Winnow, Winnow, Winnow

Today is laundry day!

On this day, you sort out all of the clothes by placing the colors together and by separating the colors from the whites; but you don’t just separate one piece of dirty clothing from another piece. This isn’t the only process you go through before you begin washing. You also separate dirty clothes from the clean ones.

For example, when you begin to collect clothes from closets and a shirt or two from your drawer, socks from your tennis shoes, the cotton jacket hanging from behind the chair, and a blanket that needs washing, you separate the old and dirty from the ready to wear and the clean. Not every piece of clothing needs washing. After all you may have just washed last week. However, you still need to separate the ones that need washing from the ones that are already cleaned. This is your primary motivation whether you know it or not.

You mentally process what you need to do. Then, what you say is “I need to wash!” However, what you really mean is “I need to wash. There are too many dirty clothes everywhere. I know this shirt needs cleaning. I just wore it yesterday. I had this in the closet since yesterday. I need to get these dirty clothes out of here. I won’t know which is which.” To say these words might take too long, so instead we just say “I need to wash.”

This is a simple enough illustration. Let’s move to another example concerning farming.

A thresher (farmer) separates grain from its husk by beating out the grain. The husk is a dry and useless covering over the grain. After the threshing process, the farmer separates the chaff, which now represents the husks, from the grain. Through a process of winnowing, the chaff is blown away from the grain by the wind. At the end, the farmer keeps the grain, but the chaff becomes useless.

With these two examples in mind, when you receive the comment “Winnow, Winnow, Winnow,” your professor is telling you that the parts within your paper, the ones that are functioning appropriately, are mixed with useless parts, parts that don’t really serve a purpose. Your professor may easily write “relevance” in the margins next to the part of your paragraph that needs further elaboration. Professors typically write this comment after a full read of your paper.

Parts that don’t serve a purpose may represent an 1) example that really doesn’t connect to the overall theme of your paper; 2) an incorporated quote that is out of context, one that has no real bearing on the subject matter; 3) wording that needs rephrasing or deleting altogether; 4) repetition; and/or 5) an overdependence upon quotes.

When you approach your paper with the purpose of deleting the excess, you must approach it in the same way as you do your laundry.  You know what’s dirty and you know what’s clean. You can see the dirt on the blouse or the pants. Likewise, the dirt within the paper may represent simple syntax problems, incomplete sentence structures, and related grammatical issues. Separating the useless from the useful is easy in this regard. However, when you can’t see the dirt, when you can’t see that you have flooded your paper with quotes and that it also lacks analysis, then you have to begin the winnowing process.

In this regard, whereas a farmer separates the husks from the grain by beating out the husks and blowing them away, the student writer must examine his or her paper carefully with the sole purpose of getting rid of useless parts first! In other words, if you try to save both the good along with the bad, then you will be in danger of keeping both for the sake of not letting go. No student likes to delete a quote that takes up a significant amount of space on the page; if the student have to delete the quote, then he or she will be forced to come up with something else, such as analysis.

In addition, some useless parts may represent both relevant and irrelevant quotes. Even if a quote fits your paper perfectly, there are times when it may not necessarily be relevant enough to keep.

When you can approach the winnowing task with the purpose of seeking and removing the useless parts, then you are left with useful parts, the areas of the paper that serve a real function. In other words, don’t be afraid to let go of a quote. In the place of that quote, add more evaluation. This will help to improve your analysis.

Although you have learned that sometimes a quote or another useless part may need deletion, your task is not over yet. Since you are left with the good and functioning parts, now you must perform a last review to see if what you do have is relevant enough to keep.

These parts are no longer dirty parts; in the same way you determine if a pair of pants is worthy enough to keep one week longer from dry cleaning, determine if a good example is appropriate enough to keep. Can your analysis do without it? By adopting this method, you are analyzing your analysis. Therefore, perform this type of analysis for each section of your paper. Evaluate your paper prior to submitting the final draft of the essay.

For an extended explanation, see also the comment “Delete.”

Copyright 2011 Regina Y. Favors. All Rights Reserved.

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