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Revising

Here are some steps for reviewing and revising your essays in a reasonably objective way. These steps may seem formulaic and mechanical, but you need a way to diagnose your own prose so that you have some sense of how others—who do not have the benefit of knowing your intentions and thinking outside of words on the page—will read it.

 

Finding your best point and making sure your readers can also find it.

This first step is intended to ensure that the beginning and end of your paper cohere with each other, that they “frame” your paper in an appropriate way,

1. Find the beginning and the end.

Draw a line after the end of your introduction and just before the beginning of your conclusion.

2. Find the candidates for your point.

Underline one sentence in both your introduction and conclusion thaat comes closest to expressing your main point, your claim, your thesis of your paper. In your introduction, that sentence is most likely to be the last one; in your conclusion, it might be anywhere.

3. Compare these early and late points.

Read the introduction and conclusion together, particularly comparing these two most important sentences. They should at least not contradict one another.

From an introduction:

During this unprecedented period, African-American artists shared in the process of creating a black urban identity through their depictions of a culture’s experience.

From a conclusion:

While many were eager to slash the culture’s ties to its African history, Armstrong and Motley created art which included elements of the community’s history and which made this history a central part of African-American urban identity.

It is likely that the sentence in your conclusion will be more specific, more substantive, more thoughtful than the one in your introduction. Your introduction may merely announce a general intention to write about some topic. If so, your conclusion is more likely to make a more important claim, generalization, or point about that topic. In the example above, the sentence from the introduction describes only the fairly general idea that artists contributed to a culture’s identity by depicting its experience. An important idea, certainly, but one that your readers probably already hold.

An essay that did no more than reiterate it would not be especially valuable. Contrast the sentence from the conclusion. Here, the writer is more specific in several important ways. First, she is specific about one element in African-American experience: its ties to its African history. She is specific about what the artists did: they included aspects of that history in their art. She also adds the suggestive information that some people opposed incluuding African history in African-American culture (“While many eager to slash the culture’s ties. . .”). This controversy is potentially enriching for the essay because it may prompt the reader (and the writer) to analyze the subject from a very different perspective.

4. Revise your introduction to match the best point.

If you find that the sentence from your conclusion is more insightful than the one from your introduction, then you have to revise your introduction to make it seem that you had this sentence in mind all along (even though when you started drafting the paper yo may have had no idea how you were going to end it). You can do this is one of two ways:

  • Insert at the end of your introduction some version of that sentence in your conclusion thaat comes closest to expressing your main point. You may have to revise the rest of the introduction to make it fit.
  • If you don’t want to “give away” the point of your paper at the beginning, insert a sentence at the end of your introduction that at least anticipates your point by using some of its same language.

For example:

As African-American artists such as Louis Armstrong and Archibald Motley, Jr. shared in the collective process of creating a black urban identity, they reflected their community’s struggle to define the role of historical experience in modern culture.

Note that this sentence does not conclude that Armstrong and Motley did include African history in their art. But it does introduce some implicit questions that anticipate that conclusion: did these artists use their historical experience? If so, how? Those implicit questions set up the explicit point.

How do you choose between stating your main point at the beginning of your essay or waiting to state it at the end? If you are a skilled writer, the second choice—the “point last” strategy—is a possibility. You must be certain, though, that the rest of the paper plausibly takes your reader to your conclusion. Point-last writing, however, is always more difficult than point-first, and if you feel uncertain about your wriitng or, more important, if you aren’t interested in spending the extra time it takes to write good point-last prose, then you should state your main point explicitly at the end of your introduction. If you’ve stated your main point at the beginning of your essay, your reader won’t lose track of your argument, won’t lose the sense of where you are headed. More imporant, it will focus your attention on where you are headed. Don’t worry that if you state your point first your professors will lose interest in your paper. If your point is interesting, they will read on to see how you support it.

There are, to be sure, some instructors (mostly but not exclusively in the humanities) who prefer point-last papers: papers that pose a problem in their introductions, then work toward a conclusion, demonstrating how the writer thought about the topic, wrestled with alternative answers, and finally discovered a solution. That kind of organization creates a dramatic tension that some instructors prefer, because they want to see the processes of your thinking.

The risk is that you might do exactly that! For nearly all of us, the process of our thinking is messy, insufficient, hard to follow. If you write a paper that in fact tracks what you thought about at 1 AM, then 3 AM, then 6 AM, you’re likely to write a meandering paper that few instructors will condone. They want to see a coherent, ordered, analytical account of your thinking that may seem to be a narrative of your thinking in real time, but in fact is an artful invention, something that requires writing skills of a high order.

So when you go through this phase of your review, you have to make a thoughtful choice about where you want to locate your point—in the introduction and your conclusion, or just in your conclusion, with an anticipatory point in your introduction. The default choice for both writer and reader is likely to be the  point-first approach.

 

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