Category Archives: Spring 2015

Spring 2015


We all know that a paper’s body goes between the introduction and conclusion. But actually crafting a strong body can be challenging — in that text lies the detail of our entire argument! There, we present evidence from our research and analyze how this evidence builds upon itself to support our overarching argument. We structure this evidence and analysis differently from discipline to discipline. But, regardless of the form it takes, that structure is  critical to the success of the paper.

First comes the question of what evidence to include. In both technical and humanities papers, we identify a question or puzzle (motive); design our experiment or investigation around this question; and then use our findings as evidence for a thesis that answers our initial motive. In this section, we include papers from different disciplines that all marshal evidence and analysis to make a claim. Karen Jin’s paper on The Faerie Queen analyzes a few key lines of textual evidence from different scenes that address her initial question, and she uses this evidence to craft her thesis. Katie Hanss’s paper similarly presents findings based on her central question on zooplankton. She presents her data in its entirety, then locates key findings within the context of her experiment’s question and builds an argument from those. In both cases, the evidence we see is the result of their research; the thesis built from these results.

While a paper’s body always has evidence and analysis, the structure of this information varies across disciplines. Macro-structure, or the way we organize the body as a whole, is our first concern. In the humanities, we progress through our evidence to build to our thesis. In the sciences, clear sections delineate our structure: materials and methods, results, discussion, etc. In all fields, macro-structure logically leads the reader through research and findings to reach final destination of our argument.

Once we have macro-structure down, we turn to individual sections: micro-structure. In the humanities, each section or paragraph follows a repeating format. We introduce the topic or claim (in an argumentative fashion), provide evidence to support it, analyze and explain the evidence. Then we repeat in a new paragraph. Though the format remains the same, every section must build on the one before it to move the argument forward. Isabelle Laurenzi’s paper provides an excellent example of this type of progressive structure. She leads us step by step through her argument, every paragraph of her body building on the claims of the paragraphs before it, but never repeating the same step twice.

In the sciences, every smaller section has a distinct purpose. In the materials and methods section, we explain how we solved our initial problem. The results section is dedicated to what we found — evidence we collected via our methods. In the discussion section, we explain what our evidence proves. We can see some of this structure in Adrian Tasistro-Hart’s excerpt, which includes portions of his results and discussion sections. Adrian moves from detailing his findings (evidence) in the results section to showing implications of this evidence in his discussion (analysis and argumentation).

Within these sections, we present much of our evidence and analysis through figures (charts, tables, graphs, maps, etc). Both Adrian and Katie include figures as a form of evidence in their papers that translate into analysis in the discussion section. Figures and table present evidence (data) visually and make it easier for the audience to absorb. Figures can also analyze: The form in which data is displayed is in its own right an analysis. The data we choose to include, the way in which we display it, and the trends we choose to highlight are all choices that contextualize and give meaning to our raw data, and should further our argument.


Characterization of the Pathogenicity of the MSH2 P640T Mutation in Saccharomyces cerevisiae

In a Tortoiseshell: Ramie’s introduction, from his Molecular Biology Core Lab final paper, reveals the results of experiments seeking to understand the role of MSH2 protein in DNA Mismatch Repair (MMR). It is notable for Ramie’s careful handling of evidence, as he provides enough information to help the reader understand and appreciate the claims he will make later, when he discusses the results of his experiments, without overwhelming the reader with unnecessary details or leading us to false conclusions.

Continue reading


“She Preferred it Sunk in the Very Element it Was Meant to Exclude”: Making Sense of Nature and Sisterhood in Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping

In a Tortoiseshell: In the introduction to a Junior Paper on Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, the author sets up her argument by defining the subtle difference between Nature (capital N) and nature (lowercase n).  This exploration of key terms allows for a smooth transition into her thesis about existential and social questions and the separation of biological sisters.  

Continue reading



Writing introductions is hard, and not just because it’s usually a battle against a blank page. In The Sound of Music it’s simple to start at the beginning. But an introduction actually asks a lot of a writer—an exciting hook, background information, introduction of key terms and ideas, one or more motives, and, eventually, a thesis.  The writer has a lot of ground to cover. She also has to capture the reader’s attention and convince her to stick along for the ride.

Students often ask about the conventions of an introduction.  Where should the thesis go?  Where should I put this background information, and how much is necessary?  How long should the introduction be?  Too often, these questions convey a misconception: That the introduction is simply something to get through before the real part of the essay begins. But an introduction isn’t just a dumping ground for background information and a single-line thesis at the end. Rather, it is in many ways the most important part of a paper. It marks the bona fide beginning, where critical elements of the essay are introduced: a motive, key terms, orientation, and a thesis.  Instead of thinking of these elements as distinct, the best introductions tie them together.  Orienting the reader means curating the background information that explains or justifies key terms and motive.  An introduction is a place for analysis and excitement, where every fact points to the future of the paper. It is the hard-boiled, condensed roadmap to the paper.

The essays in this section demonstrate the essence of introduction writing while also showcasing diversity.  In Katherine Raber’s lab report on a mangrove population, for example, the majority of the introduction is background information in the service of motive.  Katherine curates her information elegantly—she does not tell us everything she may know about mangroves; instead, she chooses facts that tie orientation and motive together.  Ramie Fathy’s lab report, “Characterization of the Pathogenicity of the MSH2 P640T Mutation in Saccharomyces cerevisiae,” demonstrates how a short literature review can also function as orientation (to a scholarly discourse) and motive (finding a gap in the conversation).  In his personal reflection on his writing process, Ramie explains how he imagined his introduction as a “pyramid” that gives the reader broad-to-specific background information in order to articulate his experiment.

Often at the Writing Center we read papers that veer towards the far ends of the spectrum:  those that dramatically reveal a thesis in the last few pages of the paper, and those that include the thesis in the first few sentences of the first paragraph.  It seems to us that this reflects an anxiety about the structure of an introduction.  Do you keep some tricks up your sleeve or reveal them right away?  We think, however, that theses should not just be a mic drop at the end of a three-page introduction.  Rather, “soft” references to the thesis can be placed all over the introduction, with each reiteration reflecting progress made in introducing orientation and key terms.

In this section, Lexi Tollefson’s essay demonstrates how to present a thesis two distinct times in an introduction without sounding repetitive.  She first articulates her thesis in her first paragraph, but it is a simple version.  After a few paragraphs in which she introduces key analytical terms and methods, her thesis reappears in a refined and complicated way—in a way that is all the more comprehensible to the reader because of its earlier appearance.  

As demonstrated in this section, an introduction can take many forms.  Between lab reports, classic humanities “close reading”-type papers, and an analytical philosophy paper, our editorial team tried to capture the essence of an introduction while showcasing it in many forms.


Spatiotemporal Mathematical Modeling of Myocardin-Related Transcription Factor-A Signaling

In a Tortoiseshell: These two highly technical abstracts, the first of which was submitted to an academic conference, briefly outline the method and results of a long-term research project on a specific cell protein.  The two abstracts are aimed at two different audiences—a biology conference and a computer science conference—which makes the selection an excellent example of writing for different audiences.  

Continue reading


Strength: An Evil Inclination in Paradise Lost?

In a Tortoiseshell: This excerpt analyzes one, specific term in Paradise Lost, and its ramifications for the text more broadly. The author manages to define his argument cogently on both the micro and the macro level, situating his key terms in an understandable (but nuanced) way, while also crafting topic sentences that analyze rather than stating fact.

Continue reading

Spring 2015


An abstract is an elevator pitch to our audience.  It’s a short 250-350 words, but those few words have to win over the audience with orienting, motive, and thesis.  It’s an exciting opportunity with high stakes:  this pitch could get your work into a conference or journal.

The key to any abstract is writing to our audience.  An author does not need the abstract, but the reader does.  What does our audience need to know to understand and care about this research?

Orienting and Key Terms

Audience determines orienting and the specificity of key terms.  Usually, readers do not have a deep knowledge of our topic, so we must orient and explain key terms.  Adrian Tasistro-Hart’s abstract in this section demonstrates straightforward language and orienting that make his paper and research accessible to a broad audience, including readers in his field.


Motive, the justification for our research, also must be tailored to our audience.  Why should a reader be interested in this paper?  What problem are we addressing?  What gap in the current study of this topic are we filling?  Motive is what drives us to research and write and what drives our audience to read.  Benjamin Spar illustrates this in his abstracts.  He includes an abstract for a biology conference and then re-frames the same paper for a computer science audience in another mock abstract.  His research is the same, but he frames motive to fit his audience.


If the motive is our “ask,” then the thesis is our “answer,” and we want to give the gist of this argument and our conclusions so that readers know where we are going.  Both Will Squiers’s and Adrian’s abstracts include clear theses that explain the argumentative result of their research and resolve their motivating questions.

Nitty-Gritty Word Choices

Being concise means focusing on individual word choices and sentence structure.  Use simple, nonjargon words, define them, and write in a straightforward manner.  Transitions and conjunctions like “yet” and “but” become powerful, one-word tools that can show motive or argument.  We see this in Will’s abstract, where he uses markers such as “then” and “finally” to capture the movements of his argument in a single word.
In short, an abstract is like a miniature record of academic inquiry and research.  We give background (orienting), pose a question (motive), and then proceed to solve this question (thesis).  And if we keep our audience in mind, we will hopefully succeed in enticing them to read and find out more.

Spring 2015

Spring 2015: Foreword

Last March, Dr. Judy Swan conducted a workshop in the Writing Center about writing in the sciences.  An assortment of Writing Center Fellows, myself among them, gathered in the basement of Whitman College to consider Dr. Swan’s discussion of the function of figures.  Finally, my inner English major thought, the secrets of science were to be revealed.  So when Dr. Swan opened the workshop by passing around a block quote excerpted from a novel, my eyebrows shot up.  Was Dr. Swan punking us?  What could literature writing possibly have to do with science writing?

Science and literature:  to be sure, these seem like somewhat odd bedfellows.  You study one under the lens of a microscope and locate the other in the recesses of a library.  What could their juxtaposition possibly reveal about excellent writing practices?  In her workshop, Dr. Swan went on to suggest that the excerpting of block quotes was analogous to the creation of scientific figures.  Selection or curation of evidence, she claimed, is already an analytical move: so analysis could be said to determine how (literary or scientific) evidence gets presented to the reader.  What’s more, Dr. Swan’s juxtaposition got us thinking about how block quotes and figures both act as writerly anchors, tools writers use to ground their arguments.  Figures and block quotes help the reader understand what it is the writer has noticed; in this way, they open up space for the reader to agree/disagree with these claims.  Figures and block quotes, as pieces of carefully selected and presented evidence, empower both writers and readers.  I was skeptical at first, but then hooked.

So in this second issue of Tortoise, we include writing from what are often considered opposite ends of the academic spectrum.  Katie Hanss’s lab report, “Locational and Temporal Abundance of Various Net Zooplankton in Bermuda,” for instance, immediately follows Karen Jin’s close reading of “the intellectual and the physical” in Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene.  Several months ago this disciplinary difference would have left me scratching my head.  But this juxtaposition is intentionally provocative:  we ask the reader to read a lab report after a poetry paper precisely to break down the wall between what we’ve learned about science and what we’ve learned about literature.  Reading these in tandem, it becomes clear that the disciplines for which they are written bear a surprising number of similarities.  Why not aim for a more holistic approach, using what we know about crafting lab reports to improve how we approach our readings of literary texts—and vice versa?

Tortoise’s ambition is to help students write by explaining writing authored by their peers.  Since we still believe that writing is a process, in our second issue we continue to accompany excerpts of student academic writing with editorial commentaries.  These, authored by Writing Center Fellows, professors, and the student writers themselves, describe the process as much as the written product—how the prose was produced and why it works.  And we continue to publish across class levels to make the case that exceptional writing occurs at all stages of education.

This issue bears one important difference from our last.  In our first issue, we aimed to show that all great writing shares certain fundamentals, articulable via our handy writer’s lexicon—a registry of terms that identifies common writing elements, e.g., thesis, motive, structure, and the like.  Last spring we had to do the work of enumerating this lexicon (appended to the end of this issue).  To this end we grouped that issue into sections devoted to individual lexical elements.  This time around, we have revised that organization, instead dividing the journal into units that follow the structure of a conventional academic essay:  we open with abstracts and introductions, and move through body to conclusions.  We hope to (1) demonstrate that lexical elements play a role at every moment of a paper and (2) model techniques one could use to start, develop, and finish off an argument.  Another important change:  we now accept submissions to Tortoise year-round, on a rolling basis.  For submission information, consult our website at

Thanks go out to all those who helped us produce this second issue:  to student contributors, to authors of commentary, including Professor Aleksandra Snyder; to our administrative support, including Khristina Gonzalez, Judy Swan, Amanda Irwin Wilkins, Margie Duncan, Keith Thomas, and Melinda DeNero.  Thanks always to my editorial staff, past and present.

Our goals for Tortoise remain numerous.  We hope that students will consult Tortoise as a writing guidebook; that professors will deploy it in their classrooms; and that it opens up a forum in which exemplary student work can be showcased and shared. Tortoise remains a product-in-process in two important ways:  each issue is subjected to several stages of rigorous revision; and between each issue we reconsider how Tortoise is structured in order to address the writerly needs of our community here at Princeton.  So, please enjoy our second effort.

Brian Lax