Ambiguous (Revision Plan)

Overview

Alright, here’s the first comment. I’m quite sure that somewhere in your academic development you have received this comment. The word “ambiguous” is an interesting term because it means something that is not clear because the something could have more than one meaning. In other words, whatever the something is, we can understand it in more than one way. This type of comment further adds to the student’s dilemma of trying to understand the teacher’s perspective and then applying this understanding to the paper.

Location

Area of Paper: near the thesis sentence, topic sentence

Type of Paper: revision plan

In researching some of my old academic papers and reviewing past papers I have graded, I conclude that you can typically find this comment near the thesis sentence, near a few sentences that supposed to support the topic sentence, and anywhere or paper you indicate plans for confronting the task of revising the work.

If your professor asks you to develop a plan for revising the work, and you hash out one that appears on the surface to have a dual thesis or imply multiple themes, then you will definitely receive this type of comment.

If you write you are going to do one thing with the paper, but don’t adopt a specific plan of action regarding how you will accomplish the goal, then rest assured that your professor will believe you don’t fully understand the topic and that you plan to accomplish the goal of writing the paper without a clear plan, ironically.

Sample Paper

In my English classes, I typically assign a “Revision Plan” requirement where I simply get the students to develop a plan for revising their essays. They can’t tell me that they will check for grammar and then turn in the paper. No, they have to create a schedule. They have to walk me through each paragraph, explaining the problems/issues/questions about the paragraph, detailing what steps they will take to revise/change/improve it.

They have to identify which topic sentence doesn’t support the thesis. That’s the only specific job of a “topic sentence” anyway, which is to support the thesis. The topic sentence doesn’t support the quotes or any other supporting information, so remember this as you revise your papers.

Below is a sample essay prompt and my assessment of the ideas the student expresses within the response to the prompt. I instructed my students to develop a revision plan for a homework essay assignment written on the topic of Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” The follow-up response is a sample revision plan.

In my class, revision plans are much longer, close to five or more pages.

Prompt

Develop an essay that illustrates how you will achieve revising Homework #2.  Include the following subheadings to structure your essay.

  • Introduction: Identify your problem.  Describe your thesis.
  • Research Goals/Methodology: Describe your goals.  Outline your method for completing the project.
  • Writing Schedule: Provide a timetable for accomplishing the rewriting of Homework #2.
  • Literature Review: Provide a description of two works you will use in the essay.
  • Professional Statement on MLA: Write a statement on how you will incorporate MLA in your essay.
  • Conclusion: Describe how your paper might have an impact on students reading King’s letter for the first time.

I use this structure to keep it simple for students and to help them organize their thoughts. It’s effective in terms of helping them develop a structure for the plan.

Response

Here’s a response to the prompt. 

My thesis is King discusses segregation and the direct-action program. In my paper, I did not construct a clear thesis. My topic sentences did not support my thesis. I should have added more supporting evidence. A quote I used didn’t make much sense. I should have checked to see if my quotes matched my topic sentence. Therefore, my goal is to create a better thesis. I will devote whatever free time I can to scanning my paper so I can make sure my paper is done and done right. I will spend time looking through my books and looking for good quotes. The reason why I didn’t get a good grade on the last paper was because of my bad scheduling. I should have devoted more time.  So, this time I will go over my paper for any mistakes. My paper will be ready by Monday to turn it in on Wednesday.

Given the idea of developing a revision plan and given the idea that the person reading this blog is definitely a teacher, it is clear that there are some issues with the paragraph. There are some sentences you could gloss over and just excuse the student for not being more specific in developing a clear plan. For example, the statement, “My topic sentences did not support my thesis,” is a perfect example. At least the student is aware that this can pose as a problem to the rest of the essay.

However, there are other sentences that definitely need more attention. The sentence, “I will spend time looking through my books and looking for good quotes,” doesn’t really provide an indication of what the student will do with the chapters or with the book for that matter. Herein lies the dilemma.

How do you understand the revision process enough to convey how you will accomplish revising the essay?

Problems

Let’s analyze the paragraph. There are some ambiguities with the plan.

Ambiguity #1: I did not construct a clear thesis.

The student doesn’t outline the problem or issue with the original thesis. What was unclear about it?

Ambiguity #2: My topic sentence did not support my thesis.

The student doesn’t outline which topic sentence is a problem or has an issue. Because the student doesn’t provide the thesis so we, as readers, can assess the problem, we are left wondering if the topic sentence does or doesn’t support the thesis. If we knew which topic sentence had the problem and how it affected the thesis or other sentences, then we could better determine which parts of the topic sentence did not support the parts of the thesis.

For example, you can’t say Jane is nice, pretty, and outgoing without addressing each “part” of Jane. Whether this type of sentence represents the thesis for the essay or a topic sentence, you have to address each quality of Jane.

Ambiguity #3: I should have added more supporting evidence.

1) For what part of your paper would you need supporting evidence?

2) What part of the paper already lacks supporting evidence?

3) Will the supporting evidence you use support your ideas or the author’s?

Ambiguity #4: Therefore, my goal is to create a better thesis.

1) How do you define “better”?

2) What does the word mean within the context of your revision plan?

Changing a few words doesn’t make a sentence “better.” However, changing the structure of a sentence and/or paragraph so that it becomes logical for the whole paper is a step in the right direction toward “better.”

Ambiguity #5: I will devote whatever free time I can to scanning my paper so I can make sure my paper is done and done right.

This is a very interesting sentence. There’s much ambiguity here. Let’s analyze the student’s use of wording.

The word “scan” has two definitions:

  • To examine something in detail
  • To look through something quickly

Therefore, in considering your revision plan, how will you “scan?” Which of the two definitions will you use to apply to the plan?

  • Will you do both: scan in detail and look through quickly?
  • What areas of your paper will you devote to “looking through” something quickly?

It is no easy task to revise your paper, but it is equally no easy task to execute a plan without specifics.

In addition, the phrase “done and done right” has more than one meaning. When something is “done,” this means the something represents a conclusion, a finished product.

However, “done right” could mean that you have finished your paper or it could mean that you have finished your paper and have made sure that the paper conforms to the requirements of the assignment.

What does “done” mean to you in terms of both developing a revision plan and completing the assignment? This is a question you have to ask yourself as you develop a plan for revising your paper.

Solutions

There’s much more ambiguity within the passage, but it’s important to provide you with quality versus quantity. I could continue but I believe that I have outlined the meaning of this comment within the context of revision planning.

Here are some steps to consider as you think about sketching a plan for revising your paper:

Step #1

Construct a thesis that is attainable, measurable, and clear from ambiguity. Remember the basic math problem? The numbers always check out. You should do the same with an essay. You should evaluate your topic sentences against the thesis to see if they “check out.” If you see that Jane has three qualities and you have only addressed two within the body of your paper, then this is your problem. In your revision plan, outline this as a problem.

Step #2

Since the author is not ambiguous, your thesis shouldn’t be ambiguous.  Do what the author does.

What does this mean?

Well, you have this author whose primary purpose for writing is to outline how grading standards do not add to learning. This is the author’s thesis. In your thesis, your job is to either refute the author’s claim or support it. Instead, you try to do both. However, the author doesn’t do both. His thesis is clear: grading standards do not add to learning.

Therefore, do what the author does, in principle. Analyze not only the purpose of the author for writing the article/book, but also the structure of the work. If the author assesses his claim from two perspectives, then you must do the same. As you construct your thesis, don’t forget to pick a side. You are either for his claim or not.

Step #3

Preserve the intent of the author.  Accurately convey the author’s viewpoints. Don’t project your opinions onto the author’s work.

When an author initially writes, he doesn’t write with the reader in mind. He doesn’t say to himself, “If I include this character within the work, the reader will like it and want to continue reading.” No. He writes for his own pleasure. He writes out of necessity. He writes because the act of writing is cathartic.

Therefore, challenge the author’s beliefs, but make sure to outline accurately what the author believes. Use wording such as “He states.” If the author includes words such as “believe” and “assume,” then you use those same words within your analysis.

“The author believes that grading standards do not add learning. He further states. . . .”

Always keep the author in mind as you write. Keep in mind particularly what he actually accomplished within the work.

Step #4

Make sharper distinctions between what happens first, second, third, and last by using these words.

For example, when the author doesn’t provide wording that indicates chronology, within your essay you must provide time-specific words to guide the reader. In essence, it is your responsibility to convey logic, structure, and cohesion in reference to the author’s work by the words you use within your essay.

How do you do this?

Well, what happens first in the story? What happens after this? The only thing you have is the story as a reference, not necessarily the author’s words. Therefore, you must convey the right meanings. You make the distinction, so the reader of your paper doesn’t develop a wrong perspective of the author’s work.

Step #5

Leave no room for uncertainty. As you develop a revision plan, think about the words you use to convey to your professor how you will approach revising a paper. Refer to a dictionary for each verb you use to convey your plan. As you can see above, even small words such as “scan” and “look” and “done” can have two or more different meanings.

Conclusion

All for now. Think about this comment as you develop your revision plan and revise your academic essay. In addition, consider this comment even before you receive it on your paper. You should check for ambiguity before submitting your paper.

For an extended explanation, see also the comment “Ambiguous (Thesis and Author’s Ideas).”

Copyright 2011 Regina Y. Favors. All Rights Reserved.

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