Setting Up the Motive: Introduction, Orienting, Scholarly Conversation

When beginning their Writing Seminar, most first-year students have heard of ‘thesis’, ‘structure’ or ‘evidence.’ Few, though, have encountered ‘motive,’ which is often the most difficult concept to grasp. And for good reason: it has layers and moves, and, unlike the thesis, which appears in the introduction, or evidence, which appears in body paragraphs, motive appears everywhere. 

But what, exactly, is motive? For one, it is a starting point—it is the initial tension, puzzle or question you identify, and, ultimately, look to answer. It is also the space in which you enter the scholarly conversation, offering an idea that complicates, refines, or extends prior work. It tells your readers why your argument matters, and, at best, it also serves as a source of personal motivation to pursue the topic. If your thesis is the “what,” then your motive asks both “where” and “why.”

By presenting nine well-motivated papers across the disciplines, we hope that this issue of Tortoise sheds light on the most all-encompassing term of the Writing Lexicon. When understood, motive is a particularly empowering tool—it encourages us to pursue our curiosity, guides our analysis, and allows us to convey the originality of our ideas. Indeed, after developing a strong motive, everything else tends to follow.

Each section of this issue highlights a different section within an essay where motive should appear. In this section, we present three papers that brilliantly use motive to orient readers to their topic and introduce their scholarly contribution. First, Alexa Marsh sets up her exploration of the tension between the conventional narrative of the Nazi regime and the Third Reich’s pronatalist rhetoric utilized in reality. Then, Peyton Smith leverages motive to draw non-specialist readers into her discussion of research on a puzzling strain of transmissible cancer in Tasmanian devils. Finally, Tristan Szapary articulates the connection between his motive and method in his senior thesis research proposal in the neuroscience department.

—  Molly Taylor ‘25 and Natalia Espinosa Dice ‘26