Wednesday, August 29, 2007

If You Skip the Postwriting Stage, I Shall Eat Your Mind

It is 2:45 on Sunday morning. You have just spent several hours churning out a thousand-word essay for a second-year English class. You run the paper through your spell-checker, make sure you've spelled your own name correctly, and print the essay out. You're free!

Then you wake up and find that it was all a dream.

I am dreadfully sorry, but spell-checking is not the same thing as proofreading. Spell-checkers are useful, but they can't tell the difference between "rein," "reign," and "rain," they don't fix your grammatical errors, they don't point out gaps in your logic, and they will not scream and rant at you when your conclusion is weak. If you're used to skipping the editing stage because you feel the spell-checker will do all your work for you, you need to stop deluding yourself. Your spell-checked paper is still full of errors. Your readers will not look kindly on these errors. In fact, they are more likely to forgive you the misspelling of your own name than they are the substitution of "dentist's" for "dentists."*

Several Ranting Hours ago, I explained that each of the three stages of essay writing should take a similar amount of time. Ideally, the postwriting (or editing) stage should be as lengthy and complex as the writing stage, though it is also the bit of the process that many writers find it easiest to neglect. When you finish an essay, you want to be finished, not have to spend hours fiddling with verb endings and transitions. However, a good edit will, if done properly, jack your grade right up** while simultaneously ensuring that your essay attains (and retains) basic coherence and logic.*** Editing is about more than catching misspellings and tense shifts; it allows you to tweak your paper in subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle ways in order to make it--as a whole--a better piece of writing.

Everyone approaches editing differently, partly because everyone approaches writing differently. I, for instance, am a completely anal-retentive writer. I need to make my essays bloody damned perfect in their first drafts; I find it very hard to make changes during the editing process. In the last few years, dissertation work has taught me to be a better editor, as no dissertation is bloody damned perfect in its first draft. I have learned how to eliminate entire sentences and even paragraphs...and how to add entire sentences and even paragraphs. However, I am still a completely anal-retentive writer. I write very, very carefully, agonising over wording and imagery, and every time I take a break, I get back into the essay by reading everything I have written thus far.**** Half my editing is done while I write; writing and postwriting alternate with each other.

Other people have different methods. Some puzzle out their essays paragraph by paragraph or even sentence by sentence before they begin to write. Some fling themselves headlong into the writing process, hurtle through to the end without paying attention to spelling, grammar, or structure, and then completely rewrite the paper six times. Whichever method works for you is perfectly fine with me. What you've got to remember is that revision is necessary, whether it occurs before, during, or after the writing process. No matter what method you use, you will make errors. You will leave holes in your argument. You will write grammatically functional but hideously ugly sentences. Sometimes editing lays down a whole new layer of concrete; sometimes it simply smooths out the bumps in the pavement. Either way, it still needs to be done.

Many methods work; you will need to find the ones that suit you. Here are a few:

1) Read the paper aloud. Writers tend to shy from this method because it seems cumbersome or, for people with roommates, downright embarrassing. Declaiming, "Hamlet's indecision puts a strain on the revenge plot, causing it to shift in an unexpected direction," in front of your university's six-time beer-chugging champion may not be the best way of proving that you are not a geek. However, it may also make you realise how silly that sentence is.***** Reading aloud is a way of forcing yourself to pay attention to every word you have written. If you read silently, you'll get through the essay more quickly, but your eyes will also skip over words and phrases. I have gone back to stories I wrote years ago and have edited scores of times, and I'll still find typos; I am familiar enough with the text at hand that my brain assumes it knows what I have written, and my eyes slide past the errors.

Reading aloud will also draw your attention to awkward or nonsensical sentences. Someone who has to work his way--aloud--through this sort of thing:

The hermeneutics of the opposition to the position proposed by Hutchinson was the cause of Darry's support of the leader of the people of the Tor; nonetheless, when John Bartleman discovered the perfidy of the wife of the leader of the people of the Tor, the binary opposition between idiocy and chocolate amalgamated with the clients of the north, south, and crimson lake.

will probably end up either scrapping the sentence entirely or throwing the essay violently against the wall. Read aloud for grammar but also for comprehension. If you confuse even yourself, something needs to change.

2) Read once for grammar and structure and once for content. Some writers find that breaking the editing process into bits can be useful. I copy-edit for some of my friends, and I have noticed that I have a tendency to concentrate almost exclusively on grammar; in the process, I neglect what the writer is actually saying. If you start with a slow, careful grammatical read-through, then do a swifter one in which you try to figure out whether the argument holds together, you may find that you catch more holes and errors than you would if you went for the walking-and-chewing-gum-at-the-same-time option.

3) Read the essay from the perspective of your theoretical opponent. I haven't discussed counter-arguments in detail yet--I'll get to those when I cover the persuasive mode--but as I have said in earlier posts, an essay is an argument. It therefore necessarily has a counter-argument: a point of view (or, usually, several points of view) that opposes it in some way. Holes in an argument happen when a writer does not defend herself successfully from her theoretical opponent.

Debaters often have to argue from points of view that are not really theirs. Be a debater. Put together a convincing counter-argument, and read your essay as if you believe this counter-argument. If you find that the counter-argument is defeating the argument--if you have left so many holes in your paper that your "opponent" is winning the debate--you probably need to find more evidence and/or analyse it more convincingly.

4) Ask a friend to read through the paper. I do not recommend that you allow this friend to correct your grammar, change all your sentences around, and suggest new and exciting thesis points to you. If the friend does too much of the work on the essay, you will be guilty of academic misconduct. Even if you think of yourself as really bad at grammar, do not ask a friend to help you in this way, especially if you are in a first-year essay-writing course and thus being marked specifically, and only, on your essay-writing skills.

However, you should feel free to let a friend read your paper for content and point out holes in your argument. This process is called peer editing; some high-school and first-year classes use it as a learning method. Your friend will notice when bits of your argument don't work and point out repetition and lack of clarity. He is not as invested in the paper as you are; his brain doesn't subconsciously fill in the gaps as he reads.

5) Turn your essay into an after-the-fact outline or mind map. A good way of checking for logical holes is to take notes on your own essay as if you are planning on analysing it. Figure out not what you were planning to say but what you did say by re-outlining your essay. In the process, make sure that all your points are connected and relevant.

Some common problems to watch for while you are editing are:

1) A weak or non-existent thesis. Does your thesis answer a "how" or "why" question? Does it present a controversial but potentially convincing idea?

The thesis statement does not need to include three thesis points. It does not need to be only a single sentence long. It does not need to include formulaic words or phrases. It needs to exist, and it needs to lead to a satisfying argument. All the little formulae that go with the sandwich method are holding you back. If your thesis is complex and must be expressed over the course of two sentences--or three sentences--or an entire paragraph...fine. Conciseness is good, but not at the expense of comprehension. Just make sure that you have something to argue.

2) Clumsy or non-existent transitions. Are your body paragraphs connected? Does the argument flow smoothly from point to point?

As with the thesis, make sure transitions exist. They can consist of words, phrases, entire sentences, subtle references to preceding bits of the argument, or anything else that lets you move logically through the argument. No one is going to kill you if you don't use the word "consequently."

Don't make the common mistake of thinking that the end of a paragraph is a good place for a transition. Students sometimes finish one paragraph with what appears to be the topic sentence of the next in an attempt to provide a transition. This method is confusing for the reader, who expects a switch of topic in the next paragraph, not in this one.

3) Sentences so convoluted that the reader has to go back and examine them again simply to figure out what they say. Complex constructions can be useful, but if they are obscuring your meaning, go with simplicity every time. Your goal is for the reader to be able to get all the way through your paper without having to go back and puzzle out what the hell you mean every time you lose control of a sentence.

4) "Minor" errors. When a reader comes upon a spelling mistake, grammatical error, mangled sentence, or incorrectly defined word, she pauses briefly and sometimes subconsciously in the reading process.****** You want to avoid causing such pauses. Grammar and spelling may seem insignificant to you, but if you find something such as this enjoyable to read:

Theres lot of thing we could discuss and this point but insted Ill talk a bit about cow's and horse's which can be found in sicily!

you probably spend far too much time in chat rooms.*******

5) Introductions and conclusions that don't correspond to one another. Try reading your introduction and conclusion back to back. If your thesis seems to have changed radically between one and the other, you may have a problem.

You should also try to ensure than your conclusion does not repeat your introduction exactly.

6) Colloquialisms, pointlessly huge words, and awkward modes of expression. As you (should) know, colloquialisms have no place in formal essays. As you may not know, idiotically enormous words shouldn't be there either. Why say, "The titular hero utilises the subsequent ostentatiousness of his grandiose wardrobe" when "The protagonist then unnecessarily dons his best clothing" will do just as well? The word "utilise" is especially overused in this regard. Is anything wrong with "use"? Has some mysterious essay-writing society banned it? No? Use "use." "Utilise" is a silly word.

Not all sentences are created equal. Good writing has a certain rhythm to it; it is interesting to read not simply because of what it says but also because of how it is said. Reading your papers aloud will allow you to hear this rhythm...or a lack thereof. If a sentence seems awkward to you, it will seem awkward to your readers as well. There is not only one way of expressing any given idea. Don't be afraid to restructure your sentences.

The editing process, if properly done, often takes quite a long time. It should. If you skimp on this step, your papers will be the poorer for it.

You may have noticed that my posts are becoming less frequent. The school year is fast approaching, and I am beginning to have to prepare for it; I'm therefore probably going to be posting less often from here on in. However, I am going to keep going until I've covered everything I want to cover.

I've now finished with the basics of the essay-writing process. Future posts will deal with essay writing in more detail, covering the rhetorical modes, subtleties of language use, ways of constructing watertight arguments, grammatical and structural issues, research methods, citation, and anything else that occurs to me along the way.

*I should note right now that my proof-reading of this blog is not going to be perfect, as much as I wish it could be. I don't print out the entries and edit them on paper because I write the blog somewhere I don't have access to a printer, and my proofing is much more accurate on paper than it is on screen. As well, I desperately need to get my eyes checked but currently can't afford new glasses. I apologise for all errors and encourage you to point them out, though not if you're going to gloat.
**For those of you who are just in it for the marks.
***For those of you who see beyond the marks. Yes, such people do exist.
****Except not with the dissertation. I know it has taken me eight years to finish my Ph.D., but I'm not entirely insane.
*****How does it put a strain on the revenge plot? What unexpected direction? Are you just writing down random words and hoping they sound intelligent? Analyse. The. Play.
******Often to cringe and go, "Eeeeeewwwwwww."

*******I am not a snob. I like chat rooms. I have also seen how people spell in them.********
********Okay, maybe I am a snob.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Active. Bloody. Voice. Damn it.

The following post may not be entirely useful for people studying the sciences. Science papers have their own rules and conventions, and many of my scientist acquaintances have remarked that their professors encourage them to write almost entirely in the passive voice. Others insist that this convention is changing. Scientists: check with your profs.

Humanities students:

You use the passive voice too much. Yes, you. Yes, you do. It's hard to blame you; passivity can be useful at times, and to discount it entirely is to remove a certain richness from the English language. However, that is no real excuse for your blatant overuse of it. An essay that relies heavily on the passive will seem uncertain and sometimes unclear. You need to learn to stick with the active voice as much as you can.

Before I go on, a clarification may be in order:

"Passive voice" and "past tense" are not synonymous.

That's right, Person Who Carefully Went Through All His Papers and Changed the Passive Constructions to the Present Tense: "voice" and "tense" are different things altogether, as, not incidentally, are "passive" and "past." If you're writing a literature paper, you should be writing in the present tense anyway.* Here, in case you're still confused, is an illustration of the difference:

Past tense:

John built the store.

John's little adventure with the store occurred in the past. The past singular third-person form of the verb "to build" is "built." The present singular third-person form would be "builds." Elementary, my dear Watson.

The above sentence is in the active voice. It contains a subject (John), a verb (built), and a direct object (the store). The subject is acting on the object.

Passive voice:

The store was built (by John).

It doesn't matter when John built (or builds or will build) the store. "The store will be built (by John)" is still a passive construction. The "by John" is optional; the sentence makes grammatical sense without it, though it sounds a bit stupid. Here the sentence starts with an acted-upon object (the store) and is followed by a verb phrase (was built). The subject is implied.** If the "by John" is included, the subject is stated, though as part of a prepositional phrase. The order of the sentence is thus twisted on its head. The object is given the place of prominence; the subject is erased or rendered incidental.

An Internet personage named Stefan has pointed out in the comments section below that intransitive verbs (verbs that don't take direct objects) are less likely to appear in passive constructions than transitive verbs. This comment merits a bit of explanation.

"To build" is solely a transitive verb. It needs to take a direct object; "John built" is not a complete sentence. "To drink" can be either transitive or intransitive. "John drank" (intransitive: no object necessary) is a complete sentence, but so is, "John drank the water" (transitive: object required). The sentence "John drank from the stream" employs the intransitive sense of this verb, and it can thus only take an indirect object. "To go" is an intransitive verb. "John went the store" is nonsensical; the verb needs a following preposition. "John went to the store" includes an indirect object ("to the store").

[Note to Stephanie, whose comment below led me to revise the above paragraph: I actually think the rules must be slightly different in English and French. I'm not sure that English has such a thing as an indirect transitive. I've certainly never heard the term before, though that may not mean anything. I'm not infallible, you know! I get stuff wrong and then have to pretend I was being edgy! I can't do long division! My socks all have holes in them! I shall never learn to play the bagpipes!

Moving along...]

To use an intransitive verb in a passive construction is possible but discouraged, as it makes the resulting sentence unnecessarily convoluted and involves a dangling preposition. This sentence--

The store was gone to (by John).

--is functional but very awkward. I'll discuss dangling prepositions at some point in the future, but for now, I'll just advise you to avoid them. Try not to let your prepositions hang off the ends of your sentences; make sure that they always have objects to take.

Experimental scientists tend to like the passive because it allows them to avoid using the word "I" all the time and thus gives them a way to make their papers sound less subjective. However, experimental scientists are often writing process essays; they are describing how they (or others) have accomplished certain experiments. Students of literature, history, and philosophy should never be in danger of writing something such as:

I analysed this poem by opening my book and running my finger slowly along each line. I noted important words, including "heart" and "chicken"; I also determined that the first three verses were written in iambic pentameter and the fourth in dactylic hexameter.

If I had to mark an essay written in this fashion, I would probably eat it.***

Humanities essays are not process papers. The reader assumes that the writer is engaged in the process of analysis; any explanation of the finer details of the analysis itself is unnecessary. There is therefore no real danger of overuse of the "I." Overuse of the passive, however, is still a problem.

Look at the following passage:

The poem is written in blank verse. In the second stanza, it is implied that the narrator is a parakeet, as bird imagery can be seen throughout. A sly allusion to the structure of the Parthenon is also hinted at.



Who has written the poem in blank verse? The poet? The audience? Fairies? Who implies that the narrator is a parakeet? Bird imagery can be seen by whom? Who hints at the goddamn allusion to the structure of the Parthenon? Why is nobody doing anything in this passage? Where are the actors, for crying out loud?

The main problem with the passive construction is that it eliminates the actor, leaving only the action and the acted upon. Even a passive construction that includes a "by John" sort of element is shoving the actor to the outskirts of the sentence; it is also unnecessarily convoluted.**** By failing to mention the actor, you are once again expecting your readers to do all your work for you. Be clear and concise. The above passage would be less vague and meandering if it read:

Geoffrey Rathers writes the poem in blank verse. In the second stanza, he uses subtle bird imagery to imply that the narrator is a parakeet; he also hints that he is alluding to the structure of the Parthenon.

The passage still doesn't make any damned sense, and I would still blast any student who wrote it for not explaining how Rathers has alluded to the structure of the Parthenon.***** However, grammatically, it is much clearer. Note that though the two passages are almost exactly the same length, the second actually seems shorter; it has fewer stops and starts, and its sentences are rather more straightforward.

The passive voice is not always a bad thing. I use it quite often in informal writing and even occasionally in formal papers; sometimes, there simply isn't an actor. However, do try to eliminate it from your writing. Once you have mastered writing without it, you can allow it to creep back. Yet for now, practise stamping it out. Too much passivity will have your markers screaming in frustration and scrawling, "BY WHOM?" in your margins, and no wonder. Don't. Erase. The actor. The actor is your friend. Embrace the actor. Give him chocolate. Let him act.

You may have noticed that the original passage above also contains an expletive ("it is implied"). Expletives often act much like passive constructions in that they eliminate the actor. Who implies it? Kill your expletives too.

The next post will probably be much longer than this one. It will deal with postwriting, the most neglected and possibly the most vital portion of the writing process.

*And not slewing back and forth and back and forth and back and bloody forth from the present to the past. There is absolutely no reason you shouldn't know by now that it is silly, grammatically and structurally, to change tense in the middle of a freaking sentence for no particular reason. Stop doing it.
**"The subject is implied" is itself a passive construction. Actually, much of this paragraph is passive. However, the example is general; there is no actor here.
***Without salt, even.
****Why write, "The poem was written by Charlton Heston" when you can write, "Charlton Heston wrote the poem"? Of course, Charlton Heston probably didn't write the poem, as Charlton Heston seems more like the sort of guy who believes in his heart that poetry is for jumped-up nancy boys, but you get the general idea.
*****Whatever the hell that even means.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Conclusion, Conclusion, Conclusion

The conclusion of an essay is one of the easiest bits to screw up. By the time a writer reaches her conclusion, she can taste freedom; she has only one measly paragraph to get out of the way before she can fling the paper aside and frolic off into the sunset, happy and carefree.* She really, really wants the conclusion to take only about four or five minutes to write.

Consequently, even if she claims she is not a devotee of the Order of the Sandwich, she will often write quite a sandwichy conclusion that consists mostly of a nearly word-for-word repetition of the introduction. If she is truly in a hurry, this conclusion will begin and end with her thesis statement. It will contain nothing new or particularly interesting.

This writer is not being very wise at all. Do not be like her. She is shooting herself in the foot, and then some.

The general belief that the conclusion should be a restatement of the introduction is a false one. A conclusion that restates an introduction is not simply boring; it also implies that the writer has spent the entire essay treading water. A paraphrased conclusion turns an essay into the equivalent of a paragraph that begins with a restatement of a thesis point and ends with a sentence that starts, "Therefore...", then restates the thesis point again. Yes, the thesis constitutes your argument--in effect, the conclusion to which you are going to come in the course of the essay--but by the time you reach the end of your paper, you should have turned this one basic idea into a complex interweaving of smaller related ideas and demonstrated how, exactly, you have arrived at it. If the conclusion repeats the introduction without paying any attention to the body paragraphs, those body paragraphs may as well not be there. The body of an essay adds enough complexity to its thesis that a failure to acknowledge it constitutes a failure to acknowledge the argument that you have just constructed.

Your essay should be more than the sum of its parts. The thesis is the sum of these parts; the conclusion acknowledges the greater import of the argument as a whole. It gathers all the bits of the argument together and examines their overall significance. Sometimes, it hints at larger related issues. It sums up the essay's ideas, but it does not repeat the thesis statement word for word. It should also leave the reader with a memorable image or idea; after all, the conclusion is the last part of the essay that he will see.**

Giving advice about conclusions is almost as difficult as writing them, mostly because there is no conclusion formula. Every conclusion must be tempered to the needs of the essay to which it belongs. I can provide an example and some general advice, but most of the latter is going to consist of warnings about what you shouldn't do rather than explanations about what you should. Taking my example for a model will do you no good; a different strategy is necessary for every conclusion.

My example is taken from a seventeen-page graduate term essay I wrote many years ago. It is not perfect, but it demonstrates the points I want it to demonstrate. Try not to be put off by the relatively dense language; I am writing in a style considered acceptable for a graduate student in English.*** I'm going to provide both the introduction and the conclusion so that you can see how the two paragraphs interact. I am not going to publish the fifteen pages in between. You really don't want to read this essay.

You should also note that these paragraphs are much longer than your introductions and conclusions should be (if you are writing short undergraduate essays, that is). As your papers grow in length, your introductions and conclusions inevitably will too.

The subject is Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene, an extremely long English poem written during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.


At the beginning of Book IV of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, the lady knight Britomart, having just won a joust at a tournament, unlaces her helmet and lets her telltale golden hair fall free. The spectators are amazed and confused: some believe that Britomart’s appearance is "faygned" by enchantment (IV i 14.5), some that she is a war-goddess, and some that her face is not a face but "a maske of strange disguise" (14.8). The simple truth–that Britomart is a woman dressed as a man–occurs immediately to none. [Starts with a relevant example from the text.] These people see reality in Britomart’s mask and falsity in her true identity; they are so thrown by the presence of the woman’s face beneath the visor that they would rather accept the visor and not the face itself as an indicator of who and what the knight really is. [Comments on the example.] In a way, this scene, with its odd theme of reversed masking, is emblematic of Spenser’s strategy in Faerie Queene IV. [Begins to connect the example to the thesis.] The book is one in which the so-called chivalric ideal, borrowed by the Elizabethans from popular romance and a sort of neo-medieval tradition of honour and service as knightly necessities, both comes to the fore and is shoved to the rear. [Elaborates on the theme emblematised by the example.] The poet paints picture after picture of what seems, at first, an almost Edenic "antique age" (IV viii 30.1) in which honour is all, then reveals the supposed paradise to be not just a mask hiding the "true face" of Elizabeth’s court but the "true face" of chivalry hidden behind the mask of that court. [Illustrates the theme and connects it to the initial example.] In Spenser’s elaborately constructed, obviously artificial fairyland is the same truth that Britomart bears in her undisguised being, and in his audience may be the same unwillingness to see that truth as anything but a splendid play. [Heading towards the thesis statement.] The allegory in Faerie Queene IV is thus also, and paradoxically, an explosion of the "chivalry" of the Elizabethan court-world and a stripping-off, through the medium of the mask of poetry, of that world’s allegorical mask. [Thesis statement: related, imagery-wise, to initial example.]


Such a concession makes his tournaments strange beasts indeed. [Transition from final body paragraph, which deals with Spenser's tacit concession of romance's**** almost complete detachment from reality.] Though set about with the trappings of romance, they are too Chaucerian to be conventional; though apparently not concerned with Elizabethan-style pageantry, they are full of masks; though imbued with romance chivalry on the surface, they hide harsher emotions beneath. [Sums up Spenser's tournaments in all their glorious contradictoriness. Relates directly to last body paragraph, but also to several preceding body paragraphs.] In a sense, Spenser is reaching back to an ideal world that he knows is not really there and, when he has removed layer after layer of costume, revealing not Britomart’s face but Ate’s.***** [Not an observation that has been made before...but one arising from the material in the body paragraphs.] His tournaments show up Elizabeth’s chivalry as a return to "chivalric old days" that have never been. The queen is reaching for her symbolism not into the past but into the safer world of literature: a world in which Sir Thopas and the Squire’s numerous characters can wander around endlessly, unable to finish their own meaningless stories. [Ditto on the last red observation.] Spenser’s tournaments are allegories of Elizabeth’s in the same sense that Britomart’s face is an allegory of her visor. [Getting to the point. Relates back to the example in the introduction.] If that visor is removed–if one gets in behind Elizabeth’s pageants rather than Spenser’s and examines the allegory of her own preeminence that the queen is constructing around herself–one finds merely a fiction in which chivalric honour and courtly love themselves are implicated because they are based on the ideal of an impossible past. [Elaboration on last comment.] When Spenser rewrites romance tournaments as events of too many–or too few–masks, he is mirroring Elizabeth’s rewriting of chivalry. [This is the point. Again, it arises from material in the introduction and body paragraphs, but it also sums up fifteen pages of argument.] For political reasons, she has embraced the ideal of discordia concors and attempted to apply it to the social codes of her England. Spenser’s Faerie Queene IV removes the concord from the equation and lets Discord lurk, unacknowledged, behind the chivalric helm as a "maske of strange disguise." [This is really the point. It is basically the thesis statement over again, but with an essential added element: the idea of Discord being the face behind the visor. This identification of Discord as the "maske" is essential to the essay, but while it is only implied in the introduction, it is blatantly stated (after fifteen pages of proof) in the conclusion].

Some strategies I use here:

1) Presentation of a central image to which I can return in the conclusion. The example of Britomart pulling off her helm at the tournament provides the idea of the "maske of strange disguise" that I use as a metaphor for Spenser's allegory of Elizabeth's court.****** A central image can be eminently useful. It gives you an idea to which you can always return, thus giving your essay some structure. "Circling back to an idea in an intelligent manner" is not the same thing as "repeating an idea mindlessly, just because it's there."

2) Direct connection between the final point and the conclusion. Remember how I earlier railed against the whole "In conclusion" deal? I have not changed my mind on this one. "In conclusion" is no more a real transition than is "Secondly." If you're going to use a transition, make sure it's a relevant, useful one.

However, transitional words are not always necessary in conclusions. Not every essay merits a smooth slide from the last body paragraph to the conclusion. Sometimes, a pause between the final point and the conclusion can be effective as well. The conclusion of one of my dissertation chapters begins:

Kyng Alisaunder involves enough contradiction that it can be a baffling poem and may occasionally seem a poorly constructed one.

This sentence returns directly to an idea discussed in the chapter's introduction; it does not relate directly to the preceding paragraph. However, the ideas that follow this (controversial) statement relate back to the chapter as a whole and encompass the idea just covered. The pause (inherent in the apparent lack of transition) between the important final idea and the conclusion draws the reader's attention to the paragraph as a conclusion.

Sometimes, a pause is effective; sometimes, a smooth transition is. It's up to you to decide which to use, and when.

3) Introduction of seemingly new material that nonetheless arises direction from the essay's body. My comment about Discord/Ate's face being the "maske" is an apparently fresh comment that nonetheless both echoes and elaborates on the thesis statement. I am, in fact, restating the thesis here, but I am doing so in such a way that it now seems bigger than it did in the introduction. In fact, what has happened is that the body paragraphs have lent the thesis a richness and complexity that are not yet apparent in the introduction. A plain restatement would have negated or dismissed this complexity. Make sure that you acknowledge and take into account your own argument.

4) Memorable last sentence. In this case, my conclusion derives from my initial example, and it is "memorable" because it offers the reader an image that can be visualised. You should always aim for a memorable last sentence, but you can do so in a variety of ways: through imagery, a clever and relevant turn of phrase, a thought-provoking comment about the conclusions you have drawn, a thought-provoking hint about the implications of the conclusions you have drawn, and so on. Again, it's up to you. Note, however, that a simple repetition of your thesis statement is not going to stick in the reader's mind; her eyes are fairly likely to skim impatiently over it.

You will have noticed that my introduction and conclusion above are by no means identical or even all that similar to each other. I can't stress enough that a conclusion that paraphrases an introduction tells the reader that the essay's argument has gone nowhere. The introduction cannot encompass all of an argument's complexities; if it could, it would be the length of an essay. Acknowledge these complexities in your conclusion. Acknowledge that--with luck--the reader has learned something from your essay. Don't parrot your own words so that you can toss the essay into your backpack and go watch a geriatric Bruce Willis blow up terrorists. Your conclusion should not introduce brand new material, but it does need to contain something new, if only a connection that you haven't yet drawn explicitly in the course of your essay.

In the end, your conclusions are your own responsibility. No model is going to help you here. Actually, models will only hinder you. Ignore them. Do not follow the Yellow Brick Road. The conclusion is the bit of the essay that offers the most scope for creativity, so bloody well be creative.*******

Next time, I'll take another short break from the whole essay-structure thing and talk a bit about active and passive voice.

*Actually untrue. She hasn't done her proofreading yet. If she doesn't do her proofreading, I shall kick her into the sunset.
**Unless he is anal and goes back to read the introduction again.
***Also, it could be worse. My professors are always complaining that my writing is not dry and scholarly enough. If you think these paragraphs are boring, you haven't read 99.9% of the stuff out there.
****"Romance" is not, here, the hideous mushy garbage that Hollywood is always forcing upon us in the diabolical forms of Sandra Bullock and Meg Ryan. Medieval and Renaissance romance generally involved knights on quests, quite a bit of fighting (with flying body parts and rivers of blood), the occasional magical damsel, and hairy beast-men roaming the landscape, hitting people with clubs.
*****Ate is the classical goddess of discord. That whole thing with the Trojan war and the thousand ships and the twenty years of death and sex and despair and betrayal and slaughter and extreme difficulty getting back to Ithaca was basically all her fault.
******Yes, it is an example that becomes a metaphor for an allegory. Aaaaaaaaagh.
*******Do no be so creative that your conclusion becomes scattered and unfocussed and suddenly begins discussing camels for no particular reason. Be creative in a controlled way.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Table of Contents and Index

I'll have a real post for you tomorrow or the next day; for now, take this contents/index page. It is organised alphabetically by subject; each item is followed by a link or links to the relevant post(s). At the top of the entry, I've listed the name of each post and its short form. The index itself will be linked in its own special little space on the left-hand margin of the blog. I'll update the index every time I post a new entry.


Tremble in Fear, O Ye Students: Tremble
How Not to Write a Thesis: Thesis
Sandwiches Are Not Freaking Beautiful: Sandwiches
Yes, Formality Matters, Damn It: Formality
If You Skip the Prewriting Stage, I Shall Haunt Your Nightmares: Prewriting
Organise Your Thoughts; Win Eternal Fame and Glory: Organise
Since the Dawn of Time, Students Have Sucked at Intros: Intros
I, We, You, They, Argh, Argh, Argh: Argh
(Don't) Follow the Yellow Brick Road: Yellow
How Not to Say Nothing in One Thousand Words: Nothing
Don't Abuse Your Body...Paragraphs: Body
Conclusion, Conclusion, Conclusion: Conclusion
Active. Bloody. Voice. Damn It.: Voice
If You Skip the Postwriting Stage, I Shall Eat Your Mind: Postwriting
Put Your Hands in the Air and Step Away from the Semi-Colon: Semi-Colon
Yes, It's a Tree; WHAT ELSE Is Important?: Description
Bibliography: Bibliography
Attention, All Plagiarists: I KNOW WHAT YOU'RE DOING: Plagiarists
Qualify This "This" or Face the Consequences: This
The Straw Man Will Get You Every Time: Straw
Friends Don't Let Friends Use Ad Hominem Arguments: Hominem
The Filthy Plagiarists' Roll of Dishonour: September 2007: September
I'm Not Dead Yet (or: Marking Comments Made Simple): Marking
I Have a Headache, and Other Related Stories: Headache
Rules Are Made to Be Broken, but Not the Little Annoying Ones: Rules
Out for Blood: My Immoderate Response to the Garbage of Dale Spender: Garbage
Commas are Not "Pauses"...not "Pauses" at All: Commas

A Ranty Post for the Batman Plagiarists: Batman
Please Tell Me What Has Led You to Believe that Apostrophes are Optional: Apostrophes


abstract words: Description
active voice: Voice
ad hominem fallacy: Hominem
anecdote, starting essay with: Intros
analogy, starting essay with: Intros
analysis: Nothing, Headache

apostrophe: Apostrophes

argument: Thesis
“author of this essay, the”: Argh

Batman, plagiarising assignment on: Batman

brainstorming: Prewriting
branching: Prewriting, Organise
body paragraph: Nothing, Body
body paragraph: examples: Nothing

clause: Semi-Colon
clause, adjective: Formality
clause, essential adjective: see clause, restrictive adjective
clause, independent (main): Semi-Colon
clause, non-essential adjective: see clause, non-restrictive adjective
clause, non-restrictive adjective: Formality
clause, relative: Semi-Colon
clause, restrictive adjective: Formality
clause, subordinate (dependent): Semi-Colon
“clearly”: Yellow
colloquialism: Postwriting
comma: Semi-Colon, Commas

comma splice: Commas

conclusion: Conclusion, Postwriting
conclusion as restatement of introduction: Conclusion, Postwriting
conclusion example: Conclusion
contractions: Formality
controversial statement, starting essay with: Intros
cookbook method: see sandwich method
coordinating conjunctions, starting sentences with: Formality
copyright: Semi-Colon
counter-argument: Postwriting

dangling preposition: Voice
debate as postwriting method: Postwriting
debate as prewriting method: Prewriting
definition, starting essay with: Intros
descriptive mode: Semi-Colon, Description
dictionary, importance of: Marking

editing: Postwriting
essential adjective clause: see clause, restrictive adjective
evidence, listing of: Nothing
example is not thesis point: Thesis, Nothing, Headache
example, starting essay with: Intros
exclamation mark: Formality
expletive: Argh, Voice
exposition: Description

Filthy Plagiarists' Roll of Dishonour: Plagiarists, This, Straw, Hominem, September, Rules, Commas
“firstly”: Sandwiches, Yellow
five-paragraph method: see sandwich method
freewriting: Prewriting
formal language: Formality
formulae: Intros, Yellow

gender-neutral third-person singular pronoun: Argh
generalization: Intros
grammar, necessity of learning rules of: Formality

hamburger method: see sandwich method
hasty generalization: see jumping to conclusions
“he” and “she”: Argh
hook: Intros
“how” question: Thesis, Nothing
humanities vs. sciences, writing styles as regards to: Body
humour: Formality

“In conclusion”: Yellow
"interesting" essay: Marking
intransitive verb: see verb, intransitive
introduction: Intros
introduction example: Conclusion
informal language: Formality
“In this essay, I will discuss”: Yellow
“I”: Argh, Voice
introductions: Intros, Postwriting
“it”: Argh
“it is”: Argh
“its” vs. ”it’s”: Argh

jumping to conclusions: Yellow, Nothing

“lastly”: Sandwiches, Yellow
listing points in thesis statement: Thesis
list, separating the elements of a: Semi-Colon
logical fallacies: Straw
looping: Prewriting

marker: Yellow
marking comments: Marking
Metaphorical Shoe Horn of Death: Body
mind-mapping: Prewriting, Organise, Postwriting
modes of essay-writing: Semi-Colon
my mission statement: Tremble
non-essential adjective clause: see clause, non-restrictive adjective
non-restrictive adjective clause: see clause, non-restrictive adjective

objectivity: Description
observation is not analysis: Nothing
off-topic writing: Semi-Colon
“one”: Argh
outlines: Organise, Postwriting

paragraph: Body
passive voice: Voice
past tense not the same as passive voice: Voice
peer editing: Postwriting
plagiarism: Organise, Plagiarists, Garbage, Batman
plot summary: see summary
plural vs. possessive forms: see the next entry
possessive vs. plural forms: Apostrophes
postwriting: Prewriting, Postwriting
present tense in essays about literature: Voice
prewriting: Prewriting, Nothing
process essays: Voice
pronouns: Argh
proofreading: Postwriting, Marking, Rules

question, starting essay with: Intros
quotation, incorporation into paragraph: Headache, Commas
quotation, starting essay with: Intros
“quote” vs. “quotation”: Yellow, Headache<>reading aloud as edition strategy: Postwriting

repetition: Yellow, Nothing, Body
restrictive adjective clause: see clause, restrictive adjective
revision: Postwriting
rules, petty: Rules

sandwich method: Sandwiches, Yellow, Body, Semi-Colon
sandwich paragraph: Body
“secondly”: Sandwiches, Yellow
semi-colon rules: Semi-Colon
“s/he”: Argh
shortest sentence in the English language: Semi-Colon
"show, don't tell": Description
“Since the dawn of time…”: Intros
sky-is-blue argument: Prewriting
spell-checker: Postwriting
split thesis: Thesis, Sandwiches, Body
straw man fallacy: Prewriting, Straw
Strunk and White: Formality
subjectivity: Description
summary: Nothing

tense shifts: Voice
thesis statement: Thesis, Sandwiches, Prewriting, Intros, Nothing, Postwriting
thesis statement, placement of: Intros
"that" as a demonstrative pronoun: see "this"
“that” vs. “which”: Formality, Prewriting
“that” vs. “which”: NA vs. UK rules: Prewriting
“there is”: Argh
thesaurus, usefulness of: Marking
"these" as a demonstrative pronoun: see "this"
“they” as a singular: Argh
“thing” words: Formality
"this" ("that," "these," "those") as a demonstrative pronoun: This
"those" as a demonstrative pronoun: see "this"

titles: underlining/italicising vs. putting in quotation marks: Rules
topic sentence: Body
transition: Yellow, Body, Conclusion, Postwriting
transitive verb: see verb, transitive

unification, lack of: Thesis, Sandwiches
unified thesis: Thesis, Sandwiches
universal statement, starting essay with: Intros
"utilise": Postwriting

verb, intransitive: Voice
verb, transitive: Voice

“we”: Argh
“what” question: Thesis, Nothing
“which” vs. “that”: see "that" vs. "which"
“why” question: Thesis, Nothing

“you”: Formality, Argh

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Don't Abuse Your Body...Paragraphs

One note arising from the last post:

The style of my second sample body paragraph on The Fellowship of the Ring (and yes, I composed both paragraphs myself) has caused some contention among readers. The humanities people have no problem with the paragraph, but at least one of the scientists finds it unclear and kind of pretentious.

Now, I have never claimed not to be pretentious,* but the accusation of lack of clarity bears some discussion. Another reader, whose Internet name is "quasihumanist," has made the following observation:

Arguments in the humanities are unlike those in the sciences. In the humanities, one takes a relatively small amount of evidence and makes intricate, novel arguments, going through many steps to reach a distant and often surprising conclusion. In the sciences, it is at least preferred that one takes a large amount of evidence and uses a standard, well-known method of analysis to arrive at a conclusion which** is relatively obvious given the evidence. If you write a biology paper and all the other biologists while reading it carefully just nod their heads and agree, you have done a good job. If you write a history paper and all the other historians while reading it carefully just nod their heads and agree, you have written a very boring paper.

Quasihumanist makes a good point here. Someone who writes a scientific paper and someone who composes a work of literary criticism are aiming for very different objectives. Both are assimilating and interpreting evidence, but the former focusses on the assimilation and the latter on the interpretation. Humanities papers should be clearly phrased,*** but their style of argumentation can sometimes seem overly subtle or obscure to experimental scientists, who are used to stating that x=yz without stopping to mull over the metaphorical connotations. Humanities arguments can become pretty complex. Don't be put off by the complexity. It's not "pretentious" so much as it is simply a different way of thinking.

Back to body paragraphs:

An extremely easy mistake for a writer to make is to regard the body paragraphs of her essay as entirely separate entities. It's also a rather tempting mistake for a writer to make. People like creating categories. What does Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe do when he finds himself marooned on an island with only a faint hope of rescue? Well, he does quite a few things, but most notably, he sits down and makes lists of the good and bad aspects of his situation. The man is in mortal peril, and he makes lists. Essay writers often experience the same impulse.**** In the earlier stages of the essay-writing process, this impulse is quite useful. The writer lists points...categorises them...recategorises them...and makes strange and wonderful connections. Prewriting is all about lists.

By the time you begin to write, however, you should be left with only one category: your thesis. If you have three (or four or seven or twenty-one thousand) categories connected only by a vague, broad idea, you're going to write a sandwich essay in the worst possible way.

Part of the problem is that it's not particularly difficult to think of a paragraph as an autonomous unit. In a sense, it is an autonomous unit. High-school teachers will often explain to their students that a paragraph consists of a topic sentence, three sentences that provide support for that topic sentence, and a summing-up sentence. These teachers are not actually wrong; they are simply mistaking the model airplane for the real airplane again. The topic-sentence/support/summation model is a useful one, but it is not the only kind of paragraph out there, and it need not be used every single time without modification. Slavishly following what you might call the sandwich-paragraph model will land you in the same difficulties as will slavishly following the sandwich-essay model: you will be so hemmed in that you will leave your argument no room to grow.

A paragraph is a unit of writing that generally deals with one concept or idea. An idea can run over more than one paragraph, but a single paragraph should not cover more than one idea. Sandwich-method devotees often find themselves with so many ideas that they are forced to cram three or four into one paragraph in order to avoid going over the three-body-paragraph limit.***** Their essays tend to read as scattered; a lack of division between sub-points means that the reader is frantically trying to keep track of the bouncy ball that is the writer's argument as it careens without warning from point to point. If you are writing on a particularly complex idea, consider using a series of paragraphs instead of one busy, confusing one. As well, don't feel that your paragraphs all have to be hugely long. When I mark a four-page paragraph, I am constantly flipping back through the pages to figure out where the damned point started. If one of your points is a short, simple one, write a short, simple paragraph.

Some paragraph myths:

1) The topic sentence always comes first. No, it bloody well doesn't. The topic sentence--the sentence in which the writer reveals the paragraph's main point--often comes first because first is a pretty logical place for it, but occasionally, a paragraph begins with a little lead-in or example arising from ideas covered in the last paragraph. If you can't put your topic sentence first, don't get hysterical; improvise.

The idea of the topic sentence is, again, the fault of high-school teachers. As usual, these teachers mean well; they are trying to get their students to make each paragraph's purpose as clear as humanly possible. I applaud these efforts. I do not applaud the formulaic writing that often results. You may do better to forget about the topic sentence and concentrate on the topic. In other words, don't devote all your efforts to ensuring the existence of a single sentence that tells the reader what the paragraph is about, then relax and assume that the rest of the paragraph's content will fall into place. Try thinking of it not as a necessary sentence but as a necessary paragraph element: that is, you need to make the paragraph's purpose clear. I don't care how you do it. I don't care if it takes more than one sentence. I would advise you not to save it until the end, since then your paragraph is going to be doing a lot of aimless wandering, but I would suggest you not panic if you can't come up with a sentence that follows the Yellow Brick Road. State the clearly as possible.

2) The topic sentence must be followed by three pieces of evidence, each one sentence long. Okay. Before you continue reading, please scroll up the page a little and go through the paragraph above this one again. You'll notice, first of all, that its topic sentence appears five sentences in, after a short section of explanation. You'll also notice that the sentences that follow the topic sentence do not carefully lay out three pieces of evidence one by one; instead, they explain and justify the topic sentence. These sentences follow logically upon one another; each idea leads to the next. Eventually, the paragraph ends with a summary of the paragraph's main point.

There are not three bloody sentences in the middle of the bloody paragraph, and they do not go, "Firstly"..."secondly"..."lastly." Nor, I must say, did I sit down and think, "Okay...I'm going to put the topic sentence here, and then I shall follow it with exactly x number of sentences, the first of which will have this purpose, and the second of which will have this purpose, and the third of which..."...and I'm sure you get the idea. I just wrote the thing. I knew what I wanted to say and where I wanted to go with the paragraph; I wasn't sure exactly how long it would take me to get there. I let the logic of my thoughts carry me from the beginning of the paragraph to the end.

If you are the sort of person who writes an ultra-detailed outline, go ahead and plan your paragraphs sentence by sentence, but make sure you are planning their content as well as their structure. Someone who adheres to the sandwich-paragraph method is planning the structure exclusive of the content, then shoehorning****** the content in any old how.

Do not succumb to the Metaphorical Shoe Horn of Death. Let your paragraphs be as long, as short, as complex, or as simple as they need to be.

3) The final sentence begins with the word "Therefore" and repeats the topic sentence. No. No. No, no, no, no, no!

What have I said about repetition? Do I have to repeat myself? Again? A paragraph is even shorter than an essay; don't clog it with pointless repetition. You have travelled in your argument over the course of the paragraph. With luck, by the time he finishes your paragraph, the reader will know more than he did thirty seconds before. Your final comment should generally constitute an intelligent observation arising from the analysis you have accomplished in the paragraph.

Your last sentence does not have to encompass the entire paragraph. It should provide a succinct comment that leads straight to your next point (or, in the case of complex points that stretch over more than one paragraph, your next sub-point). Remember: your argument is moving forward. A "Therefore..." + topic ending sends you backward and does not prepare the reader for your next point.

A transition is not simply a silly convention, a relatively meaningless word linking one paragraph to the next. A true transition is thematic; the "However," "Nonetheless," or "Therefore" is a mere surface indication of an essential connection between points. Someone using the sandwich method might argue that a certain painter uses extreme contrast between light and dark, deliberate lack of balance in composition, and the visual suggestion of androgyny in his central figures to create an atmosphere of uncertainty as well as a seemingly contradictory suggestion of impending doom,******* but if she deals with each point alone and does not explore how they work together to create this atmosphere, she is not creating meaningful transitions, no matter how many "However"s she uses.

A paragraph is not, in fact, an autonomous unit at all. A unified argument should move logically and with an apparent lack of effort from point to point, much as the unified paragraph moves logically and with an apparent lack of effort from sentence to sentence. In constructing an argument, you are chasing an idea through from conception to final proof. Each point is a link in the chain of analysis. If you neglect to include one of these links, the chain will fall to pieces. A mark of the sandwich essay is that it often fails to construct such a chain. Its points are independent of each other and, more importantly, interchangeable with each other and with other points that the writer does not have room to include. The writer dealing with the fictional painting in the last paragraph could probably add several other examples (and yes, she is really just listing examples here) to her list of elements that create the painting's atmosphere of uncertainty/impending doom; she could also swap them for the three she mentions. Her argument does not follow a logical trajectory. It consists of a number of examples, each of which separately proves her thesis. As she has neglected to tie these examples together meaningfully, her essay may easily end up remaining on the surface of the issue at hand.

Go deep, not wide. It's better to deal with a narrow issue******** comprehensively than to struggle to encompass the entirety of human experience in the space of three and a half pages. Let Douglas Adams cover Life, and Universe, and Everything. Take one small but important idea and run with it, pursuing it through paragraph after interconnected paragraph until you have covered all the essential issues surrounding it. This approach will actually help you to avoid leaving holes in your argument. If you build an argument around three random, loosely related, interchangeable points, you will be leaving gaps. If you build it around one point, you have more of a chance of creating a watertight, convincing essay.

My next post will discuss conclusions. It will not, however, be a conclusion. I still have many, many ideas to scream at you all.

*Except once in a while at parties.
**Yep...quasihumanist uses restrictive "which"es. He is allowed to do so because he knows the difference between restrictive and non-restrictive adjective clauses and has deliberately chosen to shun "that" for "which." I wouldn't do it myself, but luckily, I am not assigning his passage a mark out of one hundred. He can thus do whatever the hell he wants. If he had used a non-restrictive "which" without a comma, however, I would have stomped all over him and screamed a lot.
***You hear me, Homi Babha? You hear me?
****Without the mortal peril. Most of the time.
******If you don't know what a shoe horn is, I actually kind of envy you. At any rate, Google will tell you what you want to know.
*******I don't think this painting exists. If it does, I sort of want to see it.
********Albeit not too narrow. Unless you are a medievalist graduate student with nothing better to do, you probably don't want to write a ten-page paper on the provenance of a single Old English word.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

How Not to Say Nothing in One Thousand Words

In the last post, I mentioned a student who repeated herself so many times in each essay that her papers contained almost no original content. This student had what is unfortunately not all that rare a gift: the ability to say nothing at length. Many students are, in fact, past masters at ensuring a complete absence of content.

If you are one of these students, you probably mean well. You have to hand in five essays in the space of two weeks; you are tired, overworked, and running mostly on caffeine; you fall back on the comfortingly rigid sandwich method and let the structure do the work for you. I understand why you write great big empty cotton-candy-like papers, but I do not forgive you for it. Everybody else has to hand in five essays in the space of two weeks as well. Everybody else is tired, overworked, and running mostly on caffeine. Stop pretending that your "unusual" schedule has "forced" you to cut corners. Oh...and stop beginning brainstorming for each paper the night before it's due. It isn't working for you.

You would think this problem would be relatively easy to fix; if a paragraph says "nothing," surely it should be recognisably lacking in content. Unfortunately, such is not the case. Many writers think they are providing vigorous, convincing arguments when what they are actually doing is providing tedious, random evidence unconnected to any analysis at all. An essay's body paragraphs are where this problem becomes most apparent, but it really starts with the thesis. A weak thesis (one that answers a "what?" question or poses but doesn't answer a "how?" or "why?" question) will lead to a weak or missing argument. As I believe I have screamed several times already, a thesis must be controversial. A writer "arguing" an irrefutable fact is simply going to provide evidence without analysing it, as the mere existence of the evidence "proves" her (banal) point. A list of evidence is simply a list; it is not an argument.

I have noticed a lot of students "arguing" as follows:

Introduction: X is true. [=answer to a "what" question]

Paragraph 1: X is true: witness example 1.

Paragraph 2: X is true: witness example 2.

Paragraph 3: X is true: witness example 3.

Conclusion: X is true.

Let us return to a sentence from my second post for a minute so that I can yell at you all again:

An example is not a thesis point.

Okay? Shall we do this one more time?

An example is not a thesis point.

Description and analysis are not synonymous. Observation and analysis are not synonymous either. One of the reasons I hate the split thesis is that it encourages the listing of examples as a substitution for analytic thought.

Yet the difference between an "example" and a "point" is not always an easy one to see. Many thesis points are built around examples. Consider the following two, well, examples. Both are body paragraphs from essays on (you guessed it) friendship in The Fellowship of the Ring; each takes a different approach to the topic.

1) Topic: friendship in The Fellowship of the Ring

Thesis: Friendship is a central theme of the novel, and it can be seen in the relationship amongst the hobbits, Frodo's admiration of Gandalf, and the interactions of the Fellowship.

Body Paragraph:

The theme of friendship makes itself apparent in the novel through the relationship amongst the hobbits. In The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo, knowing that he needs to take the One Ring to Rivendell, tries to go alone; however, first Sam, then Pippin, Merry, and Fatty manage to join him. Sam is so worried about Frodo that he betrays him to the others. Frodo is at first angry, but then he realises that his friends and cousins are simply loyal to him. Remembering Gandalf’s words, he allows them to join him on his journey. Two kinds of friendship are demonstrated early on: Fatty agrees to stay behind in Crickhollow to drive off the Black Riders, while Sam, Merry, and Pippin follow Frodo into the unknown. By the time Aragorn joins the hobbits in Bree, the idea of the hobbits as firm friends is well established.

2) Topic: friendship in The Fellowship of the Ring

Thesis: By laying emphasis upon the idea of loyalty as a hidden property that gains its strength from its very obscurity, Tolkien establishes the idea of humble friendship in disguise–a contrast to the powerful, glittering, treacherous world of Saruman–as one of his story’s main images of goodness.

Body Paragraph:

Though the friendship amongst the hobbits is at first glance straightforward, a closer look reveals that this friendship manifests itself through deceit and even betrayal. Tolkien launches Frodo on his journey in an episode that sets up what seems to be a conflict between loyalty and deception; the protagonist here finds himself confronted with the treachery of his servant, Sam, and the untrustworthiness of Merry and Pippin, his cousins. However, in this segment, the author effects a reversal of both Frodo’s and the reader’s expectations, as the “betrayer,” Sam, turns on his master due to his unwavering faith in Frodo, while the steadfastness of Merry and Pippin manifests itself through disobedience. Like Aragorn in a later chapter, the young hobbits demonstrate that “All that is gold does not glitter.” Their friendship with the Ring-Bearer cannot show itself through more conventional attributes such as trustworthiness, appearing instead as a subversion of the idea that friends must never lie, disobey, or betray. Friendship that matters does not “glitter” in Tolkien’s world; on the contrary, it gleams through the murk. The topsy-turvy, “treacherous” behaviour of Sam and the others--behaviour that turns out in the end to be staunch friendship in disguise--shows up more clearly than the dazzling but corrupt version of comradeship that Saruman offers Gandalf.

Unpack these paragraphs a little:

Example #1 is from an essay whose thesis answers a "what?" question. The writer is attempting to prove that friendship is a central theme of The Fellowship of the Ring, not how it is. He* may as well be arguing that balls are spherical and proving it by throwing one at his reader. As well, his points aren't particularly unified, at least partly because they are simply examples. Whether or not they connect to each other is kind of immaterial. The writer could even, if he liked, add other points: Gandalf's friendship with Saruman, Boromir's treatment of Aragorn, Legolas' odd-couple relationship with Gimli, and so on. As the points are just bits of evidence for a pretty straightforward assertion, adding or subtracting them does not really affect his argument much.

His paragraph is quite well written, but look at its content:

The theme of friendship makes itself apparent in the novel through the relationship amongst the hobbits. [Topic sentence: states thesis point. Note: writer doesn't reveal how theme makes itself apparent.] In The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo, knowing that he needs to take the One Ring to Rivendell, tries to go alone; however, first Sam, then Pippin, Merry, and Fatty manage to join him. [Plot summary.] Sam is so worried about Frodo that he betrays him to the others. [Plot summary.] Frodo is at first angry, but then he realises that his friends and cousins are simply loyal to him. [Plot summary.] Remembering Gandalf’s words, he allows them to join him on his journey. [Plot summary.] Two kinds of friendship are demonstrated early on: Fatty agrees to stay behind in Crickhollow to drive off the Black Riders, while Sam, Merry, and Pippin follow Frodo into the unknown. [Observation arising from plot summary. Minimal analysis in conclusion that example demonstrates two types of friendship. No discussion of significance of observation.] By the time Aragorn joins the hobbits in Bree, the idea of the hobbits as firm friends is well established. [Nips tentative bit of analysis in the bud by returning to the "what?" question. Ignores comment about two types of friendship: subsumes them both into the wide, vague category of "friendship."]

This student has written a substantial paragraph in which he has said very little. One of his sentences states the thesis point; four consist of plot summary (of a single plot element, though his topic sentence claims to deal with the "relationship amongst the hobbits," not with the "relationship amongst the hobbits in two or three chapters near the beginning of the novel"); one is a sparse observation with the potential to give rise to analysis; the last ignores that potential and sums up the paragraph. This sort of writing is frustrating to read. It looks as if it ought to be saying something interesting or insightful, but what it is actually doing is telling the reader what happens in the book.

The reader, dear reader, has read the book. You are not writing a book-review column for your local newspaper; you are analysing Tolkien. By all means cite examples from the novel, but don't go on and on and on about them and then leap to not-very-interesting conclusions. Summary is not a substitute for analysis.

Actually, summary is an interesting problem in essay writing. The ability to summarise a text, event, situation, process, or problem is a useful one; in many situations, summary is necessary. If you are writing a book-review column for your local newspaper, you'll be expected to sum up the story in a few brief paragraphs. If you're writing a how-to guide or describing an historical event, you'll want to be able to capture the important aspects of your subject clearly and concisely. Some essays and books also require summaries in order that their readers not be confused. However, a thousand-word analysis is not a how-to guide. Summary all on its own in an analysis is problematic because it doesn't really tell the reader anything new. In order to leap from the presentation of a passage of summary to a conclusion about what this summary means, a reader will have to analyse the text herself. She will have to fill in the gap between what the writer has observed and what he is asserting about his observations.

Do not force the reader to do your job for you. It is your job. As with the word "clearly," which I discussed in my last post, the presentation of summary or pure observation instead of analysis is unfair to the reader, whose brain should be going, "Yes...yes...yes...not sure...okay, then,!", not, "So this example could very well mean that x is true, but only if I also apply y and z. What about q? Why hasn't he discussed q?"**

Example #2 has a much more complex thesis, but there's nothing wrong with a complex thesis. Note that this writer answers a "how?" question. Look at his content:

Though the friendship amongst the hobbits is at first glance straightforward, a closer look reveals that this friendship manifests itself through deceit and even betrayal. [Topic sentence: states thesis point. Immediately sets up the idea of the hidden by revealing that friendship in the novel seems straightforward but is complex.] Tolkien launches Frodo on his journey in an episode that sets up what seems to be a conflict between loyalty and deception; [Sets up example with mention of its thematic importance.] the protagonist here finds himself confronted with the treachery of his servant, Sam, and the untrustworthiness of Merry and Pippin, his cousins. [Brief plot summary that clarifies the identity of the scene in question.] However, in this segment, the author effects a reversal of both Frodo’s and the reader’s expectations, [Deepens and makes more complex the central idea.] as the “betrayer,” Sam, turns on his master due to his unwavering faith in Frodo, while the steadfastness of Merry and Pippin manifests itself through disobedience. [Example. Includes mention of plot details but simultaneously comments on their significance.] Like Aragorn in a later chapter, the young hobbits demonstrate that “All that is gold does not glitter." [Pulls in comparative example (which sheds light on this one) from later in novel.] Their friendship with the Ring-Bearer cannot show itself through more conventional attributes such as trustworthiness, appearing instead as a subversion of the idea that friends must never lie, disobey, or betray. [Startling, controversial idea. Backed up by earlier mention of behaviour of Sam, Merry, and Pippin.] Friendship that matters does not “glitter” in Tolkien’s world; on the contrary, it gleams through the murk. [Back to what is probably one of the major images of the essay: one that embodies the idea of hidden friendship as good.] The topsy-turvy, “treacherous” behaviour of Sam and the others--behaviour that turns out in the end to be staunch friendship in disguise--shows up more clearly than the dazzling but corrupt version of comradeship that Saruman offers Gandalf. [Sums up point and connects it to a contrasting point (probably the next one).]

Note that though this writer does include examples from the text, he keeps them short and mixes them with comments that discuss their significance. His main example merits a mere half-sentence of summary; he immediately goes on to explain how this episode contributes to his thesis.

Note also that not every aspect of the thesis is covered in this paragraph; the writer does not discuss the idea of goodness. He will. He simply hasn't reached that portion of his argument yet. Writers who use split theses often seem to believe that they must sum up every paragraph with a return to the thesis statement, as if the paragraph itself--on its own--proves this thesis. Again, these writers are composing series of mini-essays, not one unified document. Don't worry if you don't cover the entire thesis in body paragraph one. You have an entire essay in which to create a convincing argument.

The difference between the two approaches above can probably be summed up as follows:

Writer #1 is observing. He attempts to make his point through a listing of the available evidence. This technique is not limited to literary criticism. Someone writing on the causes of the War of 1812 could recount certain historical incidents; someone writing on global warming could describe particular weather patterns or provide a collection of statistics. All of these bits of evidence would be essential to the argument at hand as evidence. On their own, however, they would not constitute an argument.

Writer #2 is analysing. He makes observations, then comments on them. His examples do not stand alone; they are accompanied by the writer's ideas about what the examples mean (in terms of his argument) and why they mean it. He does not say, "Sam betrays Frodo. This proves that hidden friendship is true friendship." He does not, in fact, jump to conclusions. He connects his evidence to his assertions, telling us that just as Sam's betrayal of Frodo turns out to be friendship in disguise, so do many of the other relationships in the novel fall into the same pattern; he goes on, through his comments on a series of examples, to draw conclusions about why Tolkien might portray hidden friendship as good and blatant (surface) friendship as evil. Writer #2 does not sit back and let his readers do his analysis for him. He observes, comments on his observations, and draws conclusions from his comments. Ta-da: analysis.

If you are used to writing like Writer #1, Writer #2's methods may seem foreign or even impossible to you. Don't give up. Learning to write--and think--analytically takes time. Not even a prodigy can sit down at a piano without ever having done so before and immediately pound out a Beethoven concerto; she will need time to familiarise herself with the instrument before she begins to play. It's a cliche, I know, but practice really does make...if not perfect...then a damned lot better than before. I can improvise music on the piano, but I have spent many years practising. My friends who can draw, juggle, play the violin, make films, and write stories are not magically competent; they have all improved over time. Getting frustrated and giving up on essay writing because you "can't think like that" is as unfair as getting frustrated and giving up on the yo-yo because you hit yourself in the face the first time you tried to go Around the World.***

The key here is, as usual, in the thesis statement. In order to come up with a solid, provable thesis, you will have to do a lot of thinking, and this thinking itself should get you both your observations and your analysis. As I said in the post about prewriting, the ability to plug the holes in your argument is important; you must keep the counter-argument in mind as you write. Writer #1 doesn't really have a counter-argument, and he is therefore becoming rather careless about the holes in his ideas. It is when an argument is under threat that a writer must work hard to defend it, and this defence comes through assertion, justification, comparison, and the drawing of conclusions.

At this juncture, I would like to jump up and down, screaming and pointing at my prewriting post. Remember when I told you prewriting was important? Remember how you nodded, smiled, and moved on?

Get your butt back to the bloody prewriting post and read it again. Read the bits about having an argument with yourself. Memorise these bits. Resist the temptation to avoid taking freaking notes in which you have arguments with yourself. Do not start with mind-mapping! No no no no no!

Develop your ideas in your notes. Don't write down just evidence; record your thoughts about this evidence as well. I recently had to mark a number of in-class essays. The prof allowed his students to construct one-page outlines ahead of time and consult them as they wrote. A lot of the students filled their outlines with quotations and observations but no analysis; these students tended not to analyse the texts on which they were writing. If you neglect the analysis stage in your notes, you may easily neglect it in your essay as well. If you cover it, you will find the analysis easier to incorporate because you have already done it.

In my next post, I'll continue my discussion of body paragraphs by dealing with the shape of an argument (in each paragraph and from paragraph to paragraph) and how to ensure that points connect to and flow into one another.****

*For the sake of Not Being Accused of Implying that Girls Are Smarter than Boys or Vice Versa, I am going to pretend that both of these writers are men.
**More people should discuss q. It gets you ten points in Scrabble and is therefore one of the best letters ever.
***Admittedly, failing at essay writing hurts less. Physically.
****Yes, this sentence constitutes a "marker." Yes, I am allowed to use it here because it also constitutes a "preview." Yes, I sometimes get too involved in shows that appear on "television." When I start going, "Previously on Kem's Guide..." and making the bink-bink noises from 24, you should probably put me out of my misery.