Tennis Informational Essay

10 Ways to...
With The New York Times
Have you been knocking your head against the proverbial wall trying to teach - or learn - expository writing skills? Take a fresh approach with these 10 tips! We encourage you to send us your thoughts about these suggestions by visiting our feedback page.
1. Ditch the five-paragraph essay and embrace "authentic" essay structure. Times news and feature articles are excellent models for structure, including transitions and organization. Look at the guide to forms of Times news coverage to get started, and then deconstruct some articles to get a feel for how they are organized.

Classic news stories like this one about conflicts over rebuilding ground zero are written in the "inverted pyramid" format, starting with the most important information - the first paragraph or two answers the questions "Who?" "What?" "Where?" "When?" Why?" and "How?" - and proceeding with the most important details, filling in the less important information as the article proceeds. This can be a useful structure for, say, newspaper articles based on the events in a play or novel, or relatively short research reports.

Feature stories pull the reader in with an engaging introduction and develop from there to explain a topic, issue or trend. Examples of this structure: this article on gauging the national mood by tracking popular songs, blog posts and the like, and this column on the blankets-with-sleeves trend.

A sub-genre of the feature, the personality profile, is also a useful expository writing model, as in this lesson on Dickens, which suggests using a profile of Bernie Madoff as a model for writing a character profile, and this lesson on the literature Nobelist Naguib Mahfouz.

To take the idea of using newspaper story structures further, try this lesson on comparing classic storylines with news reports.

2. Two traditional essay writing bugaboos are introductions and conclusions. The Times is full of creative ways to open and end a narrative, and these can help developing writers learn to avoid clichéd openings and repetitive endings. Here are some of the approaches Times writers take to begin and end their stories, together with examples of each one:

  • Narrative opening: Telling a story that illustrates or encapsulates the issue at hand, like this story about the dangers associated with riding in a taxi when the cabby is using a phone and this one about fans paying homage to Michael Jackson
  • Descriptive opening: Describing an element that is key to the story, like this description of a high-end coffee machine in a feature on the topic of fancy coffee makers
  • Question opening: posing a rhetorical question that leads directly into the rest of the essay, like this article about popular baby names
  • Frame: Bringing the essay full circle by starting and ending with elements of the same story, like this article on Cuban doctors unable to practice in the U.S.
  • Quote kicker: Ending with a quote that sums up the essence of the essay, like this one on raising chickens
  • Future action kicker: Ending with a look toward what may or will happen in the future, as in this article on fake art in Vietnam

    Looking for more inspiration? Read John Noble Wilford's retrospective article about covering the 1969 moon landing, focusing on the section "Moonfall Eve," in which he recounts trying to figure out how to start his article. The upshot: Simple is often best.

    3.Informing and explaining - how things work or how to do something - is part of journalism's bread and butter. Good Times models for information/explanation essays include articles on how dark energy works, why and how Twitter can be useful, how to make a soufflé and how to avoid heatstroke. To find more examples, good starting places are the recipes in the Dining section and the Science and Health sections.

    One specific type of explanation essay is analysis - an examination of why and how an issue is significant. If you're looking for good models, The Times runs many pieces under the rubric "news analysis," such as this article on the significance of steroid use in baseball and this one on President Obama's remarks on the arrest of Henry Louis Gates. Read these, or other articles marked "news analysis," and then try writing your own analysis of an event - perhaps something that happened at school, or perhaps something that happened in a piece of literature or in history.

    4. In addition to information and explanation, there are a few other key expository patterns. Here are the most common ones, together with a Times models of each one, each paired with a related handout:

  • Comparison - Technology article on Bing vs. Google; Venn diagram
  • Cause and effect - Health article on "chemo brain"; Cause and Effect Organizer
  • Problem and solution - Op-Ed on how schools should handle flu outbreaks; Problem-Solution Organizer
  • Extended definition - The On Language column, such as this column on the use of "associate", "model" and even "the" and the Times Health Guide, a library of information on numerous health conditions; Vocabulary Log

    For more fun with definitions, see the Schott's Vocab blog.

    5. Whether you're writing a descriptive piece or incorporating description into a larger expository essay, specific details are vital, as in this piece on a city mural and this one about Michael Jackson's signature dance moves.

    Of course, one of the best places to find colorful descriptions is the Times' Sports pages, as in this article about a tennis match played by Rafael Nadal. Use our Play-by-Play Sports Descriptions sheet to get a closer look at descriptive phrases in this or other sports articles.

    6. "I've said all I have to say." "How can I possibly write three pages on this topic?" "What do you mean, develop my ideas?" Essay writers often struggle with adequate development. Times features are perfect examples of how to fully develop ideas. For example, you might read "Drivers and Legislators Dismiss Cellphone Risks" or Michael Pollan's polemic on cooking shows and the decline of home cooking in the Sunday Magazine. Then create a "reverse outline" to reveal how the writer developed the piece.

    7. Like development, smoothly incorporating supporting material and evidence - including introducing and integrating quotations - can be a challenge for young writers. Add the requirement to follow MLA or APA style for citations, and for many students the challenge is insurmountable. Part of the problem may be that most students see few articles or other texts with academic citations in their daily lives. Using The Times for models can help.

    You might suspend traditional academic style requirements, and instead try newspaper-style attribution or even the Web protocol of linking to the source of information - such as this article on digital curriculum materials, which, among many, many others, shows both approaches. Other articles, like this one about government recommendations to schools regarding swine flu, are good examples of how to integrate both partial and full quotations, as well as how to include paraphrases.

    8. Subject-verb and noun-pronoun agreement can trouble even established writers at the newspaper of record itself, as the After Deadline blog has discussed, more than once. Once you've reviewed agreement rules, test yourself by looking for errors in the daily paper. And given that Times style is to avoid using "he" as a universal pronoun, virtually any news article or feature provides examples of ways to write around the singular pronoun. Of course, it would help us all if English had an all-purpose, generic pronoun, wouldn't it?

    More on agreement and other grammar and language quirks can be found on the Grammar and Usage and Reading and Writing Skills Times Topics pages, as well as on our Teaching with The Times page on Language and Usage.

    9. News briefs and summaries are models of conciseness and clarity. Read a few briefs, like the ones about the music video directed by Heath Ledger, the death of a show-biz dog, and a spate of squid attacks. And for the ultimate in brevity, look at TimesWire for one-sentence (or sentence fragment) summaries of the latest articles.

    10. Can't use the first person in expository writing? No one uses second person? Third person is required, and must remain entirely neutral and objective? Pshaw! The Times regularly uses all three perspectives, in creative and effective ways. Here are examples:

  • First person - "Watching Whales, Watching Us", a Sunday Magazine article in which the reporter included personal experience alongside research, and "Finally, the Spleen Gets Some Respect", Natalie Angier's scientific report on the spleen, in which she characterizes herself as splenetic
  • Second person - "Party On, but No Tweets", and the Gadgetwise blog post on a smartphone app for stargazers, which explains how the tool works, both of which repeatedly refer to "you," avoiding the clunky and unnecessarily distancing "one"
  • Third person with a clear voice/personality - Rob Walker's "Consumed" column in the Sunday Magazine, such as the one on the yoga "lifestyle" shop Lululemon and the Style feature "Hair, Hair, Hair, Hair, Hair, Hair"

    Use these and other Times models to learn how to write an expository essay that is compelling, convincing and authoritative as well as engaging to read.


    The banner image above was based on a College Board image of sample SAT essays, from the article Perfect's New Profile, Warts and All by Tamar Lewin.
  • Whenever you read an essay, use the following questions to guide your response.

    First, keep in mind that, although you may not be a writing expert, you are THE reader of this essay and your response is a valid one. I have found that almost every reader, regardless of experience, can identify the primary strength and weakness in an essay, although their method of describing those issues may be different. The author will welcome your response and your ability to explain your reaction in a new way. Although the author is not required to, and really shouldn’t, respond to everything you say, he or she will take your comments seriously and consider how the essays has enlightened or confused you. Therefore, comment freely, although respectfully. Keep in mind that it is better to begin by noting the strengths of the essay before pointing out the areas that need improvement. I would always include a personal response to questions like the following: What about the essay most connects with your experience? Moves you? Provokes you? Entertains you?

    So that is how to respond. So how do you critique? For every essay, regardless of the mode, consider the broad categories of content, organization, style, and correctness.

    1. Content: Consider the topic (its appropriateness and interest for the assignment as well as a clear focus suitable to essay length) and the way the topic is developed (clarity sufficiency of its argument, its scope, subcategories, amount and type of examples, anecdotes, evidence, etc.).
    2. Organization: Consider how the essay is introduced and concluded (especially looking for a “frame” to the essay, where the intro and conclusion refer to the same idea), whether the thesis is located in the most helpful place (direct or implied), how the essay is structured, whether the order or extent of development is successful, as well as how individual paragraphs are organized (clear topic sentences, appropriate and concrete evidence, logical organization of evidence).
    3. Style: Style can refer to the overall style of an essay: whether the tone is appropriate (humorous, serious, reflective, satirical, etc.), whether you use sufficient and appropriate variety (factual, analytical, evaluative, reflective), whether you use sufficient creativity. Style can also refer to the style of individual sentences: whether you use a variety of sentences styles and lengths, whether sentences are worded clearly, and whether word choice is interesting and appropriate.
    4. Correctness: Correctness refers to grammar, punctuation, and form of the essay. You do not need to know the exact grammatical term or rule to know when a sentence is not correct. Even though you may not know the term dangling modifier, you could identify that the following sentence is not correct:

      Rolling around in the bottom of the drawer, Tim found the missing earring. [certainly the earring was rolling, not Tim!]

      You could also easily tell that the following sentence actually contains two sentences that need punctuation between them:

      The new manager instituted several new procedures some were impractical. [You need to add punctuation (period) after “procedures” and capitalize “some.”]

      Feel free to mark the essay at the point of the error with a specific recommendation (“run-on sentence”) or a general comment (“this sentence sounds wrong to me”). You can also simply put an “X” by any sentence that seems incorrect. See the back of WR for commonly used Correction Symbols.

    Further Directions for Specific Assignments

    Below are more detailed questions to consider when responding to individual types of essays. First, make sure that you have reviewed the description of the essay mode in the Essay Assignment Guidelines. Use at least one or two of these when responding to an essay. Do not simply answer yes or no; offer specific evidence from the text and elaborate on the reasons behind your answer.

    Personal Essay Critique:

    1. Does the writer have a clear but understated purpose to the essay?
    2. Does it avoid being overly moralistic or heavy-handed?
    3. Does the essay contain suspense or tension that is resolved in some way?
    4. Do you have any suggestions for organizing the essay, such as focusing in on one event rather than many, providing more background, turning explanation into action, etc.?
    5. Does the essay make good use of concrete description, anecdote, and dialogue?
    6. Does the essay help you to feel the emotions rather than just describe the emotions of the author?
    7. Does the essay reveal a significant aspect of the writer’s personality?
    8. Does the writer seem authentic?
    9. Is this a passionate piece? Is it creative?

    Critical Review Critique

    1. Does a direct thesis convey both the subject and the reviewer’s value judgment?
    2. Does the review provide a summary or description to help you experience the film, music, event, etc.? Note places where the author provides too much or too little detail.
    3. Does the essay clearly identify relevant criteria for evaluation? Are they appropriate, believable, and consistent?
    4. Are any important features of the reviewed subject omitted?
    5. Logos (logic, content): Does the essay provide sufficient, relevant, and interesting details and examples to adequately inform and entertain?
    6. Ethos (author): Does the author’s judgment seem sound and convincing?
    7. Pathos (emotional appeals): Does the author responsibly and effectively utilize emotional appeals to the audience?
    8. Does the author include adequate reference to the opposition and respond to that opposition appropriately?

    Information Essay Critique: The questions posed about an informative essay will vary, depending on the purpose and strategy of the essay. The SMGW suggests evaluating for the following issues:

    1. Is topic clearly explained and sufficiently focused?
    2. Does the content fit the audience?
    3. Is it organized effectively?
    4. Are definitions clear?
    5. Are other strategies (classification, comparison/contrast, analysis) used effectively?
    6. Are sources used sufficiently, effectively, and appropriately?

    You might also assess the following criteria:

    1. Does the author utilize vivid detail, interesting examples, and lively language?
    2. Does the essay avoid emphasizing judgment over explanation?
    3. Does the essay have a clear focus or implied thesis?

    Comparison/Contrast Essay Critique

    1. Is the purpose for a comparison or contrast evident and convincing?
    2. Does the essay identify significant and parallel characteristics for comparison?
    3. Does the author adequately explain, analyze, or reflect on the comparison or contrast?
    4. Does the author provide appropriate transitions words to indicate comparison and contrast?
    5. Is the treatment of each side of the comparison or contrast in balance?
    6. Does the essay provide sufficient, relevant, and interesting details?

    Feature Article Critique

    1. Does this article interest you? Do you think it will interest the intended audience? Can you suggest ways to increase interest?
    2. Can you tell what the “angle” or implied thesis is? Does the author avoid editorial judgment on the subject while still keeping the purpose clear?
    3. Has the writer done sufficient research? What questions have gone unasked or unanswered? Whose point of view or what information would add further to the completeness of the feature?
    4. Is the subject presented vividly with sensory images, graphic detail, and figurative language? Do you have suggestions of details or images to include?
    5. Does the writer use an appropriate mixture of anecdote, quotation, description, and explanation? Would more or less of one of these improve the essay?
    6. Are the beginning and ending paragraphs interesting and appropriate for the specific audience? Consider the need for a “lead sentence” if intended for a newspaper.

    Documented Argument Critique

    1. Is the thesis clear, argumentative, and effective? Why or why not?
    2. Are the topic and thesis are reasonable for the assignment, audience, and context of the essay?
    3. Does the author define his or her terms and provide sufficient background information? What ideas or terms are undefined or inadequately explained?
    4. Is the thesis supported by clear reasons? Are the reasons clearly worded and supported sufficiently?
    5. Do the reasons fit logically together and are they placed in the right order?
    6. Does the author adequately address the opposition? What is another opposing argument he/she should or could have addressed?
    7. Has the author done adequate research?
    8. Are the works cited adequately introduced and explained before citing from them?
    9. Does the paper contain an appropriate blend of well-placed quotations within a context of the author’s own words and paraphrases from other sources?
    10. Is the writer clearly in charge, naturally introducing and interacting with sources rather than merely reporting on them?
    11. Do you find the argument convincing? What might you add or omit?

    Business Writing Critique

    Memo

    1. Does the memo begin with the most important information?
    2. Does the memo build rapport by involving the reader in opening paragraph?
    3. Does the memo provide sufficient, relevant, and interesting details? Is it focused and brief?
    4. Does the memo focus each paragraph on one idea?
    5. Is the memo informed, accurate, demonstrating the author’s grasp of the situation?
    6. Is the final paragraph calling for a specific action? Is it brief? Does it build good will?
    7. Is the memo form correct, with concise subject line, initialed name, correct spacing?
    8. Is the information arranged (indentations and numbering) in a way that makes it easy to skim and still get central information?

    Cover letter

    1. Does the first paragraph identify who the author is, briefly state why he/she is writing, and refer to how he/she found out about the job?
    2. Does the second paragraph highlight specific strengths, special abilities, or features of the résumé to be noted?
    3. Does the third paragraph make a specific request of the reader or address what action is to be taken?
    4. Does the letter provide sufficient, relevant, and interesting details to make the request convincing?
    5. Is the letter brief and focused? What elements could be eliminated?
    6. Does the writer achieve his or her purpose? Does it make you want to consider the résumé more carefully?
    7. Is the tone of the letter courteous without being too formal, relaxed without being too familiar?
    8. Is the letter’s form appropriate (heading, spacing, greeting, salutation)? Is the letter addressed to a specific person rather than a general “Dear Madam/Sir”?

    Résumé

    1. Does the résumé contain the necessary features for the position (name/address, position desired, education, work experience, achievements, relevant personal information, references)?
    2. Does the résumé contain only essential, relevant information for the position required?
    3. Does the résumé emphasize the applicant’s strengths?
    4. Does the résumé emphasize what is unique about this person’s experience? Does it demonstrate a common interest or ability (leadership, teaching experience, dedication, creativity, etc.)?
    5. What additional information might you like to have about this applicant?
    6. If you were leading an interview based on this résumé, what are two questions you might ask?
    7. Does the résumé look neat (appropriate spacing, clear headings, good quality paper)?
    8. Is the résumé easy to read?
    9. Is the information presented as concisely as possible?
    10. Are the elements of each section of the résumé presented in a parallel format and style (begin w/ active verbs, put date in consistent place, use of parallelism for elements, consistent underlining or italics)?
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