APU APU Static Business Leading Forward Podcast

How to Write a Better Paper Using Key Sentences

Podcast with Dr. Wanda CurleeProgram Director, School of Business and
Dr. William Oliver HedgepethFaculty Member, Transportation and Logistics Management and
Dr. Robert Gordon, Faculty Member, Reverse Logistics

Writing is one of the most important skills both in school and the workforce. In this episode, three School of Business faculty members share tips on constructing a well-written paper using key sentences to develop strong paragraphs and clearly convey information. Hear discussion on building an outline, the importance of editing and reviewing, and how writing skills and the ability to communicate through writing translates to the workforce.

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Dr. Wanda Curlee: Welcome to the podcast, I’m your host, Wanda Curlee. Today, we are going to be chatting about thesis statements and a paragraph’s first sentence. Today, my guests are Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth and Dr. Robert Gordon. Dr. Hedgepeth and Dr. Gordon are professors of Logistics, Supply Chain Management and Reverse Logistic courses at American Public University. They have taught for many years and are accomplished authors. Today, our questions are going to be a round robin. Oliver and Robert, welcome back, and thank you for joining me.

Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: Well, thank you very much for having us discuss this today.

Dr. Robert Gordon: Thank you, Wanda.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: You’re welcome. You have helped students for many years. Why is it important to you to help them with organizing and writing a paper? Robert, would you go first please?

Dr. Robert Gordon: Sure. Essentially, writing a paper is no different than writing a memo or an email so it’s an important skill for communication, regardless of the position and location in the organization. So, a student really needs to understand the secrets of getting their message across. They need to understand how to construct paragraphs and sentences that convey meaning and understanding to others.

[Podcast: How to Write a Well-Crafted Research Paper for a College Class]

And so, even though this is an academic skill in the regard of writing a paper, it’s translatable to any field in any industry. So, students really need to have a firm understanding of this regardless of where they are.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Great. Oliver, what do you have to add?

Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: Well, when a student is writing a paper, let’s just go straight into it. First, we go back to the introduction where students describe how they find their research, but that’s where they really find their research strength, even though they don’t think they have it. We simply ask them what they are finding from the research of a topic, for example, such as an example of supply chain. But we can help them along by asking them to search that subject, supply chain for example, in publications, say the last two years.

And we ask them and what will come will really surprise them. We say, look up newspaper, what’s going on? The headline or topic, many papers that come up on their computer screen, contains really all kinds of, all various topics that they can choose from. And many times a student thinks the topic or the thesis statement are given to them by the teacher. Well, we can do that, but that happens now and then, but in most college courses, it’s really up to the student to choose a topic and that scares them.

Then this thesis statement comes up. They’re told to write a thesis statement and it comes up to be done as being part of that topic, and the headline or the research the paper they’re reading. So really what I’d like to ask your students to do is look up online what’s going on. And what’s going on recently in the subject Robert and I teach, supply chain management, logistics, reverse logistics, and just do a search of that in New York Times or any newspaper and boom, you’ve got look at what’s happening in containers or shipping or something. And that’s a good topic. And you can make a thesis statement of what is the problem?

And one thing I’d like to ask them to do is, it’s a problem. You don’t want to write about here’s the best ways to do something. That’s a textbook. A textbook will tell you the 5 or 10 steps to do a logistic system or supply chain the right way. That’s not a good paper. Write something that’s a problem. Look at the headline. So, I get them started in that way.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: That’s interesting. Robert, do you have any response to that?

Dr. Robert Gordon: Yeah, I agree. I think that students really should be addressing problems and adding knowledge. Too often students are going to say, “Okay, well I want to discuss topic one, which was what we discussed in the class.” And that generally doesn’t make for a great paper, because all you’re doing is referring back to the information that’s available.

For example, sometimes with students in project management, they’ll say, “Oh, I want to write a paper about project management and how projects should be managed.” And that really doesn’t tell me a lot because I could just pick up and do the same.

And so, I often have to go back and say, “Okay, well, that’s great that you want to write about project management, but you have to have something a little bit more or what value are you adding? Or how is this research?” Because if you’re just going to one book and giving me the answer from that one book, that’s not really research, that’s just kind of regurgitation.

So, you really have to sometimes dig to try to get them to think broader. And Oliver’s right about it, they can answer a problem or solve a problem or give a recommendation on a problem. Now there’s a skill you can put your teeth into because that’s going to help you at work. It’s going to help you in your career. And if you’re an entrepreneur, that’s going to help you there, too. So, if you think in that way, you’re going to be better off writing your paper because you’re immediately going to understand at the topic, and you’re going to be able to write that thesis statement.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: What do you do for your students that are struggling with thesis statements or don’t know how to do it? For example, I’ve gone to the introduction of a student’s paper and I read it and I think, “Gosh, what’s the thesis statement?” How do you help your students with that?

Dr. Robert Gordon: Well, I ask the scary questions like, “Okay, well, that’s great, but what are you really going to research? And then give me like a one sentence, which really should be the topic sentence at the end of the paragraph, give me the one sentence explanation of everything you’re going to write.” And that usually scares them. But when they do manage it, they suddenly realize, “Wow, okay, if I can put it into one sentence, I suddenly can then expand upon that.” And that’s where I tell them that’s where the research comes in because you come up with an idea or a problem that needs to be solved or something of that nature. And then now you go and find the data to support it or to reject it. That’s what I do.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Okay. Oliver, do you have a different approach?

Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: Well, no, Robert and I are on the same approach, same structure there. What I do add is a different term and I talk about the key sentence. And the key sentence is something that’s written about a lot by people who write books and things. But the key sentence is, the opening sentence for that paragraph. Now Robert’s right. We get the topic, we get the problem. They can start writing about it. They can write five or six paragraphs on, here’s the problem of the supply chain of ships at sea, for example.

The key to writing is the key sentence. And you write a paragraph about, say, the ship is stuck at sea. The first sentence should be the sentence that really leads you to the rest of the paragraph. And each paragraph that you write has a key sentence, and you have to learn to write these paragraph that describes, say the problem of the ship at sea, and maybe the containers that are on that ship.

Do you write about maybe that ship is wasting money? So, there’s money that’s being wasted. You might write about is that ship delaying other ships? There’s a lot of things, for example, that you can look at any problem, any newspaper stories Robert mentioned, and write about it. But the key is putting that story together in a series of paragraphs that people want to read from one paragraph to another. And you say, you have to think through the problem and what’s more important. Is it more important to talk about the ship being there? Is it more important to talk about the number of ships that are behind it waiting and losing money?

Is it more important to talk about, what happens to all these containers that are not on the ground and not on trucks, they’re waiting? What do you write about in each paragraph? But each paragraph doesn’t matter unless you have it written such as there are key sentences and that thesis statement, as Robert mentioned, when you finish writing your paper about all these things we’ve talked about, if you were to take that first sentence, that’s a key sentence, of each paragraph you could then kind of roll them up into a new little paragraph called, guess what? The abstract, that’s kind of the story you’re getting ready to tell.

So, you need to tell the students to write these stories, not just there’s a ship at sea stuck, but what are the different parts of it and give them the leverage and say, this is not textbook. This is not from a textbook. This is you using your own skills, your own talents that you have. You do have talent to tell a story and write those in terms of key sentences, and then build those paragraphs each one along maybe one note of piece of that problem. That’s kind of how I approach it. Did that sound okay, Robert?

Dr. Robert Gordon: That sounds great. But I kind of want to build on this whole concept, because again, we’re talking about ships at sea and things, and it kind of reminded me of when I took my son to work, I was working at a shipping company and we went onboard the ship and he saw the bridge. He met, the captain walked around and I remember at one point I asked him, “So what does the ship move?” And he answered “Big boxes.”

And if you think about it from a container ship, from the perspective of a child, I see cargo. I know what’s inside, we loaded and unload these containers. I know it’s some of it’s food, some of it’s someone’s household goods, because these are all going to the islands. And so, it made me think, and this is exactly how it works with writing.

When you know what you’re writing, you have a tendency of seeing inside the boxes, but if you aren’t communicating properly, you’re just seeing the outside. So, when you write that paper or you’re writing that paragraph, you need to make sure that the audience can see what you see. Because if you’re not, they’re just going to see a bunch of sentences and words and things like that that aren’t going to connect. And a lot of times they’ll just put down data like it’s like, okay, here’s information rather than painting that picture or explaining and communicating to others. And that’s really the skill that needs to be done because those paragraphs have to build the sentences, have to build to become something more rather than just seeing boxes, you got to see what’s inside.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: I’ve actually had students submit me three, four-page long papers and it’s one paragraph. And I go back to the students and said you’ve got to give the reader breaks in what they’re reading and you’ve got to organize your paper. How do you help the student integrate their research into organizing the paper?

Dr. Robert Gordon: Okay. Well, I’ll jump in. This is how I get my point across. I look at the giant paragraph, because students like direct giant paragraphs, because they put everything together. And so I will take the first couple sentences and say, “Okay, we started here, we’re talking about logistics. And then we meander around and then we end up talking about human resources.” And I tell them as the reader, how are we connecting this? Because if you aren’t having a paragraph that just hits one topic, it’s going to be very hard for someone to follow it.

And another example I like to try to use is, break out your conclusion, the big paragraph. And then they write the magic words “in conclusion” and they write a few words and they say, “That’s a conclusion.” I’m like, “No, that’s a sentence at the end of a giant paragraph” that makes it even more confusing to the reader because now they think, what did we conclude? Because I’ve read a lot of things and I didn’t see where we ended. Oliver, do you want to add?

Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: There’s so many different ways to do this, the trick is to get them to think in terms of that problem, that long paragraph that it does have segments into it. There are so many ways to approach problems and one we’re talking about, but the key is to get them to separate these little parts of the problem into separate paragraphs of that story. And they don’t really see it. They tell the story, but they need to step back and see what are the parts here?

So, the key thing is what is the problem that you want to write about? And there are so many, and then you tell them, just pick one. They want to write about the whole of thing sometimes, I will solve the whole problem of logistics or supply chain or cargo movement. No, no, no. There are thousands of ways to tell the story. Robert, isn’t, it’s just wonderful. That’s kind I would tell them to think about. Give them freedom to expand and tell their story.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Wow, this is all fascinating and we need to take a little break. So, today we are speaking with Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth and Dr. Robert Gordon regarding thesis statements and how to write a better paper. So, we were talking about telling a story, but there’s another way to do it. Possibly writing an outline and integrating the thesis statement into that. Should they write the outline first or should they even write an outline? And how do you come up with the thesis statement? Oliver, you want to go first?

Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: That’s interesting question. The answer is yes and no. If you are really excited about a topic and I would tell them, “Just start writing. Okay. If you’re excited about it right now, just sit down and start writing the story. We’ll work on the outline later.” But if not, they’re thinking, “Oh, I’ve looked at these topics.” Then I would say, “What are the key things about it? And do write an outline.” Now there is a format to go through in terms of writing an opening, a thesis statement, a hypothesis, maybe research questions that you want to address.

Yes. They’re either format to follow in that sense, if you don’t feel comfortable about it in terms of writing that story you should probably then do an outline that says, okay, introduction and maybe a hypothesis, if it’s more of a scientific paper or just the topic. They might say, “Oh, I think if ships are stuck at sea, then cargo doesn’t move.” That sounds like a good hypothesis or a thesis statement. And then may be some questions if not questions they can address, then they know they’re going to have a conclusion at the end.

So do some small outline if they’re not really comfortable with it, that’s kind of two approaches that listen to the student and if the student’s excited about it, write something down and we’ll work on the outline next. If not, then say here’s an outline. Then let’s start to talking about the topic and fill into spaces, introduction, hypothesis and that.

Dr. Robert Gordon: I do understand a student’s passion about a topic that could write and go on. But my problem has been that then I get that paper of all this passion and writing, and then they never went back to make the outline to organize it, because now I get the giant paragraphs and they’re very enthusiastic. And I feel for students, particularly when a student comes to me and they have any kind of level of fear or any kind of concern to start with about writing a paper. I say, make the outline, because it will help them better structure it and then try to give them more details and say, “Okay, now that you have the outline, go and say, all right, well say the introduction, here’s the topic. And now here’s the body. You can almost make it to each paragraph is each one of those sections. And then you build it that way.”

Now what the recommendation I often give to students to build this outline, because they say, well, “You know, Dr. Gordon, this topic is so broad. How do I make the outline?” I go and say, “All right, well you always start knowing there’s an introduction and conclusion.” And then at that point you go and see what the assignment is. What are the questions the assignment requires? The assignment may require some history on the topic. It may require some research on the topic and it may require, let’s say some comparison and contrasting of different viewpoints on the topic. So now you say, okay, those are the questions that has to be built into the outline. And then you start building paragraphs underneath those major headers. Now again, if you’re passionate about it, you can start writing. There are topics that I can write about and just go forth.

But I find and then you have to kind of go back and really edit what you’re doing, because if you aren’t editing, you could run into the problem of where you’ve got all these words on the paper and these giant paragraphs and not organized. But in your mind, it’s well organized, because I know when I write it’s fabulous. It’s absolutely brilliant. And I totally understand what it says. I don’t care that Grammarly doesn’t see what I see. I feel that somehow Grammarly must not be as strong an AI to be able to interpret what I’m reading.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Yeah, I find the same thing. I sometimes use an outline, sometimes I don’t. And depending on the student, I may encourage them just to write and then put the outline to help them later on. But all these tips we’re giving our students, are they just for graduate students or is this good for undergrads as well? Or is it better for undergrad and not for grads?

Dr. Robert Gordon: It’s for everyone. And on top of that, it’s for everyone particularly since we teach in the School of Business, in our specialty, it’s logistics, supply chain, and reverse logistics. And because of that, they’re going to have to communicate with others. And a lot of times, doing that does mean it’s going to have to be written down. And so, it’s best to have a really strong skill in that area because when you’re called upon to write things or to implement, let’s say a new policy at work, or to write a new policy or ready to do a procedure, you will be able to communicate effectively and understand the importance of how the words are written to make sure people understand.

Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: Yes, I agree with what Robert is saying there and I’ll go one step further. We are in the School of Business and our students are taking our undergraduate and graduate courses for the purpose of moving on into their career. A lot of our students are looking for a second career. We teach a lot of military students and they’re looking for that civilian career. And one of the things that’s most important is in that job interview or the letter that is sent to a possible employer and the letter must be like that paper. And the key sentences we’re talking about, they must be able to summarize their career in a sentence or two to get the door open. And so the employer says, “I’m excited about this person. They have experience. I want to know about.”

So, when we in the School of Business, teach our students, if they write a paper and we teach them to write a paper such that each paragraph has a key sentence, and you can tell what that paper is about in a key sentence, and they should be able to say this 10-page paper with 10 references is about, say some subject such as “Much AI writing is described as turgent or silly.” It’s a nice topic. AI writing is silly. Okay, there’s a topic.

They need to start with a sentence. We have seen in the School of Business of being able to write clearly and explain a detailed paper in one sentence and then explain the structure that Robert and I have talked about in each paragraph with a key sentence to each one.

As Robert said, this is the School of Business and business wants people to think logically to solve problems, not open up textbooks and say, “Here are the 10 steps to managing a warehouse.” People know how to manage a warehouse.

So, I see what the School of Business is doing, as Robert said, and what we’re doing in the papers is helping them write papers, not just to get a grade of an A, but understand what problems are and how to structure them.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: So, Robert, you mentioned about editing, so the paper is now written and you think it’s a beautiful paper. How do you make sure the thesis statement makes sense and you’ve answered the thesis statement in your paper?

Dr. Robert Gordon: Well, the first thing is you go back and just take a look at the entire paper and give it a good read. You have to kind of edit it and go through it. I often use tools like Grammarly to go through it, to make sure it’s structured and correct.

What I then do is read the introduction and read the conclusion and then see if it makes sense. If the introduction and conclusion are connected and are related and I can get a good feel. I also do that with long papers. A lot of times I’ll read the introduction and conclusion to find out if it’s worth reading to see, okay, what do they do? Because now I know like, well, this is what they did and this is where they ended up. Let me see their process and see if that information’s useful. So, that’s kind of how you make sure it works.

I feel that editing is very important, because you have to go through and kind of clean it up, make it presentable, make it understood by others. And there’s a lot of work that goes into that. I think that people don’t appreciate the amount of editing. I think sometimes students are like, “Oh my God, the paper’s due at midnight. I start at eight o’clock and I just write, write, write, write, write until 11:58 and then I’m hitting the send button or the post button to get that thing in. So I’m not late.” Without really going back and kind of cleaning things up, because many times as you write, your focus changes because “Oh, this is more interesting. I want to write about this” or “Oh, I read this over there. And that’s a much more interesting topic and that’s a little bit more exciting. Let’s throw that in there.”

And the other thing that students often do is they feel the conclusion isn’t the summary of the paper. Oftentimes students are like, “Oh, I want the big reveal. I want it to be like a gender reveal party where I have this paper. And then at the end, I surprise you with this amazing information.”

And I go, that’s lovely, but it would’ve been great to talk about that, about a page ago. And maybe even in the introduction mention that because that was a great point. And putting it down here, it makes it sound like, “Okay, you’ve now made this great point. Is this really the conclusion now? Because I feel like there should be more paper.”

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Right, never introduce something new in the conclusion. Oliver, any words on that?

Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: I really love that. Robert really has a grasp of the key problem with students. And I will now go back related that to how a newspaper’s writer write. I am married to a newspaper reporter and managing editor, and I’ve spent over 30 years listening to and reading newspaper writers, how they write. They write a little different than we do here in the university. But what they do is simply what Robert just said, they write the headlines up front and they’re the first sentence of a newspaper story tells you who, when, why, how.

If it doesn’t, then it’s not a good sentence. And they write it in such a way so that you will read the next sentence and the next sentence and the next paragraph. And that’s why we’re trying to teach to write. But Robert’s really right on target and the newspaper, if they put the main point at the bottom of the story, well, you’re never going to get to it.

Whatever the story is, you do everything if you can, right up front, you find that key part. And if you think like a newspaper person and bring that lead up front, and that’s why we’re trying to talk about key sentences. We use different terms. Here we talk about key sentences. In the newspaper, they call that the lead.

Robert’s right, you’ve got to bring that important part up front. It makes you a good read for a story, but it makes them think logically how to build that structure, because writing a paper is like building a house. You need foundations, you need things on the side. You need things on the inside. You need a roof. There are things to build and it’s in order to build and building a house has an order to it. Building that paper has an order to it.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Yes. So Oliver and Robert, thank you very much for joining me today on this exciting topic of thesis statements and how to write a better paper. Do you have any last words you would like to leave for our listeners? Robert?

Dr. Robert Gordon: Well, if you’re going to write a paper, I find that sometimes, and this takes planning is that you should put it aside for a little bit and then read it again later. Because as we’ve already that, if you’re reading it in the middle of the night and trying to hit that deadline, you’re not going to find a lot of errors in that paper because you’re too worried about the time. If you sit down and actually have time and go through it.

And another trick is to read it aloud, because the minute you read it out loud, you’re going to find all these weird missing words like, “Oh wow there should have been a ‘the’ there because like when I read it sounded really awful.” And so it will bring those omissions and errors so much clearer, because now you’re going to have to hear it. And then when you hear it and it’s not correct, you’re going to want to make the change.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Absolutely. Oliver, any last words?

Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: Robert has said all the key things that we need our students to be told. One of the aspects I like is, having the paper read to me by my computer. I type a paper. They should turn on the read out loud and sit back with a cup of coffee and listen to it. And then they’ll realize, “Oh my gosh, what is that word they just said.” And realize, “Oh my goodness, it looks like the right word, but it’s oh, it’s not the right word. I didn’t think about it.” And they’ll fix it.

So, you have that read to you. That’s a good thing to do. It’s an easy way of reading it yourself. Because a lot of students don’t want to read it the second time, but that’s an easy way to do it. And set it aside for a day. Try to work on it early in the week, if you can, but set it aside two or three days, don’t touch it and then read it slowly.

Find yourself 15 minutes with the cell phone turned off, the computer turned off, and all the humans turned off, and do sit down there for just 15 minutes. Read the paper slowly. Think about it carefully.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: And to just two little topics I’ll put in and Grammarly doesn’t catch all misspelled words, especially if the word is spelled correctly, but used incorrectly. Remember, we have those words in English like there, T-H-E-R-E and T-H-E-I-R.

And one way I learned was to read the paper backwards. It takes some time, but you’ll catch a lot of spelling errors that way. Thank you to our listeners for joining us. We have some exciting podcasts coming, stay tuned and stay well.

Leischen Kranick is a Managing Editor at AMU Edge. She has 15 years of experience writing articles and producing podcasts on topics relevant to law enforcement, fire services, emergency management, private security, and national security.

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