For everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; a time to rend and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate, a time for war, and a time for peace.
— Ecclesiastes 3: 1-9
Often when we write, especially in an examination situation, we feel so pressured to get everything out there that we don’t necessarily arrange it in a way that is accessible to the reader. Even if we ourselves understand the relationships between the parts, unless we express them rationally, those relationships will not be clear to the reader. Spending the effort to clarify your organization will insure that your perceptions and good ideas won’t be lost and confused.
main points for this unit
Our ideas apparently live in our minds in what psychological researchers refer to as a “neural net” — something they will be quick to tell you we don’t understand very well. Perhaps the most convenient way of thinking about it is as loosely clustered ideas that reinforce each other, like the (aptly named) “mind maps” we discussed in Unit III — like bubbles connected with lines to one another. The order is clear in our minds, because we see these spatial relationships in two or three dimensions, or because we’re so familiar with the content that we can easily slide sideways from one domain to another — often the more easily, the better we understand the big picture.
The problem is that, even using hypertext, one cannot really convey these clustered ideas in a raw form in writing. Writing (like speech, on which it is modeled) is a fundamentally linear medium. Bubbles or clusters won’t work for prose: things may exist in a simultaneous form, but they don’t get expressed in writing that way (though a good chart or graph is sometimes a powerful tool to express those other, non-linear relationships). When you’re dealing with writing alone, the reader can’t usually see the whole picture at once: instead he or she needs to take in these ideas one at a time. As writers, then, we must put those ideas in a sequence that enables the reader to understand the connections between them, in the hope that eventually the “big picture” will emerge and cohere.
Sometimes the order of presentation is intuitively obvious, either by the nature of the material itself, or because different disciplines have certain well-established conventions of presentation. If it is not, or if there is even likely to be significant ambiguity, then one may need to draw an explicit road map in the introduction, describing the plan beforehand. One should not be completely shackled by obvious or conventional ways of presenting material, since there are sometimes reasons for doing them differently. If there isn’t a reason, though, it’s probably a good idea to stick with the convention. In the long run, it’s an issue of courtesy: try to pursue the course that’s easiest to follow, while still serving your overall goal. As an added benefit, the process of distilling, simplifying, and streamlining your ideas will often bring more clarity to your own thinking. Everyone wins then.
Perhaps the one general principle that applies to all the following modes of presentation is just this: start with what is known, understood, or generally believed to be true, and move from there to the unknown, the tentative, or the proposed. You make your reader much more comfortable and secure by at least beginning with material he or she knows or believes.
If you have a definition essay ("What is literature?"), or large or complex subject to discuss ("What is the goal of current US foreign policy?"), breaking it down into smaller topics will allow you to define subordinate domains and discuss them in detail. Doing so will also usually help you to find suitable examples. If you are writing a research paper, identify those areas early, so that you can organize your notes.
Compare and contrast essays require you to find similarities and differences between two or more things. A good approach to such topics is to sit down and make two lists. On one, put all the ways that you can think of that the two objects are the same. On the second, put all the things that you can think of where the two objects are different in important ways. Then decide whether you have more important similarities or differences, so you know which type of relationship you want to emphasize.
At this point you can choose to take either of two courses:
Essay subjects that require you to explain why something happened are mine-fields for the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy, so keep your eyes open for that. They should normally proceed from the known to the unknown:
As with the compare and contrast essay, you have two choices for how to break things down. You can decide based on the situation and the nature of the material:
Whichever course you choose to take, make sure the reader can understand the rationale you’ve chosen to pursue.
A narrative history essay is a special kind of cause-and-effect essay — effectively a story. Here, you are often best served by simply telling that story in a straightforward chronological order. If the sequence of events is complex, making a timeline may help you move through them chronologically. Once you commit yourself to such a story-based order, don’t jump around in time. It’s confusing. If you must treat events out of chronological order, warn your reader that you are doing so: “In order to see why this happened, it is necessary to look at some events which occurred earlier in the Baroque period...”, etc.
Some essays ask you to present a solution to a problem. Here as elsewhere, move from the known to the unknown. The essay will normally fall into a statement of the problem, and then will enumerate one or more solutions to that problem, followed by an assessment of the solutions proposed and perhaps a statement of which is best for the given circumstances. Here, you want to be sure that you have clearly stated the problem first, so that your readers can see how each solution does or does not address all the points at issue. One standard form for business presentations is called an “STP” presentation: situation, target, proposal. In such a presentation, you are expected to identify the current situation, discuss where you want to arrive, and propose a way to get there.
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