Using PIE to Improve Your Writing


  • To prepare for this post, print, read and annotate the “Hedging in Academic Writing” and “Analytical Reading” pages in the Week One Module, making note of any new ideas or any ideas that you don’t understand, agree with, like, don’t like, etc. 
  • Review the page, “Using PIE to Improve Your Writing.”
  • Then, using PIE, post your responses to the two texts mentioned in the first point above (250-350 words). “Response” can come in many forms, such as what ideas seem most useful and why, what ones are new/old; what ideas are confusing or maybe seem that they won’t be useful and why, etc.


Analytical Reading

As you probably know by now, reading for learning is much different than reading for pleasure. Reading to learn is much more active and includes practices such as highlighting/underlining, looking up and then writing down definitions to new words, writing notes in the margins or in a notebook, asking questions, making connections between texts, etc. This handout intends to build a bit on what you know and to help you as you begin reading for English 102.

To start with, a solid, unified understanding of what “analysis” is might be helpful. The short explanation/definition is that analysis involves breaking a subject into its parts and seeing how they might be related. However, really thorough, smart analysis goes beyond dissecting and reconstructing the obvious; good analysis strives to make meaning by uncovering unstated assumptions about things. It “reads between the lines” in order to discover what is only being hinted or suggested. It aims to make explicit (overtly state) what is implicit (only suggested).

This is one of those things that is easy to say, harder at times to do. Yet, like most things, repeated practice will help you develop some of the habits of analytical thinking, reading, and writing. Here are some suggestions:

When given the task of analyzing a text (“text” can be defined in a lot of ways. For right now, let’s use the word to refer to written work), a good way to start is by evaluating the author and where the text first appeared–who is this person? What qualifies him/her to write on the subject? Where did the text first get published? What can you learn about that original publication? How old is the text? Is the publisher affiliated with a particular ideology (conservative? liberal? religious? etc.). Is the original source an academic journal that is peer reviewed before publication, or is it something else?

Consider the title carefully–what does it tell you? For example, Edward Said presents an essay with a seemingly simple title, yet the punctuation he uses changes the message that the title delivers: “Clashing Civilizations?” Here, the question mark has considerable impact because it calls into question the premise that civilizations do, in fact, clash.

Skim before actually reading. Look at any headings and graphics; read the first few and last couple of paragraphs. Once you have skimmed, form a set of questions that you look to answer as you read. Some good, general questions are: “How does the author support the ideas in the introduction and conclusion?” “What are the main ideas?” “How much does the text rely on emotion? Logic? Authority (expert opinion of the author as well as others)?”

Read the text using the active reading skills you have developed as a college student (see 1st paragraph) and look for the answers to the questions you developed while skimming. An essential question to always ask is, “What is the author’s main point?” Find places that suggest a main point and then look at all those places as a whole–do they point at a bigger understanding of the text?

A really important and very hard strategy is to read first without judging. Be aware of those little voices in your head that lead you to prejudge and tell them to hush.

Sometimes it is tempting to think a text is boring. Your challenge in this case is to find what is NOT boring. Often, “boring” means that the ideas are beyond your initial comprehension.

These next couple of questions are perhaps hard to answer: “What has the author left out of the discussion?” At this point, though, you engage the real work of analysis–making explicit what is only implied. Everyone leaves something out. Doing so is not necessarily a flaw: there could be very legitimate, logical reasons to leave stuff out. Your objective, though, is to consider what first, and then possible reasons why. A second question is to ask, “What assumptions does the author seem to be making about the reader and the subject in general?” Assumptions are not necessarily bad, but they can leave some ideas implicit.

Also consider any personal experience or knowledge from other sources you have that somehow connect with the ideas in the text. While you may think doing so is irrelevant, it is not. What a reader brings to the experience is crucial!

Good analysis is the product of a recursive process, which means that you ALWAYS need to read more than once and look for how your understanding might change based on new ideas that arise. Keep an open mind, even with the most difficult or contrary texts. Keep looking at what is there and at what seems to be missing.

If you find yourself either agreeing or disagreeing, always seek to explain why. How valid beyond your own frame of reference is your reaction?

A good suggestion is to talk about the text. Talk with others who have read it (study group, anyone? I strongly urge you to set them up!), but also try to explain it to someone who has not.

A final idea, and one that has much merit, is to write about what you read. Write not only about the literal level of a text but also about connecting ideas, questions and doubts you may have. Writing, after all, makes you smarter:).

Hedging in Academic Writing

Your choice of words can show a reader what you think about the ideas you are presenting. One essential feature of American academic writing is hedging. When writers hedge, they are expressing their level of certainty towards the idea they are presenting. Here’s an example:

Original Sentence: Eating organically grown food will improve your health.

Sentence with a hedge: Eating organically grown food may improve your health.

Hedging in formal academic writing is one way for the writer to establish their academic integrity. It helps the writer show that they are careful not to exaggerate the ideas that they present. In the example above, the use of the modal “may” allows the writer to avoid an overstatement that eating organically grown food will always improve health.

The frequent use of hedging in academic writing may seem unusual for writers who come from cultures with different expectations, but in the American university setting, it is an important skill to learn.

Hedging also does something extremely important when writers are involved in academic discussion: It allows for the possibility that there are other points of view that are, at the very least, partially valid. In academic argument, the objective is not to prove yourself right and the other guy as wrong; rather, it is to get the other guy to see your point of view as reasonable. If your own writing doesn’t do the same, then nobody wins, ideas don’t get developed, and nothing is accomplished of any value.

There are two, basic strategies for hedging in academic writing:

Modals and possibility phrases to reduce the strength of a claim

Adverbials and quantifiers to reduce the scope of a claim

Modals and Phrases that Temper the Strength of a Claim

The modals “may,” “can,” and “could” are frequently used to hedge an idea.


This information is important to public health officials because a better understanding of gender differences in eating habits can help them create more targeted strategies for prevention.

There is growing evidence that the long-term consumption of the typical high-sugar, high-calorie American diet may lead to a variety of health problems.

The use of “will” expresses a level of certainty that is usually too strong for academic writing. “May,” “can,” and “could” are more appropriate. Notice the difference in tone if “will” is substituted for the modals “can” and “may” in the above sentences.

Phrases such as “it is likely that” and “it is possible that” are also useful tools for hedging.


It is possible that changing eating habits can improve study skills.

Adverbials and Quantifiers to Reduce the Scope of a Claim

Adverbials such as “usually,” “generally,” “in general,” “at times,” and “almost always” can help the writer show that she is not claiming that her idea is true in all situations.


Programs intended to improve nutrition often fall short of expectations. In general men are more likely to report eating meat and poultry items and women are more likely to report eating fruits and vegetables.

It is important to avoid writing statements that exaggerate who or what is included in an idea. For example, a writer would not want to claim that “All students dislike homework.” Quantifiers such as “many,” “some,” “a number of,” and “most” can help the writer present a claim without overstating it.


Many programs and campaigns to change eating habits, such as the “Five Fruits and Vegetables a Day,” have met with costly, disappointing, short-term results.

For some men, pressure to conform to magazine images of men can lead to unhealthy and potentially dangerous behaviors to try to reach that ideal.

In an online discussion forum, hedging is also a very useful way to avoid conflict caused by misunderstanding. Without the nonverbal cues we use in face-to-face communication, we need a way to signal disagreement with someone’s ideas without sounding combative. Consider the following simple statements:

No hedge: I don’t agree with you, Jamile. You didn’t consider the whole article in your response.

Hedge: I see your reasoning, Jamile. I wonder, though, what do you make of the last point in the article? I am not sure that your first point fully considers that idea.

In essence, the two statements convey the same idea, but the second is less likely to cause Jamile to become overly defensive. The phrase “I am not sure that” allows the writer to state her point of view while allowing that there is something reasonable, if not fully considered, about Jamile’s position. As you develop your written response skills if the DF, apply the concept of hedging when responding to ideas that contradict or differ from your own. Here, hedging serves to keep the discussion going, rather silencing someone because they feel attacked or angered by the “unhedged” comment.

(adapted from Sourcework copyright @Heinle, a part of Cengage Learning, all rights reservedHeinle & Heinle, web)

Using P.I.E. to Improve Writing

The ideas on this page will form the basis for how you work within the Weekly DFs, and they will also be useful when you write your papers. In fact, much of what you read here is applicable to many situations outside of school where you are asked to present your ideas or engage in discussions that require critical thinking,

Good writing and discussion are the balance of the insightful ideas and details that represent critical thinking. Often, the strongest ideas are abstract and can be hard to clearly express in writing. You may have a good idea but are not able to clearly articulate it or provide evidence that supports the idea’s validity. The Point, Illustrate, Explain (PIE) system is one way to help you develop and more clearly articulate insightful, interesting ideas that are also fully supported with specific details. PIE also will help you present your ideas in an organized way.

You will begin using PIE right away in the Weekly Discussion Forums. These forums are designed to help you think more critically about the texts we read and the ideas that you want to incorporate into your papers. We will soon be covering more thoroughly how to use sources effectively and correctly in your writing, but PIE is a start in that direction.

One of the key features of good academic writing—in fact, writing of any kind—is that it most often says “more about less,” which is part of what PIE will help you do. What this means is that, instead of many simple ideas that are briefly explored, good, interesting writing will explore only a few ideas but will do so by providing a lot of details. Examine the following steps of PIE and the example of PIE in use to understand how to write more about less, and in so doing, produce writing that is interesting and insightful.

Here is the “PIE” system, followed by two examples:


Begin by making the claim you want to make in the discussion forum or a section of the paper. The claim you make is your point. Your point will most likely be the topic sentence of your paragraph. In papers, the point should also clearly connect to your overall thesis. A claim is never a fact and instead expresses a point of view that may not be the same as everyone else’s.


Provide evidence to illustrate and support that point. In other words, always include a quote. If you are quoting an article, this would be where you directly quote the author. For textual analysis, this is where you’d cite a part of the text. If you are posting in the discussion forum, here’s where you should include a quote from a peer and/or one of the readings for the week. Note: you may use more than one piece of evidence for your Illustration, depending on the claim and how much evidence you have. Just be sure you take the time to explain how each piece of evidence supports your point. It is better to say a lot about a little than a little about a lot.


Explain how the illustration (evidence/quote) shows your point (claim) and explain why it is important or how it relates to your overall point (the main point of your discussion forum, the topic sentence of your paragraph and/or the overall focus/thesis of your essay) The act of explaining how and why the evidence connects to your thesis is the act of analyzing the evidence. This part of PIE should be the longest.

PIE Example

The paragraph below is the post from a student in English 101, responding to the question, “What seems to be the most important point Sherman Alexie makes in “the Joy of Reading and Writing: Superman and Me”? (We will not be reading this text, but some of you may be familiar with it. In any case, this post serves as an “A” quality example.)

(P is highlighted; I is italicized; E is bolded)

Alexie stresses the life-saving potential that books/reading have had in his own life and can have for others who, like him, come from marginalized parts of American culture. But clearly, his point is that learning to read is not by itself enough to make it. He says, “As Indian children, we were expected to fail in the non-Indian world…I refused to fail. I was smart. I was arrogant. I was lucky. I read books late at night until I could barely keep my eyes open…I read with equal parts joy and desperation. I loved those books, but I also knew that love had only one purpose. I was trying to save my life.” Implied here is that other Indian kids who were not as smart, arrogant or lucky maybe did not have the same success that Alexie has had in his life. When he says that Indian kids were not expected to succeed in the “non-Indian world” he is acknowledging that American Indian history is filled with the failure of Indian culture to compete and even survive in the “non-Indian” larger culture. It seems to me that “smart” and “lucky” counted for a lot of his success, but if he wasn’t also “arrogant,” maybe he would not have done so well. It is his arrogance that allowed him to refuse to fail because his arrogance is what told him not to accept what others expected of him. And he says he “loved those books,” but I think he also loved himself. Why else would he be trying to save his own life? So his point seems to be that learning to read was really important for him, but loving himself and refusing to accept the roles/stereotypes that had been laid out for him to follow are what allowed the power of reading to make a difference in his life.

Notice here that the explanation is the longest part of the entry. This point is important—when you are discussing someone else’s ideas/work, you do not want to fill your comments with quotes. You need to write more than the quoted material itself.

Another way to think about PIE is a mix of your voice and the voices of others:

The point is one that YOU make – it should be your observation, your idea, YOUR VOICE.

The illustration you use to support your point (either a quote or paraphrase) is the SOMEONE ELSE’S VOICE– you will be summarizing a specific section of the essay or quoting an author directly.

The explanation is YOUR VOICE again: you are letting your readers/audience know how the quote or paraphrase you’ve chosen shows your point, develops or connects to your thesis (if part of a paper), and why it is important for your overall idea.

Below is an example of PIE used successfully in a Discussion Forum (the topic was a different reading done for class); again, the point is in regular text, the illustration is in italics and the explanation is in bold:

Hi, Cecilia. you identified a key theme in the text similar to my own point of view, but your take on the main point was a bit different. You wrote, “Smith works to show us the differences in personality between herself and her twin sister. Her main point seems to be that she and her twin are very different from each other.” To me, it seems that Smith was highlighting not only how different she was from her sister, but also how she had been born ten minutes earlier than her sister, so she got stuck—almost by default—in the role of the lonely protector. I couldn’t help but think that Smith used her differences to alienate herself from her family, and always wondered “Who will protect me?” The main point of the essay for me is that Smith constantly battled with her loneliness created by having an alcoholic father and how she had no parental guidance to help her understand life. I am not disagreeing with your point, I just saw loneliness mentioned so many times in this essay, that it kind of downplayed the fact that Smith was a twin. In fact, Smith says, “Twin though I may have been, I was also an adolescent child of a drunk. I wanted nothing more than to be far away from both realities.”Here, she is clearly stressing that the two things together created her main struggles as a kid.

A Few Things to Keep in Mind when Using P.I.E.

One common misstep when responding to classmates is to write a point that really doesn’t do much other than agree with what a classmate said. If your response to a classmate includes phrases such as ” I agree with you 100%,” “You are completely right,” “I love the idea you expressed,” etc., then your post is most likely not going to add an idea, no matter how many words you use to explain why you agree. Remember that the most interesting ideas are found, not in similarity, but in difference. Therefore, practice looking for those differences between your ideas and your classmates’ and posing your point of view more like the student above who used the word “although” to set up how her idea was going to be different from her classmate’s.

Remember, too, that using PIE successfully means that you will always need to include direct quotes, either from something we read or that a classmate posted.

When you write your first few posts, before submitting them, see if you can identify the three parts of PIE. If you can’t find all three parts, rethink and revise your post.

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