In a Tortoiseshell: In this excerpt from his Junior Paper on supernova detection, T. Lukas Mäkinen uses key terms to effectively scaffold his discussion of a new technique for minimizing biases in samples of detected supernovae. By maintaining a clear focus and providing a sequence of consistent and well-defined key terms, Lukas provides the reader with a framework through which to understand the technical contents of his paper, allowing even a lay reader to finish the paper with a strong impression of Lukas’s work and its significance.
Motive begins with a question or a problem. This can be in the form of a gap in the evidence, a puzzling passage, or a new phenomenon. Thus, motive is the driving force behind an essay’s line of inquiry or argument. It is the question to which the author hopes to provide an answer.
Without a strong motive, it is difficult for readers to grasp the reason for a certain paper’s existence. Even the most brilliant points can seem meaningless without an understanding of the posed question. Even then, motive must extend beyond just this initial question. The motive of a paper has to be compelling enough to imbue readers with a sense of that paper’s significance. It ultimately helps answer the question, “Why does it all matter?” It helps readers understand not only why a paper was written but also why they should care that the paper was written at all.
Evidence, or data, is the universe of interpreted primary sources, empirical observations, or factual information relevant to a paper’s argument. Analysis is the interpretation of sources. Source use, then, is these two things taken together.
However fascinating an essay’s thesis or compelling its motive, the reader is unlikely to be swayed without valid evidence, proof for the author’s claims, which can come in a variety of forms according to source use, such as in the form of experimental data or quotations gathered from a primary source. Of course, this does not mean that a convincing essay can merely be a collection of claims and supporting evidence. The author must also provide analysis to help the reader interpret the evidence. Ultimately, this analysis links the selected evidence to the author’s claims and then weaves these claims together to support the author’s broader thesis.
In the following excerpts, we see how evidence and analysis must work together to help the author first convince the reader that the individual claims in the essay are valid, and then show the reader that these claims can be brought together to justify the argument as a whole.
The eternal refrain goes like this: “What’s the thesis?” It’s as ubiquitous as “Where’s the beef?” But a thesis is not a call to action for a mundane fast-food restaurant. It’s much more important than that. It’s the argument. Or more eloquently, the Writing Lexicon defines the thesis as “an arguable claim—i.e., an assertion someone could reasonably argue against; as such, it provides unexpected insight, goes beyond superficial interpretations, or challenges, corrects, or extends other arguments.”
There’s a reason why a great deal of high school English teachers place an emphasis on the thesis. It functions as the raison d’etre. It lays out the terms of the argument—what the essay is analyzing, with what it is analyzing, and what it all means. Strong theses go above and beyond this, however, by explaining why all of that stuff is important.
The essay excerpts in this section were chosen for their strong theses, though they accomplish these arguments in different ways.
The thesis is tough. There are different kinds—some are tricky, and some are examples of how to make a simple framework sing. And don’t write more than one thesis in an eight-page paper. Read on, true believer—“What’s the thesis?”
For more details, refer to the Thesis Preface from our 2014 issue, available here.
Tortoise: A Journal of Writing Pedagogy is an annual journal that publishes excerpts of student scholarship from within the Princeton community. Showcasing writers from all disciplines and levels—both Princeton undergraduate and graduate students—we emphasize the writing process as much as its “finished” product.
Tortoise curates excerpts of exemplary academic writing with reflective commentaries on the research and writing methods underpinning the prose. Tortoise’s ambition is thus not only to share student writing with a wider audience, but also to demonstrate how it works and how it was developed.
In our Spring 2019 issue, we are getting “Up Close and Pedagogical” with academic research and writing. Our goal is twofold: First, we want this issue to serve as a reminder that all writing stems from a careful initial observation—of a source, of a problem in scholarship, or a problem in the world surrounding the writer, or even a detail from the writer’s own life and lived experience. Some of our pieces this year began with simple acts of looking—at posthuman cyborg fashion, at Tor encryption, at Alt-Right iconography—and expanded into intricate arguments upon further research. Others incorporate close observations of secondary literature as their means of analysis, turning them into lenses through which to view evidence. You might notice this trajectory from a seemingly minor observation to a full argument when you read about the “literariness” of the Palestinian Declaration of Independence or the genre-defying nature of Kafka’s “Before the Law.” Some of our pieces even invoke observation itself as their subjects: the man in the photography of Diane Arbus and the characters in the film Perfect Blue show us that what we look at can sometimes look back.
Our second goal is that we want to demonstrate how all writing should be carefully read. Several pieces already show us how to look, whether by comparing images of Peruvian cuisine, giving frame-by-frame analysis of Korean T’aep’yŏngmu dances, or illustrating Burmese myths through a comic narrative. But in the case that you cannot see how a piece is successfully constructed, our commentaries are meant to help guide your eye. We highlight the pedagogical underpinnings of each piece—the motive, structure, source use, etc.—such that you yourself may learn to make closer observations, and ultimately, craft stronger writing.
So grab your magnifying glasses and telescopes as we explore writing seminar papers, senior theses, and everything in between throughout the humanities, sciences, social sciences, and more. We are about to get “Up Close and Pedagogical.”
In a Tortoiseshell: In her R3, Nanako Shirai argues that surgical masks in Japan have transformed from individually-oriented devices meant to protect against the spread of the H1N1 virus into symbols of Japanese collective identity and social duty. Her thesis extends from a clear research question and motive, as well as from a strong set of evidence, which help make it feel new and interesting.
In a Tortoiseshell: In her paper, Sarah Perkins contrasts two fashion designers who have incorporated cyborg aesthetics in their designs. Comparing both their fashion and its reception, Sarah examines the interaction between the cyborg and the human in both designers’ work. In this excerpt, her succinct introduction of the artists and the defining features of their work paves the way for a clear and well-supported thesis.
In a Tortoiseshell: In the introduction to his interdisciplinary senior thesis merging Game Theory and Latin American Studies, José L. Pabón effectively orients his readers to the structure and motive of his paper. By first providing a succinct outline, which he expands on in the following paragraphs, he prepares the reader for the content of his thesis. Then, he pivots smoothly into a discussion of his underlying motive in writing this thesis, introducing the reader to the perspective he will adopt in his argument, and deftly presenting the material in such a way as to capture the reader’s attention and make him or her immediately sympathetic to the arguments and analysis presented in the rest of the essay.
In a Tortoiseshell: In her paper examining changing perceptions of the Berlin Wall in the aftermath of the Cold War, Annabelle Mauri mines an extensive field of primary and secondary sources, including archives, statistics, and existing scholarly discussions. Annabelle skillfully weaves these sources together to build her own argument, which highlights the strategic political erasure of East German perspectives on the Wall in the process of reunification, and how that erasure contributed to the West German-led redefinition of the Berlin Wall as a symbol of unity and peace. In doing so, she boldly establishes her unique voice in a conversation about an oft-studied historical monument.
In a Tortoiseshell: In his Writing Seminar R3, Christian Maines puts the discourse we see today in the news regarding the Alt-right into historical context, letting his research guide his understanding of the group, rather than the other way around. His use of structuring elements—purposeful orienting, definitions of key terms, clear topic sentences, consistent tie back sentences—sets his argument up for success. Motivating his thesis from the beginning to the end, Christian is able to not only sustain his topic, but make an insightful contribution to our understanding of the Alt-right.