All posts by David Byron

Byron's Quick and Dirty Guide to Persuasive College Writing

Writing persuasive papers in college is a tricky business. At some point during the time I spent as an instructor in writing-intensive courses, I decided to consolidate the advice and tips that I found myself offering to students in response to recurring problems in their compositions. With two parts Strunkandwhitean minimalism, three parts Floral reader-based writing, a dose of Puritan plain style, and a wry dash of Angostura bitters, this recipe for service-oriented discourse now fills both sides of a single sheet of paper that I hand out at the beginning of each course in which I require a term paper. Whether you agree or disagree with my advice, I hope you'll find this guidance useful!

Byron's Quick and Dirty Guide to Persuasive College Writing

  • Choose as narrow a topic as you can, subject to the considerations below. The scope of the topic determines the ambition of the paper, and nothing's more disappointing than a paper that sets out to cure cancer but ends up addressing the relative merits of sunscreen products. A paper that bites off a large topic (for example, broad reflections on human nature or gross generalizations about western civilization) but digests only a morsel looks inept. In contrast, a paper that defines a morsel-related issue and takes a stand on that issue looks competent.
  • Have a thesis. To tell whether you have a thesis, you must know what a thesis is: it's a focused, arguable proposition that the paragraphs of your essay will support.
  • Have a good thesis. To tell whether you have a good thesis, you must know what distinguishes good theses from poor ones. Envision a continuum ranging from Glaringly Obvious at one end to Ludicrously Unlikely at the other. Good theses reside somewhere on the middle of that continuum, seeming neither obvious nor ludicrous. The test of whether a proposed thesis is good is to imagine the likely response of a virtual reader: she should respond neither with "Duh!" nor with "No way!", but with "Hmmm. Maybe…."
  • Have a goal. The goal of an essay that has a good thesis is to persuade the virtual reader of the truth or high likelihood of the thesis. Deductive proof of the truth of a claim is seldom necessary; more useful and subtle is the argument that bumps a virtual reader from the place where he says "Maybe" to the place where he says "Probably".
  • Envision a virtual reader and write to that person. The virtual reader needn't be as well-informed as the instructor and shouldn't be as ill-informed as Joe Random plucked from the streets of Whereverville. Suppose that your imaginary reader is generally intelligent, but lacks expertise in the field the essay addresses. Envisioning this scenario normalizes the essay writer's own virtual voice and sets a steady baseline for what may be assumed and what must be explained. The scenario also implies (however fictitiously) that there's a reason to write the essay well: to inform and persuade the virtual reader!
  • Have something to say. Faking it can be effective, but it seldom goes undetected. There's no substitute for actually knowing something and for actually constructing an argument.
  • Aim first for substance, then for structure, and then for style. If casual conversation comes more easily to you than formal prose, write conversationally and then tweak the style afterward. If random, intuitive meandering works for you, write in that way and then tweak the structure afterward. Just get something on paper, so that your task can shift from creation to repair. Creativity will actually benefit from this escape into a repair-oriented mode, since it's often easier to draw inspiration from broken things that could be better than to envision a full, final version from the outset.
  • Proceed empirically. Starting with a conclusion and forcing the evidence onto it will result in a hollow, contrived essay. Instead, brainstorm on the topic before defining a thesis. Read the text, object, evidence, or whatever the essay addresses carefully, and write down everything that seems noteworthy, interesting, puzzling, confusing, or significant. Dump onto paper any idea, any observation, any possible argument. Once this brainstorming is completed and you have a stockpile of information, sort it all into related stacks: major, minor, stupid, stellar, irrelevant, surprising, etc.Those stacks of ideas and observations based on a reading of the text|object|data are evidence of varying quality. Discard the small stacks (or relegate them to footnotes) and consider the medium and large stacks. Each is a potential paragraph, and together they imply or confirm a thesis. Ponder your evidence and derive your thesis from the evidence; as a result, the paragraphs of your essay will actually support the thesis of your essay. Note, too, that some of the stacks will weigh against the tendency of the group. Those stacks that tend not to confirm the thesis are countervailing evidence. Use them, too, in the essay.
  • Write your paragraphs. Each paragraph should address one topic and adduce one coherent set (or "stack") of evidence.
  • Don't repeat in paragraph eight something you've already addressed in paragraph three. Assume that your virtual reader has an attention span sufficient to make it to the end of your essay. Phrases such as "the aforementioned" or "as explained above" are a bright red flag that something's wrong with the essay's organization.
  • Consider the sequence of the paragraphs you've written. They should move steadily toward your conclusion while building momentum or importance.
  • Address countervailing evidence. If you can dismiss it, dismiss it. If you can't dismiss it, absorb it with minimal damage. If you can neither dismiss nor absorb it, rework the thesis to address reality; sometimes, situations are complex and the facts resist reduction to a simple, uncontestable claim.
  • Construct an introductory paragraph that (a) immediately announces the essay's narrow topic, (b) exposes the paragraph structure of the essay (signposting its form to provide the reader a conceptual armature for storing the essay's information), and (c) clearly states the good thesis that the remainder of the essay will support (perhaps with complications).
  • Construct a concluding paragraph that accurately reflects what the essay achieves and that gauges the essay's success in addressing the scope it claimed to address. Cute asides or issues worthy of further reflection may find a home here.
  • Provide transitions from one paragraph to the next. Merely repeating a snippet of the previous paragraph's final sentence works but seems inept. The best transitions go by way of concepts or topics, not samples.
  • Proofread for errors of spelling, grammar, typing, usage, and style.
  • Eliminate all adverbs. Physically eradicate them from the document. Restore only the ones that actually add to the essay's meaning.
  • Circle all instances of "is". Change as many of them as possible to verbs that have flavor.
  • Circle all instances of the present progressive ("Bob is nnnn-ing"). Convert them all to present active indicative conjugations ("Bob nnns").
  • Circle all instances of the passive voice ("the wagons were circled", "mistakes were made"). Figure out who's doing what each instance describes. If you don't know who's doing it, then you don't enough about what you're saying. If you do know who's doing, ascribe agency to the agents ("Bubba circled the wagons", "I screwed up").
  • Omit any sentences that refer to your compositional process ("To deal with this topic, an essay should X, Y, and Z").
  • Omit any remarks that evaluate your essay ("Interestingly", "It is important that", "Now I'll pull out the big guns"). Let your virtual (or actual) reader decide whether your essay has been interesting, whether your comment was important, etc. (Don't talk about being interesting; be interesting).
  • Read the essay aloud, allowing your ears to detect infelicities that your eyes fail to recognize.
  • Make an outline of your finished draft in which each paragraph of the essay is reduced to no more than one short sentence. Evaluate the logic of your argument. Does the evidence prove the thesis? Does it at least tend to confirm the thesis? Has the essay addressed alternate readings of the evidence and dismissed, absorbed, or accommodated them? Is the argument formally valid? Is it fallacious?
  • Condense the essay's language. Eliminate all redundancy. Omit needless words. Compress all wordy sentences. Cut any language that fails to move the argument forward in some identifiable way.
  • Condense further.
  • The essay's still wordy and riddled with redundancy. Condense it more.
  • Allow someone else to read the essay and provide feedback.
  • Hand in the essay and rest confident that you've avoided most of the pitfalls of logic and style that plague contemporary discourse.
  • Await your Pulitzer | Bancroft | Nobel!

He sure knew how to throw stones

Philip Johnson was the focus of one of the questions on my written comps when I was studying art history. Out of sentiment as well as historical delight, I always treat his Glass House and related works when I teach the survey of American Art & Architecture. So I was especially interested to see Glenn Adamson's latest post at his always fascinating blog, From Sketch to Product.

Glenn offers a behind-the-scenes look at one of the V&A's recent, cool acquisitions: a 2.3 meter high presentation drawing of the AT&T tower. In doing so, he also offers a quick overview of Johnson's role as an avatar of modernism and an innovator of post-modernism. Glenn also reveals a fortuitous and surprising intervention.

Check it out!

Immersion

persimmon03 In the first post in this series, I discussed ways in which the space around a single figural sculpture becomes a tacit part of the artwork by virtue of the moving viewer's interpretive act. In the second post, I considered how the spatial relationships among multiple figures in a more complex figural sculpture can provide interpretive clues and cues that lead to a rich understanding not only of the fiction's virtual space, but also of its mental, social, and emotional spaces.

Now I would like to consider immersion, which I will treat as a set of visual, spatial, and kinetic opportunities afforded the viewer of an artwork by virtue of its scale, situation, and referential complexity. I will offer two examples, one which invites the interpreter to go around and upon and another which invites the interpreter to go within and beneath.
Continue reading Immersion

Glenn does Guernica

Just back from his first visit to Madrid, Glenn Adamson of the V&A offers a short take on Guernica and its preparatory sketches.

Inception: A meta-magical matryoshka

This review of Inception contains light spoilers.

We've just returned from seeing Inception at the local IMAX.

Christopher Nolan has created a masterpiece of communication. A sci-fi action drama about lucid dreaming, Inception is an expertly acted, character driven tale about a man wracked with guilt and regret who wants nothing more than to be reunited with his family. While the special effects deliver in a variety of ways, the film's most satisfying feature is its self-referential plot structure. The plot itself is simple and conventional: a man who stands accused and has no prospect of exonerating himself has to find another way forward, so he assembles a motley team to pull off one last job. The pleasure in the plot structure lies not with the plot but with the structure, a meta-magical matryoshka.

Nolan proposes a nest of stories four layers deep in which the successful resolution of each layer's conflict depends on success in the next layer down. Since each layer operates on its own time scale — lower is slower — the film builds suspense by stretching the spring loaded telescope as far as it will go and then allowing it to snap back all at once. A focus on the remote becomes insight into the immediate as the audience wonders whether the force of the retraction will shatter the lens that looks out onto reality.

Michael Caine makes a cameo, but the chemistry belongs to Leonardo DiCaprio and the splendid Ellen Page as sympathetic figures whose relationship is a gentle dance of developing friendship and trust. Inception is not a probing exploration of character and meaning, so most of the characters in the film lack depth and predicates. (Not by accident, the film lays a foundation for justifying thin characters and abbreviated context.) But there's enough between them– enough that resists exasperating conventions– to lend humanity to what is essentially a sci-fi contrivance in which the mise en abyme is what really matters.

Nolan's most remarkable achievement here is the clarity of the communication. Despite the complexity of the nested layers, their temporal differences, and the interconnections of plan and potential that motivate each plunge within a plunge, Nolan sustains a clarity of exposition that brings the audience along with enough understanding to appreciate the structure and texture of the journey. By giving each layer its own look and feel, and by providing dialogue that draws analogies to video games, childhood memories, and the art of M. C. Escher, Nolan renders his four-tiered Inferno intelligible and unforced.

Most admirably, Nolan does this without resorting to the pseudo-technical jargon or cheesy special effects that a less effective storyteller might have employed in a risky attempt to acquire buy-in. Instead, he launches a simpler craft and then never lets the win out of his sells. Nolan's simple exposition and clear visual differentiation make navigation a blast, if not a breeze. When the narrative unwinds, the wave is a thrill that tickles the brain. The plot contains no secrets, no twists, and no Shyamalanisms. It's not about guesses, but ingresses. The movie answers the first question it posed and then lands just where the viewer has been taught to expect and hope it will go.

The satisfaction is in the going.

"Elementary," he said.

David Packwood of Art History Today provides an interesting overview of some issues raised at the intersection of traditional connoisseurship and scientific analysis. Do contemporary empirical methods threaten to displace the variable, and sometimes volatile, mix of observation, intuition, memory, and understanding that has fueled art historical attributions since the discipline's founding? If so, is that a good thing?

Technology

In the previous post in this series, I considered how the pose and three-dimensionality of a figural sculpture support its interpretation. I noted that representational sculptures reside at the intersection of what is actual and what is virtual. Because it is there and we can regard it in many ways, a statue shows us part of a projected fictional world and implies or suggests even more, unrealized in the sculpture, about that world. The artist leaves its underdetermined fictional details to the viewer's imagination.

I described how different vantages on Michelangelo's David yield somewhat different understandings of the figure, and I explained how Bernini later carried vantage-based variations to an energetic extreme in his own David. From these observations and others, I drew a conclusion: although we typically think of movies in relation to photography and painting, film (like its cousin, theater) is more akin to sculpture.

Asserting a close kinship among sculpture, theater, and film raises issues of technology, so I would like to recommend a way of thinking about technology and to illustrate how it can inform the interpretation of art. Continue reading Technology

Diegesis

Poor Agostino di Duccio. He had learned his craft under the most innovative and imaginatively expressive sculptural master of the quattrocento, Donatello. But Agostino could not have been happy on the mountain in Carrara as he oversaw the quarrying of a shallow, broad block of marble some eighteen feet long. Over the course of his career, Agostino had taken to bas-relief work of the sort one finds on the façade of a church or a palazzo. He had created grand works in terra cotta, too, but clay is a thing far different from stone.

Nevertheless, here he was, perhaps because the elders in Florence had decided to make good on a fifty year old plan to erect a huge statue of Donatello's making on a buttress of the cathedral. Then in his late 70s, Donatello was no longer in a position to give more than nominal attention to such a project. To Agostino fell the labor. Continue reading Diegesis