Saturday, August 07, 2004


Getting to the point

I've been struggling recently with some decisions about how to structure the early sections of my dissertation. The perennial problem is this: how much time should a writer spend setting the stage, providing context, and introducing themes, before actually getting to the point?

As things stand, I have a completed draft of the second chapter. It's the one I have written because it's the first major "episode" of the story I want to tell--the first chapter that takes a fairly conventional narrative form ("this happened, then this happened, this is why it happened and what it meant"). But before this Chapter 2 narrative can make sense, I've determined that I need a fairly abstract and non-linear Chapter 1 (laying out concepts, giving a synchronic survey of background ideas), as well as an "Introduction" and a brief "Prologue." That's three dissertation "units" before the main action really starts. Should I be worried about this?

I asked my advisor about that question yesterday. He was reassuring, reminding me that at this stage the most important thing is to produce pages. Then, other readers can help me decide whether the structure needs to be revamped. It could be, he said, that I'm too close to the project to judge whether there is too much "front matter" at the beginning. He's probably right. My fear, he told me, is a normal one: as a writer, you do not want to tax the reader's patience by waiting too long to get to the point. (I know from recent personal experience that a reader's patience can be thin.) But you also want to lead the reader towards the point, instead of revealing it before it will make sense.

It's hard to decide whether I want the dissertation to be a "point-early" or a "point-late" document. Those are terms used in Joseph M. Williams' helpful writing manual, Style: Toward Clarity and Grace. Williams points out that most readers are trained to look for a document's main "point" early--somewhere in the introduction. But academic readers (strange birds that they are) tend to have a higher tolerance for "point-late" writing, especially in the humanities. Part of the reason for this conventional acceptance of "point-late" writing is because "point-early" organization would seem "too crude, too flatfooted." Williams says, perhaps with his tongue partly lodged in his cheek:
In some fields outside the sciences, it is typical for a writer first to announce (some would say invent) a problem that no one suspected until the writer pointed it out. In this kind of writing, obviously enough, the writer is under no pressure to answer a question that no one except the writer has asked. But once the writer has convinced us of an unsuspected problem with, say, gender roles in the third book of Milton's Paradise Lost, she then sets to working through the problem, demonstrating how inventively she is solving it, how much more complex the problem is than we might have thought even from her early account of it. Only after we have accompanied the writer through her argument do we begin to catch sight of her main POINT.
I like reading writing like this, where the "Aha!" slowly dawns on the reader. But in "point-late" documents, it takes great skill on the part of the writer to keep the reader's attention. Otherwise, the gradual working through the problem can seem tedious at best or incoherent at worst. The "point-first" organization preached by high school English teachers everywhere is easier to do: put that "topic sentence" right up front. But it can also produce essays that sound like high school writing assignments.

It's a matter of timing. A "point-late" document, while often more interesting than a blunt "point-first" piece, is a tricky thing to produce, and it usually takes a critical reader to say whether it has been achieved. I'm hoping that having an introduction, a mini-prologue, and a first chapter will make the "Aha!" of Chapter 2 seem like an even bigger and more interesting punchline. But as in comedy, so in history: if you take too long getting to the point, the joke will almost certainly be on you.

SEE ALSO: Timothy Burke's recent post on what constitutes originality in humanistic scholarship.

Collective Improvisation:

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