Of all the resources we publish on The Learning Network, perhaps it’s our vast collection of writing prompts that is our most widely used resource for teaching and learning with The Times.
This list of 401 prompts (available here in PDF) is now our third iteration of what originally started as 200 prompts for argumentative writing, and it’s intended as a companion resource to help teachers and students participate in our annual Student Editorial Contest. (In 2017, the dates for entering are March 2 to April 4.)
So scroll through the hundreds of prompts below that touch on every aspect of contemporary life — from social media to sports, politics, gender issues and school — and see which ones most inspire you to take a stand. Each question comes from our daily Student Opinion feature, and each provides links to free Times resources for finding more information. And for even more in-depth student discussions on pressing issues like immigration, guns, climate change and race, please visit our fall 2016 Civil Conversation Challenge.
What’s your favorite question on this list? What questions should we ask, but haven’t yet? Tell us in the comments.
And visit our related list as well: 650 Prompts for Narrative and Personal Writing.
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Let’s talk about software tools that can help support the ideal writing workflow that I described in the previous video.
In the previous video we looked at an ideal writing workflow that would let you start with a mind-map of some kind, convert it to an outline, and then write in an environment where changes in your draft text are synchronized to changes in your outline. Also, within this environment, we would like to have easy access to our research materials, on the fly, as we’re writing.
I’ll just say it up front. There is no single piece of software that does all this inside a single program. The most popular word processors, like Microsoft Word, don’t even come close.
What we have on the market are software products that do one or two of these jobs well. For writers looking to implement a complete digital workflow, what they normally do is find two or three products that are compatible in the sense that the exported output of one can be used as input for the other. So for example you might end up moving from a mind-mapping application to an outlining application or a word processor, and then back and forth between a reference manager and a research materials database application.
Jumping from one application to another isn’t ideal. It disrupts the writing process, and that can be costly. But the more worrisome part, from my perspective, is that it makes it harder to keep the outline and the draft content synchronized; once they get out of sync, you’ve lost one of the key features of the idealized workflow that I described in the last video.
So I’m going to have a preference for systems that can maintain the synchronization for as long as possible, but you might have other priorities, so I don’t expect everyone watching this to agree with me about the features that I think are good or bad. It’s just good to be aware of what’s available and how different applications can support different workflows.
In the rest of this video I’m going to walk you through a few examples of software products in action that will highlight the workflow principles we’ve been discussing.
I’m going to focus here on synchronized outlining and draft writing — later we’ll take a closer look at research and reference materials.
1. Mind-Mapping Software
Let’s start with mind maps and mind-mapping software. Mind maps let you brainstorm and visualize relationship between ideas, that’s their main function. Every mind mapping application lets you add branches onto a central node, label the branches, drag and drop to rearrange the branches, hide and show sub-branches, and draw linkage relationships between the nodes.
You can use this to create a standard hierarchical tree structure, but it’s more flexible than that. One of the common uses of mind maps in business is to document the flow of ideas in a meeting where people are spitballing ideas and making suggestions, and the mind maps that result can be very nonlinear.
From this starting point, software applications can add additional features, like adding graphics to represent nodes, linking documents and multi-media files to nodes, add text notes to nodes, and so on. Business-oriented mind mapping tools will have additional features for presentations, project management and collaboration.
Most of these business features aren’t relevant to essay writing. Minimally, the two features you want are the ability to add text notes to a node, and the ability to view a mind map as a traditional outline.
A writer might start off a project by brainstorming the organization of the essay in a mind map, and use the text notes attached to each node to flesh out the content. If you preview in outline mode you can get a sense of how your essay is going to look as a document.
Now, this is the point where most mind-mapping applications expect that you’ll finish up your writing project in a proper word processor, so if they have these features at all, they’ll give you options to export your outline in various formats that can be imported into a word processor. They don’t expect you to finish a completed writing project in the mind-mapping software. I say “most” because there are some exceptions, but I’ll return to these later in the video.
I want to talk about this transition from outline to a dedicated word processor, like Word, but first let’s take a look at dedicated outlining applications.
2. Outlining Software
Outlining applications have become much more common over the past couple of years. Basic outliners let you generate hierarchically structured lists. You can use them to capture ideas, make to-do lists, brainstorm the structure of a document, and so on. The more feature-rich outliners add project management features and some simple spreadsheet features, for doing things like managing budgets. And there’s a recent trend toward applications that combine note-taking and outlining features, like you see with applications like Evernote or Microsoft OneNote. But here let’s just focus on outlining.
The more basic outliners aren’t great for long-form writing; like with the mapping software, they expect you to export the outline into a word processor to finish your writing.
Some of the more feature-rich outlining apps do cater more to writers. OmniOutliner, for example, has a nice interface that you could use for long form writing. This is a good example of an environment that supports what I’m calling “synchronized outlining and draft writing mode”, where you can jump back and forth and make changes in either mode and the whole thing stays synchronized. What’s really nice is the ability to select a particular section of your document and just work on that, and then you can select multiple sections or the whole document to see how the whole thing looks in draft mode. This is a very useful feature, I like it a lot.
But I wouldn’t try to bring an essay manuscript to completion in an outliner like this. It’s not a good environment for handling certain formatting tasks, like managing references and bibliographic entries, that you would want if you’re writing an academic essay.
So once again, there’s an expectation when you use this kind of software that at some point you’re going to hand it off to a dedicated word processor.
3. Word Processors
Let’s talk about word processors. And let’s start with the obvious one, Microsoft Word, which is still the most widely used word processor in the world, by a long-shot.
Does Word have synchronized outlining and draft writing? Yes it does, though I think that very few people actually use it on a regular basis. I’ve asked my students and most of them have no idea there even is an outlining mode in Word — almost everyone works exclusively in the “print view” mode that it defaults to when you open a new document.
Here’s an essay — one of my published essays in fact — in Microsoft Word for Mac 2011. You can that it’s formatted nicely, and we’ve got a number of level 1 headings, starting with “Introduction”, then there are six numbered headings in the main body, and then the conclusion. So that’s eight level 1 headings corresponding to eight important sections that make up the essay.
Now, in section 1 of the main body titled “1. What is Environmental Philosophy?” there are two sub-sections, one called “environmental ethics” and one called “radical environmental philosophy”. These are level 2 headings and as you can see they’re formatted differently in the document; they’re centered and italicized.
Now I’m going to switch over to “outline” view. And on this view you can see the level 1 headings. The + sign indicates that are child nodes that can be expanded. So let’s expand the introduction.
Here, each paragraph of body text is its own node, and it’s tagged as “body text” in the outline level menu. I can move these paragraphs around by selecting the paragraph and using the up and down arrows in the tool bar. In this version of Word I can’t drag and drop these paragraphs, for some reason, but I can drag to rearrange the headings, which moves everything within the heading too.
So for example I can open up section 1, and you can see the body text in that section, and then we have the two sub-sections, with all their content which you can choose to hide or display. Now I can switch the order of these sub-sections in the outline. And for the sake of illustration, let’s change the wording of this section to “radical environmental philosophies”.
Now you’ll see that when we switch back to print view, the content has been reorganized, with “radical environmental philosophy” coming before “environmental ethics” instead of after. And the text has been updated.
That’s an example of “synchronized outline and draft mode”.
Most of the better word processors have a version of this feature, and some of them, like Nissus Writer, implement it much better than Word.
I learned to my chagrin that Apple dropped the outlining feature entirely from its Pages word processor when it updated to version 5. And Google Docs doesn’t have an outlining feature. So you need to check to see if your word processor has it. If it does, I certainly recommend playing around with it to see how it works.
There are a couple of features of Word’s outline mode that I don’t like. At least in my version, you can’t customize the spacing of the body text in outline mode, or the spacing between bullet nodes, so it’s all sort of crammed together. And you can’t hoist a particular node to the top of the editing window and work on it in isolation. Also, there are formatting changes that may not be preserved when move back and forth between draft mode and outline mode.
Word’s outline mode is better than not having an outline mode at all, but it’s certainly not my favorite implementation of this feature.
4. INSPIRATION: A Essay Writing App Targeted for the Education Market
The next piece of software I want to show you is called Inspiration, and it’s currently on version 9. It’s the flagship product of the company, Inspiration Software, which produces visual thinking and learning products for the education and business markets.
Inspiration runs on both Mac and PC. It’s one of the very rare platforms that integrates diagramming, mind-mapping, outlining and draft writing, so it’s certainly worth a look. It also has a presentation mode, so you can take your diagram and create a PowerPoint style slide presentation from it right in the app, which actually have some really cool features.
If you’ve never heard of Inspiration it’s because historically, the best market for this kind of product has been education, specifically K-12 education and technological support for students with learning differences, like dyslexia. So companies that make these products have focused on those education industries and not on the general consumer market. Anyone who works at an education support center for students with disabilities is familiar with Inspiration or programs like it.
I find it deeply ironic that the kind of writing workflow that I’ve been advocating in this course, which I think is helpful for any writer, is only taken seriously by companies developing software for children or students with learning disabilities, as though visual learning and organization tools were something that the average high school or college student or adult writer wouldn’t have any need for. Or worse, that if you do need, or benefit from, these visual thinking tools, that this means your writing skills are somehow immature or deficient. I couldn’t disagree more.
Let me just show you an example. Here’s a sample document. We’ve opened it in “diagram” mode, and in this mode it functions very much like a diagramming or mind-mapping program. All these images either come from symbol library that comes with the program, or grabbed from the web and dropped onto the page.
As you can see, the nodes are editable and you can add new nodes to any branch [create a new node off of “found anywhere”]. You can add text notes to any node, and the ones with a little icon in the top right corner indicate that there’s a text node, like this one attached to the “heterotrophic” node. [display] You can edit the text using the formatting tool bar at the bottom [illustrate by making a term bold].
Now, if you click on this icon on the top left we can see the document in outline mode. [click it] Now we have a number of standard outlining tools. We collapse and expand sub-nodes using the triangles on the left sidebar; we can hide and display the notes associated with each node; and we can rearrange the nodes. Here, let’s take this section C and drag it up above section B. Notice that when I did this, the lettering in the headings didn’t change. The software is automatically labeling the nodes and keeping track of their ordering. You can’t hoist a node and work on it in isolation, which is too bad, but it has some nice customization features that I like.
So you can work in this outline mode, and if you switch back to the diagram any changes you made will be updated.
Now, when it comes to formatting the final version of your document, once again, this application assumes you’re going to do that in a separate Word Processor, like Word. You can customize the layout of your export and set it up so the transfer is automatic, just by clicking the “transfer” button on top. [click it] Here we won’t include the diagram and we’ll suppress the indentation, but everything else will carry over.
It opens the documenting in Word, in “draft” mode. Here’s what it looks like in “print layout” mode. The margins are a little narrow but you can change those.
Now, for printing purposes this is fine, you can go ahead and make whatever cosmetic changes you want, but a serious downside with the way this is implemented is that you lose the heading information in the transfer. So for example if I look at the document in outline mode, you see that it carries over the formatting of the headings but Word tags all of it as body text, so it’s no longer functioning as a hierarchical outline in Word.
If you wanted to keep working on the document using synchronized outlining and draft writing, you need to go through the headings and tag them with the right outline level. And that is certainly a pain, but it’s easy enough to do. I would love to see this app developed so that it can export to a standard outline format like OPML, and to a Word format that will retain Word’s outlining tags.
It’s not a perfect app, but I think it has some really excellent features for helping students plan and make progress on a first draft of an essay.
Because this product is marketed to educators, it comes with a lot of templates and sample files, and these are useful in giving an idea of the kind of planning that can be done in an app like this. Here are few examples.
So if your assignment is to write a compare-and-contrast essay, or an argumentative essay, or a literary critique, this is where you can really work on the structural aspects of that particular kind of essay. And like I said earlier in the course, if you get the structural aspects right, you’re 80 percent of the way home.
Also, you cannot beat the price — it’s only 39 dollars, which is really cheap in the assistive technology market place. There’s also a web-hosted version now, which is only 6 dollars a month to use. I’ll give links in the resources tab for this lecture.
In this video I’ve walked through a few examples of software applications that can support at least part of an idealized writing workflow that makes it easy to move back and forth between a outline mode and a draft writing mode.
The take-away is that there is no perfect solution, but there are better and worse tools that focus on different aspects of the workflow. You’ll need to decide for yourself how you want to work and how you want the technology to support your work.
There are two things that I haven’t discussed here. I haven’t discussed research materials and how to make those accessible when you’re writing. And I haven’t talked about the tools I use in my personal writing workflow.
So stick around for the next video, because that’s coming up next.