I have finished reviewing your second reflection briefs. Overall, the class showed clear improvement. This week’s briefs were much better organed, they advanced a thesis or theme, and they used the course materials as evidence for an argument. This means we are making progress. In the separate email that I will send to you shortly, you will find additional comments. Do look at these comments and see how you can implement changes in your next submission. Beyond this, there is some general information that I wanted to share with everyone. Some of these points are intertwined, so forgive the repetition.
I want to make a few general observations about the length of these reflection briefs. Last week, everyone was right on, or very near, 1000 words. This week, we had briefs that were about 750 words, and some that were in the upper 800s. At the other end of the spectrum, I also received emails that indicated that students had a hard time condensing the length of the essay down to meet the 1000-word limit. I do not mention this because I am an insane bean counter. Rather, I mention this because the reflects the nature of the assignment. Given the richness of the content we are reviewing, everyone should be struggling to get the word count under the 1000-word limit. This struggle is very real, as it challenges us to think about how we improve our writing, mostly to improve the clarity of efficiency of our arguments. This is a skill, which only develops with time and practice. You can imagine the difficulty of the next step, when is when someone asks you to distill your 1000-word essay down to no more than 400 words. This would be a policy brief or an executive summary, but to write and defend that brief of that executive summary, we need to be able to work with the material more broadly, that way, if the policy official asked you a question about something in the brief, you could then address it in great detail (or tell them to read the full report).
Editing and Revising
I would like to encourage the class to start to think about editing and revising. The editing and revising process is often overlooked, especially by students who are writing a class assignment against a deadline. If you think about it. When you write a paper, the first draft is just a single step in the larger writing process. There is hardly a time when the first draft is anything but that. You can think of the first draft in relation to a sculptor who wants to sculpt a head of a famous person. First, the sculpture has to form an large oval of clay, then they need to give that oval of clay its main features, then they need to add and subtract clay to bring the oval of clay closer to their final vision, then when they are almost done, that is when they start to do the fine work on the features, adding wrinkles, texture, facial hair, etc. Putting together a rough draft of a paper is like putting the main features onto the oval of clay. Once you have the draft done, then comes the hard work of adding and subtracting content, making sure that you have things just right. After that comes the fine tuning, which requires more than just fixing spelling, grammar, and formatting. While we do not get to see the process, the articles and chapters we read in class are often the result of multiple drafts and have undergone several steps of editing and revision. I will post some books that have good chapters on the editing and revising process on Blackback for you to review.
Always try to communicate your primary argument for a section or sub-section by writing a strong topic sentence for all your paragraphs. A strong topic sentence not only communicates your main point, it also sets stage for what will follow. To this end, everything that follows the topic sentence must support that topic sentence. If you find that you have something that is off topic in a paragraph, then you can remove it. One way to write a strong topic sentence is to use declaratory statements.
Use of Direct Quotes
Generally, the rule of thumb is that you should only use a “direct quote” when that quote is unreplaceable, meaning the quote is the only way to convey your point or you actually want to quote something that someone said, for example, from a speech or a conversation. This means that we want to avoid the excessive use of quotes, especially in essays or comprehensive examinations. Remember, the goal of these exercises is to have you demonstrate your command of the materials. To this end, we would like your voice to come through in the essay, not the voice of the scholars who were covered in the assigned materials. While you always want to cite your sources, it is best if you use your own words to paraphrase the points conveyed by the author. This has two benefits. First, it helps you to learn and retain the information. Second, by reworking a large pool of content – taken from many sources – you are taking steps towards creating your own ideas, themes, arguments, and perspectives.
You should try to use the same or similar language throughout the essay, especially when you are stressing your themes or main points. One way to keep this in mind, when thinking about how to communicate your message to the audience, remember to: tell them what you are going to tell them (Intro); tell them (Body); then tell them what you told them (Conclusion). By using the same, or similar language, you are using repetition to your advantage.
Use of Course Materials
There were several briefs that only referenced one of our assigned readings, or that relied heavily on materials not assigned for class. There were also briefs that focused exclusively on the materials from Week 02, to the exclusion of materials assigned during Weeks 03 and 04. Again, the purpose of these exercises is to enable you to work with the assigned materials, and through that process, to develop a command of the assigned materials. This is not possible if you are not working with the assigned materials. Please keep this in mind for the next brief, and most especially, for the final examination.
Defining Central Concepts
Always remember to define your concepts. This question for this brief asked the class to explain why it is important for emergency managers to learn about focusing events. While it is good to explore the various reasons for why this would be the case, a strong essay would at also define what is meant by a focusing event. We should never assuming the reader knows what we are writing about. The reader may not know what a focusing event is, or they may prefer to follow the Rubin definition over the Birkland definition. Thus, by stating the definition, the rest of the essay can be viewed and assessed through this lens
The conclusion is an opportunity for you to pull everything together and bring things to a close. Thus, you can think about the conclusion as the introduction in reverse. Additionally, you do not want to ever add new information, literature, or evidence in the conclusion. This is what the body of the essay if for. If you find that you are putting new information into the conclusion, this should be a sign that you need to spend more time editing and revising. Perhaps you missed a point that should be included in a previous section.
Outline Before Writing (Check Argument Structure)
We often want to just jump right in and start to write. One way to improve our writing is to put together an outline before we start to write. This can be a difficult habit to develop, especially considering that we always feel pressured for time. That said, a good outline can save us quite a bit of time when it comes to the editing and revision phase of writing. I mention this, not only because it is good practice, but also because we can use the outline to structure better argument. To illustrate this point, I want to use an outline example from some themes that I saw in this week’s reflection briefs. The challenge, in my mind, was how to best present the cases and the lessons. Many of the submissions mixed them together, but this can make it difficult for the reader to find your key points, as they were not easily identifiable. While I am using generic terms, we can see how the case / lesson can be approached different ways, both of which are clearer than mixing cases and lessons together.
iii. FE Lessons for Emergency Managers
iii. FE Lessons for Emergency Managers
iii. Lesson 3. Identify and then explain it
You can see how you can structure your essay in different ways, using the exact same material. Generally, it appears that example two may be the best way to approach this question. That said, other models can be designed and used, if the argument is clearly conveyed to the reader. By putting together an outline, before you start writing, you can review and revise the structure and content of your argument. Look to see if all your points are made, and if they flow from one point to another logically. Doing this type of spot check can save you time and energy. Of course, if you were putting together a real outline you would put sub-points under each of the elements and sub-elements in the outline.
That is all that I have for you now. Good luck with this week’s content. If you have any questions, do not hesitate to contact me.
With warm regards,