Teaching Writing: Finding Your Argument

This post is part of a series on Writing Pedagogy.

Generally when we engage in research writing, the first step is to find a bunch of sources and read and annotate them. This is, of course, important because we need to know what other interested people have been saying about our topic, what the experts know that we don’t, what the conversation about the topic already is. But then it can be difficult amidst all this new knowledge and other people’s ideas to find what it is that we think about the topic, what we have to contribute to the conversation.

This is a place where free writing can help, particularly cubing. This strategy challenges the writer to look at their topic from six different perspectives. Instructions abound. Some use a similar plan to what I included in the interactive video activity below where the six different perspectives were up to the individual writer with some suggestions from me. Others use a set of verbs to guide the focus on each face of the cube: describe, compare, associate, analyze, apply, argue. When I have used this list of verbs with students, I’ve found it to be more problematic than helpful. The topics my students have often don’t lend themselves well to comparison, for example.

The goal of a cubing exercise like this one in my courses is to give the students space to discover what it is they think about their research topic, to identify their argument about the topic among all the bits of new information their research has brought to them.

This video walks through a 6-phase cubing activity in real time. That is to say, I write alongside the viewer, so a significant portion of this video is distant bird song and wind chimes while you watch me free write, or, better yet, write along with me.

The script I use is relatively simple.

At the beginning: Remind students that free writing is about a connection between the ideas in your head, through your arm, through your finger, through your writing stick to the paper. The only rule is to keep the pen or pencil moving. Don’t worry about grammar, spelling, or organization. Write in any language or a combination of languages. Write in any direction on the page, use doodles and diagrams instead of word, do what it takes to let your ideas flow from your brain to the page. And follow your ideas where they go.

At the end of each face of the cube: Stop writing. Finish up your last sentence. Read over what you’ve just written and star, underline, or highlight anything that seems particularly important or interesting or surprising to you. Draw a line across the page, or skip a couple of lines, or turn the paper to write in a different direction. Choose a new perspective on your topic and start writing.

At the end: Look back over what you’ve read. Is an argument emerging? What is that you think about your topic? Craft a thesis statement that does these three things: names your topic, makes an argument about that topic, and gives a preview of the way the essay will be organized.