Tortoise Tuesday: Brushing the Dust off Forgotten Papers

Applying to grad school this past fall was disturbing on an existential level. I couldn’t decide whether my desire to spend at least five more years studying philosophy was merely ill-advised or downright unhinged. However, the application process was also unsettling on a more mundane level: for my writing sample, I decided to revise a philosophy paper that I wrote at the end of freshman year. Revisiting old writing projects is like opening a mysterious container at the back of the fridge that’s probably been there for months, or like reluctantly glancing into the mirror after a long illness. You hope that you won’t find anything unpleasant or grotesque, but you’re not too optimistic about it.

Indeed, the first time I reread my paper, I ended up filling the margins with question marks rather than constructive comments. If a student had given me that paper during a writing center conference, I would not have known where to start. I ultimately gave up on trying to remember precisely what I had intended to argue. Instead, I highlighted all of the potential motives and theses, even ones that I hadn’t originally intended to develop. I also made a reverse outline to remind myself of the paper’s structure.

Finally, I managed to reconstruct the argument that the paper was currently making, such as it was. I was using textual analysis of sections of Plato’s Republic to explain his (questionable) claim that a philosopher lives 729 times more happily than a tyrant. It was a fine argument given the original expectations of the assignment. However, now I was no longer writing for my professor, who is specifically interested in ancient philosophy, but instead for a panel of philosophers with varying research interests. These philosophers would be looking for a scholarly or a global motive in addition to my in-text motive. I therefore had to reframe my motive and thesis to make them relevant to current scholarly debates.

I discovered that my initial draft had an implicit motivating question: is it possible to quantify happiness? I soon realized that if Plato had found a way to quantify happiness, it would be extremely relevant to philosophers today. After considering my audience, I decided that it would be best to begin with my scholarly motive (scholars disagree about whether we can quantify happiness) and then transition to my in-text motive (Plato tries to quantify happiness, but he appears to do so very badly). I was thus able to retain the basic methodology of my original paper, while making it more groundbreaking by adding an extra layer of motive. Once I figured out my motive, my thesis fell into place. I could retain my original thesis (Plato’s attempt to quantify the philosopher’s and the tyrant’s happiness is in fact partially successful, because it builds on his complex theory of pleasure) and simply add a section that responded to my new motive (philosophers today can learn x, y, and z from Plato’s attempt to quantify happiness).

In addition to improving my paper, I had to substantially shorten it. This helped me to develop a tight—and newly framed—argument. There were certain passages that were fascinating, but irrelevant to my revised motive and thesis. Other passages contained unnecessary summaries of Plato’s arguments. It was liberating to realize that I didn’t need to salvage all of these sections—I deleted entire paragraphs and pages.

In the end, I managed to shorten my paper even more than I had intended. This gave me extra space to improve my existing analysis. My advisor pointed out that my paper didn’t need more analysis per se, but that I did need to explain my analysis using examples. I incorporated a whole range of examples drawn from daily life, ranging from the relief of finishing a difficult workout to the fear inspired by horror movies.

If you ever need to edit an old piece of writing for publication (or, God forbid, apply to grad school), perhaps you can learn from my struggles with Plato’s 729 problem. First of all, consider whether your target audience has changed, and whether you should alter your framing, motive, and/or thesis accordingly. Keep in mind that you might be able to expand on your current motive and thesis rather than starting from scratch. Secondly, don’t be afraid to delete sections that aren’t working out! Few pleasures compare to that of excising a paragraph and realizing that your argument is now much clearer. Finally, try to approach your paper as a stranger would. Consider counterclaims, flag dubious analysis, and take note of any logical leaps. In other words, don’t give your past self the benefit of the doubt. Your readers (or admissions committee) won’t be that understanding.

–Frances Mangina, ’22