Even in the 21st century classroom, the classic written essay accounts for a sizable percentage of a student’s grades.
Many students in university are taking on academic writing tasks for the first time in their educational careers. For some, the transition is smooth, but for many this is a rude awakening to the realities of post-secondary life. Expectations are high, and even first year instructors assume that their students will be able to produce a decent one to two-thousand word paper every few weeks.
The problem is that most students have not yet wrestled with the fact that writing is a process. For those struggling with essay writing at any level, allow me to introduce the TOWER method.
Simply put, TOWER stands for:
Re-read, Reflect & Rewrite
These are very simplified aspects of the process of producing any piece of writing beyond a shopping list. Scratch that, even shopping lists will benefit from this technique. To break this down, let’s look at each section in more detail:
Think – Before you write, you need to plan your attack. The amount of planning will depend on the task itself. Is it a simple descriptive essay that requires little research and preparation? Is it an argumentative essay that requires multiple scholarly sources? Each assignment comes with its own inherent period of preparation. Take time to think about your thesis, your supporting points, your counter-arguments and refutations, and your possible sources. Take notes on these points. The more time you spend doing the groundwork, the easier it will be to get down to the business of writing. If you have left this to the last minute – THINK FAST!
Organize – Presumably you have some notes from the think stage of the process; now you are going to organize those notes into a usable framework. One of the most effective ways to do this is to organize your notes into an outline. An outline is essentially the ‘skeleton’ of what will become your final paper. Depending on the type of task, the skeleton may or may not have certain ‘bones’. The introduction to an argumentative essay may contain 3 such bones: a hook, some background information, and your thesis statement. Write these down on paper, and add some notes beside each one. You now have a handy map to follow when writing your actual introduction.
Write – After you’ve taken the time to plan and organize your information, it’s time to get to the real meat and potatoes of the process and write your paper. The amount of time will vary, but the thing to remember is this: when you are finished writing, you are not finished. What you just wrote is probably garbage. It may be rife with grammatical errors, structural issues, and/or logical fallacies. It could be overly wordy, or it may lack sufficient supportive evidence. Experienced writers are well aware of the fact that they often make mistakes in the process of transforming abstract thought into words on paper. If everyone submitted only their first drafts for marks or publication, we would live in a sloppy literary world, indeed. Thank the gods for the next 2 steps.
Edit – Here is a critical part of the writing process. Everyone is familiar with the simple step of bashing the F7 key and letting the spelling and grammar-checking software do its thing, and with good reason. At the university level, there should be no speeling mistaks! However, this step doesn’t end there. Spell-check won’t pick up on the fact that you wrote “tree” instead of “three”. Most grammar checking programs are a joke. You need to go through your paper with a fine-toothed comb and ensure that you’ve cited and referenced properly. Do you need to break up any of the longer sentences into smaller ones? Have your arguments been supported sufficiently? Is there a simpler, shorter way to express an idea or point? After you have meticulously pored over your writing to ensure that the bugs have been worked out, it’s time to take a break. Have that post-
coital essay cigarette, or that glass of red wine you’ve been craving. After all everyone knows that punishing your lungs and liver are the best ways to relax after hard work.
Re-read, Reflect & Re-write – The reason for taking a break after the editing process is to come back to the process with fresh eyes. Now it’s time to read that paper from start to finish. Highlight sections that need re-wording. Is your meaning clear? Are your ideas sufficiently supported with evidence? Make notes, or change your document as you go. After each pass, read the paper over and critique yourself. Is it truly good enough to submit at this stage? If not, which parts need your attention? The important point to remember here is that you MUST do this step before you submit your work. All too often students leave the writing stage until the last minute, and are forced to pull an all-nighter or three just to get the assignment in at the deadline. If you really want your work to be high quality, you need to get out of this habit, and into the habit of starting early.
The last two steps of this process can, and often should, be repeated several times. TOWER-er-ererrrrrr!
If you have the luxury of time, it really pays to visit your school’s writing centre. This service will really help you learn how to improve your writing, citing, referencing and editing skills, and should be taken advantage of. Writing centres are generally staffed by experienced students or teachers who know the process of academic writing intimately. Check your school’s website, or visit in person to book an appointment.