This is your self-help sheet (referred to in the margins of your graded essay as “SH”), a modest continuation of the grand endeavour started by Samuel Smiles in 1859—and continued by legendary Humanities professor Edward Tayler until his retirement a few years ago. Prof. Tayler’s SH was some 11 pages long. This version, though less than half that length, has the same goals: namely, to let you know what I expect of you in the essays you will write for this course.
The SH has two parts: the first (Self-Help) contains some hints to help you avoid falling into some of the traps to which overworked undergraduates with limited time to produce a jewel of critical prose commonly fall prey. You should look over this section both before you begin writing, and later as you proofread (an indispensable step!), in order to make your paper as illuminating and as rhetorically effective as it can be.
The second part of the SH (Appendix) contains a brief summary of the “Inductive Method” of essay-writing, which you should adopt when writing papers for my class. Caution: The Inductive Method is not universally applicable -- you may take some classes in which your professors ask you to write in a different way -- but it is by far the best, most successful, and most interesting method for writing literature papers.
Forms of Resistance
· Resist, as best you can, the drudgery of the academy (things are already tedious enough around here). When assigned a topic, invade the subject as if you had chosen it yourself; preserve the ennobling fiction that you are writing An Essay, not just an exercise.
· Resist the impulse to can your ideas. Let’s say you are comparing Hektor’s death with that of Patroklos. You could write, “Hektor’s death shows...,” followed by several sentences on Hektor, then “In contrast, Patroklos’ death shows...,” followed by several sentences on Patroklos. But how much more elegant--and efficient--your essay will be if you can get both into the same sentence: “Hektor’s death, unlike Patroklos’, shows...” ...and continue to talk about them both together, using a variety of independent and subordinate (rather than coordinate) clauses, thereafter.
· Resist mock dichotomies, even while acknowledging to yourself that you, as well as the poets, must use them to think. Try to get out from under subjective and objective, mind and body, appearance and reality, good and evil—yes, even kleos and nostos. Nothing in life or literature is so neatly divided—and the greatest poets thrive on exploiting the built-in ambiguities most of us prefer to ignore. (Professor Irwin Edman used to say, “There are two kinds of people in the world: those who divide things into two—and those who don’t…”)
· Resist automated thinking (“wordsurfing”): “human nature,” “Western tradition” (in the singular), “relate” (as in, “I can’t relate to that”), “family values,” “visualization,” “ethnic cleansing,” “dysfunctional,” “delusional,” “societal” (the adjective is “social”), “parameters” (look it up) …etc. Be suspicious of any words or phrases that come too easily because you’ve heard them from others; taking words out of someone else’s mouth is unsanitary (as is putting words in someone else’s mouth—Homer’s, for example). Sometimes these can be made sanitary with a little irony and a lot of definition, but many (soiled by politicians, the academy, the Prozac society) may not be worth the cleansing.
· Resist English-teacher talk (ETT). “These texts…employ the duplicitous articulation as effacement in a chain of double-coded signifiers…” Just because an eminent professor writes this way doesn’t mean you have to. ETT falsifies facts and fudges feeling; feel free instead to put things clearly, simply, accurately.
· Resist, especially, The Cookie-Cutter, taught to unsuspecting students in all the best schools. The Cookie-Cutter method of writing involves imposing a preconception (“Introduction”), elaborating an “analysis” defined by the terms of the preconception (“Body”), and then reiterating the preconception as a “Conclusion.” If you approach your subject matter this way, then no matter what the dough (text), you end up with a cookie that’s the same shape as the cutter. Try to think and write inductively (see Part Two); create your theory from your observations about the text, not vice versa. (A final note about this: if you form a theory, in good faith, based on your observations of the text, and write most of your paper, and then find that one example in the text that completely wrecks your whole argument—welcome the revelation, and rewrite. That one inconvenient example may be the “squiggle in the tail” that will lead you to a still deeper understanding of a work you thought you had all figured out.)
· To quote well requires considerable skill: you must choose the quotation that best makes your point, clearly show the reader how it furthers your argument, and integrate the quotation into your own prose (making sure the syntax of the quotation “meshes” with that of the sentence in which it appears). Take some time to fool around with the quotations you want to use; practise the fine art of quoting.
· Never assume that your reader will see in a quotation the perfectly obvious meaning that you find in it. Introduce the quotation in such a way that the reader must focus on your point. Quote only what is relevant to your point, then check to make sure that your point appears explicitly in the quotation (the words, not just the “idea”).
· Never suppress a part of the quoted passage that undermines your point: rather, if you find such an inconvenient passage, view it as a “squiggle” and be willing to change your point based on the inconvenient information.
· Make sure that the sentence containing the quotation actually advances your argument. If you find yourself writing, “When Agamemnon says ‘…,’ he means several things,” you are just treading water, wasting the reader’s time and your own.
· In general, don’t begin or end a paragraph with a quotation. While this rule can sometimes be broken to great effect, the beginnings and ends of your paragraphs have enormous rhetorical importance, and should be reserved for your own words!
Tighten usage. Check
that you’ve used the exact words you need; use a dictionary and/or
thesaurus if necessary. Make sure your words say what you
mean, and not the other way around.
· Organize. If you find yourself saying, “In the above quotation,” or “As I mentioned earlier,” you need to reorganize. Put your ideas next to the evidence that backs then up, and provide analysis on the spot, not “later” or “below.”
· Check for parallelism and modifier problems (Bedford: 9-12). If necessary, rewrite problem sentences entirely -- even if it means “killing” a favorite metaphor or turn of phrase. Clarity is more important than cleverness.
· Eliminate ineffective passive constructions (Bedford: 14a).
· Prune excessive verbiage (Bedford: 16b-e): reduce wordy structures to simpler ones. Be especially on the lookout for clusters of “little words” (prepositions, conjunctions, pronouns, helping verbs) that could be avoided by a simple change such as choosing a different verb.
· Eliminate redundancies (Bedford: 16a). A strong point need be made only once. Many students fall into the trap of substituting repetition for analysis; don’t be one of them.
· Use strong verbs. The verb is the strongest “muscle” in a sentence, and should therefore be made to do as much work as possible—to carry, as it were, the semantic weight of your argument. Therefore…
· …Don’t overuse the verb “to be,” or other low-density words. (Edward Tayler used to warn, “Be alert when using forms of the verb to be, the abuse of which led to the rise of Western philosophy.”) The verb “to be” has very little meaning, functioning merely to “hook” blocks of text together like a coordinating conjunction. In other words, it does no work for your argument. When you’re about to use a form of “to be,” stop and think about whether you could formulate the sentence in a more dynamic way. For example, instead of saying “Achilles is appreciative of,” say “Achilles appreciates”; instead of “Achilles’s behavior in Book 9 is reflective of…,” say “Achilles’s behavior in Book 9 suggests….” Take similar precautions with other “low-density” words: “have,” “with,” “on,” “and.”
· Do not substitute any of the following for analysis:
...Repetition. Simply restating your point in different words--even if they’re better words (in which case, you should have used them the first time!)--is not the same thing as proving it. Don’t reiterate; elucidate.
...Quotation. Don’t forget to explain what you think a given quotation illustrates, and how and why. It’s not enough simply to say, “In Book 1, Achilles says...but in Book 5, Agamemnon says....” Justify your use of the word “but.”
...Plot summary. Do not tell me what happens in the work; tell me what you think it means. As for a quotation, make sure that any sentence containing details of plot is actively advancing your argument: not “In Book 6, Hektor visits his wife and son in Troy,” but “Hektor’s visit to his wife and child in Book 6 shows….” or “When Hektor visits his wife and child in Book 6, the reader cannot help but notice….”
· Be sure to proofread for basic grammatical and mechanical errors (use the checklist in Bedford, p. 55).
In general, the point is to make your words work as hard for you as possible; i.e., say as much as you can with them. Choose words carefully so they will express exactly what you mean. Cut text that does no work, even if it sounds pretty.
A BRIEF GUIDE TO LOGIC AND RHETORIC: THE INDUCTIVE METHOD
Induction is the process of reasoning from assorted specific observations to a general conclusion (e.g., when I drop a pen it falls. When I drop a coin it falls. When I drop my baby brother, he falls.==> Things, when dropped, fall).
Deduction is the process of reasoning from a previously established conclusion to its assorted specific implications (e.g., I know that a fire cannot burn without oxygen. Therefore, I can put out a fire by cutting off its oxygen supply: either by spraying it with another gas (the principle behind gas fire extinguishers) or by covering it with a blanket (the principle behind the fire blanket), or by choking it with a layer of foam (the principle behind foam fire extinguishers), or...)
In high school, you may have been asked to write essays that began with a thesis statement, proceeded to “develop” said thesis statement for several paragraphs by introducing examples and illustrations from the text, and finished by restating the thesis as a conclusion. In Logic and Rhetoric, in Lit. Hum., and in many other classes at Columbia, this kind of essay (known as the “Deductive Method”) is not considered desirable. There are a couple of reasons for this.
First and most importantly, the Deductive Method makes it too easy for you to impose your own reading on the text (see “Cookie-Cutter,”above), regardless of whether or not the evidence actually warrants such a reading . For example, you might decide that the Iliad is really nothing but a great big glorification of homosexuality, based on something you thought you knew about Ancient Greece. Then you could easily go through the epic and pick out the references to Patroklos’ “exquisite body,” to men “stripping naked” their victim’s corpses, even to Achilles and Priam “gazing in wonder” upon each other in Book 24. You could have yourself quite a thesis, with lots of evidence--but without having duly considered other possible meanings suggested by that same evidence, or having considered evidence that didn’t support your thesis, such as our last sight of Achilles, in bed with Briseis.
The second reason not to use the Deductive Method is that your reader (me) learns very little over the course of your essay. If you give away all your capital at the beginning of the essay in the form of a “thesis statement,” which you then lamely restate at the end of your essay in the guise of a “conclusion,” you provide no incentive to keep reading after paragraph 1. It is, therefore, in your best interests to use the Inductive Method, which will not only help to prevent you from making a fool of yourself by forcing you to consider all the evidence before arriving at your conclusion, but also allow your reader--and perhaps you as well--to learn something as you analyze the evidence and develop your argument.
The Inductive Method does not mean that you must start with no thesis at all. Obviously you will have some idea of what it is you want to write about. At the outset of your paper, you should briefly orient your reader as to what text you are talking about, where in the text you are, and what the “squiggle in the tail” is that you propose to investigate. Since I will be reading these particular papers, you can assume that your reader is familiar with the text you’re addressing, in the appropriate translation. Don’t, therefore, waste too many words on the “orientation”; let your quotations and astute analysis do the work instead. Save the bulk of your space for your original thoughts.
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