On Writing Essays: Drafts, Claims, and Evidence

ON DRAFTS

The draft you show your Writing Consultant should be as complete as you can make it, with an argument, supporting evidence, and a conclusion. It may not be the first draft you write—that draft can be messy, ugly, filled with errors and experiments. Rather, it should be the best you can do in the time allotted. (Be reasonable about this: “the time allotted” should not start the night before it is due, or you will only have an ugly draft by morning).

ON CENTRAL CLAIMS

Be specific, be clear, be focused, and don’t be obvious. Or, honor (and don’t insult) your audience.

Be specific: Make sure you know exactly what you’re arguing about. That is, if the claim is about Cinderella, is it about a specific version or versions? Name them up front.  Not: “In ‘Cinderella”…” but “In Perrault’s ‘Cinderella’…”

Be clear: Can you restate your central claim more briefly? Then do so. Keep editing until it’s down to a sentence (for a paper that’s less than about 6 pages long). Make sure every word is in there for a reason (this should be the case with all your writing, but is particularly important for a thesis statement).

Not this: “The basic fact of the matter is that for every young impressionable girl there is always a tiny part of her mind that will always be thinking that maybe a prince could come and rescue her, even if she also knows in her heart of hearts that it is not even remotely possible.”

But this: “Many young girls develop fantasies of rescue.” [Note that this will require a good bit of support to make it a workable claim.]

Be focused: Make sure your claim does not go beyond what you can reasonably handle in the pages allotted. You’re not going to talk about all fairy tales, all critics, or all readers, for example.

Not this: “Since the beginning of time, people have told stories that unite them as a culture, drawing them together with entertainment while teaching them everything they need to know about how to live.”

But this: “Perrault’s ‘Cinderella’ seems to be particularly concerned with demonstrating appropriate behavior within French aristocratic society of the late 17th century.”

Don’t be obvious: If your claim would elicit immediate agreement from anyone who heard it, it’s too obvious. This can include statements of fact (“Disney’s Cinderella was released in 1950”) but also of interpretation (“Cinderella’s stepmother is more concerned about her own daughters than about Cinderella”). Try negating your claim, by putting a “not” in front of the main point. Can you imagine someone agreeing with that as well? Then your point is not too obvious. You don’t need to strive for wacky or groundbreaking here. When we get close to a subject everything starts to seem obvious and we can sometimes strive for narrower or stranger claims until the argument is no longer relevant. Stay relevant, but not obvious.

What does this have to do with audience? Your reader’s time is valuable. Make sure you repay his/her attention by getting to the point, making it interesting, and telling him/her something s/he may not yet know.

ON EVIDENCE—

First, have some. That is, don’t make a claim that can’t be supported with evidence, select evidence wisely, and make sure your analysis of the evidence is clear.

What constitutes evidence?

Primary source material: the primary texts for the class—in this case, fairy tales, novels, films, short stories, and poems. You may quote directly from texts if you want to call attention to the language of the text; otherwise, paraphrase or direct reference (“when Cinderella first goes to the ball…”) is appropriate. In some cases, still images, advertisements, and other internet material may also qualify as primary source material; handle with care!

Secondary source material: critical or theoretical material either assigned for the course or discovered through research. Again, quote directly if the original phrasing is striking or you want to call attention to it; otherwise, paraphrase works well.  For example, “Karen Rowe argues that stories like ‘Cinderella’ support the ‘patriarchal status quo.’” In this case, you quote the specific phrase that you want to call attention to rather than excerpting a whole sentence or more. In other cases, you’ll need a longer quotation to get the gist of a claim.

Experience: used sparingly in papers on literary texts, this can be very effective. If you have compelling memories of your own reading, or can cite your own experience in support or opposition to what you’ve read, feel free to do so. But do not overuse this kind of evidence—it can be overly subjective or insufficiently analytical to convince a reader. “I never liked fairy tales” may be true, and even a compellingly blunt introduction to a text, but if it doesn’t go anywhere—if there’s no reason given, no further analysis—it won’t advance your case.