Tag Archives: writing process


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


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: 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: Practicing Writing with Marchesi’s Vocal Methods

Learning to sing is a bit like learning to write: time-intensive, often discouraging, ultimately rewarding—and based on a foundation of technique that you’ll need before you can move on to the more exciting stuff. Scales come before arias, just as D1s come before dissertations. Where writers have writing seminars and thesis bootcamps, singers have books like Mathilde Marchesi’s Theoretical and Practical Vocal Method. In her introduction, Marchesi, a 19th-century teacher who trained many of her era’s great singers, lays out her foundational principles. These prove to be useful guidance for aspiring musicians, but they’re also applicable to writers—at any stage.  

“In order to obtain a speedy and satisfactory result,” Marchesi writes, “pupils should never be burdened with more than one difficulty at a time, and they should be assisted in overcoming obstacles by having them presented in a natural and progressive order.” Thinking about only one issue at a time might sound impossible when you’re juggling what feels like a dozen lexicon terms in writing sem, but breaking your assignment down into pieces can make a paper feel much more manageable. Instead of trying to get from a prompt to a 12-page paper in one go, it can be helpful to think about one step of the process at a time. What question are you trying to answer in your paper? What sources do you need to find? How will you select useful evidence, and what conclusion can you draw from it?

Taking the writing process one step at a time also makes it easier to identify the place where you’re getting stuck. Just as when you’re learning a new piece and find that you keep stumbling over the same passage, it helps to take a step back and return to the basics. In her Vocal Method, Marchesi notes that she’s included “special Exercises and Vocalises for each particular difficulty,” and a glance at the table of contents confirms this: there are exercises for flexiblity, exercises for singing appoggiaturas, exercises for blending vocal registers. By focusing on one skill at a time, the student builds the technique needed to approach each challenge in the context of a full piece of music. In the same way, when you feel stuck on a particular aspect of your writing, it can help to pull out exercises that isolate one lexicon term. The Magic Thesis Statement is a personal favorite, but there are many more: cartoons to help you take a position in the scholarly conversation, highlighting exercises to reveal the ratio of evidence to analysis, reverse outlines to check that the structure of your draft makes sense. Once you’ve built the technical skills that are fundamental to any piece of writing, you’ll be ready to take on even the most complicated projects. Whether you’re writing your dissertation or singing Brünnhilde, having basic skills to fall back on makes for a more secure—and much less stressful—performance.

–Rosamond van Wingerden ’20

Source: Marchesi, Mathilde. Theoretical and Practical Vocal Method, Op. 31 (via IMSLP).