Category Archives: News


Tortoise Tuesday: Key Terms in Dungeons and Dragons

Call me a geek, but since last summer, I’ve become steadily more obsessed with Dungeons & Dragons. Yes, that’s the role-playing game of Stranger Things fame. Over the course of a campaign, D&D players narrate actions to their DM (Dungeon Master) and roll dice to see if the actions succeed; DMs narrate the results and shape a story. Since 1974, the game’s been through five editions and millions of players. Naturally, then, it’s accumulated quite a lot of jargon.[1] I won’t subject you to a detailed explanation of why metagaming is bad or how you should choose a dump stat. But I do think that this kind of D&D jargon—and the process of habituating players to it—can teach one a lot about effectively using key terms. I have in mind three particular lessons from my first campaign

1. Start with the basics—and only the basics.

Say that you’re a brand-new D&D player, like me. When you build your first character, you need to understand a select few terms: for instance, class[2] and ability score[3]. These, after all, are terms that are directly relevant to building your character. At this early stage, you don’t need to know what a luck check is or what DC stands for. If your DM tries to explain these terms to you now, you’ll likely forget. The terms have nothing to do with building your character, so your focus is elsewhere.

Introducing key terms in a paper is much the same. When you decide what to define in your introduction, think about what the reader absolutely needs to know. If you’re a philosopher arguing that a diagnostic interpretation of the Florentine Codex is wrong, you’ll likely want to explain what the Florentine Codex is and what a diagnostic interpretation might say. You don’t need to define the key term that supports the second premise of your argument and only shows up three pages in. Doing so will make your introduction overly lengthy and probably confuse your reader.

2. Add in subsidiary key terms as needed.

Of course, this isn’t to say that you, a new D&D player, will never need to know what a DC[4] is. In fact, you’ll need to know almost as soon as you roll your first die! Throughout the game, a good DM will anticipate your confusion and define new terms when they become relevant.

Unsurprisingly, you should do the same in your papers. Since you often won’t define all your key terms in your introduction, you’ll likely have to explain some at the start of a section or a paragraph. When you get to the second premise in your Florentine Codex argument, for instance, you might want your reader to know the Nahuatl word tlazolmiquitzli. While the term wasn’t necessary for the reader to understand the broad gist of your argument, it will be necessary for them to comprehend your specific analysis.

3. Consider the evolution of your key terms.

As you progress through your D&D campaign, some terms will take on meaning beyond your DM’s original definition. For example, when you chose to play as a bard, your DM might have explained that bards were performers who had access to magic. Through your rolls and your DM’s narration, though, you’ve realized that bards are also very bad at close combat—they get hurt very easily. Because they are great at performing, persuading, and deceiving, they often serve as the “face” of the party. Over the course of the story, then, the term “bard” has gained additional meaning for you.

Likewise, key terms can (and often should) take on new meaning over the course of an argument.  Admittedly, some key terms are static: your reader won’t get much more out of “Florentine Codex” at the end of your essay than at the beginning. Others, however, are dynamic; this is especially true for key words that are crucial to your thesis. Your reader’s understanding of “diagnostic interpretation” at the start of your paper should progress as you explain what would be necessary to support such an interpretation and why those conditions do not obtain. An effective argumentative arc will make this key term evolution clear—no luck check[5]necessary.

-Natalia Zorrilla, ’23

[1] Seriously, a lot. Check out this glossary for some examples: Or just read the paragraph above!

[2] Your character’s main job, like being a bard or a cleric. Some classes use magic, and others are just really good at fighting.

[3] A number that determines what your character adds or subtracts from dice rolls. For instance, if you have a Charisma ability score of 8 (very low), your character will subtract a lot from rolls that determine whether people like them.

[4] Short for Difficulty Class, this is the dice roll you need to succeed in an action. A DC 15, for example, means you need a roll of 15.

[5] A dice roll that determines how lucky your character is. With a high roll, good things happen.


Tortoise Tuesday: Puzzling Over Concision

When it comes to concision, I have a lot to say. The term has been on my mind lately for a number of reasons, including recent discussions at The Daily Princetonian, papers I have encountered in the Writing Center, and this joke (with which I eventually lost my patience). Speaking of patience, even the most dedicated readers have a finite amount — an unfortunate reality that the writer must confront. Thus, the good paper is not inundated with information but rather carefully curated so as to present only what is essential and welcome. No reader will sit by happily as their minutes are wasted, sifting through loads of detail and trying to make sense of it all. Similarly, they will not hesitate to toss the piece aside if, say, the author is dallying about and never getting to the point.

To practice what I preach, I will restrict myself to a discussion of concision as it appears in my role as a member of The Daily Princetonian. But I’m no news writer; instead, I am Co-Head Editor of the Puzzles section, which publishes new crosswords three times a week. There’s a lot that goes into crossword construction, such as the creation of a theme, the filling of the grid, and finally the writing of the clues. It is at this final step of the process — the writing of the clues — that concision comes into play. For one thing, there is only so much space on the page of the print edition. All sections of the paper are ultimately restricted to the space they have been allotted, and, for Puzzles, that means one half-page of clues. In a similar way, students are frequently subject to word counts and page counts imposed by their professors. This means that they must select the punchiest quotes, deliver precise analysis, and stay within the scope of their thesis. All of this will help create a paper that is concise and impactful.

More important than the physical limitations of the print newspaper, however, is the principle behind having short and powerful crossword clues. A good clue is a perfect example of writing that offers neither too little nor too much information. Clues that are too short might leave the solver stumped, while overly-detailed clues are likely too easy. The analogy breaks down a bit when you consider wordplay and other trickery, but your average trivia-based clue strikes a perfect balance between scarcity and surplus. [Actor] is too little a clue for MATT, while [First name of Damon who played Mark Watney in “The Martian”] is too much. The most common clue is [Actor Damon], which avoids both of these extremes by being concise and effective without including unnecessary information.

Of course, the goal of a crossword is inherently different from that of academic writing. Crosswords are meant to leave the solver with a bit of confusion; this is certainly not the case for most essays! Nevertheless, it got me thinking about the importance of being concise and deliberate with information. The reader is a finicky beast who does not do well in the face of discursive onslaughts.

–Owen Travis, ’24


Conventions (and Disrupting Conventions) on Nutritional Labels

The nutrition facts label. A familiar sight, and a cause of angst for so many people. 

Under the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA), most foods that you buy in grocery stores are required to have nutritional labels; notable exemptions include produce items. 

These labels, found on anything from oatmeal to canned beans and oreos, are highly standardized. In academic writing, conventions describe “the accepted standards of various elements…such as paper format, voice, tone, diction, and citation style.” Nutritional labels are a fantastic example of the role conventions play outside of an academic context. 

Nutritional labels are required to list the various nutrient values for one serving of the product, including calories, a fat breakdown, a carbohydrate breakdown, cholesterol, sodium, protein, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Calcium, and Iron. The labels also calculate “daily value percentages” of these nutrients based on FDA nutritional guidelines. There doesn’t seem to be much that can be changed on the labels, save for the actual numbers displayed in each category based on the product. 

In academic writing, conventions can feel like a monolith: to be taken seriously, you have to follow certain stylistic rules. But, there can be ways to stray from the rules that are beneficial. This is also true in the realm of nutritional labels (and I’m just talking about the nutrition facts box, not any external claims or labels like organic, gluten-free, etc.)

Take the nutrition label for a package of Dulse, one of my favorite kinds of seaweed. 

One of the first things you may notice about the label is the blue: the “Nutrition Facts” title and the lines around and within the box are not the traditional black. It probably depends on the person, but I’d say the light color makes the label a bit less frightening and monotonous. Another remarkable difference between this label and one that follows conventions more strictly is the list of nutrients at the bottom. Although they are unrequired, this list includes iodine, riboflavin, vitamin B6, Chromium, Magnesium, and Vitamin B12 – showing off the nutritional powerhouse that dulse is. 

You may have noticed certain elements are missing from where they usually are on the label: saturated fat, cholesterol, Vitamin D, among others. Instead, underneath the rather lengthy list of nutrients that are present, in small print, is the line “Not a significant source of: calories from fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sugars, vitamin A, vitamin C, or calcium.” These changes are allowed by the FDA and produce a simplified label that focuses attention on what may be seen as the “healthy” aspects of the product. These ways that the dulse flakes disrupt conventions of nutrition facts are somewhat common among a certain niche of products marketed as “health foods.” In this way, while breaking general conventions of food labels, this product does adhere to another, but much more exclusive, set of conventions.

Thus, even on nutrition facts labels, there is room for creativity – to make the argument pop out. That said, when you go grocery shopping, please be wary that sellers aren’t breaking too many of these conventions. 

– Joe Himmelfarb, ‘24


Tortoise Tuesday: A Choreographer’s Methodology

Throughout my whole life, both dance and writing have served as crucial ways for me to channel my creativity, but these two passions have felt predominantly discrete. Only recently have I considered how these two mediums of expression are actually quite interrelated and analogous, especially when comparing the process of choreographing to the writing lexicon. 

Several weeks ago I was in the midst of choreographing a new dance for BodyHype — one of Princeton’s dance companies that specializes in contemporary and hip hop, and of which I currently serve as the President. Unfortunately I can’t share many specifics about the piece itself here in order to make sure its debut onstage at the end of April (!) comes as a full surprise, and I regret not being able to include concrete details and vivid descriptions, which are what I usually love most in writing. However, I can discuss my choreographic process, which — like the rest of these Tortoise Tuesday posts — further demonstrates how ubiquitous the writing lexicon really is. 

Choreographers have many different starting points, techniques, and approaches for creating new work. In analogizing this to the lexicon, a choreographer’s methodology, or exactly how they arrive at the end product (in writing, the final draft of a paper; in dance, the final iteration of the piece) differs. For me, my choreographic methodology usually starts with the music, which can be understood as one of the sources that I utilize and interpret through movement. Indeed, the original vision for my most recent piece came to me as I was listening to several songs by the same artist during the first few weeks of the spring semester.  

After I receive my initial inspiration and have a rough idea of the song(s) I want to work with, I enter what I call the “obsessive listening” part of the process. I play the song(s) on repeat, listening to them constantly as I walk around campus. This strategy can be likened to close reading. I pay attention to the consistent rhythms, accent beats, melody, and lyrics, as well as how all of these elements build or diminish throughout the song, in order to ensure I have a strong understanding (or in writing pedagogy, a strong with the grain reading) of my sources.

After I essentially have the song(s) memorized, I start breaking them down into smaller sections and make a rough cut of the music, be it a shorter version of the original song or a mashup of a few different ones. I view this part of my process as synonymous with evidence choice. In the same way that writers should select only the most important parts of their sources that will most effectively aid them in making their argument, I strive to identify the parts of the music that will best help me realize my vision for the piece. 

The rough cut of the music is very connected to and naturally leads into considering the structure of the dance. For my most recent piece, I had a clear progression of narrative and character development that I wanted to manifest across three different songs that I had spliced together. With this progression in mind, I began mapping out different sections for the piece — okay, full group unison section to this first song, a smaller quartet when this melody comes in, a cannon effect mapped to this echo, transition to larger movement when the crescendo of the third song begins, etc. In the same way that one’s argument should be cumulative and thus the paragraphs of one’s essay shouldn’t make sense if they’re ordered in any other way, it was important to me to make sure that the piece wouldn’t make sense if the sections were arranged differently, to ensure I was realizing the narrative development I originally envisioned. 

Within my choreographic methodology, completing the aforementioned steps arms me with a clear understanding of the skeleton of the piece (in other words, an outline). It leaves me feeling prepared to tackle the next big step: actually creating the movement, or writing the essay! The last lexicon-related choreographic reflection I’ll offer here is about key terms. As I go through the process of building the choreography that fills in the outline of the piece, I pay close attention to the specific movements I experiment with that “click” in my body and to the music, and that stand out as embodying the essence of the dance. I mentally bookmark these movements, and make sure to intersperse them throughout multiple sections of the piece. In this way, they become the dance’s key terms. The repetition of these key movements helps create a specific vocabulary for the piece that becomes recognizable to the viewer, and facilitates the dance becoming a cohesive final product. 

Although I’ve previously viewed choreography and writing as two separate avenues for creativity, superimposing my dance-making process onto the lexicon clarifies how interrelated they actually are. Understanding the harmony between these two mediums of expression helps illuminate why I’ve been so drawn to them my entire life. 

–Jasmine Rivers, ’24

Photography credits to Stephanie Tang.


Tortoise Tuesday: A Tutorial in Orienting

I have played a lot of Pokémon. 

Not just as a little kid, but also as a middle schooler. And maybe also as a high schooler. And then possibly again during freshman year of college—hell, my entire R3 was about Pokémon! And now as a second-semester post-secondary school sophomore, I’ll probably ask my parents to ship me my old 3DS from home so I can play some more Pokémon over spring break instead of speedrunning all of the internship applications that I’ve been neglecting for the past few months. 

The Pokémon video game series is great. From its first release in 1996 to its most recent in January 2022, the franchise has been blessing the world with generations of entertainment for people of all ages. Each game has its own storyline, characters, settings, and Pokémon, which are creatures with mythical powers that inhabit the world. But one of the mechanics that is always central to and consistent across each and every Pokémon game is catching Pokémon. 

That’s why every Pokémon game will give you a tutorial for it. 

So every time I start another game, I always get pawned off to some unmemorable NPC1 who holds my hand through the process of catching Pokémon even though I’ve been (metaphorically) kicking ass and taking names and doing exactly what the tutorial is ‘teaching’ me before the NPC was probably coded into existence. The tutorial doesn’t even take that long—maybe a minute at max, with all the button-mashing I’m doing to get it over with. But it’s boring, repetitive, and unnecessary, and it gives me a window during which I have the time to contemplate whether or not I should just go fill out those internship applications.

I can only feel relief when the NPC is done with their spiel and I’m finally free to frolic around and create chaos and save the world. To me, having an unskippable tutorial for catching Pokémon seems more like an inconvenience than anything remotely helpful. But then again, I’ve been playing Pokémon for years. The tutorial certainly seems useful for a person who is completely new to Pokémon; after all, catching Pokémon is a necessary tool for players to progress in the game.

In a way, this Pokémon catching tutorial is reminiscent of orienting. Imagine: you’re an author. You’ve been in the weeds for weeks, months, digging your hands into the dirt and bringing your discoveries to light. You’ve been analyzing your evidence, stringing connections and bridges like no one has ever seen, and you’re ready to share what you’ve learned with the rest of the world. Your audience wasn’t with you when you were picking out a topic. They weren’t with you when you were getting acquaintanced with your scholarly sources. They weren’t with you when you were trying to parse out and piece together definitions of key terms. 

It might seem boring and repetitive to you to provide orienting. But it’s important to remember that your audience is as unfamiliar with your work as you were when you first started, and they didn’t have the weeks or months of experience to get to know your topic like you do. Orienting doesn’t have to give everything away, but it should at least provide readers with the necessary knowledge that is required to understand and engage with your work.

1a non-player character, or any character in a game that is not controlled by a real person

–Emily Wu, ’24


Tortoise Tuesday: The Scholarly Wisdom of Grace and Frankie

Most recently on my queue of bingeable Netflix shows has been Grace and Frankie, starring Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin. In the television comedy, two recently divorced women in their late seventies kindle an unlikely friendship. Grace is a high-powered entrepreneur obsessed with her appearance, taking great care to strut around daily in pantsuits and stilettos despite her age. On the flip side, Frankie, clad in heavy clogs and baggy trousers, is the exact opposite, centering her life on grassroots activism and psychedelic drugs.

From its onset, the show draws on the stark dichotomy between the two women to stir up punchy comedy. Each woman continually badmouths the other, complaining about what they each perceive as immoral behavior. Stuck living in the same beach house, Grace and Frankie scheme about how to remove the other from the property. 

In a similar vein, scholarly motive is often set up in the hopes of pitting two authors together. Mark Gaipa’s Breaking into the Conversation labels the fifth scholarly motive strategy presented as “Playing Peacemaker.” For this setup, an author steps in to identify a conflict between two scholars before resolving it. To effectively execute this strategy, writers are tasked with first finding two scholars at odds with one another. 

However, issues arise when writers morph their scholarly sources into a heightened state of antagonism. In an effort to create a more compelling “disagreement” between two scholarly sources, students may feel compelled to construct a “straw man” argument for their sources, interpreting their two arguments to be more contradictory to each other than they are intended to be. In other words, the writer might unfairly pit two scholars against each other, making it easier for the author to “swoop in” heroically to resolve an imaginary tension.

Similarly, Grace and Frankie begins by presenting our two protagonists as bitter enemies. However, as the show progresses, both the audience and the two women begin to realize that differences in life priorities and personalities do not need to translate into antagonism. By the end of the first episode, Grace accidentally ingests Frankie’s peyote, leading to a beautiful scene where the two women open up about their shared hopes for the future.

The show has recently wrapped up its final episode, having lasted for an impressive 7 seasons. Part of the longevity and continued enjoyment of Grace and Frankie is owed to the framing of the relationship not as an antagonistic stand-off, but as a slow exploration of two very different individuals grounded by their love and friendship for each other. Similarly, when setting up two scholarly sources to introduce a tension, it can be more fruitful to honestly explore the differences and similarities between two scholars. A great paper will acknowledge the delicate nuances between them instead of forcing an antagonistic conflict.

–Diane Yang, ’23


Tortoise Tuesday: How to Do Mukbang With Motive

I love watching South Korean mukbang. It’s a genre of online video in which streamers eat excessive amounts of food (usually very unhealthy) in front of a camera. The term roughly translates to “eating broadcast,” which I think encapsulates the primary purpose of mukbang pretty well. However, the genre also lends itself to a surprising amount of depth. In this post, I’d like to speculate about why one popular mukbang personality—tzuyang—is able to consistently enthrall her 5.58 million subscribers and other YouTube-watching enthusiasts. I find tzuyang’s videos appealing because they seamlessly integrate “textual motive” and other kinds of motive. 

Traditionally, mukbang is done in the comfort of one’s home, and the unmoving camera simply captures 1) the food and 2) the person who eats the food. Within this setup, the host answers “textual motive” questions (What does the food taste like? What’s the best way to prepare and eat the food?) by “analyzing” her “primary sources.” 

This is tzuyang in a more “classic” mukbang setting. 

Although tzuyang has, of course, recorded these more “traditional” mukbang videos, most of her videos actually blur the boundaries between traditional mukbang, vlog, and even documentary. Tzuyang’s most recent video, in which she visits a traditional market in Daejeon, South Korea, exemplifies this genre-bending style. The video was sponsored by the Daejeon Tourism Organization, and it clearly aims to display the appeal, variety, and authenticity of traditional market food. Thus, the video not only focuses on the delicious food (and tzuyang’s astounding appetite) but also captures the environment/atmosphere of the traditional market. Tzuyang, then, embeds her eating within a larger context. In writing, we might think of this move as situating our main analytical work in a “scholarly conversation.” 

In another recent video, people in the fish market abandoned their stalls to watch tzuyang eat.

Another aspect of tzuyang’s videos are her interactions/conversations with food stall and restaurant owners. Although many of them recognize tzuyang, they are nevertheless amazed upon seeing how much food she can consume. (These owners, who are generally older, also love to give tzuyang extra side dishes and tea. They treat her like she’s their granddaughter.) These live interactions are both funny and heartwarming; altogether, they add yet another dimension to the “scholarly conversation” of tzuyang’s videos. Some shopkeepers initially express skepticism, while others wholeheartedly cheer tzuyang on. Regardless of what onlookers say, tzuyang responds to all of them through her engagement with food.   

This informal analysis now brings me to why I (and millions of others) keep returning to tzuyang’s videos. Although eating remains a focal point of tzuyang’s channel, her videos are also engaging because they show how tzuyang navigates different food landscapes and converses with local people. Together, these elements also allow tzuyang to promote older or lesser-known food locations across South Korea, which have been heavily impacted by the global pandemic. Mukbang videos can have a global motive! 

Drawing inspiration from tzuyang’s multilayered videos, I would encourage students to incorporate different layers of motive in their own writing. While watching—or, in my case, describing—how people eat lots of food is somewhat puzzling in itself, this content allows us to simultaneously think about larger environments, communities, and global contexts.

–Christina Cho, ’24


Tortoise Tuesday: Methodology in Fleabag

At the end of the add/drop period, what else is more pertinent to write about than the TV shows I spent watching over break? More than once, I’ve watched all twelve episodes of Fleabag in a row, as if it was an absurdly long movie. The show was created and written by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who stars as the title character. Fleabag is a witty, self-destructive woman, who runs a guinea pig themed café in London. Her life contains normal fodder for comedy-dramas—uncomfortable family dinners, prolonged break-ups, and wins and losses at the café. But she folds the audience into the drama with her. Throughout each episode, Fleabag makes asides to the camera, cracking jokes or arching her eyebrows, constantly breaking the fourth wall.

(Warning: The following paragraphs contain some spoilers for Fleabag. Luckily, it’s bingeable enough that you can watch the entire series and finish reading this post in very same day.)

In the show’s first season, Fleabag’s asides to the camera offer commentary, context, or confession. When her sister asks if their dad has reached out recently, Fleabag informs the camera that her dad’s way of coping with her mother’s death was to buy the sisters tickets to feminist lectures, “and eventually stop calling.” At one of these lectures, Fleabag looks at her sister and then quickly buttons her jacket, informing the camera that she’s wearing a sweater her sister “lost” years ago.

In the second season, Fleabag’s relationship with the camera becomes inextricable from the plot. She gains a new love interest, who internet fans have dubbed “Hot Priest.” The priest, who remains unnamed, is the first character to notice Fleabag’s asides. When Fleabag turns to the camera, he asks where she’s gone, looking in the same direction.

How does this methodology, of creating a relationship between Fleabag and the camera, affect the viewer? Fleabag creates a sense of intimacy with the audience and exposes her pattern of avoiding rough spots. Instead of confronting moments of discomfort, she often turns them into jokes to entertain the audience. The asides offer a more whole portrayal of the show’s title character, part of what makes the show so dangerously consumable.

A paper’s methodology is the strategies it uses to make an argument or investigate a topic. As in Fleabag, many humanistic scholars do not explicitly discuss their methodology, yet it plays a crucial role in moving forward the thesis of any paper. Although you may not be able to offer your reader witty digressions in the margins, I think we can all learn from methodology as creative and compelling as Fleabag’s.

–Alice McGuinness, ’24


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


Tortoise Tuesday: Joining a Creative Conversation – Reflections on Motive in Playwriting

For me and my friends in the class of 2022, Wintersession has been a time for relaxing, catching up on sleep (and our favorite TV shows), and stressing about how much work we have left to do on our senior theses. My thesis stress looks a little bit different than my friends’, though. That’s because my thesis is a play (Lia) that will be performed in the third week of the spring semester. So while my friends have been writing and researching, I’ve been attending Zoom rehearsals, scrambling to find lighting and sound designers, and coordinating with the SHARE office so that they can provide support to audience members during the performances. Although writing my thesis has been a very different experience from the writing I’ve done for my classes, I’ve also been struck by the parallels between the way I approach writing a play and writing an academic essay.

Like almost every paper I’ve written at Princeton, my play began with in-text (or evidence-based) motive. When I set out to write a paper on performative madness in Hamlet and Twelfth Night my sophomore fall, I found myself instead re-reading every scene between Hamlet and Ophelia and recognizing how much Hamlet’s actions are informed by his fixation on and problematic views regarding female sexuality. I began to draw out a series of interconnected questions, tensions, and puzzles that Hamlet raised for me. To name a few: Why does Hamlet seem more disturbed by his mother’s marriage with Claudius — going so far as to imagine details of their sex life (see Hamlet 3.4.205 onwards) — than by Claudius’ murder of his father? Why does Hamlet suddenly lash out at Ophelia in scene 3.1? Has there been some crucial turning point that we don’t get to see? Why does Hamlet, after brutally rejecting Ophelia, launch a series of a series of one-sided sexual puns at her in scene 3.2? How are we to account for Ophelia’s madness and ultimate drowning?

And yet, I didn’t feel that I could sufficiently address these motives in a traditional academic paper. While my questions were grounded in the textual details of Hamlet, the answers I wanted simply weren’t there. However closely I studied the text, Ophelia’s story as it is written felt incomplete to me. I realized that I didn’t want to reconstruct Shakespeare’s Ophelia from the fragments that the play gives us. I wanted to use those details as a jumping-off point to write my own Ophelia and allow her to tell her story on her own terms.

So rather than joining a scholarly conversation about Shakespeare’s Hamlet, I decided to join Shakespeare in the “creative conversation” surrounding the story of Hamlet — because Shakespeare’s Hamlet is neither the first nor the only version of the story! In many ways, making my contribution to the “creative conversation” feels parallel to joining a scholarly conversation. Much as I might draw on another scholar’s terms and redefine/extend/adapt them to make a unique argument in an academic paper, my play both draws on many elements of Shakespeare’s play and reimagines and reconfigures them to tell a new story. Ghosts become a way of thinking about trauma as something visceral and real. Hamlet‘s constant blurring of performance and reality becomes a way to reflect both on the behavior patterns of abusive men in positions of power and on the constant self-doubt and fragmentation of memory that survivors often experience as they attempt to reconstruct themselves and their past after a traumatic event.

Writing this play has introduced me to a new mode of responding to evidence-based motive and of engaging critically with a work of literature. But it has also taught me that analyzing stories and telling stories are not as different as they might seem. Both can be equally valid contributions to a scholarly and/or creative conversation, and both can be guided and informed by the principles of motive. 

— Meigan Clark, ’22

Works Cited

Shakespeare, William. Romeo and Juliet from The Folger Shakespeare. Ed. Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine. Folger Shakespeare Library, January 24, 2022.