Monday, August 15, 2011 Expert Advice
By Hillary Wentworth, Writing Consultant
My husband and I recently traveled to Venice, Italy, for vacation. Let me tell you some things about Venice: there are no roads, only canals; there are no straight walking paths, only long windy ones with bridges and dead ends. Our first night there, we wanted to go to one specific restaurant that was in our guidebook. We had an address but not much else. Well, an address won’t get you too far. We searched and searched for the restaurant and ended up lost, in a completely different part of town. However, it was the Venice we were looking for: free of tourist crowds and just normal people going about their daily lives. A little boy kicking a soccer ball around an empty church square. An older woman out for an evening stroll with a neighbor, her hand relaxed on the neighbor’s wrist. A small, sleepy canal too narrow for a gondolier to sneak through. We took a moment and forgot about the restaurant, basking in the state of being lost.
In student writing, I often notice that the first half of a paper is about one thing, while the rest is about another. The student is in effect “getting lost” by exploring material unrelated to his/her introduction or thesis. Getting lost is not something to be afraid of; rather, it is something to be embraced. In this discovery is where the real heart of your learning resides. Obviously, you cannot leave your paper as two vastly different ideas. You need to choose one. My advice is to go with the second one. When I see these papers, I see writers who are finding their groove and determining what they really want to write about, and what is important to them. Therefore, if this happens to you, you might decide to revisit the main topic of the paper with the second half in mind. You might even throw out the first half. In that way, the initial writing is just a vehicle to another, more robust and deeper idea.
Sometimes, though, you can’t even tell that you are lost. Or if you do know that you are lost, you are still afraid to ask for directions. To determine whether you are lost and where you should be going, draw a map of your paper. Read through the paper from beginning to end, marking the main idea of each paragraph in the margin. After you finish, look back over what you’ve sketched there. Is there a certain point where you veer off into different territory? Does the end of your paper seem to “match” the beginning? In other words, did you achieve what you proposed in the introduction? If the paper does seem disconnected, consider starting fresh at the fork in the road, the spot where you veered. You can also try to make the current paper work by deconstructing the paragraphs and then rearranging them. This is a fun scissors activity; just cut up the paragraphs and shuffle them around on your desk.
The real aim, though, is to be comfortable with the writing process. It’s going to be messy; you’re going to get lost and desperate. However, with the right tools—the right mentality and the right process—you will always be able to find your way home.