In a Tortoiseshell: In her essay on Jesmyn Ward’s Men we Reaped, Cassy uses a clear and evocative prose style to convey her motive, using key words and well placed quotations to construct incisive analysis. Through her essay, she convinces her readers not only of the depth and texture of Ward’s original work, but also that academic writing, when done well, may possess a strong argument and thesis without wholly giving up the lyrical poignancy of a creative piece. Continue reading
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
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
It’s been over a month since Kentucky officially shut all nonessential businesses and ordered everyone to shelter in place. Even though everything has burst into bloom here, I spend my days in my room in the basement, writing papers, zooming into seminars, and fighting against a rising feeling of desperation and fear. It’s hard to feel anything other than resignation when the days bleed into one another. The markers of time that used to rule my life are meaningless now. No matter what day it is or what hour of the day, my life looks pretty much the same.
For me, a control freak, the unpredictability of this pandemic is terrifying. It’s impossible to know when this will end, when the world will return to normalcy, when days will again be differentiated from one another. But something that’s been helping me feel in control of my days and my life is that I’ve started making extremely detailed schedules. Every morning when I wake up I sit down and write down a plan for my day. I schedule in everything from zoom classes to helping my brother practice lacrosse. Being able to look down and see the plan for my day makes me feel better. For at least the next eight hours, I can predict the future.
When writing, this kind of structured plan is also helpful. Both when preparing to write a paper and in the final draft, it’s useful to be able to communicate to yourself and the reader what the plan is for the duration of the paper. Articulating ideas in an outline can make it so much easier to understand what you’re trying to say in a paper. Often when I’m writing, I get lost in sentence structure or word choice. In those moments, I look back at my outline to remember what I’m trying to say. Having the plan for my paper helps reorient me and feel that, rather than being a daunting impossible task, writing this paper is totally doable.
Clearly articulating the structure of your argument to a reader is also helpful. Making sure to include a roadmapping paragraph, where you explain to a reader what sources you’re planning to examine in the course of your argument and what subarguments you plan to make, help a reader feel secure as they read your paper. I know that especially when I read long papers, roadmapping paragraphs in the introduction help orient me and keep me from getting confused. Such paragraphs remind me that the author has a plan for the paper and that I, as a reader, can relax and just follow the argument.
Regardless of whether you’re a control freak like me or not, in the next week, when writing your papers and studying for exams, give outlining and roadmapping a try. Maybe in this bananas time, making a clear plan will help propel you across the finish line at the end of this wacky semester.
— Malka Himelhoch ’21
Many if not most video games have maps. They help orient players to the world of the game, illustrating the scale and extent of the world while pinpointing specific areas of interest to the player, such as important cities or sites, checkpoints, or fast travel options. Games can have one or many maps or even discoverable maps, which only reveal certain information once the player has progressed far enough in the story or world. Along with orienting the player to the world of the game, maps help to structure gameplay so that players can reach the intended conclusions set forth by their developers. In this way, video game maps function much like the structures of essays, which lead readers through their authors’ arguments to their intended conclusions.
Take the map of Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey as an example. The game takes place in the world of ancient Greece at the beginning of the Peloponnesian War in 431 BCE, and the player can travel from Kephallonia to Lesbos to Crete as they please. Compared to traditional games, whose maps are more restrictive to directly guide the player through certain levels (think classic Super Mario Bros.) or along certain paths (as in many Pokemon games), AC: Odyssey’s map is navigable to its players nearly without limit. So long as they have a horse and a ship, the player can go anywhere on the map. It is part of a growing trend of expansive, open-world games that seemingly lack a map structure and thus allow players to do whatever they want, whenever they want.
However, while AC: Odyssey’s map feels endlessly explorable, it still contains an interlocking set of structures through its many different map markers and symbols, which are themselves inherently tied to certain conclusions or questlines. One set of markers are the “Quest” diamonds, which appear on the map wherever there is a task for the player to complete. These markers encourage the player to move through the map in order that they may gain experience and items while also advancing various storylines of the game. Another set of markers is the “Location” markers, some of which show places where Spartan or Athenian soldiers may be targeted. Following these markers compels the player to advance the Peloponnesian War, which was the conflict of Spartan and Athenian forces for supremacy of Greece set forth in Thucydides’ famous history. A final set of major map markers are the “Mercenary” markers, which show the locations of mercenaries who are and are not being paid to pursue the player. By tracking down mercenaries using these markers, the player can improve their own status as a mercenary in order to become the most feared assassin of the Aegean.
Although Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey is an open-world game without any obvious paths or levels, its map still contains an implicit structure. Like in any piece of good writing, this structure allows the player to follow the game’s storyline—its argument—to its logical conclusion, whether they notice it or not.
–Leina Thurn ’20
As a sophomore at Princeton I took a seminar called “Creative Non-fiction” with Pulitzer prize-winning professor John McPhee. His advice still resonates for me in my writing, whatever the genre. One point that particularly stands out in my memory is McPhee’s emphasis on structure. Structure was the subject of our first seminar, and for every piece that we wrote, we had to include some kind of structural outline—a tidy Roman numeral list, or perhaps a more abstract doodle.
I’ve been thinking a lot about structure in creative non-fiction lately. My thesis examines the legacy of the picaresque in the non-fiction of Mark Twain, who, at least by his own declaration, despised formal structure. There’s a persistent myth that he wrote as if in a dream-like state with no plan and scarcely any revision. Really, he was much less graceful and far more capricious in his writing and revising. At one point, he even wanted to toss the incomplete manuscript of his masterpiece, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, into the furnace because he couldn’t get the structure of the plot right.
My own research delves into the first work that won him national acclaim, Innocents Abroad, which details Twain’s real-life trip to Europe and the Middle East—in short, a work of creative non-fiction. I find myself in the situation of a detective as I attempt to retroactively piece together the structure of the whole. In one way, the structure is deceptively simple because it is strictly chronological. And yet, in another way, it is much more complex. Time compacts when Twain writes about places that hold scanty interest for him, and he often departs from the chronological structure to draw from memories or histories in the recent and distant past. To make the task of determining structure easier for myself, I’ve started to map out some of the most complicated chapters. As a sample, let me give one passage as an example. In Chapter 26, when Twain is in Rome, he expresses his exasperation at the oldness of it all:
What is it that confers the noblest delight? What is that which swells a man’s breast with pride above that which any other experience can bring to him? Discovery! To know that you are walking where none others have walked; that you are beholding what human eye has not seen before; that you are breathing a virgin atmosphere…What is there in Rome for me to see that others have not seen before me? What is there for me to touch that others have not touched? What is there for me to feel, to learn, to hear, to know, that shall thrill me before it pass to others? What can I discover? – Nothing. Nothing whatsoever. (169-170)
The chapter begins in this bitter tone but finds release in an elaborate game of make-believe. Twain imagines if he were a scientist or inventor or explorer discovering new things—if he were the first European to sail to the Americas, for instance, or even if he were a Roman in his own era traveling for the first time to America. Then, as if feeling guilty for developing these counterfactual digressions in such detail, he returns to his duty, duly reporting on St. Peter’s Basilica and the Coliseum (though he slips in many a snide remark along the way). He can’t seem to stay reigned in for long, because he soon lapses into another counterfactual, claiming that he has found a bill of advertisement and newspaper from ancient times in the Coliseum. The chapter as a whole, in only twelve pages, develops a multi-layered structure. We have the immediacy of Twain taking stock of what he encounters as a traveler in Rome, but we also have several counterfactual digressions, “quoted” at length: the imaginative accounts of 1) a Roman traveler to the U.S. in the present day 2) an ancient advertisement for the gladiator battles at the Roman coliseum, and 3) an issue of the Roman Daily Battle-Axe with an article on the opening season of the coliseum.
If I had to outline the structure of this chapter, what would it look like? To be sure, there is no single possibility. I’ve found that, much like outlining and reverse outlining in my own writing, the structure might take time to materialize, and often times the process is just as beneficial as the final product. In terms of this chapter of Twain’s, after a few tries, I arrived at this outline:
It’s a kind of narrative ecosystem. The soil of snarky questions fosters the development of deep counterfactual roots, which in turn supply the necessary materials for the more conventional travelogue observations in the present. Far from being unnecessary (though entertaining) digressions, as I initially supposed, those counterfactuals comprise the foundation beneath the present observations.
If you’re stuck wondering at the rationale behind an author’s argument, you might try reverse-engineering the structure. This tactic works beautifully for creative non-fiction or, really, any type of writing. Whatever the genre, structure undergirds it. The crucial thing to remember about structure, McPhee taught me, is that it shouldn’t be cutesy and clever just for show. The structure has to really work for the material. Indeed, the ideal structure arises directly from the material.
— Myrial Holbrook ’19
Quotations from Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain are drawn from the Wordsworth Classics edition published in 2010.
A few days ago, I was having lunch with a friend of mine, an oboist, and Maurice Ravel’s Bolero came up in the conversation.
“How in the world,” she asked, after we had talked about it for a few minutes, “does Ravel build a fifteen minute piece out of so little music at all?”
I had never thought about it before, but once my friend brought it up, we both agreed it was not an easy question to answer. The Bolero has three main motifs — three theses, if you like. First comes the motor rhythm on the snare, which begins in the first bar of the piece and continues virtually unchanged until the end:
The second motif, introduced by the flute, is the primary major melody:
The third and final motif — which my friend and I affectionately called the snake-charmer theme — is introduced by the bassoon and weaves in and out of the major-key passages:
The Bolero is composed entirely of the interplay between these three motifs, varying only the instrumentation. Though, in a written work of comparable length — say, ten pages — three distinct “theses” would almost certainly be excessive, in a piece of music, to have only three motifs carry an entire piece is almost unheard of. Listen to a Beethoven symphony, and you will hear countless themes introduced, and then varied in key and texture until they are almost unrecognizable. Even in a Bach sonata, the epitome of simplicity, the structure is relatively involved, bursting with Escher-like variations that turn one motif into the next without giving you time to notice how the change came about. There is no such variation in the Bolero. And yet somehow, there seems nothing strained or contrived about the piece. With its gradual increase in intensity from the voice of a single snare at pianissimo to a full orchestra at forte, the Bolero holds our attention from the first bar to the last.
By its simple yet flawless execution, the Bolero reminds us that writing of any kind — analytic or creative, literary or musical — need not be complex to be compelling. While there is something to be said for the “broad”, “multi-faceted”, or “comprehensive” thesis, such a thesis is also very easy to mishandle. Too often, we lose control of our argument in the rush to say everything at once. Through the understated structure of the Bolero, we see that it is sometimes better — though certainly, no less difficult — to confine ourselves to the exploration of a single theme. As anyone who has listened all the way to Ravel’s raucous final measures will attest, the simplest construction is often the strongest of all.
–Isabella Khan ’21
In a Tortoiseshell: In this paper on Light in August by William Faulkner, Nina Wang argues for a new reading of Christmas’s character that focuses on the dichotomy between the spiritual and savage. The strength of Nina’s argument lies in its effective structure, as she uses clear topic sentences to ensure that each body paragraph only argues one idea at a time, but links them together in an effective way that allows her to move through three complex sub-arguments in a short six-page essay.
In a Tortoiseshell: This is not only an exemplary R3, but also a phenomenal research paper in general. The piece is expertly structured, argued coherently, and uses an unorthodox (yet well-explained) method to analyze specific cultural artifacts. The overarching question is identity formation through artistic creation in French Polynesia, a provocative topic that is — as the author claims at the end — not exclusive to this part of the world.
A paper’s line of reasoning, from beginning to end and also within and between paragraphs.
The writing process begins long before the writer is ready to put a pen to paper. It begins instead when the author begins brainstorming, whether by gathering evidence or drafting thesis statements. Thus, by the time drafting begins, the author is already an expert about the argument. While this helps make the writing process quicker, the author’s expertise can hinder the ability to communicate the argument to others, to nonexperts. To avoid this, it is crucial that authors consider not only what they argue but also how they can clearly share their arguments.
This need to communicate the argument to a nonfamiliar reader forces the author to develop a clear, organized structure for the essay. At a broader level, the writer must provide the reader with a framework that pieces together individual claims into the larger argument. And at a narrower level, the author must periodically remind the reader, while analyzing each particular claim, how it relates to some larger point.
In the following examples, we see how, through careful planning of structure, the respective authors succeed in linking the evidence and analysis back to the thesis and motive, balancing exploration of specific examples with development of the larger argument as a whole.
In the selected passage from his paper “The Fishy Business of Transgenic Salmon: Explaining the Delay in the Mass Commercialization Process,” Eric Qiu demonstrates how roadmaps, clear transitions, and paragraph structure can be used to effectively introduce and analyze multiple sources while maintaining focus on the paper’s original argument.
The excerpt from Lavinia Liang’s essay “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf(stonecraft)?” shows how writing out the framework of the essay in the introduction, and reminding the reader of the place of each bit of evidence within this framework, can help the reader work through a comparative argument without getting stuck in one source or the other.
For more details, refer to the Structure Preface from our 2014 Issue, available here: https://tortoise.princeton.edu/2015/10/18/structure-14/.