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How to Write a Paragraph

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The Art of Substantive Writing How to say something worth saying about something worth saying something about Most people realize that learning to write is “among the most important skills a student can learn.” But far fewer realize that writing is also the key to the acquisition of content itself: “the mechanism through which students learn to connect the dots in their knowledge.” Far too few realize that for students to learn, “they must struggle with the details, wrestle with the facts, and rework raw information and dimly understood concepts into language they can communicate to someone else.” In other words, “if students are to learn, they must write.” All these points are emphasized in a report recently issued by the National Commission on Writing in America’s Schools and Colleges (New York Times, 4/25/03),which goes on to say that writing is “woefully ignored in most American schools today.” Moreover, according to the same New York Times article, “a 2002 study of California college students found that most freshmen could not analyze arguments, synthesize information, or write papers that were reasonably free of language errors.” At present students are poor writers, not because they are incapable of learning to write well, but because they have never been taught the foundations of substantive writing. They lack intellectual discipline as well as strategies for improving their writing. This is true on the one hand because teachers often lack a clear theory of the relationship between writing and learning and, on the other, are concerned with the time involved in grading written work. If we understand the most basic concepts in critical thinking, we can provide the grounds for a solution to both problems: (1)a theory that links substantive writing and thinking with the acquisition of knowledge, and (2)awareness of how to design writing assignments that do not require one-on-one instructor-student feedback. This guide links with and reinforces other key guides, particularly How to Read a Paragraph and How to Think Analytically (see inside back cover). All three guides provide techniques that enhance student learning and foster the ability to communicate clearly and logically what one is learning. The development of writing abilities, as well as all other intellectual abilities, occurs only through sound theory and routine practice. When students understand the relationship between learning and writing, and are engaged in routine writing practice using the tools of critical thinking, they are able to learn content at deeper and deeper levels, and gradually improve their ability to communicate important ideas.
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Content Preview
The Thinker’s Guide to
How to Write
a Paragraph
The Art of Substantive Writing
How to say something worth saying
about something worth saying something about
By Dr. Richard Paul and Dr. Linda Elder
Based on Critical Thinking Concepts & Tools
Companion to How to Read a Paragraph
The Foundation for Critical Thinking

Introduction
Most people realize that learning to write is “among the most
important skills a student can learn.” But far fewer realize that
writing is also the key to the acquisition of content itself: “the
mechanism through which students learn to connect the dots in
their knowledge.” Far too few realize that for students to learn,
“they must struggle with the details, wrestle with the facts, and
rework raw information and dimly understood concepts into
language they can communicate to someone else.” In other words,
“if students are to learn, they must write.” All these points are
emphasized in a report recently issued by the National Commission
on Writing in America’s Schools and Colleges
(New York Times,
4/25/03),which goes on to say that writing is “woefully ignored in
most American schools today.” Moreover, according to the same
New York Times article, “a 2002 study of California college
students found that most freshmen could not analyze arguments,
synthesize information, or write papers that were reasonably free
of language errors.”
At present students are poor writers, not because they are incapable
of learning to write well, but because they have never been taught
the foundations of substantive writing. They lack intellectual
discipline as well as strategies for improving their writing. This is true
on the one hand because teachers often lack a clear theory of the
relationship between writing and learning and, on the other, are
concerned with the time involved in grading written work.
If we understand the most basic concepts in critical thinking, we can
provide the grounds for a solution to both problems:
(1)a theory that links substantive writing and thinking with the
acquisition of knowledge, and
(2)awareness of how to design writing assignments that do not
require one-on-one instructor-student feedback.
This guide links with and reinforces other key guides, particularly
How to Read a Paragraph and How to Think Analytically (see inside
back cover). All three guides provide techniques that enhance student
learning and foster the ability to communicate clearly and logically
what one is learning.
The development of writing abilities, as well as all other intellectual
abilities, occurs only through sound theory and routine practice.
When students understand the relationship between learning and
writing, and are engaged in routine writing practice using the tools
of critical thinking, they are able to learn content at deeper and
deeper levels, and gradually improve their ability to communicate
important ideas.
© 2003 Foundation for Critical Thinking
www.criticalthinking.org

Contents
The Theory
The Premise of This Guide ...................................................................2
Writing for a Purpose.......................................................................2–3
Substantive Writing..............................................................................3
The Problem of Impressionistic Writing..........................................3–4
Writing Reflectively ..........................................................................4–5
Writing as Exercise for the Mind.....................................................5–6
How to Write a Sentence.....................................................................6
Writing to Learn ...............................................................................6–7
Substantive Writing in Content Areas ............................................7–8
Relating Core Ideas to Other Core Ideas ............................................8
Writing Within Disciplines ...................................................................9
The Work of Writing ...................................................................10–11
Questioning as We Write .............................................................10–11
Non-Substantive Writing..............................................................11–12
The Practice: Exercises in Substantive Writing
Introduction ..................................................................................12–13
Paraphrasing .................................................................................13–15
Sample Paraphrases......................................................................15–16
Paraphrasing Short Quotes ..........................................................17–21
Paraphrasing and Clarifying Substantive Texts ..........................22–36
Man’s Search for Meaning, ..........................by Viktor E. Frankl ...22–26
History of the Great American Fortunes,....by Gustavus Myers ...27–31
On Liberty, ....................................................by H. L. Mencken .....32–36
Exploring Conflicting Ideas ..........................................................36–39
Exploring Key Ideas Within Disciplines .......................................39–45
Analyzing Reasoning....................................................................45–51
Evaluating Reasoning.........................................................................52
Appendices
Appendix A: The Logic of an Article ...........................................53–54
Appendix B: Evaluating an Author’s Reasoning ..............................55
Appendix C: Mapping Sentences (for Instructors) ...........................56
Appendix D: How to Teach Students to Assess Writing
(for Instructors) ..........................................................................57–58
Appendix E: The Function of Transitional Words ............................59
First Edition
© 2003 Foundation for Critical Thinking
www.criticalthinking.org

2
The Thinker’s Guide to How to Write a Paragraph
The Theory
The Premise of This Guide
Writing is essential to learning. One cannot be educated and yet
unable to communicate one’s ideas in written form. But, learning to
write can occur only through a process of cultivation requiring
intellectual discipline. As with any set of complex skills, there are
fundamentals of writing that must be internalized and then applied
using one’s thinking. This guide focuses on the most important of
those fundamentals.
Writing for a Purpose
Skilled writers do not write blindly, but purposely. They have an
agenda, goal, or objective. Their purpose, together with the nature
of what they are writing (and their situation), determines how they
write. They write in different ways in different situations for
different purposes. There is also a nearly universal purpose for
writing, and that is to say something worth saying about something
worth saying something about.

In general, then, when we write, we translate inner meanings into
public words. We put our ideas and experiences into written form.
Accurately translating intended meanings into written words is an
analytic, evaluative, and creative set of acts. Unfortunately, few
people are skilled in this work of translation. Few are able to select
and combine words that, so combined, convey an intended meaning
to an audience of readers.
Of course, if we are writing for pure pleasure and personal
amusement, it may not matter if others do not understand what we
write. We may simply enjoy the act of writing itself. This is fine as
long as we know that our writing is meant only for us.
Among the various purposes for writing are the following:
" for sheer pleasure
" to express a simple idea
" to convey specific technical information
" to convince the reader to accept an important position
or argument
" to challenge the reader to consider a new worldview
" to express what we are learning (or have learned) in a subject
© 2003 Foundation for Critical Thinking
www.criticalthinking.org

The Thinker’s Guide to How to Write a Paragraph
3
People write in pursuit of many specific and varied agendas.
Consider how the purposes would vary for the following writers:
" a media advisor writing political campaign literature
" a newspaper editor deciding how to edit a story to maintain
reader interest
" a media consultant writing copy for an advertisement
" a chemist writing a laboratory report
" a novelist writing a novel
" a poet writing a poem
" a student writing a research report
Clearly, one’s purpose in writing influences the writing skills one needs
and uses. Nevertheless, there are some fundamental writing skills we
all need if we are to develop the art of saying something worth saying
about something worth saying something about. We call this
substantive writing. And learning the art of substantive writing has
many important implications for our development as thinkers. For
example, it is important in learning how to learn. And, it is important
in coming to understand ourselves. It can enable us to gain self-
insight, as well as insight into the many dimensions of our lives.
Substantive Writing
To learn how to write something worth reading, we must keep two
questions in mind: “Do I have a subject or idea worth writing
about?” and “Do I have something of significance to say about it?”
Having recognized possible variations in purpose, we also should
recognize that there are core writing tools and skills for writing
about anything substantive, for targeting ideas of depth and
significance. These tools and skills are the focus of this guide.
The Problem of Impressionistic Writing
The impressionistic mind follows associations, wandering from
paragraph to paragraph, drawing no clear distinctions within its
thinking and its writing from moment to moment. Being
fragmented, it fragments what it writes. Being uncritical, it assumes
its own point of view to be insightful and justified, and therefore
not in need of justification in comparison to competing points of
view. Being self-deceived, it fails to see itself as undisciplined. Being
rigid, it does not learn from what it reads, writes, or experiences.
Whatever knowledge the impressionistic mind absorbs is uncritically
intermixed with prejudices, biases, myths, and stereotypes. It
© 2003 Foundation for Critical Thinking
www.criticalthinking.org

4
The Thinker’s Guide to How to Write a Paragraph
lacks insight into the importance of understanding how minds
create meaning and how reflective minds monitor and evaluate
as they write. To discipline our writing, we must go beyond
impressionistic thinking.
Writing Reflectively
Unlike the impressionistic mind, the reflective mind seeks meaning,
monitors what it writes, draws a clear distinction between its
thinking and the thinking of its audience. The reflective mind,
being purposeful, adjusts writing to specific goals. Being integrated,
it interrelates ideas it is writing with ideas it already commands.
Being critical, it assesses what it writes for clarity, accuracy,
precision, relevance, depth, breadth, logic, significance, and fairness.
Being open to new ways of thinking, it values new ideas and learns
from what it writes.
The reflective mind improves its thinking by thinking (reflectively)
about it. Likewise, it improves its writing by thinking (reflectively)
about writing. It moves back and forth between writing and
thinking about how it is writing. It moves forward a bit, and then
loops back upon itself to check on its own operations. It checks its
tracks. It makes good its ground. It rises above itself and exercises
oversight. This applies to the reflective mind while writing — or
reading or listening or making decisions.
The foundation for this ability is knowledge of how the mind
functions when writing well. For example, if I know (or discover)
that what I am writing is difficult for others to understand, I
intentionally explain each key sentence more thoroughly and give
more examples and illustrations. I look at what I am writing from
the readers’ point of view.
The reflective mind creates an inner dialogue with itself,
assessing what it is writing while it is writing:
? Have I stated my main point clearly?
? Have I explained my main point adequately?
? Have I given my readers examples from my own experience
that connect important ideas to their experience?
? Have I included metaphors or analogies that illustrate for
the reader what I am saying?
If I realize that my potential readers are likely to be unsympathetic
to my viewpoint, I try to help them connect primary beliefs they
© 2003 Foundation for Critical Thinking
www.criticalthinking.org

10
The Thinker’s Guide to How to Write a Paragraph
The Work of Writing
Writing, then, is a form of intellectual work. And intellectual work
requires a willingness to persevere through difficulties. But perhaps
even more important, good writing requires understanding what
intellectual work is and how it relates to writing. This is where most
students fall short. Here is an illustration: Creating a paragraph well
is like building a house. You need a foundation, and everything else
must be built upon that foundation. The house must have at least
one entrance, and it must be apparent to people where that
entrance is. The first floor must fit the foundation, and the second
floor must match up with the first, with some stairway that enables
us to get from the first floor to the second.
Building a house involves the work of both design and construction.
Each is essential. No one would expect students to automatically
know how to design and construct houses. But sometimes we
approach writing as if knowledge of how to design and write a
paragraph or a paper were apparent to all students.
Questioning as We Write
Skilled writers approach writing as an active dialogue involving
questioning. They question as they write. They question to
understand. They question to evaluate what they are writing.
They question to bring important ideas into their thinking. Here
are some of the questions good writers ask while writing:
" Why am I writing this? What is my purpose? What do I want
the reader to come away with?
"
Is there some part of what I have written that I don’t really
understand? Perhaps I am repeating what I have heard
people say without ever having thought through what exactly
it means.
" If something I have written is vague, how can I make it clearer
or more precise?
" Do I understand the meaning of the key words I have used, or
do I need to look them up in the dictionary?
" Am I using any words in special or unusual ways? Have I
explained special meanings to the reader?
" Am I sure that what I have said is accurate? Do I need to
qualify anything?
Continued
#
© 2003 Foundation for Critical Thinking
www.criticalthinking.org

The Thinker’s Guide to How to Write a Paragraph
11
" Am I clear about my main point and why I think it is important?
" Do I know what question my paragraph answers?
" Do I need to spend more time investigating my topic or issue?
Do I need more information?
If a person tries to write without understanding what writing
involves, the writing will likely be poor. For example, many students
see writing as a fundamentally passive activity. Their theory of
writing seems to be something like this: “You write whatever comes
to your mind, sentence by sentence, until you have written the
assigned length.”
By contrast, the work of substantive writing is the work of first
choosing (constructing) a subject worth writing about and then
thinking through (constructing) something worth saying about that
subject. It is a highly selective activity. Five intellectual acts required
for developing substance in your writing are:
" Choose a subject or idea of importance.
" Decide on something important to say about it.
" Explain or elaborate your basic meaning.
" Construct examples that will help readers connect what you are
saying to events and experiences in their lives.
" Construct one or more analogies and/or metaphors that will help
readers connect what you are writing about with something
similar in their lives.
Non-Substantive Writing
It is possible to learn to write with an emphasis on style, variety of
sentence structure, and rhetorical principles without learning to
write in a substantive manner. Rhetorically powerful writing may
be, and in our culture often is, intellectually bankrupt. Many
intellectually impoverished thinkers write well in the purely
rhetorical sense. Propaganda, for one, is often expressed in a
rhetorically effective way. Political speeches empty of significant
content are often rhetorically well-designed. Sophistry and self-
delusion often thrive in rhetorically proficient prose.
A New York Times special supplement on education (Aug. 4, 2002)
included a description of a new section in the SAT focused on a
“20-minute writing exercise.” The prompt those taking the test
were asked to write on was as follows: “There is always a however.”
One might as justifiably ask a person to write on the theme, “There
© 2003 Foundation for Critical Thinking
www.criticalthinking.org

The Thinker’s Guide to How to Write a Paragraph
15
Clarification Strategies
" The ability to state a thesis clearly in a sentence. If we
cannot accurately state our key idea in a sentence using our
own words, we don’t really know what we want to say.
" The ability to explain a thesis sentence in greater detail.
If we cannot elaborate our key idea, then we have not
yet connected its meaning to other concepts that
we understand.
" The ability to give examples of what we are saying. If we
cannot connect what we have elaborated with concrete
situations in the real world, our knowledge of the meanings
is still abstract, and, to some extent, vague.
" The ability to illustrate what we are saying with a
metaphor, analogy, picture, diagram, or drawing. If we
cannot generate metaphors, analogies, pictures, or diagrams
of the meanings we are constructing, we have not yet
connected what we understand with other domains of
knowledge and experience.
Sample Paraphrases
Consider the following sample paraphrases before we move on to
more detailed paraphrasing:
He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who
helps to perpetuate it. — Martin Luther King, Jr.
People who see unethical things being done to others but who
fail to intervene (when they are able to intervene) are as
unethical as those who are causing harm in the first place.
Every effort to confine Americanism to a single pattern, to
constrain it to a single formula, is disloyalty to everything that is
valid in Americanism. — Henry Steele Commager
There is no one “right way” to be an American. When
everyone in America is expected to think within one belief
system, when people are ostracized or persecuted for thinking
autonomously, when people are labeled “UnAmerican” for
independent thinking, the only legitimate definition of “true
American” is annulled.
© 2003 Foundation for Critical Thinking
www.criticalthinking.org

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