Writing Center

Jayaditya Deep, ’23, who goes by “Jojo,” is currently studying math and creative writing at Princeton. He is from Natchitoches, Louisiana, and at times he wishes it were a tad warmer up here. He enjoys a good laugh (who doesn’t) and is a big fan of comedy. Outside of academics, Jojo loves competing in sports, watching movies, trying new foods, and being with friends and family. He wrote this essay as a freshman.

Alex Charles, ’22 is currently studying in the School of Political and International Affairs. He is a member of the men’s soccer team, an avid music fan, and enjoys volunteering and mentoring in his free time. He wrote this as a or sophomore, etc.

Spring 2021, The basics

The Fiction of Ong’s Hat: Too Good to be False

In a Tortoiseshell: In his essay, Jayaditya “Jojo” Deep analyzes conflicting research about the psychology of conspiracy theorists. In his introduction, Jojo details a hypothetical scenario that immediately captivates a reader’s attention and creates an understanding of  how conspiracy theories propagate. Continuing, Jojo uses this hypothetical scenario to lay the context of his main conspiracy of study—Ong’s Hat—before explaining how this case sheds light on the related psychological literature.  Continue reading

Spring 2021, Thesis


The central, and arguably most important, component of any essay is its thesis. There are far too many ways to discuss the construction of thesis to put in a single issue, but the pieces selected for this section showcase some of the possibilities. In her Comparative Literature essay, Paige Allen explores the relationships between various key terms — consumption, humanity, and monstrosity, to name a few — in order to construct a novel argument about what she calls “resistant monstrosity”; in her commentary on Allen’s essay, editor Tess Solomon points out how the various parts of the essay come together to lead the reader briskly and clearly to the main thesis. The excerpt of Paige Min’s her R3 on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory published here likewise provides a very good example of an an against-the-grain argument, which Ellie Shapiro explains and analyzes in her commentary on Min’s piece.

— Isabella Khan, ’21

Non-textual sources, Spring 2021

Non-Textual Sources

Depending on the discipline, we are often called upon to construct an argument based on a non-traditional source, whether based in film, visual art, music, or some combination of the three. Though this task can be daunting (still more so when the lexicon terms are still less-than familiar) it can also give new insight into the uses and relationships between the elements of the lexicon, as illustrated in Julia Zhou’s essay on Chinese dance Tiktoks. In her essay, Zhou uses screen-captures from the Tiktok videos to orient to the gender-bending patterns she describes; editor Natalia Zorrilla, in her commentary, walks us through Zhou’s effective use of orienting, showing us why the piece works so well.

— Isabella Khan, ’21

Narrative, Spring 2021


Perhaps the single most common request on Writing Center intake forms is for help with so-called “flow”. In practice, this usually leads to a discussion of motive, structure, or some other more concrete lexicon term; but in reading successful finished essays, it is undeniable that there is a certain something which makes it easier for a reader to follow the author’s argument from point A to point B. This sort of “narrative” is too unspecific to qualify as a bonafide lexicon term, but when done right, it can be very effective. In Jacy Duan’s junior paper on diversity in Hollywood, she establishes this “narrative” using a strong motive and effective orienting. In Julie Levey’s essay on the opera Brundibár,she likewise uses effective orienting to construct a compelling motive, leading the reader smoothly and effectively from evidence to thesis.

— Isabella Khan ’21

Evidence, Spring 2021


One perennial challenge of essay-writing is finding and incorporating good evidence into our pieces. For this issue, we showcase three examples of evidence-use from different disciplines. In her anthropology essay, author Ariadni Kertsikof illustrates the power of careful orienting in bringing out the value and depth of a given source; in her commentary on Kertsikof’s piece, editor Natalia Zorrilla explicates this orienting, showing us exactly why it is so effective. In Julia Walton’s junior paper on Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends and Normal People, she shows us how a close-reading can mediate between granular, sentence-level analysis, and a larger discussion of the themes of a story, while editor Diane Yang parses Walton’s essay in terms of the Writing Center lexicon. Finally, in Noori Zubieta’s HUM sequence essay on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, she gives a further illustration of the power of good close-reading, while editor Annabelle Duval gives a broader context on the “close-reading” as a style of analysis.

— Isabella Khan, ’21

Cross-disciplinary analysis, Spring 2021

Cross-Disciplinary Analysis

Whether we write about neuroscience or politics, electrical engineering or comparative literature, there are certain common factors which nearly always distinguish “good” writing. Nowhere is this more apparent than in essays which bridge the gap between more than one discipline. In her R3 on the works of Vincent Van Gogh, Maya Chande uses “the quantitative world of statistical and mathematical thinking to giv[e] valuable insights on the very qualitative world of art and artists”, as she says in her commentary, while editor Malka Himelhoch shows us how Chande’s clear analysis grounds the discussion, and gives it more weight than it might otherwise have had. In her R3 for the “Gamification” writing seminar, author Theresa Lim uses both qualitative and quantitative measures to analyze the use (and misuse) of gamification in MyFitnessPal; in her commentary on Lim’s piece, editor Meigan Clark then shows us how this analysis allows Lim to make important contributions to the scholarly conversation.

— Isabella Khan, ’21

Spring 2021, The basics

The Basics

As writers, every one of us has had to learn to mediate between the rules of good writing we learned in high school, and the more sophisticated structures required in college essays. For this year’s issue of Tortoise, we wanted to showcase some of the ways Princeton students have done just that. In Kennedy Casey’s psychology paper, the focus is her conclusion; in her commentary on Casey’s work, editor Annabelle Duval draws our attention to the relationship between evidence and motive in the construction of this concluding section. In Jojo Deep’s Writing Seminar essay on conspiracies, the focus is on his “hook”, and how it works to create an effective introduction; in his commentary on Deep’s essay, editor Alex Charles uses Lexicon terms to explain exactly why Deep’s hook is so effective.

— Isabella Khan, ’21

Spring 2021

Editor’s Note

The theme of this year’s issue of the Tortoise is, as the title says, the so-called hidden lexicon. What is meant by this? As Writing Center fellows, the other editors and I usually tend to discuss the characteristics of good (and bad) writing in terms of the “lexicon terms” we are taught in Writing Seminar — motive, thesis, orienting, and so on. In many ways, we do this for practical reasons. By having a single set of terms by which we can refer to the parts of an essay, writing fellows avoid confusion, and make it so that a student can have a consistent experience no matter which fellow or professor he or she is speaking to.

In some ways, however, this lexicon also adds a new layer of complexity to the already-difficult task of writing a clean essay. All the editors remember quite clearly how the first time we encountered “motive” in writing seminar, we had no idea what it meant. Was it a research question? What about the so-called “motive layer cake”, and how could you be sure that the particular version (or versions) we chose to lean on for our essay would yield an arguable thesis? At the time, I was certainly confused, and after three years as a writing fellow, I don’t think I am alone in this.

The previous issues of Tortoise all provide excellent examples of the various lexicon terms. Our goal in this issue was to connect the lexicon terms back to the some of the more familiar — though possibly, more ambiguous — phrases and ideas which arise we write essays. The pieces we selected — mostly excerpts, with one full-length essay by Cassandra James, ’23— are varied in both subject matter and depth, from Writing Center papers to Junior independent work. We hope that together with the commentaries by the authors, editors, and in some case, professors for whom the paper was written, these pieces will not only showcase the variety and quality of student writing at Princeton, while also providing inspiration and guidance for future essays.

— Isabella Khan, ’21


Tortoise Tuesday: Orienting in “Babylon Berlin”

As a PTL project, I’ve finally started properly studying German, and by that I mean watching Babylon Berlin. I’m a diligent student, so I’ve already made it through most of the third and final season. The show, which follows detectives investigating political conspiracies and crimes in late 1920s Germany, gives a fascinating (and, as far as I can tell, fairly accurate) view of the Weimar Republic, but it’s also an excellent example of orienting evidence—in this case, physical evidence in the detectives’ investigations.

Just like in a good paper, pieces of evidence that will be important later in the show are introduced early on, left alone until a point in the structure where they become relevant, and then fully analyzed to demonstrate their relationship to the overarching thesis (or plot). Early in season three, for example, I knew there had to be a reason for the huge bottle of insulin a diabetic character keeps on hand. Sure enough, in the climactic episode, the main characters narrowly escape a hypoglycemic coma after the villain injects them both with a lethal dose of insulin. (The fact that this is one of the series’ more realistic plot twists says a lot about the show.) That the bottle was introduced—oriented—and defined in an early episode makes it easy for the viewer to understand its role when it reappears later. It also avoids the necessity of orienting and defining at the same time that the piece of evidence is actually being used (analyzed, in a writing context), which could come across as clumsy and poorly planned. Instead, the bottle is already in the back of the viewer’s mind, and when its purpose in the show becomes clear, everything falls neatly into place.

When I’m reading other students’ essays at the Writing Center, people sometimes say they’re concerned that orienting a source but not fully unpacking it until later in the paper might lead their reader to think they’re just doing a bad job of analyzing the material. Actually, I find it very helpful as a reader when sources are briefly introduced and key terms are succinctly defined at the start of a paper, so I have some idea of the analysis that’s coming. It would have seemed (even more?) ridiculous if the bad guy in Babylon Berlin had whipped out a bottle of insulin with no previous orienting, as if the show’s writers had thought of this plot development while they were writing but then hadn’t bothered to go back to earlier episodes and adequately set up their plot (thesis). Just setting up the sources that you’re planning to use and trusting your reader to understand that you’ll come back to them later is orienting enough, and it usually won’t kill you.

— Ro van Wingerden, ’21

Cross-disciplinary analysis, Spring 2021

Too Good to Be True: MyFitnessPal’s Gamification of Weight Loss and Its Dangerous Consequences

In a Tortoiseshell: In the final paper for her Writing Seminar, “Gamification,” Theresa Lim argues that gamified elements of the MyFitnessPal app push users towards the unhealthy end of the eating behavior spectrum. Her cross-disciplinary analysis creatively combines scholarship in psychology, nutrition, and game theory. By carefully defining relevant key terms from these disciplines, and by clearly illustrating how the concepts she defines intersect in the MyFitnessPal app, Theresa arrives at a nuanced argument and makes important contributions to the scholarly conversation Continue reading