Bits of information, explanation, and summary that orient the reader.

When we orient ourselves in the real world, we figure out where we are relative to our physical surroundings. When we orient ourselves in a paper, we figure out where we are relative to its factual and theoretical background. The writer’s role is to make that process as easy as possible: to make us familiar with the tools necessary to understand the rest of the paper. We need enough background information for the motive and thesis to make sense. We need to grasp key terms so that we can follow analysis. We need a sense of what is to come so that we don’t feel lost in a meandering argument. In short, we need a general familiarity with – or a guidebook for (if you’ll forgive the extended metaphor) – the new world we’re entering.

Admittedly, crafting that guidebook isn’t quite as simple as it sounds. But one can break orienting into three primary components. The writer has to paint a quick outline of his subject. This is the picture of our destination on a map – the physical descriptions in the guidebook. We need to know what it is we’re reading about, and what its most important features are. If not, we’re lost from the start: we don’t even know where we are.

The writer also has to explain the key sources he’s dealing with as he tackles this subject — who they are, what they say, and how they say it. This is in many ways equivalent to our destination’s political and historical background. Nobody wants to step off the plane and realize he’s landed in the middle of a civil war. Nor does a reader want to be smacked in the face with a new, un-introduced source halfway through a body paragraph. Part of explaining key sources involves explaining their key terms – or any key terms that the writer is going to rely on for his paper.

Finally, the writer has to explain his motive and thesis and, with them, provide all necessary road-mapping of his argument. At the risk of stretching the metaphor, this is the “what to do” section of the guidebook: you’re in the new country, you know about its history, but what do you do when you leave the airport?

There is no set way to go about providing this orienting information – and different disciplines ask that it be done differently. For some it’s subtle, and for others it’s heavy-handed. The papers in this section cover both sides. Benjamin Jubas’s is a philosophy paper with explicit orienting moves and steps. Eunice Lee’s is a sociological paper that relies on fluidity and subtlety in its orienting. Both do an excellent job.

The author


Emily de La Bruyere is a junior from New York, NY. She is a Woodrow Wilson School major with a certificate in Chinese Language and Culture.