“Motive” is an incongruity, puzzle, or surprise in the primary sources or data; and/or hole, limitation, or disagreement in the secondary literature that leaves space for the writer’s new claim.

When it comes to “motive,” the Writing Center Program’s lexicon steals a definition right out of real life—why are you doing what you’re doing? What is your motivation? On this level, the motive in a paper functions just as a motive would outside of academic writing. If thesis is the what of the paper, motive is the why. If the thesis articulates the paper’s promise, the motive is the paper’s purpose. A compelling motive propels the writer and reader through the paper, and answers the proverbial question “why does this even matter?”

A search for motive takes place on the level of both primary and secondary sources. With primary sources, a writer forms an argument after finding something surprising or promising about the data. When dealing with secondary sources, however, it often isn’t enough that a writer forms an opinion—he or she needs to fight for space in the scholarly conversation for a new contribution. Any gap, contradiction, or controversy in the existing literature can motivate an argument.

The best motives are often multilayered. A history paper, for example, can be motivated by an impulse to resolve a conflict of interpretation between two historians, but also be motivated on a “bigger picture” to propose a new interpretation of history and its political consequences. This “bigger picture” motive brings us back to real life. If you don’t have motivation to write, you won’t do it—like anything else, academic papers need purpose.

In the three essays that follow you will find a diverse array clearly articulated and compelling motives. While reading each of the essays, “Saratoga Billboard: The Façade of Advertising,” “Florine Stettheimer’s Family Portrait II: Cathedrals of the Elite Family,” “You Say Chanani, I say Chananaei: Language and Ethnography in Augustine” the reader never loses sight of why they are reading the essay, and why the thesis is important. The Tortoise staff has provided commentary to highlight their unique successes and pedagogical value.

The author


Lekha Kanchinadam is a junior from Cranbury, New Jersey. She is majoring in History and getting a certificate in the Teacher Preparation Program.