Spring 2015: Foreword

Last March, Dr. Judy Swan conducted a workshop in the Writing Center about writing in the sciences.  An assortment of Writing Center Fellows, myself among them, gathered in the basement of Whitman College to consider Dr. Swan’s discussion of the function of figures.  Finally, my inner English major thought, the secrets of science were to be revealed.  So when Dr. Swan opened the workshop by passing around a block quote excerpted from a novel, my eyebrows shot up.  Was Dr. Swan punking us?  What could literature writing possibly have to do with science writing?

Science and literature:  to be sure, these seem like somewhat odd bedfellows.  You study one under the lens of a microscope and locate the other in the recesses of a library.  What could their juxtaposition possibly reveal about excellent writing practices?  In her workshop, Dr. Swan went on to suggest that the excerpting of block quotes was analogous to the creation of scientific figures.  Selection or curation of evidence, she claimed, is already an analytical move: so analysis could be said to determine how (literary or scientific) evidence gets presented to the reader.  What’s more, Dr. Swan’s juxtaposition got us thinking about how block quotes and figures both act as writerly anchors, tools writers use to ground their arguments.  Figures and block quotes help the reader understand what it is the writer has noticed; in this way, they open up space for the reader to agree/disagree with these claims.  Figures and block quotes, as pieces of carefully selected and presented evidence, empower both writers and readers.  I was skeptical at first, but then hooked.

So in this second issue of Tortoise, we include writing from what are often considered opposite ends of the academic spectrum.  Katie Hanss’s lab report, “Locational and Temporal Abundance of Various Net Zooplankton in Bermuda,” for instance, immediately follows Karen Jin’s close reading of “the intellectual and the physical” in Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene.  Several months ago this disciplinary difference would have left me scratching my head.  But this juxtaposition is intentionally provocative:  we ask the reader to read a lab report after a poetry paper precisely to break down the wall between what we’ve learned about science and what we’ve learned about literature.  Reading these in tandem, it becomes clear that the disciplines for which they are written bear a surprising number of similarities.  Why not aim for a more holistic approach, using what we know about crafting lab reports to improve how we approach our readings of literary texts—and vice versa?

Tortoise’s ambition is to help students write by explaining writing authored by their peers.  Since we still believe that writing is a process, in our second issue we continue to accompany excerpts of student academic writing with editorial commentaries.  These, authored by Writing Center Fellows, professors, and the student writers themselves, describe the process as much as the written product—how the prose was produced and why it works.  And we continue to publish across class levels to make the case that exceptional writing occurs at all stages of education.

This issue bears one important difference from our last.  In our first issue, we aimed to show that all great writing shares certain fundamentals, articulable via our handy writer’s lexicon—a registry of terms that identifies common writing elements, e.g., thesis, motive, structure, and the like.  Last spring we had to do the work of enumerating this lexicon (appended to the end of this issue).  To this end we grouped that issue into sections devoted to individual lexical elements.  This time around, we have revised that organization, instead dividing the journal into units that follow the structure of a conventional academic essay:  we open with abstracts and introductions, and move through body to conclusions.  We hope to (1) demonstrate that lexical elements play a role at every moment of a paper and (2) model techniques one could use to start, develop, and finish off an argument.  Another important change:  we now accept submissions to Tortoise year-round, on a rolling basis.  For submission information, consult our website at www.princeton.edu/writing/tortoise.

Thanks go out to all those who helped us produce this second issue:  to student contributors, to authors of commentary, including Professor Aleksandra Snyder; to our administrative support, including Khristina Gonzalez, Judy Swan, Amanda Irwin Wilkins, Margie Duncan, Keith Thomas, and Melinda DeNero.  Thanks always to my editorial staff, past and present.

Our goals for Tortoise remain numerous.  We hope that students will consult Tortoise as a writing guidebook; that professors will deploy it in their classrooms; and that it opens up a forum in which exemplary student work can be showcased and shared. Tortoise remains a product-in-process in two important ways:  each issue is subjected to several stages of rigorous revision; and between each issue we reconsider how Tortoise is structured in order to address the writerly needs of our community here at Princeton.  So, please enjoy our second effort.

Brian Lax



The author


Brain Lax ’15 is from Charlotte, North Carolina. He studies in the English Department and was founder and Editor-in-Chief of Tortoise.