Revision Workshop: Development and Arrangement

Our focus in the second project is on close/slow reading: reading for the implications in a text–and effectively getting implications into our own writing–thereby enhancing the pathos of our argument. The texts we read are more complicated than we might think; we want our own texts, our writing and response to those complicated texts, to reflect that level of complication. Our first step in workshop will be to do close reading to work on the development of the argument–and then using that development to refine and revise the thesis. As an analogy for what slow reading means, how it emerges through rereading and revision, consider an example from film: the shower scene from Hitchcock’s “Pyscho,” one of the most famous scenes in cinema history; you can also look at this close reading of the shower scene from “Psycho”. This is where we look closely, and look again, for what’s working in a passage as well as for what else we might see/argue (which is also to say, what else we are not seeing or thinking).

The second step in revision will be to make sure that our more developed thesis is effectively threaded through the essay–an aspect of the arrangement of the essay.

Students often say they need to work on their organization. It is, however, not always clear to them what organization means–or more to the point, how it is stitched and structured into an essay. I emphasize organization as a matter of revision and, in many cases, of some simple stylistic choices that “thread” an argument: keywords (beginning with a title), basic transition words that signal continuation while also emphasizing–this idea, this passage, but, however. A critical essay, we know, needs a thesis; an effectively organized essay often just needs more conscious attention to its transitions and keywords–to the ways the writer can move the reader through the essay. For an example, consider this review in NYTimes Book Review of Edward Hirsch poetry by Peter Campion. Here are the first few paragraphs:

Between Ordinary and Ecstatic

Contemporary American poetry is sometimes panned for being mundane. With all the splendor and terror in the world, why should we care about some guy’s memories of high school, or the quality time he spends with his cat? Glancing over it, you might suspect that Edward Hirsch’s poetry would lend evidence to this view. Hirsch will begin a poem with a line like “Today I am pulling on a green wool sweater” or “Traffic was heavy coming off the bridge.” Neither opening seems to burn with that hard, gemlike flame.

But in Hirsch’s work, things are not always what they seem. Certainly, his poems work to dignify the everyday. But they do more than that. What makes Hirsch so singular in American poetry is the balance he strikes between the quotidian and something completely other — an irrational counterforce, the “living fire” that gives its name to his new selected poems.

That phrase appears in “Wild Gratitude,” the title poem of Hirsch’s 1986 volume. On its surface, the poem seems to be about, well, a guy spending time with his cat. But as he listens to her “solemn little squeals of delight,” he begins to remember the 18th-century English visionary and madman Christopher Smart, who in his most famous poem, “Jubilate Agno,” venerated his own cat, Jeoffry. The memory leads to a chain of associations, and the poem ends in a nearly epiphanic moment:

And only then did I understand
It is Jeoffry — and every creature like him —
Who can teach us how to praise — purring
In their own language,
Wreathing themselves in the living fire.

This passage could stand as an emblem for all of Hirsch’s poetry. Literary and allusive, but also domestic and intimate, as it rises toward praise, Hirsch’s voice resounds with both force and subtlety.

One of the pleasures of reading the new selected poems is the chance to see that voice develop and then range freely and surprisingly. Most poets are hot one minute and cold the next, depending almost on the day of the week. But Hirsch is worth reading chronologically. He not only gets better with each new book; he also provides a kind of model for the growth of poetic intelligence…[goes on in the next paragraphs to review briefly those books included in the selected poems.]

One strategy to test for this thread: use the highlighting tool. Highlight in yellow the words/phrases of your thesis (somewhere from your introductory section). Then read through the draft and highlight in green wherever key statements/reiterations (in other words, threads) of that thesis show up in the body of the essay and in the concluding section. Next, using yellow, highlight parts of the body and/or conclusion where the thesis/argument is being extended: that is, keywords of the thesis are not being repeated, but the argument is being developed, elaborated. Finally, go back and highlight in red any phrases and passages in the draft that seem to wander from the focus, that seem to be a different or new argument–not a reiteration or extension of the original argument.

Another practice technique to make the signals and structure of your argument more transparent to the reader, consult this discussion from Harvard’s expository writing program on Topic Sentences and Signposts.

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Close Reading Template: How to Slow Down

We have talked about close reading as a crucial component of the ways we strengthen several rhetorical elements of our compositions that we will focus on for the second writing project: Development and Coherence. Joseph Harris can guide us as well with his conception of “forwarding” a text. Here is a template you can use to think about forwarding as a process for annotating a text as well as a structure to build upon in developing your evidence across the body of your essay, a structure that is dynamic, not static, moving us (to use Harris’s terms) from illustrating to authorizing to borrowing to extending.

  1. Set-up [illustrating]: Introduce the quotation briefly with basic summary or paraphrase: what’s the context; who is speaking and from where? Don’t throw the quotation at the reader. You can also begin to integrate/anticipate the interpretation you will be getting into after the quotation. Examples: While traversing the Alps Victor echoes the words of the poem “Mutability” in saying, “…”;  or even better: Victor’s fear of change is particularly evident when he echoes the lines from Mutability, “…”
  2. Close-up [authorizing/borrowing]: The quotation. Choose a portion from the text that is not just relevant but rich, worth focusing on for your interpretation. In other words, your quoting should reflect the selective reading you are doing, moving your reading to the interpretation and development of your argument. You don’t quote to prove that you have read; you quote to read (with your reader) what you are proving regarding your argument.
  3. Follow-up [extending]: Put the quotation to work and explain/elaborate how it speaks to and supports and develops your critical vision (thesis). Extend from the quotation. Highlight key words, phrases, images. Don’t assume the quotation speaks for itself. Make it speak to your vision and how you want your reader to see it. Use suggestive imperatives: Notice that Victor (or Shelley or Walton) uses the word….  This is the place for interpretation, not summary. Slow the scene down and look at a specific frame. Think 3-5 sentences or more of good follow-up to the quotation.

To consider one example, Denise, a student from the course several years ago, writes about Frankenstein’s  intertextual link with “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Here is a specific paragraph that is effective in its close and slow reading–notice how she notices the particular word ‘serpent’ and puts that to work.

The plots, themselves, are inherently similar: an older man tells a younger man about something tragic that has occurred in his life in a first person, story frame format. The stronger tie, however, is the distinct air of warning that pervades both tales. In anticipation of his narrative, Frankenstein says, “I had determined, at one time, that the memory of these evils should die with me; but you have won me to alter my determination. You seek for knowledge and wisdom, as I once did; and I ardently hope that the gratification of your wishes may not be a serpent to sting you, as mine has been” (18-19). Frankenstein has been stung by a metaphorical snake in his past – and not just any metaphorical snake, but a metaphorical serpent. The connotation of the word “serpent” calls to mind certain evil; this word choice was very deliberate.  The ominous, cautionary nature of these words immediately strikes both Walton and the reader. This nature primes Frankenstein’s audience to listen carefully to his tale and take what moral each can. The Ancient Mariner, too, stops the wedding guest of his tale to relate his own morbid experiences, in the hopes that the guest will, like Walton, become wiser.  Both stories are told to impart a specific message to both their internal and external audiences. The Mariner warns that one should love everything that exists, something that clearly does not happen in Frankenstein. This negligence allows horrible events to occur in both stories; thus, Frankenstein echoes the Mariner’s warning. Likewise, one of the messages of Frankenstein seems to be on the dangers of knowledge, both in general and in its misuse. Like Frankenstein, the Ancient Mariner abuses knowledge by using it to kill an albatross and is then punished for it. 


For these reasons, I suggest a better term for close reading is slow reading. It is also, as you can see, a form of re-reading. And finally, it is a form of composition, in that it is a way to develop an argument, add to its complexity and coherence. Remember: just before that dreary day in November, Victor Frankenstein is building an “argument” for a way to rethink the act of human creation. He, like us, is developing his evidence and reasons across the body of his work. He does so, initially, carefully–and then inexplicably, gives that up in the name of “speed.” In his haste, Victor was not a good close reader.


The Argument of Frankenstein: Lessons in Slow Reading

Mary Shelley

In our reading of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, we will focus on the concept that Joseph Harris calls “forwarding.” This is the ways that we use the ideas and texts of others in our writing, not merely to quote those sources or provide evidence, but to develop our own argument in response to what comes before it. We write and argue by means of rewriting.

This rhetorical conception of how we get others to read and sympathize and relate to our ideas–by effectively amalgamating those ideas with others, particularly other ideas and texts already established–can be aligned with pathos. This is our focal point for the second writing project. And it is also, it seems to me, a focal point in Shelley’s novel. Shelley, as we know from the title page, is engaged in forwarding and rewriting other established texts and ideas about creation. To that extent, I would argue that her novel presents an argument: it seeks, in its forwarding of various texts and amalgamation of a story out of those texts, to persuade us, to have us listen and read closely, carefully. What is her argument? I will ask the question now, and return to it once we have finished reading.

On the way to getting there, we can do some close reading, or as I prefer, slow reading, to give more attention–as I think Shelley is asking us to do–to the complications inherent to the project of rewriting an argument/narrative from her materials. (You can return to her “Introduction” for more on how she views her novel as an invention that rewrites). Here is a passage where slow reading, it seems to me, is necessary for readers. What makes it necessary is the fact that Victor, our creator and “author,” presents his creation and invention in rather rhetorical terms that we might recognize from our discussions of effective writing. [This passage comes from chapter 6 of our edition; there is no difference between the 1818 and 1831 editions in the case of this paragraph; forwarded from the Electronic Frankenstein.]

When I found so astonishing a power placed within my hands, I hesitated a long time concerning the manner in which I should employ it. Although I possessed the capacity of bestowing animation, yet to prepare a frame for the reception of it, with all its intricacies of fibres, muscles, and veins, still remained a work of inconceivable difficulty and labour. I doubted at first whether I should attempt the creation of a being like myself or one of simpler organization; but my imagination was too much exalted by my first success to permit me to doubt of my ability to give life to an animal as complex and wonderful as man. The materials at present within my command hardly appeared adequate to so arduous an undertaking; but I doubted not that I should ultimately succeed. I prepared myself for a multitude of reverses; my operations might be incessantly baffled, and at last my work be imperfect: yet, when I considered the improvement which every day takes place in science and mechanics, I was encouraged to hope my present attempts would at least lay the foundations of future success. Nor could I consider the magnitude and complexity of my plan as any argument of its impracticability. It was with these feelings that I began the creation of a human being. As the minuteness of the parts formed a great hindrance to my speed, I resolved, contrary to my first intention, to make the being of a gigantic stature; that is to say, about eight feet in height, and proportionably large. After having formed this determination, and having spent some months in successfully collecting and arranging my materials, I began.

As I slowly read–which for me includes rereading this passage more than once, returning to it–I notice this time the language of argument. Victor is making an argument for his creation; what’s more, he is thinking about his creation as a kind of argument, as something to be received by an audience, a way to publish the discoveries of his research to the world. Victor begins to consider carefully the argument that he should think through the implications of this discovery, a discovery that proposes to rethink creation. Victor thinks about the complexity and clarity and coherence of what he has in mind, and its importance to his intentions, to how his invention (i.e., his argument) would be received by his readers, his audience: the practicality of his “argument” and the proportionality of the creation, making it something that people could understand. He even considers what I read as a counterargument: “I prepared myself for a multitude of reverses.” And then, inexplicably, Victor, to this point a good, slow reader of his work, taking care to focus on the rhetorical effects of his argument and consider its implications–inexplicably, Victor gives it up in an insight and works against these “intentions,” doing so in the name of “speed.” Slow reading and careful, rhetorical thinking are tossed aside for creating something faster and bigger.

Why, suddenly, the need for speed? And why should this negatively affect his judgment, his interpretation, his argument?

My own rewriting of Shelley’s novel, the way I want to read it, sees in Victor’s quick decision to opt for speed over clarity and complexity a cautionary tale that resonates to this day. I recognize this resonance in the fast company of technological invention, where we seem to have little time to think through what “multitude of reverses” might follow. And I think of its potential in any argument we might make, or not make, in response.

Victor, on my reading, is a writer and rhetorician. And he is, alas, not a terribly effective one. What does that make his creation, his creature?

 


Project 2: review

Once again, here are some examples (from previous writers in the class) of elements that we focused on in developing the second writing project, particularly in focusing on the forwarding of a literary text and the close reading its implications/complications as a way to support and extend your argument.

Remember my thesis about how best to learn and develop as writers: by giving more time to reflect on our writing, especially after we have finished a project. Take time now, before we get into the third project, to explore some of these samples. I also recommend taking your final version of the project into the Writing Center and getting some additional feedback on elements on your to-do list.

  • Development/Close Reading
    • Allison’s essay, particularly this body paragraph; notice how she invites the reader (using metacommentary: it is fitting to pause) to slow down to do some close reading. She focuses on the poem “Mutability”:
      • Although it is easy to see how the stanzas included in the novel relate to what is going on, there are subtler references to a “bigger picture” present in the novel, parallels to which can be found in the poetic stanzas that Shelley chose not to include. While the second half of the poem gives insight into the large impact that one thought can have on the entire scope of a lifetime, the first half puts humans on a much smaller scale, comparing them to “clouds that veil the midnight moon” that float through the sky and soon “are lost forever.” Percy Shelley compares humans to a musical instrument “whose fragile frame no second motion brings one mood or modulation like the last.” What Mary Shelley is communicating – through her husband’s words, no less – is that human life is a volatile and fleeting thing. Here it is fitting to pause and analyze the context of this poem’s placement within the events of the novel. Victor Frankenstein has just scaled a massive, desolate mountain and is contemplating man’s susceptibility to impulses and flighty desires. He essentially concludes that with the higher intelligence of mankind there is a great danger, and this danger stems from our uniquely human ability to “feel, conceive, or reason; laugh or weep; embrace fond woe, or cast our cares away.” Both Victor’s conclusion and the poem are a meditation on the flightiness and triviality of human lives and, by contrast, the extent to which these lives can be impacted through seemingly harmless decisions. The two halves of this poem are two conflicting views on a topic of immense depth, which is quite fitting for a poem entitled “Mutability.” While most readers will only experience the part of the poem found in the novel, it is important that one understands the significance that can be found by reading the entire text.
    • Allyson shows (in the first two body paragraphs) the effective use of keywords from the quotation as a basis for the interpretation or extension. Her argument is extended from the language she quotes.
  • Arrangement and Coherence
    • One of the ways we grasped this in the revision workshop: the importance of using keywords of our argument and signposts for where the argument is, where it is going, especially in places such as topic sentences. David presents a good example (third body paragraph) of how as simple a word such as “this” can do this.
    • Rachel’s project provides a strong example of how the keywords of the argument move the reader through the body paragraphs, extending from topic sentences into the close reading of the passages she forwards.
  • Argument set-up [reviewing Clarity and Complexity]
    • Sara sets up her problem with her thesis as response, effectively signaled with transition words:
      • In the novel Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, the author uses different texts to illustrate her main points, as many authors sometimes do. Unlike the novel’s intricate uses of eloquent language and the intertextual weaving being used, many people tend to think of Frankenstein as a simple horror story—a mad scientist creates a monster that is portrayed as a mindless killing machine, which escapes and terrorizes everything in its path. However, there is a more complex story suggested by the intertext Genesis—a complexity that I read as important to illustrate my belief that the creature Frankenstein created was not a monster at all. Mary Shelley uses Genesis to show the pain and suffering and loneliness the creature went through that ultimately spurns his actions, some being violent and hateful. Nevertheless, this is human nature, and based on how the creature is treated, he has the capacity for both good and evil.
    • Good example from Robbie of setting up the given/conventional view–starting generally, then moving in toward the more specific reading/argument that the thesis signals.
  • Conclusion
    • Jacob: A good example of raising implications at the end that both reiterate the complications of the argument, but reach out beyond the essay, to new ways of thinking with this information–thus answering the all-important So What?
    • Xavier’s project offers a good example of concluding the argument, then moving out toward some larger implications for the reader to consider.
      • Hollywood would have one believe that Frankenstein is just another simple monster horror story. But, upon further analysis, it is noticeable that Mary Shelley had a deeper meaning for her story. The story, using comparisons from John Milton’s Paradise Lost as well as other inter texts, develops a complicated picture of humans and our struggle with God from the beginning of time. Putting a monstrous, yet humanistic creature was an interesting choice. The monster in Frankenstein shows the best and worst of mankind. In this aspect, it represents all that humans are. And I think that Shelley wants us to realize that God wants the best for us; for us to strive for perfection, even though He knows we will never fully attain it. Though Victor dies before he gets his revenge, the monster comes to realize the error of his ways. This novel shows us that we are more than our mistakes and that we can overcome them. We all make mistakes; it is how we overcome them that defines who we are.
  • Citation format: for a reminder of MLA citation format (including the listing of works cited needed at the end of your essay), consult the Purdue OWL here.