Final Portfolio Revision Guide
1) Does the paper have an adequately focused thesis, a clear title, and an effective introduction? Is its focus and transitional guidance significantly improved over its state in the previous final draft?
Signs of thesis focus: readers can agree on a question of set of questions that the thesis answers, and the answer is adequate to the scope of the questions. For example, “What would reduce vandalism and accident rates in Heubeck?” is more tightly focused than “Are students today more destructive than they were in days of yore?” “Why do dormitory accidents happen?” is very unfocused for a document smaller than a book.
Titles are “clear” when readers can “see through” them to anticipate the topic and the kind of thesis the paper will argue about that topic. For example, “American Organ Donation Rules: Are They Wasteful?” is easier to “see through” than “Organ Donation Rules.” “Organ Donation” is even more opaque to the reader.
Introductions are “effective” when they introduce readers to the paper’s fully articulated thesis and its supporting logic’s main premises as efficiently as possible. The supporting logic sets up “transitional guidance” so that readers can predict the number of steps the argument will take, and the logic of their sequence. This makes readers willing participants in the paper, not resisting victims of its progress. Introductions may conceal surprises, usually to be revealed at the start of the argument to counteract common misunderstandings, or in the conclusion, to show unexpected causes or consequences, for example. However, surprises never should be accidental.
2) Does the paper have an organization which is logically developed, avoiding fallacies and making enough connections to lead the best reader to agreement? Is this a substantive improvement over the previous final draft?
Logical development usually is measured by how well paragraph order suits the conclusions being drawn and the best readers who are expected to share them. For example, a paper arguing that killing in self-defense should be legal even when obviously lethal levels of force are used (e.g., .45-caliber automatics, vs. stun guns), which would be aimed at those trying to limit the use of force and killing in general, would be mistaken if did not ever acknowledge that some limits on force are acceptable (WMD?). Should this be mentioned first, or in the middle, or near the end?
Logical fallacies always are damaging to the argument, and often are completely fatal. Even if they don’t destroy the possibility that the thesis might be true if supported differently, they persuade the readers that the author is too careless to do so in any event.
Connections between parts of an argument ultimately depend on our old friend, the syllogism (if a=b, and b=c, then a=c). If you cannot reduce your argument to a sequence of if-then statements that chain together like that, you may have too few connections to persuade readers. Narrowing your thesis focus may help you achieve this goal.
3) Does the specific evidence support the thesis in sufficient quantity and with sufficient quality? Is it accurate in reference to sources, and is it used carefully? Is it substantially better evidence than that used in the previous draft?
Sometimes evidence quantity rules readers’ response, as when authors generalize from their unusual solitary experience to make broad claims about everyone’s experience, an “expressive writing” or “creative writing” error that mistakes academic writing for fiction.
Quality of evidence usually counts for more than mere quantity if all of it is logically applied. Improving sources of evidence, or finding evidence that best suits a conclusion, will improve readers’ reception of conclusions. For instance, popular web sites are notoriously inaccurate, whereas peer-reviewed scholarship must be accurate or its authors lose their jobs. Evidence of grade inflation in American colleges may suggest that graduates’ quality has declined, but the two are not necessarily connected—a better source would be a series of annual surveys of employer satisfaction with newly hired employees who recently graduated from college.
“Accurate” use means not bending sources’ meaning by selective quotation, or misleading paraphrase. “Careful” use means anticipating when and how evidence needs to be explained to readers, and never telling them things they do not need to know.
4) Is the paper written clearly enough so that no sentences or paragraphs confuse the reader? Are words which are essential to the analysis defined carefully enough to avoid ambiguity or incoherence in the argument? Is it significantly better written than the previous final draft?
Sentence and paragraph coherence can be tested only by exposing the sentences and paragraphs to more than one reader. You can start by reading it aloud to yourself, since your aural/oral language system is separate and different from your visual language system. A better test is to ask someone whose command of academic English is likely to be better than yours to read what you have written, and learn from them when they discover incoherence.
Words’ meanings are complex and depend upon the context in which they are used. “Love” means differently on a tennis court than it does in a law court, and it had a different range of possible meanings in the fifteenth century than it does today. Because you are not training to be poets, you haven’t time to test all your words, but the key words in your title and thesis and supporting logic must be used accurately, and they are worth testing before you consider revision complete. Test the words’ meanings against those of their near-synonyms, and pick the most accurate one. The best test of word usage is a dictionary with full-sentence usage examples, rather than mere phrase definitions. The Library offers you a connection to the greatest dictionary in the English language, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Use the Quick Links, “A-Z” menu to go there. Note that it is historical, listing words' meanings (with usage examples) from their first recorded use to the most recent. Scroll until you find the sense which you think corresponds to your intended use.