Writing Center

Julia Zhou, ’24 is a first-year from Herndon, Virginia, pursuing a major in either East Asian Studies or Economics. On campus, she is a member of Triple 8 Dance Company, Princeton US-China Coalition, and a research assistant for the Stewart Lab’s Chinese propaganda project. In her free time, Julia enjoys dancing, taking long walks in nature, and spending time with her little sister. She wrote this essay as a first-year.

Natalia Zorrilla, ’23 is a Philosophy major from San Diego, California. Outside of the Writing Center, she serves as co-president for the Princeton College Democrats, competes on the Princeton Debate Panel, and writes puzzles for the annual Princeton Puzzle Hunt. She also advises high schoolers with the nonprofits Matriculate and HomeFront NJ, and she researches with the Concepts & Cognition Lab. In her free time, she winds down by solving crosswords and watching cheesy rom-coms. She wrote this as a sophomore.

Non-textual sources, Spring 2021

The Feminized Male Lead Dancer: How Chinese TikTok Dances are Redefining Gender Roles

In a Tortoiseshell: In her essay, Julia Zhou uses an unconventional primary source to argue that while male-led Chinese TikTok dances engage in gender subversion, they do so by operating within an artistic framework that welcomes innovation. To help readers engage with her analysis, Julia carefully describes key choreographic techniques, then orients readers to the significance of each technique. Having made the dances legible to her readers, she then engages in a rewarding close reading of their choreography.

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Tortoise Tuesday: Structure in “Graphic Design is My Passion”

After all these years, it still haunts my nightmares. Black eyes stare beadily; a garish red tongue pokes out of a slivered smile. Moldy green fingers grasp at air. Clouds cover the sun. And one phrase traces itself in an ancient script: “graphic design is my passion.”

Figure 1: The “nightmare” in question 

In July of 2014, Tumblr user Yungterra posted the very first version of the “Graphic Design is My Passion”meme. Would this image bring shame upon any self-respecting designer? Absolutely. But it’s tough to pinpoint what exactly makes “Graphic Design is My Passion” so awful. Some viewers have blamed its use of the hated font Papyrus. Others have found fault with its aggressively unedited clipart frog. I have sympathy for both of these claims, but I don’t think that either quite captures why I loathe the image.

No, what bothers me most about “Graphic Design is My Passion” is its structure. In my extensive (fine, highly limited) design experience, I’ve learned that creating a graphic is quite like writing an academic essay. The designer has a key idea that she wants to convey to her viewer, and she uses her text, images, and backgrounds as evidence for that key “thesis.” These components of her graphic, much like the paragraphs of an essay, need to fit together in a particular way. In essay writing, this concept is sometimes called “arc”: an essay with a strong arc has paragraphs that build upon and blend with each other. Even as each paragraph makes a unique contribution to the thesis, it also hangs together with the paragraphs before and after. A graphic may not have an arc in the same way an essay does, but the best graphics do seem to have a kind of structural harmony. The text and images are individually compelling, yes, but what makes the graphic work is the way those elements fit together. In an ideal graphic, the text supports the images and the images the text.

Figure 2: A poster created in March 2020 by Swedish illustrator Sara Andreasson. The offset match calls attention to the “Break the Chain” message by “breaking” the text itself— harmony between text and image.

Unfortunately, “Graphic Design is My Passion” displays no such harmony. In fact, it seems designed to ensure that no viewer could unearth even the ruins of an underlying structure. Consider the frog. Neon-green and cartoonish, it is the exemplar of modern Internet clipart. Why, then, would it be paired with Papyrus, a font meant to mimic ancient writing? Perhaps the red text and green frog are meant to form a complimentary color combination— but then why include a dissonant gray sky in the background? Thematically, the frog and sky don’t match up either; amphibians are creatures of the land and water, not of the air. If anything links these disparate components of the graphic, it is far from obvious. 

If a harmonious graphic is like an essay with a strong arc, to what might we compare the chaos of “Graphic Design is My Passion?” I suspect that the best analogue is the standard five-paragraph essay. Of course, most five-paragraph essays don’t have body paragraphs that actively disprove their thesis. Papyrus was my favorite font as an eight-year-old, for instance, but nobody with a “passion” for graphic design would share that opinion. Still, when I hear a professor or a peer take issue with a five-paragraph essay, the complaint is invariably that the essay lacks an arc. Even if each body paragraph adds to the thesis, it is unclear what connects the arguments in each paragraph. The reader is left to ask herself why the sky paragraph comes after the frog paragraph—and if changing this order would make any meaningful difference in the essay. Many five-paragraph essays are thus undermined by the same lack of harmony as “Graphic Design is My Passion.”

Next time you consider this cursed image, then, spare a thought for your own writing. Ask yourself what you can do to make your arc more compelling. When you have a sky paragraph and a frog paragraph with no discernible connection, consider how each paragraph’s ideas relate to the next. If you can’t find a relationship, it may be worth rethinking your structure. Yes, compared to worries about thesis and evidence, these concerns about arc may seem minor. But as “Graphic Design is My Passion” reveals, a strong arc can make an essay a dream; a weak one can make it a nightmare.

— Natalia Zorrilla, ’23

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Tortoise Tuesday: Thesis in Review(s)

After finishing my senior thesis on Russian opera last week, I was relieved to have the chance to read something that was in English and didn’t have a meter. For a break, I turned to Marie NDiaye’s novel Three Strong Women (originally published in French as Trois femmes puissantes), a gift that had been sitting on my shelf for months while the wildly unrealistic chapter deadlines I imposed on myself came and went. When I finally starting reading, the wait turned out to have been well worth it.

I’m still engrossed in NDiaye’s novel, but while flipping through it, I was also struck by the collection of blurbs in the book’s front matter. Together, the blurbs, each only a few sentences long, present a unified thesis: NDiaye is a talented writer and anyone reading the blurbs should buy the book (they were selected, after all, by the novel’s publisher). Many of the blurbs reiterate the overall thesis in some form—”A writer of the highest caliber,” “A great read”—but each one also offers a unique piece of evidence in support of that thesis. Different reviewers refer to NDiaye’s “clearsightedness,” “willingness to broach essential subjects” (New York Times), “range,” “precision” (Guardian), “impressive forensic detail (Independent), and more.

The choice and arrangement of the blurbs mirror the structure of an academic paper. The publisher of Three Strong Women clearly scoured reviews from around the globe, identified useful excerpts, and arranged them carefully to support the overarching thesis, tying each piece of evidence back in to the overarching argument. Likewise, after doing research, selecting evidence, and articulating a thesis, a writer arranges her evidence in support of that thesis, always making sure that the value of each piece of evidence is clear. It helps if your thesis is as compelling as that of NDiaye’s publisher, but whether you’re promoting an excellent novel or trying to structure your D1, the essential process is the same.

– Rosamond van Wingerden, ’21

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Tortoise Tuesday: The seeds of an essay — in praise of personal motive

[CW: sexual violence]

Throughout my time at Princeton, one significant change I’ve noticed in my writing is in the way I think about motive. Like many people coming into Writing Sem., I was initially confused about motive and especially about the relationship between different kinds of motive. Once I had a stronger grasp on these lexicon terms, I focused mainly on in-text and scholarly motive in my writing. Over the years, though, personal motive has taken on a more and more important role in my papers. More often that not, I choose topics for my papers because my personal interests and experiences draw me to particular elements of a text, and I want to explore these elements in my own close analysis of the text and in my engagement with the scholarly conversation surrounding it. Writing on topics in which you have a personal investment— and which may even be triggering— can certainly be challenging, but I have also found these projects to be some of the most rewarding I have undertaken at Princeton.

I am currently working on my second junior paper, where my personal, textual, and scholarly motives are very much intertwined. In fact, I was motivated to choose my topic in part because I got angry with a scholarly source! For my JP, I am writing on patriarchal violence in Euripides’ Medea and the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, and examining how the female characters of each text resist this violence through language. To give a brief summary of the myth recounted in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter: Hades abducts Persephone, and Demeter (her mother) manages to get her back from the underworld. Yet because Persephone has eaten a pomegranate seed, she must return to live with Hades for one-third of every year. One piece of evidence in the hymn that has become important to my analysis is Persephone’s account of how Hades forces her to eat the pomegranate seed. As I read it, this scene stands in for another penetrative violation that Persephone does not describe. But because Persephone’s narrative conflicts with an earlier account of the same events (focalized from Hades’ perspective), many scholars have discounted it as falsehood. For example:

In 372 (“ἔδωκε φαγεῖν”) nothing is said of the compulsion on which Persephone here insists. Plainly Hades did not use actual force or compulsion of any kind, especially as Hermes was present. Persephone only means that she had no wish to eat, and could not refuse the food. Nor would it be unnatural for her to overstate the case, from a desire to avoid blame for her thoughtlessness.

Allen and Sikes n413

In my opinion, interpretations like this one are really just victim-blaming masquerading as scholarship, and the assumptions they make aren’t grounded in morality or the text.

My personal motivation for “picking a fight” with these scholars pushes me to be especially rigorous in how I engage with this passage of the hymn and these secondary sources. I have tried to reframe my strong emotional response to my sources as observations and questions that can form the basis for my textual and scholarly motives. There is clearly a tension in the text between how the pomegranate incident is described earlier in the hymn and how Persephone describes it to her mother. Is there a way to explain this tension without discrediting Persephone’s account? (Answer: yes!) How have other scholars accounted for this discrepancy? What assumptions do their interpretations make? How do these assumptions hold up to a close analysis of the text?

Obviously, I can’t treat such personal topics in all of my academic writing — and I’m sure it would be exhausting to try! But it is deeply satisfying whenever I can do scholarly work that is important to me at an emotional as well as intellectual level. Motive can be about what motivates you to write, about the unique perspectives and experiences that each of us brings to our writing, and about how your voice can change the stories we tell and how we tell them. 

– Meigan Clark ’22

Works Cited

Homer, Thomas W Allen, and E. E Sikes. The Homeric Hymns. London: Macmillan, 1904.

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Tortoise Tuesday: How To Conduct Your Introduction

I recently turned in a midterm exam for my Choral Conducting course. It was not quite like any exam I had taken before. The first question asked me to imagine that I was standing on the podium, about to conduct some piece of my choosing, and to describe what I would do in the seconds before the opening measures of the piece. What signals would I give with my face, hands, and body to show the choir what sound quality I was aiming for?

Due to social distancing measures, I have yet to stand on the podium in front of a physical choir. However, I imagine that the intimidating silence right before a piece began would be akin to the rather hollow feeling that accompanies writing introductions for my academic papers. I find introductions difficult partly because they precede the main argument of a paper. Just as it is tricky to conduct the beginning of a piece, when there is no sound for you to respond to, in an introduction you have very little evidence, quotations, or analysis to work with. Even so, the first few moments of a piece are crucial in engaging your singers (or readers) and preparing them for what is to come.

My conducting class has taught me that when you’re standing on the podium, you should never actually approach a piece from square one. Your choir may be singing the piece for the first time, but it is crucial that you have thoroughly analyzed the entire score beforehand. The type of cue you give your singers will depend on the piece’s style and on its structure as a whole, right down to the final measure. This is why I recommend that you do some analysis of your academic sources—or even write your body paragraphs and conclusion—before beginning your introduction. That way, your opening sentences will align perfectly with the rest of your argument.

Last week while conducting by Zoom, I made a mistake that I often see in even the best students’ introductions: forgetting to provide orienting information. I was so nervous about the piece we were workshopping that I began conducting almost immediately after I was called on—it took me a few measures to notice that the student who was supposed to be singing had been caught off guard, and hadn’t even come in. My “preparatory gesture,” which is supposed to act as a cue, had been too sudden and unexpected.

Conducting provides a useful analogy for how to go about orienting your reader. A preparatory gesture should not only help singers enter on time, but also communicate the tone, dynamics, and tempo of the opening measures. Telling your reader what topics you will be cover is not enough: you should also tell them how you will be covering them. What is your “tone”—are you arguing with or against the grain? Are your claims bold and new (forte) or are you subtly adding nuance to another scholar’s argument (piano)? Will you be speeding through a plethora of sources, or slowly analyzing one text? With such questions in mind, writing an introduction does not have to be an ordeal. Your introduction can be short—a mere flick of the hands—and yet seamlessly guide your reader into the body paragraphs.

– Frances Mangina ’22

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Tortoise Tuesday: Key Terms in the Lyrics of Maggie Rogers

As Princeton’s flowers begin to bloom and campus comes alive again, I cannot stop listening to Maggie Rogers’ songs. Her upbeat, folk-pop style matches the sense of reawakening and growth that comes with the spring. Rogers’ songs always make me feel hopeful and empowered — like anything is possible and I have unlimited potential. They also connect me to nature, as Rogers often expresses emotions in her songs in terms of the natural world.  

Specifically, water figures prominently in many of Roger’s songs in her 2019 album, Heard It In A Past Life. Most obviously in her song “Fallingwater,” Rogers sings, “I fought the current running just the way you would/And now I’m stuck upstream/And it’s getting harder/I’m like falling water.” Here, Rogers captures her feeling of being stuck in terms of the powerful currents of streams or creeks. In “Back in My Body,” Rogers describes her mental state: “Like the dam was breaking and my mind came rushing in.” In “Light on,” Rogers is “caught up in a wave.” In “Give a Little,” she asks, “let me be the light upon the lake,” and in “On + Off,” she feels “as light as the ocean.” Water is clearly thematic in this album but also in her songwriting more broadly. Even in songs outside of the album, Rogers is constantly referring to water. In “Dog Years,” she is “as sure as the sea,” and in “Love you for a Long Time” she sings, “if devotion is a river, then I’m floating away.”  

Each of these different references to bodies of water become important key words (defined in the Lexicon as “a paper’s main terms or concepts”) in Maggie Rogers’ lyrics. Each form of water — creek, dam, wave, lake, ocean, sea, river — serves as a touch point in her songs and informs the reader of what kind of emotion or experience Rogers is going through. With a breaking dam, Rogers expresses a sense of being immersed in her feelings; with a lake, she’s calm and settled; with a river, she’s swept away by love. These terms also create continuity between her songs and even across albums. The audience expects lyrics about nature and water as marks of Rogers’ style. 

Just as Rogers’ references to water guide her audience through her songs, key terms guide the reader through academic papers. Particularly when dealing with confusing scientific processes or a scholar’s complex ideas, strong papers will define key terms early on and consistently refer back to them as the argument develops. Key terms become reference points for the paper’s audience; every time a key word pops up in the paper, readers know to pay attention. 

                                    – Annabelle Duval ’23

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Tortoise Tuesday: Steinbeck’s Structure in The Grapes of Wrath

I recently read The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck and was struck by how simple but impactful the story was. The book follows the Joad family during the Great Depression after they are forced to leave Oklahoma because of the Dust Bowls. They travel to California in search of work — dreaming of picking peaches, owning a small plot of land, and settling down with the family. 

After finishing the book, I reflected on the elements that I enjoyed the most: Steinbeck’s poetic language, his keen insight into universal emotions and desires, the moments of humor in the Joad family’s otherwise difficult lives. And at some point in my ruminations, I recognized the immense impact of the book’s structure.

Steinbeck alternates between chapters specific to the Joad’s story and chapters that zoom out to a larger American narrative. Steinbeck describes the physical environment — dust destroying crops in Oklahoma, unused farmland in California going to waste while displaced families starve — and the political and social environment — the undefined and unheard American voices, the frustration of the lower class with the industrialization of agriculture, the rapidly decreasing wages and lack of labor unions, the plague of poverty and starvation that sweeps through the population.

This is the story-line that broadens the reach of The Grapes of Wrath. It places the Joads into their historical context and demonstrates that they are only one example of a shared experience among thousands of families.

I am usually unimpressed by novels that use this technique of switching back and forth between two perspectives or two timelines. I find them somewhat cliche and often unnecessarily confusing. However, Steinbeck’s use of the alternating narratives is anything but trite. It serves a clear purpose of orienting the reader to the historical context in which we find the main characters. It does not detract from the story but enhances it. We feel the struggle of the Joads multiplied by thousands for each and every family just like them.

— Ellie Shapiro, ’21

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Tortoise Tuesday: Marriage, Mortgage, and Motive

It was Friday of midterms week, and I was staring at my computer screen. You might expect that, studious Princetonian that I am, I would be reviewing the last answer on my philosophy exam, or perhaps putting the finishing touches on my politics report. Instead, I was smack in the middle of Netflix’s latest reality show: Marriage or Mortgage

The premise of Marriage or Mortgage is simple. Each episode, wedding planner Sarah Miller and real estate agent Nichole Holmes compete for the business of an engaged couple; the couple must decide whether to spend their savings on their dream wedding or their dream home. Along the way, Sarah and Nichole ply the couple with fairytale carriages and sweeping yards, discounted dresses and free appliances. The show is entertaining and, if you’re a fan of home tours, a bit addictive.

But as I kept watching, I began to feel troubled. Not just because my reality TV binge was keeping me from my midterms, although it was. And not just because the show’s mid-2020 weddings had massive superspreader potential, although they did. Or even just because it was ridiculous that anyone would pick a donut wall over a $20,000 home discount. What bothered me about the show was the way that it presented the choice—marriage or mortgage—as the couples’ only choice.

Imagine, if you will, that you’re writing a paper about what makes a relationship last. One prominent scholar (let’s call her Miller) says that weddings build strong emotional connections, so a couple seeking a stable relationship should go all in on their wedding. But another scholar (let’s call her Holmes) disagrees. Holmes posits that homeownership is an investment in the couple’s financial future, so a couple looking for stability should go all in on buying a house. As the writer, how might you intervene in this conversation? In other words, what’s your scholarly motive?

It’s true that you might choose to take sides. Perhaps you agree with Miller that a wedding sets an emotional foundation for a relationship, and your contribution is to defend her argument against Holmes’s attack. Or perhaps you’re with Holmes, and your intervention is to correct an oversight in her argument. Importantly, though, these scholarly moves are not the only ones you can make. You aren’t limited to supporting Miller to the exclusion of Holmes, or vice versa. What Marriage or Mortgage misses is that, sometimes, a nuanced solution is a better one. As an essay writer, you might agree with Miller that weddings are an emotional investment and with Holmes that buying a house is a financial investment; the key to finding your scholarly motive is just finding the right balance of each. 

This kind of balance is not easy in a country where real estate prices are soaring and wedding costs (despite COVID-19) are, too. But I think that a Marriage or Mortgage that acknowledged these difficulties and nevertheless sought compromise would feel more true to our post-pandemic life. Instead of spending $30,000 on their dream wedding and then getting stuck in their parents’ homes, couples could replace the multi-hundred-guest jubilee with a more pared down affair. Or instead of buying a house at the very top of their price range and then waiting years for a wedding, couples could forgo a giant backyard and pay for a small reception. The details aren’t as important as the fact that such a balance can exist. By understanding Marriage or Mortgage as we might a scholarly conversation, we can see possibilities beyond the ones the show presents. Put simply, couples can have their wedding cake and eat it at their own kitchen table.

— Natalia Zorrilla, ’23

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Tortoise Tuesday: “Yes, by Zeus!” — Thesis and Motive in Socratic dialogues

            I am a big fan of Socrates. He is wonderfully enigmatic, partly because Plato alters some of Socrates’s core philosophical stances from dialogue to dialogue. This does not mean that Plato is doing bad philosophy. On the contrary, the strange (and often ingenious) oppositions found in Plato’s dialogues are part of what makes them so effective. Take, for example, the so-called aporetic dialogues, which end in aporia, or “puzzlement.” One of these dialogues is the Euthyphro, in which Socrates and Euthyphro set out to determine the definition of piety, only to end up right where they started. At first glance, Plato’s approach to philosophical writing is quite foreign to the academic projects that a student might embark on today. However, I wonder whether a relative beginner at writing can learn something about what to do—and what not to do—from Plato.

I do not recommend basing the structure of your paper on the Euthyphro, because you would end up with a circular argument. However, one of the amazing things about Plato’s dialogues is that they encourage discussion—ideally, readers of the Euthyphro will be persuaded to find out for themselves what piety is. This is how we should respond to scholarly debates (or, should we say, “dialogues”) that we encounter in our own academic research. Socrates, ever-questioning, would want to determine precisely why two scholars don’t agree. Are they talking past each other? Did they begin with different premises? The fact that “published views of the matter conflict” (to quote a Writing Center handout) is a great motive, but if you don’t find the true point of conflict between the scholars, then your thesis will not fully address your motive. If I took Socrates and Euthyphro’s aporia as a motive for a paper, for example, merely offering my own definition of piety would do little to address the (possibly more interesting) question of why the dialogue ended in aporia in the first place.

In contrast to his aporetic dialogues, Plato’s later dialogues would receive high points for thesis, but slightly lower points for (scholarly) conversation and counterclaims. This version of Socrates no longer claims to know nothing: instead, he preaches a very specific—and Platonic—vision of the world. Conveniently, his interlocuteurs now have a rather high opinion of his abilities. Their main role in the discussion is to back up Socrates’s statements in no uncertain terms: “yes, by Zeus!”, “most certainly!”, and so on.

Unfortunately, a modern student whose writing was this one-sided would receive a resounding “no, by Zeus!” from his or her professor. Don’t get me wrong: Plato’s later dialogues are still works of genius. They remind us that not every motivating question has to be answered right away, and that theses can spur reflection on the part of readers even if they aren’t rigorously argued. At the same time, Plato is helpful for students who want to work within the lexicon. I would recommend learning from Plato’s visionary treatment of motive and thesis, while ensuring that all of your papers actually have both a motive and a thesis.

— Frances Mangina, ’22

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Tortoise Tuesday: Orienting and First Dates

Unexpectedly, this month has kindled more first dates (socially distanced, of course!) for me than the rest of my entire year combined. Against a backdrop of giddiness at finally being back on campus, the presence of addictive dating apps and algorithms like Datamatch and Marriage Pact has incited a flurry of fun and flirty conversations, fitting for the ultimate month for romance.

Despite having ample opportunities to practice, the art of mastering the first date is a skill that continues to elude me. How long do I hold eye contact before the vibe shifts from ‘intense’ to ‘creepy’? Is coffee or food a preferable first date setting? At times, the number of variables to consider is overwhelming. However, I’m certain that, above all, the conversation is the most important factor. From dropping little tidbits of information that beg to be teased out, to eliciting little tendrils of shared connections, first date conversations are a delicate dance in presenting initial information.

Strikingly, the first date conversation closely parallels the orienting of a paper. Both draw in an individual with relevant information and build up towards intense interest and persuasion. Just as with first dates, there is no repeatable ‘formula’ for orienting: some papers may require a single chunk of orienting solidly after the thesis, while others may sprinkle little orienting bits throughout the entirety of the work. However, in all cases, the author must remain cognizant and perceptive to the background and perspective of the reader, requiring a certain delicacy that also presents itself as being invaluable for dating.

Vulnerability, creativity, and candor are key to propelling a first date conversation beyond dreaded surface-level conversations that never go beyond “What classes are you taking?”. However, lingering too long on talking about yourself holds its own perils. From describing a messy breakup to retelling an off-putting drinking story better saved for a later date, saying too much can be overbearing. Similarly, spending too much time on orienting may distract the reader away from the core focus: the thesis. A piece of writing is always limited by the attention span of the reader, and can be further constrained by the number of words or pages. Just as the time you have on a first date is limited, the amount of time spent orienting requires careful consideration.

Whether placed before or after motive and thesis, sprinkled throughout or consolidated, spanning sentences or paragraphs: orienting is a skill as delicate as navigating exhilaratingly uncertain romantic situations. 

— Diane Yang ‘23