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, yes...yes...wow!", 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.

5 comments:

Ester Macedo said...

Your insights are, as usual, so insightful and so true! For instance, about the importance of the "Q": I just got a 119-point bingo with "Quavered". How often does one see that?

Fiona said...

I like writing now. But back when I was still a student, I hated it. I don't like writing to the point that I always get a bad grade for not submitting my essay writing services due. However, bit by bit, I started to love it and discovered that I have a knack for writing. Don't forget to pay attention when you're writing because you'll end up having more things to do when you don't focus.

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