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discussion
you will read the essay “How to Say Nothing in 500 Words” by Paul McHenry Roberts and you will
answer the following questions on the essay.
1) Why do you think you think that the author chose to start the article on college writing with an
example of an ineffective paper on college football before going into his suggestions for effective
writing? Do you think this strategy worked to start off the article, Why or why not?
2) What was the main idea of Roberts’ overall article on college writing?
3) What section of the article was the most helpful to you and what section do you think could have
benefited from further evidence or examples?
4) What suggestion of Roberts’ (avoid the obvious content, take the less usual side, avoid colorless
words, etc) surprised you and going forward, what advice might you give others when it comes to
writing the standard 500 word essay, class papers ?
HOW TO SAY NOTHING IN FIVE HUNDRED WORDS
Paul McHenry Roberts (1917-1967) taught college English for over twenty years, first at
San Jose State College and later at Cornell University. He wrote numerous books on
linguistics, including Understanding Grammar (1954), Patterns of English (1956), and
Understanding English (1958).
Freshman composition, like everything else, has its share of fashions. In the 195Os, when this
article was written, the most popular argument raging among student essayists was the proposed
abolition of college football. With the greater social consciousness of the early ’60s, the topic of
the day became the morality of capital punishment. Topics may change, but the core principles
of good writing remain constant and this essay as become something of a minor classic in
explaining them. Be concrete, says Roberts; get to the point; express your opinions colorfully.
Refreshingly, he even practices what he preaches. His essay is humorous, direct, and almost
salty in summarizing the working habits that all good prose writers must cultivate. — Editors’
note from JoRay McCuen & Anthony C. Winkler’s Readings for Writers , 3rd ed., Harcourt
Brace Jovanovich, 1980
It’s Friday afternoon, and you have almost survived another week of classes. You are just
looking forward dreamily to the weekend when the English instructor says: “For Monday you
will turn in a five hundred-word composition on college football.”
Well, that puts a good hole in the weekend. You don’t have any strong views on college
football one way or the other. You get rather excited during the season and go to all the home
games and find it rather more fun than not. On the other hand, the class has been reading Robert
Hutchins in the anthology and perhaps Shaw’s “Eighty-Yard Run,” and from the class discussion
you have got the idea that the instructor thinks college football is for the birds. You are no fool.
You can figure out what side to take.
After dinner you get out the portable typewriter that you got for high school graduation.
You might as well get it over with and enjoy Saturday and Sunday. Five hundred words is about
two double-spaced pages with normal margins. You put in a sheet of paper, think up a title, and
you’re off:
WHY COLLEGE FOOTBALL SHOULD BE ABOLISHED
College football should be abolished because it’s bad for the school and also for the
players. The players are so busy practicing that they don’t have any time for their studies.
This, you feel, is a mighty good start. The only trouble is that it’s only thirty-two words.
You still have four hundred and sixty-eight to go, and you’ve pretty well exhausted the subject. It
comes to you that you do your best thinking in the morning, so you put away the typewriter and
go to the movies. But the next morning you have to do your washing and some math problems,
and in the afternoon you go to the game. The English instructor turns up too, and you wonder if
you’ve taken the right side after all. Saturday night you have a date, and Sunday morning you
have to go to church. (You can’t let English assignments interfere with your religion.) What with
one thing and another, it’s ten o’clock Sunday night before you get out the typewriter again. You
make a pot of coffee and start to fill out your views on college football. Put a little meat on the
bones.
WHY COLLEGE FOOTBALL SHOULD BE ABOLISHED
In my opinion, it seems to me that college football should be abolished. The reason why I
think this to be true is because I feel that football is bad for the colleges in nearly every respect.
As Robert Hutchins says in his article in our anthology in which he discusses college football, it
would be better if the colleges had race horses and had races with one another, because then the
horses would not have to attend classes. I firmly agree with Mr. Hutchins on this point, and I am
sure that many other students would agree too.
One reason why it seems to me that college football is bad is that it has become too
commercial. In the olden times when people played football just for the fun of it, maybe college
football was all right, but they do not play college football just for the fun of it now as they used
to in the old days. Nowadays college football is what you might call a big business. Maybe this is
not true at all schools, and I don’t think it is especially true here at State, but certainly this is the
case at most colleges and universities in America nowadays, as Mr. Hutchins points out in his
very interesting article. Actually the coaches and alumni go around to the high schools and offer
the high school stars large salaries to come to their colleges and play football for them. There
was one case where a high school star was offered a convertible if he would play football for a
certain college.
Another reason for abolishing college football is that it is bad for the players. They do not
have time to get a college education, because they are so busy playing football. A football player
has to practice every afternoon from three to six and then he is so tired that he can’t concentrate
on his studies. He just feels like dropping off to sleep after dinner, and then the next day he goes
to his classes without having studied and maybe he fails the test.
(Good ripe stuff so far, but you’re still a hundred and fifty-one words from home. One
more push.)
Also I think college football is bad for the colleges and the universities because not very
many students get to participate in it. Out of a college of ten thousand students only seventy-five
or a hundred play football, if that many. Football is what you might call a spectator sport. That
means that most people go to watch it but do not play it themselves.
(Four hundred and fifteen. Well, you still have the conclusion, and when you retype it,
you can make the margins a little wider.)
These are the reasons why I agree with Mr. Hutchins that college football should be
abolished in American colleges and universities.
On Monday you turn it in, moderately hopeful, and on Friday it comes back marked
“weak in content” and sporting a big “D.” This essay is exaggerated a little, not much. The
English instructor will recognize it as reasonably typical of what an assignment on college
football will bring in. He knows that nearly half of the class will contrive in five hundred words
to say that college football is too commercial and bad for the players. Most of the other half will
inform him that college football builds character and prepares one for life and brings prestige to
the school. As he reads paper after paper all saying the same thing in almost the same words, all
bloodless, five hundred words dripping out of nothing, he wonders how he allowed himself to
get trapped into teaching English when he might have had a happy and interesting life as an
electrician or a confidence man.
Well, you may ask, what can you do about it? The subject is one on which you have few
convictions and little information. Can you be expected to make a dull subject interesting? As a
matter of fact, this is precisely what you are expected to do. This is the writer’s essential task. All
subjects, except sex, are dull until somebody makes them interesting. The writer’s job is to find
the argument, the approach, the angle, the wording that will take the reader with him. This is
seldom easy, and it is particularly hard in subjects that have been much discussed: College
Football, Fraternities, Popular Music, Is Chivalry Dead?, and the like. You will feel that there is
nothing you can do with such subjects except repeat the old bromides. But there are some things
you can do which will make your papers, if not throbbingly alive, at least less insufferably
tedious than they might otherwise be.
AVOID THE OBVIOUS CONTENT
Say the assignment is college football. Say that you’ve decided to be against it. Begin by
putting down the arguments that come to your mind: it is too commercial, it takes the students’
minds off their studies, it is hard on the players, it makes the university a kind of circus instead
of an intellectual center, for most schools it is financially ruinous. Can you think of any more
arguments, just off hand? All right. Now when you write your paper, make sure that you don’ t
use any of the material on this list. If these are the points that leap to your mind, they will leap to
everyone else’s too, and whether you get a “C” or a “D” may depend on whether the instructor
reads your paper early when he is fresh and tolerant or late, when the sentence “In my opinion,
college football has become too commercial,” inexorably repeated, has bought him to the brink
of lunacy.
Be against college football for some reason or reasons of your own. If they are keen and
perceptive ones, that’s splendid. But even if they are trivial or foolish or indefensible, you are
still ahead so long as they are not everybody else’s reasons too. Be against it because the colleges
don’t spend enough money on it to make it worthwhile, because it is bad for the characters of the
spectators, because the players are forced to attend classes, because the football stars hog all the
beautiful women, because it competes with baseball and is therefore un-American and possibly
Communist-inspired. There are lots of more or less unused reasons for being against college
football.
Sometimes it is a good idea to sum up and dispose of the trite and conventional points
before going on to your own. This has the advantage of indicating to the reader that you are
going to be neither trite nor conventional. Something like this:
We are often told that college football should be abolished because it has become too
commercial or because it is bad for the players. These arguments are no doubt very cogent, but
they don’t really go to the heart of the matter.
Then you go to the heart of the matter.
TAKE THE LESS USUAL SIDE
One rather simple way of getting into your paper is to take the side of the argument that
most of the citizens will want to avoid. If the assignment is an essay on dogs, you can, if you
choose, explain that dogs are faithful and lovable companions, intelligent, useful as guardians of
the house and protectors of children, indispensable in police work — in short, when all is said and
done, man’s best friends. Or you can suggest that those big brown eyes conceal, more often than
not, a vacuity of mind and an inconstancy of purpose; that the dogs you have known most
intimately have been mangy, ill-tempered brutes, incapable of instruction; and that only your
nobility of mind and fear of arrest prevent you from kicking the flea-ridden animals when you
pass them on the street.
Naturally personal convictions will sometimes dictate your approach. If the assigned
subject is “Is Methodism Rewarding to the Individual?” and you are a pious Methodist, you have
really no choice. But few assigned subjects, if any, will fall in this category. Most of them will
lie in broad areas of discussion with much to be said on both sides. They are intellectual
exercises, and it is legitimate to argue now one way and now another, as debaters do in similar
circumstances. Always take the that looks to you hardest, least defensible. It will almost always
turn out to be easier to write interestingly on that side.
This general advice applies where you have a choice of subjects. If you are to choose
among “The Value of Fraternities” and “My Favorite High School Teacher” and “What I Think
About Beetles,” by all means plump for the beetles. By the time the instructor gets to your paper,
he will be up to his ears in tedious tales about a French teacher at Bloombury High and assertions
about how fraternities build character and prepare one for life. Your views on beetles, whatever
they are, are bound to be a refreshing change.
Don’t worry too much about figuring out what the instructor thinks about the subject so
that you can cuddle up with him. Chances are his views are no stronger than yours. If he does
have convictions and you oppose him, his problem is to keep from grading you higher than you
deserve in order to show he is not biased. This doesn’t mean that you should always
cantankerously dissent from what the instructor says; that gets tiresome too. And if the subject
assigned is “My Pet Peeve,” do not begin, “My pet peeve is the English instructor who assigns
papers on ‘my pet peeve.”‘ This was still funny during the War of 1812, but it has sort of lost its
edge since then. It is in general good manners to avoid personalities.
SLIP OUT OF ABSTRACTION
If you will study the essay on college football [near the beginning of this essay], you will
perceive that one reason for its appalling dullness is that it never gets down to particulars. It is
just a series of not very glittering generalities: “football is bad for the colleges,” “it has become
too commercial,” “football is big business,” “it is bad for the players,” and so on. Such round
phrases thudding against the reader’s brain are unlikely to convince him, though they may well
render him unconscious.
If you want the reader to believe that college football is bad for the players, you have to
do more than say so. You have to display the evil. Take your roommate, Alfred Simkins, the
second-string center. Picture poor old Alfy coming home from football practice every evening,
bruised and aching, agonizingly tired, scarcely able to shovel the mashed potatoes into his
mouth. Let us see him staggering up to the room, getting out his econ textbook, peering
desperately at it with his good eye, falling asleep and failing the test in the morning. Let us share
his unbearable tension as Saturday draws near. Will he fail, be demoted, lose his monthly
allowance, be forced to return to the coal mines? And if he succeeds, what will be his reward?
Perhaps a slight ripple of applause when the third-string center replaces him, a moment of elation
in the locker room if the team wins, of despair if it loses. What will he look back on when he
graduates from college? Toil and torn ligaments. And what will be his future? He is not good
enough for pro football, and he is too obscure and weak in econ to succeed in stocks and bonds.
College football is tearing the heart from Alfy Simkins and, when it finishes with him, will
callously toss aside the shattered hulk.
This is no doubt a weak enough argument for the abolition of college football, but it is a
sight better than saying, in three or four variations, that college football (in your opinion) is bad
for the players.
Look at the work of any professional writer and notice how constantly he is moving from
the generality, the abstract statement, to the concrete example, the facts and figures, the
illustrations. If he is writing on juvenile delinquency, he does not just tell you that juveniles are
(it seems to him) delinquent and that (in his opinion) something should be done about it. He
shows you juveniles being delinquent, tearing up movie theatres in Buffalo, stabbing high school
principals in Dallas, smoking marijuana in Palo Alto. And more than likely he is moving toward
some specific remedy, not just a general wringing of the hands.
It is no doubt possible to be too concrete, too illustrative or anecdotal, but few
inexperienced writers err this way. For most the soundest advice is to be seeking always for the
picture, to be always turning general remarks into seeable examples. Don’t say, “Sororities teach
girls the social graces.” Say, “Sorority life teaches a girl how to carry on a conversation while
pouring tea, without sloshing the tea into the saucer.” Don’t say, “I like certain kinds of popular
music very much.” Say, “Whenever I hear Gerber Sprinklittle play ‘Mississippi Man’ on the
trombone, my socks creep up my ankles.”
GET RID OF OBVIOUS PADDING
The student toiling away at his weekly English theme is too often tormented by a figure:
five hundred words. How, he asks himself, is he to achieve this staggering total? Obviously by
never using one word when he can somehow work in ten.
He is therefore seldom content with a plain statement like “Fast driving is dangerous.”
This has only four words in it. He takes thought, and the sentence becomes:
In my opinion, fast driving is dangerous.
Better, but he can do better still:
In my opinion, fast driving would seem to be rather dangerous.
If he is really adept, it may come out:
In my humble opinion. though I do not claim to be an expert on this complicated subject,
test driving, in most circumstances, would seem to be rather dangerous in many respects, or at
least so it would seem to me.
Thus four words have been turned into forty, and not an iota of content has been added.
Now this is a way to go about reaching five hundred words, and if you are content
with a “D” grade, it is as good a way as any. But if you aim higher, you must work differently.
Instead of stuffing your sentences with straw, you must try steadily to get rid of the padding, to
make your sentences lean and tough. If you are really working at it, your first draft will greatly
exceed the required total, and then you will work it down, thus:
It is thought in some quarters that fraternities do not contribute as much as might be
expected to campus life.
Some people think that fraternities contribute little to campus life.
The average doctor who practices in small towns or in the country must toil night
and day to heal the sick.
Most country doctors work long hours.
When I was a little girl, I suffered from shyness and embarrassment in the presence of
others.
I was a shy little girl.
It is absolutely necessary for the person employed as a marine fireman to give the
matter of steam pressure
his undivided attention at all times.
The fireman has to keep his eye on the steam gauge.
You may ask how you can arrive at five hundred words at this rate. Simple. You dig up
more real content. Instead of taking a couple of obvious points off the surface of the topic and
then circling warily around them for six paragraphs, you work in and explore, figure out the
details. You illustrate. You say that fast driving is dangerous, and then you prove it. How long
does it take to stop a car at forty and at eighty? How far can you see at night? What happens
when a tire blows? What happens in a head-on collision at fifty miles an hour? Pretty soon your
paper will be full of broken glass and blood and headless torsos, and reaching five hundred
words will not really be a problem.
CALL A FOOL A FOOL
Some of the padding in freshman themes is to be blamed not on anxiety about the word
minimum but on excessive timidity. The student writes, “In my opinion, the principal of my high
school acted in ways that I believe every unbiased person would have to call foolish.” This isn’t
exactly what he means. What he means is, “My high school principal was a fool.” If he was a
fool, call him a fool. Hedging the thing about with “in-my-opinion’s” and “it-seems-to-me’s” and
“as-I-see-it’s” and “at-least-from-my-point-of-view’s” gains you nothing. Delete these phrases
whenever they creep into your p …
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