1.5 Reading to Write

Nancy Ami; Natalie Boldt; Sara Humphreys; and Erin Kelly

For the purpose of illustration, let’s assume you have an assignment to write an essay that records your reaction to a class reading, such as an academic article about restorative justice programs for first-time offenders (If you would like to practice, please do open this Youth Outcomes in a Community Collaboration Model[1] and then follow along). You have read the article, and now you can get started in a number of different ways.

You can start with what’s in your head already. Try writing down all your thoughts and questions. Try to imagine yourself having a conversation with the author of the article — what would you ask her about? Pretend that you are an individual who has been charged and found guilty of having stolen a bike — what story could you tell about this situation, and what would you want to happen next? Next imagine that you are the person whose bike was stolen — what would you want to see happen to the person who took your property? Your thoughts and imagination can generate lots of material for a writing project. And there is a long tradition of writers talking about the experience of being inspired, feeling that an idea has come to them and that they only have to write it down.

But we can’t always count on inspiration to get a job done. (The painter Pablo Picasso once said, “Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.”) To get started, you can also look around and collect what seems like it might prove useful. An ancient term for the earliest stage of the writing process is inventio — which doesn’t align with our sense of the word invention (to make something that didn’t exist previously). Inventio means to find, come upon, or discover something already there (read more about “inventio” on the Silva Rhetoricae — or “Forest of Rhetoric” website).[2]

In other words, you can start the process of looking for and collecting what’s available. In the case of this essay assignment, you could re-read the original article and take notes on the points that seem most important to you or points that relate to what the assignment asks of you. For example, if you are asked to write an annotated bibliography (see chapter two for details on what an annotated bibliography is!), then you would read for the article’s arguments and evidence. Actually, this approach works well no matter what kind of academic article you are reading: read for the argument and you really can’t go wrong. If you have time, maybe try this out with the article we provided for you to practice with?

Once you have found the main argument (and the supporting arguments and evidence), then you could write down a couple of sentences recording whether you agree or disagree with the author’s ideas or arguments and why. You could also do a bit of reading around. (When such reading around occurs in a more formal way, we call it research.)

Now go and watch videos on YouTube that have something to do with the topic of restorative justice. What did you find? Even when you’re not writing a formal research essay, you should keep track of all the sources of information you look at and what you learned from them. For now, though, this can be a pretty loose set of notes. (In Chapter Four we will get into how you can keep track of the resources you find and acknowledge them in a piece of writing by following a set of formal conventions.)

And remember that you can find great material for an essay by talking to other people. Set yourself the task of talking to a couple of friends or classmates about this topic to see what they think — their ideas can push your thinking in a lot of new directions.

Depending on the assignment, you might be tempted to streamline this thinking process and come up with just one idea. You might be surprised to learn that this is not the most productive way to produce a first draft. That is, if you only have 250 words to write, you may think it unnecessary or a waste of time to write up 1000 words of notes and ideas. But if you only write to the word count, then you will have a problem revising your work. Write for the meaning first and then worry about the word count, not the other way around. Trust us. Write more, not less and then revise.

While there is such a thing as too much, think about setting a quota for your pre-thinking work, remembering that more is often better. In fact, there’s a long tradition (starting with Erasmus of Rotterdam in the early sixteenth century[3]) of teaching students to write well by encouraging them to make much more than is needed.

We would say that if you need 250 words, it’s a good idea to generate at least a couple of pages of notes from your own head, by collecting ideas from other sources, or through a combination of these approaches (see the list of brainstorming techniques in 1.4 Getting Started for how to get started writing out your ideas). You’re likely to find that making more will give you ample choices of what content is most appropriate and effective for your project — and the best choice is not always the first idea that pops into your head.

If you would like to know more about Erasmus of Rotterdam’s concept of copia in writing, but really do not want to read a 16th century text (if you do, please look up Erasmus’ de Copia in any university library), then check out this handout from Dr. Gideon Burton. You will see just how many variations there are to express ONE idea.[4] Each variation has a slightly different meaning and as you practice, you will pick up these skills too.

  1. Cynthia Zubritsky, Holly Wald and Nancy Jaquette, “Youth Outcomes in a Community Collaboration Model,” Sociology and Criminology-Open Access 4, no. 2 (2016): 142, https://www.longdom.org/open-access/youth-outcomes-in-a-community-collaboration-model-2375-4435-1000142.pdf.
  2. Silva Rhetoricae: The Forest of Rhetoric (website), Brigham Young University, accessed May 25, 2020, http://rhetoric.byu.edu/.
  3. Eric MacPhail, “Desiderius Erasmus (1468?–1536),” in The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, accessed May 25, 2020, https://www.iep.utm.edu/erasmus/.
  4. Gideon Burton, “A Short Guide to Copia,” Brigham Young University, accessed May 25, 2020, http://burton.byu.edu/Composition/CopiaGuide.pdf.


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Why Write? A Guide for Students in Canada Copyright © 2020 by Nancy Ami; Natalie Boldt; Sara Humphreys; and Erin Kelly is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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