ve scratched could be garbage, too, depending on which two or three websites you visited. Using the Internet wisely means learning how to find credible websites and judge the reliability of any information you find. The reliability usually comes down to two factors — the credibility of the writers and the objectivity of the information.

Credibility of Authors

Many online sources are the careful work of trained professionals. Government websites, for example, are produced by agency professionals who understand their subject areas well. Many printed publications provide online versions of the same publication, and these are just as credible as the printed versions.

On the other hand, with some websites, the users create the content — book reviews, travel guides, dining reviews, technical help, and reviews. These sites are less reliable because the writers aren’t professionals. With a book review site, for example, the reviewer might be qualified to judge the quality of a book. But the reviewer might also be the still-angry former girlfriend of the writer. I’ve seen that firsthand. User-generated sites rarely use editors to screen out dumb or biased reviews, so you have to be more careful judging the objectivity of each review.

In the case of the popular online encyclopedia, Wikipedia, the content comes from users, but there are several levels of editorial review and often fierce debate among competing viewpoints. That editorial review, along with citations of sources and a generally more informed set of contributors, makes this online encyclopedia more reliable than many professors are willing to admit. It’s still possible for any idiot to corrupt an article with silly information — “Dogs are cats. Cats are dogs.” — but that kind of silliness is quickly removed.

The websites you really have to look out for are the ones sponsored by people with an agenda of some sort — a political group, nonprofit organization, church, or think tank. It doesn’t really matter whether you think the agenda is good or evil. If they have an agenda, the information you find there will be shaped to support that agenda. Use caution.

Objectivity of Information

The second quality to look for when it comes to reliability is objective information. That means you can actually see the details of the information — the number of feral pigdogs in Central Valley of California, the number of hours one congresswoman spends each week on fund-raising calls — and not just summaries of information or someone’s opinion about what the information means.

Information becomes more reliable when the information is detailed and when the source shows you where it got that information. However, because the scope of a reference work is so broad, reference works don’t have time to get into many details. They rely more on summarized information. So whether you trust the summaries or not probably depends mostly on the credibility of the authors.

And that’s okay, too, because reference works are just a starting point.

If the assigned topic is a piece of writing — an essay by Kierkegaard, an article in the journal Nature, a poem by Butzner — you get to know your topic by actually reading it. That sounds kind of obvious, doesn’t it? Keep that in mind when you’re tempted to turn to SparkNotes or some other literature-for-dummies site instead of reading the text for yourself. Your professor assigned the text because he thinks you’ll benefit from an understanding of it, so trust your professor’s judgment this one time.

Reading the text once helps you get to know the topic — but just barely. Reading it once gives you an acquaintance, not an understanding. In fact, you really need to read it twice just to become acquainted. The first time lets you know what this is about in general. The second time through helps you to see the particulars.

As you go through the text, make a few notes about things you notice. These might be great lines that you like, confusing phrases, information or events that don’t make any sense, or anything else that stands out for you. When you can, try to state your notes as questions. Why plums? Where is her boyfriend while all of this is going on? Who is the “we” in this story?

Don’t try to figure out the answers to all these questions while you’re reading. That comes later. Just make notes so that you can later return to those questions and use them to narrow your focus within the text. Because once again, getting to know a topic is only your starting point when it comes to self-education. It’s a required step, but you’re doing this to find some interesting subtopic for further and deeper study.

Step 2: Narrow Your Focus

Narrowing your focus means looking more closely at one smaller part of your topic. You can’t explore all the complexities with a general topic in a single paper — or a book, for that matter — so you have to pick one small part of that general topic and then dig deeper into the details, the facts, and leave the rest of the broader topic for another time.

Once you choose a narrower focus, you can more or less ignore the rest of the topic and become an expert about that smaller question or subtopic. If you have any doubts about the appropriateness of a narrowed focus for an assignment, talk to your professor. He will be able to affirm your focus or help you find a better one.

With some writing assignments, you’re assigned a question rather than a topic. In that case, your professor has narrowed the focus for you. Your focus is to find an answer to that question by digging deeper into the information that’s available about that question.

If no question has been assigned, then it’s up to you to narrow your focus for yourself. The way to do that is to simply pay attention while you get to you know your topic. You’ll find yourself drawn toward certain interesting or debatable or strange subtopics and questions.

Let’s say you start with the broad topic of the United States Bill of Rights. You might find yourself drawn to the Fifth Amendment — particularly the final “takings” clause. That’s worth deeper exploration, and by narrowing your focus to just that subtopic, you can ignore the rest of the Bill of Rights and really look closely at this one clause.

Or say you’re assigned the somewhat troubling topic of “mime.” In your browsing, you discover that Charlie Chaplin — whom you love — studied mime before becoming a film star. This makes you wonder how much of Chaplin’s film performances rely on mime techniques. That’s a good question, and if you focus on looking for an answer, you can ignore the rest of mime and spend your time with Chaplin.

Another thing you can do is look for what people are arguing about within your topic. With a lot of complex topics — the effect of climate change on sea levels, for example, or whether a state can legalize a substance that the federal government has made illegal — people usually disagree about the meaning of the information. Whenever you stumble upon a pocket of disagreement, it’s an open invitation for you to read the positions others have taken and how they understand the information at hand. Do enough of that and pretty soon you’ll be able to weigh in.

The amazing thing about narrowing your focus is that any engaging focus will work with your essay. You can choose a subtopic because it’s connected to your own experience. You can choose it because a professor suggests that you will find this or that question interesting. You can flip open a textbook, jab your finger on a page, and find to your amazement that the paragraph you just jabbed is actually pretty interesting. It doesn’t really matter how you get there. Just get there, and you’ll be fine.

With other writing assignments, you’ll find that even after you’ve gotten to know the topic, nothing stands out as a potential narrow focus. In that case, you can use one of many writerly tricks to look more closely at the topic and see where your interests lie.

Free-writing, for example, is writing nonstop for fifteen or twenty minutes to see what your subconscious mind can come up with. We’re all so repressed and conflicted that there are usually several interesting observations or questions ready to escape from the painful confines of our brains. This is not unlike the student writer who writes papers by sitting at a computer and seeing what comes out. The difference is that with freewriting you’re only exploring the topic, not drafting an essay.

Another useful device is the reporter’s questions, the six questions that any good journalist used to ask back when journalism was a thing: Who? What? When? Where? Why? and How? These questions help you explore and understand the specifics of your topic, and this process almost always raises additional questions that will lead you to further exploration.

Who? Who is doing this? To whom is it being done? Who else is affected? You can think of this question as identifying the actors in a drama. The drama is your topic, and the actors are the forces at work within that topic. The actors involved might be human or they might be social factors (unemployment, inflation) or groups (the NRA, schoolchildren) or nations or ideas — anyone or anything that does something or causes something to happen.

What? What happened? What is happening? What is going to happen? These might be physical, observable events or internal, unobservable events. Think about change with this question. What changed? What is changing? What will change? One technique is to take each of the answers to “Who?” and look for some verbs that go with each noun (unemployment increases incidents of spousal abuse, the NRA lobbies against gun registration).

When? This might be a specific time or date. It might also be the set of conditions that must be present for an event to happen, like the circumstances that must be present for the stock market to crash or for a yucca plant to bloom.

Where? This question can look at actual physical locations in which an event might take place — the city, the house, the sandbox where the cat has been seen digging. However, it also considers less tangible contexts, such as the country music scene, the Internet, or the fast-food industry.

Why? What causes this to happen? This is one of the more useful questions because it forces you to start figuring out why your “who” actors are doing the “what” actions, or why your “what” actions have such interesting consequences. You make more sense of the topic by considering the relationship of actors to other actors and events to other events. When you try to answer this question, use complete sentences that include the word “because.” Using the word “because” forces you to at least guess about why something happens. And guessing is fine, too. It gives you ideas you can test with more detailed information about that smaller part of the topic.

How? This question looks at method, at how something happens. It’s another good question that will help you to make connections and explore beneath the surface of a topic. You should try to answer this question with complete sentences, too. Using the word “by” in your sentences will help you note or guess about the methods used by the actors.

By focusing on the particulars of a topic, the reporter’s questions tend to generate deeper consideration than free-writing. Doing this will almost always lead to questions or aspects of the topic that you hadn’t thought of before. And that’s where the fun begins.

Step 3: Research the Focus

Once you’ve narrowed your focus, it’s time to leave the wading pool of information and head over to the big pool. That means setting aside reference works and spending time with more detailed and objective sources of information. These include books, serious popular magazines, newspapers, and scholarly journals. These sources help you to more thoroughly educate yourself about your newly narrowed topic. They allow you to get your hands on actual facts. You then see the topic for yourself and not through the eyes of someone else’s summaries.

You can find a few of these resources online and available to the general public, but the best way for student writers to get their hands on more serious and scholarly information is through a college or university library. Campus libraries use electronic databases to catalog their resources, so you can find what you need using key word searches — not unlike how you look for information with an Internet search engine.

To find information from library databases, you search for it using key words. The key words will come from the subtopic you’ve chosen or the question that you’re focused on.

Suppose you have this question: “Did Ben Franklin contract syphilis while serving as an American diplomat in Paris?” To create a list of key words for your search, you simply circle the important words and phrases in your question — Ben Franklin, syphilis, American diplomat, Paris. You then search for books or articles by typing some or all of those terms into a database search page.

That’s your starting point, and that might be all you have to do to find information about Franklin’s sexual activity. However, you might also find that those terms generate a list of a thousand articles and that those articles are only loosely related to the American diplomat. Or you might find that searching for those terms gives you a list of zero possible sources of information.

When you end up with too many sources, you can narrow the focus still further with more key terms or by telling the database you only want magazine articles or magazine articles published after 2010 or whatever. Having too many options is a good problem to have, something that’s not hard to solve.

When you have zero or not many sources, you can usually improve that sad situation by using synonyms for some of your terms. Instead of “diplomat,” you could use “statesman,” “ambassador,” or “envoy.” Instead of “American,” you could use “Colonial” or “Colonial American.” By trying different synonyms, you often stumble upon the key words that best fit your topic from the database’s perspective. Write those down so you can keep using them.

One student was focusing on a question about exotic dancers, for example, but she couldn’t find any scholarly articles using the terms “exotic dancers,” “strippers,” or anything else she could think of. Working with a reference librarian, she found that the preferred synonym in the databases was “stripteasers.” Who’d have thought it? When she used “stripteasers,” she found forty years’ worth of scholarly data, which was also a bit of a surprise.

Another thing you can try is using broader search terms. Instead of “syphilis,” for example, you might use “sexually transmitted diseases” or “venereal disease” to enlarge your search. Instead of “Paris” you might search for “France” or “Europe.” In this way, you sometimes find articles with a broader scope that also include some useful information about your question, even if they don’t focus on it. This is good for finding scholarly books, too. They’re almost always going to be more broadly focused than you need simply because of their length. However, within those books you might find chapters or parts of chapters that will be useful.

When you search your library’s databases for scholarly information, the results are better than when you search the Internet. When you look at the results, there won’t be any defunct websites in the mix. There won’t be any ads for free laptops or baldness remedies or attractive singles in your area. When you search for information at the library, that’s exactly what you’ll find — information — and most of it will be reliable because librarians have no patience for unreliable information. They root it out of there like angry badgers.

As you begin reading the articles that you’ve located, start with the more serious popular sources on your list — The Economist, The Atlantic Monthly, The Christian Science Monitor, and so on. These magazines make their money by targeting popular issues and exploring them thoughtfully and in detail. This brings more educated readers to their pages, and then they can sell advertising to businesses that want to reach readers with higher levels of education and usually higher incomes.

Serious popular sources are useful for you as a self-educator because they translate the detailed work of scholars into language that any educated person can understand. They also focus on smaller parts of the topic than general reference works, so they provide more detailed and timely information.

But don’t confuse serious popular magazines with the far more popular and far less serious magazines that focus on the sad lives of glamorous celebrities or how to make your wedding more expensive. These magazines are popular because they try to entertain as many readers as possible. They can then charge more for advertising that reaches a bajillion readers. That’s fine. I have nothing against entertainment or advertising. But when it comes to educating yourself about a topic, the serious popular magazines have much better information to offer.

Newspapers — those that remain — are the most common type of serious popular publication. They mostly rely on professional journalists to gather information from credible sources, to confirm the validity of that information, and to present that information objectively. They cover a wide array of events, usually in brief articles. With compelling or controversial events, they often explore the details in more depth, including information from scholars, local authorities, and others who have a professional relationship to the topic. That can provide valuable information about ongoing events.

At the deep end of the information pool, you find articles that are written by scholars, edited by scholars, and for the most part, read by scholars. Some of these sources are books published by university presses. Most of them are articles published in “peer-reviewed” journals, which are called that because scholars review and edit the work of their peers.

Scholarly works are the most credible for two reasons. First, the writers are knowledgeable about their field because that’s what they do for a living. They’re also trained in methods of gathering and testing information within that field. In addition, when a scholar submits an article or book for publication by an academic journal or publisher, other scholars examine that submission, judge its value, and sniff out even the smallest flaws — just itching for some reason to reject it. Anything that does get published has to hold up well to that kind of scrutiny.

What makes scholarly works most valuable, however, is that they focus most directly on the details of information. This allows readers to see those details for themselves and form their own conclusions about what it all means. These details are direct quotations from primary texts, the quantifiable results of experiments or studies, and the exact words of interviewees. Scholarly works present the writers’ conclusions about these topics, but those conclusions are then backed up with facts from the real world. That’s what makes this information more objective and useful.

For all their virtues, however, scholarly sources have one major drawback. Scholars write these articles for other scholars. They don’t mess around trying to explain things to newbies like you or me. They assume that their readers are familiar with the topic and the terminology of their discipline. If you’re not familiar with the topic or terminology — and there’s a good chance you’re not, student writer — you will find scholarly sources difficult to read and even more difficult to understand.

That’s no reason to avoid them, however. That’s a reason to be patient with your climb up the learning curve. It’s also a reason to go back to your general sources — especially those topical dictionaries and textbooks — for help decoding the language of difficult articles and books.

Free Advice: Write More about Less

The simple math of high school writing is that the length of the paper determines the scope of the topic. A short paper can have a narrow topic. That might work in high school, where you don’t usually have to get into the particulars of anything, but it doesn’t work in college or with formal writing in general.

With the college essay, a broad focus tends to generate a dull and shorter-than-expected essay. That’s because a broad range of information forces you to rely on summarized rather than detailed information. Summaries compress a lot of information and can be written quickly — just a few sentences — but without details to illustrate them, they remain dull and unengaging. And if the paper is too short after you’ve summarized the information, the only way to make it longer is to repeat yourself, which is painful for you and even worse for your poor readers.

Suppose, for example, that your essay answers the broad question of how important math is in daily life. With a focus like this, you need to include a book-sized amount of information because almost every aspect of daily life has a direct or indirect connection to math. You might offer a few detailed examples — balancing a checkbook, figuring out what kind of mileage your SUV gets — but the examples won’t adequately explain your answer to the question because they cover only a small part of daily life. To answer the question fully, you have to cover all of the math-related aspects of daily life, and that requires summaries of the broad range of information that’s needed. You’ll end up with paragraphs like this:

Math is also important in household activities. Math may be used to balance the checkbook and make budgets. It may also be used to determine the cost of vacations or weekend trips. It may be used when shopping to compare the relative cost of similar products and help determine the most economical product to purchase. With just about every household activity, math is close at hand!

The summaries in this paragraph cover a lot of information quickly, but they don’t spark the reader’s imagination because there aren’t any details for readers to imagine.

When you narrow your focus, you have less topic to cover. That means you can pay closer consideration to the small set of information that remains and get into the details. By narrowing “How important is math in daily life?” to “How important is geometry in daily life?” you eliminate from consideration all forms of math except geometry. By narrowing your focus further to “How important is plane geometry in residential construction?” you remove most of the original topic and finally get into some detailed information. You might explore how the Pythagorean theorem, for example, is used by framing carpenters to make sure walls are laid out square:

One common use of plane geometry occurs whenever a framing carpenter needs to plan where to put the walls of a house. It’s essential that the walls are square (that is, with the junction of walls forming true right angles). This makes the work of drywallers and finish carpenters much easier because they will be able to make all their cuts quickly without having to take the time to compensate for walls and corners that aren’t square. To make sure the walls are all laid out square, the framer uses the Pythagorean theorem: A2 + B2 = C2. If Wall A, for example, is 30 feet long, then A2 will be 900. If Wall B is 40 feet long, then B2 will be 1600. If Wall A and Wall B are joined at a true right angle, then the distance from the far end of Wall A to the far end of Wall B will be the square root of the sum of 900 and 1600. The sum of 900 plus 1600 is 2500. The square root of 2500 is 50. If Wall A and Wall B are laid out square, the diagonal that connects their far ends would be 50 feet long. If the framer makes sure these lengths are true, the walls will be square.

If math gives you stomachaches, then this detailed example of math for the carpenter isn’t going to do much for you — except give you a stomachache, of course. But even then, while you hold your aching belly and moan, you can still appreciate how the specific information gets its narrow little point across much more clearly than you saw in the previous example with its huge clots of summarized information. Here you have details that you can visualize in your mind.

You can also see that it took a lot of sentences to present these specific details. A lot of sentences. In fact, even though it does use a lot of detailed information, this math paragraph is still a little rushed. It could have walked through the process in even more detail with the illustration of a hypothetical carpenter at work on a hypothetical house.

This is what it means to write more about less.

Digging into the details of your narrowed focus is where educating yourself offers the greatest rewards. When you take the time to really educate yourself with the small details of your topic, those details stay with you. The essays you eventually write from this research will come and go. The grades you get for it will become unimportant almost immediately. What you learn along the way, however, the details of a narrow focus and what they mean — that stuff will still be part of your thinking years and decades from now.

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