Tag Archives: audience


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: Ms. Magenta-Vest and How to Make a Good Argument in a Pinch

It takes a certain amount of panache to walk up to an airline counter and request a ticket for a flight departing in less than twenty minutes; probably more than most of us possess. The girl I saw make such a request had panache to spare, supplemented in no small part by a magnificently fluffy magenta vest and a silver and red pom-pom hat that would have made an alpaca jealous. It didn’t hurt that she used her full business voice and seemed to know exactly what she wanted. In fact, though judging by her clothes and the stickers on her roller-bag, Ms. Magenta-Vest was probably no more than nineteen, she accomplished her considerable feat by affecting the composure and unflinching politeness of a much older woman. She made her request clearly and using few words; while she was extremely specific about which flight she wanted and what she was going to do with her bags, she seemed deliberately vague about other things, for instance where she wanted to sit on the plane. 

I don’t think the man behind the counter really intended to give Ms. Magenta-Vest the ticket at first, no matter how much she was willing to pay for it. But she kept asking for nearly three minutes, rephrasing her request first one way, then another, varying its words without changing its sentiment or her clear, polite tone. I can’t imagine it must have been easy for her to remain so calm even as she watched the minutes tick by before her flight took off. Indeed, as soon as she had her ticket in hand and had seen her roller-bag safely tagged and sent away, she turned tail and ran headlong down the concourse towards the TSA checkpoint, her quilted paisley handbag bouncing along at her side. And yet, so long as she was engaged in her game of bargaining, she retained her air of unflappable calm. 

There is perhaps a lesson to be taken from how Ms. Magenta-Vest argued her case, one which can be applied to arguments of any kind, on paper as much as in person. First, remember who you are talking to and what tone will best convince them of your point. If Ms. Magenta-Vest had spoken like an average nineteen year-old, whether blustering at the airline agent or acting as anxious as she quite possibly was, the agent would probably have denied her request without a second thought. It was by assuming an air of respectability and composure that she brought the agent to her side from the very first. Likewise, when we write, we frame our argument in terms that other scholars are familiar with in order to signal to them that we are capable of engaging with them on their own terms. We thus earn their respect before we even properly begin our argument. We use the language of scholarship to buy credibility that we might never have if we wrote as informally as we speak.

It is equally important to take care in defining the scope of one’s argument. If Ms. Magenta-Vest had been as specific about where she wanted to sit as she was about where she was about the flight she wanted, it is likely that the agent would have denied her request altogether, arguing (probably quite rightly) that what she was asking was impossible. But by choosing her battles with care, and being very clear from the first about what she was not asking for, she headed off most of the agent’s objections before they arose. Similarly, if we try to argue everything at once in an essay, we are sure to fail, and our argument will invariably be dismissed without further thought. But if we are willing to argue only a well-delineated point, one within the scope of our own capabilities, we are far more likely to succeed. This is not to say we cannot make piercing insights in our writing, occasionally asking the audience to accept the nearly impossible as possible, just as Ms. Magenta-Vest did to such great effect. Only, such requests had best be occasional, ideally a single part in a well-worked-out argument, introduced with suitable formality, or else it is likely they will fail to achieve the desired effect.

And of course, it helps to have a certain amount of panache. I don’t know if Ms. Magenta-Vest made her flight, but I suspect she did. If she could talk her way to a ticket with less than half an hour to spare, I have full confidence that, with her neon-and-paisley ensemble to buoy her confidence, she could talk her way to the front of a TSA line in no time. While in any argument it’s important to know who you’re talking to and know your scope, it never hurts to pack a little something extra, preferably in bright colors, just to seal the deal.

–Isabella Khan ’21